Rusty Feasel walked out of his life and into oblivion nearly two years ago. Arnold Wayne Jones explores what could lead a man to do that

This story is a mystery, but it is not one with a happy ending, or even a satisfying ending; in many ways, it does not have an ending at all.

The mystery began on the morning of March 29, 2015. I awoke as usual for a Sunday. I brushed the sleep from my eyes, placed a kettle of water on the flame and spooned some coffee grounds into my Bodum French press. I texted a friend to set up a get-together for later that day, brushed my teeth and turned on Charles Osgood. While I waited for the water to boil, I grabbed my iPhone to check work email messages. I try to avoid checking messages too much on the weekends, and had managed to resist the urge all day on Saturday. Even still, my in-box was littered with hundreds of emails, the vast majority of them spam. I scanned through quickly just to make sure there was nothing timely that needed attending before Monday morning.

One message caught my attention, even though there was no reason it should. Buried among the missives about horny Russian girls and diet drugs was one from “Shannon.” I had never met Shannon, nor had we even talked, but I vaguely recognized the name. It was from deep in my past.

“I’m contacting you regarding Rusty Feasel,” the email began. “I believe you are the AJ I’ve heard him talk about through the years.”

Rusty was my ex — my first serious boyfriend. Even though we had dated for less than a year, and had broken up nearly 17 years earlier, we had remained close friends throughout the decades. Rusty had been there through all my other relationships, in good and bad times. I knew he still loved me; he told me so frequently. I was, in some ways, “the one that got away” — or rather, that he had let go. Our relationship ended when he walked away from me. He eventually said he regretted that. There was no reason to feel regret, at least from my perspective. We were better as friends than as lovers, and Rusty was one of my most trusted confidantes. There was virtually nothing I couldn’t tell him, or him me … or so I thought. The rest of Shannon’s email hit hard:

“Rusty is missing.”

The shiver that ricochets through you when you read the words that someone you care about is gone is seismic.

That was how the mystery began. But the story starts much, much earlier.

Rusty Feasel with his beloved dog Brutus. Photos by Arnold Wayne Jones

People who are old enough to predate Grindr, Craigslist and cyberstalking will remember the days of the personal classifieds. I was still largely closeted, but looking to start dating, without going to bars. The classifieds were the alternative.

In Dallas Voice, a section was published for a long time called Encounters: “Man seeking man,” “casual encounters,” “missed connections.” (Craigslist may be more technological, but the idioms endure.) I placed an ad.

As with much of dating, there are as many frogs as princes; my experience was no exception. Many dates, usually dinner or evening cocktails at chain restaurants. But when Rusty called my mailbox, he immediately stood out as different.

“This is Ruuusty,” he drawled in a thick, charming Texas accent, like someone out of a B Western. I’d lived in Texas more than five years, but he was the real deal — my first quasi cowboy. No photos back then, just descriptions, voices and meet-ups. He picked a place, a choice that set him apart again: Vern’s, a soul-food restaurant on the edge of Deep Ellum. For lunch, too, not in the evening — a first for me.

Our initial contact wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t love at first sight. He wasn’t exactly what I expected. A paradox: Tall (over 6-foot) and with a lot of meat on his frame, he drove a beat-up pickup truck and wore faded, ripped Levi’s and dusty boots, unpretentiously handsome. But he also had waist-length hair that he tossed around like a girl in a shampoo commercial. His mannerisms seemed at odds with his burly appearance and down-home choice of locales. “How do these pieces fit?” I wondered as I squirmed through our meal, sadly suspicious that everyone was staring at us. Rusty couldn’t have cared less. He seemed comfortable in his own skin.

That was a lesson I would take not just from that encounter, but from our relationship.

It all started slowly, but snowballed; he moved in within three months; in less than a year, we would separate, and it would be another full year before we talked again. But when we did, we connected profoundly. He was a standup guy, the kind who wouldn’t just keep your secret, but offer to move the body. He bred Rottweilers, to whom he was devoted. He’d help you repair your roof or cook you a pot of pho. For years, he was my dog-sitter, a duty he studiously performed with no more payment than an occasional bottle of Bombay Sapphire.

Despite no post-high-school degree, Rusty’s intelligence was formidable. He read voraciously, and composed long emails — screeds, really — against the right wing morons, but also the namby-pamby liberals. His mind was as active and curious as a cat’s. Arguing with him was a form of exercise.

Rusty had his demons. He often told me he didn’t have a stable, satisfying relationship since we broke up. He was often strapped financially. He would hibernate from society for weeks on end, barely answering his phone or emails. I cared for him as much as I cared for anyone, but he erected barriers. He felt strongly, but kept much inside.

I just had no idea how much.

Rusty on Joe Pool Lake, in happier times. Photos by Arnold Wayne Jones

“Rusty is missing,” Shannon’s email read, “and by missing I mean he left a note and now no one can find him. His mother is desperately trying to find out any information as to his well-being. If you know anything, please contact me as soon as possible.”

I called Shannon immediately.

The story was mysterious and dark.

“When’s the last time you heard from Rusty?” Shannon inquired. I knew immediately.

