John Minichillo’s work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Third Coast, the anthology Next Stop Hollywood (St. Martin’s), Lit Snack, Monkeybicycle, In Posse Review, and elsewhere. Forthcoming at Night Train, DOGZPLOT, Staccato Fiction, Metazen, The Northville Review, and Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer. He teaches fiction writing at Middle Tennessee State University, and he’s an adviser at Fictionaut.
When Gran told me about her broken window over the phone, I said I’d be right over. I parked on the street, because a white van was in the drive, and yes, her front window was cracked. She’d said it was the paperboy. He’d missed the porch with the Sunday paper and had hit her window. I’d seen her paperboy. He was a fat middle-aged man who’d bought the paper routes off the bicycle-riding Boy Scouts and he drove his dented Saturn station wagon as his full-time job. He drove without stopping, the papers flung over the roof of the car from the driver’s side, his patented hook shot.
“The paper will pay for damages,” Gran said, “but they want an estimate. Could you come look? Do you know what a window costs?”
“They mean a professional estimate,” I told her. “From someone who installs windows.”
And that’s who kneeled on the carpet in front of her, brochures splayed on the couch next to Gran. She leaned back, overwhelmed by the attention—and this thick gray-suited salesman looked like he was about to lift her skirt for a peek. I wanted to protect her and so I sat next to her on the couch. The salesman kept talking, and I could see what was going on.
He had a cut-away sample of a triple-pane window and he was pitching windows for the whole house. The money saved on heating bills, the tax incentives, the check from the newspaper—it would all save her a lot in the long run. I said, “We have your number. We’ll give you a call.” He kept talking up the windows, but I repeated myself and I stood between him and my Gran, which made him give it up. There were other house calls on his roster and any more time spent with us would eat into sales. He gathered his things, I shook his hand, and he made as cordial an exit as he could, but he was disappointed.
Once he was gone I told Gran, “Don’t do the whole house.”
She said their policy was they didn’t install fewer than three windows, and really you had to do them all to get the full savings and the tax rebate.
“He’s not the only guy selling windows,” I said.
I was glad I got there to help. I put a few strips of duct tape over the crack in the window, she gave me the phone number of the newspaper, and I felt OK about leaving.
I spotted the same white van parked in the lot of the sports bar between Gran’s house and the interstate, and I decided to go inside. I wanted to let the guy know there were no hard feelings. He could rip off all the old ladies on the block, just not my Gran.
The window salesman was seated and he stared up at the TV, tie loosened and four fingers of warm whiskey in a glass in front of him, his palms flat on the bar. He saw me and motioned to the seat next to him. He bought me a beer that I sipped from the bottle. I knew about him and we were more alike than he’d thought.
I was floundering in college when a man named Tommy Heard took me under his wing. He would breeze into a town, rent a storefront in a strip mall for a month or two, set up an office, train kids to go door to door, then skip on down the highway as soon as sales tapered. I was one of those kids. I needed cash and he didn’t care about references or work experience. After a while, Tommy saw potential in me. He had wanted to take me to his next destination, to have me help him with the whole operation. I would have been on the inside and I would have made
the real money. What I wouldn’t tell this window salesman, and what I didn’t tell Tommy, was that my girlfriend at the time saved me from that. We were a mismatched pair and only stayed together for a few months, but young as I was, I was in love, deeply in the moment, and staying at her apartment every night. Our sex held sway over my heart and I couldn’t see leaving for money. Because once we started sleeping together, there was no turning back, and while I had no qualms about quitting school, I couldn’t hit the road if it meant nights alone.
Tommy sold overpriced vacuum cleaners and I learned to help old people make bogus insurance claims. We told them the thing doubled as an air filter and we scared them with photos of microscopic dust mites. Tommy had a bag of tricks. It was a show. He’d place sofa cushions in a garbage bag, turn on the vac, and allege this sucked out the dust trapped in the couch for decades. He’d place a few drops of lavender oil on the filter to freshen the room. He’d go to his knees while the old couple sat on the couch. And the kicker, the one that sold more vacs than anything: he would give them a cheap 35 mm camera with the promise of free film for life. And so he’d be running a training session in our office and inevitably old couples would come to collect free rolls of film.
