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Dusk was the beginning of Hector’s Douglas’ favourite time. Up with lark might be fine and dandy for some salesman, and middays and afternoons doubtless had their advocates as well, but as far as Hector was concerned you couldn’t beat the slow slide into dark.

A puff of his cheeks. A cheery whistle. A jaunt of his straw boater, and he was off to do business with his shiny black case. He’d read all the inspirational books and pamphlets. He’d attended so many correspondence schools he’d thought of setting one up himself. He knew all the tricks and ruses. Knew that every objection was a selling point begging an answer. Knew, as well, that features must be linked to benefits and that Product knowledge is the key to success. Even knew how important it was to highlight at least one unique angle, and never to sell on price alone. As for positive thinking—hell, his thinking was so positive it went right off the Goddarn scale.

Now here comes Hector once again, he and his shadow striding the lamplit territory of these Los Angeles streets, which he thought of as his home, church, workshop and office combined, with dancing yet determined little steps. My, how he loved his work! A few kids still out running and shouting in backyards. The thump of wood on ash and the clap of leather, although it was already getting almost too dark to see. Mums in white aprons calling to their children across dim lawns. Bicycles ticking by like metal swallows heading home to roost, with plates of peanut butter and jelly waiting in bright linoleum kitchens before the final climb to bed.

Hector had worked his way up from nowhere. Apart from maybe icebergs to Eskimos (and he might even have to check his resume on that) there wasn’t much that, one time or another, he hadn’t been called upon to sell. Brushes—not the Fuller brand, which was all name and no product, but the Dodkins range of brooms, brushes and dusters, which really did give its lucky purchases that extra edge in the never-ending War Against Dust. Cleaning preparations to put that new-car sparkle inside your home. Permanent life and pet insurance in five no-quibble instalments. Easy-clean gutters. No-clean aluminium siding. Electrical garage doors to make your home the envy of not just of your neighbours, but your whole neighbourhood. Encyclopaedias, of course—but also the Modern Library of All the Classics of World Literature, edited for quick and easy reading, to turn you into a marvel to your friends, with an illustrated Bible thrown in. Miniature busts of all the great presidents. A different set (this was largely for Roman Catholic communities) of the major saints. The Psiclean—marvellous, marvellous invention, although heavy to carry and difficult to demonstrate—to remove all those lingering pesky traces of psychic dirt from your house. A postal laundry service that meant you never had to wash another single sheet. He’d done them all—and successfully, as well. But now—and he was absolutely certain of it—he was selling the genuine, ultimate, final product. Nothing else could ever come close.

The thing about sales, to Hector’s way of thinking, was that it wasn’t just a job. Sure, you heard people say that kind of thing about diving trucks or pouring concrete, but Hector thought of selling the way a priest might think about working for God. He’d seen too many hobos and neredowells dragging his precious calling through the dog dirt. Seen ragged men with no money, no hope, no shoes and no idea of what they were doing trudging door to door trying to sell useless clothes pegs, or washing-line-stolen rags. Sometimes, apart from desperation and hunger, they weren’t selling anything at all. To his mind, they were little better than gypsies. Or worse.

Even in the drive-in hotels and freeway bars that his fellow professionals frequented, Hector often found that the sheer wonder and excitement of the trade had often been lost. There were salesmen who drank too much, or groused about their product (and if they didn’t buy into its key features and special attractions, who else ever would?). Many others who didn’t keep themselves up to date with the latest techniques. Then there were sort who weren’t that interested in selling at all, and kept panties or who-knew what else as evidence of their filthy conquests. It was all, so very, very wrong.

Always a privilege. Always an opportunity. Always around the next turn was the chance of that sale which would turn things around from the merely better to the absolute best. Not that Hector walked up every drive. No Siree. For Lack Of Selection And Consideration of Your Target Customer was one of the Five Basic Selling Errors. Or was it one of the Seven Selling Sins? Either way, you didn’t just blunder like some robot up to every house that presented itself, especially when you were selling what Hector was selling. Where would be the intelligence—which was a Good Salesman’s Best Ally—in that?

Look for signs. Check for all the little clues, which even in a new whites-only suburb such as this where every house was seemingly identical, spelt out those crucial signs of Customer Need. Then you were already halfway toward that magical Sales Rapport. Although he had no garden himself, or any real place at all where he actually lived, Hector become quite an expert in the many fragrant bowers he’d stood in over the years whilst people stared out at him like he was a shoe-scraping. Ah, an inbreath of air, I do so love the scent of the sunset magnolia. Or Isn’t that a dwarf sabinata? Didn’t matter too much what you said, and so much the better if they replied that that was actually a peony or whatever. For then you already had the beginnings of a conversation. And Conversation led to Sales.

