Door to Door by Mitchell Waldman

Two boys spend a hot Saturday trying to make a few bucks from door-to-door sales; by Mitchell Waldman.

The orange and white Volkswagen van was setting in the parking lot behind the bank waiting for them that Saturday morning. Seven a.m., their parents still sleeping soundly in their bed, and a little early for 14-year-olds on their summer breaks, but there was money to be made. Hunt and Lawson were sitting up front smoking. Hunt was behind the wheel, waving Martin and his stepbrother Rich in. "Come on, guys, time's a wastin'!" he said in a gruff voice, his greasy long hair falling in his face. He breathed in his smoke real deep, held it, and let it out in a forceful stream. Meanwhile, Lawson, his crewcut, gum chewing partner, was rubbing his temples and shutting his eyes, complaining, "Not so loud, Red, Jesus." To which Hunt just laughed, "You never could handle your wine, Lawless." The boys hopped in through the open door and sat next to two new boys who couldn't have been more than thirteen judging from their sizes.

Hunt started the engine. "Hey, dude, pull that damn door shut, wouldya?" he said. Martin reached over and slid the door shut with a thud, and Hunt pulled out, saying "Just two more guys to get, then we're off."

As they drove, Rich engaged the new guys. "Rich," he said, thrusting his hand out. Neither of the two took his offer. They looked nervous. "Donnie," one said, after a few seconds, nodding. The other said, "I'm Sid."

"Hey," Rich said. "This your first time?"

The boys nodded.

"Don't worry. It's easy. You can make some quick bucks if you do good. You gotta bullshit a little, but that's the job." Rich would know about bullshit, his future line of work.

"Th-th-the only thing that'll g-g-get you," added Martin, "is the heat. As far as I know." There was already sweat rolling down the side of his face. On the way out the door, the red line on the thermometer outside the back door had already risen past 80.

"You guys done this before then?"

"Sure, sure, a couple times," Martin said, but the truth was they'd never done it before without their older brother, Jake. "Beats sh-sh-shootin' hoops. At least you get some... cash."

"Yeah," the one boy - Donnie - said, looking down at his hands. "Sure could use some of that."

The van pulled up alongside the grocery store entrance where two other boys Martin had worked with before - Curtis, a big, brawny boy, and Billy, more waifish in appearance - were sitting on the sidewalk, waiting. When they saw the van they got up slowly and climbed inside, sitting on the bench behind Martin and the others.

"Hey dudes, welcome back," Hunt said. "Ready to make some dough today?"

"Yeah," "I guess," the boys said. Hunt looked at them frowning. "Aw, you don't sound too convincing! Don't make us get our whips out!" Hunt let out a loud burst of laughter and stepped on the gas, while Martin looked out the window at the familiar store fronts of his little suburban enclave fly past and fall behind.

It was just Hunt and Lawson and the six boys driving into the unknown, waiting for the day to unfold.

It was a new development in a suburb near the airport. Virgin territory, Hunt said. Never been tried before. "Not that you boys would know anything about that," Hunt said, winking over his shoulder, after pulling onto a side street, getting ready to unload.

Each of the boys picked up a brown paper handled bag from the back of the bus, an order sheet, and a catalog of larger items that could be ordered. They were also handed a kelly green vinyl zip pouch for change, along with the rest of their stuff.

They worked in pairs of two, each boy working one side of the street, their sales pitches memorized for quick release upon the opening of a door. Hunt and Lawson worked their streets with the newbies so they could "whip them into shape," Hunt said, grinning wide when he said it. Lawson, for his part, didn't say much, just staring ahead with his red eyes (allergies, he said), and habitually rubbed his day-old growth of beard.

Martin started down his side of the street while Curtis walked down the other.

It was a neighborhood filled with ranch-style houses that all looked the same, each with its own small square of burnt lawn in front of it. A few stubby trees haphazardly dotted the strip of lawns in front of the sidewalk. The rest was all road and cement.

When the first door opened - dog yelping inside, the gray-haired owner opening the screen door with one hand and pushing the unseen canine back with the other - Martin started laying down his spiel: "Good morning, S-s-sir, my name is..." - and here he had to pause as a landing 747's monster engines drowned out his adolescent voice. The man stood there with wide eyes, looking at him like he was a lunatic, until the plane passed far enough away that he could continue again - "Martin, my name is Martin N-N-Newman and I repre... sent the Products of the B-b-blind and I'm here to sh-sh-show you some items made by our... blind workers." (Martin, at that moment, trying to envision such workers, although they would, within a year, after the big Tribune exposé, turn out to be nonexistent.) "We've got a... variety of items..."

