Jay Hauser, the Dartmouth freshman narrator of film director/writer Williams's uneven debut, has a mean streak, a salesman's heart and a case full of knives to hawk to his family and friends. As summer break approaches, Jay is offered a spot on the varsity football team and tapped for the most exclusive fraternity on campus, but he can't get his mind off of his crush, Isabelle, and her accusation that he is not charming enough to be her boyfriend. (Never mind that Isabelle is less hot than hometown girlfriend Brooke, a silicone-breasted baby-talker.) Isabelle's insult gets under Jay's skin, and to prove his charisma he takes a summer job selling expensive sets of Bladeworks knives. Jay develops a selling formula and becomes the top seller in the country. Setting his sights on becoming the best salesman internationally, a hard-drinking Jay, blessed with a natural talent for sales and bereft of ethical sense, gets sucked into a vortex of pride and rage against his parents, friends and customers. Though somewhat enriched by its exploration of knife selling-a peculiarly popular occupation among college students-the novel leans heavily on casual cruelty and facile frat-boy antics. The story moves briskly, though not much happens below the surface. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Knifeboyby Tod Harrison Williams
All's Fair in Love, War, and Knife Selling.
Check your dignity at the door as you stride across the welcome mat with Jay Hauser in this insightful and strangely touching story about young love, fear, manipulation, and the lengths we go to to succeed in a world that values charisma,/b>/big>/b>/big>
Friends. Family. Housekeepers.
All's Fair in Love, War, and Knife Selling.
Check your dignity at the door as you stride across the welcome mat with Jay Hauser in this insightful and strangely touching story about young love, fear, manipulation, and the lengths we go to to succeed in a world that values charisma, competition, and acceptance above all else. Set on the elite campus of Dartmouth College and in the well-heeled reaches of the Detroit suburbs, this twisted and affecting coming-of-age novel provides a startlingly authentic and often hilarious glimpse of life through the eyes of an indulged and misguided young hustler.
Jay Hauser is wrapping up his first year at Dartmouth when he takes a summer job selling knives door-to-door to prove to Isabelle, the great love of his life, that he is charming enough to pull it off. His quest quickly becomes a dark obsession as he works his way up the knife-selling ladder trying to win the summer sales competition and lands neck-deep in an absurd subculture that is harder to break away from than he could ever have imagined. As sophomore year looms on the horizon, Jay's summer "break" has evolved into a hazy bender spent lying and scamming his way through all the places -- and people -- he once called home.
Knifeboy marks the arresting debut of a fine young writer who reveals the unnerving reality of a ravenous generation in a lavish and unforgiving world.
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
It's a voodoo doll. Here are the pins. It's supposed to be Sherianne. I had the guy in the store cast a spell on her for you."
Coulter held the bag in one hand and the doll in the other. He really tried to act grateful. "Thanks, man. Thanks so much. I really appreciate it."
"Don't mention it. Where's Mom?"
"Did you get her anything?"
I belched. "Some Creole rice and shit like that. A cookbook too." I checked the clock on Coulter's bookshelf.
"Gotta get to work."
"You're working today? You just got back."
"Yeah. I fucked up. I sold $4,500 down in Orange, but only my last day of selling was technically part of the push week. I only sold around $700 that day and I've got five days left in the push, including today."
"Oh." Coulter didn't understand what I was saying.
I went on. "If I wanted to be a douche bag, I could change the sales forms so the Orange sales would have occurred during the push. I sold the knives, so I wouldn't be lying about that and I'm sure lots of people do that kind of thing, but I'm not going to. How does that make you feel?"
"What do you mean? Why would you cheat?"
"To win. Aren't you impressed that I'm not going to?"
Coulter had no idea what I was talking about.
"Okay. I gotta take a shower. Think about names we might have missed, will you?"
I walked out of his room, leaving Coulter holding the bag and doll like they were a hand grenade and pin.
I went straight to work -- blitzed through a flurry of appointments (all lucrative) and then drove VERY late to have dinner with Brooke. When I arrived at Brooke's house and first saw her standing in the doorway with the door flung wide open, a blast of guilt from my escapade in New Orleans nearly broadsided me into the pachysandra beside their drive. Then her beautiful features became more clear in the light shining down on her -- the top of her head illuminated in a sort of insect crown -- the guilt evaporated from my body and was replaced with a cooling vascular pulse of relief. I tried to yell out a hello to her parents, but she pinned me to the wall outside of the door, rammed her tongue down my throat, and grabbed my penis. The brick hurt the back of my head, but Brooke's fake tits felt good and warm pressed up against my body and so did her hand. Never in my life had I been so happy to come home to Brooke.
It was kind of like playing house and I didn't want to let go of it. I knew, even as my arms wrapped around her, that there was something cruel in what I was doing. When my mother kicked me out and I was living with my father, Brooke and her family had taken me in and taken care of me. But that wasn't it entirely. My instincts told me that I probably should let her go, but as my arms eased around her back, she pulled me in closer and tighter, and as we whispered to each other, "I love you so much," I even felt it.
For once I even enjoyed the steamy plastic smell of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter wafting up from my sizzling filet mignon as Mrs. Ambrose slid my plate in front of me, and didn't mind the scent of Mr. Ambrose's whitefish, cooked in the same substance but seasoned with McCormick's allspice, simmering in front of him. I had smelled these dishes thousands of times before, and my memory of them was always of revulsion and feelings of being trapped. Much like the familiar sight of the neighboring house, so brightly lit it usually depressed the hell out of me. I had stared at that house over the course of innumerable dinners, asking myself why it was so ugly. And why if it was so obviously ugly, did the Ambroses continue to live in their house, which was built by the same contractors and is virtually identical? But more important, why was I, knowing this, perpetually stuck in the Ambroses' kitchen, bored and irritated by the way Brooke and her mother swooned when they said how "us girls," as they liked to call themselves, had waited for "you boys" to come home? That night I stopped asking myself those questions. None of those things bothered me anymore.
