I worked for commission in a sterile room with many clocks. The product did not glimmer in the fluorescence, but it was as if it did, and better, like they’d found a way to remove the obligatory negative space of glimmering when the object floated in darkness.
While viewing the customers from the back of my own head, I closed sales. I hustled. There was no hope of an extended stay and that was all the more reason.
I’d been served notice by an email with the subject line, “Your winter schedule.”
At a meeting in my supervisor’s office we had little to say and smiled past each other into the vacuum.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Sales are down.”
He had decorated the walls with his children’s crayon drawings. A turtle person swung a tennis racket that was its arm or leg or tail or penis. Grins spread past the boundaries of a couple’s heads as they towered over their shoulder-length home.
Maybe I would get home to Kristen and we wouldn’t fit in our apartment anymore. We’d be too tall.
“You’ve been doing a great job, really,” he said.
We had until Christmas Eve. Then, he said, he’d release us into the mists of a New Year.
“Hey,” I said, and then we both waited until no further action was necessary.
I took lunches in my car. This, I told myself, forced me to read.
My partner Kristen wanted me to read more, to fill the void with meaning. She wanted me to be worth having moved north with, giving up our lives in Altadena with a patio where you could look at Mount Wilson, while, above, wild green parrots flitted around the telephone wires.
Wild parrots. I wasn’t doing well.
One day, while eating a ham sandwich with her book heavy in my lap, NPR suggested free will was an illusion. We are machines, the radio said. I finished the ham sandwich and I finished my carrot sticks. The season’s first dusting of snow settled on the windshield.
After work she folded the laundry and I made a dinner as elaborate as it was mediocre: curried eggplant with too much turmeric, al dente lemon rice, saag tofu limp like the spinach had been frozen, but it hadn’t been, it had been rinsed and sauteed and held tenderly in the name of possibility.
I didn’t want to put dinner out on the table. It wasn’t good enough. We filled our plates in the kitchen and sat down.
“We need snow tires,” I said.
It wasn’t snowing. The earlier flurry had all melted, dead on arrival.
“How many paychecks you got left?”
Burnt spice hung in the air.
“At least for one of our cars,” I said.
“We are going to fly out for Elena’s wedding,” she said, convincing herself it was true. That we could afford these things.
Behind her, way behind, the desert where I drove my little Geo till it busted a rod outside Barstow. And then somehow, years later, we washed up north.
We told everyone that my parents were getting older but really we’d moved because I’d reached that bursting age where my college degree and my income no longer clicked. A waiter could be twenty and then they could be thirty. And then.
My parents were getting older and they were quite healthy, just as unhappy as ever. Maybe I wanted them to once again sing me to sleep when it was three in the morning and I’d had four cups of chamomile and allergy pills and melatonin because I was back in reality’s negative image. Or maybe I hoped my parents might hand me a real job through a friend or a friend of a friend, a job where you tucked in your shirt with dignity. Maybe I could cut it in a small pond.
They did hand me a job, if not quite a real one. My supervisor’s uncle was a regular at the hardware store where my dad worked.
“I’m going to Elena’s wedding,” she said.
“I want to go.”
I reached across the table and she patted my hand.
“Let’s throw the dishes out the window,” she said. This was a common refrain.
I collected the plates.
My chukka boots squeaked on the tile as I made my way around the showroom.
“Tell me about the product,” a man said. He had a suit coat and he had a pocket square.
“Heyyyyooo!” I wanted to say.
I wanted to say, “VROOOOM,” and mime pushing a vacuum cleaner. The product was not a vacuum cleaner. Or maybe it was. I knew plenty about the product and none of what I knew made me better at selling it. The product sold itself while we fluttered around symbiotically. Our human presence merely enhanced the aesthetic.
When I looked into his eyes I could see the void. He wanted to fill the void with the product. That was one of its features.
I drove home swollen with dumb jazz. I liked jazz. It made America feel early instead of late. Jazz was the upswing of progress, steel bridges, new tram lines.
We lived at the bottom of a hill. At the top of the hill were our town’s wealthy, or at least some of them, the kind that were more likely to live in old mansions and hike the Inca Trail. The other kind of wealthy lived on the fringe where there was room for a ranch and room to graze a mule. We lived in an old brick building with water damage two blocks up from the interstate and two blocks down from an organic food store. It was that kind of neighborhood.
