Cassie knew she could make extra money selling vintage clothing on the internet, so in her first semester out of grad school, she drove to Chulas Fronteras Ropa Usada, down by the border in the maquiladora district. The bouncer at the door weighed Cassie on a scale as a shoplifting precaution, and handed her a ticket, along with a map of the enormous warehouse. She was originally from the border, and so she said “No, thanks” to the map, since she knew her way around well, and walked inside. There were hills of denim, with polyester, wool, and old jeans compacted, forming different roads. Fans as tall as Cassie were blowing everywhere like electric windmills, creating metallic cyclones that howled over the exclamations of people—mostly brown women like her, but many with young children—picking through the used clothing.
Cassie began sweating, and from the clothes on the ground she felt steam rising, as if the ghosts trapped in the clothes were sweating, too. She took a purple envelope out of her dress pocket, just to make sure she hadn’t forgotten it, to make sure it was really there.
Cassie followed the denim road, expecting a silk scarecrow or barkcloth lion to jump out at any moment—then she remembered that the outside rules didn’t apply at the ropa usada. She saw about ten women on the crest of a hill of used clothes, pulling sleeves and khaki legs from under their feet like ripe carrots. Three kids were huddled down on the ground by a fan, with their six eyes immersed in a book, the child in the middle holding it open. Cassie saw the book consisted of complicated epic verse, and she kept walking and spotted the train to take her to the other end, but discovered it wasn’t running.
So Cassie walked through the hills of clothes that rose and fell, until she reached a corner of the ropa usada she’d never visited. Cassie regretted not taking a map from the bouncer. She came across a man looking at an unfolded map under the threshold of a little den made of sports-team jackets; they were jackets of teams that no longer existed, like the Washington Bullets, the Houston Oilers, and the Oakland Raiders.
Cassie said to the man, “Can I please borrow your map real quick when you’re done looking at it, sir? I’m afraid I don’t know where I am.”
“Don’t you come near me,” he said, and hid behind a curtain of hockey and Little League jerseys.
Cassie heard a racket—the terrain suddenly changed from denim to corduroy. It got darker in the ropa usada, and the fans became scarcer. Cassie was really sweating now; she felt queasy and took a break to hydrate and eat lunch. She unpacked her veggie tacos, sat on a mound of hoodies, and had her meal as the racket seemed to be getting closer and closer. A crowd of people moved both laterally and in a circle, like a tornado, very near her, and she wrapped her food up.
Cassie approached two young women and yelled over everyone, “What’s happening?”
The young woman wearing hoop earrings and with a lip piercing yelled back, “They found a rare Tropinini blazer! Somebody just bid on it for a lot on the internet!”
As she processed this information, the tornado of people moved away toward the satin moors and a distant exit. Cassie kept walking and followed the northern bulb in the otherwise dark, depthless ceiling. Though she never seemed to get closer to the light, Cassie felt she was nearing her destination upon hearing the unmistakable sound of castanets. Cassie knew this meant the City Girls were nearby—they’d probably already surrounded her, hidden in the brush of gloves, because when she looked around, Cassie realized she was in the part of the ropa usada with nothing but gloves. For small hands and big hands, puffy gloves and long gloves, bright gloves, mittens, and amputated gloves. The gloves became vegetation and their own ecosystem. Branches of gloves hung from glove trees, and they longed to touch Cassie’s face and body, but she slapped them away as she pushed through their thick woods.
The castanets became louder. Cassie reached a clearing of handkerchiefs, and a voice said, “Well, if it isn’t our old friend Cassandra.”
It was the voice of the City Girls, who ruled the internet vintage clothing market, thanks not only to this particular ropa usada, but to all of them throughout the South. If you wanted to sell clothes on the internet without any trouble, there was a tribute to be paid to the City Girls. Cassie had had a troublesome relationship with them in the past, and after she got into grad school she swore she’d never deal with them again. It’d been a while since Cassie had seen them. As they circled her, she remembered the most obvious thing about them, which was that the City Girls looked like supermodels. Though their style was one Cassie felt was very conventional and capitalist, she couldn’t help wanting to weep at their collective blinding beauty, and fought to hold it together and stand her ground before them.