I just sat there, admiring Brooke's chest while halfway listening to her talk about how she would love to go to Greece with me, since I spoke Spanish (I won't even speculate as to how she came to this conclusion) and sailed, so we'd have no problem at all touring the islands in a boat. It was all perfectly pleasant sounding as I mentally went over the following days' appointments in my head, counting miles, negotiating routes, and constructing fake associations in my head. Brooke's tits moved. She turned to her father and suggested that he buy the senior associates at his office Bladeworks knives for their holiday gift.
Naturally my heart started pounding at the thought of such a huge sale (I figured he'd order nine or ten sets), and her father's large eyes shifted over to me. Without hesitation (though I had to dig down deep to find the courage to do it) I said, "Brooke. It's really nice of you to think of me, but I think that would be inappropriate."
I could tell Mr. Ambrose agreed, but he pushed the issue. "Why?"
I didn't want to tell him that not only had I made a resolution at the beginning of the summer not to sell to his family (or the family business, for that matter) but also I felt it was impossible for me to even consider the option, since Brooke had brought it up and not her father. I had come to teetering on the verge of viewing Brooke almost entirely as an object -- an attractive one -- but still barely human, and I felt so strongly at that moment that if I gave in to this offer, if I pursued this lead that she had dangled out in front of me, that I would be reducing her further, into a tool to sell more knives. It was totally obvious to me that the only reason Ed Ambrose would ever consider buying Bladeworks knives for his company's holiday gift was because I was his daughter's boyfriend. And, as I've said before, I liked him and respected him and still wanted him to respect me. Hell, I even wanted to respect myself. I still, in some very vague way -- like maybe even some completely imaginary way -- had a shred of self-decency left. I simply couldn't use Brooke like that. As much as I wanted to make some easy money and garner more points in the summer sales competition, I couldn't. And, of course, I couldn't tell them any of this. All I said was, "I think Waterford crystal sugar bowls might be a better gift."
Mr. Ambrose smiled at me, a genuine smile, and said, "Maybe you're right." Then he hit me with the punch line: "After all, I'm sure with how hard you've been working you wouldn't need the sale anyway. Last year, I spent around fifteen thousand dollars on our office gifts." Christ! What did I do? I'm sure the answer is very obvious to you: for once I did the right thing.
The next five days were busy. Not only was I trying to sell like crazy, I was also working on the catalog so that I could have a sample for the next convention. It wasn't the actual work that was difficult so much as working with Toby. I fault myself as much as him, though, because I could not communicate with him. It was obvious that the sample catalog would not be ready in time, but I did not want to let Toby have a break, so I stayed on top of him and pushed him to work as hard as possible, which took up a lot of valuable selling time. I did discover a very funny thing about Toby's dad, however.
One of the nights when I stopped by to work with Toby, he came to the door and said his father wanted to see me. Ty was in the basement wearing a karate headband singing karaoke with a light show, and his entire family was watching. He saw me, winked, sang the rest of the song (I mean, he sang his fucking heart out), and then instead of asking if I wanted to have a turn, which I was terrified he would do, he told me to wait and watch him do a duet with his wife. It was a rehearsed performance, choreography and everything. I asked Toby if this was something his dad did often. He cringed, nodded, and said, "More than you could imagine." Ty's wife did a hell of a job, though. Half of "Up Where We Belong" never sounded so good.
I did have one secret weapon. The cookware. It was expensive and more than doubled my potential selling power. It also greatly tested my selling skill. The product was shit. Although Bladeworks knives are not the very best knives in the world for every person, they are very good knives and for many people -- because they don't need sharpening -- they are the ideal knives. The cookware, however, I simply could not get to work.
The cookware set was basically like any other collection of pots, except the Bladeworks pots were supposed to have the extra benefit of allowing the user to cook at low temperatures without using cooking oils. The idea being that if you cook at a low enough temperature you won't burn what you're cooking and you don't need the oil. But how do you cook something if the pan doesn't get hot enough? Bladeworks says there are two ways: through even distribution of heat and by the creation of a pressure seal.
The Bladeworks pots are stainless steel on the outside, but they had a three-layer aluminum core. Stainless steel is hard and relatively easy to clean, but it doesn't conduct heat well. The aluminum is supposed to take care of that. As a side note, the best pots are coated on the bottom with copper and are extremely expensive -- but that's neither here nor there.
The seal works in this way: the rim of the pan and the lip of the cover are beveled so that they create an airtight seal -- the cover (the male piece) fitting perfectly into the pan (the female piece). Okay, this is simple enough, but when you heat something it expands (the air in the pot included) and will continue to expand so long as you keep raising the temperature. You might have noticed that if you cover a pot of water and let it boil, the water (as it expands and becomes a gas) will shoot out of the sides of the pan in the form of steam and cause the cover to rattle.
If you turn down the heat on the boiling pot, the gas inside the pot (steam) will condense again into water. The air molecules bouncing off of one another will also contract and, though still bouncing off one another, will do so from a shorter distance. If you use Bladeworks's patented pot lid to cover the vacuum created by lowering the heat, the vacuum will create a seal between the cooling pan and the lid, thereby trapping the heat (even though it's cooling -- or more important, cooler than it was) and cooking whatever you have in the pot at a lower temperature but at a greater pressure.
I tested the pan by cooking a carrot using this method. Actually, I added a little extra water to be on the safe side, and let her rip. After the specified cooking time, the once-orange six-inch carrot had been turned into a piping hot, tiny dark brown cracked rod.
Whatever moisture, color, and vitamins the carrot once had seeped out in a puddle and took the form of a giant carrot (it actually looked more like a giant turnip), except no liquid remained in the puddle. The water had evaporated, leaving a gritty orange tattoo, like the chalk outline of a dead body, silhouetted around the bullet-shaped former vegetable, which was so thoroughly -- I won't even say "stuck" because it's not accurate -- fused to the stainless steel pan that to this very day, I can still see a brown mark where it once sat.
