He didn’t know when he first started referring to himself as the Willy Loman of dirt. Maybe it was after spending so much time treading non-existent water in an endless sea of brush and loam. It was a place unfit for human habitation or even visitation by all but the most intrepid naturalists. The dire landscape in which he was surrounded was attractive primarily to rattlers, lizards, crab spiders, scorpions, and a smattering of garoo rats. No tourists they, but year-round residents, the only ones, content to spend their lives preying upon one another, in endless pursuit of something, anything that might temporarily quench their thirst. The only constant observers to their endless routine were grotesquely contorted Joshua Trees and Teddy Bear cactus, standing tall and isolated, arms outstretched toward cloudless skies, supplicating themselves before the gods, pleading for the merest hint of precipitation.

How in the name of God had he gotten it into his head that he could actually foist this worthless piece of demarcated real estate upon anyone sane, anyone not on the precipice of dementia or desperation was beyond him; and in this economy? Sometimes he questioned his own sanity, but he would not, could not allow his doubts to be anything more than a momentary distraction. He was a dirt peddler, no matter that the only inventory currently at his disposal was dreams, vacant dreams.

Like many who had passed through this desert before him, Billy Alterman was mesmerized by the open space. Where some saw desolation, Billy saw opportunity; especially after gleaning from contacts on the municipal zoning commission that the two lane state highway traversing the valley was slated for improvement and expansion. Federal funds, they told him, would facilitate improvements in infrastructure, which would increase intrastate commerce, which would result in a rise in employment. The expanding workforce would require someplace to live, leading to the construction of affordable housing. Merchants would be needed to feed, clothe, and service the expanding local population.

These were the basic algorithms of real estate, not just some Chamber of Commerce hoo-hah. With conditions as favorable as this, it would be a slam-dunk; approvals had been granted, plans were in place, bids were being submitted. This was not one man’s fantasy, this was progress and, for once, Billy Alterman was going to be one of its beneficiaries. Though he had been warned more than once by family members and friends that speculation would be his undoing, Billy had little tolerance for naysayers. He was forever dissatisfied with his present, preferred to remain ignorant of his past, and continually seeking the promise of brighter tomorrows. Unfortunately, promises are often broken.

A year earlier, Steve Lieberman, Billy’s financial planner and one of his oldest friends voiced skepticism. “Are you sure you really want to do this?”

“Absolutely,” Billy had replied. “And if you were smart and forward-thinking, you’d do the same thing.”

“Look, Billy, you wouldn’t be the first of my clients to borrow against a life insurance policy. I typically advise them not to do it. But, c’mon man, we go back a long way. I’m not going to advise you, I’m going to tell you. Don’t do this.”

“Stevie, right now that land is going for about seven thousand an acre. There’re a helluva lot of homes you can squeeze onto a hundred acres,” Billy explained. “What are we talking about here, three hundred fifty-K? That’s my half of the investment. If I didn’t think I could afford it, if I didn’t know a hundred and ten percent that this highway expansion’s going to happen, I wouldn’t do it. But it is going to happen. I got that straight from the planning and zoning people. The money’s already been allocated.”

“You’ve never done anything like this before. You’ve sold commercial property, but you’ve never developed it. What the hell do you know about finance? Or construction?”

“As much as I need to know. I know dirt. I know the value of dirt. I’ve got a contractor willing to match my investment. He’s the one who’s going to do the actual building not me. I’m not that crazy.”

“How do you know this guy? Can you trust him?”

“He’s my neighbor. I’ve known him five years. He lives across the street. He builds, he remodels, he knows what he’s doing.”

“But do you?”

“Cut the check, Steven,” Billy said arrogantly. “Cut the check.”

The intrastate freeway never happened and Billy Alterman was in the hole, not for just three hundred fifty, but seven hundred thousand. The cash value of his life insurance policy was now negative. He’d taken a second on his home and a loan from the Mojave Bank and Trust. His neighbor the contractor never came through, put up neither a dime nor his time. Something about investing in trailer parks in California City and Boron further north in the Mojave.

