Monday to Friday lunch was a chicken salad sandwich and a Dr Pepper, eating with his left hand while his right moved the pencil across the page. Twelve-thirty to one-thirty and it was either the best or the worst hour of his day, depending.
Saturdays, no-one took lunch. Saturdays, you left that hour to someone else you’d miss out on maybe thirty bucks worth of commission, especially the way those new Zeniths were moving. One day, though. One day they could keep their 2%.
Evans picked up his sandwich from the waxed paper without looking, took a bite and put it back down. He chewed, reading over the paragraph he had just written, then took a swallow of his soda. Something about that combination, chicken and ranch dressing, tangy onion and sweet Dr Pepper. You couldn’t describe it, really. It was just good.
He glanced at the clock above the window which looked out over the showroom. A couple of customers were walking slowly past the TVs. Looked like they were heading for Bedroom Furnishings. He couldn’t really tell from this distance whether they were going to buy, but there was something about the man he didn’t like.
Maybe it was that he walked too slow.
If he was out there he’d know: get close enough to look in a customer’s eyes and he could tell how much they were going to spend and how long it would take for him to get them to spend it. Twenty-two years on the floor taught you that. Phil bounding up to them and the kid sure had a long way to go.
Evans turned back to the page. He was trying to get Mrs. Peabody to seduce Charles without Charles actually knowing he was being seduced. It was hard. He’d read somewhere that Raymond Chandler said he’d spent a whole morning trying to get a man to take off his hat. Well, he didn’t have that problem because no-one wore hats anymore and besides, he didn’t really like that detective stuff. You had to have three different people, all of whom could be the killer but probably weren’t and how did you keep track of all that stuff?
No. Harold Robbins was the way to go. That was who he tried to model himself on, though he still had a long way to go. A copy of the latest one, The Betsy, sitting on his desk and it was pretty good but not as good as The Carpetbaggers. That was the one he turned to for inspiration, when he needed it. Write something as good as that and he could kiss McMahan’s goodbye forever.
He read the paragraph again, shook his head. No. He scored it out, then tapped the pencil against his front teeth, looking out over the floor. He could see what it was he didn’t like about the guy: He looked like a bum, but the woman in the yellow dress, she was kind of a piece. It didn’t add up.
He watched them. Phil had his sales face going and he’d told him time and again it was too obvious. People could see through it and besides they were going to buy or they weren’t. It didn’t matter how you looked at them. Evans knowing that this bum was just a time-waster and then the guy took a bottle from his coat pocket, drank.
Evans shook his head. Goddamn people. But between twelve-thirty and one-thirty it wasn’t his problem. He looked down at the page, trying to focus. Looked up again and the bum was stabbing a finger in the air, making some point or another. The woman staring up at him like he was Paul Newman or something. It didn’t make any sense. And then he thought, if Mrs. Peabody looked at Charles like that. If he could describe it …
He watched the woman’s face. That look.
Evans started writing. Through the glass he could hear Der Rosenklavier, Sequence No. 2 playing on reel-to-reel; in his head he could see the room they were in, his characters, a room in a house he’d tried to imagine but had never been able to see until right now; for the first time it seemed like he was describing something real—something true—as his pencil skipped rapidly across the page.
Lunchtime on a Tuesday and Phil was alone on the floor when they came in. No other customers. It had been a slow morning and looking at them Phil wasn’t optimistic it was gonna pick up any. A big guy maybe in his late forties with a lumpy, cratered face. The woman, younger, pretty enough, wearing a yellow print dress. The kind of woman you saw a lot around East Hollywood with older guys like him. Though usually not in furniture stores.
Phil watched them come, past the TVs, willing them to stop in front of the big oak cabinet Zenith anyway, the one that went for $479, but he knew already he wasn’t going to be getting any 1.5% commission on that baby.
He waited for them to reach where they were going—Bedroom Furnishings—let them linger a minute among the mattresses and bureaus before pasting on his smile and striding over to greet them.
“Afternoon folks,” Phil said. “I see you’re looking at the new Dunlopillo. Best bed in the whole store. For the price.”
“You ain’t just sayin’ that?” the woman said.
Phil shook his head firmly, smiled harder. “No Ma’am. Good people like you I wouldn’t lie to.” Looking at the guy’s stained sport coat and he could see the right hand pocket bulging out; he’d bet his whole 1.5% that it was a fifth of Early Times in there, already half drunk.
“Because Hank here ain’t a bum. Reason he’s buying a new bed is ‘cos he’s got a book coming out. They gave him an advance, so he’s got his own place, now.”
“Wow,” Phil said. “So, Hank, is it? You’re a writer.That’s great! Tell me, if you don’t mind, what’s it about? Your book.”
The guy had been kind of staring into space, listening to the classical music that Mr. Evans played on the big reel-to-reel tape machine, but now he turned to look straight at Phil.
“I guess,” he said, in a slow, musical drawl, “you might call them general tales of ordinary madness. Heh heh.”
“You know what it’s gonna be called? Get this,” the woman said, grinning. “Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions.” She elbowed Hank gently in the side. “Why you need a new bed, hey Hank?”
“No,” Hank said, his eyes drifting off again, “that’s not it at all. I need it to get something back. I go back to the room and I become myself again. Oftentimes I’ll pull down all the shades, just lay down in the room for five or six hours, just alone. Just lay on that bed and get something back. Some kind of juice. Just being away from people. Some of the most marvellous fulfilments a man like me can have. Just the absence of humanity is a fulfilment so graceful that God would understand, even if he invented them.” Pulled that fifth of Early Times from his pocket, unscrewed the cap and took a drink. “Which he probably didn’t.”
“And you know, Hank,” Phil said, “the Dunlopillo’ll be great for that. But, and I hate to say it, I think it might be better if you didn’t drink in the store. Mr. Evans—he’s the store manager—he’s kinda got a policy about that.”
“A policy,” Hank said. “You don’t say.”
“Yeah,” Phil said, “but you know, he’s not a bad guy. In fact, you know, he’s kind of a writer himself.” Phil turned his head to the far corner of the showroom. “I went back there, told him you had an actual book coming out, I bet he’d give you, say five percent off this bed, at least.”
Hank took another drink. “A writer, you say,” he said, raising his hand. “Well, tell him when you write, your words must go like this: Bim bim bim! Bim bim bim! Bim bim bim! Bim bim bim!” Stabbing a pointed finger across an imaginary page. “Each line must be full of a delicious little juice. Flavour! They must be full of power! They must make you want to turn a page. Bim bim bim!”
The woman staring up at him, rapt. He took another drink, returned the bottle to his pocket. “Well,” he said, “enough of that shit. If Mr. Strauss was so kind as to create music this glorious we would dishonour him by wasting it.” He turned, put both arms around the woman, grabbing her butt through the yellow dress. “Then,” he said, “we may just have to test this goddamn bed. Heh heh.”
Phil turned toward the back of the store, raised his hands, the couple dancing a shuffling waltz behind him across the dusty boards of a furniture store in East Hollywood, Tuesday afternoon. They didn’t pay him enough.