Ah! Here we were. A house. The special one. Not too many lights. Not too few either. But something defeated about it. Something lost and waiting. Hector listened and sniffed, testing the air for the sounds and smells of cooking, washing up, running taps, bathfoam bristling, stifled groans and the creak of bedsprings—all the many distracting activities which were barriers to sale. But no. This house had that special aura that he could taste like sour ozone off the ocean. He chuckled and swung his featherlight black case so high his arm almost did a cartwheel. The best chances, the best opportunities, always had this same anticipatory sense. Hector saw his ideal customer as someone—a man, a woman, rich or poor, old or young, healthy or ill, already actually dying for all he cared; to him, as with all the best salesmen, it simply didn’t matter—whose whole existence had been put on hold in anticipation of his arrival.

Creak of the picket gate. Unoiled. Step-dance along the paving. Clattery; a fraction loose. The lawn a touch unkempt, as well. The whole place clinging to the standards of this suburbs by its torn fingernails. There had probably been a few looks and words from the neighbours. Even the car lacked that usual showroom gleam, and the hood felt dusty and dirty as Hector ran his fingers along it to check for warmth. And that tree over in the corner of the plot… A sorry thing, indeed. Ragged with climbing ivy gone so rampant that the kids’ treehouse which had once inhabited its middle branches was now almost drowned in waves of greenish black.

Nothing at the doorstep but lovely, looming silence. Until… ding dong. A sound, along with knock, knock, to set any salesman’s pulse thrilling. Then a pause so delicious he had to stop himself from crying out. Followed, equally deliciously, by a shadow thrown against the mottled glass from inside the hall. Somewhere, in a different house, a baby was crying. But not here. No, no. Not now, anyway. The frosted glass door swing inward from its cobweb corners. Hector bit his lip and blinked back a single tear. Oh. Yes. The moment so perfect as he stood poised on tippy-toes with thighs clamped tight—a plump, boater-wearing ballerina waiting for the signal to dance.

“Ah! Good evening! And what a good evening it is.”

“Yeah.” Not agreement. Not even a question. Almost a noise. But every sound and every look and every word, up to and including, fuck off buddy, was the beginning of dialogue. And without dialogue, there would never have be a single sale since the serpent sold Eve that apple. And where would we be then?

A guy in a hair-sprouting vest studied Hector through the screen door mesh, unlit cigarette in the corner of a mouth drawn down in stubbly disregard. Hector caught beer smells, old cooking smells… Misery, and B.O., and dirty carpets—so many, many products that this customer, if they did but know it, needed! The man worked in engineering—most probably aviation. Hector could see it in the scarring of his hands and in the oil dirt beneath his ruined nails, just as he could see the scars of grief and defeat around his eyes.

“What is that?” Another voice called from along the hallway. Quavrey. Female. Half-drunk.

“It’s just some…” The guy looked Hector up and down again. Though a door half open, Hector glimpsed a corner filled with the same boy’s face in many different photographs—school and camp, pageboy at a wedding—along with framed finger-smeared paintings of square houses and smiley suns, newscuttings, ribbon rosettes, school reports…

“What I’d really like to share with you this evening—”

“Can’t you see we’re done!”

Already, the door slamming shut.

Oh well. Hector unclamped his thighs, span on his toes. The streetlamps shone and the sky was streaked with crimson, laying a Golden Pathway to Success which blazed right ahead of him along the sidewalk. Another turn, another street, another door, another look, both grumpy and puzzled, although this one from a woman with red streaks down her face in a stained nylon shift. Not there, perhaps. But close. Oh, so close! Another slam. And then another. And another. The most words he’d exchanged so far involved some instructions as to where he could shove his case, and sideways first.

So many of salesman he’d talked to over the years would have already been discouraged. But not Hector Douglas. He’d tried to explain this sometimes—his irrepressible philosophy, his religion, his life. He’d gone back with some of these same sad and lost men to their motel rooms on nights when the freeway traffic roared and the thin drapes pulsed like a neon headache. He’d sat knee to knee with them between twin beds as they nursed their umpteenth whisky, or maybe just swigged the stuff straight out from the bottle.