Up until the end of the push, I was in a constant state of physical motion and mental plotting. I would go through my routine, beginning with my stumbling and stuttering confused entrance and ending in complete control of the client, the authority on everything that involved cooking products. I wasn't entirely conscious of affecting this transformation. This is not to say that I was like a drone.
Knife selling is very interactive. You are watching and reading a person's reactions to what you are saying. I never stopped doing this. In fact, I got better at it. It was part of me. I wouldn't say that my ability to read and react to people had become completely instinctual -- it was more like it had become a sixth sense. I didn't need to see a person cringe or listen to them say they didn't like something. I knew it before that happened. I expected it and altered whatever I was doing to use their mood to my advantage.
So what was I thinking about when I wasn't thinking about knife selling? I was thinking about knife selling. I was thinking about the next customer and the customer after that. How I was going to get to their house on time. The best route. Traffic conditions for that day. The lies I would tell if I was late. The catalog. Whether bribing Toby would make him work harder. Maybe I should just hire someone else to do it. Who would I hire? What would it cost? What would Ty Nakamori do if he found out? How am I going to connect myself to Arlene Fineberg, my four o'clock appointment? Her son went to Lasher with Stacey Wright. He played football in high school and hockey at BHA when he was younger. I played at BHA. Her sister works with Debbie Reynolds. She's in a book club with Luanne Battlen. They're reading Snow Falling on Cedars. Should I pretend I've read it? What the fuck am I going to say in my speech?
The speech. Bud French had called me to ask if I would make the closing speech of the second push-week convention. He explained to me that as the summer nears its end, sales tend to drop off after the second push week. He wanted me to deliver a speech that might encourage the salespeople to continue selling at their current rate or higher for the remaining three weeks of the summer session. For Bladeworks, August is three weeks long. In truth, it's actually shorter. There are only seventeen selling days from the end of the push week until the final end of the summer celebration in Myrtle Beach, where the winner of the summer selling competition is announced. I told Bud that I'd give the speech.
When I wasn't actively in a knife sale, my mind was still focused on the greater goal of selling. I was constantly on the verge of getting into accidents while driving. I forgot to eat. I couldn't fall asleep. And I was virtually incapable of having conversations that didn't involve selling, the catalog, or my speech.
You might imagine that Brooke did not appreciate this too much, but she did. I wasn't listening to her anymore, so I didn't disagree with anything she said. I agreed to everything. I don't even know what exactly occurred between us during that time. All that exists in my memory are sounds. Her baby voice falsetto and yearning, like a spider monkey calling out for its mother's shriveled teat.
One pleasant benefit of my monomania, which I didn't realize had occurred until it came back like cancer, was that I had stopped thinking about Isabelle. Or I thought about her less. For five amazing days I didn't wake up in the morning angry that she hadn't thanked me for the package I sent her, or hoping that at any moment she might call.
The morning after I arrived back in Michigan, I was hurrying out the door and trying to chug a cup of coffee when my mother walked into the kitchen. She wore a nightgown and a smile. Fancy followed her in.
"Good morning, Jay. I thought I was going to see you last night, but you weren't here when I got in and then I left and didn't come home until late last night. What were you doing?"
"I don't know. Nothing. With Brooke. I don't know."
"If you were with Brooke, you should remember."
"Jesus. I guess I was. Mom?"
"I was wondering something." I dumped the rest of my coffee into the sink.
"Do you think Dad is charming?"
"Not when he drinks." She pulled Fancy's bowl out of the cupboard. "I used to think that your father was the most charming man alive." She tapped her nail on the counter.
"What about me?"
"Of course I think you're charming." She took a while to say this and sadly I knew she was lying.
"Huh." I started walking away.
"Wait. Jay, maybe you could just sit and have breakfast with me?"
"I would, but I have to go."
"You're so much like your father."
"Thanks." I walked out.
She called after me. "That wasn't a compliment!"
I had the perfect sale. It was my last appointment of the push week. I rolled up almost an hour late to a modest house in Birmingham. Mrs. Trumeter was angry and ready to leave. I calmed her down by apologizing and lying. Since I had yet to replace the undersized spare tire, or the "doughnut," on the Escort, she easily believed that I popped a flat on the way. I told her a humorous story about how when the tire blew I freaked out, jerked my car off the road, and almost crashed into an above-ground swimming pool. I went on about how an entire family was watching from their deck and helped me change the flat. They even made me take a hamburger for the road. "It's cooking on my dashboard." This got her laughing.
We entered Mrs. Trumeter's kitchen and she told me what had become my favorite thing to hear: "I will not and cannot buy anything." Then she added, "I'm remodeling my kitchen, so right now I'm spending every cent we have on that." Mrs. Trumeter motioned to a set of plans laid out on a nearby counter. Construction had begun that very day. The sink had been pulled out. "The carpenter just left. Can't I just sign something to show that you were here? You know, so you can get your scholarship points and you don't have to do your presentation?"
I also loved when people said this, because it gave me an opportunity to seize the moral high ground. I lowered my head as if I were extremely tempted by her offer and said, "I'd really love to do that. Trust me. I'm supertired. But I'd feel bad about" -- I practically whispered -- "lying."
She huffed. "You're absolutely right. Where do you want to do this?"
"This table is just fine. Do you mind if I stand?"
She pushed the sink parts to one side of a round antique breakfast table and sat down to watch the Jay show. The pennies had their usual effect.
I don't know what it was. Maybe it was just that I was humored by how quickly these women switch from being on the verge of tossing me out to laughing and fingering the knives, and making little comments like, "Oh...I've got to have that." Maybe it was that this was my last sale before a long drive, which I always looked forward to. I don't know. But I was in an extremely good mood and thought I'd toy around with Mrs. Trumeter a little at the end of the presentation.
