The International Writers Magazine: Life of a Salesman
“Mr...." comes a voice, pulling him out of his drink. He looks up to see a young man, twenties, with the whitest, straightest teeth he has ever seen. It looks like someone kicked 24 pearls straight down his throat. He has the sort of teeth that could close deals and open legs in minutes.
“Cal me Joe.” He says. The boy says his name, pumps his hand forward to shake.
“Well I guess we’d better get straight into it. ‘Waiting is for men who believe in god and worship trust funds.’ Guy who taught me the ropes said that. Never understood what he meant. Guy was a drunk. He’d sell his shoes if it meant he didn’t have to get off his stool.” He checked his watch. Two hours to go.
“Do you have another suit?” They began to walk the endless hotel corridors
“I have another one if...” The boy stroked his tie like he was in a lap dancing club.
“It’s perfect. Always pays to have a back up. You drink too much, you vomit, you drink with someone else and they vomit. The food. The food’s so bad in some place
I spilled crumbs on my jacket, they glowed in the dark. Swear to Christ, like a kid's mobile.” They turned into an elevator.
“Second suit is to be prepared, ready, alert. You pull on the same gear a second morning straight, you’re finished. You know why? ‘Cause it stays in you. The smoke, drink, the food. But worse, it's every dirty fingerprint of every other salesman pressing his card against your chest. Patting your shoulder after seven salty samosas, putting his arm around you with his stink breath right into the seams of your shirt.
After tonight, check your collar. Black ridges. But it’s this: you sit in a confined place with 111 strangers, smoke beer, it just seeps into you. That black collar is like every second tension crystallised into a rock to grind against your skin. It’s like sanitised smog. Where are we, 201?”
“207.” Said the boy.
“Here we go.” He pulled out the key card, waited until it flashed green, ushered the boy in. “Coffee?”
“No thank you.”
“Okay well I’m having one.” He made his way over to the coffee station. “Oat cakes. If it was chocolate chip then we’d be in. premiere service. Do me a favour. Check the bathroom. Go on.” He watched the boy edge to the door.
“How many flannels? One or two?”
“Jesus. Okay we’re done. VIPs get two. The housekeeping gets double of everything. They must have scoped us out. Christ we’ll be lucky if they’ve flushed the toilet.” He saw the boy start to edge back. “Don’t depress yourself. We’re not on anyone’s A list from what I can tell. Means we’re underdogs.” The kettle popped and he poured his cup. He sat down, ushered the boy to sit.
“This guy Al, you’ll meet him later, he did a four day here last year, said he didn’t recognise his feet. So numb they could have been someone else’s.” He sipped his coffee, let it sting his tongue.
“Now you’ve been sent out for the experience, correct?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Now I can tell you what I know, which may not be correct, but it’s what I learnt. If you’re taught by a criminal you don’t necessarily know your wrong, right? Now I got shown the ropes by a drunk, that doesn’t mean he was clueless; he was a master. Drinks can make a good businessman because; a) they talk a lot b) bullshit a lot c) attract other drunks, i.e. customers. This also means philanderers, drug takers, dealers, and people of low morals can also be good salesmen. People who don’t make good salesmen are people who wait. Waiters work in a restaurant. Waiters are wallflowers; bookworms do not make good salesmen. Reading books is a good thing but not when you’re selling. Reading is good unless it’s the Bible. Because reading the Bible and being a salesman is not a match.”
“What about a bible salesman?” Said the kid.
“You know a millionaire bible salesman? Besides, isn’t that a preacher? I can pass this on to you, what you take out of it is up to you. Now I could tell you about the product, pitch, skills, but you seem like a smart boy. So I assume you are under your own control. Who you approach with what line. Time spent, how hard to push. I have instincts, you do. You can’t teach that. I can help you to allocate your time. We start in an hour. We go in before that for pointers. 45 minutes. I have to spruce up take a shit and smoke a cigarette. 20 minutes. I need to make a phone call, buy a paper, so technically were 5 minutes behind. We’ll meet in the lobby at half past. Remember kid; two shifts, the day and the night; it’s all there to be taken home.”
He led the boy through the lobby out of the crowd, out to the car park for cigarette. The boy looked punch-drunk. His skin looked pale from all the buzz hum of a million words. His suit hummed with spittle, smoke and false promises. It looked as if his body vibrated, tilted to make his shirt tilt, the precious tie loose.
