In honor of May’s National Short Story Month, Flavorwire held its second short story contest and, after much deliberation, emerged with a first-place story, along with three honorable mentions. Over the course of the week, Flavorwire will be publishing each of the four winners. For today’s story, we present “For the Love of a Salesman” by Halimah Marcus.
My days were full of feigned urgency, working for the director. We were in between shoots during the red-carpet month of February and I was without much to do, but still. He was important with a capital I, the kind of man to claim everything as his own. To his name all else got second billing: The Director’s Pandering Blockbuster, The Director’s Uninspired Remake, The Director’s Gotcha Ending. Rather than alphabetizing his DVDs and otherwise making a performance of being busy, I’d taken to executing errands the minute they were conceived. The director wants a bagel, drop all and go. Particularly during award season when insults to the director’s talent were implicit in every entertainment headline, I retreated eagerly to the protection of my vehicle. The car was a safe space where no one could criticize my outfits as a way of consoling a lambasted ego.
At home there was the boyfriend, with all his mortal troubles. During my short drives a fun game was to reconsider everything that had led me to this point: him on the brink, me holding onto his waistband. Probably, he was laughing. Even in bed (or especially there) he was a maniac and a child.
But childishness had its benefits. Our first date—dinner, bar, six-pack in my backyard—ended in bed. He kissed me for the first time like it was some great relief, like he’d be waiting years to do it, though we’d only just met. When we undressed and I made some sarcastic remark about our drunken fumbling, he put his hand on my lips to stop me. “Shh,” he said. “Just let me love you.” And to the extent that he was capable of it, I did.
The Friday before the Oscars I fled to the mall to fix the director’s sunglasses. NPR kept me company down suburban roads and into the parking lot, full and yellow in the Los Angeles sun. Like everywhere else it was all cars and no bodies. I entered through a high-end department store and avoided eye contact with the lonely salespeople, as cool and well lit as mannequins. The emptiness was like one of the director’s movies, apocalyptic and poorly conceived.
The boyfriend told me a story once about a widow who’d tried to return a power drill to this very department store, something her late husband had bought and for which she had no use. Even though the department store has never sold power drills they accepted it for store credit. Such was the quality of service, he told me. The loyalty to the customer.
As I passed through cosmetics, one of my phones came alive. Left pocket meant director; right, boyfriend. As usual, it was the left. He wanted gifts for his cousins. Leather photo albums. “Monogrammed?” I tapped back. It would have been better to give him no choice, to surprise him with all of their initials, memorized, but assertion was no longer a skill I possessed. I reached for the other phone and messaged the boyfriend. “Are you working or coming over tonight?”
“Working,” he responded, which meant sitting in his studio. Not painting. And when a deadline came up he’d assemble some trash, arrange it for maximum meaning. His paintings, when he made them, were laden with iconography. Stained-glass windows and U.S. army tanks. Religion and war. Pot leaves, swastikas (a reclaiming of the Hindu symbol, he said), and photo-realist orchids. Canvases soaked in broad, impenetrable irony. He’d told me that when he was working even a text message was a burden. That he responded at all was a great sacrifice, one he trotted out during arguments.
The point of the power drill story, he later said, was that it wasn’t even true.
I scoffed, because who wouldn’t want to believe it? I too was a creature in love with my own devotion.
At the eyeglass store, the man behind the counter didn’t want my business, or so it seemed by the way he looked at me and sighed. I was already a disappointment. I handed over the sunglasses, which were expensive.
The problem was a broken arm.
“I can fix this,” the man said, and went behind the curtain.
He emerged a few minutes later and handed me the glasses. There was a scratch across the left lens that was an insult to my intelligence.
“I’m not paying for this,” I said.
The man shrugged. “Fine, don’t pay. I never made you any promises.”
I looked around at the racks of eyeglasses, the sign that said Prescriptions filled while you wait. “This whole place is a promise,” I said, throwing my arm into the air.
The man shrugged again. “I said you didn’t have to pay.”
I looked at the scratch. After less than a year of personal servitude, I lived in fear of small mistakes. Something so simple, a razing of plastic, was proof positive of my general incompetence.
“Do you sell this same model?” I asked.
He walked out from behind the counter to one of the walls of sunglasses and plucked an identical pair.
“Give me 20% off.”
“Fine,” he said. “No problem.” The guy was infuriating, yet reasonable.
I paid for the glasses with the director’s credit card. $300, minus $60—a drop in this quarter’s bucket, but still. He would be angry. He would look at me in that way of his and I would be reduced to a lesser version of myself. Or rather, a former version that still lived inside, like an enemy nesting doll.
I kept the desecrated pair as proof. The glasses, nestled in their soft cases inside my purse, were a totem of my petty exploits. I would present them as evidence in the explanation of the whole tedious affair, which would be treated gravely, as savage as an Oscar snub, as ruinous as 11% on Rotten Tomatoes. There’d be a condescending lecture about responsibility, about triple checking (as if that were a thing), about how I exist as a shield against the little things.
The director’s favorite expression, probably a future tagline for one of his movies: “There are no small mistakes.”
Impulsively, I reached for the boyfriend phone and contemplated it in my hand. If I called, he’d answer resentfully. Like he had when I’d called from Tokyo in the middle of the night, after the Japanese premier of the director’s worst movie. The director was in the next room, cheating on his passive wife with a catalogue model, and just by being there I was complicit in it. I knew his children and his wife too. The house he’d built for them was so big she never had to leave it, though she’d disappear in its wings for hours, a search party of unsupervised housekeepers, calling her name.
