Here he was a week after his funeral. Spry as ever and just dingy enough around the edges—salt and pepper, five o’clock shadow, and a holey pair of Dickies—to blend in with the road. Somewhere in the next county over was a ratty sofa bed expecting Dale, and all he could do was wait for his thumb to pull him there. Sometimes it got too hot to stand, and the sweat dripping to his toes dragged him down to the edge of the highway where he sat on the interstate’s dusty rock garden. All the powdery grime floating in the air and clinging to the hairs on his arms made him feel like the ghost he was supposed to be. He left a spectral trail of smoke in his wake, reinforced by every drag he pulled from his cigarette.
Although he hadn’t been at the funeral, Evan—the only friend he had left—told him it was a good one. “Real chill. No one tried to up stage you or nothing by bawling during the quiet parts. They walked around the viewing, looking at your pictures and shaking their heads.” It was closed casket, of course. Evan had to pull a lot of strings to make a funeral without a body, but Dale didn’t ask how.
Everything above the highway was fading midday, cotton balls frayed into fibers stretched over the horizon. Dale hadn’t known the exact time of day since he dropped his watch a couple miles back. It had gotten so heavy, and he could have sworn it was making his left hand swell, a club attached to his arm. There were signs coming up for Mickey-D’s and a Quik Fill. They couldn’t be too far away.
Sometimes he threw his thumb up in the air again just in case he was passing by a friendly patch on the highway, but the Quik Fill eventually met him on his feet. The greasy phone buttons connected him to Evan.
“Yeah?” he answered.
“Yeah, uh, this is Dale.”
“Right. Where you at?” He spoke in his own lazy drawl, his quiet sentences made up of one word leaning on the next. “I told you that stretch of highway would carry you here.”
“Well, it’s not carrying me anywhere. I’m walking. Can you pick me up at the gas station?”
Evan was quiet, probably nodding or taking another sip of his Arnold Palmer. “Alright. I’ll see what I can do.”
The short aisles stuffed full of every color wrapper lured him over until he got lost, like he always did, in the minimart of options. Sometimes, when the feeling moved him, he picked up a bottle of Pepsi, a coconut Sno Ball, peanut butter crackers, moon pies, a tube of Pringles, like he was going to buy them, and he just couldn’t decide what he wanted. A kid with light-up shoes swooped in to grab a Kit Kat bar, so Dale stood back to watch him drop a bunch of quarters on the counter and get mixed up trying to count it out. Everything about him was so fleeting, like a bird on a windowsill that makes you stop and look for a minute just to feel like you’re up close to something that will be gone in a second and never yours. Even if you don’t care about birds. Even if it’s just a dumb pigeon, anyway. When he left, Dale looked at the clerk who was smiling, and he smiled too.
“Why do kids do that to people?” Dale asked. “Make you stop and look at ‘em, you know?”
The clerk shrugged but maybe understood. “I guess it’s just ‘cause they’re these little bite-sized miracles who’ve never done anything significant yet except being born. Like you know they’re going to grow up and do better things than count change all on their own and be proud of it.”
Dale nodded. The clerk added, “I’m going to have to ask you to stop loitering, though, okay?”
Behind the gas station, a fence spread out maybe an acre into the distance, and about a dozen goats had their noses buried in the grass. Dale hiked his pants up and jumped up onto the fence but couldn’t keep his balance, so he settled on leaning. He pulled a stick of beef jerky out of his shirt and smelled it like it was an expensive cigar, thought about life after death for a minute, about how he was making his living in the world’s most uncrackable mystery. This crazy purgatory afterlife on Earth, nothing mystical, just practical and cheap. He savored the minute and chewed on it slowly like he chewed the stick of jerky, squeezing it in his teeth and rolling it around on his tongue. He looked into the flat tempered eye of one splotchy goat and thought about how he’d never have to check the mail again, never have to get his picture taken for a new driver’s license or answer calls from his ex-wife asking for money. He’d never again have to return a cart to the cart corral if he didn’t want to. And it was so easy. Everyone wanted to know the secret, but he already had it. Sitting there in the middle of nowhere with stolen beef jerky and the company of goats who never worried about tomorrow, he had it.
Evan’s roommate, Sebastian came to pick him up in the evening. His car smelled like a bird hutch, but Dale decided not to be rude and bring it up.
“Now faking a death, that’s the kind of thing you have to commit to,” Sebastian said after they’d been driving a few minutes.
