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The Bible Salesman
By Clyde Edgerton
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2009 Clyde Edgerton
All rights reserved.
A man driving a new Chrysler automobile along a dirt road near the North Carolina mountain town of Cressler saw a boy up ahead, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black tie, with a suitcase and valise by his feet. The boy was standing in front of a grocery store, thumbing a ride.
The man, working his way up, belonged to a crime outfit. He was now at the car-theft level, hungry for wealth and the tense excitement he found nowhere outside crime.
The boy was a twenty-year-old Bible salesman whose aunt raised him to be a Christian gentleman. He was hungry for adventure and good food. He had recently started reading the Bible on his own rather than as directed by his aunt and church elders, and he hadn't been able to get past those first two chapters of Genesis—because they amazed and confused him.
The man thought he recognized something smart and businesslike in the boy's stance—almost at attention—and he also sensed some gullibility and innocence. His last associate had not worked out. He slowed and pulled over in the rising dust. If this one didn't seem promising, he'd just let him out down the road.
The boy loaded his things into the backseat, closed the back door, bent his head forward, and folded into the front passenger seat. The man noticed the boy's leftover belt end hanging down freely without being put through the first loop, his hair standing up on top in back. Maybe he won't so smart.
"Nice car," said the boy. "'Fifty Chrysler." He reached out his hand. "I'm Henry Dampier." Henry was surprised at the man's big hand. And he had big ears. He looked a little bit like Clark Gable, but without a mustache.
"Preston Clearwater," said the man. "Where you headed?"
"Anywhere south. Where it's a little warmer. I came up here earlier than I ought to have." The man was dressed up neat, and he'd shaved real close that morning, it looked like. He'd have a dark beard if he grew it out. He was wearing cuff links, and Henry had never seen those except at a prom.
"I'm selling Bibles," said Henry. "But it's too cold sleeping in warehouses and barns up in this high altitude." He noticed how smoothly the car glided over the dirt road. "Where you headed?"
"Winston-Salem, or maybe Charlotte—for tonight, anyway."
The night before, Henry had sat up late in a deserted warehouse razoring out the front pages of new Bibles that had arrived in Cressler, general delivery—from Chicago—in a cardboard box. Each page said, "Complimentary Copy from the Chicago Bible Society."
Henry looked at Mr. Clearwater's hands. They were clean. "What line of work you in?"
None of your goddamned business, thought Clearwater. "Car business," he said. He pulled out a pack of Luckies, shook up a couple. "Cigarette?"
"Sure." Henry had bought his first-ever pack of cigarettes only a few days earlier.
Clearwater pushed in the cigarette lighter. "Where you get your Bibles?"
"Where do I get my Bibles?" Henry looked at him. Could he know somehow? "That's kind of a long story." He did want to tell about it—this idea he got from the fiddle player at Indian Springs in Cressler: instead of ordering Bibles and having to pay, why didn't he just go ahead and order a box from one of those places up north, or in Nashville, Tennessee, maybe, that gave away Bibles, tell them he had a bunch of sinners to give them to, razor out the pages that said they're free, and sell them? The fiddle player said he'd had that idea when he thought about selling Bibles himself, but gave it up when his wife had twins and his mama died. Henry had wondered if he was kidding, but took the idea anyway.
So Henry had been ordering a box of free Bibles about once a month, each from a different place so that nobody got suspicious. In the letter to them he kind of hinted that he was a preacher. But nobody got hurt, and in the end more people ended up reading the Bible, which was good, and now his billfold, his spare billfold—stashed in his suitcase—was considerably thick with money, somewhere between forty and fifty dollars, and some uncashed checks. He could go ahead and stay in a decent room for a change. And now here he was riding in a brand-new Chrysler. With a man who looked like he knew how to do things out in the world.
"This smells like a new car too," said Henry.
"It's pretty new."
Henry noticed the ivory-looking knob on the end of the gearshift—he couldn't quite see the top speed on the speedometer. "Six or eight?" he asked.
"Eight. Hundred and thirty-five horsepower."
"That's pretty good. So, do you sell cars?"
"Yeah." Clearwater, with his lips closed, passed his tongue over his front teeth. "I do that."
Henry figured he'd be quiet, give Mr. Clearwater a chance to kind of talk or not talk. He didn't want to chitchat himself into getting dropped off somewhere.
"Where you from?" asked Clearwater.
"Simmons, North Carolina. Down east."
"Is that anywhere close to McNeill and Swan Island?"
"About an hour or so. I went there a few times when I was growing up."
"I know some people there. Mitchells."