“They’re cash cows, Billy,” the contractor told him. “Properly managed they are cash cows. And I’ve got the management in place. My brother-in-law has fifteen years experience in trailer parks. He’s lived in them; he’s worked in them. He knows how to maximize profits. You sure you don’t want in?”

But to Billy Alterman, Dirt Peddler, trailer parks were not sexy. They were decidedly down market and not something in which he could ever imagine himself investing. He had higher aspirations and an inflated sense of self-worth. Which in this particular case was a mistake of astronomical proportions. While the contractor from across the street now had a positive cash flow of sixty thousand dollars a year, had moved out of the neighborhood and into a larger home, purchased a certified pre-owned Lexus, and spent weekends on his newly-acquired fifty foot sport fishing boat in the Channel Island Harbor Marina, Billy was the overleveraged proprietor of a hundred acres of empty land. His wife had left him and his kids were back in public school.

Alone in the desert, surrounded by craggy caramel colored dunes, Billy was about to make one final attempt to peddle his own little corner of emptiness to yet another developer before losing his investment and, possibly, his home to the bank. Both properties were in default, but he’d managed to wangle an extension from the Bank and Trust, which did not see a pocketful of distressed dirt as the kind of property they’d like to have in their portfolio; especially when the regulators came around for their semi-annual audit. He had thirty more days to unload the land before it was put in foreclosure.

In his gut, Billy still believed that this space, his space, was ripe for affordable housing for those who couldn’t make the down payment for a home in LA or even Palmdale. If this deal didn’t go through, the best he himself might be able to afford would be a tent in Trona, just south of Death Valley. To Billy, that idea seemed like a death in and of itself. Billy took off his Panama hat and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. God, it was hot, he thought. Remembering he’d brought along a cooler filled with bottled water, he walked back to where he’d parked his LaSalle.

Heat from the desert floor was causing the humidity inside of Billy’s Wallabies to rise, creating its own weather system and turning the rubber soles to mush. While his choice in shoes didn’t exactly enhance his modestly professional appearance, they were sensible for trekking across the pocked, pebbly surface of the property. Billy looked at his watch, reached into the side pocket of his brown candy-striped Seersucker blazer and pulled out a blister pack of generic nicotine gum. He popped three pieces into his mouth and began to chew furiously. He’d quit smoking six months before and, according to the label on the box, should have weaned himself off the prescribed regimen three months earlier. Instead, he’d tripled his dose and increased the number of times in a day he shoved a wad between his cheek and gums. Billy rationalized this new habit by reassuring himself that he was taking baby steps away from lung cancer, although the steady stream of nicotine-laced saliva that slid continually down his parched throat probably increased his odds when it came to cancers of the mouth or esophagus.

Billy looked at his watch once more and began to hack ferociously, doubling him over and causing his Panama to fall from his head and bounce along the ground like an errant spray of tumbleweed. Chasing after it, he began to cough up sputum. The nicotine drip combined with the dust being kicked up by the wind was increasing his discomfort. By the time he recovered his hat he stood gasping for air. He checked his watch again, though only about a minute had passed since he’d last looked. The potential buyers were now more than forty-five minutes late. A puddle was forming beneath his shirt and large gray patches of sweat were appearing on either side of his tie. The Seersucker would not be enough to mask it. Normally, Billy kept one or two additional shirts in his car in anticipation of just such an occurrence.

“Never let them see you sweat,” he mused.

Wasn’t that how the old deodorant slogan went? Billy was a firm believer in the adage, believing that any evidence of bodily fluids anywhere on one’s person was a sure sign of desperation. He was intent on not exhibiting any such appearance today. Unfortunately, he’d forgotten the extra change of clothes in his rush to make this appointment.

The call to his cell phone, his “mobile office,” as he often referred to it, came in shortly after eleven and the potential buyers could only meet him two hours later as they were doing site visits throughout the valley. He wondered whether they were lost. He’d given them more than adequate directions, he always did: Highway 18 west to 263rd Street, turn left, head north for half a mile. Had they turned right and gone south instead? Maybe they hadn’t heard him correctly. There was always GPS if they hadn’t. Nobody followed verbal or written directions. People didn’t even carry maps anymore, for God’s sake.

