Sometimes I feel as if we’re the bugs, a colony of cockroaches, and Suite C is our secret lair. Every morning, I exit the freeway at Miramar Road, coil my way through the traffic, then slip through the side streets until I roll to a stop in front of the innocuous- looking brick office building that houses us, San Diego’s summer army of pestilence.
I sit, staring at the building, sighing heavily several times before I exit my vehicle. At 8:25, my coworkers begin to arrive, and we flutter through the glass doors together and file into the back room. When it’s time to sit, we sit, hushed, our bodies buzzing with expectant energy. We’re hungry.
The doors open and Brandon stands before us, our head cockroach. He looks like an average guy. In fact, he’s remarkably average looking. He’s of average build, 5’10” or 5’11”. His hair is not blond or brown, but a conservatively cut sort of blond-brown. He’s average-aged, between 32 and 35, maybe. He drives a small white Toyota Tacoma truck, the same company vehicle his employees drive. His face, when he’s not giving a training or making a point, is devoid of expression, reflecting his surroundings with studied nonchalance. The only thing that gives him away are his eyes, which burn with iridescent fury.
In the mornings, he builds intensity, discusses strategy, and fans the flames of inspiration. I hate to admit it, but sometimes this stuff works on me. When Brandon finishes, we scuttle out of the training room. We study the maps, divide up area, split into pairs, and squeeze our shiny bodies into every crack and crevice of San Diego’s suburban landscape. An epidemic, a scourge, an infestation.
When we return to Suite C later that night, we’ll sniff each other, antennae twitching, and ask the question on everyone’s mind — “How many did you get?”
Most of us end up in the same range — one or two, three if we’re lucky. But then there are those who come back satisfied. These are the gods of our idolatry. They get five, six, even seven a day. How do they do it? Is it pure effort that brings them victory? Or is it something less tangible, more elusive? Is it a natural talent? Is it genetic? Whatever it is, I haven’t got it.
I am Cami, your friendly door-to-door pest control salesgirl, and this is my story. Like most stories, it is about the epic battle between self-actualization and mediocrity. Spoiler alert: mediocrity reigns supreme.
If epic battles and mediocrity don’t appeal to you, this story also includes a celebrity sighting and a run-in with the cops.
Suite C is a sterile room, fluorescently lit, with white walls and thin, hard carpet. At the front of the room is a whiteboard. The whiteboard lists the names of each pest-control sales professional, and next to their names, their sales numbers. The numbers are tallied by day, week, month, and in the last column, the total for the whole summer. I could stare at the whiteboard for hours. It never ceases to fascinate me.
In fact, that’s what I’m doing now. I subtract the number of sales that I have from the number of sales that Eric, our best salesman, has. I divide the difference by the number of days left in the summer. I imagine what it would take for me to catch up, to beat him. I’m right up there. Not at the top with Eric and the heavy-hitters, but near the top of the mid-range. I’m respectable, if not admirable.
Around me, my coworkers are settling into their seats. Without tearing my eyes from the whiteboard, I greet them.
They grunt replies and I imagine that they, too, are examining the whiteboard. Comparing their numbers with mine, with each other’s, adding, subtracting, averaging, and rounding up. Commission-only sales will do wonders for your basic arithmetic abilities.
The lights in Suite C snap off. We, the sales staff of Go Pest Control, sit in the dark. The TV screen flickers to life. Brandon is somewhere in the back of the room with his remote, controlling our collective destiny.
For a moment I study the faces of my coworkers, lit by the eerie glow of the screen. They are all gazing ahead, row upon row of them, a legion of good-looking young men. Their faces are trusting, hopeful, and eager.
I turn to face the TV screen. In a squalid, depressing hovel, there are four old people, confined to a sickbed. In the corner, a golden-haired woman. She looks exhausted but wistfully beautiful. I recognize this scene from one of my favorite childhood movies — Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Not the Johnny Depp version, but the ’70s version, with Gene Wilder.