The man glanced for a moment into Martin's bag, but then quickly waved him off, turned, shaking his head, thin strands of white hair flying as he did so, and then closed the door in Martin's face, the dog still barking inside. Martin stood there frozen for a second, taking it a little personally, the rudeness of the man, but then turned around, walked down the steps and made his way to the next house, climbed the steps and rang the bell and, after a while, no one appearing, knocked on the door, stepping back a step to await the rebuff that would most likely follow.

And rebuffs there were. Like the guy in the sleeveless T-shirt, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, pointing to a NO SOLICITORS signs on his door, saying "What're you, stupid? What's that say?" An older grandmotherly type who peered through her window and waved her hand, but refused to open the door at all. And people who just slammed the door the moment he opened his mouth to say, "H-h-hello, my name's..." without even getting to spit out a sentence. And there was a shirtless long-haired beanpole with Lennon glasses who opened up the door in a cloud of a smoke, peering out of his half-closed eyes, extending the orange-tipped reefer in his hand saying, "Wanna hit, little dude? Sure looks like you could use one!" And buying, of course, nothing, before closing the door.

This was pretty much the way the morning went, making a small sale - a pair of potholders here, a toilet brush there - each time making change and marking the sale on his order sheet, trudging from house to house, the heat quickly starting to take its toll as the thermometer rose, the beads of sweat rolling down the sides of his face, soaking the top of his T-shirt, until the walk became more like a desert march, Martin starting his spiel but, then, trying to stop the face in the door from slamming the door in his face before he even got to plead for a glass of water. When he did get to ask, the person's face would soften, sometimes even showing a sympathetic smile, as the woman or man would drop the instinctively defensive posture that came from seeing a salesperson on their doorstep, look past the sell, and recognize the child behind the sale. The person would hold up a hand and stop for a moment before saying, "One second," and, more often than not, would return with a glass of ice water, which Martin would gulp down and express his gratitude for - "Thanks, I th-th-think you saved my life just th-then" - after which the person's face would light up, maybe explode into a laugh. And Martin would think that the man or woman was probably imagining his or her own children trudging down some unknown street in some unknown suburb, the scorching sun beating down on their heads, burning their noses, the air static, breeze nonexistent, the planes flying overhead every five minutes so his or her words could hardly be heard without shouting them or starting all over again... in short, the disaster that this morning had, in fact, been.



He was standing at the corner with Curtis, both of them with their bags on the sidewalk, waiting for the van to come around and pick them up for lunch.

"How you doin' so far?" Curtis asked him.

"All right. Not g-g-great. I could th-think of other things I'd rather be doing right now, though. How b-bout you?"

"Sucking right now. Nobody wants a fuckin' potholder, oven mitt, toilet bowl brush, dishtowel, nothin'. Great area, my ass!"

"Y-y-yeah, I hear ya," Martin said. He figured he'd only made something like seven dollars so far and was already exhausted from the heat and wished he could just pack it up and go home. But he couldn't. For one thing he had no idea where he was and, second, he was part of the crew. No way out. He'd just have to ride it out till the end. Not that his heart was in it today. Not that he gave a shit anymore right now. Seven bucks. What the fuck, he thought. Another plane streaked overhead with its overwhelming screech and smoky trail, gliding down for its landing, and both boys stood there watching it, shading their eyes from the blinding sun, just watching, not saying a word when the van pulled up.

The two of them slid into the van. Hunt twisted around in the driver's seat, grinning at them widely, saying, "So, howzit goin', guys! Makin' some big bucks today so far I hope?" He was still grinning at them, it was like his face was frozen in time, eyebrows raised like some sort of madman. And all Martin could think of was the brownish decayed-looking tooth on the bottom of Hunt's smile. It was the first time he'd noticed it, but he couldn't stop fixating on it.



Ten minutes later the boys were sitting in a booth at the Burger Barn chomping on their food, emptying their soft drinks and refilling them again. The day's march had definitely made Martin hungry and thirsty as all fuck, but he had to warn himself about drinking too much or he'd be begging to use peoples' bathrooms rather than begging for water. Or maybe both, who knew. What a summer this was turning out to be, that was for sure.

Rich was going on and on (nothing new there) about how much he'd sold to the chumps, and the other boys stared at him like he was holding a sales class, while Hunt and Lawson sat at their own table eyeing women in the establishment, making comments that Martin couldn't hear. Martin devoured his burger, dipped his cold fries in ketchup, and tried to tune all the voices out. It was all just noise.

After a while he looked up and saw one of the new boys - red-haired Donnie - coming out of the john with Lawson close behind him. Donnie was walking slowly, his face white as death, looking down at the floor.