Billy began to pace back and forth. “Tactics,” he muttered to himself.

The only living thing to which he could address his thoughts was a Teddy Bear cactus. He looked at it expectantly, as if awaiting confirmation, but it offered no solace and did nothing but stand silent. At the base of the cactus, a single desert woodrat looked up in Billy’s direction, and let out a barely audible “zzzzzeeeeping” sound. It was the closest thing Billy had had to a conversation since he’d spoken to the prospect three hours earlier.

Billy looked at the woodrat and explained, “Tactics. Nothing but tactics. It’s a game with these guys. All part of the game.”

Having nothing to say, nor any interest in engaging Billy, the woodrat contentedly went back to the mission of pushing a cholla ball toward its burrow.

“Christ,” Billy said exasperatedly, “I can’t even get a goddamned rat to pay attention to me.” He spit out his gum, uncapped the water bottle and took a long swig.

Looking into the distance south along the access road, Billy could see a large plume of dust kicking up and moving toward him at a rapid pace. He squinted and could just make out a large SUV emerging from the cloud headed toward him. He looked at his watch once more. An hour. They’d kept him sweltering for an hour. The moisture had by now spread upward forming droplets of gamey dew in his armpits. No amount of the talcum powder he had earlier applied would be able to ward off the musk he most assuredly had begun to emit.

As the SUV drew closer he could see that they were arriving in a black Escalade. How Presidential, thought Billy, how downright Chief Executive of them. Well, they were probably attempting to present the appearance of prosperity. That was a good sign. Or bad. It could easily go either way with guys like this. It was, after all, Southern California, and even where its tentacles stretched out toward its most inaccessible, improbable reaches what a person drove was as important as their bank account, sometimes even more so.

The Escalade pulled up about fifty feet from where Billy had perched himself on a terrifically warm rock. The doors remained closed, the occupants of the SUV fully aware of the temperature outside, and making the most of the chill air inside. Either that, or they were scouting their surroundings, conferring, playing a waiting game. Well, thought Billy, I can play that game too. He did not get up to greet them, which normally he would have, an inviting smile on his face. Billy was a little peeved. He remained planted on the rock, unwilling to play this game of chicken.

“Let them come to me,” he whispered to himself. “Control the listing.”

The stretch between Billy and his prospects, tumbleweeds hopscotching haphazardly about the cracked landscape, lent the dusty vista an air of the Old West. They were like two gunslingers, the passengers and the peddler, both waiting, watching to see who’d be quickest on the draw. Firing off the first round didn’t necessarily mean you’d live another day; it only guaranteed you’d be the first to make noise. The four doors of the Escalade opened practically in unison and four men, about a dozen years younger than Billy, emerged.

“Billy Alterman?” called out the slightest of the four.

“You found me,” Billy responded as he slid off the rock.

“I’m Wayne Headly.” His height was slightly more than that of a jockey, his body trim and taut as an inflexible telephone wire. “Sorry we’re a little late,” he said, extending his hand.

Billy took it and shook it firmly giving it a bit of a twist. It was a manly shake, one his grandfather had taught him when he was a boy. The old man told him that by doing so you’d immediately command respect. Given his own present lack of self-respect, it was the best he could muster.

“No worries,” Billy said waving Headly off nonchalantly. “I was just sitting here working on my tan.”

“So this is it?”

“All hundred acres as far as the eye can see.”

“Not much here, here,” said the Escalade’s driver, a rangy guy hiding behind a pair of Wayfarers and wearing a cap emblazoned with a Pebble Beach logo. “Kel Worthington, good meeting you.” He, too, shook Billy’s hand, with a grip that exceeded Billy’s own.

“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” Billy said ingratiatingly. “Victorville’s down the road a bit, Hesperia a little further south.”

