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Almost every year Mom and Pop drag us out to the State Fair in the middle of August. It was right around my birthday and my sister’s birthday and my brother’s birthday, so they made it kind of a triple treat for the family…cream puffs, hamburgers, maybe watch a little of the Kids From Wisconsin or run into Miss Dairyland. Almost every year it would be super hot, the worst month in Milwaukee with all the concrete and barely any rain. Mid nineties, maybe even pushing 100. Still the Fair would be packed, wall to wall people, not much to do in Southeastern Wisconsin with just a couple weeks before the start of school in September unless you liked to fish, and Pop wasn’t a fisherman. No football either on the weekends yet, and the Brewers stunk. They drug us out to the State Fair because they knew we had painfully short attention spans. They didn’t want a thousand questions each about what did grandma get us for our birthdays, or what’s the difference between Florence Henderson and Shirley Jones and how come Joey Heatherton was a sex symbol and a whore and the others weren’t when all three had the same face.
This day, my god it was hot, and in one building they had air conditioning, maybe fifty yards long and thirty wide or so, arranged into aisles lined on either side packed with vendors. Everybody packed themselves in there and crept along booth to booth, while the vendors held their arms out, some of them with microphones, attending this salad spinner, or that ginsu self sharpening kitchen knife, offering this or that deal for the state fair, “today only no interest only three easy payments of…” Pop showed them his idea of no interest by walking right by them, faster when they singled him out of the crowd for a “demonstration.” We marched double time behind him until one deal actually caught Pop’s eye – a case of 30 cans of free soup – all you had to do was allow a Kirby salesman in your house for half an hour. No obligation to buy was right up Pop’s alley. He filled out the application, even crossed himself before he signed. Pop asked for his case of soup. “Nope,” the salesman told him. “Demonstration first. Then soup.”
By the time Kirby called back about a week later, a freak cold front had moved through and we opened up the windows at the house and enjoyed a cool breeze all morning after Pop left for work. The younger kids: Paul, Jason, Martha and Justine played in the yard outside, running away from Mrs. Horsch next door, screaming. The Kirby salesman would be around about noon if someone could meet him. I told Mom and she said she’d be home with coffee, and Pop was coming home around 1 or so. At the time Pop was in-between jobs working part time at La Licata’s Little Italy, doing prep cook work and running errands for the owner, for cash because he was drawing unemployment, and taking home pizzas, pans of lasagna, on a good day a frozen lobster tail. He couldn’t get soup because the chef had his pride. He merely added an ingredient proudly, every day, to his stock pot like this: Day One, Onion, Day Two, Chicken Noodle with Onion, Day Three, Chicken Vegetable, all the way to the end of the week when he’d have a hodgepodge bubbling away, his burner set low on the stove. The ingredients added came from leftover dinner specials so you could see soup with four different meats, or some cream soup concoction with noodles, potatoes, vegetables and kidney beans, or even mashed potatoes dissolving into solute and filtering to the bottom of the pot, producing clouds when ladle stirred.
The chef was a hunter too, and used the walk-in freezer to store his trophies before taxidermy, and sometimes people wondered, “Did any of that raccoon make its way into the soup this week?” But generally people just joked about that because the stories of 7 point bucks and black bears and bags full of squirrels or pheasants or turkeys, still with the heads on and guts in, and skin and feathers on, flittered between the waitstaff and the customers. Pop said he’d seen it. A whole corner of the walk-in devoted to the hunt, blood pooling beneath the carcasses. Somehow no one ever ratted the chef out to the Health Department. Or who knows? Maybe it wasn’t even a violation long as they called it wild game, despite the fur and the guts and brains. Or maybe he just had a big old wad of hundred dollar bills to bribe inspectors, maybe Mr. LaLicata himself did that, because that’s what Pop came home with… a hundred dollar bill, every time he came home from working there.
Anyhow, the time was set. Mom made coffee and Pop would be home around 1 with money to make the final decision. Did we or did we not want to own the incredible Kirby? Now it was up to the salesman to pitch his woo and us to watch and listen and learn of the wonders of American innovation and technology. The hour came and went and I waited in the living room, switching my gaze between the clock on the wall and the door opposite, between the tv admiring Carol Merrill and Bob Barker, noting a Kirby had never been featured on the show and wondering was it true, the best products sold by word of mouth, not by “Let’s Make a Deal.” The doorbell rang and there he was, DDH I guess Mom would have called him for drop dead handsome with a moustache just like Tom Selleck, said his name was Thomas too and could he please step inside to begin his presentation, and were my parents home, young lady, dragging in a pair of heavy suitcases. I called and Mom appeared instantly, invited him to sit on the couch and did he take his coffee with cream or sugar or both? He smiled and said “Cream thank you.” I sat on a chair across while Mom fetched coffee and Thomas asked my name and I said Alice and Thomas said it was a pretty name. I smiled and he asked what grade I was in and I said 8th and he said, “Next year high school. You must be excited,” and of course I said I was. I blushed. Thomas had gotten off on the right foot.