Charlie’s Mom and Grandpa Joe are discussing Charlie. They agree that life is unfair for Charlie, a small lad who has to work hard to put food on the table for his four invalid grandparents and widowed mother. It occurs to me that subtlety was not considered an important part of movie making in the 1970s. Yeah, I get it, I get it. Charlie’s poor but decent and hard-working. What does this have to do with my faltering career as a pest-control salesperson?
Brandon fast-forwards to the scene where Charlie finds the golden ticket. He gets to tour Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory! He bursts into the shack to tell his mother and grandparents. Everyone is excited until a moment of sober reflection. “Grandpa,” says Charlie, “it says I can take somebody with me. I wish you could go.”
Grandpa’s face falls. He hasn’t walked in over 20 years. There is no way he can accompany Charlie to the factory. Then, suddenly, a thought occurs to him. With Charlie’s help, he stands up. He staggers a bit, but within two minutes, Grandfather is ricocheting around the room, singing, “I’ve got a golden ticket!”
Aww, I think, that’s nice, isn’t it? Ugly house. Poor family. Bedridden grandparents. Hopeless situation. Then, golden ticket. Happiness now! Hip hip hooray!
The song ends.
Brandon snaps off the TV and turns to face us.
“THAT IS THE MOST DISGUSTING THING I’VE EVER SEEN!!” he shouts. Trying not to move my head too much, I dart glances at my coworkers. What’s going on here?
“SORRY, CHARLIE! I KNOW THAT YOUR MOTHER IS A WIDOW AND YOU LIVE IN POVERTY! I’M SORRY THAT YOU HAVE TO WORK AT SUCH A YOUNG AGE TO PUT FOOD ON THE TABLE FOR US, YOUR AILING GRANDPARENTS! BUT I’M INCAPABLE OF GETTING OUT OF BED. I CAN’T HELP IT. OH HOW I WISH I COULD HELP, BUT I CAN’T!”
I can feel my mind slowly shifting gears. “BUT NOW, SOMETHING FREE HAS COME ALONG! SOMETHING THAT I DON’T HAVE TO WORK FOR! NOW I’M WILLING TO LEAP OUT OF BED!”
Whoa. Brandon has a point. Grandpa Joe’s a real douche bag. Brandon’s voice drops an octave or two. His face returns to normal. “Maybe you know someone who is like that,” he says. “There are a lot of people who think that life owes something to them. These people sit on their butts and whine when nothing good comes their way.”
Brandon’s eyes pass slowly over our upturned faces. I try not to flinch when his eyes meet mine. I must not reveal my inner panic. I am one of those people. “And then there are others,” says Brandon, “people who will work, but only just so hard. People who are afraid of what they might accomplish if they really made an effort. These people do just enough to get by.”
My brain flutters anew. I’m actually one of those people, which is somehow more humiliating.
“Most people fall into the second category. They keep doing the same thing, over and over, and when they get average results, they just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Well, I tried.’ ”
Crap. That really is me.
“You know,” Brandon continues, “you’d think that if you’re doing the same thing over and over, and the same things keep happening to you, over and over…and you don’t like the things that are happening to you, well, you’d think maybe…maybe you ought to…”
Here Brandon scratches his chin and gazes ceilingward. He looks sincerely puzzled. I search my mind for the right words to end that sentence. You’re doing the same things over and over again, and the same things happen to you over and over again, you’d think maybe you ought to…
I’m about to raise my hand because I think I’ve got the right answer, but then Brandon draws in a breath. The room draws in a breath with him. “CHAAAAANGE IT!!!!” Brandon shrieks, red-faced, veins surging out of his neck. This outburst is so sudden, and it stuns me so completely that I start to laugh. Nervous laughter, at first, but then I’m laughing so hard that I start snorting. My eyes tear up. My coworkers are staring at me. I hold up my hands, trying to turn their attention away, tears streaming down my face. The meeting continues. I gain control of myself by degrees.
I always find myself laughing at inappropriate moments during Brandon’s meetings. Can I help it if his timing approaches comedic genius? It’s not so much the content that’s funny, but the hysteria that whips through the room, like in a revival tent or a rock concert.