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“Something isn’t it?” He said. “Words to win a response. First time I did this I puked into a cigarette stand. Forehead wiped in spittle, tie choking me. A thousand strangers spit. If you imagine the worst now, it’ll never get harder. A rain of phlegm and spit, every inch of salt and pepper embedded in the skin. Flesh like a dirty napkin. But that’s it. It’s finished. Go back in and talk back. Fire all your fear back into their faces. Have four hundred spit bullets ready and waiting. Take the sick feeling in your stomach and purge. If you stay silent all this filth and scum in going to be pushed back down your throat, you’ll be swimming in shit if you stay silent. If you talk, talk first. That's the only way to stop being sick is lose the sickness. Look at each one of them as infections walking bubonic cells that are going to wipe you and yours into the wind unless you act. Hell silence; clean your accounts, steal your shirt and leave you destitute. Desperate defenceless. I’ve got lunch, you’ve got one hour. Here in one hour.”
He made his way down the endless hotel steps. Couldn’t use elevators on the way down. Never could. He’d die on these stairs one day, ass in the air, sitting duck for a deviant. He turned the corner, looked up and saw Ed. Ed was the best. Could sell you a better type of air by breathing it with him. Freak of nature. All in the eyes. Went swimming in the ocean and the sea stayed in his pupils. Never had to sit on his own in a bar. Only thing stopped him waking up alone was sunglasses.
“There he is.” They hugged quickly, warmly. “Been in there yet?”
“What? They put you with the meat again?”
“Straight out the freezer.”
“Son of a bitch this is not a job for you. Job for the beaks and squeezers. Jesus.”
“Kid's okay. Learns quick.”
“Course, he’s with you. So it went. Isn’t this your old ground?”
He watched Ed leave. Did his friend ever talk normally to anyone? Was he a friend or a contact? He shook his head, walked into the bar and ordered coffee. He looked down at the floor, saw the last dregs walking. Their phones on their necks, crucified by them. He wondered what he looked like down there, sharking. A pack of ants, wild and loose, pleading and hungry. All trying to steal with their mouths over their hands. Empty handed pick pocketing. He took his coffee to a phone booth, flicked through the phonebook. Smiled at the booth; people still without a mobile, struggling for change, unprepared. He looked at his watch. The boy would learn another lesson; you’re not waiting if your boss is late, you’re preparing. He ripped out the page he was after.
He met the boy, refreshed in the lobby, aftershave like a lick of paint on tired garden flowers. He patted the boy on the arm, half to reassure him, half to dent the perfection of the jacket.
“Round two’s different. Big hitters are out. Lower volume cause people are more assured and people want to listen now. It’s a quiet desperation. They still need the money; they just need more of it. Nice touch with the new tie; it’s an opening.”
He leant down to the tie rack, flicked through. He picked out a cream silk. He stuffed it in his pocket, walked off.
“What are you doing?” It was the first time the boy was not formal. He wasn’t sure if he liked it or not.
“To remind the rich we’re still here. If I say it’s promotional; they’ll give me ten. I just want one.” He switched them round, put the old one in his pocket.
“It’ll be like a dinner party, but the husband knows you’re cheating on his wife, okay? Selection. If we go in with nothing tonight we may as well head home, okay? This is the meal before the kiss. Ready ?”
They sat in the bar, a whiskey before him, a beer before the boy. They sat close enough and distracted enough for the waiter to put nuts between them.
“Oh look: a sale.” He sipped his whiskey. “You know what this is?” He held his tie off his forefinger, “A slack noose. They won’t be coming to us now. Some of them might go to a strip club, get loaded. Some of them are hospital drinkers, so we might pick them off. If they stay virtuous we’re screwed.”
“So we’re in trouble.”
“We’re fine.” He sipped his drink. “One’s the limit. Enjoy it.” He closed his eyes. He opened his eyes to reality. The dead bar, the border line teenage priest in front of him. The girl working the bar, her wedding ring shining in the murk of the pumps.
“Look, I used to live round here. I’m going to visit some friends. Meet at eight, starts at nine. Right here at eight okay?” He watched the boy walk away.
He looked at the drink in front of him. He looked over to the waitress, serving a young couple beers and shots. Her nails were red on the left hand and blue on the right. He flagged her down as she wandered back
“Could you take the beer away and bring me a coffee please?”
“Sure. You’re friend’s not much of a drinker.”
“I’m not sure what he is. But thank you. I like your nails by the way. Left and right.”
“You’re the first man to notice. Not even my husband noticed.”
“Wait until this conference tonight. A lot of them will notice.”
She smiled, walking away. He dialled the number in the book. His old school friend. His best friend. It picked up in three rings. Bucky Towers. Bucky Towers married with three kids.
Then: Himself, Bucky and Andrea, the girl they both loved. The three of them sitting in the grasses, stoned and drunk, making graffiti promises, signing their names in the ash tree that had split by lightning in the summer storm. Watching fires and fireworks and fights and flights. Bucky called the three of them the futurists.