“So how long has this dirt been on the market?” Worthington asked.

“You don’t mess around, do you, Mr. Worthington?”

“Oh, don’t mind Kel, he’s all business,” Headly said.

“Who’re those other two gentlemen with you?” pointing to the two stragglers, one wearing an ill-fitting summer weight suit and carrying a briefcase, the other jeans and a t-shirt with a bush hat on his head.

“Oh, them? They’re nobody, just our surveyor, and our accountant. Really, it’s just Kel and me.”

Headly ran his fingers through his thinning red hair unearthing not a little dust. They’d obviously been in and out of the Escalade quite a bit before arriving.

“Pardon the dust. Had to look at a few more sites before we got here. Got a little lost and ended up in Llano. Got anything over there by any chance?”

“Used to. This is it for now. Did you have anything special in mind for the land?” Billy asked. “I’m pretty well acquainted with the planning and zoning people out here. Entitlements are all in place. Off-site work’s already been done. Even got plans for five different home models that could be thrown in.”

Shut up, shut up, Billy thought to himself, they haven’t even begun to talk money and you’re giving away the whole farm.

“Nah, that doesn’t really matter,” Headly said off-handedly. “We’re not in the construction business so entitlements don’t mean that much. At least the kind you’re used to.”

Billy was unclear as to whether he’d just been insulted. “That right? So, what did you have in mind?”

“The future, Mr. Alterman, we’re interested in the future,” Worthington said, his voice was as dry and flat as the desert in which they stood. “And making money, that too.”

“Aren’t we all,” Billy said with an uneasy laugh.

Headly turned and called out to the nobodies, “Frank, take that plat map and walk the property. Ben, there’s not much for you to do just yet, so why don’t you head back to the truck and cool your heels.” Both men wordlessly did as they were instructed and went off in opposite directions.

“As you can see, Frank walks the property and Ben… Well, Ben cuts the checks. If we tell him to. If we’ve got a deal.”

“Well, title’s free and clear. No encumbrances.”

“That’s not the way we hear it,” said Worthington. He was clearly playing bad cop to the more amiable Headly. “Fact, we heard the bank’s about to take this property back.”

Billy was a bit shaken by that piece of intelligence though trying his best not to indicate it. “That’s what you heard?”

“That’s what we heard, Mr. Alterman,” Headly concurred. “We’ve been meeting with the loan workout people up at Mojave Bank and Trust. Pretty regularly as a matter of fact. We’re looking at distressed properties. Yours was one of them.”

“Well, I can assure you that as of now this is my property to sell. And not at bargain basement prices.”

“Look, Billy… Okay if I call you Billy?” Headly asked. “Listen, Billy, we’re looking at about a dozen more properties between today and tomorrow and we’re looking to buy and buy quick. All cash.”

This guy was so slick and oily you could probably hydroplane across his tongue Billy thought. “And just what price did you have in mind?”

“Same as everyone else in your position is selling for, Mr. Alterman,” said Worthington. “Three hundred an acre.”

“Three hundred an acre? You have got to be kidding me! That’s not even serious. Most people would be insulted by a lowball number like that and walk away.”

“Nobody’s walked away yet, Billy,” Headly said. “Must be too hot for them to waste the energy.”

Billy Alterman was no dummy. Billy Alterman had a plan. True, it had been a plan gone awry, but that wasn’t his fault. He had no control over any of the other state agencies that just about burst his bubble. And then there was the crash and the banks were skittish about lending. And, goddamn the banks. They were the ones who got the whole country into this mess in the first place. But Billy Alterman had a house to save, a loan to repay, and a failing real estate business to hang onto. Geez Louise, he was a Dirt Peddler. He knew opportunity when he saw it. Clearly, Headly and Worthington did as well.

“Well, if you’re not thinking about building on it, what are you going to do with it?”

“Ever hear of photovoltaic power stations?” Worthington asked.

“No,” Billy admitted.

“Solar parks. Solar farms,” Headly explained.

