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Monday, April 02, 2012

The Salesman

Everyone has the potential to become a hero- given the right circumstances. How many times during desperate dark hours of desultoriness have we wished our lives were a little less ordinary- that we mattered to someone – to a life other than our own? Here is one such story of an ordinary man. I wrote this in Feb for a website,  but published it in my blog now. An attempt to make the gender, personality and language of the protagonist markedly different  from the author's.:D

I work for a small Marketing Management firm- it is just another way of saying that I am a bonded laborer for a parasite organization that cleans the shit of bigger firms when no one else wants to. We are set off as Knight Templers in the beginning of a campaign the big whale wants to pilot, but if we succeed in meeting our targets, the big guys take our jobs and give it to their boys. Why? Because we work at half the pay their sales unit does, and they don’t want to waste the talent of Ivy League kids on fruitless test campaigns. It is something about managing the resources- I know that much.

I graduated from a community college- attending night classes while I worked the days at the university. I lived in an apartment with five other guys from the university so that I could make my rent; I still do. I had high hopes till the day of my convocation, but when the career fairs yielded zilch and the Finance grads were the first to start paying off their student loans, I realized that it might be a long time before I started living my dream.

I found the ad for my current job on Craigslist and realized the redundancy of my professional degree on the day of the personal interview. Instead of asking me if I could write white papers and prepare testimonials and case studies, they asked me if I had a means of transport. And that was pretty much it. The first day we gathered in an empty room with a white board on it. The manager handed out sales pitch to the new recruits, and we stood in pairs, facing each other- practicing the pitch -an array of probing questions really. A sorry attempt at market research.

Do you know about the new Triple Play offer from Horizon? It offers bundled services for your phone, TV and the Internet. It employs fiber optics technology and is way faster than cable and DSL. Do you see the installations outside your house- a lot of your neighbors are getting it (Keeping up with Joneses)? The reduced offer is valid only for this month (Sense of urgency).

Then we were assigned our territories in a team of two- the rookies with more seasoned salesmen. I was given a lead sheet for Arlington, which I read through once and saw some interesting names. My partner for the day hollered out to me, ’what ya’doing?  Move your ass!’ And so I moved my ass- like a dog who fetches a ball for his master and expects to be patted, except he did not pat me really. On the contrary, he completely ignored me for the few seconds we were in the elevator together. When we got to the basement in the parking lot, he asked, ’Your car or mine?’ I asked where his was parked; it seemed closer so we walked there. And I was not sure if the firm reimbursed the fuel costs, or I’d had to pay from my own pocket- which hardly seemed possible. The salary structure sounded complicated- almost impossible, and the commission started flowing only if a ridiculous number of sales were made. Even the lowest goal seemed unattainable.

The car was heated from staying out in the sun; I sat on the leather seat and almost burned my back. I wanted to scream and run as fast as I could. But I sat there- almost catatonic. My partner drove silently in the heat-the drive was long and weary, and his face reddened like a ripe tomato, ready to be plucked. I tried to look out, but all I could see was other cars- most with air-conditioners in them and the windows rolled up. I felt jealous of those m@#-f$%rs. What did they do right that I did not?

We parked at a quiet neighborhood with single family homes. He parked his car at the bottom of a slope, and we walked up in the heat. I didn’t blame him if he wanted to save on the gas. The climb was quite a struggle, and I had to stop to catch my breath. The first door we knocked on was opened by a middle-aged gentleman. He was in a white vest and crumpled boxer shorts- the kind you get in a 3-pack for $9 at Walmart. I knew because I owned a triplet. His face was unshaved for days, his sparing hair ruffled. There was a little girl standing behind him with her doll, eyeing us suspiciously. Maybe our red T-shirts gave away, and before we could perform our well-rehearsed wooing, his voice boomed,’ But some of you have already been here this week!

Either some jerks were poaching on our territory or our manager was a complete idiot who didn’t know the first thing about territory management.  Didn’t he have this on his weekly agenda? Heck, you get cheap software to sweat it out for you- you don’t even need brains to do that! I sighed in disbelief. I was a hard-working man with reasonable talent- but I had a student loan and a mortgage on my second-hand car to pay. And I had to report to an imbecile at the end of my month to get paid. Compared to this, Hell would be a vacation spot if I developed an interest in pyrogenics and volcanology.


We walked around, knocking from door to door. Some people didn’t even bother to answer the doorbell. I saw an old woman peep through the curtains when I limped past her house. My feet had begun to hurt and I was hungry. The heat was getting into my head, and I felt my throat dry up. The old bugger kept walking anyway, determined to show what it takes to be a salesman. I pretended to learn the ropes from him- just listening. Someone asked, ’Doesn’t he talk? I smiled and said nothing.

It was strange though, it was a weekday and there were many men at their homes. Didn’t they have work to do, somewhere to go? Didn’t the kids feel curious why Daddy was staying home? The recession had hit hard and many with families were left without jobs. I just prayed that we were seeing them on a day off from work. But it was unlikely. And there were foreclosure signs in front of their houses with two dreadful words, ‘For Sale’.

A lot of those people will have no home to call their own if they fail to pay their mortgage, the bank will take it away and given the price of realty these days, it will be sold for less than the amount on the loan. And if deficiency judgments are allowed, the lender can come after them for the difference in the amount they owe to the loan and the price of the house at the foreclosure auction. These people don’t need new, faster Internet connections! That is probably the last thing on their minds now.

