The Salesman


The old wooden door had been recently painted. Green. Olive green. Olive, though, might have been a bad comparison. Olives, to him, were deliciously transcendent. The food of the gods. The colour of the door was stomach-churningly putrid. Or so he thought as he brought his knuckles close enough to knock, close enough to feel the radiant chill of the wood tingle through his skin even though his fist was still several millimetres from actually touching it. He hesitated, turning his head in the direction of a nearby sound. The sound was that of a cat, scurrying from beneath a bush – it was too dark to specify the genus of either the feline or the plant – which made him feel nervous. His stomach tightened. The cat, he thought, was black - though he couldn’t be certain because the evening light was dim and colours were starting to fade. He had a problem with colours anyway. Blues and greens in particular. Sometimes. The door was definitely green. Putrid green. Putrid greens he saw. He not only saw, he felt them in the pit of his stomach. Colours often had a visceral effect on him. He knew what he saw and he knew what he felt, it’s just that he sometimes confused them. Or other people did. He couldn’t be certain. Why was he wrong and they right? Just because people said he was mistaken didn’t mean he actually was. It was all a question of percentages – as were most things in life. A percentage of people saw blue as green and green as blue. Not many but some. But who’s to say they were wrong? Why was he wrong just because he was in the minority? On the other hand, anyone would have had trouble determining the colour of the cat because of the light. It could have been brown or a musty grey. Colours change, he thought. It isn’t only a matter of the eyes. It’s a question of atmospheric conditions. What are colours anyway? Simply a refraction of light. Why does the sun sometimes look orange, sometimes yellow and sometimes mealy maroon? It hadn’t changed physically. It was a trick brought on by different conditions in the upper reaches of orbital space – clouds, dust, water particles, magnetism, they all had their affect on the spectrum. The sun wasn’t any particular colour – or rather it was all colours. So why were people so pernickety about the colour of his socks? Who cared if he called them green and they were, according to others, actually blue? (Of course, when one was green and the other blue he did become more noticeable and certain people did tend to point at him and snigger, but that was another issue, he thought.)

There was a clicking sound and then the porch light went on, startling him. He didn’t hear anyone coming to the door. The drapes were still closed around the front windows. Perhaps it was an automatic light, he thought, on a timing switch or triggered by the approaching dusk. He waited a moment, listening for sounds. Then, looking down, at his scuffed shoes, he lifted his foot, first the right and then the left, rubbing them against the side of his trousers while holding onto the doorknob for balance. He inspected them again. Didn’t do much good, he thought. But at least he made the effort. They should appreciate that, shouldn’t they? Well, perhaps not. How would they know? Scuffed shoes are scuffed shoes. Would they actually wonder whether he had rubbed them against his trousers in an attempt to make them less scuffed? Who in their right mind thinks of things like that?

But perhaps they’re not in their right minds, he thought. What are right minds, in fact? The notion of ‘right minds’ implies minds that are not right. Therefore they’re wrong – which brought him back to the colour question. Simply a matter of percentages. Right and wrong. Very relative. Einstein proved that, didn’t he? Not about minds, of course, but it could have been. Who’s to say that Einstein didn’t first consider relativity as a matter of right minds or wrong ones?

He looked down at his shoes again and then wondered about his socks. Maybe he did have one green and one blue right now. He couldn’t actually tell. The green socks were greenish blue and the blue socks were bluish green. How much green or how much blue it took to tilt them into the appropriate category was beyond him. If he had the money, he would have bought new socks – all green or all blue. Then he wouldn’t have a problem. He’d throw the others away before he unwrapped the new ones. But he didn’t have the money, so there was no point thinking about it. Besides, if he had all green socks or all blue socks, what would he do with his brown blazer which he desperately loved even though it was getting a bit threadbare? Couldn’t he buy just a pair or two of brown socks to match? He thought about it for a moment and then shook his head. He didn’t have any money anyway so why bother his brain with such complications?