“Oh yeah, yeah. Clean inexpensive energy, least that’s what the ads on the radio say.”

“Something like that,” Worthington said.

“See, Billy, developing homes, communities, that’s not our business. Not very sexy. And in the long run, not that profitable. You build the houses, recoup your costs, get a gross profit of about fifteen percent, all said and done maybe net five percent. Maybe.”

“For someone not interested in development, you sure as hell know a lot about it.”

“See, Mr. Alterman,” Worthington explained, “we make it our business to know. Once a house has been bought and paid for, there’s nothing left for the builder to do but pick up and start all over again someplace else. He’s done, out, he’s made his money and moves on.”

“That’s all you really wanted to do, right Billy?” Headly asked. “ Develop the land, sell it off piece by piece, put something in the bank and maybe do it all over again. Leverage, right?”

“What most people don’t understand is it’s sometimes more profitable to hold onto the dirt and do something else with it.”

Worthington was beginning to sound like an exasperated old schoolmarm who’d had been through this lecture too many times before.

“We’re interested in a gift that keeps on giving. Selling power back to the grid… Solar power’s never going away. Not in our lifetime. The sun may set today, but we know for a fact it rises again tomorrow. The more energy you produce, the more money you make.”

“Solar farms,” Billy said disgustedly.

“Exactly,” said Headly. “So, here’s the deal, Billy. We buy your dirt for three hundred an acre, you pay off as much of your note as you can, everybody’s happy. The bank, you, Kel here and me.”

“You kidding me? I’m no winner in this. I’m not happy with this proposition. I’ve been doing this a long time. I know when I’m being taken to the cleaners. I will not sell for three hundred an acre.”

“We’re being more than fair, Mr. Alterman,” said Worthington flatly. “It’s the same we’re paying everyone else around here. Take it or leave it. It’s dirt. Nothing but dirt as far as the eye can see. And as of today, we own about forty thousand acres of all you can see for miles.”

“This dirt’s been sitting here unoccupied long before the economy tanked,” Headly added. “It’s been sitting here empty for tens of thousands of years, maybe longer. Ever hear the old saying ‘dirt cheap’? There’s the other one, ‘talk is cheap.’ It is, but not as cheap as dirt.”

“And all you’re doing,” Worthington added, “is blabbing away. This is taking too long, Wayne, and it’s too damn hot to be wasting any more time.”

“Look, you may think you’ve got me over a barrel, but you don’t,” said Billy.

Headly and Worthington looked at each other, trying not very hard to suppress their smirks. Without another word, they turned and headed back toward the Escalade.

“Frank!” Headly called out to the surveyor, “we’re done here.”

The neurons inside Billy’s brain were bouncing around and working overtime. He was pushing them to generate a new approach, a new angle. They were furious to be taxed this hard. All they wanted to do was push through his thick sweaty skull and make a quick getaway. They had nothing more to give. Billy’s slumber was their salvation, the chance to replenish and care for nothing but them. They were tired of his dreams, exhausted by his perpetual plotting. This guy was working them too hard, wasting too much electricity.

“Hold on a second!” Billy called after them.

Headly and Worthington looked at each other knowingly once more. All they had to do now was reel him in. They’d been doing it all day long with all of the other squatters and schemers and speculators and land-poor recluses they’d met throughout the vast expanse of emptiness.

“Change your mind?” Worthington asked, not an iota of emotion in his tone.

Billy walked toward them. Damn it was hot, he thought. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead. Whether it was the heat or desperation or both, Billy couldn’t help but let them see him sweat now. He reached into his pocket, produced another blister pack of gum and popped three more cinnamon-flavored pieces into his mouth. He began once again to chew with the fervor of a starving chipmunk.

“How about this? How about I just give you the land? How about you make me your partner?”

Worthington started to laugh. It was the only indication that he was not entirely devoid of emotion. “Make you our partner? We don’t need partners.”

“Just for this particular piece of land. Nothing else, none of the other properties, just this one.”

“Somebody’s gotta pay off the bank, Mr. Alterman,” Headly said.