Just before I finished, Mrs. Trumeter actually climbed out of her seat and stood next to me. She pointed out the place where the knife block could go in her kitchen and where she planned to hang her pans over her oven. I stopped midway through the price comparison, leaving a gargantuan number hanging in the air. I folded my knives up, slipped my pan into my bag, and thanked Mrs. Trumeter for her time.
"What do you mean?"
"You said you weren't going to buy any knives."
"To hell with what I said! Tell me what the things cost. If they're at least ten times as good as Henckels and those pans, which I just love, are anywhere close to what copper-plated ones cost, you must be talking about ten thousand dollars?"
I waited and winced. She raised her clenched fists up under her chin. I stared at her, my face devoid of any expression, "Not even close to that. The Supreme Kitchen Set, which includes all of the gourmet knives plus The Professional Chef Cookware Set costs...I don't know the exact figure, but it's a little over three thousand dollars."
She signed. "Oh. Good. I was worried they'd be just unbelievably expensive. When can I get them?"
I filled out the form, recommended she opt for the five-month payment plan, and threw in a vegetable peeler. I actually laughed when I told her I was giving it to her. "This will seem so silly, because you've bought so much, but I just wanted to give you something to thank you."
She thanked me, walked me to the door, and said, "Now you can have your hamburger." I laughed and left.
I laughed at Mrs. Trumeter in my car for two blocks. Then I called Stuart, still laughing. "I just had another three-thousand-dollar sale."
"A total stranger. Right off the bat she told me she couldn't buy the knives, that she was pressed for money -- "
"They always say that."
"Yeah, I know, but I could see her goddamn renovations. It was hilarious."
Stuart made a sound like he was chewing on something and didn't know whether to swallow or puke. He switched topics. "You're nuts, Hauser."
"That puts me at around fourteen thousand."
"Yeah. I'm a little pissed about fucking up the dates, though."
"Don't be. Fourteen thousand dollars in four and a half days is insane."
"Well, there was still seven hundred from Orange, so it's more like thirteen thousand."
"Whatever. It's unbelievable. Even better than the first push."
"I guess." I drove along a little farther and asked something that had been on my mind for a while: "Stuey, you obviously knew that I was outselling everybody for the first push, right?"
"Yeah. I knew. To me and Chuck you were already a legend. Shit, anyone who saw your numbers knew."
"Why did you lie to me about it?"
"Well, as a general rule I want to challenge people, but with you in particular I knew that if you had any idea of how good you were at selling you would have quit."
As I drove I thought about when I first found out that Stuart was going to be a branch manager. It was after a winter workout session. We were in the all-you-can-eat cafeteria. Anyone who wanted to gain weight was there. Bigger, faster, stronger -- coach Shrier's motto. I hated it, but I'd sit there stuffing myself until I could barely breathe. SportsCenter was always on the TV. Everybody watched it but me. Even the girls. The room was about 185 degrees, even in the dead of winter, and we were sitting there in the deadest, blackest part.
Stuart was holding a notebook close to his chest. Keating was grabbing at it and Stuart couldn't stop giggling. "No. I'm not going to show it to you."
Panolini cracked, "Your balls. Why not? You're always showing Keating your balls."
"Stuart's selling knives this summer. I wanna see what he's got in there." I looked up from my spaghetti, gasping and fearing I might heave across the table. Keating went on. "You got knives in there, Stuart?"
Stuart laughed and said very sarcastically, "I have knives in this folder. Is that a brain you have in your head, or is it just more of your greasy hair?"
"C'mon, man. My head keeps sweating like crazy."
Woodsy had to clarify something. "Stuart's not selling knives this summer. He did that last summer. This summer he's managing an office."
Keating made a grab at the folder. "How do you know that?"
"Stuart visited me in Alpharetta over Thanksgiving. He gave my mother a set as a thank-you present."
Keating again, "That's not all he gave her!"
Stuart snatched a rib off his own plate and fired it into Keating's cup.
"Dude. You dick. Get me another water."
When Keating went to swipe the glass in front of Stuart's tray, Stu fired another rib into his own drink and giggled and batted at Keating like a queen.
I remember one summer when I was eight years old, I had seen a Bladeworks salesman come to my house and try to sell to my mother. I remember him standing at our breakfast table lit up like a burning matchstick.
He cut the penny. I was impressed. He charmed the hell out of my mother, and I thought for sure she was going to buy the knives. He made them look so necessary. But she didn't buy them. She told me after he left that she thought they were too expensive. I've thought about this many times, trying to figure out exactly why my mother didn't buy. I've always thought that it was somehow her fault. That somehow she'd been too cheap or too scared or too something. But now I've figured it out. He fucked up the price comparison.
When I heard Stuart was managing the office I thought that selling knives was something I could do well. I didn't say anything to him for several months.
One afternoon he and I were limping up the hill toward the green. It was during spring ball and the leaves and the grass were bright green. "So what's this knife-selling deal?"
"What? You mean the office I'm managing?"
"What about it?"
"How does it work?"
"I hire knife salesmen, teach them to sell, and then they make a lot of money."
"Is it the same presentation where a guy comes to your house and cuts a penny?"
"That's the one. Why?"
"I think I can do it."
Stuart stopped. "No. It's not for you. You wouldn't like it."
"I'm not saying that I'd like it. I just think I can do it."
"I don't know. I just think I can."
Stuart shook his head. "Weren't you and Panolini talking about salmon fishing in Alaska this summer?"
"We were, but Panolini's going to work for his goddamn girlfriend at some summer camp."
Stuart took a few more of his pigeon-toed steps. "I don't think you're the kind of guy who would feel comfortable calling people you know and asking them to buy things from you."
I dropped the conversation, but I kept thinking about it. I asked Isabelle for her opinion. She, as I've already pointed out, didn't think I was charming enough to do it. That sealed the deal. I forced Stuart to teach me how to sell knives.
I called Stuart back. "Hey, it's Jay. I just have to drive home, pick up my stuff, and then I'm heading down. I want to ask you one more question. Remember how you didn't want me to sell knives when I first asked you about it at Dartmouth?"