You ask the other guys why they started selling pest control, and they’ll say it was Brandon: “I never thought I would do something like this either. But when I met Brandon, I just thought, man, I want to work for that guy.”
Not me. Don’t get me wrong, I like Brandon well enough. But the first time I met him, my only thoughts were: He’s younger than I expected; $20,000 in four months does sound like a lot of money; and, does this guy ever blink? The answer to that last question is yes, by the way, but rarely. Brandon looks like an average guy, but he’s not. What I’ve learned, from listening to the reverent tones of my coworkers, is that Brandon started from almost nothing and built his pest-control empire brick by brick. That somewhere, there’s a list of names — the names of millionaires that Brandon has directly influenced.
His time is worth a lot of money, but somehow he still manages to run the sales meetings here in his San Diego office. In fact, if we ask, we can train with him at 6:00 a.m., and he often stays until 11:00 p.m., coaching faltering employees. If he teaches us well, we’ll sell a lot of pest control and he’ll get a good financial return on the time he’s invested. Just another San Diego businessman, out to turn a profit, right? But I like to think that his mission is twofold. Maybe he wants to help the next generation rise up and be successful. It’s funny to think that the cutthroat world of business might have a benevolent underbelly.
By the end of the meeting, I am jittering with the itch of unfulfilled potential. I can do it, and I will do it! My whole life I’ve been floundering, wasting my time and my talent, but no more! It’s time for me to release my abilities on the world. I fe-e-e-el the power! My internal wiring is aflame, axons and dendrites buzzing with electrical impulses. I vow to myself that this is it, my time is now. I look around to see if my cohorts are having the same frenzy of inspiration. Their faces are alert. Their heads are upturned and moving in unison like a litter of kittens, eyes following Brandon as he paces at the front of the room. Brandon builds to a deafening crescendo. He throws in another movie clip, this time from Batman Begins. Katie Holmes, eyes big and vibrant and honest, says solemnly, “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” And just like that, the meeting is over.
As we file out the door, Brandon reminds us that whoever gets the first sale today gets to shoot him with a BB gun, anywhere on his body. He pauses thoughtfully and adds, “Anywhere below the neck, that is. Good luck out there today, you guys. Remember, you are competent, confident service professionals.” The look on his face can only be described as tender.
Before we leave, I am paired with Kevin, who is one of my favorite salesmen. He is kind but at all times slightly anxious. He is the epitome of Midwestern wholesomeness, with a chiseled face and shining white teeth. He’s from Ohio, or someplace like that where I imagine he’s spent an idyllic childhood lying in wheat fields and pointing out animal shapes in clouds. Sometimes I wish I could take him out of California and put him back in that wheat field, although he’s probably already been ruined. Now, if he looks at the clouds, he probably sees black widow spiders and brown-banded cockroaches. Such is the life of a pest-control salesperson.
Kevin has been provoked by today’s meeting. In fact, he has worked himself into lecture mode. We drive along, and he’s addressing me on today’s topic, which is attitude. Our car ride is an hour long. I sit through the sermon, gazing out of the window, wishing I could go for a surf today instead of humiliating myself, knocking on people’s doors. It’s as if Kevin’s intensity has swallowed up my own enthusiasm. He has some big ideas about how we might adjust our attitudes.
His first idea is that we should shorten our midday break.
“Instead of three hours, wouldn’t it be awesome if we just took 30 minutes? Think of how many more doors we could knock!” He smiles at me, beseechingly.
“And ya know what, Cami? From now on, if you hear me say anything negative, I want you to call me on it. And for every negative thing I say, I’ll give you a dollar. Does that sound like something you’d like to do, too?” Kevin is facing me, his eyes off the road for an unsafe amount of time. He’s alight with the buzz of the motivated.
“Kevin,” I say.