For what was it all about? What was the point, the fucking, pissing, point, buddy, if you couldn’t meet the ridiculous targets set by those douchebags at regional office, or believe for one moment in the gimcrack shit you’re supposed to be pushing? The wife long gone, and that girlfriend nothing but a cheap cunt who’d run off with all your cash at the first available opportunity. Only one step ahead from the repo guys who wanted your car and probably all the blood out of your veins with it. A life in ruins, buster. Fucking ruins. That’s what you’re looking at here. Don’t try to tell me different, although you don’t seem to have drunk much of this whisky, and what the hell is there left to sell…?

Now. A street of bigger houses, off in the meandering dark. The cars bigger, as well. Caddies and Buicks instead of Chevvys and Fords, although that in itself meant little to Hector, for did not everyone from the lowest sewer rat deserve the same opportunity to buy what he longed to sell? But the house which caught his eye and snagged his senses didn’t have any car in the drive. Fact was, a less skilled salesman than Hector Douglas was might even have assumed the place was empty and walked right on. Fully dark now. All the windows here dark as well. But no. Not entirely. They breathed out that special sense of waiting. They moved like mouths and begged him to come.

Up the drive. Up the steps. Mmm. Loved that thing the builders had done with the wood pillars. Loved that perfect, perfect sweep of dark-edged, immaculately bordered lawn. Crisp chimes of the door bell filling him with ice-cream shivers. The silence and absence which followed, even more. Again, then? Yes, why not. Ding, dong… This time, Hector really couldn’t help himself. He clamped his tights to stop the small circle of damp that might otherwise arrive and gave a small, ecstatic yelp. For good salesmen had to be Persistent and Indomitable.

Now, they came. And he was certain right away that this was it. The door drawing back, slow and grand and revelatory as the Pearly Gates themselves. There they stood. The one. Hector was sure, and he was walking toward her and holding out his hand to clasp hers even before she had edged back the screen door.

Smell of new carpets. New paint. New everything. A fine, fine house. Of that there was no doubt. The woman had been sitting alone in her immaculate kitchen. Drew him back that way with a vague beckon past photos of a Hawaii honeymoon and real paintings that were almost as good as photos except you actually see the marks of the artist’s brush. Into all that fitted Formica and wood and steel and light. Cigarettes on the table. Ashtray brimming with stubs. Had the customer been drinking? Not exactly. No. But her voice and her manner was slow and slurred.

“Suppose you may as well sit down…”

“Much obliged.”

Hector gave his straw boater, which of course he’d already doffed, a little twirl as he set it down on the tabletop. Then, with a quick but gleeful spin, he settled himself into his chair.

“My…” He looked around again. Breathed in the air. Which, even without the booze, was ripe with potentiality. “…this is wonderful.”

“Think so?” She sat down facing him. Lit a fresh cigarette even though the one at the side of ashtray still floated lazy grey curls. “You really do?”

“Well, of course.”

“You’re selling something, I suppose?” A bitter chuckle. “Why the hell else would anyone want to come visit this dump…?” A frown. She’d once been pretty. Belle of the prom. Gleaming lovely and near-naked beside her parent’s pool. Not now. Grey at roots, tattered at the corners. Nails pink and bloody crescents. Skin worn through to tendril veins. “Bit late, isn’t it?”

“It’s never too late to make a sale.”

She almost chuckled at that. Which was good.

Her tired eyes travelled and focussed briefly, and not without a little difficulty, on the black case he’d left propped at side of the chair. “And what exactly are you supposed to be selling?”

Hard not to bridle at that supposed. But Hector Douglas didn’t bridle. Hector Douglas kept his cool.

“Maybe…” He smiled. His eyes, he knew, were glittering. “We could get to know each other a little first?”

“What is there to know?” She gestured with her cigarette, ash settling unnoticed on her ashen arm. But Hector waited. Hector was patient. Soon, just like all the very best customers, she began to talk.

She was lovely to him now. Lovely in a way he guessed she or any other customer never saw. Even more than the actual sale itself, it was this sharing, this dialogue, as, like lovers, they prepared for the inevitable consummation, which was best time of all. She spoke at first of her upbringing so vividly that Hector could almost hear the arguments and the shatter of ornaments going on in the room next door. She’d wanted out. Had wanted out quickly. Had hated the school—academy, they called it, can you believe that?—with its sneering bullies and bruised knuckles for every slip in deportment almost as much as she had hated home. Couldn’t wait to grow up. Couldn’t wait to be married and out.


You understand what I’m saying, mister?


Hector nodded. Out. Of course he understood out. Why, otherwise, would he be here at all?