"Yeah." He laughed.
"Were you doing the same thing then as when you lied to get me to sell more?"
"You mean, did I discourage you from selling because I wanted you to sell?"
"No. I didn't want to have to train you. I thought it'd be a waste of time. I didn't think you'd be a good salesman. Clearly, I was wrong."
"Who the hell did you think would have made a good salesman?"
I almost swerved off the road. "Isabelle?! She's a complete snob."
"I know. But she's a country club-type snob. Sometimes those types are great salespeople. She's cute. She's always funny and fun and she's got that thing about her. She'd be great. I don't know what else to say. But hell, she's not doing it. You are."
"Did you ask her to sell?"
There was a long pause. "I might have mentioned it."
"That little bitch! What did she tell you when you asked her?"
"She laughed in my face. We were drunk at Herrot one night. She probably wouldn't even remember it."
"Stuey, what are you talking about? She's a chicken. She's always running away from shit. Goddamn her!"
"Jay, you're so in love with that girl it's weird that you don't admit it. Why don't you just date her?"
"I have a fucking girlfriend! And I got to get off the phone before I run over an old lady or something. I wish there was a squirrel around here that I could hit."
"You're kidding, right?
"Of course I'm kidding."
"One more thing, dude. Did you write your speech yet?"
"No. I'm working on it. I figured out the title, though."
"Yeah." Stuart laughed again. "I know. Chuck told me."
"It's a good one. Don't worry, I'll write the speech on the way down."
"How are you going to write and drive?"
I got home and quickly started tossing together the stuff I would need for the weekend, thinking about whether Stuart had asked Isabelle before or after she told me I wasn't charming enough to sell. If he had asked her before she might have been fucking with me or trying to humiliate me in some weird way. If it was after, then why did she say no?
Maybe it was a competitive thing. Why did she laugh at it? Maybe, if it was a competitive thing, that's why she didn't write me back -- because I was doing well and she wasn't. But I didn't mention anything about selling in my brief note. My head was spinning. I was totally lost when the phone rang.
"Hello, may I speak to Jay Hauser please?"
"Yes, this is Jay."
"Hi, Jay, this is Nancy Trumeter." My perfect sale.
"Hi. How are you?"
"I'm fine. Jay, listen, my husband just got home and he's making me cancel my order."
"Yes. I got really carried away, I'm sorry. We just can't afford it right now."
"That's okay. I told you it's okay if you didn't want to buy anything."
"I know, Jay, but I'm going to have to cancel the order."
"Okay. Did you tell your husband about the five-month payment plan?"
"I did. But we just can't buy them right now."
"Would you like me to hold on to the order, and when you're ready to buy them you can call me?"
"No. I think it's best if we just cancel the order right now."
"All right. Did you want to cancel the whole order or did you just want to cancel part of it? If you just bought the knives it'd be only about two hundred and fifty dollars a month."
"I think it's best if we cancel the whole order."
"Would you like me to come over and show your husband what I showed you?"
"No, Jay. I think I just want to cancel the order right now."
"Are you sure?"
"Okay. I'll tear up the order form right now. If you'd like I can bring it to you so you'd have it."
"No. That's all right. I've already canceled my credit card."
"Okay. I'm sorry. I'd still like to thank you for helping me with my scholarship."
"Well, if you change your mind you can always call me."
"All right. Have a nice night, Mrs. Trumeter."
"You too. Wait, I think my husband wants to speak to you."
I heard the husband yelling, "Gimmie that phone! I want to wring that little fucker's neck!"
Then she said, "Never mind. I better not put him on. Bye." And hung up.
Naturally, I was furious. That goddamn bitch. I called Stuart. He asked if there was any way I thought I could resurrect the sale. Mrs. Trumeter caught me off guard. I'd never had anyone cancel an order before. In fact, the only person who did not buy knives from me was my aunt Tina, and she knew that my grandparents would buy them for her.
Stuart said that the next time someone tried to cancel an order that large I should offer to call my manager and ask him to extend the payment plan to ten months and see if I could get the knives at a reduced price, if they still wanted them. Why not call Mrs. Trumeter back and try?
Mrs. Trumeter was eating when I called to present her with the option. The entire time I was speaking she had to hush her husband going bananas in the background. Then when I finished explaining about the ten-month plan she said, "But I thought you already tore up the order form?"
"Yes. I did. I would have to come by and fill out another one."
"No. Jay. I shouldn't have ordered any knives in the first place. Do I have to call the police about this?"
Her husband shouted, "Police! I'll kill that -- "
"Of course not."
"Please don't call back. Ever. Or I will call the police."
Now I was doubly furious. I pulled out my list of referrals and scoured it for anyone who might be able to see me that night, before I drove down to Cincinnati. Did I know any of these people well? Was there a known night owl on the list? A free spirit? A good friend of my mother's who I hadn't called yet because she was an alcoholic and most likely had a crush on me? Suzanne Tammersol! I found her name. Shit. I'd already sold to her.
There had to be some way. There had to be someone. There simply had to be. Maybe I should just forget about the referral system, walk out of my mother's house, and go door to door.
I called three candidates, but they weren't home. It was a Friday night. A beautifully warm summer night and anyone who accepts calls after eight was probably at dinner, or a barbecue or a party. I thought about the outdoor restaurants I knew in the area. They probably had laws about soliciting. Or maybe I could find someone at home, with guests. I could prowl, driving slowly with the windows down, listening to hedges and sidewalks for the sounds of backyard laughter, cocktail chitchat, and faint world music.
Stuart called. I was hunched over the list with a pen in my mouth, the telephone handset squeezed between my shoulder and my ear, the base of the phone in my lap. I jerked back, startled.
"What are you doing?"
"Trying to find a fucking appointment."
"Tonight? It's almost ten."
