A short story by David Rogers, Hunter MFA Fiction 2006
Published in The Antioch Reivew, Fall 2005
I never hold it against them, what they do and why they do it. What the hell, I was a salesman myself for a while. I worked completely over the phone, which is difficult because I’m considered a good looking man and couldn’t bank on that to get the pitch going, make that first connect. Home security systems, that was what I sold. Not hard to sell, either, even though they were about two grand apiece. This was up in Westchester, everybody thought they needed to slap one of those on their big ranch house. Personally, I’ve got a deadbolt, which I screwed up and installed on my door upside down, but what the hell, I’ve never had a break-in. I like the lock, it makes a nice sound -- thwick! -- when I turn it. But all of this is besides the point, I didn’t sell dead bolts I sold big elaborate alarm systems for your house, with a keypad and pass code and little sensors on all of your windows and screen doors and such. At first I thought the sensors were connected by wires to the keypad, which made me think about the tentacles of a jellyfish, tangled and complicated throughout the house. But these alarm systems are much more elegant than that, it was all wireless technology. In my pitch, I made a point of mentioning that these wireless sensors were the same ones used by the CIA to secure its offices. A similar type of sensor. We had an endorsement from an ex-CIA agent, some guy with a mustache.
I sold about a hundred of these things, but never did I see one up close. You’d think they might at least bring one out during the training, show us a floor model, get us acquainted with it -- that kind of thing does wonders for the imagination. But I was forced to work entirely from the brochure pictures and the descriptions. I had seen alarm systems before, sure, but what exactly was this one like and why should anybody want it? Nothing about the goddamn thing seemed real, it was all just put together in my head. I had this scenario where I tried to imagine the alarm system doing its job. I imagined a young lady pulling into her driveway late at night. She has a silvery expensive car. Of course, it’s a nice house, full of jewelry and electronics. She’s a really hot girl in a tan suit with a short, short skirt. Her arms are full of shopping bags from Bloomingdale’s. As she gets out of the car, she hears some rustling over in the bushes, maybe a whisper. It could be anything, an animal, a burglar, the wind, she doesn’t know, but whatever it is, it’s all wrong, and as she approaches the front door, she hears a high-pitched sound coming from within the house. The sound is pulsing in a steady rhythm, like a siren, and she knows then that her home alarm system has been tripped. At that precise moment, a fleet of police cars pull up on the street behind her, with red lights flashing. Silently they line the street, no sirens, just red lights spinning. The cops spring out of their squad cars and run past the woman in the driveway, into the house, drawing their guns. It’s like they can smell blood, they can smell that fucking weasel in there. They spread out, turning on all of the lights as they search under beds and in closets, and just as they get to the master bedroom, they flick on the lights, and this dark figure disappears out the window. They hear his footsteps crunch on the fall leaves in the back yard for maybe two seconds, but then it goes silent and he’s gone.
It’s important that he gets away, you see. He’s still out there.
This was not my pitch, this was just for me, so I could believe in the alarm system, so I could see it. For the customer I had a whole different line of horse shit.
You have to work fast on the phone. Say hello, tell them where you’re calling from, then go right into it. You‘ve got about ten seconds to hook them. If in those ten seconds my bullshit isn’t working, naturally the customer hangs up. Many of them did this before I could say a word, two words, or they had silently done it while I was talking and I didn’t hear them.
There are things you’re supposed to say to keep them on the phone, tie-downs. Just as you’re about to hang up, just as you think your mind is made-up, you’re pulling the phone away from your ear, and then you hear my voice through the phone say something presumptuous, a little provocative, a little personal, a few words that get the phone back up to your sweaty ear. Sometimes I’d throw out a bogus crime statistic, sometimes I would say there was a free trial period. You want to know what was my favorite tie-down?
“But sir, isn’t the safety of your family important to you?”
That one made me uncomfortable at first, it just seemed like such a judgmental thing to say, like I was making the customer feel bad. And that’s why it worked every single time. I expected someone to say “How dare you, how dare you, say that I don’t care about my family?” Never happened. Not once. They always said things like “of course, of course, and I think my house is pretty secure, why would I need…” and the longer they talked to me, the more they found things to worry about in the world.
I’m not in the home security business anymore. It’s strange to think that I talked all of these people into buying this thing, really made them think it was worth their money, but could never convince myself of the same. Personally, I don’t think any of those tie-downs would have worked on me. I would have hung up on myself. I should have gone to work for Medico. Thwick!
I was eating in a crowded deli in the Flatiron District the other day, when a man a little older than myself asked if he could sit at my table. There was no place else for him to sit down, so I gestured at the chair with my head. The guy was a couple inches taller than me, his face was tanned, like he just got back from Florida or something. I imagined that this guy must be an actor, maybe even a famous actor, because his face had those large features that make you think of people in show business. The man carefully unwound the tan herringbone scarf from around his neck and pulled off his trench coat, draping them over the back of the chair. He wore a gray wool sport coat and pressed white shirt. The tanned skin of his neck was radiant against the open collar. Before he sat down, I caught another look at the scarf, and thought I’d ask him where he got it after I’d finished half my sandwich.
The man sat down and played with the toothpicks in his turkey club for a minute, and although I didn’t look up at him, I’m pretty sure he was staring at me, waiting to catch my attention.
“You look like a theatre-lover,” he said, his voice a rich baritone.
“Not in years,” I replied, trying to think of the last play I had seen. It was something called “Waiting for Lefty.” Crummy.