Then along comes Earl Lovelock junior. With his old-money background and his old-money quiff and his old-money smile. Swept her up in an unthinking whirl. Her idiot parents had loved the guy, of course, and that should have been a warning sign, but she was just nineteen, for Chrissake, and he was twenty eight and already regional vice president, and what did she know? The sex had been good for a while, though. Gone to dust by the honeymoon, but pretty great before that, far as she could judge. And they can’t take that away from you. Can they? Even though it’s already long gone.

What else do you want to hear, Mister? What else is there? Can’t you see it all around? And Hector, although he felt he had sensed and seen all he needed to already, looked around at this expensive kitchen once again. No kids here. Nor had there ever been. Miscarriages? Abortions? No, not even that. This customer was too lost, too dry, too empty, too cold. She was just in here with her cigarettes and her huge humming fridge, and Earl Lovelock junior away in some Pasadena hotel and hating herself for the fact that, even though she knew exactly what he was doing, if not exactly with whom (there had been so many over the years, she’d given up keeping up), but somehow still hating herself and him even more for the fact that he wouldn’t even phone.

“I sometimes think…” She waved her cigarette. Which was now a dead at the tips of her fingers.

“Think what?” Hector prompted. He was close to a sale now he could taste it on the tip of his tongue.

“Think…” She gazed down at the table. Shook her psoriasis scalp. “If he came back and found me…” Then she looked up, and the look was so ferocious, Hector almost blinked. “That would make the bastard think—would make him realise.”

“Well…” He shrugged. Genuinely non-committal. Nearly added, Have you considered how you might…? But he didn’t. Not yet, anyway. For Hurry was the Enemy of Completion. And, at the end of the day, a good customer always sold the product to themselves. “…You never know.”

“You don’t, do you?”

Then, at this most crucial of all moments, something went wrong. Even before he could do anything to stop it from happening, the customer had pushed herself up from her chair.

“You fancy a drink? The medication I’m on, I’m not supposed to touch anything. But you’ve listened to me, mister, and it feels like you’re the first person to do so in years. So what the hell…”

What the hell, indeed. Here he was, so close to closing the sale he could feel it tingling through him like it had felt back in the days he was still demonstrating the Elation button on the Psiclean. And now things were slipping out of his control.

A cupboard door open. A gloss of amber fluids, expensive labels.

“What’s your poison? Believe me, we’ve got the lot.”

She was almost selling the stuff to him. Which was awful, terrible. “I. Er…”

Another cupboard. Two tumblers clashed together so hard Hector was sure he saw chips of glass fly off. In this second cupboard, along with the glasses, dozens of little brown bottles were lined like soldiers. The label said Nembutal on every one.

“Jesus.” She was almost playful now. Almost happy. Already, splashingly, she was pouring out whisky. “Might as well live a little. Otherwise, hey, what’s the point? And what exactly have you got in that case of yours, anyway, Mister, that you carry as if it’s nothing at all? Aren’t you ever going to show me? You’re not just going to leave me here, are you? Oh, please! Aren’t you going to make me a sale?”

But Hector Douglas was already standing. Hector Douglas was already picking up his boater and lifting his featherlight case and holding them both tight to him and backing out through the kitchen door.

“Jesus. You can’t do this! This is horrible. Please…? You’re just like—”

He was off down the hall and letting himself out into the night air even before the woman’s shouts had faded. Not a sale, no. But nearly. So close that he could still smell the reek of whisky, cigarettes, hopelessness—and, yes, Nembutal, as well. But no cigar. The woman had already bought everything he could ever hope to sell. There was nothing he could offer, not Means or Despair or even the requisite Determination and Resolve, that she didn’t already own. And, as ever, there was no point in arguing. For the Customer Was Always Right. He could, perhaps, have popped the catches on his case. Opened it up for her, as he sometimes did when a customer was wavering, just to display to its lovely, empty depths in all their dark allure. But what would have been the point? For, in truth, you could never Sell To A Customer Who Has Already Been Sold.

But still…

Hector gave his case a further swing, yelped, and beamed up at the swarming stars. This particular suburb, his salesman’s instincts told him, was stale and fished out. But there was always other places, fresh opportunities. He checked his watch under the nearest streetlight. If he was brisk about it, he would still be able to snag a bus downtown. It would be late, perhaps, already closing on midnight by the time he got there, but for many a potential customer—the hopeless hookers, the hungry hobos, the studio rejects, the failed businessmen living out of their cars—this was the very best time of all.

Hector skip-danced along the street, humming to himself.

He was still certain that, sometime tonight, he would make a sale.

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