Lightning Rods

Hurricane Edna

One way of looking at it is that it was just an unfortunate by-product of Hurricane Edna.

If you’re in sales you know that life has its ups and its downs. He was living in Eureka, Mo., a district he’d been given only because nobody else wanted it, and with reason. He was supposed to be selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica to people who simply couldn’t see how their lives would be transformed by instant access to the Micropaedia and the Macropaedia. He had been there six months and hadn’t made a single sale.

One day it occurred to him that the problem was he was selling something people could do without. How much better to sell something people knew they needed anyway! Something that didn’t make people give you weird looks! Something like vacuum cleaners. Because he just knew the problem wasn’t with him. The problem wasn’t even with the product. The problem was with the people.

He wasn’t the kind to let grass grow under his feet, so he walked straight into the nearest Electrolux office.


Geographically speaking, it might not have been an office most people would have identified as even in the vicinity. Asked to name a state that’s close to Missouri, very few people come up with Florida; those few tend to change their minds when they look at a map. Which just goes to show how easy it is to be misled by our assumptions, overlook the obvious, and jump to conclusions.

What most people assume is that you can answer a question like that just by looking at a map. And what they overlook is the fact that when you start a new job it’s important to give it everything you’ve got.

It’s important to give that new job 101 percent, 25 hours a day, 366 days a year. You simply can’t afford to have any distractions. If the reason you gave up your old job was that it was not sufficiently remunerative to enable you to meet your commitments, you may well find yourself with some debts which it would be distracting to deal with at this time. It’s absolutely vital to start the new job in an area where any difficulties you may have experienced in the past are unlikely to lead to unwelcome distractions. He needed to be based in a locality presenting no foreseeable distractions, and he selected the nearest Electrolux office which would enable him to meet that need, and he walked straight in.


When you’re in sales you’ve always got one thing to sell, and that’s yourself. He walked in and started talking about what he could do for Electrolux sales and they said You’re that good. All I ask is the chance to show what I can do, he said, and they said All right, hot shot, let’s see what you can do, and they gave him a district.

He familiarized himself with the product and moved to Eureka, Fla. and rented a trailer. The next day he got cracking.

By the end of the week he realized this was not going to be as easy as it looked. Because every single house he went to had the same story to tell. They already had an Electrolux, they’d bought it just after Hurricane Edna, and it was one of the best things they’d ever done. The customer would then insist on dragging out the faithful Electrolux and singing its praises. Yessir, the customer would say, reckon I’ll break down before this thing does.

In fact, the place was every salesman’s nightmare: a festering swamp of market saturation. A rep had come through and cleaned up in the wake of Hurricane Edna and every single item he had sold was still there in good working order.

He tried, obviously, to point out that time doesn’t stand still, enhancements had been introduced, but once again Hurricane Edna blew him out of the water. The customer would explain loyally that she wouldn’t dream of replacing her old model, you should have seen what we had to deal with, she would explain, the Electrolux had handled things you wouldn’t normally ask of a vacuum cleaner.

He managed to make one sale to someone who had just moved into the area.

The result was that he spent a lot of time in the trailer trying to get up the energy to go out. He would lie in bed with a magazine, or sometimes he would watch a video, or sometimes he used fantasies of his own.


His first fantasy was about walls. The woman would have the upper part of her body on one side of the wall. The lower part of her body would be on the other side of the wall.

Sometimes, in fact most of the time, the upper part of the body would be fully clothed. There would be nothing to show what was going on on the other side of the wall.

Sometimes the woman would be naked from the waist down. Most of the time she would be wearing a short tight skirt that could be pushed up and underpants that could be pulled down. Sometimes he would have trouble deciding whether it was better with or without the pants. The high point was pushing the skirt slowly up to reveal a firm, tight, unsuspecting ass. Later a cock would go in and the vantage point of the fantasy would shift to the other side of the wall, where you would not know from the fully clothed upper body of the woman that a cock was hard at work on the other side of the wall. For some reason or other she would need to pretend that nothing was happening.

The problem with the fantasy was that it was hard to get the wall right. Could she be leaning across the counter of a kitchen that opened into the dining room? But then you would see what was behind her. Could there be a roll-down blind? But why would it be rolled down? And anyway you would still be able to see. Could she be leaning out an upstairs window? A partially opened window with the blind down. She stuck her head out, say, to talk to a neighbor. The window was too stiff to open any higher. Meanwhile her lodger, say, comes up behind her, slides his hands up her thighs, slides up the tight skirt, gives her an unexpected bonus on top of the rent. From the vantage point of outside the window you would see her talking brightly to a neighbor—brightly but with a strained expression.

