I’ve been here before. I’ll be here again. What city or suburb is this anyway? What state? Is this Grand Rapids? Green Bay? I think Rockford, maybe. Rockford feels right.
This one is an anime convention. Teenagers in schoolgirl costumes, monster costumes, ninja costumes, animal costumes… They squeal and giggle when they spot something that delights them: an art print from their favorite show, a particularly accurate costume prop, a toy they’d been searching for, another attendee dressed up as another character from the same cartoon as them. Sales aren’t going well. They’re too absorbed in their own fandoms.
And what do I sell exactly? I can’t tell you. Not just yet.
The other vendors put on good smiles. They engage. They recognize and complement the costumes. These small (tiny) business entrepreneurs do their best to meet these kids on their level. But… the kids in the pink and purple cutesy dog and fox outfit with the oversized paws and glossy eyes? Nobody is reaching them. Certainly, I’m not. Not with what I’m peddling.
“Alright. I give up,” the vendor in the next booth says to me. She’s selling knitted dolls she crocheted herself. Pop culture characters with heads and eyes like babies. I’ve heard her sales pitch a hundred times or more. As much as she’s heard my pitch. Hers are paying off more often than mine, but not by much. She’s young, energetic, and has a constant need to move and do and talk and shuffle. Whenever someone isn’t at her booth, she’s putting her crochet needles to work making another doll. She’s perpetually on the verge of boredom. So, she takes a chance on what I have to offer.
“It’s legit though, right?” she asks. The click and clack of her hooks are a constant background track to her words. “In Dubuque, I sat next to two guys at a fantasy con. They were selling magic dusts, potions, holy water, that sort of thing. The dusts were just sand and glitter. The potions were water and food coloring. I watched them fill the holy water from a bottle of Aquafina.”
A good salesperson doesn’t have to be crooked to be successful. Granted, many patrons wander into one of these events with no intention of making a purchase. It’s the smooth words of a salesman or the glitter of something not quite gold that changes their minds. They might leave the convention center happy, thrilled even, with their new treasure, but with no idea why they bought what they had. Not my customers. Not because they’re not happy with their purchase, and not because they have a firm understanding of why they made their purchase, but because they simply don’t wander back out into the daylight. I don’t know where they go, but I’m convinced it’s further away than the parking lot.
“No. This is legit. And if it’s not, well, we’ll both still be here, and you can get your money back,” I told her. There’s no scam in my game. If there were, it would become immediately apparent. But I’m an honest salesman, and I’ve never issued a refund.
Dubious and curious in equal parts, she sets down her crocheting. Uncharacteristically silent, she taps her credit card to my phone. Touchless payments are all the rage at these events. The payment goes through. Rather than a refund, I provide her a talisman.
“So…” she dragged out the word, holding the small object in her palm. “What now?”
I don’t answer. I don’t have to. She’s already fading from view.
I think this is Ann Arbor, or just outside of Ann Arbor. In a mall. A comic and toy convention this time. A more diverse crowd. Overweight forty year old fanboys intermingle with teenage cosplayers. Innocent and unsuspecting mall walkers squint at the stranger booths. Civilian mall shoppers ask, “What is all this?” Serious collectors rifle through long white cardboard boxes for specific issues missing from their collections. I don’t have to wait long to make the first sale.
I’m next to a pair of brothers who have written, drawn, inked, and printed their own comic book. They sell it as if they are carnival barkers, calling out random passers-by by the color of their clothes or what their t-shirts say. They’re handing out free stickers and buttons. Hard selling, you might call it. For the most part, I ignore them.
“So, what is it?” a big-bellied man with a gray ponytail asks me. “What does it do?”
“It’s escapism,” I select which question of his to answer.
If he bites, this man will be my second sale of the day and of the convention, as far as I can remember. After my first sale, I was certain I’d be gone as quickly as the customer. But I remained, although I had to lean against my table to keep from fainting. I think the first sale wanted to whisk me away, but I was able to stay put, grounding myself here in Ann Arbor by focusing on the feel of my table, the weight on my palms, the smells coming from the food court, and the sound of the brothers selling their comics.
