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Harry Crews turn the classic rags-to-riches story on its head in this hilarious saga of the trials and tribulations of a beleaguered salesman.
Copyright © 1996 Harry Crews
All right reserved.
The air was a shimmering of heat, and it felt to Hickum Looney as though with every step he took the weight of the sun on the top of his balding head and his thin shoulders became heavier. The long sidewalk in front of him was so hot that it shook and undulated in his eyes and made them feel cracked and gritty.
There was nothing unusual about that, though. Just another ordinary August day in Miami. Hickum had suffered through twenty-five years of such summers, and if he could survive five more, he could walk away from the only job he'd ever known--if he did not count the three years he had spent as a supply technician in the air force.
And he had never counted those years a job. He'd spent every hour of every working day in an air-conditioned office filing copies of supply requisitions. Those were pleasant, comfortable days, the kind of days during which a man could let his mind float where it would while he stood over an open file drawer, daydreaming and fantasizing, and no one would care because no one would notice whether he was actually filing anything or not.
He went into the air force a private and he came out a private. He never got any letters of commendation, but he never got any turds in his personnel file, either. Any way he figured it, it was an easy ride. And he did not know how much he hadliked it until his hitch was up and he was a civilian again, looking for a job, and ended up as a door-to-door salesman for a company named Soaps For Life, and realized before the first month was out that he did not like being a door-to-door salesman talking to people day in and day out about soap.
It wasn't that he hated it, or anything nearly that strong. He just had never been able to make himself care for it very much, which he thought was worse than the promotions he had deserved in the air force but never got. Nor did he want to learn more about selling soap than he already knew, which he felt must be about as much as any sane man ought to know about anything, nor did he want to talk about it nonstop when two or more salesmen of Soaps For Life got together, which the Boss had gone to some trouble to let all the salesmen know was precisely what was expected of them.
The real horror of the whole thing was that Hickum had taken this job twenty-five years ago with the intention of quitting it the following week and going to work as an apprentice in a sheet metal shop. All he had to do was wait seven days for the sheet metal job to come open and he could kiss the door-to-door business good-bye. But it didn't work out that way. The morning before he was to start as an apprentice, a butane gas tank had blown up and left nothing of the sheet metal shop but flat ground and grieving widows.
He knew he ought to count himself lucky not to have been there when the tank blew up. But all he could seem to think of was that he had lost a job. In some screwy way he did not understand, it seemed to him that he had always missed every good job he had had a chance for. Except for Soaps For Life. So he had obsessively clung to it for a quarter of a century now, always secretly wishing he was doing something else.
One of the worst parts of having the job was going to the annual sales convention and listening to the harelipped little man who had founded the Company and who invariably spent three podium-pounding hours telling his salesmen--every one of whom, with the exception of Hickum Looney, seemed to want to be just like him--how he had single-handedly built his company. Over and over, he would hammer through his success story: one-man-and-one-dream-and-one-case-of-soap-samples-and- one-long-street-that-never-ended-until-that-one-man-and-that- one-dream-had-become-an-empire. "Shoe leather, " the little man would scream, "shoe leather is the secret."
Again and again during the interminable speech that at times seemed deranged and half out of control, the little man hopped about the stage as though he had hot coals in his shoes, often raising his hands above his head in what could have been surrender or supplication, and screamed: "You nink I nare if I not a narenip?"
He might not care, but God, did he have a harelip! It was by far the worst one Hickum had ever seen.
"My narenip was given na me by Nod!" Hysterical applause made him smile, and the smile would always show a single enormous, square, and badly stained tooth in the center of his face. Then he would raise his hands for silence. "Nu nink I non't know what people nall me? I know! I know plenty! But, now listen! I may be kind of strange and warped . . . " In this part of the speech, he often went into a kind of frenzied jitterbug: head snapping, arms flapping, and knees pumping like pistons. "Can nu near me? Can nu near me, brothers?"
After each question there was a responsive roar that shook the walls of the convention center: Yes, they could hear him. Then the Boss would abruptly become very still. When his voice came out of his mouth, it would come in a whisper, and yet the whisper reached every man and woman present. And that voice, so quiet and yet so strongly surging, gave them all gooseflesh. "I am most awfully ugly. But! Near me now! I am standing in a nousand dollars' worth of suit!"