He looked down at his shoes again. They really didn’t look so bad, he thought. Not compared to a derelict he saw the other day who he had witnessed methodically carving a piece of old cardboard to fill a gaping hole in the bottom. The shoes were old army boots, he imagined. Maybe from the Second World War by the looks of them. What he thought most interesting was how the old man seemed to do the job of patching his boot with care, with … he considered the word carefully. What came to mind was ‘tenderness’. Was that the word he was looking for? Perhaps not. He thought of his brown blazer which had been with him for more years than he could remember and how he was loath to throw it out even though some unkind soul had accused it of smelling mildewed. So in a way he could understand the rumpled old fellow who seemed quite attached to his ancient boots even though who knows where they came from. Army boots were probably worn by someone in the army, he thought. Therefore they had an aura of adventure, of danger, of.. (he smiled to himself, as if some great insight had been broached) … youth. Well, it probably wasn’t a great insight – a minor one, more likely. Whatever, major or minor, it was an insight none the less. The old man could have been a soldier and was attracted to the boots simply because it reminded him of when he was young. But the boots were old, he remembered. Perhaps even as old as the man. Probably not, though. Leather doesn’t last that long unless someone is taking extra special care and rubbing it with softeners like neatsfoot oil and taking it to the shoe repair shop on a regular basis. The old man didn’t seem the type to have done that. He clearly didn’t have the capital for such expensive upkeep. So even though he might have been in the army when he was young, the boots probably weren’t his then. They most likely belonged to anther soldier. In fact, they could have even belonged to another army. But what army? Rubbing his chin, he tried to recall the exact appearance of the boots and whether there was anything significant about them that might have denoted nationality. They were black, laceups with sixteen grommets, he estimated. The toe was rounded. He couldn’t remember anything else.

Suddenly he felt his left ear twitch. Was it his imagination or did he actually hear creaking floor boards? He tried to listen as intently as he did back in his room when he was listening for the dung beetle that lived, he suspected, under his bed and would come out at night when it thought he was asleep to munch on the newspaper clippings that filled several boxes stacked haphazardly on his floor. The more intently he listened the more certain he was that someone was actually coming to the door. Of course, he felt that way about the dung beetle as well, only to be disappointed when he flung on the lights hoping to catch the little bugger in the act of actually devouring his clippings in its miniscule jaws, and slavering that ugly yellow juice over the type making his clippings even more difficult to decipher as he had recently broken his reading glasses and couldn’t afford to have them repaired just now. Unfortunately he never caught it in its profane act. (He often wonder what he would actually do if he did. He was loath to kill it. And evicting it was not something he could do without a great deal of angst and anguish as they had been roommates for so long. He probably would have put it in a box, the same kind he kept his clippings in, and feed it adverts for Toyota 4 by 4s – or something of the sort.)

As he was thinking of the dung beetle, trying to visualise it feasting on his cuttings, the door of putrid green swung open. At first, he wasn’t sure he hadn’t actually imagined it. Perhaps it was just an hallucination. He hadn’t knocked. At least he didn’t remember knocking. Maybe he had. He was becoming extraordinarily forgetful. So for a moment he simply stood there in a state that he later described as ‘flusterment’.

‘ Yes? Can I help you?’

He squinted his eyes. There was a voice. He definitely heard a voice emanating from the space that the open door had provided. But it was dark inside. And his sight was far from perfect.

The voice spoke again. It was more insistent this time, ‘Did you want something? Why are you here?’

‘ I .. eh … yes …’ he stammered, trying to overcome his confusion.

‘ Yes? Yes what? What are you doing standing on my porch?’

He looked down at his shoes, his scruffy shoes. Indeed, he was standing on the porch and he assumed the porch he was standing on belonged to the invisible voice that was questioning him. But exactly why he was standing there suddenly escaped him.

‘ Speak up, young man!’ the voice bellowed - though ‘bellow’ isn’t exactly the term he would have used to describe it had he time to think it out, which he did only later. Then he would have referred to the sound as rather forceful but not particularly loud (as ‘bellow’ would imply). In fact it was quite controlled and almost melodic in tone. And later he wondered whether the voice wasn’t actually trained as an opera singer or, perhaps, an announcer on radio. But then it sounded pretty much like a bellow and it frightened him.