“Escapism from what?”
He pays in cash. It’s a generational difference, I’ve found. The older ones either pay in cash or need you to swipe their card’s magnetic strip through a miniature card reader. Never Venmo or Cash App. Rarely with a tap touchless payment. The younger and hipper you are, the less likely you are to pay with cash, but as the old folks say, “Cash is king.” Before the bills are under the spring-loaded metal keeper in the cashbox, and before I can pull out his change, the man with the gray ponytail has received his token and is gone.
And then, so am I.
The thing about escaping is, if you do it too much, you’ll run out of things to escape from. And what you escape to becomes more and more empty. Nothing like that first high, right? If you’re anything like me, soon you’ll spend all your time and money chasing that Get-outta-Town dragon.
What is it I sell, you ask? Fine. I’ll tell you. Baubles. Trinkets. Tokens. Talisman of Escape. Does that answer your question? No?
In Davenport, it was Davenport, I was sure of it, the Sci-fi convention has the usual blend of obsessed and dedicated disciples who only leave their cupboards for events such as these, and the curious, casual onlookers who recognize prime people-watching opportunities. Who they are doesn’t particularly matter, in my case. Word of mouth travels fast, especially when the word you’re selling is “Travel.” But that’s how it is in Davenport. People come to my table, unbeckoned, unprompted, and they each get theirs. The whole line of them. And as quickly as they make their purchases, the line disappears.
I don’t mean it dispersed. It removed itself from the con and from Davenport altogether. Which begs the question, if a line begins in Davenport, where does it end?
Maybe they go to Des Moines, or Omaha, or perhaps Duluth. To another con? I don’t know where they go. They never follow me to my next stop. As good of business as I’ve been doing, I’ve never had a repeat customer.
I have to fix myself to the conference center floor in Davenport just to get through the queue of eager customers. I hold onto the table and sort of stamp my feet into the thin carpet as if I’m a sailor standing on the deck of a ship in bad weather. Because I have to make the sales. I have to export my own urge to retreat, to run away, to escape, to be anywhere but here. I welcome them. I’m greedy to take their tender, no matter the form, knowing each sale fulfills some internal need while simultaneously knowing that each transaction brings me closer to the edge. So I fix myself to this place because when I leave Davenport, and I’m beginning to doubt I’ll make it through the whole line before I do, I have no idea where I might appear next.
And who I will be when I get there.
When they come and make their purchases, and when they go, eventually, so do I. Early on the tour, it only took one bauble to send me away. To sell out, I call it, even though I have plenty more trinkets to trade. I hadn’t sold out of product. I sell myself out of the city. Out of one place and into another.
At the subsequent locations, it takes a little more. Two trinkets. Then three. Then half a dozen. Each time the other booths, other salesfolk, the attendees, the displays… they all get thinner as I approach that tipping point. Until they’re all gone. Or I’m gone. I imagine the convention continues without me, and without all those who have come and bought what I have to offer.
You know how they say in AA meetings, “If an addict gets on a bus in Boston bound for Chicago, an addict will get off that bus in Chicago”? That’s their way of saying a change in location doesn’t mean a change in the person.
I never imagined that the bus was so crucial to that chain of events. Because when I travel, sans bus, fading out of a civic center in Davenport and fading into a National Guard armory in Lansing, I’m not quite the same self I was in Davenport. I am myself. It’s just the person who was in Davenport isn’t quite me anymore. I am in Lansing. More so than I had been in Davenport. This is a bookseller’s convention. I am beset on all sides by independently published authors of varying degrees of talent, and I have no books to sell. Regardless, when I move a dozen of my talismans, clutching the lip of my table for the last handful of patrons, and I arrive in St. Paul, I am more in St. Paul than I had ever been in Lansing. My present always trumps my past. The here is always more concrete than the there. The moment is always stronger than memories. Consciousness is always more real than dreams.