The roar of approval seemed it would take the plaster off the walls.
"Nand I may have wists and nurns in me na make a rattlesnake crazy. But I still drive a Cadillac car. Ne biggest Cadillac car nay build. Nand I got a nelephone in nat Cadillac, got it right by my knee. Nand finally, finally, I trade for me a new Cadillac car every year!"
It was then that the salesmen got loose and crazy, some of them bashing their heads together in an ecstasy of enthusiasm and longing. Hickum never felt like bashing heads with another salesman at the annual convention, and certainly he never felt ecstatic with joy by anything the Boss said from the podium. Hickum thought this to be some failing in himself that he could not identify. Nonetheless, he never doubted it was somehow his fault.
But if he dropped dead this very instant on the short flagstone walk leading to the house of his prospect of the day--a modest yellow cinder block house with a white roof--he would be recorded in the annals of the Company with an asterisk identifying him as one of the top salesmen it ever had. If it hadn't been for the Boss, Hickum would have been the champion salesman at Soaps For Life. But it was the Boss who held all selling records. Year after year, he remained unbeatable. So if Hickum Looney didn't feel an urge to bash heads every year at the convention, why didn't he at least feel a convulsive jolt of accomplishment? Why instead did he carry a cold fury and dread at the center of his chest, where he had always supposed his heart to be?
He knew why. Of course he did. He could not easily or graciously accept being second best. The Boss had somehow taught him to accept nothing less than being a winner and then--year after year--refused to allow him to win. This was the first day of August, the month of the contest for Salesman of the Year. Whoever sold the most soap this month would win a Cadillac, a trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and $2,000 spending money.
There was only one problem. The Boss always entered the contest each year himself, always in a different part of the country, and he always won. To ensure it was absolutely honest, the Boss's completed sales forms were entrusted to an old and honorable CPA firm, which verified the accuracy of the sales. For the twenty-five years Hickum Looney had worked for the Company, the Boss had been the undisputed champion salesman. And finally, in a gesture that the Boss called magnificently generous, but a gesture that humbled and humiliated his salesmen all the same, humbled and humiliated them as nothing else in their lives could, he took the sum total of the winnings--the car, the trip, the spending money--and divided all of it evenly among his salesmen across the country. In all the years Hickum had been with Soaps For Life, the share for each salesman had never exceeded $4. Last year, Hickum's check had been for $3.36.
And yet every year, including last year, Hickum had fought his heart out to win. And in spite of himself, in spite of not wanting to bash heads with his fellow salesmen at the convention when the Boss spoke, he fully intended to walk the leather off as many pairs of shoes as it took to win. The Boss always told his men to think of the contest as a learning experience because, he said, that was why he had started it in the first place, and he also told them he always entered the contest himself to demonstrate to them that he was not asking the salesmen to do anything he would not and could not do himself. It was to strengthen the bond between them.
Hickum Looney shook his head violently to get rid of the unthinkable notion of strengthening the bond between himself and the little demented harelip. He had to make himself focus on the Selling Mode and at the same time try to get himself into it. The founder of the Company, known universally as the Boss, demanded that all his salesmen focus their concentration on getting into the Selling Mode before ever approaching the first prospect at the beginning of each working day. But even after all these years Hickum Looney still did not know exactly what that meant. He must be doing something right, though, because it was rare when one entire order book was not full, or nearly so, when he got back to the office in the evening.
He loosened his tie and tried to look haunted and full of stress. For a salesman to give a potential customer the impression that he was haunted and full of stress was called simply the Look in the official Sales Manual. When he felt everything was as it should be for him to make a quick sale, he walked up to the little yellow cinder block house and rang the bell. He had a habit of counting after the first ring of the doorbell or knock on the door.
"One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, three hippopotamus. . . "
If nobody appears or he did not hear somebody moving behind the door by the time he got to thirty hippopotamus, he usually went back to one hippopotamus and counted to twenty hippopotamus before he rang or knocked again. But there were often times when he simply walked away. It all depended on what his instincts dictated that he do. He trusted his instincts and he trusted signs, and always tried to trust whatever signs he thought he saw or what his instincts were trying to tell him.