"I don't know any Mitchells down there. My uncle took us all there one time—me and my sister and aunt—to see this big dance hall that was one of the first places in North Carolina that used electricity fancylike. They showed movies on a screen set up in the surf."
"I heard about that."
Clearwater's boss, Blinky, owned a warehouse in McNeill that held some stolen army equipment. It was part of Blinky's cover—a business called Johnson and Ball Construction and Industrial Machine Repair Company.
The drive to Winston-Salem would take three or four hours. Clearwater began to feel Henry out, learned that he was raised by his aunt and uncle. That his daddy got killed right after Henry was born, hit by a piece of timber sticking out from the back of a moving truck. That he was a Christian. That he liked baseball and had played on a church team coached by two men who worked at a funeral home and used baby caskets to hold the bases and other equipment. That he went to Bible-selling school instead of business school and was taught to sell Bibles by a man who walked back and forth in front of the class, chain-smoking cigarettes and coughing and telling funny stories. That he had an older sister named Caroline and an uncle he liked to talk about—Uncle Jack. And a cousin—Carson. And though Henry didn't say it, Clearwater could sense he was a virgin, because of how he'd talked around some stuff about women. That was good—it'd help both of them stay out of woman trouble if he did hire him.
He also found out the boy knew when to shut up—when Clearwater was talking. Damned important. And he seemed to have an adequate sense of adventure without a too-big portion of carelessness. In fact, Clearwater felt a little bit lucky to have found this Henry Dampier.
Along about Wilkesboro, down out of the real mountains and into hilly country, Clearwater pulled over, stopped, and asked Henry to drive.
The boy was clearly happy to be behind the wheel of a car, and he was a good driver, kept his eye on the road, didn't go too fast, drove around holes. Clearwater talked some about his own service in the army, in France. He didn't tell Henry he'd met Blinky there and that they—with creative paperwork and bold presentations of self—managed to steal two dump trucks, a forklift, four jeeps, seven chain saws, and sixteen hundred pairs of aviator sunglasses. Blinky had them shipped to a warehouse in McNeill owned by his Aunt Thelma, the nonsuspecting wife of his dead uncle, Gabe Mitchell. He told Henry he'd been to business school, but he didn't tell him that that had slowed him down and left him behind Blinky in the crime business—and now he was trying to catch up. He told him some stuff about his communist mama, who believed in Jesus. She believed the Indians were communists and that Jesus was a communist. Course you couldn't talk about the communists now without somebody thinking you were one, Clearwater said, like he always said when he talked about his mama. And this Henry Dampier knew something about the Russians and Chinese and the atom bomb, more than he could say about some of the potential associates he'd come across since he'd turned loose his last one. And even though all that was true about Clearwater's mama, a lot of people didn't believe it, but this one seemed like he did, so Clearwater reckoned he was maybe gullible enough.
They stopped in Winston-Salem in the late afternoon, at the Sanderson Motel. Clearwater would pick up some "sheets" there—information, leads, suggested marks. He had a route that took him throughout the South, like any other traveling businessman.
"I need to do some work in town," said Clearwater. "You go on in and get a room. It's best if I don't appear to be traveling with anybody. I can explain at breakfast. Right over there at Mae's." Mae's had a big yellow sign on top of a small café. "I have a job available you might want. I'll see you over there at seven-thirty?"
Blinky, from his cover—the Johnson and Ball Company in McNeill—provided the sheets. Most of his leads required reconnaissance, some required planning, and all thefts were to be reported.
Clearwater researched and planned carefully. During the next day or two he'd find a mark, make maps, decide alibis, and plan exactly how to use his new associate, if the boy took the job. An associate would certainly reduce his chances of getting caught.
The motel clerk, a little man with thick glasses, gave Henry a key and a flyswatter. On the counter was a wire display rack holding postcards, a color photograph of the motel on the front of each. Henry bought two. Displayed under a glass countertop were necklaces, rings, and packs of exotic cards.
"How much is a pack of those cards?"
"Twenty-five cents. I got some under the counter for fifty cents. Want to take a look?"
"Maybe tomorrow. I'll take that twenty-five-cent pack, though."
In his room, Henry put his suitcase in a corner and his valise on the bed. An electric lamp made from an oil lamp stood on a chest of drawers beside a radio. He noticed three cigarette burns along the edge of the chest top. Some burns had been sanded off, it looked like. He hung his suit and his sport coat on a wire hanger in the small closet, took off his shirt and undershirt and dropped them in a corner. He'd wash them in the tub, do some ironing if they had an iron in the office. He looked in each dresser drawer. Top: empty. Middle: a book of matches. He pocketed it. Bottom: empty.
This prospect with Mr. Clearwater could get him into something a little higher up—well, not out of Bible selling altogether; he didn't want that. He could keep selling Bibles on weekends, at least.