Kristen bought us plane tickets. It cost her half a month’s pay.
She said, “Let's drink scotch.”
We cheersed Scotch not from Scotland. It felt good to make bad choices.
It was like we were flying back to the good old days barbecuing yams in Willie’s backyard, when we snuck glances at each other while helicopters examined the tops of palm trees.
I texted Willie, Hey guess what? and waited for my pocket to buzz.
We drank more Scotch. Willie didn’t text me back. I checked the ten day forecast for snow.
Because I couldn’t sleep, I arrived at work early. I brought my book and a mug of coffee. I thought I’d sit and read in the bright light, but there were no chairs in the showroom. The showroom was a space of verticality.
My supervisor was sweeping up the dead flies that collected on the tile each morning. One time I asked him what we were using that affected all these flies to die on the floor. Was it like dogs and antifreeze? Was it something in the air? He answered, something vague and unsatisfactory, and the look on his face told me not to question his survival.
We had a staff meeting. We talked about the transition. After the transition, the remaining employees would have to pick up the slack. I wondered if this happened every holiday season. I wondered why I had to be at the meeting.
The supervisor ended the meeting with a Powerpoint slideshow of his home remodel, maybe to lighten the mood. They had purchased a foreclosure. There were family photos. His wife was missing because she’d taken the pictures.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “She’s smoking hot.”
I felt a knot forming in my stomach. I thought about him thinking of his wife as a sexual object and then I thought of her as a sexual object even though I’d never seen her, a collage of pale breasts, pubic hair, the small of a back.
I imagined raising my hand and asking the supervisor if those thoughts were my fault or his or both.
Kristen and I liked to watch ’90s TV shows—Nickelodeon, Star Trek, Buffy. It was like hiding.
We watched an episode of Rocko’s Modern Life and then we watched another. On her iPad screen a countdown clicked toward extending the binge.
“I don’t want to stop,” I said.
“I'm not feeling so great,” Kristen said. “I’m gonna take a nap.”
I picked up a book and set it down and walked back and forth.
In the street John Deere heavies pushed around fallen leaves. It was a serious business. They moved with purpose.
“Hey,” I said. “Look.” But she was already asleep.
A man entered the showroom in cargo pants ripped at the bottom and a look in his eye. He strolled with exaggerated confidence, tracing the arc of flushing toilet water around and around until he reached out and could almost touch the product.
“Can I help you?” my supervisor said, but he was looking at me. Was I supposed to do something? I was. It was my job. It was my job to engender positive customer experience.
I imagined the man caressing the product. I imagined a secret panel opening on the product’s smooth surface, and, from within, a tendril that stuck the man with ten thousand volts or lethal poison, all while the supervisor and I watched. We all knew the rules.
When I got home Kristen had planted in her couch spot and was on her iPad, working on work.
“Work from home today?”
Kristen didn’t bring work from home so much as Kristen worked. She worked at work and she worked at night and she worked on the weekends. She worked as an outreach manager for an arts nonprofit making next to nothing, and she worked for the community college writing center for minimum wage, and she curated the international film section for the town’s festival for nothing but the line on her résumé. It all made me proud and tired like my heart could burst.
“How you feeling?” I said.
After dinner Kristen took a nap. When she woke up, she grabbed the iPad, opened some spreadsheets and started fiddling. I went into the office and watched Star Trek surrounded by books. I drank a beer. I drank another beer.
In the showroom, there were no customers for most the afternoon. I squeaked and squeaked until a woman with nice cheekbones came in and asked, “Can you tell me about the product?”
“Can I ever!” I said, or I think I said. I don’t remember. I tried not to remember that sort of thing.
Sometimes I repeat myself over and over and it hits me all the sudden that reality isn’t as real as it was last time, that my brain has slid into cognitive muscle memory and is available for other simultaneous activity.
“The product is exceptionally metal,” I said. My supervisor Swiffered around the corners of the showroom, looking in my direction. Was he appraising a sexual object? Was I?
I drove home across starts of frost and landed hungry. In the shower I got too hot and masturbated and then I broiled chicken. At some point Kristen had arrived and fallen asleep on the couch, or maybe she’d been there the whole time. I made a plate for her and put it on the coffee table. She woke up and worked and went back to sleep. After a while I gave her a little shake. I said, “You should eat.”
