Wednesday, April 19, 2006

cleanup reprint: rediscuverd story

note: this post furst appeared on 3/2/2005. i am deletin the ole one to git rid of the filthy lanks in the comments. i plan to do this fer a while till i git it all cleaned up. thankee fer yer indulgents.

as ye mite member, ifn ye read this here blog everday, i jes gut thru a ruff spell of migraines, witch whenever them erbs started makin me feel better, i deecided to go thru sum of my ole papers, the ashes frum witch i wonted to rise as the phoenix duz. innywho, i wuz sprized to find sum stories i figgerd i had dun lost, lack thisn. i hope ye enjoy it.

Blind Sales

"Cookeville is a mistake, that's all," said Benny Dexter.

"Any place you have to work is a mistake, Benny," Eddie Murray replied. "You haven't sold a single set of books this month. You're working on your last advance."

"Get off my back, will you?"

"Tonight's the last night of the month. 'No tickee, no shirtee,' as the chinks say. I'm sorry, Benny, but I can't have a man taking up space who can't sell."

Benny sunk further down into his seat and stared at the dusty grey-green scenery bordering I-40 from the window of Eddie Murray's well-used Ford LTD. All five salesmen sat listening to the hum of the steel-belted radials as they rolled eastwards towards Cookeville. It had been a long road trip -- Saturday would mark three weeks -- and everyone but Eddie Murray, the boss, was ready to get back to Knoxville. Everyone but Benny had written at least two orders for Universal Scholars Encyclopedia, and everyone blamed Benny for the stop in Cookeville, all knowing that this was Benny's last trip if he couldn't find an order.

"But you know Cookeville's still got Green River Laws, Eddie," Benny said. "We'll all just end up in jail with fines to pay."

"Let me worry about that, Benny. Hell, I paid every fine we've ever run across. Ain't that right, Berlin?"

"Yeah, Eddie, but far as I know we never had any fines. You talked your way out of that little scrape in Asheville."

"He's paid," Scott Jamison said. "Remember Jackson?

"That was different," Benny said. "His car was impounded."

"Cut the chatter, men. It's Cookeville tonight."

"Green River, you mean."

"Listen, Benny, there's just two ways to look at that," Eddie said, turning completely around to look at Benny.

"Watch the road, Boss!" Berlin said, taking the wheel.

Eddie ignored Berlin. "Either they ain't enforcing the law, in which case you got no gripe. Or they are enforcing it, which means the town's a regular gold mine. Moochville. Either way, we win."

"That's right," Scott said. "It's your attitude that's killing you, Benny."

"Aw, what do you know? You're just a kid."

"Maybe he's washed up," Berlin said. "Thirty-eight years old and still pounding pavement. I'd kill myself if I couldn't do any better."

"Be careful of what you say, Kid," Benny said. "You're not far behind me. It happens quicker than you think."

"Especially when you shrug your shoulders and give up, eh Benny?" Eddie said.

"You gotta have faith to sell," Berlin added.

"Faith, hell! How about some music?" Eddie asked. "Let's get positive. Tonight we sell." He began slapping the dashboard and singing his favorite fight song, as he called it.

"Put your hand in the hand of the man who writes the order! C'mon, let's hear some spirit!" Berlin, Scott Jamison, and even the quiet man from New York City, Pat O'Flynn, joined in.

"Put your hand in the hand of the man who writes the order!

"Put your hand in the hand of the man with the guarantee!

"Take a look at our books and you will look at others differently!

"You're gonna give your hand to the man with the plan from U.S.E."

Benny did not join in. What are we anyway? Cheerleaders? A glee club? No, we're salesmen, most of us just kids at that. Damned Eddie Murray and his kids from K-town, all sittin comfortably on at least two orders. Meanwhile, I'm slumping, slumping bad. Almost two months without an order, damn it all. Not that it's my fault. Whoever heard of a company that refuses to sell to blacks or preachers or single parents? Whoever heard of having to have both the husband and wife present before the sale can even begin? Whoever heard of a canned spiel "from which no salesman at U.S.E. may ever deviate," as our devious Eddie Murray puts it. And tonight's my last chance -- sell or get out. And don't forget about the $200 I owe Eddie. And Rhonda'll leave me for sure if I came home jobless, further in debt. And Cookeville, damn it, Cookeville for my last chance.