When he got back to the booth and slipped in beside Sid he didn't say a word, and everybody stopped talking, even Rich. There was only the noise of voices of the other patrons until it got uncomfortable and Martin said to the boy, "S-s-so, how'd you do this mor... ning, Donnie?" But the boy just kept staring down at his plate, looking like he was about to cry, and didn't say a word. But then Rich started talking again and it was all but forgotten.

Martin looked back at the table where Hunt and Lawson were sitting. Hunt was still looking around the restaurant for female prospects, but Lawson was staring right at the boys' booth, staring at Donnie specifically, who looked at Lawson really fast, then looked away.

"I think I'm gonna be sick," he said, then got up and bolted to the bathroom.

Later, after Donnie's mother came to pick him up, while Hunt drove the remaining boys back to their routes, having missed an hour of sales time, Hunt said, "That boy should never have come out being all flu-ish and everything, but I'm sure he'll be okay. Right, Lawless?" His partner didn't say anything, just looked out the passenger side window and spat.

But afterwards, going on his door to door trek, opening up with his sales spiel, then begging for a glass of water or to use the bathroom, Martin tried to remember what had happened at the restaurant. Seeing the boy, Donnie, coming out of the restroom again, Lawson right behind him. Martin couldn't shake it off, the image of the boy with his ghost white face, looking down at the floor, the way he had walked like the life had been sucked out of him.

He handed the glass of water back to the older woman who had bought nothing, not a thing, but thanked her anyway.

"God bless you," she said smiling and, almost as a reflex he said back, "But I didn't s-s-sneeze," to which she looked at him blank-faced for a second, then laughed as if he'd made a joke. "You be careful out there," she said, smiling now, closing the door gently as he stood there, feeling his legs aching, lifting his arm to wipe the sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his T-shirt.

Later, talking to Curtis at the end of a block before moving to the next, Martin asked Curtis, "So, you think that Donnie kid really had the flu?"

"That's what Nick said."

"Nick?"

"Hunt. That's his first name. Nicholas."

"Really? I didn't know that."

"Yeah. My brother knows him from school."

"Yeah. Didn't know that either. What about Lawson?"

"Nah. Don't know much about him."

Martin said nothing more. He wanted to but didn't know how to. Maybe it was just his imagination. The kid got sick. Things like that happened. Maybe it was the heat. You could feel nauseous from too much heat, right? But why would Hunt - or "Nick" - say it was the flu? Well, maybe, he didn't know, he wasn't a doctor. Just some college guy on his summer break trying to make a buck or two, right? Hunt and Lawson were both just two guys trying to make some extra bucks over the summer. Not bad guys. But how did Martin know that? He didn't, didn't know either of them from Adam, no matter what Curtis said about his brother knowing him, which really didn't help, 'cause who was Curtis' brother anyway? Martin didn't know him either.

So much for trying to put it out of his mind.

He walked down the next unfamiliar street which, for the moment, was silent. In the middle of the street a dead cat lay flattened. Martin put his bag of goods down on the sidewalk and watched as a couple fat black crows flew down to it, picking at the carcass before a black Cadillac pulled down the street and the crows flapped their wide wings and flew up just in time to avoid being flattened themselves by the wheels of the mechanical beast.

Martin picked his bag up, started on to the next house and climbed the steps.

Two blocks later and without a sale, he sat down on the curb. He saw Curtis across the street for a moment and waved to him. Sitting there, wiping his face with his forearm, the sweat dripping off of him. Suddenly two older boys about sixteen or so pulled up on their bikes, stepped on their brakes and skidded to a stop right beside Martin.

"Hey, what's up?" one boy said, his black hair falling in his face, as he jumped off his bike, let it drop to the street, and stood above Martin.

"Nothing much," Martin said.

The other boy got off his bike then and started peeking into Martin's bag, which Martin pulled closer to his body.

"What ya got in there?" the boy said.

"Household stuff. Toilet bowl brushes, oven mitts. That sort of thing. Nothing you'd be interested in."

"Shit," the other boy said, spitting on the street. "That ain't shit."

The other, a wiry blond-haired boy, started laughing. "What the fuck, dude? What a way to spend your Saturday. Selling shit nobody wants to buy." Then they were both laughing, and Martin weakly joined in with them, all the while keeping his eyes on the two of them.

"Yeah, you're right there. Nobody wants any of th-th-this shit."

Both boys stopped laughing for a second and just stared at him. Then they broke out howling again.

"B-b-but, you must've made some money today, huh?" the blond-haired boy said, looking into Martin's bag. Martin took a quick glance at the green money pouch setting in the back of the bag, as the boy stepped closer to him, the boy's breath stinking with the smell of onions and garlic.

"No, not much, not m-much at all."

"Come on, come on, let's see what you've made," the boy said, as the other boy got closer to Martin too, the two of them hovering over him.