Billy realized he was in trouble now. Headly had gone from being on a first name basis with him to being an implacable businessman. Well, he knew what those people were like, all of them sons-of-bitches. These two. Those stiffs back at the Bank and Trust who were as humorless as undertakers; which made sense, they were both in the business of burying people; one with debt the other with dirt.

“You can’t do that by giving us the land for free, can you now? It’s not really yours to give,” Headly continued. “Technically it belongs to Mojave Bank and Trust.”

Worthington chimed in, bad cop that he was, “In less than thirty days, your little nest egg here goes back to the bank. And you know what they told us, the loan workout people? They said we could buy this from them for two hundred an acre.”

Billy’s throat was parched, his lips were dry, he was desperate for a drink, but walking to back to his car might easily be interpreted as a rebuff. All he thirsted for was a bottle of spring water, though something stronger might be just as nice right now. The heaviness of perspiration caused his furrowed brown candy-striped Seersucker to droop dejectedly from his shoulders, victim of sweat and despair. A dry wind gusted from the west across the desert floor kicking up pockets of loam, powdering every exposed part of his person with a thin veneer of dust.

“Tactics, nothing but tactics,” he murmured to no one in particular.

“What was that, Mr. Alterman?” Headly asked.

Billy stood silently still. He felt as deformed as the mute Joshuas and Teddy Bears that populated this land that he had so coveted, the misbegotten opportunity in which he had so believed. He looked up at them, seeking something; anything, but in their impotence, they could grant him neither guidance nor succor. They remained as inanimate as Billy had become, and would remain so long after he had departed.

“It’s your call, Mr. Alterman, what’ll it be?” Worthington asked.

“Would you consider maybe… four hundred an acre?”

“Three hundred’s been our going rate all day, Billy,” Headly said, a glimmer of humanity in his voice, a reversion to calling the dirt peddler by his first name. He’d returned, however briefly, to his previous display of affability.

“Christ, I’ve got to walk away with something. Can you at least give me that? Look, you don’t know me, you owe me nothing, but this is what I do. I negotiate; I sell. It’s all that I’ve got. Can’t you at least for Christ’s sake let me leave here today feeling like I’ve accomplished something? Please don’t make me beg.”

If compassion were an integral component of a business plan, the very foundation of the free market economy would crumble. Billy knew that and Headly and Worthington knew he knew that. In a negotiation, nobody wins, nobody loses, but inevitably both sides walk away with something. Maybe not exactly what they’d initially anticipated, but something.

“Last and final, Billy…” said Headly. “Three twenty-five. Last and final.”

“Wayne, for God’s sake…” Worthington said, shaking his head in dismay. “We don’t need to do this. We can get it cheap when they foreclose.”

“Kel, shut up and go get Ben. Tell him to bring the checkbook and the sales agreement.”

“Pathetic,” Worthington muttered as he turned and walked back to the Escalade.

“We got a deal, Billy?”

Defeated, Billy nodded his head in agreement. Headly offered his hand. Billy took it in his own and shook it; the manly twist a long-forgotten thing of the past.

“You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Alterman,” said Headly. “Nobody’s done as well as you today.”

Ben the Accountant, having fought his way through whirling dust devils, pulled some papers from his briefcase along with a checkbook. “Alright. I’m going to give you ten thousand in earnest money. You look over the sales agreement and tomorrow we’ll get it signed and notarized and I’ll pay you the rest.”

He took a superficial look at the sales agreement and reluctantly accepted the check. Headly and the accountant started back to the Escalade and the cooler climate within. Billy shed himself of the wet Seersucker skin and folded it across his arm. He took off his Panama and wiped his brow. He squinted against the squall and looked to the distance across the empty plain in search of something; what he did not know.

“Just keep this in mind, Billy,” Headly called out, “I know deep down you know this, but I’m gonna say it anyway… Worst mistake a salesman can ever make is to believe in what it is he’s selling. Don’t ever fall in love with your product, Billy. Especially when it’s nothing but dirt.”

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