Then there is a long silence. I consider my situation. Until this point, I would consider my adult life a success. I put myself through college with almost no debt by working three jobs while still going to school full time. I graduated cum laude, for goodness sake. I am supposed to be on the fast track to my doctorate at Berkeley. Instead, here I am, selling pest control door to door in San Diego. To me, my life resembles a flaming jet plane. I want to oust the pilot, who is clearly doing a terrible job, but the problem is I am the pilot.
“So-o-o,” says Kevin, “you want to do the dollar thing?”
“Kevin, I’m sorry, seriously, I don’t have any money.”
And I don’t have any food, I add silently. It’s true. I’ve been surviving off of random dates (you’d be surprised how many guys will ask a girl out when she’s trying to sell them pest control), where I order the biggest thing on the menu and take home the leftovers. Last night, I was too tired to go on a date, so that meant no dinner and no breakfast this morning. All I have is five bucks to last me until next payday.
Kevin must sense my desperation because he says, “Cam, you’re going to be fine. Have a good attitude. You’ve got more of a natural talent for sales than I do.”
I shrug, not sure whether I should feel flattered or insulted.
Kevin drops me off on the corner of a ritzy neighborhood on a hill north of Miramar, and his electric blue Pontiac speeds away. I am alone. I am an alien, flicked into the middle of a San Diego neighborhood like one of God’s delicious boogers. I know that I’ve done this for nine hours a day, six days a week for the last month, but I feel completely unprepared. I feel lost. I feel like a paraplegic who doesn’t speak the local dialect. I don’t want to knock on that first door.
I gaze around me to acclimate myself to my surroundings. To my right there is a landscaping crew. When I walk by, we nod at each other respectfully. We are parasites, thriving on our symbiotic relationship with San Diego’s elite. We don’t belong, but we blend. Without you, workmen, San Diego’s best would not be in possession of such finely trimmed hedges. Without me, they would be overrun with bugs. The Spanish-speaking nannies, the housekeepers, the pool-men — these are my comrades. Solidarity, my friends.
Bolstered by their silent support, I walk on. There are people out there who need pest control, and I am going to sell it to them.
This is the moment made timeless through repetition. A bright sidewalk viewed through squinted eyes. The feel of my feet pounding the pavement. The agonizing throb of the blister on my heel that refuses to heal. The taste of dehydration, slightly sour, causing my swollen tongue to stick to the roof of my mouth. This is the silence associated with being an uninvited guest in San Diego’s suburban summer.
I knock on my first door. No answer. I ring the doorbell, just to be sure. Then I hear angry stomping in the foyer. The door swings open violently. The man is screaming before he even sees me.
“We JUST got our three-month-old baby to sleep and YOU WOKE HER UP! IF YOU’RE SELLING SOMETHING, YOU LOST BUSINESS!”
He then slams the door in my face.
“I am a competent, confident service professional, I am a competent, confident service professional,” I repeat to myself as I walk away.
And that is a fitting beginning to the day. The morning rolls on, full of vicious dogs, people who peek out their blinds but don’t come to the door, children who lie and say their parents aren’t home, and blond-haired, blue-eyed men spouting high school Spanish, pretending not to understand me. Not a bite, not even a nibble.
It’s not just the fact that I have no money, or the fact that I may have to put a zero on the sales board tonight and suffer the shame of it tomorrow morning. It’s the looming shadow, the zero of my life, that worries me. Perhaps I’m not so special after all. Perhaps mediocrity will reign, and I’ll be one of those people whose most magical moments happened when they were 17, and things have gone downhill since. Am I destined to work a job I hate, to wander around with that hint of neuroses that lurks in the eyes of suburban housewives?
I raise my eyes heavenward. If there’s someone out there who needs pest control, please allow me to find them and not screw it up. Please. I lower my eyes, and that’s when I see it.
A proud metal gate, glowing dully in the sunlight. A gated community. Cha ching! With little hesitation, I hop the fence, regardless of the fact that I’m wearing a skirt.