This was a solution that seemed to work at the time, and yet later he would feel dissatisfied, as if some essential ingredient of the fantasy had dropped out. Was the problem with the neighbor? Would it help if it was her boss? An important client? Or was the problem on the other side of the wall?


He would get up and go out and tackle another street. To be fair, he never once had anyone who didn’t look pleased to see him. He would go up to a door and ring the bell. Someone would come to the door, and there would be the usual initial hostility when they saw it was a salesman. One mention of the word Electrolux and it was a different story.

“Electrolux!” the target would exclaim. “Why didn’t you say? You just come right in. Now what can I get you? Coffee? Tea? A soda? Now can I interest you in something to eat? What would you say to a piece of pumpkin pie with ice cream? Or I’ve got a chocolate cake. Or how about some chocolate chip cookies?”

Half an hour later he would escape, clutching as likely as not a little Ziploc bag of chocolate chip cookies in a sweating hand.

When he was a boy he used to wish every day was Halloween. There is an old Chinese saying: May your enemy’s wishes come true.

He would force himself to visit every single house on the street. Hours later, awash with coffee, stuffed with pumpkin, apple, cherry, pecan, chocolate meringue, lemon meringue, banoffee, and blueberry pie, ears ringing with the praises of the Electrolux and stirring stories of its battles after Hurricane Edna, he would make his way back to the trailer, stopping only to pick up a magazine or two.

Back on the bed he would leaf rapidly through the magazines.

The problem was that the magazines never really had what he was looking for. Once in a while a magazine might show the naked bottom half of a woman cut off by a window. The problem was that the magazines never showed pictures of the clothed top half of a woman cut off by a window.

This was an area where you might expect videos to provide a better product, but in fact the videos also tended not to include the scenes where you saw the clothed half of the woman, or if they did the woman overacted so much it spoiled it.

He would lie on his side, hand jiggling quietly, trying to envisage the window, the skirt, the ass, the fully clothed upper body of a woman with a strained expression.

The funny thing about it was that at the time he felt really guilty about it. He kept thinking he should get up and go out and sell vacuum cleaners. He should get up and go out and make something of his life. It felt like he was just lying there wasting time. He kept doing it but he didn’t feel good about it. He was 33 years old and he had zip to show for it. And here he was lying in bed in the middle of the day not even masturbating effectively but just twiddling until he got the fantasy set up to his satisfaction. He didn’t feel good about it at all.

His feeling at the time was that the guy who had cleaned up after Hurricane Edna had probably been a completely different kind of guy. The kind of guy who goes out, buys a magazine, takes the magazine home, opens the magazine, looks at the tits of the month, jerks off, closes the magazine, and goes out and sells vacuum cleaners.

Sometimes he would lie there for fifteen minutes worrying about the roll-down blind and twiddling and he would think of the guy and he would think This has got to stop, I’m going to turn over a new leaf. How could he lie there for fifteen minutes worrying about the Goddamn roll-down fucking blind? It was disgusting. So he’d get out the magazine and turn to a pair of tits backed by Miss April and get on with the show. And go out and try to move some product.

Which just goes to show how blinkered we can be by our preconceptions. Because little though he knew it, it was the hours he spent trying to sell vacuum cleaners that were the waste of time, something he would remember with shame and self-loathing for the rest of his life. His well-meant efforts to develop an efficient masturbatory program, likewise, were completely misconceived.

What he didn’t realize is that a genius is different from other people. A genius doesn’t waste time like other people. Even when he looks like he is wasting time he may in fact be making the most productive possible use of the time. In fact the only time a genius wastes time is when he tries to follow the rules and act like ordinary people.

What he didn’t realize was that all that time he spent twiddling and worrying about the roll-down blind would one day lead directly to a multimillion-dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.


Another fantasy was about a game show with three contestants with their upper bodies sticking through a hole in a wall. In the first part of the game, one contestant was penally challenged from behind. Panelists had to guess which. The contestants got points if the panelists guessed wrong. An inset in the screen showed the thrusting buttocks of a man giving the contestant the old Atchison Topeka. In the second stage of the game, any number could be involved, from zero (though this had never happened in the whole time he’d been watching the show), right on up to a full house (this was actually surprisingly common). The panelists had to guess how many, and which ones.

Each panelist got to ask questions, or set tests. The panelist then made a decision on the basis of the behavior of the contestants during the questions, and made his or her guess.