She rolled over onto her stomach. She had a smell that wasn’t quite sweat.
“When are you gonna go to the doctor?”
“If it doesn’t get better.”
I put the plate on her back and left it there for a minute. Then I put it back on the coffee table.
“You gotta eat, dawg.”
We liked to call ourselves pet names: dawg, bro, facehair.
“I’ll take it for lunch.”
Kristen got worse and better and worse and it was hard to remember what it was like when she was fully kicking.
Some days the product was unbearably beautiful. I’d notice, as if for the first time, its reflective haunches or the whir of its interlocking copper flaps.
I hated going to work each morning and each evening I hated leaving.
I went to a dinner party at a blue house where I experienced nausea. They asked about Kristen and I told them she’d been sick a couple weeks—had it really been weeks?—and the hosts brought out course after inventive course, sushi rolls filled with kewpie mayo and par-roasted carrot, seared duck cutlets, rye bread stuffing with medjools and toasted bird’s eye chili. The stomach trouble came on slow so when it reached critical mass it was like it had always been there. Maybe it had. Lately food hadn’t been sitting.
We’d all arrived at the table from our various placements on the hill—top, middle, valley.
“What do you do?” a friend of a friend said.
“Yes,” I said, and wondered what the host would serve us next.
I had escaped this town to warmer climes on a scholarship and chain-smoked Pyramids talking Kierkegaard, thinking I had dreams but really it was that thing like dreams which is just optimism without ambition. Somehow or other I graduated and spun around all pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and found myself waiting tables. Then I found Kristen.
She was going to be a filmmaker. She taught me Godard’s this-way-that-way and Dielman’s meat massage. Her dreams were so real I could grab onto them and squeeze. For six months I set aside earnings and then I bought her a camera, a real one. It sat for a week wrapped in old LA Weekly’s like it was no big deal and when I retrieved it Christmas morning bigness hit me with the full force of all my childish stupidity.
When she finished crying, she whispered that now we needed a microphone.
I went over to my parents’. Kristen was still sick but they didn’t believe me. They didn’t like her. They liked to blame her for all my shortcomings. It was convenient.
“How’s work?” my mom said. I hadn’t told them I’d been given notice. I couldn’t.
“Okay,” I said. “Don’t know if I’m cut out for sales.”
“How is working sales different than waiting tables?” my dad said. He sat with stiff, hobbled posture. Before he’d worked at the hardware store he’d worked at the steel plant and now his body had begun to give up.
I wanted to say, “Waiters cling to capital in a symbiotic relationship, only surviving, not doing any real harm. Waiters are like those birds on the backs of elephants. Salespeople fuel capital, they’re the sharks that rip flesh from bone.” I knew those thoughts were lies and yet they were simultaneously true, true to me.
I wanted to go down to the basement and find my box of old college books, wave my Little Red Book in their faces, saying, “Paper tiger! Paper tiger! The revolution is not a party!”
“We’re going to visit LA for a friend’s wedding,” I said.
My mom ate a spoonful of mashed potatoes. She chewed it like it was chewy.
“It’ll be nice,” I said.
My mom said, “Did you see Boss Baby?”
I drank wine and looked down at my plate. The turkey was pinkish and possibly undercooked.
My mom said, “It was so funny.”
Unable to tell in the dark if the road was wet or icy, I drove home. It was late so the jazz station played garbage, techno jazz, electronic jazz, smooth jazz, jazz with jungle sounds and whalesong. In a better mood, I’d turn it loud and try and sing along with the humpbacks. When I could access irony, everything was okay.
At home Kristen lay on the stink of the couch with the lights on and her eyes closed.
Kristen said, “I don’t want to be sick!”
I’d thought she was asleep.
“It’s going to snow Friday,” I said.
“You got what, two weeks? A week?”
Someday we’d move out our low rent apartment and then we’d get a dog. Kristen liked to conjure names as a pastime: Bruce, Tippy, Big Tony.
“Woof!” I said, not knowing what else to say. “Woof, woof, woof.”
A huddle of middle managers arrived in pastel dress shirts with corporate logos. The supervisor gave me a look, a look that said I could have this commission.
“We need the product,” a manager said. “Our company is going places.”
“Yes,” I said, and the managers became visibly nervous.