‘ I’m sorry,’ he apologised. And then in a tone that could only be described as ‘tremulous’ (both then and later), he added, ‘I’ll go…’

But as he turned to go, the voice called out to him. ‘Wait!’

He turned back, now more confused than ever. And he looked in the voice’s direction, questioningly.

‘ You forgot you valise,’ the voice said.

‘ My valise?’

‘ Your attaché case, then.’

‘ Attaché case?’

‘ Well, what is that piece of luggage sitting on my porch?’

He looked back to where he had been standing and, indeed, there was a narrow rectangular box with a handle on the porch right where he had been. And it did look familiar.

‘ Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘My samples …’ He looked at it and nodded. ‘My samples … of course.’

There was a moment of silence. Then the voice said, ‘What are you waiting for?’

Looking around, he wondered the same thing himself. What was he waiting for? A bus? No, he didn’t remember taking a bus here. How did he get there then? He didn’t own a car. He didn’t even have a license. In fact, he didn’t know how to drive, having never actually been behind a steering wheel. No, he hated cars. And he definitely didn’t come by taxi, because first, he couldn’t afford it and second, he hated cars. Cars were the bane of his life, he would say to anyone who would listen (though most people wouldn’t). How much he would have rather come of age at a time when cars hadn’t been invented and people got around by horse and buggy (though, he didn’t trust horses after one had tried to eat his underwear). So, thinking about it, he must have walked. And if that were so, as it most likely was, he wasn’t really waiting for anything. What should he reply, then?

Before he could think out his response, the voice called out again. ‘Come up here and fetch your samples…’

He pointed to himself in a questioning manner and looked in the direction of the voice.

‘ Yes, you. Who else, for goodness sakes!’

He let out a sigh. Of course, they were his samples, weren’t they? Well not exactly. But they certainly weren’t the voice’s. It was up to him to collect them. That was clear enough. So, taking a deep breath, he ventured forward once more, several paces, climbing onto the porch and then, reaching down, taking the handle of the sample’s case and, when it was firmly in his grasp, turning back around…

‘ Wait!’ the voice called out.

Confused, he looked back toward the open door again.

‘ What do you have in the case?’

That was a very unexpected question, he thought. And it befuddled him. So he repeated it back, which is what he often did in times of confusion. ‘What do I have in the case?’

‘ Yes, what do you have in the case? You said it was a samples case. What kind of samples do you have there?’

He scratched his head and looked down at the case. It did, indeed, look like an ordinary attaché case. Perhaps a little bigger. It was black and a bit scuffed, just like his shoes. And it had a wobbly handle. But what was inside of it? He was pretty sure he knew what was in it that morning when he had packed up to go. In fact, he was certain he knew then. But that was three or four hours ago, at least, and quite a few things had happened since he had left.

‘ Are you telling me that you don’t know what kind of samples you have in your samples case?’ asked the voice.

‘ I do know,’ he replied. ‘I’m thinking …’ And, indeed, he appeared to be putting a great deal of effort into that process which, for him, was most delicate.

The voice sighed. But it was a sympathetic sigh, he thought. Not one of those frustrating sighs of disapproval that he often heard when he got into one of his states of discombobulation (which was happening more and more frequently over the last twenty years).

The door of putrid green opened wider. ‘Would you like to come in?’ asked the voice.

‘ Come in?’ he repeated.

‘ Yes. Why don’t you come inside and join me for a cherry soda. And you can show me your samples. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find them interesting. Maybe I’ll even find them interesting enough to buy one or two from you…’

‘ Buy one or two?’ He now felt both dreadfully confused and anxious.

‘ I’m not promising anything, of course…’

‘ You want me to come in?’ he asked, in order to confirm what he thought he heard but really wasn’t quite sure.

‘ Yes.’ The door opened even wider. ‘Do come in.’

This was truly an amazing event, he thought. Quite beyond his wildest dreams. Here it was – the first house he had come to (at least he thought it was the first house he had come to) – and already he was being invited in to display his wares.
So, grabbing the handle of his samples case quite firmly, he bravely ventured forth into the unknown, though, it must be said, with a fluttering heart that would have competed easily with any butterfly hovering over a bee’s nest.