"Cookeville, ten miles!" Eddie cried, bringing the singing to a halt. "Benny boy, why so quiet? Are you giving up already?"

"Just drive, Eddie. That's what you're good for. Drive us here, drive us there, drive us mad with your --"

"-- Maybe I should just let you out here." He slowed the car nearly to a halt, causing cars behind him to honk their horns as they drove around.

"I'm sorry, Eddie. I'm just nervous. Can't you understand that?"

"Well, why don't you sing with us, get rid of your nerves?"

They sang until they reached Cookeville. Benny joined in -- it beat thinking.

Eddie knew Cookeville just as he knew Jackson and Lebanon and Gallatin and Pulaski and Columbia and every other little or big town in Tennessee and North Carolina. Eddie knew places he'd never seen before. As always, he first drove around, scouting out the neighborhoods to place his men.

"I'll let you out first, Benny. You need all the help you can get."

"Thanks for nothing, Eddie."

It was only 5:30, but the evening was dark and cold already. Husbands were just arriving home to their families, eating dinner, spanking kids, watching TV -- no time to be knocking on doors to sell books.

"Look at this gold mine," Eddie said, referring to an older neighborhood filled with wood-frame houses, dirt driveways, garden spots, old trees.

"This is no gold mine, Eddie, and you know it," Benny said. "Or if it's got any gold in it, it's just oldie goldies, poor old folks who can hardly write their own names. Look at those lawns -- not a toy on 'em except for one big wheel, and I bet it belongs to a grandchild."

"And you wonder why you can't sell, Benny? Damn, son, you give up before you give it a try. Aint this neighborhood a regular mooch city, Berli?"

"Looks great to me, Boss."

"Why don't you let him have it, Eddie? Put me out next to an elementary school, and I'll sell you some books."

"I wouldn't waste a territory like that on you, Pal. You want good territory, you show me you can sell. Now get out and get going."

"Eddie, this ain't fair. I don't have t chance in this retirement village."

"You don't have a chance with that attitude. Old people read too, you know."

"So you admit the neighborhood's full of oldie goldies?"

"I didn't say that. Now get out and sell me some books. I'll see you around eleven."

Benny climbed from the warm Ford into a cold January evening. He watched Eddie's bright red car disappear around a bend in the two lane road. Dogs barked. The wind found the weak spots in Benny's plaid leisure suit and his long underwear. He put his briefcase on the road, buttoned up his yellow shirt, turned up his collar, and sat, crossing his legs for warmth, on his briefcase.

I wonder how long it would take to die from exposure out here? That's fix old Eddie. Rhonda, too, for that matter. No wonder I'm slumping when you think about all the support I don't get. All Rhonda can think about is when I'll get home and how much money I lost. Damn her anyway, just once she could say, "How much did you make this trip?" instead of "How much do we owe Eddie now?" I should have been a janitor like her -- at least she's got warm inside work, a steady check, benefits, good hours, no traveling.

Benny stood up, patted his clothes until they were reasonably unwrinkled, searched his pockets and found he had three dollars and seventy-two cents.

I wonder if there's a movie house nearby. Cant' be knocking doors at this hour. Too early for movies, too, for that matter. Cup of coffee, that's what I need. Cup of coffee, a comb of the little hair I've go left.

Benny began walking down the road, following an unquestioned intuition that led him to a Git'n Go Market. There he bought a coffee and a Snickers candy bar. He finished them while lingering about the store, checking out reflection in the window.

Face it, Benny, you're a lumpy old loser. Hair's gone, really, except for the patches around the ears and back of the head. It's not fair, really: bald at thirty-eight. What was it that little punk Berlin said? "Thirty-eight and still pounding pavement. I'd kill myself if I couldn't do any better." The little brat. I'd love to show him. So what if I'm thirty-eight, bald, with a nose like a potato, wrinkles like a raisin -- I've got experience, that's what counts. I roll like a pair of dice with every punch and come up... well, I've been coming up short lately.