You’d have to be a door-to-door salesperson to understand that gated communities, though dangerous, are golden. Oh, they may have homeowners’ associations and no-soliciting signs, but that’s why other salespeople stay away. It’s like virgin territory. One small step for woman, one giant leap for salesmankind. I go where no clipboard-wielding weenie has gone before.
The first porch I come to is a spacious cavern, walls covered with ivy. A fountain in the corner trickles recycled water down its fabricated faux-rock face. There’s a wind chime, and its light, pinging tones drift over the potted plants. I close my eyes. I am in a happy water-filled place. I am taking refuge from the cruel, door-slamming world outside. The owners of the house might be looking through the peephole right now, frustrated that a door-to-door salesperson is taking asylum in the luxury of their porch. I’d hate to thrive in the comfort of this space only to be ridiculed by its creator moments later. Nonetheless, I knock. This might be my sale.
There is a soft vibration. The gentle thud of approaching footfalls. A thump as someone leans against the door, eyeing me through the peephole.
There’s a pause. Will they open? I stare into the peephole. Yes, I say to them silently, I know that you know that I am here. And I know that you are there. Let us stop playing these childish games, which are beneath us. Let us confront each other, bug-girl to homeowner.
The sound of tumblers turning in the lock resounds in the cavernous porch. The door is opening. There’s no turning back now. We’ve crossed the Rubicon.
He stands in the doorway and smiles at me. Most people smile at me. It must have something to do with being a petite female. I get smiled at all the time. It’s when they realize what I’m here for that the frowns begin.
“Hi!” I say brightly, but not too brightly, smiling in a way that I hope is not too salesy. “I’m Cami, with Go Pest Control. We’re out here tomorrow, servicing the neighbors. It’s mostly been the ants, some spiders. Real bad in this neighborhood. Anyways, if I can get you into the schedule tomorrow, we’ll take care of your house for dirt cheap.”
The man looks at me, scratches his head.
“Thanks for stopping by,” he says, “but the only pest you’ll find around this house is me.” (I hear this one roughly every third door.)
I smile back at him. Brandon has asked us to write down, word for word, how we might overcome objections. Some of mine include:
“That’s what your neighbor said, until a mouse chewed through the catalytic converter of his SUV. Now he’s practically begging for our services.”
“Oh, you love your current pest guy? Does he come over for Christmas dinner yet?”
“Oh, your friend does your pest control? Well, if you let me do it, I’ll be your friend.”
“Of course our products are safe for children, they’re a harmless derivative of the chrysanthemum flower. The number of black widows hiding under the wood pile is what’s ‘unsafe.’ ”
And I’ve got a perfect two-page-long script for people who say they “aren’t seeing any bugs.” I run through the script perfectly, putting emphasis on all the right words, building rapport, getting him to laugh. It’s in the bag, I can feel it.
“Nah,” he says. “Thanks for coming by, but I’m not going to buy pest control until I feel like I need it.”
“But the discounts only good for tomorrow,” I squeak, though he’s already shutting the door. My shoulders droop. I feel impotent and clumsy. It just slipped through my fingers.
I’ve been at this for long enough to know that what you say doesn’t win or lose a sale. It’s not the conversation so much as the metaconversation that matters. It’s all subtle shifts in power and plays for dominance. There’s a certain magic involved in bending someone’s will to match your own. On my first day, I tailed one of our better salesmen, standing by silently while I watched the master work. Typically, the homeowner answers the door and says an immediate no. I’m ready to turn on my heel and leave, but the master salesman stands his ground, makes a joke maybe, eases the tension…then catches everyone off guard by scooping the homeowner up in the palm of his hand. It turns out that the homeowner, who I thought was made of stone, is actually just a soft mass of clay. With a few swift twists of his magician’s hands, the master salesman molds the homeowner and gently returns him to his porch step, the same way that someone might return a baby bird to its nest. The homeowner then proceeds to sign the contract, hypnotized smile on his face and credit card in his hand. It’s eerie.
The scariest thing is, I think that I could do it. It just seems that at the moment of truth in a sale, I suddenly don’t want to persuade the buyer. It frightens me that I have the power to make someone sign a $400 contract after five minutes of talking. I need a more stable universe than that.