Dale nodded. “Evan set me up with some plane tickets and a fake ID. I had to move halfway across the country to keep anybody from finding out. No one back in Tennessee ever goes anywhere, so I’m out of the woods now.”
“It’s fascinating,” Sebastian said. He kept on shaking his head the whole ride home.
Evan’s bungalow was just about the only house in that neck of the woods besides some neighbors living in a trailer, spitting tobacco off their porch. Sebastian beeped and waved to them as he drove by. The street was a wilting vine sticking off the main drag that you’d never think to turn onto unless someone directed you there. But the sofa in the bottom of that bungalow may as well have been a bread-and-breakfast the way it was all dressed up with sheets and a plaid fleece blanket. The buttons of Dale’s back pockets snagged on the fraying threads sticking up out of the couch, but he didn’t plan to move around a whole lot anyway. Evan showed him where the Arnold Palmers and instant dinners were in a mini-fridge by the TV. Some faded jeans and a flannel shirt were folded neatly on the arm of the couch, but Dale resolved to stay in his light blue T-shirt even though it was getting holes in the collar.
Eventually, the highway dust lifted from his body as he shed the ghostly outer layer all over the basement and into the shoddy couch. It was like beach sand getting in every crevice, but it clung and clung for dear life. The loops of cushion thread where his buttons and fingers snagged latched on over the days as he sat, and the world moved around him, his new housemates working and buying things and using up time to get by. In the evenings, Evan and Sebastian came downstairs to watch TV and drink beers while Dale blended in, and the smoke from their cigarettes fogged up the days.
All the money to Dale’s name had gone into the funeral costs, so a fridge depleting in only a week’s time shouldn’t have been a rude awakening. He unpeeled from the couch and ambled about, lost in the house that suddenly wasn’t providing after he woke up at noon with no iced tea. The only thing he could really do well was walk, so he started down Evan’s street to go find those neighbors Sebastian had waved to a week ago, and he thought this made him a great explorer. When he got there, the trailer stood up a little bit for him, its army green walls glowing with orange sun, or maybe he just wasn’t used to the outside. All the owner’s worldly possessions were scattered around the property, the trailer sitting in the middle, looking like it had had it with all of them, and suddenly one day, it tossed all these things outside. Maybe that’s how a solar system was made. Dale didn’t know much about things that were bigger than trailers, but his explorer’s eye told him this thought was beautiful.
No one was home. There was just a rusty car out back, converted into a garden for growing weeds and what could have been a sapling sprouting from the trunk. He had never pillaged before, but here was a great lot for beginners. It reminded him of the time the sister of his previous life had let her boy run around his crappy backyard playing “scavenger hunt.” He went around picking everything up and dropping it someplace else. Sticks, coffee cans, wallets, little orange Bibles. They all had the same worth to him. Then he’d walk all over the house, testing the feet and legs he’d just discovered and the newest phrase he’d learned. Over and over, he’d say, “Are you kidding me?” “Are you kidding me?” The whole world thought he was brilliant.
Dale picked up a beat up hardhat, and there wasn’t any of the fanfare. He took it back to Evan’s with him and wondered what to do with it for the rest of the day.
Now Dale’s roommates were saying things to him concerning some harsh reality he was unaware of. They disguised these things as good news.
First Evan with: “Well, sure, the week’s worth of stuff was a gift, ya’ know?” He smiled under the clumps of blonde hair that flopped over his forehead, acting like this wasn’t a big deal or anything. “To give you a chance to find a job and all.”
Then Sebastian with: “Hey, no worries, man—it’s your lucky day! The guy working at the snake den was caught smuggling a python out. Fired on the spot. I can get you a job easy!” Dale hadn’t even known that Sebastian worked at a pet store.
He nodded through all this but didn’t commit. “Eh, you know, I’m really not too fond of animals,” he wanted to say, but they just walked away like the whole thing was already settled. This fake dying thing had him expecting rebirth, not entry-level work. Ghosts existed mostly to be invisible, just visitors on Earth, not participants. Working was the epitome of human participation.
For his final hurrah of unemployment, Dale napped the night away and pondered fake dying again, but he didn’t think there was anywhere else to go after you had already died once. The next one had to be saved for the real deal, and he wasn’t ready for that trip just yet. Besides, napping suited him just fine.
He woke up one morning behind a counter with a boa constrictor wound around his arm and walls and walls of terrariums with snakes lounging in heat lamps all around him. They slept the days away as Dale cleaned their houses and placed dead mice in front of their faces. And sure, it wasn’t hell where he ended up, but he saw a mirror of it in their eyes.