Once I was in Tommy’s confidence, it was my job to intercept anyone who came in, sneak them into the back, and do whatever I could to make them uncomfortable and discourage their coming back. But there was one guy who wouldn’t be deterred. Tommy thought maybe he was selling his film or giving it away, so he got the guy to agree to pay us to develop it. Tommy only made a buck or two, but it was a way of checking the film, and the old guy didn’t flinch. And so I spent a lot of time running his film over to a photo store where Tommy bought expired rolls.
I went from looking at this errand as part of my job to becoming extremely embarrassed to be associated with the film in any way. The old guy was taking dirty pictures of his wife and of himself, of his anatomy. Occasionally, there was a perfectly familial shot of a get-together, with grandchildren, drinks, and poses made for posterity. The presence of these photos among all the redundant flashes of aged body parts was more shocking than the dirty pictures themselves. Once I knew what he was doing with the free film, I dreaded going into that store with another drop off.
We tried to shame the old guy. We handed back the pictures in open envelopes, the photos bent and out of order. But he didn’t care and he came back almost every day. So Tommy devised a plan to get rid of him for good. Tommy was a guy who took peoples’ money then picked up and left. There was no telling what he was capable of. I sensed this from the guy on the stool next to me. And if I wasn’t sleeping with a girl back then, I might have gotten there too.
Tommy handed out sealed envelopes and told the pack of desperate sales trainees that one of them contained a one-hundred-dollar bonus. He made them wait to open the envelopes until the old guy showed up, who was used to going into the back of the office for his free film. Tommy spotted him, put an arm around him, and shouted, “Our one-hundredth customer!” The old pornographer looked surprised, but he rolled with it and waved at all the salesguys in the rows of folding chairs. Tommy said, “Let’s see who got the bonus!” A cheer went up, envelopes were torn open, and everyone was soon in possession of various snapshots of the old cheapskate, mostly pictures of him naked and holding himself.
It was the end of the month and Tommy would soon be long gone. He didn’t have to resort to this. But it was his big kiss-off to the old guy who took him at his word, and a special thank-you to all the despondent young men who had hit the pavement and were about to be out of work again.
When they recognized what was happening, there was derisive laughter and shouting. They showed the old guy the photos of himself and he was finally overcome with shame. He shouted at Tommy, “You tricked me!” and he kept saying it. He basked in our scorn and just wouldn’t leave.
“No more film for you,” Tommy told him. “You old pervert!” And he pushed him toward the door.
I was the one who had to clean it all up. The salesmen were given their last cash commissions, and it was just me and Tommy left. The overpriced vacuum I’d learned to extol the virtues of wasn’t equipped to pick up the torn photos and crumpled envelopes. Before long I was crawling around on the carpet with handfuls of wrinkled body parts, images of this man’s desire, his paper flesh and his wife’s. So much human refuse. He’d been ridiculed and made into trash. The salesmen were cast off, the old man lied to and dismissed. That was our last night together and Tommy was pushing me to commit. But I couldn’t give up the girl, and I couldn’t tell Tommy about her either.
With my girl that night there was no kissing and no sex. I felt the distance between us. I couldn’t tell her what Tommy’d done and my role in it. Mostly, I was afraid she would think it was funny and I didn’t want to face that. Halfway through my bottle of beer, I loosened up and told the window salesman all about my vacuum cleaner days, what seemed like forever but was two months out of my life. There was no way to get rid of dust mites, no way to get the cushions of a couch clean, no benefit to the air filter.
Now everyone has digital cameras. Now there’s so much Internet porn we’ve become desensitized. Back then I was shocked and embarrassed. Back then the photos were a big deal.
Tommy taught me about human trash. I don’t want to believe him, or in his point of view. But he dominates my thoughts when I think back on those days. I like to think I made it through intact, that I’m better for it, and that I’ve made the right choices. But what bothers me most, the part that makes everything a question, is that as much as I try, as much as I want to, I can’t really remember the girl.
I grasp for glancing images of her: the sound of her voice, her clothes, her scent, her teeth and lips, her body. I remember the walls of the apartment where we slept, the white paint caked on, a new coat for each new tenant, the sound of the radiator that ticked and hissed all night, the height of her bed, a mattress and box springs on the beige carpet, a dingy path worn from the bed to the bedroom door. A beach weekend and the night we spent drunk at a seaside bar, brightly colored daiquiris in plastic cups, a game of darts, the stir of the sea air as we stumbled back to the pink hotel. I was alive then and I like to wander in those days, only I can’t really remember.