It’s only when the door is closing in my face that I think of the 27 percent commission that would have been mine. One hundred dollars that I desperately need. I think about the facts; the only thing in my fridge is a four-day-old box of fries left over from my last date. There’s only enough gas in my tank to get me to the beach for one more surf. I spent last Sunday afternoon at the Goodwill in P.B. buying a solitary plate, fork, and spoon, and these are the primary furnishings in my apartment. Maybe it’s commission that builds a stable universe. Besides, I’m probably coddling my fragile ego when I think that I have dormant powers of persuasion, which I choose not to use for moral reasons. I can’t make someone spend $400 if they don’t want to. Can I?
Suddenly, the door is opening again, disturbing my musings, and I’m back on the porch with the nice man who I almost sold. Has he changed his mind?
“Hey,” he says, “you want a Gatorade? How about a granola bar, too?”
He hands over the goods. My stomach does a flip. I tear into the granola bar before he can close the door.
“Why are you doing this?” he asks as I scarf down the granola bar.
I look up at him. “Doing what?”
“Selling stuff door to door? Why’s a girl like you doing something like this?”
I consider his question as I chew.
Because, sir, I don’t want to get a real job. I wanted to work hard and make a ton of money this summer, so I can do a humanitarian-aide world tour. I think I’d start in South America, doing Habitat for Humanity. Then I’d go to a refugee camp in Africa. I want to help build schools in the Himalayas and dig wells in the Sahara. Though your house is lovely, and your Beemer is very shiny, I would rather die than live this life here in suburbia. When I think of settling down here, I feel like I’m suffocating. It would be a long, grueling, senseless death.
I finish chewing and offer him a grin. “I do this because of my deep and abiding love of pest control. I have an intense desire to rid the world of the three-pronged axis of evil. Spiders,” I tell him, holding up one finger, “ants, and earwigs.” I’m now holding up three fingers, waving them in his face. “I’m just one person, sir, doing my part.”
“Aww, get out,” he says, swatting at me. Then he turns back into the house and grabs another granola bar for me, as if sensing my intense hunger.
“Watch out,” he tells me. “The guy next door is in the homeowners’ association, and if you knock on the door, he’ll call the police on you. He hates solicitors. Just givin’ ya the heads up.”
“Thanks,” I say, “and thanks for the food. I’m starving.”
I skip the next house.
I mosey on up the following driveway, congratulating myself and sipping my Gatorade. That wasn’t a sale, but it was a victory of sorts. I’m nearly to the gate when I look up and find myself face to face with a man in his bathrobe. My eyes dart to his hands, which I fear may be holding a shotgun, but he’s only holding a cell phone. He reads my hat, mouths the words “Pest Control?” and when I nod, he opens the gate and invites me in. He gestures for me to follow him. None of this would be at all strange or noteworthy, except that this man is Richard Dreyfuss. (The details of Mr. Dreyfuss’s neighborhood have been changed to protect his privacy.)
One of my favorite movies of all time is What About Bob?, in which Dreyfuss plays a psychiatrist who is slowly driven mad by a manipulative patient. I follow Mr. Dreyfuss through his house, eyeing the Hollywood memorabilia that graces his walls. I’m half-listening to his phone conversation. It seems that he is talking to a lawyer. He rolls his eyes, pointing to his phone, then opening and closing his hand in a pantomime of a mouth that just keeps yapping. I nod sympathetically, as if my own lawyer constantly spews legal jargon into my ear. He offers me a seat at the counter and a drink in his cool, comfortable kitchen. He points upstairs and mouths, “My wife will want to talk to you. She’ll be down soon.” Then he walks away. I’m sitting at the counter, swinging my feet like a kid at a soda shop. That’s how it is when you sell pest control door to door. You never know what you’re going to get, so you’ve got to roll with it.
