Traveling Salesman

Story no. 15. I don’t want to talk about my problems with motivation, exhaustion, managing work from different parts of my life, and random emotional triggers, but I’ll try to get at least three more stories up this week. 


Vern was always trying to get us to buy his vacuum cleaners. He’d show up at the door of our room, a towel tied around his neck, clutching his oxygen tank like it was a briefcase. “Good morning, ladies,” he said, no matter what time of day it was. “Can I interest you in Gentility’s new model of vacuum cleaner?”

He was older than nearly anyone else in the nursing home. He had been a young man in the 1930s. After the bank had foreclosed on his family farm he had run through a whole series of jobs: asphalt layer, egg seller, roof repairman, and finally panhandler. The war had not been kind to him, but in the post-war boom he had found his true calling: door-to-door salesman. Nothing, not being a husband, not being a father, not being a son or a soldier or a farmer, suited him so well as the hard sell. All other parts of Vern’s life gradually came to pieces, but he remained Gentility’s top salesman until they closed their doors in 1974.

If you didn’t cut him off Vern would start into his list of features and benefits: Gentility’s Knight Royal model was lightweight, had a slim silhouette, increased capacity in the bag, comfortable grip on the handle; he’d just love to give us a demonstration, it was everything the modern housewife needed for her daily chores . . .

Usually Amanda buzzed her electric wheelchair right over to the door and shut it in his face. Amanda was thirty-two and had muscular dystrophy. She had been my roommate for over a year now, after Christie Whitaker had died of a heart attack in the cafeteria. It had taken me a good three months to realize it, but I liked Amanda. She was mean and she didn’t talk much. Once she had bitten an aid who had spoken to her in baby talk. The aid had quit that same day. I regarded Amanda with something just short of awe from that point onward. I wished I had the nerve to bite every person in my life who’d ever acted like an insufferable twit.

I got stuck in the nursing home when I broke my hip, and then no one came to get me afterward. It was all right. My only other option would have been going to live with my son, and I didn’t like his new wife very much, or his stepchildren. Or him, really. Daniel reminded me of all the things I’d ever done wrong in my life, like marry his father and quit my job as a typist for the Des Moines Register.

I didn’t mind the opportunity to pretend I was someone else with some other past. It bothered me when Vern got confused by the terrible meatloaf in the cafeteria and started crying about his second or third wife leaving him, and I didn’t particularly like having my blood pressure taken all the time. But Amanda mostly wanted to play video games – she had a console adapted to the only muscles she could rely on, her right elbow and her jaw – leaving me in peace to listen to NPR on the headphones Daniel had given me two Christmases ago. My hip had long since healed, but I still liked to roll gently around the garden sitting in a wheelchair, listening to broadcasts on color theory and the newest treatments for cancer loaded on an iPod. The radio is lovely; it’s like human interaction but without the need for me to think of anything to say. That always made Daniel’s father so angry – when I could never think of what to say. He wanted someone who would flatter his ego when he did something passably good and someone who would argue with him when he was angry so he could prove how smart he was.

Sometimes I think all I’ve ever wanted is to be left alone.

The Christmas before Vern died I spent mostly in my room. Amanda’s family had come to get her for the holiday weeks, so I had the whole place to myself. There was too much snow on the ground to go out in the garden much, and the aids tried to get me up and walking if they saw me taking my wheelchair out in the halls. I sat on my bed, then at our little table, then rolled back and forth in the wheelchair. I listened to This American Life, and Radiolab, and even Car Talk and finally Prairie Home Companion. I didn’t touch the TV because Amanda’s game console was set up on top.

On Christmas Day they’d organized a lunch and dinner for us that didn’t have our families picking us up. Daniel and his new wife were in Mexico over the holiday. I got a postcard of them looking sunburnt and irritated on the beach a few days after.

The sounds of talking and the shuddering of dinnerware held by shaky hands bounced down the hallway. I still sat in my room, my headphones on, finishing the last episode of Radiolab I’d downloaded from the computer in the activity room. A visiting high schooler had shown me how to do it. I debated starting my most recent favorite episode of This American Life over, the one about the two little girls switched at birth.

A knock at the door distracted me from fiddling with the round dial on my iPod. I sighed and stood up, and there was Vern with his oxygen tank and a towel around his neck.

“Good morning, ladies,” he said, looking nervously for Amanda over my shoulder. “Can I interest you in a demonstration of the new Gentility model of – “

“No,” I said. “Vern, why don’t you go on down to the Christmas dinner?”