When I phoned that night the boyfriend was having lunch with an old roommate and couldn’t talk. She was a sulky collagist, who, when they lived together, used to crawl into his bed nights until I told him, Do whatever you want but it’s her or me. She shouldn’t have been a threat, she was morose on top of being meek, but the boyfriend was the same way and they had bonded over their morosity. I imagined them eating pea soup in an intimate silence.
We said our goodbyes, his a muffled “I love you,” and I hung up feeling jealous. He saw the collagist only when I was out of town and always claimed it was spontaneous—he ran into her at the co-op, she texted him out of the blue. It had been a useless call over long distance, a brush-off costing upwards of $30. But who cared. I’d spent more on less.
The next morning over breakfast the director told me that he and the catalogue model hadn’t done anything, that in the end she seemed too practiced, like “she’d done this too many times before.” Then he said that when it came down to it, he hadn’t actually wanted to fuck her. He just wanted to know that he could.
Still with a few errands to run, I found my way to the mall map and store index. The place was an endless series of escalators and annexes, an alien’s idea for how I should spend my day. Elsewhere in the mall there was a frame store, a shop that sold leather goods, another for arts and crafts. There was no sensible route between them so I chose a direction and took it, feeling I had contracted what could only be called mall-brain—to hold at once the contradictory feeling of needing everything and nothing at once.
The director’s phone buzzed again. “Socks—you know what kind.”
Really, I didn’t.
Ahead of me was a kiosk, one of those pop-up booths hawking products previously only seen on TV.
A young man attended it, standing among colorful clothes and operating a microwave. He was the only person I’d seen since leaving the eyeglass store, and it seemed possible that he was the only person I’d ever see again.
“Ma’am,” he said. “Come talk to me. I have what you’re looking for.” He was tall and thin, with an accent that was probably Middle Eastern.
Despite hours of practice in evading phone calls on behalf of the director, of putting people off, of not caring about the environment, of refusing to sponsor children, I stopped walking.
He put out a hand to usher me closer.
“Do you ever get back aches? Headaches?”
I nodded. Two weeks before I’d gotten a migraine so severe that both my tongue and my arm went numb. Later that same day, in an unrelated incident, I backed my car into a tree.
“You look like you work hard. Who are you running errands for? Your boss?”
This time I did not nod.
“I thought so.” He took my hand. “See, no ring means no husband, no children. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have responsibilities. It’s my job to notice these things.” As he spoke he held my hand, barely. I let him because his was dry and soft, like a mother’s. “Allow me to do a brief demonstration? What scent do you prefer? Chamomile? Lavender?”
“Whatever. Either.” But the salesman was waiting for me to decide, so I said, “Lavender.”
“Lavender. Fantastic. Come stand here.” He took me by the shoulders and placed me next to the cash register. I regretted allowing myself to be pulled in, the “demonstration” (of what?) was already taking longer than I had time for, and yet I let him place me.
“Do you like this one?” He held out a U-shaped pillow with two hands, as if it was a swath of expensive silk. “Go ahead, smell it.”
I leaned in. Fresh lavender. No chemicals.
He could tell I was pleased, that he’d bought a few more minutes. “Okay, I have another one here in the freezer.” He retrieved an identical pillow and placed it over my shoulders like a fur stole. “That feels nice doesn’t it?”
The weight of it was unexpected, that of a lead vest, but comforting. I relaxed enough to jump when the microwave, which had apparently been running all along, binged loudly.
“I put this in when I saw you coming. Can you believe I guessed lavender?”
He removed the iced pillow from my shoulders and put it aside, retrieving its replacement from the microwave. “Okay, good. It’s not too hot.” He held it out toward me. “May I? For your back.”
“All right,” I said. He raised his eyebrows and I lifted my arms slightly, as it seemed he was indicating I should. Then he took the pillow behind me, passing it between hands, pressed it against my lower back and wrapped it around my waist. He held the ends together at my belly so that the warmth enveloped me, and I could feel his menthol breath on my face.
“How’s that?” he asked.
I murmured in the affirmative.
“A little while longer,” he assured me. Underneath the mint of his breath were cigarettes, the same smell that stowed away in my boyfriend’s hair when he came to bed after hours of artistic frustration, though I’d never seen him smoke. I closed my eyes to picture him, but instead of his face I saw the view from the hotel in Tokyo: the grounds of the Imperial Palace, green and regal, as commonplace to Chiyoda as this mall to America, and when I opened my eyes I knew that my life was happening all on its own, devoid of reason and without me at its center.
“So,” the salesman said. “Sold? It’s $45 but for you I can do $40.”
The question was an embarrassment. As if he had to ask. I would buy the $40 pillow to say, You are good at what you do. And I also I would buy it to say, I am a woman who knows what she wants.
And even though it cheapened us both when I handed him two crumpled twenties and said no to a receipt, as I rode the escalator away from him I couldn’t help but wonder if this had been a man I could have loved, a man I could have quietly cared for as I’d allowed him to care for me.
Halimah Marcus is the Editor-in-Chief of Recommended Reading, a weekly fiction magazine from the innovative digital publisher Electric Literature. Her writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, One Story, Sports Illustrated, and elsewhere. Halimah is a member of the Brooklyn Book Festival Fiction Committee and an instructor for the Sackett Street Writers Worksop. She has a MFA from Brooklyn College.