I felt nauseated and imagined myself as a crow who is trying to grab a bite of a dying animal from a pack of vultures. By the time I get through, nothing will be left of the carcass. Jim (I learned his first name) asked,’ Do you need a break kid?’ He wasn’t so bad, after all. I nodded and sat down on the unkempt grass, in the shade of a tree. I was probably trespassing, but I did not care. No one would ever come out.  I wondered how this place might have been like years ago- when the children came out to play, the women laughed and greeted their neighbors, and the men came back from a hard day at work and received a well-deserving kiss from their wives. A drop of sweat trickled down my back and I shivered.This will soon become a ghost town.

We took a lunch break and picked a burrito from a Mexican joint- Jim wanted it. Mexican food never agrees with me but I didn’t want to be impolite- he was paying for my meal. We got back to business soon- fruitless cold calls-until we took the right turn at Crescent Ave. We heard a woman cry as we approached a house, and retraced our steps down the stairs, considering we should come back at a later, more opportune hour.  But something stopped me – someone inside the house said,’ It is the best way out Jenny.’ It was the voice of a man who has abandoned all hope. There was no threat, no emotion in his voice. I peeped through the glass window. My gaze took a while to clear- it was bright outside and dark inside the house.

I saw a man holding a kitchen cleaver to the neck of a 4-year old boy. The man’s gaze fixed on his wife, pleading to kill their son to save him from a life of poverty. It sounded ridiculous; I asked Jim to call 911 and walked towards the back yard. How could I know the response time of the police? It could be anything between 6 to 25 minutes; might be too late then.  The back door was open, and it led to the kitchen. The hallway was a few steps ahead. I took a deep breath and stood at the corner of the room, speaking resolutely,’ Sir, please step back from the child.’
He turned,’ And who the fuck are you? Wait, you are one of those aren’t you Red Shirt? What do you care?’

It was a good thing that his rage was directed towards me, I was a stronger target than a helpless child, but I was no match for that bull of a man. His eyes glistened with rage. I think I saw the Devil inside him. How could I talk to him, tell him that we were all victims? I am not sure he would listen even if he heard me.

How does one negotiate in a hostage situation, don’t they have a sales pitch for that too? All I knew was that I had to prolong the situation until help arrived. Did he believe in God, in Heaven or Hell? Could I allure him with the hope of a better tomorrow? There were trained professionals who knew how to deal with such situations. I only knew how to offer myself as bait.
No, you don’t! Don’t pretend to!
He was right. But the child- he is innocent- he deserves a fair chance to live. I tried to reason with him.

I am a good man!

I realized his tangible need- his hurt sense of self-worth had to be tended.

Sir, I ‘m certain you are. But if you don’t let go of the knife- someone is going to get hurt.’

At this moment, I started wishing desperately the police had arrived and dropped a stun-bomb on us- this was getting wearisome.

He let the kid go from his clasp, and he swaggered to one side of the table, supporting his whole weight on his left palm, trying to stand steady. His head was bowed down, but the knife was still in his right hand.

I gestured the sobbing woman to leave the room, flapping my hands like the tail of a dying fish. At first, she didn’t understand- the stupid broad gaped at me with wide eyes, and then she took the child and walked out behind me- keeping as much distance from the husband as was physically possible.

I looked at the man- he was sweating profusely when he broke down and started to cry. I had never seen a grown man cry like that- but then again, I hadn’t seen much of anything.

He looked away toward another door when the fire alarm went off - and I realized that the bugger had set their bed on fire! I knew this guy would face multiple felony charges if he got out, but I couldn’t leave him to die. But reasoning with him meant risking my life. What was it worth anyway?

I looked at him and said- Let’s try and put out the fire first- and no one has to know.

He looked up at me in utter disbelief and mumbled- there is a bucket under the kitchen cabinet. I rushed to the wash basin and filled a bucket as fast as I could and skipped towards the bedroom- there was no way I could save the bed- they would need a new mattress anyway.  ‘You have to cut the oxygen supply’ I thought to myself and slid the door of the wall closet to find any large comforter. The metal frame of the slider was warm and it hurt my hand to hold it, but it had to be done. I pulled out a couple of big comforters and stashed it on the fire, a fiery tongue licked at me from the side. I still couldn’t take any chances and asked the man if they had any fire extinguishers in the house.  I rushed out again, and found one but I had never used on before. The instructions said:

  1. Pull the pin at the the top.
  2. Aim at the base of the fire, not flames
  3. Squeeze the lever slowly
  4. Sweep from side to side

Really! Who writes these instructions? I tried my best and the last 10 seconds of the extinguisher’s life were the longest 10 seconds of my not-so-long life. I waited to see if the fire re-ignited, and that is when I heard the siren. Jim had called the 911 after all. Now, I could go back to my ordinary life again.

I staggered out of the house and fell on my knees on the porch. Jim stood by me and shook me on my shoulders,’Hey, are you alright?’ I looked at him in a daze. There were no police vans or ambulance, no red lights to greet me- absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. It was still a still afternoon on a northern Massachusetts sub-urb. The leaves on a nearby tree rustled in the breeze. The car was a long walk away. Jim rang the bell of the neighboring house and asked for some water from the owner. I drank some of it and splashed the rest on my face, eying the house we had left behind. A worn out sign hung,’For Sale’; a huge lock frowned on the door. I felt flabbergasted. I asked the lady who gave me water,’ what happened over there?’

She said that the owner murdered his wife and son before he killed himself. But it was months ago and the house has been empty ever since.


Anonymous said...

Loved the character it was witty and engaging. Great to see the translation from Bio to fiction.

Critically the para on fire extinguisher was slightly ill timed. It kind of delayed the end.

Looking forward to more characters on this space.

sejuti said...

Gaa chomchome ...

Aparna Kar said...

Thanks Seju :)

Aparna Kar said...

I didn't want the climax too soon. Sometimes, delayed gratification is a good thing. Nevertheless, I will reconsider those four lines.

Suryatapa said...

I just love stories of this kind!