When Richard’s wife comes downstairs, he compliments her hair and motions for her to talk to me. What follows is an extensive tour of the garden. Richard’s wife has taken up gardening and has done a lovely job of it. There are fruit trees (which are vulnerable to rats), flowers, and a tomato plant with one luscious tomato clinging to the vine. She continues to point out her plants and the bits that are snail-eaten, but I can’t help it, my eyes keep straying back to that tomato. I adore tomatoes. And this one is perfect, a deep, sinful red. It’s about the size of my two fists together. And home-grown. My mouth begins to water. I remember the home-grown tomatoes that were a primary staple of my diet when I lived in Italy. In the month that I’ve lived in San Diego, I haven’t had enough money to buy fresh produce.
It seems almost certain that I’m going to get a sale, right? But no, the Sales Gods are not smiling upon me from their thrones on high. Richard Dreyfuss is already our customer. My coworker sold him a couple of weeks ago. All of the snails in the yard are already dead or dying, and everything seems to be in order. Mr. Dreyfuss must have thought that the company had sent me over to touch up the snail-bait or tear down the cobwebs. I feel a bit deceitful, but I couldn’t help taking refuge in their happy home for a few moments. I pretend to be a snail expert, spouting info that I’ve heard around the office. At one point, I even make like a snail, but I’m too deadpan. I’m not sure what it is, but after a moment of staring at me as if trying to assess the seriousness of my statement, Richard Dreyfuss laughs. Not just a chuckle. I tell you, that man flat-out guffaws, supporting himself by leaning on the counter. Most people don’t laugh at my jokes, but Mr. Dreyfuss is a professional. If he thinks I’m funny, then I am.
As I’m getting ready to leave, Richard’s wife runs into the backyard. She emerges carrying…
THE TOMATO! She hands it to me. My eyes nearly fill with tears. What words could express my gratitude? I think that she’s able to sense it, though I’m not able to verbalize the depth of my emotion. I leave them, feeling happy for the first time that day.
My arms laden with gifts, I amble awkwardly down the street. It’s nearly break time, and I’m already dreaming of the Caprese salad that I’ll make with this tomato. All I have to do is make it back over the gate and to the corner to meet Kevin. On my way back to the gate, I see a man. I don’t recognize his face, so I must not have talked to him yet, and I think to myself, I’m in a good mood. Maybe he’ll see my happiness and want to buy pest control from me. I am slowly coming closer and closer to him.
“Hi!” I say.
“I’m Cami with Go Pest Control —”
His low voice interrupts me, his eyes like flint and steel.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” he says flatly.
Something in my head pops with recognition. This is the man from the homeowners’ association. The man I was supposed to avoid. My eyes widen.
“Ain’t no solicitors allowed in these here parts.”
“I — I,” I stammer, “I’m here because we already have customers in the neighborhood…”
There is perfect stillness in the suburban landscape. It’s a showdown on Wisteria Lane. We level our gazes at one another. Somewhere, a worried mother is herding her children into the house. A tumbleweed rolls down the street. Shop doors close. We are locked in our staring contest. He is armed with his cell phone and his homeowners’ association membership. I am armed with nothing but a tomato, a Gatorade, an extra soda from the Dreyfusses’, a granola bar, my clipboard, and my trusty clicky pen. This is not going to be pretty.
He draws his cell phone from the holster, too fast for me.
“I,” he says, raising the phone to his ear, “am going to call the police.”
I don’t even have time to lift my tomato. I’m no match for him.
“Fine. Do it,” I say, turning my back to saunter down the street. I am calling his bluff. I mean, honestly, who calls the police on a door-to-door salesman? Especially if that salesman is a woman?
I can hear him behind me, talking into the phone. Probably talking to a dial tone.
“Oh, really?” he says, loud enough for me to hear. “You’ve got a squad car close by? You’ll be here in less than five minutes? What was that? Less than two? Wow! What service!”
I glance over my shoulder. He gives me the thumbs-up. I roll my eyes and shake my head.
That’s when I see it, in my peripheral vision. A black-and-white squad car, rounding the corner in slow motion.