“What model would you recommend?” another said.
“Yes,” I might have said, because there was only one model.
I might have said, “My role here is illusory. We all know the outcome of this transaction.”
The product emitted a flash of blinding light and it was as if we had leaped forward in time. The managers had their credit cards out, needed somewhere to insert them.
I spent so much money the whole city glimmered. Men in sleeping bags and Santa hats smoked in streetlight by a shuttered dive. It was that time just before dusk when hope and melancholy are the same.
It had been a leap of faith for the tire place to mount and rotate before payment. And there was the limitless interval of the green button and the card reader’s “Processing ...” shared with the cashier or customer service person. I kept calm by the starch of her hair. She could turn her head any which way and the whole big thing would stay exactly in place.
Under the bridge, in the warmth of Kristen’s Accord and rush hour traffic, cement pillars extended the embrace of infrastructure.
“Bingobango,” I told Kristen, jangling her keys around. “Snow tires.”
Kristen was feeling better.
“We can go anywhere!” she said.
It was Friday and it wasn’t snowing.
“Let’s go to the gas station.”
“Let’s go get drunk.”
“Let’s drift race.”
“Let’s go to the mall.”
We went to a tiki bar with hot thick air and had a round of painkillers. We went to the bar with pinball and ate cheeseburgers and tots drowned in red light. We went home and drank Scotch and fell asleep on the couch and in the morning Kristen was sick again.
At work a man in wingtips said, “Tell me about the product.”
I squeaked around on my heels, back and forth.
“Is everything OK?” he said.
It was Christmas Eve. Through the wide windows of the showroom the town was really getting it. Fat clumps radiated on the shoulders of parked cars. It was the kind of thing that when I was a child would’ve made the whole world right.
“The product outperforms all others. It is the glory and the light. It is the righteousness of American ingenuity and the fusion of global capitals thrust into both home and office. It is upon the product and the product alone that we may rest our hope.”
I pushed a button on the product and it purred.
“How about that?” I said.
There was a family of four, tidy and Christian-looking, little girls with white ribbons in their hair. There were two polo-wearers with swollen biceps who slapped each other on the back and talked about hitting the ski lodge.
There was no way I could save my job but then again there was always a way. Maybe they had probation. Maybe they’d fire someone else.
There was a seemingly Aryan woman who had a credit card with a Southeast Asian-sounding name printed on it. There was a man who wore a ratty winter coat and spread the purchase around four Visa gift cards.
The product clicked with approval. It hummed in low tones it must have saved for the holidays.
The supervisor put a hand on my shoulder and said something about if they were ever hiring. He had sturdy hands with tidy cuticles. I imagined him massaging his wife’s shoulders while she did the dishes, seven or eight or nine children hollering, shooting darts. I imagined the supervisor watching the big game. His wife brought out platters of Buffalo wings and homemade pretzels. I knew for a fact the supervisor didn’t like sports.
“What I’m going to miss most of all is the product,” I might have said.
“The product really has a way of catching the light,” he might’ve responded.
When it was all over I came home and took off my belt. Kristen had extended herself across the sofa.
“What do you want to do?” she said.
“I’m going for a drive,” I said.
“For dinner, I mean.”
“Let’s go out,” I said.
Kristen rolled over into the couch, her face in the crook between the butt and back cushions.
Her iPad sat on the coffee table. She said she wasn’t feeling well. She said she had to work. She did have to work. For herself, for me.
“Let’s get pho,” I said.
“In two weeks we’ll be in California,” she said. “We’re gonna eat out plenty. We’re gonna eat out more than we can afford.”
“I’m going for a drive,” I said.
She said she was sorry. About my job. That we could figure it out.
“Might go check out the Christmas lights,” I said, not knowing if it was a lie.
It came down hard. The streets had been whited out and even though it was night the city glowed in the reflected yellow and fluorescence. Christmas lights flickered red and green and blue like synaptic impulses. I didn’t feel alone because I had snow tires and the top of the hill.
I was driving to the top of the hill. I tried to imagine what was beyond the top of the hill, but there wasn’t anything. There was the hill and there was the void.
There was a book on the passenger seat. I had no intention of reading but I wanted it there in case. I had the radio off.
The gaze of headlights held snowflakes as if in place, but really they were new snowflakes, always new.