He had counted back to fifteen hippopotamus when the wooden door behind the screen eased open a little. He had heard no footsteps, no bolt sliding in a lock, no sound of hinges turning, nothing at all. There was no light in the room behind the door, which had slowly closed now to about six inches. The person, dim as a ghost behind the screen wire, was the size of a jockey with a cap of closely cropped gray hair twisted into wild tufts. Hickum had no idea if it was a man or a woman. But then one of the person's hands reached up and patted the twisted tufts of hair and then dropped and held a tiny gold locket suspended from a gold chain. The hand was full of blue veins under translucent skin marked with liver spots. It was a woman. No question in his mind at all.
"Good day, madam. My name's Hickum Looney and I represent Soaps For Life. Our headquarters are in Atlanta, Georgia, but we've got representation for our product in every state in the Union. The company that I represent makes exactly what you need, no matter what that need might be. I know that makes me sound just about too beautiful and too good for your ordinary citizen to accept. But all the representatives of Soaps For Life are one of a kind. Yes, madam, one of a kind. You might have seen our thirty-minute infomationals on television."
As Hickum talked, he watched one of the old lady's nearly fleshless hands float slowly but steadily upward and latch the screen door before floating in the same slow and steady way back to her side.
When he heard the latch fall into place, he looked down and rubbed the toe of his shoe in her welcome mat and said: "Aw, now how come you to do that, ma'am?"
"Because you might be a crazy person," said the little old lady in a dry rasping voice, "with murder in his heart and rape on his mind. Don't you read the papers? Happens every day."
Hickum smiled broadly. He always did when he was in the Selling Mode. It didn't matter at all what the prospect said to him. She'd need a hatchet to get the Selling Smile (treated at length in the Sales Manual) off his face, now that he was in the Selling Mode.
"I try never to dispute a lady," said Hickum, "but you are flat wrong is what you are. I come from a long line of honest, hardworking people. Back in east Tennessee my mother was a Hickum, so I got her maiden name. And Looney? My daddy's a Looney. Up in east Tennessee it's enough Hickums and Looneys to fight a war. Matter of fact it was a war between the Looneys and the Hickums off and on for nearly a hundred years, so the story goes. But then they got started marrying each other and such, as men and women are subject to do, and that kind of cooled things down, if you know what I mean."
"I do not believe I would care to know what you mean now or any other time, " said the little old lady. She had taken a half step back into the room and Hickum could hardly see her through the screen door. Her cap of gray hair bobbed and weaved in a way that made her head seem to move, in the deep shadowy light, as if free of a body.
"I don't believe I understand," said Hickum.
"Well, a fool can see you don't understand a whole lot," she said. "If you understood much of anything at all, you wouldn't be standing on my porch at my front door at this time of the morning holding a suitcase full of soap and expecting to be let into my house. That's the way us girls get raped, you know, strangers showing up on our doorstep carrying suitcases made out of tin and wanting to use our phones."
"I do not want to use your phone, ma'am. I never said one single word about using a phone of yours."
"They mostly never do, but that don't mean a thing." She clicked her false teeth in a little rhythm like castanets.
Hickum glanced down at his metal briefcase and then back to the old lady, who was growing more indistinct and harder to see as she moved deeper into the room. The old ones were usually either the easiest or the most difficult to sell. They had only a few years left and they weren't risking anything by opening the door for the wrong reason. On the other hand, nearly all of them were desperately lonely. That's the kind all the salesmen at Soaps For Life tried to search out when they could. Most people seemed not to notice it, but a salesman could not help but notice how many of the old ones were so desperately lonely they would let the devil through the front door if he promised to talk to them.
Hickum sighed. This was what door-to-door selling was all about. Anybody could sell who could somehow manage to get inside the house. Failed salesmen always got shut out on the steps before they could make their presentation. A man who could never find a way to make his presentation could never make a sale. But there was always a way to handle getting on the inside, and top-of-the-line door-to-door men like Hickum Looney always knew that, and given enough time, he could always find a way to go in.