“HA HA!” Mr. Homeowner’s Association’s laughter hits my ears in two short, machine-gun-fire-like bursts.
It is time for me to use all of the police-evading skills I learned as a ninth-grade truant. I assess the situation. The problem is my tomato. I can’t run with it. And if I don’t run, I’ll never reach the safety of the fence in time.
I duck around a corner and locate a shady little bush. I lay my tomato under it, and next to him I nestle his brothers, Mr. Gatorade, Yummy Soda, and Granola Bar.
“I’ll be back for you,” I whisper to my sleeping babies. Then I dash away, wielding only my clipboard. I sprint down the street, weaving through cars and bobbing behind trees. Finally, I reach the gate, never once detected by the cruiser. I hop the fence and climb a tree on the other side, watching the progress of the fuzz. It doesn’t look as if they’re going anywhere soon.
I consider simply cutting my losses and meeting Kevin at our rendezvous. But I won’t leave my precious food to spoil in the unforgiving sun. I’ve got a reconnaissance mission to accomplish. As the police car rounds the corner, I am back over the fence and dashing toward my tomato. Freedom, justice, and the American way.
I could tell you about how I rescued my tomato. How I galloped out of the neighborhood, using the bottom of my too-big shirt as a makeshift bag for the food. How I thought I’d be able to make it without being spotted by Mr. Homeowner’s Association, who was washing his Escalade. He did see me, though, and tried to spray me with his hose. But he missed, and I turned back and laughed at him, carefully covering the labels on my shirt and my hat so he couldn’t tell what company I was from. I could tell you all of this, but you might not believe it, or, even worse, you might ask me, “Cami, why don’t you get a nice day job, at a desk, like all of your friends?” Thanks for the advice, but I hear that from my mother all the time.
Kevin and I took our break at a local park, seated at a picnic table under a shady tree. I had spent my last five dollars on a ball of mozzarella di bufala and used my charm to get salt, basil, and olive oil from the lady behind the deli counter. It is the best Caprese salad I’ve ever had, a masterpiece. I am enjoying my lunch, pleased by how a good meal can erase a thousand bad, door-slamming memories. Lined up on the table before me are Mr. Gatorade, Granola Bar, and Yummy Soda. Mr. Gatorade gives me a respectful nod. “You’ve got the golden ticket,” he says.
Kevin is sitting across from me, and he is not happy. He is trodden down by another day of rejection.
“I’m sick of this shit,” says Kevin, who never curses.
“Mmm,” I say, popping a bite of tomato in my mouth, trying to sound sympathetic. I consider asking him for a dollar because of his negative remark but decide against it.
“All I want is to be good at this one thing!” he says. “I just want to prove to Brandon that I can do it! Why can’t I be good at it?”
“MmmMmmMmm,” I tell him, chewing, shrugging, knitting my eyebrows together, and nodding all at once. This is Kevin’s third year selling pest control. He’s never been much good at it. My sales numbers are higher than his, and it’s my first year selling, and between you and me, my work ethic leaves a little something to be desired. If I were Kevin, I would not sell pest control again. In fact, if I were Kevin, I wouldn’t even buy pest control. I’m not Kevin, and I never even want to think about pest control, ever again. I swallow.
“Kevin, who cares if you’re not good at selling pest control? You’re one of the best human beings that I know.”
Kevin looks at me. I can see the wheels turning behind his boyish, handsome face.
“But if I can’t succeed at this, how will I succeed at anything?” he asks.
He’s lost, awash in a sea of anxiety and self-examination, convinced by three years of morning meetings that sales is a microcosm of your life. His question is a rhetorical one, and I’m wise enough to know that he wouldn’t believe me if I gave him a soothing answer. I curl up on the bench for a nap, convinced that Kevin is no longer in the mood to shorten our three-hour break. My mind is soon soaring across oceans and through foreign doorways, away from clipboards and contracts and numbers.
P.S. The next time a door-to-door salesman shows up at your door, give the poor schmuck a Gatorade. It’s a tough world out there. — Cami Adair