In St. Paul, it’s a horror convention. There are movie screenings. There’s a costume contest. There’s a class on DIY practical effects for all the budding Tom Savinis standing on the plastic drop cloths the convention center staff rolled out to catch all the corn syrup and food coloring. There’s a “Scream Queen” contest to see which lady can belt out the best banshee wail. There are autographs and Q&As and meet and greets of men whose faces never touched the silver screen because they were always hidden behind the masks and make-up of the monsters they played.
I’m in the vendor’s hall. In artist’s alley. To my right is a taxidermist who takes dearly departed forest creatures and turns them into horror movie murderers. He has a Pinhead porcupine, a Freddy Krueger ferret, a Michael Meyers muskrat, and a skunk in a Friday the 13th hockey mask. The lack of alliteration between Jason Vorhees and the skunk stands out only because it’s so ubiquitous among the rest. Nevertheless, the artistry is impeccable. Not for everyone, but here at this convention? The taxidermist has found his target audience. To my left is a sweet old woman who is selling hand towels and dresses patterned in the Universal Studios classic monster line-up. Dracula. Frankenstein. The Invisible Man. The Mummy. The Invisible Man. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Wolfman. She had a hip Elvis meets Elvira rockabilly style. Jet-black beehive hair. Over the top makeup. Thick-framed, winged spectacles. Platinum black flats with frilled white socks. Spiderweb patterned leggings. A poodle-skirt with a dancing skeleton instead of a dog at the end of the leash.
My table, in comparison, is as blank and boring as a white cotton bedsheet in an S&M boudoir. I have my cash box. I have a miniature card reader that plugs into my phone. I have a small music box in which I store my tokens. It plays Für Elise if I ever wound it up. I don’t. I have a small sign that reads “Escape for Sale,” and the prices, which I feel are very reasonable. Nothing more. No big banners or displays. Just me, the means of payment, and the product.
It was the third day of the con and both the rockabilly seamstress and the twisted but talented taxidermist act like we’ve already gotten to know each other. Somehow, I’ve already earned their trust. As if I’d been sitting next to them, pitching and hawking my wares, since the con began.
It makes sense in some ways. I don’t remember loading in and setting up. And I never tear down and load out. Wherever I go, my table is set up and ready for business. I appear at each venue as neatly and cleanly as I disappear. My customers come with no prelude, and I leave without epilogue. Nevertheless, my things are here before I arrive. Do they remain after I’m gone? Do I remain, in some outdated, no-longer-precisely-me version of who I had been? Is there already a version of who I will become getting to know the next pair of neighboring vendors at the next con?
My neighbors, all of them, from the restless doll maker in Rockford, to the comic book brothers in Ann Arbor, to the hack novelists in Lansing, to these two eccentric horror fiends, they have known me. And maybe I know them too. I know their products and their spiels. If I tried, if I plunge the memories I have no right to have, I suspect I might be able to conjure up a name or a hometown. That possibility scares me. It feels intrusive for me to try. Like trespassing. And that feeling, that sense that trying to remember things before I arrived here is an invasion of someone else’s land leaves me suspicious that someone else had been here before I arrived. Someone who those memories belonged to. Someone who wasn’t me. Not even a part of me. Until they were all of me. Or I was all of them. And then suddenly I am more them than they had ever been.
After all, the now always wins over the then.
As my customers slip away, into the ether or maybe to another con in Peoria, Kansas City, or Springfield, my neighbors never notice their absence. Even when a large pack of loud Twilight vampires come down the aisle, skip the dresses and hand towels, stop at my table, and never make it to see the Woodchuck Chucky on display at the next table over.
I’m selling more now, lasting longer and longer at each show. I’m remaining more me at each stop. I’m unloading more and more of my escapism on them.