Hickum lifted the metal briefcase and smiled for all he was worth. "Don't you think this is just a little small to be a suitcase?"
In a tight little voice that sounded like an infuriated schoolteacher, she said: "I try not to think of that which is of no concern to me."
"But this is your concern. This box holds life everlasting." If someone had a gun to his head, Hickum Looney could not have explained why he had said his box held life everlasting. He didn't even know what such a statement might mean, or if it meant anything at all. But there was no denying that some days he was more creative than others. He had suspected for a long time now that the habit of meeting strangers at their doors, a habit stretching back over his entire working life, had taught him instinctively what to say. In any event, he had found out early on that simply saying something like that would not move the product, just as smelling good would never sell a bar of soap. Everybody that sold anything seemed to sing the same tired song. And no doubt that was why the Sales Manual had a whole chapter demonstrating that a good salesman could play a customer like a banjo: Pluck the right string, get the right sound, and get a sale. A door-to-door man simply had to find the string that said: I'll buy.
But there was no single string, no single tune, no single song a door-to-door man could use that would sell everybody. That was the Boss's great secret. Or he said it was. Read the customer like a road map and you'll go straight to his heart. That was what the Boss said he had built his company on, his company and his selling record, year in and year out. And where was the evidence to prove him wrong? He had his suit and his Cadillac car and men all over the country ready to follow him anywhere he led. What didn't he have? What?
The little lady came rushing out of the shadows until her nose was nearly pressed against the screen door. Her tiny eyes were black and shiny as a bird's.
"Everlasting? Did you say life everlasting? Young man, you keep on talking like that and sure as I'm standing here lightning will strike my house. And I'm not insured against lightning, and on top of that, I'm not even a Christian."
"Madam, could you unlatch the screen door? I wasn't raised to talk to a lady through a screen door."
"What was that you said?"
Hickum knew she had heard him, but he repeated it anyway, adding: "And I can just look at you and tell you're not the sort to have conversations through a screen door, either. Anybody can see that's way yonder too trashy for a lady like you."
She caught her bony little chin in her hand and seemed to think on that for a moment. "It's what's wrong with the world today, people doing business through screen doors. But you can't be too careful, am I right?"
"Right as rain. Careful is the watchword."
She squinted her eyes as though to see him better. "Careful is the watch . . . what?"
"Word," he said.
"Word? Is that what you said?"
Hickum had not been paying enough attention to what he had been saying. He had to stay focused or he would let himself slip onto automatic pilot and lose her after he already had her moving in his direction.
He nodded his head and said, "Yes, madam. I believe watchword is what I said."
"You've started spinning your wheels. You better quit while you're still ahead."
"No doubt the gospel truth. Yes, indeed, I . . . "
But even as he was talking, her hand drifted up and unlatched the door.
Without making a move, Hickum said: "You're a very wise lady. Not many in this old world's going to put one over on you. Noosirree!"
"You can count on it, buster. My face may be red but I wasn't born yesterday," she said.
Hickum gave the Hearty Company Laugh, and at the same time he eased the door open, not knowing if she would allow it or not. She did, though. She left it open while she kept her eye on his metal briefcase as he moved slowly to a low coffee table and set it down on its side.
He straightened up and put one of the Company's Looks on his face, a look that the manual called the truth can be awful.
He looked closely at her, judged her age as best he could, and said: "Let me ask you this, madam. Do you suffer from swelling of the joints? Night sweats? Failing eyesight? Thinning hair? Difficulty falling asleep? Or find it hard waking up?"
Was there a goddam woman her age in the whole sorry country who didn't suffer from at least one of the ailments he'd named?
"I don't know as I go around having conversations with total strangers about what I have and what I don't." But her voice had a tremor in it when she spoke, and Hickum knew he had caught the scent of blood spoor, the sweet fragrance of old mortality. And he had known for a long time now that getting mortality into the game could never hurt, no matter what game a man was playing.
"That's more gospel truth right there, " he said. "People nowadays don't seem to know what's public and what's private. They just go ahead and tell anything and everything."
