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The Dust Thief
About the Author: Ryan Uytdewilligen has three published novels; his short fiction story The Cattle Driver won the Will Rogers Medallion; and has three non-fiction books – including his most recent publication, Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror.

I still marvel at the fact that—even though I was the one in sales—I still became North Pasadena’s biggest sucker. Who knows? I might even be the biggest sucker in the tri-county era. I’ve been meaning to check.

Was it always my plan to end up in a position like this? Come on! What a question … Of course not! But I’ve come to accept that it’s my life—for the time being, that is. What else can I do? You’d have done the exact same thing if you were me. I know it. Don’t lie. Besides, I’m the type who likes to finish what they started.

And it all started with a big move out West after the war. Eight years delivering for Mister Milk gave me nothing but a broken back and an invisible bank account. It was good work, there just wasn’t any future in it. Especially when the wife and kid’s guts began to grow with the grocery bill. Maybe don’t tell her I said that.

I didn’t enlist on account of the gimpy feet I got. Having only one toe on each foot tends to alarm the admissions office. Just a butcher shop mishap is all. I didn’t see the harm in it. I can still get around just fine. And I really would have gone over to whop the krauts if they’d’a let me. Maybe I could have had myself a French girl over there? I don’t know. All I can do about it now is wonder about what life in the army would have been like.

That’s usually what I did on the road when the radio conked out. Wonder what a better life would have been like.

Look, I’ll bet you a billion no one leaves the womb gunning to travel door to door selling vacuum cleaners. But … other than busting our humps, there are next to no other ways the little guys like me can catch a break. Food on the table. Packs of Paul Malls. Even just not looking like some schlub. That all costs coin. And if you’re not born into it … or you manage to fumble whatever good fortune comes your way—well, then you’re just plain out of luck.

A friend of my cousin happened to work in sales at Syball and Sons. He told him there were openings and that head office was in Pasadena of all places, so, after I got wind, I made a call and out we went. I learned long ago you gotta be open and willing to learn.

You should’a seen our “new” place. Chipped stucco. Kitchen the size of a matchbox. The kid didn’t even have his own bedroom for God sakes; he had to sleep in a rocking chair till we could afford something better. I mostly just wanted a neighborhood that had moved past outhouses and embraced indoor plumbing. In this day and age, that’s not much to ask.

But the commission wasn’t half bad, and you got a company car as part of the deal. A big-box cherry red Buick Roadmaster. Not my first choice, but as my Uncle Ralph used to say, “beggars can’t be choosers.”

The cherry on this proverbial sundae was that my wife thought it’d be best if we hosted some sort of block party for the neighbors. You know, coffee and cake and get to know blather. She begged me every single day it took us to drive out there.

“Felix! Felix!” she’d say, “promise me we’ll hold something to meet the neighbors. I don’t want to be alone when you’re out on the road.” Like I had time for that! She had a point, but moving and starting a new line of work had me more concerned than–and I think quite understandably here—some damn small-talk-soirée.

Oldman Ed Syball himself greeted me on my first morning and showed me around the warehouse. It was cold and cramped—mostly unfinished. Nothing about being there spelled out s-u-c-c-e-s-s.

“The first thing you got to know about selling vacuum cleaners,” he told me over coffee and cigarettes, “is that no one needs what we’re selling. Everybody’s got a broom, don’t they? But if you can convince ’em that being the house on the block with a vacuum cleaner is worth something, I tell you, that entire street will fall like a row of dominos.”

Next thing I knew, my Roadmaster was jammed so full of long, slim cardboard boxes holding these contraptions, I couldn’t even see out the back window.

“You’re to push the Electro-breeze 52,” he continued. “Vacuums come in two colors—cream or powder blue. Both go for $48.95. In your disposal, you’ll also find a box containing varying grounds and powders. Coffee … sugar … flour … they’re to be used for demonstrations only. Standard sales outfit includes a white collared shirt, brown jacket and pants, black shoes, and a tie of your choosing.”

“I thought vacuum cleaners were low to the ground and had long hoses coming out of them,” I said in all honesty.

This story appears in our DEC 2022 Issue
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