"Don't. It's okay. You sold nine thousand five hundred dollars in four and a half days. You did great. Just let it go and come down here."
"Okay. I'm just going to go through this list one more time and then I'll be on my way."
Copyright © 2007 by Tod Harrison Williams
The skinny kid from Charleston stood at the podium. His hair, sun bleached and floppy. His accent, classic southern fried fuck face.
"Thank y'all soooo much. You don't know how much this means to me. I've worked soooo hard the past ten days. I..."
I fought through the crowd to the back of the ballroom. All of the faces pointed behind me.
I had come in second place for the push. I lost by twenty-eight hundred dollars. My perfect sale would have won it for me. I cursed myself for answering the phone. There was no answering machine on that line. Only a fax. I wouldn't have found out that the order had been canceled until after the push, when Coulter or my mother answered Mrs. Trumeter's relentless calls, or later when the purchase was processed and the credit card came up declined. Maybe she hadn't actually canceled her credit card. Probably not. Fuck. I should have packed faster and gotten the hell out of Dodge before the phone rang.
Susanne Beatle, the little bitch from Nashville, won third place with nine thousand dollars in sales. She applauded like crazy when I stepped forward to claim the number two slot, screaming the kid from Charleston's name.
I slipped out the back door just as "Eye of the Tiger" began to play. A trio of salespeople were standing out on the patio smoking cigarettes. I sloughed off to the side and tried to hang by myself, but the trio made their way over to me. Two guys and one girl. Both of the guys wore loose baggy clothing and the girl wore a summer dress.
"Hey, man. Good job."
"I've got one. Thanks."
"I'm Terrance Carter. That's Mell and Tony. We sell out of Chattanooga."
"Hi. Jay. I sell out of Covington, Kentucky."
"What happened, man? We all thought you were going to win it."
I shrugged. "Don't know."
"Dude! You should have won!"
"I would have liked to."
Summer dress, "Too bad you didn't. You're our favorite."
"Do you know the kid that won?"
"He's supposed to be fuckin' good."
"I hear he works part-time at a restaurant and when he's serving meals he asks the diners there if they want to help with his scholarship."
"Yeah. Fuckin' genius right?"
"Where you at now?"
I knew the figure but I said, "I'm not sure. A fair amount."
"You hear that? Jay Hauser doesn't even know how much he's sold."
"Bullshit. He knows."
"No. I really don't. Nice to meet you."
The ballroom was emptying out. I cut in front of the horde and headed straight for the escalator. Jay Bennish, the manager from Atlanta, strode up quickly and stepped onto the moving platform beside me. He gripped my shoulder and shook my hand. "Jay. Congratulations on second place. I know you probably wanted to win, but second place on your second push is something to be proud of. Ten thousand dollars in ten days is phenomenal."
I wanted to tell him it was ten thousand in five days, but I didn't. "I'm happy."
"You should be. You're a hell of a salesman."
"You know that, don't you? Don't forget it."
"I mean it, Jay. Keep working. Keep pushing. You can get back up there." I didn't respond. He looked around. "Let me tell you something."
We stepped off the escalator and he took me aside. He leaned toward me with his wet bug eyes. He reached out and shook my hand again, pulling it against his body so that I could feel his firm gut pressed against the back of my wrist. "Don't let this bother you."
I stared at the freak. "I won't."
"Don't. That's all I'm saying." He shook my hand for the third time. "Keep up the good fight, champ."
I yanked my hand away, wiped his sweat off on my pant leg, said "Thanks," and walked toward the lobby.
As I passed the bar I saw Stuart there, standing next to Chuck and surrounded by a bunch of other managers. I was fairly goddamn pissed at myself and at these assholes who seemed to think I'd lost my touch. I wanted a little bit of goddamn encouragement from somebody who knew that had it not been for answering the phone and for the five days that I missed I would have easily won the goddamn push. I nodded at Stuart, but he didn't seem to see me, so I walked over.
"Yo. What's up?"
"Congratulations on second place. You should have had first."
"Yeah. Hey, you want to sit down and grab a drink?"
"Sure. I, ahhh..." Stuart looked at the rest of the managers. "Just wait a couple of minutes, we're having a talk here. Just managers."
"Yeah. We're talking about something."
"Wait a sec. I won't be long."
"No. It's okay. I got to work on my speech."
"Yeah. That's a good idea. You really don't want to fuck that up."
"What do you mean?"
"Just don't fuck it up."
"You think I'm going to fuck it up?"
"No. Just do it well. You know. It's a big deal."
Chuck turned around. He had beer foam on his lips. "Hauser. Did I just hear you say you hadn't finished your speech?"
"I'm working on it."
"Okay." He patted his lips with the back of his hand. "You just tell me if you don't feel up to it. I can easily get up on that stage tomorrow and say something."
"No. That's all right."
As I walked away I heard Chokewater, the manager with the lisp who was one of Stuart's former rivals, say, "What the hell's he been doin' for the past two weeks?"
Stuart, "Selling knives."
Then Chuck said, "Not like before. Fuckin' one-hit wonder!" They all laughed.
The pizza I ordered was half eaten and half cold when Skeeter knocked on my door.
Skeeter stepped inside.
"You want some pizza?"
"No, thanks. Already ate with the rest of the office."
I noticed a pin on the lapel of his new blazer. "What's that for?"
He lifted the lapel off his chest and looked at it. He smiled up at me. "My fifteen-thousand-dollar pin. I'm the second highest salesman in the office. Second to you."
"Thanks. Ya got a beer?"
"No. Sorry. What's up?"
"Oh. Nothing much. That kid from Charleston's having a party in his room. I wanted to see if you wanted to come."
"That's all right. I gotta work on my speech."
"Cool." Skeeter looked around the room.
"What happened to Julie?"
"Julie. Shit. She quit about a week ago. Git this." Skeet sat in one of the two chairs at the small table where I'd been working on my speech. I cranked back in the seat across from him. "Nobody knew it, but she'd been pregnant the entire time she'd been working for Apex."