“Valentine’s Day,” I said. “I wished him a happy Valentine’s Day. He said ‘Same to you.’” I suppose I should have known something was wrong then — Rusty was not a sentimentalist, but rather the kind who would bah-humbug meaningless celebrations and artificial social holiday norms; even “happy birthday” could elicit a scoff.

Six weeks, I realized. I hadn’t heard from Rusty in six weeks.

Shannon explained that the last time anyone last heard from Rusty was about two weeks earlier. He was expected to his mom’s house for dinner, and never showed up. She called; he didn’t answer. Eventually, she visited the East Dallas duplex he rented. What she found astonished her.

Rusty was missing, and most of his furniture was gone. His neighbors, whom Shannon described in less-than-glowing terms, claimed that he left a note with them, the door unlocked, and drove off. The note was allegedly cryptic; I never saw it, but the gist was he was in debt and wanted to disappear, and asked someone to look after his dogs. The neighbors, apparently, gave them away or sold them; they took or sold most of his belongings. They claimed not to know any more. They showed Rusty’s mother the note.

She was suspicious. Why just disappear?

“She talked to [the police investigators] assigned to the case this morning and they are searching for his cars, phone records — the usual routine,” Shannon informed me. There wasn’t much to go on, they said. It was not a high priority case.

His email accounts were closed. His bank account not accessed for weeks. No calls placed on his cell phone. He was a ghost. There was almost no evidence he had even been in our lives.

A few days later, while watching Fox4 News, I saw a brief “police blotter” piece — “If anyone has seen this man” kind of thing. It used his first name, John (Russell was his middle name), so few people who even heard the piece would know who it was. They underestimated his weight by at least 25 lbs. The photo used was old, grainy and a poor likeness. I never saw anything else on him covered in the media. I emailed Shannon some months later, and asked if there was any news. “No,” was the expected answer.

That’s the last I heard from Shannon. That’s the last I knew for sure about Rusty.

How could this have happened?

We all know the legend of Kitty Genovese — the New York City woman in the 1960s who, allegedly, was brutally attacked for the better part of an hour, her screams heard by dozens of neighbors, who did nothing. The current scholarship says the story is vastly exaggerated, but its legacy remains. Accurate or not, the truth is, those experiences occur more often than they don’t. We are all surrounded by people who are suffering, and who tell us they are suffering in coded messages we are either too ignorant, or too dense, to parse.

Rusty was one of those signalers. You couldn’t know Rusty for very long and not realize he was unhappy and even anti-social. But what can friends do?

Not enough, as it turned out. Despite my efforts, and the efforts of other friends (including, certainly, Shannon and his mother), Rusty was in a dark place emotionally, and we were ill-equipped to deal with it. And, as it happens, ill-equipped to deal with the aftermath in our own lives.

I saw Rusty three times after his disappearance. At least I thought I did. Once, I was in Deep Ellum and saw him walking down the street. I ran out of the restaurant I was in, chased him a few feet, turned him around and said, “Rusty! Where have you been? We’ve been worried sick!”

“I’m fine,” he replied with a blank stare, turned and walked away.

Then I woke up.

The dream was vivid — amazingly real. It took me several hours the next day to convince myself it didn’t happen. A similar dream occurred several months later, where I saw him sitting in the corridor at NorthPark Center. He was friendlier this time, but no more forthcoming. And it was a fantasy, anyway. So was the third dream. (My friend Lila asked her friend who identified as a psychic to look for evidence of Rusty’s psychic energy; none was detected, Lila told me.)

But the images lingered. I imagined a number of scenarios: Rusty took off to Mexico, or Wyoming, to reinvent himself and start life over anew — new identity, a complete break with the past. Or he met with foul play, his car broken down by the side of the road, a stranger offering to help and killing him. Another possibility — which I sadly considered as likely as any — was that he drove into a remote forest as deep as he could, drank as much gin as his body could handle, and wandered into an unused lake or bog: No trace, no explanation, no closure.

But there was one thing I knew, almost instantly that morning I first learned he was missing. Whatever the truth, I would never see him again. That’s what he wanted. It was the one thing he could control.

No matter what happened to Rusty, I doubt I will ever know for sure. Which, in many ways, is the worst thing about his disappearance — not the loss of his presence, or even the possible loss of his life, but how my friendship failed to sustain him. There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t have done for Rusty… except that I didn’t do what I needed to, and he either didn’t know that, or didn’t feel it would make a difference. Depression, isolation, desperation — these are real things, and we have friends to help us through them. I wasn’t there for him, simple as that. It’s almost a form of survivor’s guilt: How could I ignore the signs and allow such troubles to go unaddressed.

Six weeks. I hadn’t communicated with him for six weeks. One of my dearest friends. One of the most loyal people I know, and one who hurt most profoundly. And for six weeks, I did nothing. And 15 years of friendship were gone, just like that.

Maybe, if he’s still alive, Rusty could read this, and reconnect with those he left behind. But I doubt it. Depression has a way of consuming you. And all the rest of us can do is hope for the best.