And that leaves me with what? When I truly sell out of my baubles, trinkets, tokens, and talismans, what will I have left? The prices are, as I said, very reasonable, which means the touchless transfers and the cold hard cash in the metal box don’t add up to much. Enough for a few nights in a local hotel and a few meals. I haven’t used the money, not since starting out on tour. Money was never the point. So when I sell out, not out of the vendor’s hall in St. Paul, but sell out of escapes, what will I have to show for it? Persistence? Permanence? Imprisonment? Will I be able to pack up my things and walk out the backdoor like all the other dealers? They, no doubt, have vans and trailers to load up their tables and collections of comics, toys, props, and products to haul to the next stop. I’m unaware of any van or car waiting for me beyond the loading docks. Will I be stranded wherever I run out of inventory, be it here in St. Paul or at the next stop? Where will I go after the convention closes its doors? I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t at a con, when I wasn’t perfecting my pitching and hawking my wares for the tap of a card or a few more paper presidents. My last Monday felt like eons ago. Can I even exist outside of conference halls, strip malls, and community centers? Have I ever? In here, working my table, making sales, I am me. But out there? Suddenly, my dwindling supply becomes all the more valuable. Precious even. Priceless, as in whatever cash or card the next customer presents won’t come close to tipping the scales.
“You’ve slowed down,” the seamstress with the gaudy purple eyeshadow and violent red lipstick tells me. “For a while there, you didn’t have a break!”
“It’s Sunday,” The taxidermist interjects. “It always slows down on Sundays.”
“Clark Kent Day,” I say.
“Huh?” the seamstress says.
“On Friday and Saturday, they come in full regalia. Each one of them dressed as their own version of Superman,” I say. I don’t remember where I picked up on this notion. If I had to guess, I’d say in Ann Arbor at the comic and toy convention. “By the time Sunday rolls around, they’ve scrubbed away their make-up. The big costumes have been traded for sweatpants or pajamas. All the Supermen are gone. Only Clark Kents remain. Still, don’t count Clark Kent out. On Superman Days, Saturdays, or even Fridays if you’re lucky, you make your table back. On Clark Kent Days is when you make your profit.”
My neighbors nod and I know they’ll incorporate my vocabulary into theirs. Sundays will be Clark Kent Days for them for every future weekend spent at a con.
“Your table has been lively though,” the seamstress gestures to my spartan setup.
“Wouldn’t know anything about that,” Stan (Stan! The taxidermist’s name was Stan.) says. “I don’t work with the living.”
We laugh at that, having fun with the idea of this man only interacting with those who have passed on, and those who have passed on being small woodland critters.
I like these two. Quirky, but still relatable and real. Neither too full of themselves or too aggressive with the old hard sale. Amiable. Funny. Kind. I know, even though I’ve never stayed until the end, come the close of the convention, we’ll trade business cards and find each other on social media, and hope to run into each other at the next pit stop along the highway. After all, as Evelyn (The rockabilly dressmaker’s name is Evelyn, of course, it’s Evelyn, it has always been Evelyn,) says, “It’s a small world.”
Her question remains, unasked but waiting for an answer all the same. Why had my sales dropped off so sharply when the two of them were still doing, at least, moderate business?
I pull the unwound and silent music box close to me, away from any potential buyers. Not on display. Not anymore. I peek inside and count the small supply within.
“What is it again, exactly, you’re selling?” Evelyn asks. “I’ve heard you describe it, but I don’t think I quite understand.”
“Nothing,” I lie, too sharply. “Honestly, it’s a sort of participator placebo. A token with the imaginary power to assist the imagination. Snake oil for the overactive mind. Nothing of value.”
“I’ll take it,” Stan says with such affirmation he can’t be denied.
“No. I couldn’t. You guys are–”
“I insist,” Stan says and comes out from his booth to the front of mine. “A mental tool, imagined to help the imagination? How can I say no to something like that?”
“It is very intriguing,” says Evelyn. “Me too. I want one too.”
There were four left when I counted them. If I make this sale, there will only be two left. My fun, funny, quirky, honest, talented, and relatable neighbors will be gone. And will the remaining pair of talismans be enough to send me after them? Or will I be stuck here on the streets of St. Paul to face the dull and drab realities of a Monday morning with no neighbors, no products, no customers, no sales, and no convention? The thought sends my nerves shaking my bones.
