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The Failures of Dan the Shampoo Salesman
Dan knocked one, two, three times. If you’d asked him why three, he would tell you that that’s the way it always has been. The way it always will be. Three was just his number.
No matter how many faces he greeted or bottles of shampoo he sold, Dan would never stop feeling this moment. There was always the tension; every time, the seconds on his watch ticked at half speed, though he would never look at it. Never did he stop watching the door as the gazelle watches the sleeping lion. But the gazelle could bolt, could show fear; Dan could not. To break eye contact was to lose the sale.
A sound; Dan caught his breath. No matter how many times a latch was turned and a door was pulled open, his stomach would always sink and his eyes would always widen with the sick, demented thrill of a patient awaiting a terminal diagnosis. But he was not the patient. He was Dan the shampoo salesman, and he lived for the thrill.
Watching Barbara walk down the aisle toward a beaming Stephen for the nineteenth time that day, Clarence was only digging himself deeper. He’d spent the last few days memorizing every stumbled word of his son’s vows and every soft syllable of Barbara’s.
“…And forsaking all others, be faithful only to her as long as you both shall live?”
Clarence could recite the whole ceremony by heart if he could just overcome his bitter silence, if he could just realign his skewed, d***able heart. But he stayed quiet, and the light from the screen rolled smoothly like tears across his hardened face. This watching, over and over again, was shredding his emotions, piece by piece, and as he watched, Clarence thought of how many months it had been since Stephen had last called. One, two, three? More? He didn’t know, but kept watching. The sight of the awful deed, his only son’s holy matrimony, was made all the more sickening by Stephen’s pure, obvious bliss. Many faces paraded in and out of the screen, but Stephen’s and Barbara’s always came back. They danced; they laughed; they drank; they kissed; the screen went black. Clarence didn’t care how many hours had gone by. And now he was preparing to reset the tape and watch the pixels dance across his son’s eager face for the twentieth painful time that day when he heard three knocks on his door. The tape started to rewind with an empty whirr.
Opening the door and looking morosely with red, tired eyes at the young salesman at his doorstep, Clarence kept the silence of a man condemned. The salesman wore a pressed light grey suit and carried a large briefcase professionally at his side. At first, his broad smile seemed too genuine to be real. Then he looked down at his watch.
5:26, and Dan the shampoo salesman was ashamed. He was ashamed that he knew the time and that he had already lost the sale. If you’d asked him why he did it, he would tell you that time was always important to the traveling salesman. In truth, he shouldn’t have given a d*** about the time; the sale is all about opportunity, and opportunity can come at any time. But this opportunity was blown, and Dan knew it. Was there really any point in looking back at the disheveled man in front of him? Probably not, but Dan couldn’t help himself. He’d already lost the sale, and he had nothing else to lose.
Dragging his eyes bashfully back up to his lost customer’s, Dan was in awe. The man’s stature seemed askance, as if someone had removed a few vertebrae from his back. His sweatpants, though unstained, looked worn and overused. The off-white beater clinging to his shoulders gave off an untouchable static, a kind that no dry cleaner could match. The bristles on his unshaven face were not vulgar but smoothed by stress. He smelled a bit of alcohol. Dan thought of an old lamp he’d once owned: a tall, sturdy thing with light softened and strained by rust. Still he looked into the red eyes of his lost, frowning customer and could find nothing to say. Such a man was a rarity in Dan’s routine of tightly pressed suits and tightly pulled smiles.
To his own surprise, it was Clarence who broke the silence, his voice coarse.
“I don’t give a d*** what it is you’re selling. All I care’s you’re crowding my step. Now get out of here… unless you’re coming in?”
His face cracked into that spiteful, joyless smile he’d given Stephen so many times. He couldn’t help himself. Taunting this strapping young salesman was the only satisfaction Clarence would get all day, maybe all week. He waited for the salesman to turn and walk his freshly shined shoes back down the driveway with his tail between his legs.
“Much obliged, sir.” Somehow, Clarence managed to control his anger and confusion when the salesman stepped inside with a brisk tip of his hat. “I haven’t been inside all day.”
Maybe it was the guts the salesman was showing, taking on Clarence as he was. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t seen an actual person in three days. Maybe it was how the salesman reminded Clarence of Stephen, just a bit. Whatever the reason, Clarence found himself unwilling to throw the salesman out. What the h***? He might as well talk to the salesman now that he was inside.
“Got a name, kid?” he said, not looking at the salesman as he headed towards the fridge. His voice was still rough.
“My name’s Dan, sir.” The salesman put out his hand in a formal gesture. Clarence put a beer in it.
“Call me Clarence.”