"Even when we were in Cumberland lakes?" I thought about the night we spent lying awake, staring at each other.
"Yup. She'd been knocked up during the school year by some basketball player at University of Cincinnati." He laughed to himself. "Stuart was impressed by that."
"Was the kid a starter?"
"Yip. But I don't think he's gonna take responsibility, if you know what I mean. She didn't want to quit, but she had to take a job as a secretary in a dental office -- for them health benefits."
"I'll say she was fucked good and is good and fucked now."
"She's actually going to keep the baby?"
"You know how these Baptist girls are..."
"I didn't know she was Baptist."
"I don't know how much of one she is either, but her parents are real religious." Skeeter lit a smoke. "Remember that kid, Judd, who was braggin' all the way down to the Cumberland lakes?"
"Yeah. Yellow hair, fat. Kind of pasty."
"That's the one. Guess what he was doin'?"
"Faking sales forms. Chuck caught 'm. He'd stopped goin' to appointments. He'd just fill out the sales form with made-up people and made-up credit card numbers and turn 'm in."
"How did he figure he was going to get away with that?"
"Dunno." I pushed a plastic cup with a half-inch of Cherry Coke in it toward Skeeter.
"Thanks." He tapped his ash. "When Chuck confronted him, Judd went ape-shit. He just would not admit to faking the forms and blamed everyone: his clients, fellow salesmen, Apex executives, the people in the goddamn mailroom. He even accused Chuck in front of the whole office of sabotaging him. Shit. Chuck had to call the police to get 'm out of there."
"That's crazy. Why'd you think he did it?"
"Dunno that either. Be part of the team, I guess. Braggin' rights?" Skeeter looked out the sliding glass doors at the glowing white patio and the black skyline. "Funny thing is, after stormin' out and tellin' everybody to fuck off and go to hell and all that, he came back and begged Chuck to talk to him. Chuck finally agreed. He let 'm in and listened to Judd sob for about an hour just for the chance to sell again."
"What'd Chuck say?"
"Impossible. You can't cheat and get back in. No way. Ain't possible." Skeeter exhaled a long blue lungful that rolled upward across the room and then dropped his cigarette into the plastic cup. A puff of cherry-smelling smoke shot into my nostrils. "Now every couple of days Judd parks outside the office for an hour or so and watches them work through that storefront window."
I lit a smoke. "What do you make of it?"
Skeeter shrugged and rubbed the tips of his fingers together. "Nothin'. Suppose I might do the same thing if I didn't have nothin' else goin' on." Skeeter picked up a piece of paper from the desk and let out a big laugh. "This is your speech?! Goddamn!" He read, "'Good evening ladies and gentlemen.' And that's it!"
I had trouble falling asleep. The skyline beyond the patio that had been so dark while the lights of my room were on brightened to a gray fog. A red light pulsed somewhere in the distance.
The plastic cup that Skeeter had been ashing into was on the bedside table -- at arm's length, filled with ash and cigarette butts. It reeked. My speech lay next to it. I hadn't written much since Skeeter left. All I really had was the title. It was a damn good title.
I tried to wrap my brain around the idea that in the big picture, winning the second push was not all that important. What really mattered was the race to win the summer season. There were maybe ten people who could realistically win. Acuña was one of them. I was one of them. The little bitch from Nashville was one of them. They would both be there tomorrow, listening to my speech.
The following morning I was sitting at the far end of a table as part of a panel that would answer questions after a lecture given by Reid Tallenger, a former knife-selling legend. Reid was at the podium. Tables were set up, onstage, in a half moon around him. I was stage left.
Simultaneously and in a different ballroom, a different knife-selling legend, Jorge Acuña, was giving a demonstration of his sales technique. The demonstration was in Spanish, and basically everyone at the sales conference was divided into those who spoke
Spanish and those who did not. I wanted to attend Acuña's demonstration, since I spoke a little Spanish and I would have liked to steal what I could from his technique, but since I was supposed to be part of Reid Tallenger's panel, I couldn't.
Reid looked at least fifteen years older than the rest of us, had sold knives year-round for the past ten years, and still claimed he was "trying to win a scholarship." He was tall, thin, handsome, and dressed in a boyish manner -- khakis, sport coat, and a prep school-type tie. His haircut looked exactly like the haircut Liam Gallagher, the lead singer of Oasis, wore. He looked a little bit like Liam too, in that they both had sunken features, cruel eyes, and continually sported facial expressions that would lead one to believe that they were sucking on hard candies made of cat shit.
When Reid introduced himself, he said that he'd made more than eight hundred thousand dollars selling knives and as soon as he made more than one million he would stop selling and become a manager. Although this figure was impressive and I wanted to hear what he was going to say, I still had to work on my speech. So as soon as he introduced himself I pulled it out and discreetly began to write.
I was fairly engrossed in this task, so I didn't know what Reid was saying until he got around to talking about technique and something caught my ear. "I've been hearing some unsettling rumors that there's someone out there who's been teaching new, or I should say, different and possibly detrimental alterations to the demonstration. Now, I've been selling knives for a long time and I haven't deviated one bit from the sales pitch I was originally taught. Of course, I'll throw in a joke or two of my own, you know, add a little flavor, but I'm going to urge you to stick to what you've been taught. One of the rumors is that this person says it's a good idea to stand while giving your pitch." He was looking right at me, grinning. He let everyone know exactly whom he was talking about. "Imagine I'm six feet tall and you're sitting down and I'm waving a knife in your face." He swiped a knife back and forth over the podium a few times. "See, that's not a good idea, is it? And another thing...I don't know what kind of neighborhood y'all come from, but where I come from, if you start talking about what people are doin' and their friends and what they're doin' then whoever you're talkin' to is gonna look at you funny. The connection a salesman makes with a customer is one-on-one personal. Don't bring anybody else into it." He let out a laugh and shook his head, like what he was about to say was just beyond comprehension. "Acting silly is doggone unprofessional. If something falls out of your pocket during a presentation you look like you don't know what you're doing. Would you buy knives from a young kid who came into your house, bumbling around like a clown, dropping pennies all over the place? Where's the respect? The poise? You must immediately take command of the situation and demand the customer's respect. Respectfully, mind you..." I looked out at the crowd. The kid from Charleston was sitting high in his seat, his knife-selling trophy on the table in front of him. His smile pert. His head nodding in agreement. Stuey did not look so chipper. He held his chin down and his eyes slid slowly back and forth: Reid to me. Skeeter looked devastated. Chuck looked like he agreed with Reid.
