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Belongs to the Earth

| By Jess Walter

Guy’s name was Argyle Borfus. I hired him fall of ’74 to track down my wife after she ran off with our hippie pool boy to this turd-burg, Spokane, Washington.

I flew up there, searched the campgrounds by the river. Nothing. Podunk cops were no help. Desk sergeant didn’t even look up. “We look like marriage counselors?”

Another cop walked over, said to the sergeant: “What about Argyle Borfus?” The sergeant hesitated, then smiled, nodded and left the room. The other cop wrote a number down and slid it across the desk. “You didn’t get this from me.”

I went straight to a phone booth.

Trouble had started two months earlier. Sharon and I lived in Torrance, California, where I had the south bay’s biggest Buick dealership. Sharon was my second wife, 20 years newer than the model I’d traded in. It was good between us and then she started smoking maryjane and dinging the pool boy. His parents told me they’d made for Spokane, which was hosting the world’s fair.

“World’s fair, my ass.” First thing Argyle Borfus said to me. “If there’s one thing I know, it’s that the world ain’t fair.”

Argyle Borfus was a little younger than me, 45, thin, edgy. Always pursing his lips. Squinting. Like he’d soured on the world. I’d called the number the cop slipped me and the woman who answered gave me the name of a bar. Albertini’s. Last stool. Sure enough, 11 in the morning, he was at the end of the bar with a cup of coffee. “They don’t let me drink anymore,” he said.

I explained my situation: Sharon. Pool boy. Expo.

He reached up to his mouth and seemed surprised not to find a cigarette. “Two grand when I find the broad. You pay all expenses up front.”

I liked his confidence. And the money was no problem. He stood, tossed a crumpled dollar on the bar and grabbed a stingy brim hat off the stool next to his. “Come on.”

It was a warm fall day. He walked us through a stubby brick downtown to a new white opera house, straight to a ticket window. “Buy us into the fair,” he said.

Right, I pay expenses. I reached for my wallet.

“And get two tickets to Helen Reddy,” he said. She was playing the fair that night. “Hippies love Helen Reddy.”

“No we don’t,” said some guy in line behind us.

“Balcony front,” said Borfus.

As we walked off, a guy with sideburns leaned forward and said, “We really don’t like Helen Reddy.”

The fair was nice. Set against that brick downtown, it was like someone had put a brand new kitchen remodel on a crap house. We walked along the still part of a river, past a cluster of international flags. I waited for him to ask about Sharon, but he had this way of not asking questions that made you spill everything.

“My friends warned me about her,” I said. “But when a woman says ‘I love you,’ how are you supposed to know it’s a lie?”

“It’s always a lie,” said Argyle Borfus.

It was a Tuesday, kids back in school, fair not too crowded. A two-person chairlift moved above our heads, most of the chairs empty. Borfus looked all around. “This party is in its last hour.”

The less he asked about my situation, the more I seemed to talk. About my first marriage, how I met Sharon at a boat show, how things had been good at first, then cooled. “And then the thing with the pool boy.”

When I asked his plan for finding Sharon, Argyle Borfus muttered, “There’s a guy I’m looking for.” But he didn’t seem in any hurry, stopping every few minutes to look at exhibits. Chinese masks. Indian moccasins. He had me buy us kielbasas and pierogi. Lemonade. Elephant ears. Kid stuff.

“Sharon wanted to have a baby,” I said. “I wasn’t entirely upfront about my vasectomy.”

We passed flowers and jewelry booths, ambled in the crowd over a bridge toward a big, uneven white tent – like someone had dropped a sno-cone. It was the U.S. Pavilion, built on the banks of a burbling little waterfall. There was a big sign inside: “The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.”

Argyle Borfus stood stock-still in front of that sign. “Minute this fair closes the town goes back into its coma. I cannot wait.”

The fair got a little more crowded after school ended. We rode the sky ride, the chair lift that ran above the sidewalk slower than you could walk. Argyle was scanning the crowd when it dawned on me I hadn’t even showed him a picture of Sharon. All those people below us. He was making a point. Needle in a haystack. I pulled a picture from my wallet. “When she looks at you, the world stops.”

He glanced at the picture. “Big teeth.”

It was nearing dusk. He had me buy dinner, two plates of chow mein. We’d just finished eating at a park bench by the river when he saw what he’d been looking for and jumped up. “Gimme five bucks.”

I handed it over. He approached a guy at a kiosk. They talked for a minute and he came back with a leash. Nothing attached, just a stiff leash ending in an empty collar. Supposed to look like an invisible dog, I guess.

I looked back over my shoulder. “So … did that guy know something about Sharon?”

Borfus said nothing, just walked his invisible dog.

A pretty woman walked by. “What’s your dog’s name?”

“Go to hell,” said Argyle Borfus.

We walked some more, his leash out front. He was doing his quiet thing, going over my whole story, figuring out which part was a lie.

“OK,” I admitted. “The pool boy was my idea. I was having … performance issues. I thought I’d like watching her with another man. But it really bothered her. Like she was just a plaything. And I had no idea they’d run off together.”

Argyle Borfus didn’t even look at me.

Helen Reddy was pretty good. I left humming “Delta Dawn.”

We walked with the crowd back through downtown, Argyle Borfus’ invisible dog leading us.

“Look, things got twisted between me and Sharon, but I love her. I want her back. I’m dead since she left.”

He didn’t say anything. We passed the bar where I’d found him and went into a building two doors down. Painted on the window were the words: “Lilac City Mental Health” and “First Steps Independent Adult Care.” There was a desk at the front, a woman with a check-in sheet. She made a mark next to his name.

“Welcome back, Argyle,” she said. “What’s your dog’s name?”

“It’s a fake dog.” He turned to me and shook his head. “Stupid broad.”

My private eye was a mental patient. Right.

The woman at the desk smiled at us.

Argyle Borfus narrowed his eyes. “Eleven o’clock tomorrow. Meet me at the butterfly.”

I looked down at his invisible dog. I knew it then. Or maybe I’d known it all along: I would never see Sharon again. All my money. Didn’t matter. She was the pool boy’s now. Man belongs to the earth, all right.

“Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton are playing Friday,” he said.

Borfus and I stared at each other. Christ, the trouble we make for ourselves. Trying to be loved. “Front row balcony?” I asked.

Argyle Borfus winked at me. “Atta kid.”

Jess Walter is the author of eight books, including the Edgar Award-winning “Citizen Vince,” the National Book Award finalist “The Zero,” and the New York Times bestseller “Beautiful Ruins.” His first collection of short stories, “We Live in Water,” is finalist for the Washington State Book Award. He once made the carnies stop the Zipper at the Spokane County Interstate Fair so that he could get off. He has not gotten back on.

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