A woman and her young son came into the market for cigarettes, milk and eggs. The boy was begging for a candy bar. His mother ignored his desperate pleading until she reached the counter at which point the boy grabbed a Butterfingers. At that, she slapped his hand, replacing the candy.

"Excuse me," Benny said.

The woman looked around, as if trying to determine whom Benny could be addressing.

"Excuse me, ma'am. I couldn't help overhearing your boy begging for candy. I was wondering, do you live around here?"

"Yes, we do," the boy said, his eyes sparkling with hope that the strange man would supply his candy.

"Don't talk to strange men, honey," the woman said, stalking past Benny and pulling the boy with her.

"I'm no strange man! I'm a salesman!"

"Is he a tramp, Mommy?" Benny heard the little boy say as the door slammed shut.

"No, I'm not a tramp!" Benny called, taking a step in the direction of the door. "I'm not tramp, really, just a... lumpy loser..." Benny realized he was mumbling only to himself. He retrieved his empty cup, considered getting more coffee, changed his mind and threw the cup away.

"Will that be all?" asked the clerk, a round elderly man -- he looked like someone's grandfather -- in a white apron. When Benny nodded his head, the man pointed to a sign above the pay phone: No Loitering.

"Thanks for the hospitality, Sir."

Benny left the store and walked to the edge of the store's parking lot. Too cold to say outside, Benny boy, you're gonna have to knock on some doors.

Benny approached the first house on his left, a green wood frame structure sitting up on cinder blocks with a bare patch of dirt for a yard. A brightly colored, plastic tricycle suggested children.

Benny placed his briefcase against the house where it wouldn't be noticed. He then patted his comb-over till it felt as if it covered his head, took a deep breath and knocked on the door, using his lucky knock: three quick raps, a short pause, then one loud rap. A black woman, wearing pink curlers in her hair, a blue wrap-around dress, red tennis shoes and white socks, opened the door and stared at Benny with her mouth and eyes opened wide with curiosity and confusion.

I'll be damned. First house I come to's got nothin' but coloreds in it. I hope the whole neighborhood isn't colored.

"Good evening, ma'am. My name is Benjamin Dexter. Would you like to buy a set of encyclopedias?" That's it, Benny, best way someone from buying books is to tell them you're selling books.

"No sir, we don't need no books."

"Thanks for your time," Benny said, stooping to pick up his briefcase and walking away. The woman stared after him until he was well out of sight before closing the door. Benny passed three houses, all with dirt yards, before he tried another house. This one looked more prosperous -- if not more promising -- with its neatly trimmed yard, comfortable porch, and brand new Plymouth Fury III station wagon. This time Benny was cordially invited into the house by an attractive white woman who looked about thirty-nine years old. Her brown hair was streaked with blonde highlights, her face made up with blue eye shadow and pale pink lipstick, and she wore a blue wool pantsuit. Before Benny could ask, she introduced her husband, Milton Jones, a grey-headed man who had let fat and middle age distort the hard lines of what looked like the body of an athlete. Two children could be heard squabbling with one another in a room adjoining the living room.

Hot damn, Benny boy, you have hit gold now! Maybe Eddie was right. Maybe this is Moochville. No encyclopedias, beautiful wife, bright-but-not-too-intelligent-looking husband, a mantle full of family pictures, two bookshelves, BUT NO ENCYCLOPEDIAS. Benny boy, you've got to do these folks a favor!

"Yes, thank you. No, I drink mine black," Benny said as he accepted a cup of coffee from Mrs. Jones, who took a place on the couch next to her husband, curling her legs underneath her.

"That ought to be a picture, ma'am. You and the mister look like you're really happy people. I'd say you have as good a grasp on what life's really all about -- that is, I can only react to what I've seen so far, but --"

"Why, thank you, Mr. Dexter," Mr. Jones responded. "My wife and I try, in our own humble way, to walk in the way of the Lord."

