“What the hell do you want?” He shouted as he threw the door open.
I stumbled back two steps, like a yearling calf away from a slathering dog. His was the last door on the street I knocked on and I immediately knew it was a mistake.
“Well?” He demanded.
He was dressed in piss-soiled long johns and scuffed wingtip shoes. He had a cab driver’s ‘Leroy’ tucked down low over his semi-balding head. He was thin and sad. He was tall and not angry so much as he was disappointed; something he had probably been all his life. And he had scared me out of two years of my nine-year-old life.
“Nothing.” I hesitated and turned to scurry away.
“What are you selling, boy?” He asked with a bitter tone.
I turned and tried not to stare at him.
“Greeting cards and spring seeds.” I stammered.
I had knocked on every door of every house on the block, selling my cards and seeds. I found the add in the back of a “Superman” comic- something about the grown up world of door to door sales and the financial freedom that could be attained selling a product nobody wanted from the back pages of a hero magazine no one believed in anymore. But at nine I still believed in Superman, Santa Claus and everything in the world seemed possible to me, even financial freedom.
The house was low and squat and overgrown with shrubs so that the doors and windows were hardly visible. What could be seen was darkened by yellowed shades pulled down from the inside. I had pushed my way through the prickly arbor at the gate and pounded on the side door because the front was wild with Azaleas or Philodendron or some other hedge plant or overgrown weed. Who knew? I hadn’t made a sale all afternoon and a small voice in the back of my head told me to stay away from the dark foreboding house dozing like a sleeping giant on the corner lot but there hadn’t been one housewife in all of the safe warm homes, the bright, the open and airy homes on the street that day I had visited who wanted to contribute to my financial freedom. It was getting late and I was cold so, I knocked on his door- on the darkened portal of a cavernous house of possible horrors.
“Well… c’mon in.” He mumbled as he turned and disappeared into the kitchen. I followed him. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to. I should have turned and ran away but I didn’t. The interior was filthy and smelled of urine and a cat box, though I saw no cat. The wall paper was cracked and peeling and everywhere I turned there were mounds, stacks of old newspapers and magazines, tattered, dusty books and museum furniture covered with musty oilcloth. I shouldn’t have been there and I knew it but the adult had said to the child- ‘come in’ and so I entered, Gretel to his Hansel, into the witches den.
I followed him to a stippled arched alcove that stank of tobacco and wine that had at one time been either a small dining room or a large breakfast nook. He presented me with a royal flourish to an old man in dirty bedding, reclining on an ancient chaise lounge. He was dressed in an old-fashioned three-button nightshirt that had probably been white at one time but was now a dingy gray. The old man had a harried and frightened look about him. He smelled sweet and stale. His gray hair seemed to float about his head like the frayed strings of a horsehair violin bow. His wrinkled skin, deeply creviced, was paper-thin and the veins beneath stood out like the purpled tree roots that snaked across what was left of the lawn in the front of the house. As he spoke, dried yellow spittle at the corners of his mouth cracked and flaked off onto his gown.
“What do you want, boy?” He cackled.
Mr. Wingtips put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me forward.
“This young man wants to sell you some greeting cards and spring seeds.” He replied confidently.
The old man in the chaise turned away and looked at the shaded window as if to remind himself on this winter darkening day, that spring would come, whether it would find him still living. He looked frail and withered. He looked tired and worn out. He did not need any greeting cards or spring seeds.
He turned back to me, a small spiteful fire flickering in his eyes.
“Well?” He demanded. “Show me!”
I dipped into my small haversack and pulled out a gilded box of cards, opened it and timidly held it out.
“I can’t see.” He snapped. “Tilt it forward.”
I did as I was told. To my horror, the cheery greetings slid like an un-shuffled deck of cards onto his soiled nightshirt, neck and face. He winced as if he had been slapped; blinked his eyes once and then twice and then put his hand down on the side of the smelly old lounge, straightening himself as he spoke.
“Are you trying to be funny?” He roared.
I was frozen, aghast.
“N… no sir.” I stammered.
He began to huff and puff like an old wolf leering after young swine; sputtering and spluttering like a butter churn or a seized engine suddenly flooded with gasoline, as he drew himself up as far as he might into a sitting position. The chaise and his bones creaked ominously like a rusty barn door flapping in a windstorm.
“Pick them up.” He seethed.
I hurriedly grabbed at the cards, snatching them up with bits of dried spittle and old food as I shoved them back into the box. All the while I stared at him, round eyed, wide eyed, fearfully, questioningly.
“I’ll tell you what you do, son.” He growled. “You take your damn cards and your damn spring seeds and shove them up your anus and then get the hell out of my house!” He flailed his withered arms about as he yelled, like a manic conductor before a ghostly orchestra.
I turned with a start and jumped smack into Mr. Wingtips’ piss stained long johns. He glared down at me, his nostrils flaring. The old man behind me on the chaise was bellowing away like a bull elephant caught up in a sink hole and the alcove of the house that reeked of dust, urine and a cat box seemed to be collapsing in around me. I shrieked and ran past Mr. Wingtips, out the side door and into the waning light of the late winter afternoon.
There was suddenly a warm boney hand on my shoulder. I held my breath and turned. Mr. Wingtips had slipped into a ragged pair of baggy slacks, two sizes too big and a dark single-breasted two-button suit jacket over his winter underwear, so that he looked like a gangster from an old black and white movie. His smile was warm and genuine. His eyes sparkled warmly.
“Son,” he said comfortingly, “let me tell you something, one salesman to another.”
He strode to the driver’s seat of a rusted old ’36 Lincoln, opened the door and climbed in.
“When you’re in sales,” he began as he turned the key, “you need a good pitch. You have to be more prepared; to believe in yourself and your product… that’s the key to selling.” He emphasized his point by tapping his crooked index finger to my small chest. The old Lincoln groaned, moaned, coughed once and then roared to life, belching a thick cloud of blue smoke from the tail pipe. “You’ll remember that, won’t you?”
He winked at me, ground the gears of the old car into reverse, backed slowly out of the yard and left me standing in the oily shadow of a towering Juniper with my greeting cards and a bundle of spring seeds that, even if planted would probably never grow.