“Did you bring what belongs to us?” the City Girls asked, in that mechanical way they spoke, in unison, like a Greek chorus.
Cassie pulled out the purple envelope she’d brought and said, “Count it. It’s all there.”
The City Girls were pleased at this and said, “No need. We trust you. Yet we also know you inwardly judge us. Because unlike other people who are just buying clothes here for their families, we are here to find the good stuff people throw away. We can tell the good hand-stitching from the bad machine stuff. All the big cities thrive on the clothes we find here. And even though you aspire to be like us, you inwardly judge us. For shame. For shame,” they whispered, then screamed, not in unison, but one by one.
Parting from one another, the City Girls wheeled through a lounge cart with a deep bowl and a silver platter. “You know what happens now,” the City Girls said to Cassie, who knew this was coming. “You powder our doughnut.”
The platter was uncovered to reveal a small brown doughnut sitting on a plate like a duckling. The deep bowl beside it was filled with a white powder. Cassie grabbed the doughnut and did the deed while, in ecstatic glee, the City Girls hissed, “Yes. Yes. Powder our doughnut. Powder it.”
When Cassie was finished and every last spot on the doughnut was covered, the City Girls split it up into even pieces and ate the powdered doughnut.
Breathing heavily, and thoroughly fulfilled, the City Girls needed a cigarette and, afterward, a nap. “Go now,” the City Girls said, as they each found a different handkerchief mound to pass out on. “You can sell clothes on the internet without the shakedown.”
Cassie walked away as they fell into slumber; for a moment they looked harmless, as if, once surrounded by that wreckage of used clothing, the City Girls weren’t in charge of who ate and who starved in the vintage-clothes-selling racket. Cassie had lived in the city for over ten years now, and she dwelled on the reasons why she’d never be made a City Girl; then, feeling she was taking a stance, told herself she would never become a City Girl even if given the chance.
She lost track of time, heading in the vague direction of an exit, and everything around was flannel. Cassie tried to remember the clothing on her wish list for her internet store. Though the powdered-doughnut incident had made her nauseated, hunger was overtaking Cassie once again. The distant chime of a bell resounded, and the thick humidity of the ropa usada became only thicker. Cassie couldn’t remember when the last time was that she’d even seen a fan.
The smoke was slight at first—Cassie wondered if it even was smoke, then saw the trash bin emitting white fire and white smoke, with meat unlike anything she’d ever seen roasting over it.
Small houses made of broomsticks, parkas, and cheap coats lined both ends of a short road. A woman was ringing a bell that was hanging on a brick tower. Cassie had heard of the village in the ropa usada, but, like everybody else, had always known to stay away. Since she was wandering without a map, she’d stumbled upon it by accident, and Cassie walked right up to the woman ringing the bell. The woman had bandages around her eyes, and Cassie concluded she must be blind.
The woman stopped pulling the rope that rang the bell and yelled, “Harold, your bride has arrived.”
Cassie looked around and couldn’t see this bride the woman was referring to.
“Excuse me,” she said to the woman.
From one of the little houses, the one made of suit jackets three stories tall, came a tall man with shaggy hair that covered his eyes. Cassie couldn’t tell if he also had his eyes bandaged, but he seemed to have no trouble finding his way around.
“Is she the one,” Harold said, moving his head up and down, checking out Cassie. “Is she the one you gave your eyes for, Mother? Is she?”
Laughter came from one of the parka houses, and across the street a couple were heard arguing while a child cried.
Cassie shook her head—wanted to scream No—and the flannel under her feet became unsteady, as if the clothes were beginning to slide in an avalanche.