Mom stumbled in with the coffee and Thomas asked if she could find the vacuum cleaner in the house and give it to him. He took the old Eletrolux, clicked open the canister, pulled the bag out which was half-full of lint, dust and other detritus and dumped it onto the floor. Mom screamed.
“Never fear, ma’am,” said Thomas, “the Kirby’s built to handle emergencies.” He attached a hose and nozzle to the Kirby, plugged it in and switched it on. It whirred and rattled as he passed the wand back and forth over the mess he’d made. Soon the carpet was so clean it almost smelled like heaven. He switched off the Kirby and posed like a lumberjack leaning on the wand of the Kirby like it could be the handle of an axe. “It pulls,” he said, “with twice the power of a Bissell or Eureka. Nearly three times the power of a Hoover. Twice your Electralux there. You can get your work done in half the time, ma’am,” he observed, “Wanna try?”
“Nope, I’ll just watch for now,” Mom stammered. She was enamoured with him.
“Smart lady,” Thomas observed, “let the salesman do the housework.”
I asked him, “How much is the Kirby?” expecting him to say maybe one or two hundred dollars, which at that time was a helluva lot of money for us, two of Pop’s workdays at the restaurant which were actually kind of infrequent. I flicked my bangs off my face and waited for his answer. I put my hands in my lap, netted my fingers and made doe-eyes at Thomas.
“Well,” he said, “you have to think of cost in terms of reliability, dependability, and quality. Kirby makes the finest vacuum cleaner in the world.”
I didn’t doubt his word, but I noticed he dodged my question. I considered he was not paying me any attention because I was just thirteen and a girl. I said, “You know my father doesn’t make a lot of money, but I’m a straight A student.”
“That’s nice Alice. He must be very proud of you,” said Thomas. He leaned forward a little, added, “We have payment options. Reasonable terms for limited income households.”
“What kind of payment options?” I asked.
“Is your father home?” Thomas asked.
“In a little while,” I said.
“Why don’t we wait and let him decide,” Thomas said.
“I’m just curious,” I said. I flicked my bangs again and stared at him until he turned away and smirked.
“We’ll talk about it,” he said finally, “but first let me show you the carpet cleaning feature.” He opened the smaller briefcase. Inside were brush heads, and tall plastic bottles containing red yellow and green liquids. “This is the Kirby accessory pack,” he explained, “it comes with the unit at no additional cost. There are cleansers here and shampoos for grease stains, outdoor stains, for dust particles, which are really 90% dead human skin (he paused to emphasize the words dead and human), for pet dander, basically anything you can do to mess up a carpet, Kirby has a solution.” He affixed a brush head to the wand, took a small bottle out of his pocket, and squirted a good tablespoonful of something onto the rug in the shape of an Ankh. Mom asked “What’s that?” He told her Wesson oil. This time Mom just looked at him. “Never fear,” he repeated. He attached one of the soap bottles to a receptacle in the Kirby, which must have been the grease cutter, and went to work. Soon all the Wesson oil had been sucked up leaving no stain. But he continued, switched to the shampooer, fixed the broad head to the business end of the wand, and stroked back and forth across a section of carpet. He explained, “Now let me show you what your regular vacuum cleaner is missing.”
I watched as a fan of spray shampoo coated the carpet ahead of the broad head. Through a glass portion of the wand, I saw black liquid battling its way up the incline, pulled by the heavy sucking force of the Kirby. Five minutes later, he shut the Kirby down, opened a canister in its side and removed a clear plastic container filled about a quarter of the way up with a black tarry liquid and a gravy-like foam floating on top. “For shame Mrs. Andruzzi,” said Thomas, “you are a bad housekeeper!” He presented the bottle of waste for her to examine. Looking at it, my Mom’s face turned red and dropped down to where her hands could cover up her embarrassment. She sobbed quietly, then left the room in dismay. I guessed for Mom Dudley Dooright had morphed into Snydley Whiplash. She ran into the bathroom to wash the moustache wax off her hands. I wasn’t 100% on her side, but I didn’t like anyone insulting Mom. Sadistically, he smiled just like he’d poked a hamster with a stick. Mom was just too meek and religious to defend herself.
Thomas told me, “The Kirby will double the life of your carpet.”
“Really?” I asked.
“It’s guaranteed in writing.”
“And how long would the carpet last without the Kirby.”
“Our research has determined for a family of four the average life of a carpet without the Kirby is ten years.”
I said, “We have five in our family. Five kids.”
“So not as long,” said Thomas.
“But double that, whatever it happens to be with the Kirby.”
“Yes,” he said, “that’s right.” He concluded, “You’re a smart girl.’
“And how much did you say the Kirby cost?”