This called the first Psalm to Benny's mind -- "Blessed is the man who walks not in the council of the wicked?" -- and he very smoothly made the transition from religion to reading to his company to his spiel. Within half an hour, he had littered the living room with brightly colored, glossy papers, all of them designed to reinforce the attractiveness of the offer he was making -- one set of Universal Scholars Encyclopedia, a ten-volume set of classics of the western world, including those two great Christian works which no home should be without, The Confessions of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica AND a twelve-volume set of youth classics, which included seventy-two full color illustrations, extra large print, Huckleberry Finn, The Stories of Jesus, and the Grimms' Fairy Tales, all of which could belong to the Joneses for as little as twelve dollars down and twelve dollars per month for forty-eight months, a bargain at twice the price AND -- Benny seemed to remember just in time -- a special bookcase to house the entire research center and learning library which was being offered this week only to help sales. Benny coaxed the Jones family all along the way. The children came to watch the show just before Benny surprised everyone with the revelation that the two-volume Universal Scholars Dictionary would be included in the deal. He made certain they answered each of the seemingly harmless questions affirmatively, setting them up either to admit to being liars or to agree to his terms when he recalled all of the questions. And of course, just before the Joneses began to realize how serious things had turned, he told them the company joke. The Joneses laughed, which caused Benny to laugh since he'd told the same joke a thousand times and never failed with it.

Now you're cooking with gas, Benny boy. Wrap up this one -- who knows, maybe I'll pull off a double -- and I'm back in the good graces of Rhonda and Eddie. Commission of $125 leaves only $75 I owe Eddie, and if I get a double, I'll --

"You know, honey, I ought to order two sets," Mr. Jones was saying.

"Two?!" Benny heard himself foolishly enquire. Let him buy two if he wants them! Don't ask questions. "I think that would be a wonderful idea, Mr. Jones. Nothing makes a better gift than knowledge, and when you give books, you give --"

"Oh, I wasn't thinking about a gift, Mr. Dexter. I was thinking about The Church."

"The Church?"

"Didn't I mention it? Milton is the pastor of the Primitive Baptist Church."

"Pastor? Oh, how noble, Mr. Jones."

Damn! Shit on again! May your collection plates leak, Mr. Preacher Man. Maybe his wife works.

"I'm the director of the choir myself, Mr. Dexter. If you'll be in town tomorrow, we'd be proud to have you visit --"

"No, we'll be in Knoxville later this evening, Mrs. Jones."

How am I going to call off the sale?

"Of course, I am required by law to tell you that there will be both interest and shipping charges included in the deal. The APR comes out to twenty per cent, meaning that you'll pay nearly six hundred dollars for a set of books that sells for a cash price of little over three hundred."

"No problem, Mr. Dexter. Interest is a way of life anymore. The Bible commands us to avoid usury when lending, but when one borrows -- and what could one better borrow that the means to acquire knowledge, Mr. Dexter?"

"Excuse me, Mr. Jones. I have to go."

"But we haven't signed the papers, Mr. Dexter. Surely you'll want our signatures? Our money?"

Benny had his prospectus and advertisers packed into his briefcase. He offered his hand to Mr. Jones, who allowed Benny to squeeze his damp, limp fingers before Benny began heading for the door.

"We'll be in touch, Sir. Two sets of books? Yes Sir, we'll be in touch!"

Benny left.

Holy shit! Damned preachers! Damned company, damned world! Why can't preacher be trusted after all? Just because they put their Faith in God, we can't put faith in them? It's not fair. Maybe preachers have proven a bad risk in the past as a group, but what about this Jones character with his new station wagon and his well-dressed wife and his two story house? Can't exceptions be made?

After walking well out of sight of the house, turning a corner to an even darker street, Benny sat his briefcase up, sat on it, dropped his forehead onto his palms and tried to cry. He could get the frown. He could even make his eyes water, but he could not make himself cry. After he'd sat long enough to get cold, he checked his watch. Seven thirteen. Three hours and seventeen minutes until Eddie picks me up. If he's on time. Damn! Too cold to sit still.

Benny passed three frame houses before deciding to cross the street to try a house with a white picket fence surrounding the yard. A grey-headed grandmotherly woman answered.

"Good evening, Ma'am. My name is Benjamin Dexter. Would you like to buy a set of encyclopedias?"

"Lawsy day, honey, what do I need with a set of books? I'll be dead before I could read through one of them."

"Well, listen, Ma'am, I'm desperate. Do you know anyone in the neighborhood who'd be interested? Someone with kids in elementary school, maybe?"