Trying to remember what he’d done with the bottle opener, Clarence dropped his beer on an end table and began shuffling through his kitchen drawers, uprooting potholders, whisks, and spoons that hadn’t seen action for weeks; he hardly cooked anymore. He could feel the salesman’s eyes examining the precipitous stack of newspapers, the tan stains on the wall, the fuzzily rewinding television. Probably passing judgment. Was that a tinge of self-conscious embarrassment, Clarence? Sometimes he shocked himself. He had cared what Stephen thought of his house.
Clarence had the bottle opener in his hand (it had been in the sink, beneath a microwaveable plate) when he turned back toward the salesman and saw him unfastening the bolts on his briefcase. Pressing his palm firmly to the top of the case, Clarence barked, “I told you: I don’t give a d***. Keep that s*** away. Drink.”
He popped the top off the salesman’s bottle, then his own, the mouths of each belching cold, condensed air. Clarence sat back on the couch but looked away from the still whirring screen, muttering, “d*** salesman and their briefcases.”
What an embarrassment he was to the company, to himself. He’d told himself firmly that he’d lost the sale already. Although Dan was inside the house, usually a positive sign, his battle had already been decided and he hadn’t even had the chance to wave a white flag. Why, then, had he tried to open that d*** briefcase? He took a gulp of the fresh beer to calm him. He couldn’t have just left in a civil manner, wishing Clarence a hearty good day. No, he’d had to try again and make a fool of himself. Here, sir, let me open this wound a little wider for you. Just throw that salt right in there. Of course I’ll keep this s*** away.
“Watching something, sir?” asked Dan casually, though inwardly cursing his foolishness. The distance between Clarence and the other end of the couch looked comfortable enough, so Dan took a seat. He resolved not to touch his briefcase again until his departure, which, apparently, wasn’t looming quite as near as he’d expected.
“Call me Clarence. And it’s nothing –”
His rough voice was cut off by the tape. It had finished rewinding and was now playing. Dan watched, intrigued, eyes transfixed as the screen flashed to life.
A young man was fiddling with his bowtie. The youthful seriousness of his piercing blue eyes was mesmerizing. His half smile, a fluorescent ivory slant, was flickering undecidedly between glee and apprehension. His hair was a field of short, beige cotton. Though wearing a full tux and sideburns, the man looked much younger than Clarence – young enough, in fact, to be his son.
A male voice asked, “Are you nervous?”
“You kidding? I’ve never been more nervous in my life.”
“Hey, these are your last minutes as a bachelor. Look smart.”
“You’re right, Uncle Joe.”
Clarence had stopped looking frantically for the remote control, as he had been a moment ago, and was now simply gazing at the screen. The man’s face was stone. His impenetrable, coarse expression was fixed straight ahead and yet acknowledged nothing on the screen. After watching Clarence during all of the young men’s conversation, Dan just had to ask.
“Call me Clarence”
Dan turned back to the screen. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Clarence take a heavy gulp of his beer. The tape had skipped ahead to the young man standing at an altar, his smile now in full swing. Dan liked the look of him: that fresh eagerness of a boy scout embarking on a camping trip. Mendelssohn’s wedding march filled Clarence’s small living room.
The crowd at the chapel was clearly much larger than could fit on camera; every pew was filled to capacity with friends and family. From seeing only the backs of people’s heads, Dan estimated that there was an even amount of black and white guests. Looking through this crowd, it was impossible to find Clarence, especially since Dan didn’t know how long ago the wedding was and what Clarence could have looked like back then. He saw that a tall, curly-haired woman in the front right pew was crying softly into a handkerchief, but the sound was drowned out by the organ.
“Crying one’s my ex wife. Mess of a woman.”
You’re hardly one to talk, thought Dan. He would never say that to a customer, though, no matter how lost.
The camera swiveled to face the chapel doors, where a young African American lady and her father had just entered and were walking down the aisle toward the beaming young man with the hair like cotton. She radiated beauty, her dark face shining from behind her pure white veil. A little girl walked ahead of her and sprinkled petals down the aisle. When the young woman reached her fiancé at the altar, their smiles broadened identically, as if they could communicate all of their love for each other through their gently closed teeth. The minister began, “We are gathered here today…”
Dan had always thought weddings were beautiful. If there were any one day in a man’s life when he should be completely happy, celebratory, and worry-free, it should be his wedding day. He’d been to many of his friends’ weddings and thoroughly enjoyed every one. They were frivolous, a welcome break from his work. He himself was unmarried, of course; salesmanship didn’t leave enough room in his life for a wife. But he did dream of marrying someday when he’d progressed further in his career and was ready to settle down. For him, a wedding was one of the few mystiques left in the world. It was to be cherished.
Now the minister was reading the man’s vows. Next to him, the young black woman looked all the more magnificent, her beauty magnified, Dan thought, by love. They both looked like they had never been happier in their lives. Touched by the scene, Dan spoke again.
“This is beautiful.”
In the background he heard the minister: “…And forsaking all others, be faithful only to her…”
“You must be so proud, sir.”
“Call me Clarence, god damn it!”