The old woman watched him but said nothing. Hickum focused his smile on her with ultimate intensity, and then winked, which made her head snap back as if she'd been slapped.
"I told you my name at the door, Hickum Looney, remember? Don't believe I got yours."
"Don't believe I gave it," she said.
Hickum Looney clasped his hands and remained standing. Every blind in the house was drawn, making the room very dark. She either didn't have any air-conditioning or did not have it on. He had to wait for his eyes to adjust before he could see very clearly. First dimly and then in sharp detail, Hickum saw a man standing in a comer of the room, and it made him jump and grunt as though he had been struck in the stomach. It was a God's own wonder that it didn't make him scream and bolt for the door, leaving the briefcase behind, so badly did it unnerve him. But squinting harder showed it to be not a man but rather a rubber aspidistra plant. It was very old and very tired and the thick leaves were gray with a thin layer of dust. But it looked for all the world like an old man wearing a ruined hat.
"What's that?" she said. She had stopped on the other side of the coffee table and not taken her eyes off the briefcase.
"You grunted," she said.
"Why would I grunt?"
"How would I know? Why'd you show up at my door with a suitcase full of soap?"
"Briefcase," he said.
"That on the table there is not a suitcase, it's a briefcase."
"Full of soap?" she said.
"Full of soap."
"You still grunted."
"Not me. Not today."
She regarded him for a moment and then said, "If that was not a grunt I heard, maybe we better leave it alone and get on with the business at hand, because if what you say is true, I may be on the edge of the last deep hole and just about to slide in."
He said: "You're too hard on yourself. You're still a fine figure of a woman. "
"I'll tell you, buddy boy, you make a move on me and I'll dial nine-one-one so fast it'll make your head swim. They've got a place for salesmen gone bad."
He dropped his eyes to her hands, joined over her stomach by twisted, large-jointed fingers. Then he called on a voice that was deep with authority, a voice that had been given him by the Boss, along with the soap, the metal briefcase, the Manual for Presentation of Products, and everything else that had made him the salesman he had become.
He pulled himself up but restrained his desire to go all the way to tiptoe, tilted his chin upward, and called on the voice that the Company Manual insisted would open the gates of heaven themselves. "I am an honorable man doing an honorable job with an honorable product. Now, would you please sit down, Mizz . . ., sit down, Mizz . . . ?"
"Ida Mae," she said in a curiously subdued voice hardly more than a whisper.
" . . . sit down, Mizz Ida Mae. There are other of God's children waiting. "
"Waiting?" she said, her eyes going wide to show red broken veins at their edges.
"For me," he said, still in the Company voice, "for me and the soap to save them."
The business about soap and God's children waiting for him to save them was something that had only occurred to him once he got inside the house. It just seemed to go with the decor, with the dusty aspidistra plant wearing a hat, or something that looked like a hat, in the comer of the living room, crushed, dry, and hopeless. But now that the lie had come to him, there was nothing to do but see what he could squeeze out of it. The Boss would have been pleased that he noticed it and, further, that he planned to milk it.
He snapped the hasps in the front of his briefcase and lifted the lid. It was lined in red velvet. Round jars were held in round slots. Each jar had a different-colored lid on it. And on each lid of each jar was a single letter, each letter drawn in elaborate Germanic script.
Slowly, she traced out each of the letters with a rigid, thick-jointed finger. As she touched each letter there in the dim little room, she pronounced each of them as soft as breathing: "S-A-I-P-P-U-A-K-I-V-I-K-A-U-P-P-I-A-S. "
Excerpted from Mulching of America by Harry Crews Copyright © 1996 by Harry Crews. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted July 30, 2001
Through the first three quarters of the book, I was convinced it was an extremely good novel. The characters are quirky, to say the least. They're certainly unusual enough to keep your attention, but just real enough to make them believable. I couldn't wait to find out where they ended up. Then, suddenly, Mr. Crewes goes off the deep end. The finish is completely ridiculous. I suppose if I'd realized I was reading a fantasy, it wouldn't have thrown me so much. For me, however, to read such an engrossing story, just at the edge of reality, and then to encounter a ludicrous conclusion, was disappointing, to say the least.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.