On the right hand side of your screen you will notice a little e-book called "Salesmanship: Three Stories." If you don't think it's worth the $4.99 price tag, here's a little testimonial from one reader of the title story, (okay, so it's not so 'little', nor is it really a testimonial, more a review/critique). William Robinson has published meticulously crafted short stories in a variety of publications including carte blanche, Verbsap and snreview among others. This is one reader who knows of what he speaks. If I wasn't quite sure what I was writing at the time, I'm sure glad I have Bill to tell me so eloquently what the story is really about. (warning: there's a spoiler at the end).
I have so much writerly appreciation for this story. It is a brilliantly told story about a rapidly aging man trying to determine what his life, or life in general, has amounted to. And as the title aptly implies, Salesmanship, after years of having said “no” to the Lubavitcher boys and to faith, he finally says “yes.”
Or at least he’s willing to listen.
Thus, the impetus to find some sort of answer comes one late Friday afternoon by way of a Lubavitcher boy into his office. Time is everything, perhaps, because he is beginning to see his own whittling away. He is no longer selling like he used to. Is it possible that the young boy reminds him of a new beginning, a chance to start afresh? Perhaps.
But mostly we are treated to a text that offers the reader glimpses into the slow grind down of his business, and of a life. Peppered throughout is this running commentary balanced within the present moment of the first-person narrative, which he offers in regard to the events and decisions that have shaped his life. His son-in-law, Joel, runs off to China periodically for cheaper fabrics. The office is lonely and drab. But within that framework, we learn that there is still lust in his heart. (Or should we say in his penis, which seems to function more like an eighteen-year-old's!)
The portrayal of this scene is one masterful stroke after another by the simple yet persistent desire to peek at his dim-witted secretary’s “honkers.” Yet in the same breath we sense that it is too late for him to contemplate the possibility that he could do much more than gawk. Save for the penis, his body is starting to fail him. And thus another strike at old age, for the penis symbolizes lust and power, but within a failing vessel such as his body, what good is it ultimately?
The context of the story is interesting, and conveys the understanding that the writer, either consciously or sub, gets credit for: it was back in the old days quite a common practice for bosses, without remorse or confusion, to schtump their secretaries. It is within that context and implication that adds wrenching depth and complexity to the character and story. Congrats!
So either the world has changed and the old man can’t keep up, or it no longer matters. He is young in mind, but visibly, in real tangible bones, too old in the mind of the world. Although he would like not to have to go quietly into thy good night, he knows on some visceral level that his time has passed.
Enter the boy as the vehicle, the one who is going to attempt to convert him (sell him) after all these years some greater meaning to his life. The fact that the boy is working alone piques the man's interest, throws the his world view slightly askew, and he’s intrigued. By offering the boy a “yes,” he gains some satisfaction, and some power back, as is illustrated in, One thing is undeniable, the kid's giving me a sense of satisfaction. It comes from knowing that by simply answering "yes" instead of "no" to his question I have the power to put a very uncomfortable boy at ease.
And yet the power-grab is all too brief. We are led into this empty, dusty room (the room functions with dual meaning, a paradox, perhaps---either an empty vessel upon which to start over, or the end of something represented by it's very vacantness). And in that room he wants the boy to impart some shared wisdom about God and Jews, something as a sort of keepsake after the boy leaves.
But he’s a boy. The man knew on some level that he wasn’t really going to get much, but there was hope, expectations. And as he says himself, when expectations aren’t met, there is inevitable disappointment. Then we see his memory of the marriage, and the fact that the yarmulkes, which were sewed with the names of his daughter and son-in-law, was all “a load of crap.”
When the boy begins to hum a tune that he is not familiar with, the ritual itself is “so foreign and medieval.” Then he is bound and his fingers lose sensation, the physical symbolism of him losing control/power over his life. When Laurie suggests that he may need help, things turn for the worse; it all becomes too nasty a charade. And so he begins to panic-sweat, due to the realization that in life there are no answers, only truths created by oneself. (I may have wanted a bit more cause-and-effect in terms of him reaching this heightened state of discombobulation rather than his inability to read the thick text, but that’s a tiny quibble.)
The condom is a nice touch at the end—he is on to Joel and Laurie, their illicit affair. (Now the reader, and perhaps the man himself, understands that Laurie's concern had more to do with this secret than for the man's welfare.) Is he going to fire Laurie, get Joel squared up to live a respectful life and treat his daughter right? We don’t know. But the final declarative sentences give us the inkling that he is going to retake some of that lost power, if only briefly, to establish right from wrong—yes, he’s clearly found his own religion---and, by extension, hellbent on grounding himself in the world, a world that he realizes he hasn't yet departed.
Glen, you have created a powerful story about mortality and one man’s desire to come to the terms of his own life and the meaning in it. Beautifully rendered!