After a while one of the contestants started to get a personality. She was a consecutive winner for twenty shows. She wore a pink jacket and immaculate pink lipstick and makeup, and she had dark hair in a hairsprayed permanent. People looked at the heaving buttocks in the inset and they couldn’t believe that someone that cool could possibly be getting the full-service 24-hour Revco from the rear. Then after she won the round the MC would say Let’s just see that amazing performance again.

In her final playoff one of the panelists, a real bitch, said she’d like to see her put on nail polish. She took a bottle of pink nail polish and started on her nails, and everybody watched, and her nails were absolutely perfect. It turned out later that this was one of the times when all three contestants were getting the old Triple Jeopardy. One kept smearing her nail polish, and one dropped the bottle, but Suzie just kept quietly finishing her nails.

Afterwards the MC said: I’ve never seen anything like it. I take my hat off to you. Let’s just see that again.

The screen divided in half, on one half the heaving buttocks, on the other Suzie quietly painting her nails.

MC: Well, I see it and I still don’t believe it. What’s your secret?

Suzie: That’s my secret.

He really liked her. And he always played fair. It was all right to replay highlights of her game career. But she’d won her million fair and square; she didn’t have to play the game again, and he never brought her into any new episodes. Sometimes he’d think of her, out in the world, in her pink suit, with a million to blow. She did what she had to do, and then she did what she wanted to do.

He often wondered whether other men did this. Did they have participants that developed personalities? Did they have a sense of humor? Was there a story that developed over several episodes?

And being a salesman he could not stop analyzing in a really micro-obsessive nitty-gritty way what got him off. It’s not what you see it’s what you know. Because it wasn’t the bare buttocks or the thrusting cock into a tight wet cunt but Suzie in her pink jacket painting her nails that sent Old Faithful skyward every time.

For a while, anyway, he went on rerunning favorite episodes in Suzie’s brilliant career, looking in once in a while on current episodes just to see how things were going and then going out from time to time when he felt like a piece of homemade pumpkin pie with ice cream.

Then one day he noticed that the game was rigged.

For some reason he hadn’t noticed it before, but once you knew what to look for you couldn’t miss it. The contestants varied, but there was always one with platinum blond hair and pink lipstick and big tits in a tight top who had no self-control whatsoever. The thing was a joke. The MC would start the game and suddenly the girl’s eyes would widen and her pink mouth would open with this ostentatious Oh my God, there’s a cock up my twat kind of expression.

Is anything the matter? the MC would say in a syrupy voice and the girl would say No and then suddenly catch her breath or bite her lip or widen her eyes just to make sure everyone knew what was going on. How obvious can you get?

And the MC would say OK, we’ll get on with the show then. Panelists, our stud for this session was Mr. Body for Arkansas four years running. As I speak Clint is giving one of the girls the kind of workout only a serious bodybuilder can provide. Let’s have a quick look at the service offered by Clint, and there would be an inset of the thrusting buttocks.

Well, that’s one bodybuilder who thinks there are no holds barred, he’d say, and the studio audience would laugh. Ladies and gentlemen, your job is to decide which of our lovely ladies is enjoying this magnificent stallion of a man. Heloise, it’s your turn to ask the first question.

And the blond girl would whimper or shout Oh my God and the panel would laugh. Sometimes the panel wouldn’t take it seriously. It would be absolutely obvious what the answer was but they’d laugh and guess wrong on purpose.

Sometimes he could enjoy it anyway and sometimes it was just irritating. They were only doing their job but sometimes it irritated him anyway, and he missed the days before he realized the whole thing was a set-up.

One day he lay on his side on the bed and they had yet another of these blondes on the show. He lay there wondering where they got them all. The studs today were three guys who were putting themselves through college. They had called the studio’s 800 number in the aftermath of a frat party and left their names and when they got the follow-up call they all thought Shit. But in the end they agreed to go on the show because it was something different and because people only saw you from behind and because it was something to say you’d done, and because of the money. Would they do it again?

Jeff: No way. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed myself today, it’s been a really unique experience and it certainly will be something to look back on, I’ll say that, but I don’t think I’d want to make a regular thing of it.

Shane (laughing): Is that an offer?

MC (laughing): No.

Duane: Well, the way I see it, Mike, there’s a whole lot more goes into this than meets the eye.