"I do declare, you've come to the right place. The people next door were wishing for a set just the other day. They've go three little --"

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ma'am! I do appreciate it."

Benny jumped from the porch, hopped the fence and ran to the house next door, a small yellow frame building set back from the road. In the dim light from the porch, Benny could see a bright blue shovel lying next to the walk and a rusty dump truck with three wheels jammed into the lawn.

This is it, Benny boy.

Benny paused, checked his comb-over, caught his breath, hid his briefcase, and knocked on the door, purposely avoiding his lucky knock. The door opened so suddenly that Benny flinched. An old hand stretched towards him.

"Welcome, Brother, come on in!"

Benny took the hand and was pulled into a living room filled with people wearing suits or dresses, holding books, and drinking fruit punch. An old man with a crooked nose and brown teeth clapped him on the back.

"Am I interrupting something?"

"You can't interrupt the work of the Lord, Son," the man answered.


"Amen, Brother!"

"Brother, we want you to consider the crooked path that brought you to the door of salvation. Meditate on the sin and inequity of your past life. Have you suffered, Brother?"


"Have you been sore afflicted by the powers of the world?"

"Well, you might say that."

Benny was being led around the room by two men, one on either side of him, each with an arm linked through his.

"Have you been cursed and spat upon?"

"Uh, sort of."

"Have you been cold? Have you been lonely? Have you been seeking, seeking, seeking in the land of your fathers, looking for the love of a real Father, our great Master?"

"Not real--"

"Have you been knocking? Have you been asking?"

"Well, yes, but--"

"Then, Brother, you've come to the right place. We want you to bow down to the Lord and be cleansed. Oh, Brother, I can feel the trials and tribulations you have been through."

"You can?"

"I know you're seeking a rock of certainty in a world of shifting sands. I know you're seeking the answer to many questions. You're empty inside, Brother. You've been hungry, poor, naked, in spirit if not in flesh. What you want is an answer. The truth, Brother, the truth shall set you free!"

"Amen, Brother!"


"Praise Jesus!"

"But--" Benny said.

"Don't say 'but' before the altar of the Lord!"

"Well, actually, I--"

"Is there nothing you really want in life?"

"Ask it of the Lord, Brother. He can do anything."

"Well, I..."

"You want certainty? You want proof? Ask the Lord for anything, and He shall deliver. Kneel down, brother!"

"Take your petition to the Lord!"

"Kneel down, Brother, and receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit."

"Ask and ye shall receive."

"Knock and it shall be opened unto you.:

"All right, all right."

Benny knelt on the altar, a wooden structure covered with a strip of purple carpeting. He let them fold his hands and begin praying for his soul and the just petitions of his wounded heart.

All right, God, if You're up there, what I want is an order. No, make that five orders. I ask it not only because I want proof, but because I need to provide for my wife. Besides, I want to humble the biggest sinner I know, Eddie Murray.

When the praying was over, Benny stood up to face the gathered sheep, as they were calling themselves. Boldly he look at them, sizing them up.

"See, the power of the Holy Spirit is in him. Look at his eyes!"

"Oh, save me, Jesus!"


"Praise the Lord!"

Benny stepped forward. He turned to his host.

"Who wants to be the first to buy a set of encyclopedias complete with The Stories of Jesus, St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa and The Confessions of St. Augustine?"



"I'm a book salesman. I've just prayed for five orders. Who'll be the first?"

"Thou shalt not tempt the Lord, thy God!"

"Well, I've got to sell a set of books."

"Not in the house of the Lord, you don't. '...and he entered into the temple and began to cast out them that sold and them that bought in the temple.'"

"Amen, Brother!"

Benny left, apologizing as he found the door.

Soon he was back on the street, sitting on his briefcase, trying to cry. Before he could even get his eyes wet, a car stopped across from him, and a bright light was shined into his eyes.

"Good evenin, Sir. Could we see some identification?"

Benny stood up, patted his hair, and took a deep breath. At least I'll be warm in jail.

They reached the jail at 7:53 according to Benny's digital watch. Benny followed the officers into what looked to him like a lounge, but a police radio in the background suggested the true function of the building. The lounge was loaded with uniformed police, some of them punching in for the evening, some of them, ties loosened, punching out. One, a tall but chubby man with down pink cheeks and a harelip, came over to inspect Benny more closely.