Clarence had stood up, bristling at the screen. Dan was shocked by the anger in his sudden outburst. Fear of the raging man penetrated Dan’s trance of admiration; all he felt now was panic. For a brief second, Dan was afraid to breathe. Then Clarence’s arm, still holding the beer, made a sudden, aggressive arc through the air. The beer hit the wall with a violent crash of glass that resounded with the son’s voice from the screen:
Clarence didn’t want to be reminded. He did not want to remember the first time he’d refused to allow Barbara into the house and Stephen had driven her home, embarrassed. He did not want to remember his last argument with Stephen, his last look into those piercing blue eyes before his door had been slammed with Stephen on the other side. The door might as well have been a millennium for all of Clarence’s inability to reopen it, to call out to his son, I didn’t mean it! She’s a respectable young woman! Please, please don’t leave! He did not want to remember the cold jealousy that had forced his brother to slam that same door for the same reasons, though not without first leaving the tape with the large sticker: Stephen and Barbara’s Wedding Night, Courtesy of Joe. He did not want to recount the months since Stephen’s last call, did not want to remember the pleading, frustrated voice.
Yet Stephen’s voice rang clear through the room.
“Well, Uncle Joe, she’s beautiful and I love her. Isn’t that enough?”
Uncle Joe laughed, “That’s more than plenty, Stephen.”
His rage and emptiness now wrapped about his heavy shoulders like a shawl, Clarence had hardly noticed the salesman. Frankly, he didn’t much want to. But now he saw the salesman’s eyes, still wide with what Clarence guessed was fearful shock, turn away from him and toward the screen, where Uncle Joe was finishing his toast to Stephen and his new wife. When he saw the green of the salesman’s eyes again, they seemed to betray the question before it was even asked.
“You weren’t at this wedding, were you, Clarence?”
Clarence shut his eyes briefly, as if he could blot out the question and its young asker with darkness. Opening his eyes, he saw the salesman still sitting and looking curiously at him. He took a deep, calming breath.
“No. No, I wasn’t.”
“But your son… he must have invited you.”
The very slight nod was all the salesman needed.
Now he watched the salesman’s lips intently. If those thick sheets of flesh peeled back to show the pristine, stately teeth beneath; if the salesman uttered that one word that Clarence did not want to hear right now; if he had to, halfway drunk and completely stubborn as he always was, explain himself now, he didn’t think he could handle it. But, dreaded as they were, those salesman’s lips did part to let loose something awful, a monster that had tormented Clarence relentlessly in his sleepless nights and drunken mornings, that one powerful word:
Again Clarence snapped, unable to contain himself, but this time he was directed at the salesman.
“Don’t you ask me why I wasn’t invited! Don’t you ask me why he married that… that…”
As Clarence watched, the salesman turned toward the screen. How could he turn away now, when he should be making eye contact, be making justification? On the screen Barbara laughed as she danced with Stephen, her white smile shining like a beacon. As the salesman turned his head slowly back from the screen, those wide eyes revealed that an awful connection had been made. The face that had provided a sneering Clarence with contemptuous amusement only moments ago now looked only aghast and disgusted.
In outrage – or, now he mocked himself, is that disappointment? – Clarence opened his mouth again, pathetically.
But he needed to say no more. The salesman was already getting up, dusting off his suit jacket, and grabbing his briefcase. All of a sudden, Clarence did not want the salesman to go. He went and put his hand on the salesman’s shoulder and opened his mouth to say something, but could not. The salesman was staring back at him and all Clarence could see were piercing blue eyes, no longer wide, now full of understanding and judgment. He could have sworn that they’d been green at first.
“I think it’s best I leave now,” was all the salesman said. Clarence watched helplessly as he closed the door gently behind the tightly pressed suit.
The tension in his mouth, in the air, and in the salesman’s eyes no longer gripping him, Clarence slumped back onto the couch. He didn’t understand why now of all times he allowed his molten tears to flow. Slouched there, crying in his own frustration and loneliness, he felt sick. Sick of his decisions. Sick of that question. Sick, most of all, of his own stubbornness. The screen went black for the twentieth time that day. Sighing, remembering the expression of disappointment on the salesman’s face, and wondering how long it had been since he’d seen that same expression on Stephen’s, Clarence glanced tentatively at the phone.
Dan frowned as he walked back down the driveway, one of his hands clutching the briefcase and the other pressed tightly into his pocket. He had to get used to the biting outdoor cold all over again.
Of course Clarence was wrong. In his beliefs, in his treatment of his son, in his disregard for love as plain as day. But Dan just couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he had somehow come up short in his visit, beyond just selling no shampoo. He didn’t understand why he was suddenly washed with heavy waves of guilt that overrode his disgust of a moment ago. Dan the shampoo salesman felt, above all else, that he had somehow failed. Listening closely, he could hear only his footsteps echoing through the empty evening sky.