“I didn’t,” said Thomas, “remember, we were waiting for your father.”
“I’m just doing a little calculation here,” I explained, and batted my eyes for emphasis. “Just for the sake of argument why don’t you tell me?” I stood up at that moment and straightened my dress, held my arms ladylike at my sides with the elbows slightly bent. I tried to pose like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, or Dorothy Hamill at the end of a competitive skate.
“It’s twelve hundred dollars,” Thomas admitted.
“Twelve hundred dollars,” I said, “that’s interesting.” I touched my chin like The Thinker, only female.
“Why is that interesting?” Thomas looked at me, as if I were a foolish young girl. I thought I might curtsy to satisfy his opinion of both me, and himself. He didn’t realise it wouldn’t bother me at all if he called me a bad housekeeper.
I said, “Because my parents replaced the carpet less than a year ago. It cost them $400. I know because I saw the bill. Now let’s assume the carpet lasts 8 years. We could replace it in 8 years and probably spend the same money, give or take a hundred dollars maybe for inflation, a sale, whatever. Then in 8 more years we’d replace it again for the same money or maybe a little more. So at the end of sixteen years, we’d spend 12 hundred dollars total and have a brand new carpet.”
Thomas looked at me but didn’t say anything. One corner of his moustache pointed up and the other down, he was speechless. I wasn’t sure he’d understood but I was determined he’d see my point.
I continued, “Assuming we buy the Kirby, we’ve already invested 16 hundred dollars including the cost of the carpet. At the end of the 16 years, we’d have an old Kirby and an old carpet we’d still have to replace.”
Thomas didn’t say anything. I saw from the look on his face, he was beginning to comprehend. His original condescension had soldiered on to bewilderment as he began to lose his balance. He grimaced like he’d just been caught peeing in public at his niece’s First Communion, and he was ashamed at the size of his wiener, listening to his giggling niece.
“So in other words,” I concluded, “without the Kirby, after 16 years, we’d have a new carpet and 4 hundred dollars in our pocket. And with the Kirby, we’d have an old carpet, an old Kirby, and we’d have to spend another 4 hundred to replace the carpet again. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
The old couch took his fall with a groan. He looked up at the ceiling as if he expected to find something there to help him. He seemed to fix his gaze at a crack that ran the length of the ceiling, and had some patches of white putty where Pop hadn’t bothered to paint yet. Mom was still crying when she came back into the room. Then I heard the lock and the front door opening. It was Pop. He saw my mother crying, saw the Kirby with all the attachments spread out on the floor like an autopsy and Thomas splayed on the couch. “What the fuck is going on here?” he said to Thomas.
“He’s trying to sell us a vacuum cleaner,” I told Pop. I smiled.
“He said I’m a terrible housekeeper,” Mom whimpered.
“Get the fuck out of here,” said Pop, “and take that piece of shit with you. Before I kick your ass.”
Thomas struggled up, off the couch. He appeared to have cracked somehow and was holding his elbows in tight to keep from falling to pieces right there on the living room floor. I helped him disassemble the Kirby, and return it to its suitcase. His hands shook quite violently and I wondered if he had ever sold a single Kirby at all. Thomas put the bottles and brush heads back inside the smaller case slowly and carefully, almost tearfully, like he was piecing through wreckage after Barneveld for some family heirloom. Then he ran for the door with a case in either hand. He awkwardly put the suitcases down, fumbled with the doorknob until I finally came over and held the door for him. He stumbled down the porch steps and staggered out to the front walk, then to his car. After he was gone I said to Pop, “What about the soup?”
“Hey!” shouted Pop. He ran after the salesman. “Hey, you son-of-a-bitch! Wait!” Pop yelled as he ran down the steps and confronted Thomas just as he was getting into his car. I turned away from the front door toward Mom who was sitting on the couch, blowing her nose, still visibly upset. “I’m not a bad housekeeper,” she said like she was apologising to me. She had a ghastly look about her eyes with all the crying.
“It’s a bunch of shit,” I told Mom. “He’s trying to sell a vacuum cleaner.”
A minute later Pop pushed open the door and stepped through into the living room, a little hunched under the shoulder weight of a case of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. About a minute after that, Paul, Jason, Martha and Justine sauntered in, asking what the hell happened. “Never mind,” said Pop, “who’s up for grilled cheese and tomato soup?” Pop really knew how to cook a grilled cheese, said it was better with olive oil, he’d learned so at La Licata’s. Pop said he didn’t hit Thomas, just scared him and took the soup home that was rightfully ours. “If he comes back,” Pop told me, “don’t let him in the house.” He didn’t come back, and as a family, our demonstration days came to an abrupt end.
Mark Putzi received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee in 1990. He has published fiction and poetry in numerous small press magazines including The Cape Rock, the Cream City Review, r.kv.r.y. and Queen Mob's Teahouse. He lives in Milwaukee and works as a retail pharmacist.