"What're you selling?"


"Books? What kind?"

"Encyclopedias. Universal Scholars Encyclopedias."

"Oh yeah, I've heard of them. You must be associated with Tennessee Tech."

"Yeah, you might say that." What difference does it make who I'm associated with? In a way, I'm associated with everyone.

"Mind if I look through this?" the policeman asked, flipping through the pages of Benny's prospectus.

"Not at all, Mr --" Benny checked the officer's name tag, "Mr. Mullins. Feel free to look through everything I've got."

"Why, that's right neighborly of you. Nice book."


Another officer came over. Benny leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. The second office, a man named Partridge who wore a busy moustache and no gun, apologized in advance for having to search Benny's person.

"No problem, Sir. Really."

The officer began his search.

"Uh, Mr. Partridge?"


"Has anyone ever mentioned that you bear a striking resemblance to Friedrich Nietzsche?"

"Who, me?" Partridge said, standing back to tug on his moustache and look more carefully at Benny. "Who's he?"

"He's one of the world's greatest philosophers. You know, like Plato and Aristotle and Will Rogers."

"Really? I look like a great philosopher?"

"One of the greatest. That's just one of the many things you're learn if you had a set of Universal Scholars Encyclopedias."

"Lemme see that book, Mullins."

"After you finish frisking him."

"This will take only a minute, Mr. Dexter."

Partridge patted Benny in all of the usual places.

"Could you empty your pockets, please?"

Benny pulled out his wallet, some change, a plastic comb, his keys and a bundle of pamphlets he'd never seen before. He glanced at one of the titles -- "The Truth Shall Set You Free" -- as he handed them over to the policeman.

"Mullins, take a look at this," Partridge handed one of the pamphlets to Mullins.

"Hey, Johnson! We've got one of yours. Pentecostal?"


"I say, are you a Pentecostal?"

"Uh, well, isn't it obvious? I don't like to make a show if it. 'Pride goeth before a fall...'" and Benny very smoothly made the transition from religion to reading to his company to his spiel, which he modified to fit the circumstances. By 8:45, he'd written not five but six orders, complete with the forged signatures of the officers' wives.

"Praise the Lord," he said as he wrote the last order.

"Amen, Brother," Johnson replied.

"Hallelujah!" Mullins said. "A religious salesman."

"After all, Gentlemen," Benny said, "we are all salesmen for the greatest salesman of them all, Jesus Christ, who offers the greatest bargain of all, the salvation of our immortal souls for the price of our mere acceptance of His eternal gift."

"Amen, brother!"

"Hallelujah, I can't wait to get home with the news."

Shaking hands with Benny and thanking him again for the blessed opportunity of purchasing a set of his books, Officers Partridge, Mullins, Johnson, Emery, Patterson, and Williams left the station.

Benny found himself almost alone, the single exception being the dispatcher, a seventeen-year old member of the bean pole family with a head of greasy curls. Benny sat next to the dispatcher and looked through his order again.

"This has been the greatest night of my life," he said.

"You sure do know your Bible," the dispatcher answered.

"Well, 'Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after knowledge, for they shall be full of it.'"

The dispatcher blushed and looked at his hands. The two sat in silence that was only occasionally broken by routine radio calls. Around 9:20 by Benny's watch, things began picking up. A salesman had been apprehended near the Woodland Elementary School. Another had been seen in the university neighborhood. While the dispatcher was answering calls on the radio, Benny helped out by answering the phone.

"Cookeville police department, Sergeant Dexter speaking."

"Sergeant Dexter?! This is Eddie Murray, Benny boy What are you doing there?"

"Helping out."

"Are you under arrest?"

"Sort of."

"Well, I'll be right in. How much is the fine?"

Benny asked the dispatcher about the fine.

"Fifty bucks, Eddie."

"Fifty bucks!"

"And Eddie. They got us all. That's a total of two hundred--"

"I can add, damn it."

"Well, why don't you get in here? I wrote a few orders. Six, to be precise."

"You what?"

"You'll see when you get here. Oh, and Eddie?"

"What now?"

"Thanks for putting me out in Cookeville."

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