A man comes to town. He wears spit-shined shoes and a lime-green coat. His hair is all slicked, and there’s a pack on his shoulders. He looks bright and flashy, like a light bulb. I see him walking down the road, the noon sun sizzling on his head, with his feet raising little clouds of dust.
It’s a midsummer inferno outside, and all the windows in our house are open. I’m lying on the grass on our front lawn, Hector at my side, just lazing around. It’s too hot to think, much less do anything. Inside, somewhere in the dim swelter, mama’s cleaning pots and pans.
The man stops at a bakery window and looks in at a loaf baking in the oven. They have it on a rack in there, and it’s going around and around like a little white planet. When he sees it he whips off his spectacles and cleans them on his shirt cuff, and a greedy look gets on his face.
After he’s stared for a while he moves on, and the first thing he does is come towards my house. He walks down the front path, and I can tell he’s nervous because he’s fussing with his hair and sniffing his breath and rubbing the sweat off his forehead. He looks at me, lying on my back in the middle of the lawn, chewing grass, and I look back at him. At my side, Hector sits up and starts growling. The man gets to my front door and knocks. No reply. He knocks again. Still nothing. Bang! Bang! Bang! Finally, mama answers.
As soon as the door swings open, the man switches on his smile. He straightens up and starts speaking real fast, like he’s looking to win a race.
“Good afternoon, Madame!” he says. “May I say what a fine garden you have. Is that lilac I smell?”
“What do you want?” mama asks guardedly.
“May I interest you in a rare, genuine, one-hundred-percent authentic first issue of The Gardener’s Chronicle, a miraculous publication?”
“You’re a salesman?” mama interrupts.
“An entrepreneur, Madame,” the salesman replies with pride.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t read gardening magazines.”
“Of course, of course. Perhaps you would care instead for an issue of The Owl, a journal containing the most enlightening, in-depth, one-of-a-kind articles on today’s political issues?”
“I don’t read political magazines either. I already know which way to vote. I’m a Farmer-Laborist.”
“And a credit to your country, Madame,” bursts out the salesman, beginning to sweat now. “But surely, surely you’ll want to take advantage of the enormous – nay, the innumerable – benefits that come from purchasing the last, original edition of The Weekly Recorder?”
“Sorry,” says mama, and she shuts the door. For a moment the salesman just stands there, stunned. Then he turns around and walks back to the main road. I raise my head as he goes by. He stares at me. I stare at him. Hector barks. The salesman moves on.
When he’s back on the main road, he pauses again to look in the bakery window. The loaf is beautiful and gold and brown now. It’s glowing red from the heat. The salesman runs his hands through his hair looking at it, and then goes up to the house next door. When he knocks, Mrs. Trencher answers the door in her rough apron. The salesman runs through his list of magazines, but she won’t buy a thing. She just stands there, looking at him suspiciously and shaking her head. Finally, with his stock exhausted, the salesman resorts to his super weapon.
“But surely, Madame,” he cries, “surely you’ll want to purchase The Christian Chronicle, the best spiritual publication in the country, on sale at the moment for a single penny?”
“I don’t read religious magazines,” Mrs. Trencher sniffs. “I have the Bible for that.” And she closes the door. It’s much the same with every other house he tries. Slam. Crash. The snick of locks fitting into place. Door after door is whisked shut in his face. Some people apologize and take a long time explaining that they just don’t have time during the day to read magazines. Others aren’t so polite. Old Mr. Willoughby chases him off with an army carbine.
The salesman works his way all the way down the road on one side, knocking on every door, and then back up again on the other. He keeps at it until sunset, when the crickets are coming out and the wind is picking up and all the clouds are red. Finally, he goes back and enters the bakery. I want to see what happens, so I follow him in and loiter in a corner, listening.
“Can I get you something, friend?” the baker asks in a friendly way.
“That loaf in the window, please,” says the salesman.
“Good choice.” The baker takes the loaf off the rack and wraps it in clean brown paper. “Five cents, please.”
The salesman licks his lips. “Look here, friend,” he says, “I don’t have any money to give you, but I can offer you a super-rare, extra-excellent special edition of the New York Magazine and General Repository of Useful Knowledge.”
“Oh no, you don’t,” says the baker, clutching the loaf to his chest. “And you can leave right now if you don’t have money. Go on. Out.”
Flushed, the salesman leaves, the copy of the New York Magazine still clutched in his fist. The baker is in a bad mood after that. He starts rattling pans and washing dishes, muttering to himself about freeloaders. I linger in the bakery for another minute, using my allowance to make a quick purchase, and then I go back outside.
It’s getting dark now in the street, and the stars are coming out. The salesman is some ways from the road, in a little grassy place, sitting on a tree stump with his pack at his feet. He has his head in his hands and he doesn’t seem to be doing anything. A gang of kids comes along and sees him. They laugh at him and get hold of his pack and start tearing it apart, scattering magazines like strands of milkweed. He gives a yell and grabs it back.
“Shoo!” he cries, shaking his fist. “Git! Scram!” And he disperses them with a few kicks, but they still laugh and throw stones at him, and then they snatch up some of his belongings and run away. Tenderly, the salesman gets down on his hands and knees and gathers up the rest of the magazines, stowing them in his pack even though they’re crumpled. He doesn’t look bright or flashy anymore. Now he looks like his magazines. His hair is sticking up, his green coat is splattered with mud, and he has dust on his cheeks.
Cautiously, I approach him, holding the bulky package concealed under my arm. After a moment, he glances up and sees me. “Shoo!” he cries. He flutters his hands at me and goes back to gathering magazines. I don’t leave. I stay exactly where I am. He looks up again a few moments later. “Git!” he says. And then, a few moments after that, “Scram!” And after that, “Beat it!”
Finally, I hold out the package I’ve been concealing. When he sees it, he stops moving. He stares at it. He stares at me.
“What do you want?” he asks.
I point at the magazine in his hand. He looks at it himself, but he doesn’t seem to believe it. He frowns. “This?” he demands, holding it up.
I nod. The salesman looks at the package again. The old hungry expression comes over his face, but now it’s all mixed and muddied up with something else.
“You really want it?” he asks, his voice trembling. I nod.
He gives me the magazine. I give him the package.
Neither of us speaks a word after that. I just strike off down the road, heading for my house. The salesman stays where he is, both arms wrapped around his prize, a strange expression on his face. When I look back, he’s still sitting there, a ragged rooster with a big brown egg.