The wave of clothing was fifty feet away when she saw it. T-shirts of old bands and businesses, discarded quinceañera dresses, pearl snap shirts, denim in every form, jackets, polo shirts, school uniforms, scarves, boots, chanclas, high heels, ties, sneakers, Oxfords with worn soles in every size, long skirts, miniskirts, shawls, aprons, galoshes, tank tops, bathrobes, leather jackets, vests, belts, suspenders, ruffled blouses, tunics, hooded sweatshirts, earmuffs, all styles of hat, and every snarky saying ever printed on sixty percent polyester, forty percent cotton came together like the earth had quaked from deep in its depths. Cassie was taken by the tsunami of clothes, as if the distant levee holding pallets and pallets of them had finally burst—she tumbled and nearly drowned many times, but managed to grab hold of a floating desk chair as the sea of clothes gurgled and shifted.
Before her eyes flashed the reasons she’d come out here in the first place: her debts and student loans, which had started being deducted automatically from her bank account every month, no matter what. As the clothes slowly came to a muddy halt, Cassie stood and dusted herself off.
I’m alive, Cassie thought.
It made her sad to think that, in what she felt were her final moments, what tumbled through her mind was all the money she owed: not her mother, her family, the people she loved, or the possessions she held dear, but her crushing debt.
Cassie saw that her slippers were gone and, barefoot, she went looking for survivors.
The clipetty-clopetty of a horse moved toward her, and a foggy voice yelled, “Report the dead. Report the dead.” Cassie watched as the horse-drawn wagon passed by, hauling a pile of dead bodies.
Wails and moans came from deep within the clothes. Cassie saw two legs sticking out of a clothing dune, clearly tussling to get their torso and head out. Cassie walked up and carefully grabbed one foot. The person fought against it, then must have sensed good intentions, because they let Cassie grab the other foot, and she pulled without further struggle.
Like a thorn being pinched from a wound, Harold’s body emerged from the dune of clothing.
“My bride,” Harold said, walking on his knees toward Cassie.
“I can’t marry you, Harold,” she said. In a flight of improvisation, she added: “The truth is that I’m already taken.”
Sitting on the beach of clothing like a stranded mariner, Harold started to loudly weep. “I’ve lost it all,” he said, “and you deny me even this?”
Cassie knew better than to fall for the trap of consolation, so she said, “It’s for your own good, sweetie,” and went looking for the exit.
The terrain had changed. The old polyester, wool, and denim roads were all destroyed. Cassie looked down at her dark feet—though there were shoes her size everywhere, she didn’t want to walk in any of them. Up ahead there was a bright light, and the train was still sitting there, broken down, unaware of the disasters that had occurred.
The ground of clothing below her became concrete, then eventually tile.
Cassie saw her reflection on the wall-sized mirror near the entrance as she walked by. She didn’t recognize the clothing she wore—somewhere inside, her wardrobe had changed, unbeknownst to her. It looked like she’d even lost weight.
The bouncer saw her walking up. Though he’d developed a thick skin in this business, Cassie’s staticky hair, dirty face, and just-got-off-the-UFO stare warmed his heart. He noticed she had bought no clothes, asked for her ticket, and, as a shoplifting precaution, weighed her again.
He was holding a fur coat and said, “Someone tried shoplifting this Gianni mink coat from us a while ago. My manager’s not here right now, and it’s cold out there. Since you’re a few pounds lighter than how you came in, why don’t you have it?”
Cassie tried to smile as the bouncer snuggled the coat around her shoulders. She couldn’t think of the words for “thank you,” and walked outside. It was snowing. Barefoot, she walked to her car and started it. Cassie wondered how long she’d been at the ropa usada. She drove away and thought the bouncer had been nice to give her the coat. As she surfed for a radio station, Cassie said aloud, “It’s people like that man who are keeping this world going, holding it together.” Then, when she had found her song, she wondered what a Gianni mink coat like this could go for on the internet.
Excerpted from Valleyesque: Stories by Fernando A. Flores. Published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Fernando A. Flores. All rights reserved.
Fernando A. Flores was born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and grew up in South Texas. He is the author of the collection Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas and the novel Tears of the Trufflepig, which was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a best book of 2019 by Tor.com. His fiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, Frieze, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. His collection of stories Valleyesque is forthcoming in May 2022. He lives in Austin, Texas.