"Naming your knives is just goofy. Who here thinks they know better than all of the Bladeworks employees who've worked for years before him?" He looked around. "C'mon. I want to see some hands go up, because I know that there's someone here who thinks that he does. Nobody here thinks they know more about knife selling than all the people who have sold before him? Then I guess these rumors are untrue, 'cause I sure don't think I know better than all the people who've come before me. I've heard some of these names. Get this one -- the Bob Vila Knife. We are selling high-quality cutlery, not fix-it-yourself home videos. If you don't like the product you're selling and want to try to hide it or change it, you shouldn't be selling it in the first place! When you make your price comparison you should not scare your customer into believing that he cannot afford Bladeworks. Hell, I've got a little bit of money, but if somebody parked a Ferrari in my driveway, I'm not gonna buy it no matter how cheaply he tries to sell it to me. I'd think there was something wrong with the vehicle! Do not personalize a sale. Millions of dollars have been made with the Deluxe Kitchen Set. It is counterproductive to criticize Bladeworks or Apex in any way. Really, I can't believe the kind of stuff I've been hearing. It just don't make no sense. God." He shook his head. "This last thing that I've heard is just plain-out dumb. Always, always offer the customer twenty percent of their purchase in free product. Wouldn't you be more inclined to buy a great product if you got an even better deal on it?"
Reid hung his head and then looked up. "Maybe someone's pullin' a gag on me. Or maybe we all don't come from the kind of place where this kind of behavior is acceptable. Maybe in the North, they're a little bit different. Ooops, did I just say the North? I thought we were selling out of the Southeastern division. Anyone around here a northerner?" Again, he looked at me. "I thought not. Or maybe the answer is that these rumors are untrue, because all the things that this person promises will happen if you sell by his technique never happened in the first place."
While the first few jibes at my selling style got laughs, his lecture continued on such a bitter note that it began to poison the conference. The ballroom felt seeped in gloom and vibrated in its nauseating neon light. The faces in the crowd looked green, sick, and angry. As for me, I was resting my head in my hand, leaning on the table with my right elbow. Whoever had been sitting to my left had gotten up in the middle of the lecture and left, so I had my feet up on his seat and my body reclined back and over the table. I was smiling, droopy eyed, and appeared to be doodling on the back of my speech. I'm sure I looked like I was either on the verge of passing out or like I couldn't have cared less about what I was hearing. I was, in fact, dying for the question-and-answer session to begin so I could defend myself.
"Okay, so now why don't we open it up and myself and the panel can answer some of your questions."
I shot my hand into the air and said, "Reid, if I could just -- "
"Hold on a second, Jay." It was Bud French, running onstage behind me. "I'm going to have to interrupt you guys for a moment."
Reid stepped aside. Bud took command of the podium, sucking in large pockets of air. He was really excited about something. "Hold on a sec. I just want to make sure -- " Just then the doors to the ballroom opened and all of the members of Team Puerto Rico and the other Spanish speakers except Acuña walked in. "Good. Everybody's here...You know, the damnedest things happen in this business. Some things just make your heart want to jump out of your chest. And I'm very proud to say that one of these things just happened downstairs." He held his hand up over his eyes and looked out at the control booth toward the back of the room. "Connie? Are you ready with the tape?" Bud stepped away, and a screen descended from above the stage.
The video was of Jorge doing his presentation. The person playing the role of the customer was his girlfriend -- a hot Puerto Rican with platinum blond hair and dark brown skin. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but I believe he was transitioning from the price comparison to the close when he got down on one knee, reached into his pocket, and whipped out a ring. He started crying and asked: "¿Casate conmigo?"
The girl started bawling, "Sí! Sí!" The room (in the tape) exploded in Spanish cheers. The ballroom also exploded in cheers, except now most were in English.
The screen rose back up to the ceiling and Bud stood, looking out at the crowd. "Jorge and Camilla, congratulations! Why don't you just come on in here!"
Jorge, hand in hand with his fiancée, swept into the room and together they began bowing and blowing kisses like crazy. I was still dying to defend myself, but after applauding Jorge and Camilla for another five goddamn minutes, Bud said, "All right, as much as I'm sure we'd all like to have our question-and-answer period, we're running a little behind schedule. So why don't we all break for lunch and be sure to be back here in two hours for our closing ceremony, which I'm sure is going to be great."
I didn't understand what had happened. Why did everybody hate me so much? All I had done was come in second place. For the past five days, I had been making one thousand dollars a day. Nobody else had done that. The kid from Charleston wasn't even in the 50 percent commission bracket. Acuña had come in tenth place for the push. Reid had come in seventh. Once again, in five days, I had sold more than entire branches! How could these people not recognize that I was the knife-selling master?
In retrospect, I probably should have just left the conference and let them all go fuck themselves, but I couldn't. There was some part of me, some big part of me, that had to prove that I could fix it -- or at least try. The conference up until that point had sucked. No one was having fun. Chuck had turned on me. Stuey had turned on me, it seemed. My goddamn fans had turned on me.
All I knew was that I had one chance to prove myself, and that was to deliver an impressive speech. One that remained unwritten. I had two hours to do it. I raced up to my room and sat down at the tiny table, smoking cigarette after cigarette, scribbling furiously.
Copyright © 2007 by Tod Harrison Williams
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