Just then Martin saw Curtis across the street, gave him a look and Curtis ran across the street. Curtis was bigger than both of these boys and he got up right behind them and said, "Hey, guys, what's up? You hasslin' my buddy here?"

With Curtis towering over them both, the boys stepped back saying, "No, no, just saying hi, that's all. Welcome to the neighborhood. Have fun."

"Yeah, have fun, really, dudes," the other boy said, then both of them saddled up on their bikes and took off.

"Thanks, Curtis," Martin said.

"No problem, guy. I'm here for ya," he said, clapping Martin on the shoulder. He smiled and said, "See you in a while," then walked back across the street.

And Martin trudged on, half-heartedly knocking on doors, hoping no one answered and then, after they turned him down, he'd renew his pleas again for water water water!

And so it went. On and on in the heat, door after door, the shrieking airplanes piercing the calm of the blue sky above, a slight breeze feeling more like a blowing heater than offering any relief, his legs turning doughy, exhausted, afraid he couldn't take another step.

But he was determined. He wasn't a little kid anymore. He could, he would make it to the end of the day.

Then, at one house, a man came to his door dressed in tan slacks and a neat yellow sport shirt with an alligator logo over his heart. He opened the door with a smile, saying, "Well, hello there!"

"H-h-hello," Martin said, and then started in with his sales pitch, after which the man put his hand on Martin's shoulder and said, "Hmmm, well, why don't you come in, I'll get you a cool beverage - you must be parched on a day like this - and then we can talk about it a little." The hand was moving down Martin's shoulder to his bare forearm and the fingers were clenching Martin's arm tighter now, and as he got closer, smiling wide, too wide, his hot stale whiskey breath right in Martin's face now, as he said, "You like iced tea? I'm sure you would just love some iced tea. Come, come on in," he said, trying to tug Martin in through the door.

Martin didn't say anything, looked at the man's crooked smile and cold black eyes and stuttered, "N-n-no, that's okay, have a g-g-good day," tore himself away from that grip, from that man, turned around, and almost stumbled down the stairs. And behind him he heard the man's loud echoing laugh.

Martin's head was spinning as he raced away from that house, not looking back before falling on a front lawn down the street. He sat on the curb, put his head in his hand and tried to catch his breath. What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck, he thought, was I just being paranoid from the scene at the restaurant? But still, asking himself, What the fuck kind of job is this, walking down unknown streets, doors being opened by who the fuck knew who to make fifteen to twenty dollars on a Saturday afternoon?

In a few minutes he pulled himself together, stood up, approached the next house, and raised his fist to the door.

In the next three hours he barely made an effort, let the doors slam without protest, feeling almost relief when the doors closed in his face. He was in survival mode, keeping his eye on the slow turning hands on his Timex wrist watch, waiting for it all to end.

And when it did end, when he finally stood in line at the side of the orange and white van, turned in his bag, and collected his $17.75 from Hunt, he barely said a word, just pocketed the money and climbed in the back seat as the door slid shut with a sharp thud, and waited for the van to start moving. And on the ride home, watching all the cars they passed with strangers' faces, all those myriad unknown hazy faces, going who knew where or why.

When they got to the bank to be dropped off, back again in familiar territory, Martin walked with Rich out of the parking lot with his head down, crossed the busy street, listening to his stepbrother chatter on about the thirty bucks he made and what he was going to do with it. He tuned Rich's voice out, focusing instead on the slight breeze that had finally arrived in the early evening, cooling the sweat off his face, as they walked side by side on the white sun-bleached sidewalk. He lifted his head and glanced at the trees in the park on the other side of the street, hearing the sounds of the birds chirping their melodies unseen behind all the leaves. Thinking about them hidden there in the greenery, in their cocoons, safe, at least for a moment, for a flash of time, in a world full of threats and unknown future dangers.

And, then, trudging through the kitchen door behind Rich, their mother twisting around from her frying pan, saying, with an oblivious smile, "Hi, boys, how was your day? You hungry?"

6 comments:

  1. The harshness of the world hits Martin hard. The ending, when he returns to his parents, is poignant. You can never go back.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Harrision Kim. The guy who tries to pull Martin in his house is described a little differently in this version of the story than in the book version. Now I'm thinking I like this description of that character better as it's a little more subtle!

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  2. A thoughtful message with Martin learning that the world is “full of threats and unknown future dangers.” I also appreciated the details, which drew me in — the crows and cat in the road, the threatening boys, possible pervert — and contributed to the theme.

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    1. Thanks, David. I appreciate your comments. The story's also in my new story collection, which came out in October.

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  3. I enjoyed this quite a bit. Everything fits together well and the concept that a single day could feel like a lifetime really came through. A terrific and poignant coming of age vignette with terrific description and action.

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