A full-length mirror leaned against the wall beside the dresser, bottom left corner broken off. He dropped his boxer shorts, kicked them into the corner, turned sideways, drew in his stomach, expanded his chest, clinched his fist, hardened his arm muscles. He turned and faced the mirror, crossed his arms. He turned his head left, right. Checked his hangings. They always looked bigger in a mirror than when you looked down.
He stopped up the tub drain with the chained stopper and let the water run longer than he ever did at home. Aunt Dorie let him use only just enough water to reach the back of the tub. He stepped in and sat slowly. The water was hot. It had been almost two weeks since he'd had a shower at a barbershop. He slid down so his head rested against the back of the tub and closed his eyes. He thought about this possible new job. Mr. Clearwater looked like he made a lot of money.
He wet and then soaped his head, neck, arms, under his arms, his chest and back, pushed his midsection up out of the water, soaped his hangings and the crack of his ass. He then slid down into the water, pushing his knees up, splashed water over his chest. He stuck fingers in his ears, dropped his head back into the water, held it there and shook it to rinse his hair. He sat up. The water was gray. He splashed water over himself some more, stood, stepped out onto a small, round rug, dried himself with the towel, wrapped it around his waist, walked back to the standing mirror, and looked at himself again.
He dressed in clean clothes from his suitcase. The white shirt was wrinkled, but the pants weren't too bad. He buckled his belt. He found his long black comb in the inside flap of his suitcase and combed his hair back while standing in front of the full-length mirror. Back at the sink he wet the washcloth, wrung it out, and smoothed down his hair. Like Uncle Jack.
What kind of job might it be? Anybody driving a new Chrysler could probably pay a good salary—or worked for somebody who could.
It was four o'clock, not too late to sell a Bible or two and maybe get invited somewhere for supper. He walked north along the road to a row of houses he'd seen from the motel office. He carried his valise and, in his head, lessons from Mr. Fletcher.
My job is to teach you how to sell Bibles, gentlemen. Period. End of story. From an economic point of view there are two and only two sides to every customer encounter: making the sale or not making the sale. Economics is the invisible hand that moves the world. So: two sides—the head, the tail; a sale, no sale. Kaput. The end. And you will squeeze every opportunity out of every moment of every customer encounter to make that sale. So now, gentlemen. Let's start by writing down a definition of Bible selling. Bible selling ... is the act ... of getting customers ... to behave in ways ... assumed ... to lead to ... Bible buying. Bible selling is the act of getting customers to behave in ways assumed to lead to Bible buying. Let's all read it together now, and then you'll memorize it, and I can promise you it will be one of the last statements you remember as you pass from this mortal realm into the next. Bible selling is the act of ...
He walked past three houses that didn't look inviting—dirt yards. Except one of the yards was raked. Next, after a short stretch of woods, three houses with lawns and shrubs sat back a ways from the road. He checked in his valise to be sure the Bibles were arranged, pulled out the box containing a Bible, walked up and knocked on the screen door. He heard steps. The inside door opened and a woman stood holding a cooking pot and a drying rag.
"How do you do, ma'am? My name is Henry Dampier, and I have a little something in this box that is mighty nice that I'd like to show you if you don't mind. It's something I think you might like—if I could step inside for a minute, maybe."
"I appreciate it, but I ain't interested in buying nothing today. My cat died this morning. I'm behind on everything. I just got to washing and drying my dinner dishes."
"Oh, mercy. That cat was probably just like a member of the family."
"She was. She sure was." The woman stood without moving, not much life in her face, her eyes.
You do not want to keep standing out there on the porch with the screen door between y'all. You want to get inside, and you do that by looking and talking in ways to make her like you in about ten seconds—that's all you got.
"Oh Lord," said Henry. "I remember when we buried Trixie, my uncle's dog. It was all tears around the house when Trixie died. My sister especially. What was your cat's name, ma'am?"
"Bunny. I called her Bunny Rabbit."
He saw that her hand which had been against the door screen was still there. "I'm awful sorry. Did I introduce myself?" It was a matter of seconds now.
"You did, but I done forgot your name."
"Henry Dampier, ma'am. I tell you what, ma'am. Have you buried Bunny yet?"
"No, I ain't been able to bring myself to do it. Burt—Burt's my husband—he'll do it when he gets home."
"I was going to offer to say a little prayer at Bunny's grave."
Sometimes, gentlemen, you'll need to improvise. Jazz musicians do that when they put new notes where a melody used to be. They get off the beaten path, but brilliantwise.
Excerpted from The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton. Copyright © 2009 Clyde Edgerton. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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