“I’m on a work hours, ma’am,” he said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Mr. Vernon Rominsky, Gentility’s top salesman seventeen months running.” He gave me his best salesman smile. His dentures didn’t fit too well, and he had to push his glasses back up his nose as they slid floorward.

I tried to shut the door, but he set down his oxygen case hastily to block it. “Vern, you’re missing out on the roast beef,” I said.

“I can’t chew beef anymore,” he said. “Ma’am, this will only take a few minutes of your time.”

“You work on Christmas?” I said, a last-ditch effort to get him shuffling on his way.

“Big market for last-minute presents, ma’am. This will only take a few minutes of your time, ma’am.”

I looked down at the iPod in my hand, then back up at his crooked smile. The worst-case scenario, I supposed, was that he would leave his oxygen tank here under the guise of a vacuum cleaner, and I’d have to call one of the aids to carry it back to him. A huge sigh escaped my mouth, and I swung the door open wider. “I hope this doesn’t take too long.”

Vern toddled past me. He was so old he had shrunk into himself like a rotting tree. Soon he was pacing back and forth, dragging the oxygen tank and flopping the tubing around like he would massacre the dust bunnies hiding on top of the baseboard.

“Ma’am, who do I have the pleasure of speaking to this morning?” he stuttered. I was starting to get worried he was going to break the thing with how enthusiastically he was pushing it around.

“Dorothy Ann Hanson,” I said brusquely.

“Well, Mrs. Hanson, I’ve sold over a hundred of these very same vacuums, and –“

“Miss,” I said.

“What?” he said, squinting at me.

“Miss Hanson. You can call me Miss Hanson.”

“You’re not married?” he said. “I can hardly believe that such – that such a pretty lady –“

I sighed as I sank into my bed. “Married and divorced, Vern. You know that.”

“Do I?” he said. Suddenly he seemed very far away from the other people in the room – me and the salesman he had been. “I was divorced.”

“You were divorced twice,” I said. “And the third one died. You told us that. Remember? Two weeks ago? You were crying into your meatloaf. I think that was meatloaf.”

“Nancy died,” he said, sounding like he might start crying again.

I sighed. “Yes, Nancy died.”

“And Laura didn’t want to stay,” he said. He dropped into one of the chairs by our little table.

“Why’d Laura sign up for life with you in the first place?” I muttered. Vern brought up the cruelty of his second wife at least once a week for anyone who would listen. My fingers always went to my little iPod and started petting the stop button when he got like that.


“Why – “


“Why’d you marry Laura in the first place?” I yelled.

He stared at a place inside his glasses. “We were in love, I guess.”

“Well, that’s good,” I said. “I don’t think I was ever in love with Daniel’s father.”

“You weren’t?” he asked. “Why’d you marry someone you didn’t love?”

His oxygen tank got real interesting. I traced the plastic casing with my eyes. “Well, I thought – “

“What’d you think?” he snapped, his eyebrows dropping. I wasn’t sure if he was here with me, as Vern-the-ninety-year-old, and somewhere in the past, as Vern-the-farmboy, or Vern-the-salesman. Vern-the-failed-husband, Vern-the-orphan. How many different Verns had he been, in the whole stretch of his lifetime?

“Thought I was running out of time,” I said. “I thought I was getting too old. I suppose I’m old anyway now.”

He nodded slowly. “I suppose.”

“What’s that feel like, then? Being in love? What was being in love with Laura like?” I asked.

A laugh started from somewhere deep in his belly, somewhere behind the old salesman mask made of plastic and Brillo cream, and he bent double with the force of it. He sat up, gasping, but really grinning now. “It was like everything,” he said. His dentures leaped forward and he shoved them impatiently back into his mouth. “It was like winning a hundred dollars on a horse down at the racetrack. It was like a big ole burger when you’re hungry as hell, or an ice cold beer when you’re so thirsty you could just die.”

I looked at my hands. I’d put on a pink silk blouse today, because it didn’t have too many buttons, and it seemed nice to dress up for Christmas. “Once I went to church as a little girl, and I saw a bird fly in through the open window and land on the pastor’s shoulder, like he was reading the Scriptures along with him,” I mused. My knuckles hurt. I didn’t miss keeping up the garden. “I laughed until I just about died, and my mother smacked me on the ear, and I laughed anyway. I always wondered if maybe falling in love was something like that.”

Vern stared at me through those enormous glasses, the ones that look like they started life as safety goggles, but he didn’t say anything.

“How much are you selling this vacuum cleaner for?” I snapped, throwing out my hand at the oxygen tank.


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