Stan the taxidermist drops his cash on my table. Enough for two trinkets. The old school method of contactless payment. And as soon as the money lands on my table, my two new friends and two more of my talismans disappear.
I’m alone, and I’m in dire short supply of escapes.
“So… what are you selling?” a kid in zombie make-up asks. He shows no signs of noticing the empty booths flanking me, or my suddenly estranged previous customers. All he knows is that I have something people want. And if people want it, then he absolutely has to have it.
“Loneliness,” I tell him. “And I’m all out. Now beat it.”
Taken aback, no doubt unaccustomed to the eternally gregarious vendors eager for his weekly allowance, he fades into the crowd. Lost in the masses until I can’t see him anymore, but he’s not disappeared. Only paying customers earned the right to slip through the bars of this cell.
Checking up and down the row, and seeing that, indeed, Clark Kent Day had thinned the crowd, I ease my grasp on the music box. I surely can’t keep the last two baubles in my inventory forever. But I don’t know how to restock. I don’t know where I got my initial supply. My preparation for these conventions was as far away as the last Monday. Eau Claire, Fort Wayne, Cedar Rapids, Dayton, even Bismark are infinitely closer than wherever it was I had begun. Would it end here, in St. Paul? I let go of the music box and crack open the cash box. The tray to the far right, President Jackson’s tray, is moderately full, but not nearly as full as the far left tray where all the Washingtons make their home. And what about the online account? Is there enough in there to buy me a plane or a bus ticket back home? If I can even remember where back home is? I open the app.
Before I can see the balance, a bank card obscures my view. Blue stars like fireflies burst on the display. The tap transfer has gone through, adding a measly amount to the balance. Looking up, I see the already thinning visage of the boy in zombie garb, more ghost than undead now. If his wily smile wasn’t so bright, I don’t think I’d see him at all.
Then he is gone, and my second to last talisman is gone with him.
I all but tackle the music box, clamp it shut with the little hasp, and tuck it on my lap, under the table. I twist the key to the cash box, sealing it from further business. I close the app on my phone and then power it down altogether. Perhaps closing the app was enough. Certainly, airplane mode would have prevented any transfers from going through. But I can’t allow any more sales. Not today. Perhaps never again.
From down the aisle, a mother is calling out for her son. “Joe? Joe! Where’d you go?”
Did Joe arrive on Clark Kent Sunday in full zombie attire? If so, would he arrive on Superman Saturday somewhere else in the same get-up?
And what about me? If I sell my last item to the next enthusiastic patron who wanders up, will it be enough to send me away from this place? If it is, where will I land next? Lincoln? Sioux Falls? Waterloo? Columbus? Fargo? Akron?
There is only one way to find out. I never make any purchases at these conventions. Always been my mission to fill the cash box rather than take from it. The money isn’t really my money anyway. It’s the business’ money. Buying my last bauble with that money wouldn’t really be buying it at all. The few bills in my wallet on the other hand…
I cracked open my old, leather trifold. A single, worn-thin, dollar bill rests in the crevice. Usually, a talisman goes for much more than this, but I think the time is right for a Going Out of Business sale. I pluck the lone bill from my wallet and unlock the cash box. With Washington still clutched tightly in my fist, I lift the metal arm holding all the other singles in place.
Wherever my last token takes me, that is where I will stay. One final escape from which I can never escape again.
“Go ahead, buddy,” I speak to myself, or the person I will have been once I leave here. “Loneliness is on sale.” The dollar drops into the cash box, and I am gone.
Joe Prosit writes sci-fi, horror, and psychological fiction. He has
previously been published in various magazines and podcasts, most
notably, in 365Tomorrow, The NoSleep Podcast, Metaphorosis Magazine,
and Kaidankai Podcast. If you’re an adept stalker, you can find him on
one of the many lakes and rivers or lost deep inside the Great North
Woods. Or you can just find him on the internet at JoeProsit.com.
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