He said goodbye and put the phone down. He tried to remember the last time he heard warmth on the phone. Bucky sounded sad as they hung up and he loved his friend for it. He looked down at Andréa’s numbers and sipped his coffee. He looked up and saw the waitress changed out of her uniform, a toothpick in her mouth, her eyes a little moist. She looked as sad and as beautiful as any girl he’d ever seen. As she walked away he put his hand up briefly and she did the same, and then she walked on and out of his life. He held up his cell, put it down. He pulled out change and made his way to the phone booth. He dialled Andrea’s number and looked out to his table, his coffee removed, the whiskey gone, all trace of him disappeared.
Him and Andrea had once spent a few weeks in the summer as superintendents at a motel, upkeep and keys. After a while she would disappear from the desk and disappear into the motel room. She would move from floor to floor, zig zag, turn lights on in empty rooms, dance in silhouette against the window, and call him from the room to the front desk. He’d listen to her fake voices, watch her dance. And later he would hear a number and carry keys in his palm to where she sat. The short walk was the best time of his life; he felt like he was coming home. It was a secret he would hold onto until he died.
The phone connected, dialled. He heard the change drop, he heard her voice, polite and then impatient. He opened his mouth and could not speak. The coins dropped and dropped and as he opened his mouth again the number cut out and he put down the receiver. The speechless salesman. He walked out, started up to the next flight of stairs, her voice in his ear above all else. He had time, he told himself, as he fished out his keys. A good salesman always makes time.
He drove the intersection, followed the back roads in his head as best he could. Thinking about the futurists. He wondered how Bucky looked now, whether he was still stoned and undefeatable and generous. He thought about Andréa, but could not imagine her any other way than in her youth. He could not age her, could not add worry lines, scars to her skin, creases below her eyes. He could not see her defeated, he could not vandalise the idea of her. He could not let life damage her, even to the point of her hair, make up untouched, like silk water and the sun. He passed a small back street, imagined her walking along it. Tried to imagine her today, but it was no good. She was not suited to technology. She was fields and caring and walking drunk from stolen liquor and bare toes and well fitting hands. He turned into her street and felt his breath rise out in short, stuttering bursts.
The street was quiet. He drove and saw a woman on a porch collecting toys from a stairwell. She wore a red sundress buttoned down the front. She collected a toy train that matched her dress. Her hair was long and straight on her shoulders. She put a strand of hair behind her ear and became sixteen again. A man approached and put his arm around her stomach, his head to the nape of her neck. They both turned to the sound of a child’s voice from inside the house. He watched Andrea, her life and his soul and kept driving. He didn’t even look back.
He made his way back onto the road. He looked at his watch. He had time. He drove into the broad, dying sunlight. He looked up at the city opening before him. The skyscraper hotel waited. He saw the faint lights of each room, flickering into life, and then dying out without hope or promise. Countless hotel rooms, each one recognised, each one not his home. This was his life, a life built without love.
He thought about the customers, he thought about the boy. He thought about his friend and how his voice had sounded like the past, and a good thing. Andrea burned into his eyes, not damaged by time but enhanced by it, as if time itself understood what it was dealing with and dealt with her accordingly. He had time; he had all the time in the world now. There was nothing to hold him back, nothing to delay him from his calling. The last light of the day fell away and the first flickers of the stars came into the sky. He pressed on the accelerator, leaving the past behind. The place he loved and could never return to. He pushed the cigarette out of the window and reached into his pocket, brought the handkerchief to his forehead. And he drove into the dark and the flickering, false lights. There was the potential of the evening and the oncoming wreck of the night. His foot pushed harder on the accelerator and he soared closer to the burning lights. The Futurist.
© Chris Castle May 2012
Running to Yesterday
“It’s a good place,” Jack said, looking at the high beams, the empty walls. The ceiling reached at an impossible height. It felt as if he was living inside an old black and white movie.
“It’s what we need,” Ellen replied, setting down the battered suitcase.
My pa came home on the last day of summer, without fanfare, without so much as a banner ganging over our house. It made sense, I guess, seeing how he left without so much as a word; fair and level almost.
today was different... It was as if Laurie wanted to speak and he wanted to listen but something was holding it all back
Something in the neighbourhood
We all sat in the dusk on Bobby’s porch that looked out onto the neighbourhood. Above us was the sunset but we didn’t acknowledge that. Instead, all we talked about was the killer, the next victim and the neighbourhood.
Ryan sat in the strip club trying to look any other place but at the dancers. It was bad enough that he had ended up in such a dive, that his