“Well, my name is Roderick Lansing, and I have written and produced an epic play at the Stella Adler Theatre. It is a large scale staging of the stand-off between the Jewish Zealots and the Romans at Masada, an exciting piece of theatre that has been playing to sold out houses since the beginning of its run.”
“Good for you,” I said.
“A block of tickets has just been made available to me, and I would very much like for you to see my play.”
“So you’re giving away some tickets?”
“Who would you bring with you to see it?”
“I don’t know. My wife, I supposed. Maybe I would double date with my buddy.”
“So, four total? In that case, I can release these tickets to you for only five dollars apiece.”
“I thought you were giving them away.”
“An evening of epic theatre for only five dollars, I don‘t think you‘ll find a better deal than that.”
“No thank you,” I said.
I always feel awkward saying no to a salesman. The man sighed and settled into his chair. I did not look up at him, but could sense the forlorn breathing of failure across the table. Then I looked at his hands, and he carefully removed the toothpick from one half of his turkey club. He held down the piece of whole wheat toast with his finger, waiting to eat.
“Never thought, at my age, I’d still be still be a street fighter,” he said.
Most of the salesmen I know don‘t like to talk about the rejection. We convince ourselves, both customer and salesman a like, that losing the sale is nothing personal. For every thirty hang-ups or no-thank-yous, I got someone to buy an alarm system. That ratio of rejection is a bit staggering, and I’ll admit that the hang-ups got to me; sometimes it rolled off and I didn‘t care, but other times, if a pitch suddenly went sour half-way through, or if a customer just got prickly and rude, then it really hurt. I‘ll admit that it hurt.
“Tell me the first scene,” I said. “If I like it, I’ll come see the rest.”
He stabbed the toothpick back into the sandwich.
“Okay,” he said, clearing his throat, shifting in his chair. He sat up straight, like a bird displaying itself.
“The audience is settling into their seats. It’s a little after eight o’clock. Quietly the strains of a violin are heard, so softly that you’re not sure if you hear it.” He spoke low, with a little rasp, trying to create a mood in the middle of the crowded deli. “The sound of the violin crescendo’s slightly as the house lights come down, and you are sitting in darkness. The lone violin is joined by a cello, and then a viola, and the sound of the instruments weaving and fugueing in a strange melody grows louder and louder in the darkness until it is abruptly cut off by a boom. Boom. Boom. A light from the side, like daylight, creeps up the floor and shines upon a huge wooden gate way. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. The doorway rattles and shakes, it is being struck on the other side by a battering ram, over and over again until suddenly the door bursts into flames. The flames fall away and we see the silhouette of Roman soldiers standing in the outline of the passageway, their long shadow cast across the stage. They are holding the battering ram, but you cannot see their faces. They drop the ram with a crash. Silently, the soldiers enter through the doorway, and as light floods the stage from all sides, we see a circle of ten men lying on the floor, dead. The Romans bow their heads and slowly walk off stage. The single violin plays again, very quiet this time. One by one, the men lying on the floor, the zealots, stir and pick themselves up as though waking from an afternoon nap. They tiredly shed their tunics and appear to be wearing, underneath, shorts and t-shirts. One begins to brush his teeth, another scratches himself and puts on his boots, while others stretch out their arms and walk about the stage, waking up. You hear bits of Hebrew and English, and as the men talk, the light on stage grows brighter and brighter, like high noon over the equator.
“You realize then, as the men pick up geological hammers and picks and sifters, that this is an archeological dig site at the bottom of a hill in the Judean desert. A great rock towers over the stage. As the chatter among the archeologists grows louder, you can hear them talking about the remains of the Masada zealots. They’re close to finding them, they know they are buried within the section of rock under excavation, and there is excitement among them about the find. As the chatter grows more animated, one of the men emerges from the group and walks down stage. This man… how to describe him? He is not quite young, but not old either. He has strong arms, creamy blue eyes.” Roderick stopped for a moment to clear his throat, and his hand suddenly twitched as though groping for something. I noticed that he had an imposing torso, wide across, and thick arms. He stared off at something behind my head, with eyes of creamy blue. “The man comes down to the front of the stage, staring off at the dead sea in contemplation. A young woman approaches him and embraces him from behind. ‘We’re close’ she says, hugging him tightly.
“‘Today we’ll know,’ the man says.
“‘Have you ever touched a human scull?’ the woman asks.
“The man replies, ‘Have you ever touched a piece of history?’
“The woman has a strange happiness, as though she will be relieved as soon as the bodies are found; as though this man whom she loves will be returned to her, now that he has found what he is looking for. Little does she know that the man was lost a long time ago, and that she will never have him.
“The man and woman begin to fight. He says he will stay on the dig for another six months and continue excavating Masada, rather than return to England and marry her.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Throughout the play, the man and woman realize that they are willing to make very different kinds of sacrifices for each other. After each scene that takes place during the excavation (in the 1960’s), the actors throw on the tunics again and act out a part of the zealots’ stand off with the Romans. Thus you watch history come to life before your eyes as it is excavated.”
I had to admit that this whole thing sounded a bit too obscure for me. What do I care for Jews and archeologists and love and mass suicide? The thing that intrigued me was that this man wrote the play, and that this character with the creamy blue eyes, the lead guy, seemed to be a reflection of himself. I realized then that, even if I did not want to see Roderick’s crummy play, I had to respect him, just for selling something he cared about, his life upon a stage. That was the tie down.
“Okay, Roderick,” I said. “Release four of those tickets to me.”
I handed a crisp, twenty across the table to him and he pulled four tickets from the inside pocket of his sport coat. We finished our sandwiches in silence.