MC (laughing): You can say that again! (Studio audience laughs)

Duane: No, but seriously. On the one hand, you’re there to do a job. It’s up to you to take a professional approach. But on the other hand, it’s important to have a good time. So would I do it again? Sure I would. Because there’s no way you can bring everything to the game that it’s possible to bring, on your first time on the show. And the other thing I’d like to say is, I’d just like to say thank you to all the girls, it was a pleasure to work with them and they definitely made it a day to remember.

Joe lay with his head on his arm. His hand, he realized, was holding a limp, wilted dick. Jesus, he thought. Jesus. This was exactly the problem. What was it with him? He was the type of guy to go out and try to sell vacuum cleaners and end up eating twenty fucking pieces of pumpkin fucking pie. Jesus.

He pulled a magazine out from under the bed, opened it to the central spread, stared narrow-eyed at the girl’s tits and jerked off. Jesus.

He got up off the bed, zipped up his pants, and went outside to sit on the steps.

“Look, Joe,” he said. “Things can’t go on like this. Do you hear what I’m saying? This can’t go on.”

He sighed. The sun was setting behind the pines. Another day comes and goes.

“Look,” he said. “The game is not rigged, OK? The only reason it’s rigged, if it is rigged, is because you made it up that way. Nobody did anything behind your back. You decided, for reasons best known to yourself, to move in the direction of a rigged game, so you got a rigged game. You didn’t find anything out. There was nothing to find out. You made the whole thing up in your head. And now you’re talking to yourself. This has got to stop.”

The sky was a dark clear blue, all except for the narrow band of blazing orange behind the black pines.

He said, “All I want is to be a success. That’s all I ask.”


The sky slowly blackened and the stars came out, and still he sat on the steps.

He had hit rock bottom. Because let’s face it, the kind of guy who gets ahead in the world, the kind of guy who makes a mark, the kind of guy who makes a difference, is the kind of guy who deals with his sexual urges and gets on with the job. He is not the kind of guy who lies around obsessing about whether some completely imaginary game show is rigged. He is not the kind of guy who gets side-tracked out of his masturbatory fantasy into a non-masturbatory fantasy about three guys from college called Jeff, Shane, and Duane. Duane. Where the fuck did that come from? Jesus.

What he realized later was that this was exactly the mistake he had made all his life, assuming that if he was different in some way that was automatically worse. Assuming he’d be all right if he was just like everybody else. Assuming the thing he needed to work on was getting rid of all the things that stood out. Because after all the basic raw material of his fantasies was probably not all that different from a lot of guys’, look at it this way you could find similar types of scenario with some of the elements in magazines and videos, which had to mean they thought it would appeal to a lot of guys. The thing was just that most guys would not replay favorite episodes from the days when Suzie was on the show, and wonder what she was doing with herself now that she had a million bucks to play around with; most guys would not get involved in the personalities, they would not get pissed off because the MC was an asshole and start wondering how to get him off the show, they would not wonder why it had to be rigged, and they would not decide that the thrusting buttocks behind the screen belonged to three college guys named Jeff, Shane, and Duane.

What he should have realized is that if there is something that makes you different from everybody else it may be that that very thing is your unique selling point.

Because as it turned out, it was his tendency to gradually start seeing the personalities, to start bringing in all kinds of irrelevant stories to the point where people would have names, that turned out to be his hidden strength. Gradually the people would turn out to be ordinary people just like you and me, only involved in a situation most ordinary people would not put themselves into. And instead of getting obsessed with the sex, the way most guys would, he just happened to have this tendency to start seeing the whole picture with the sex as part of the picture. He happened to have this ability to imagine what it would be that would get ordinary people involved in something like that.

The sky was a velvety black. The stars were out and the moon had risen.

He said, “Come on, Joe. You can do better than this.”

He started wondering what it was about sex. Because if you think about it the pornography industry is a multibillion-dollar industry. Some people use it as an adjunct to a fulfilling sexual relationship, sure, but what about the rest? If you could figure out a way to deliver the real thing you’d really be onto something. A way to deliver the real thing where people did not have to worry about running into the criminal element, or getting arrested, or just getting recognized.

He started looking at it another way. The way he looked at it was, why is this not a problem for homosexuals? A couple of guys could be just working together in an office and they can meet in the john and get back to work. A lot of guys would not have a problem with doing this kind of thing with a female partner, part of the problem obviously was segregated toilets and part of the problem was that a lot of women would have a problem with it.

Any salesman knows that you have to deal with people the way they are. Not how you’d like them to be.

The crickets were chirping in the long grass.


Joe sat on the steps, jingling the change in his pocket.

“Come on, Joe,” he said. “There’s got to be something you can do.”

His thoughts turned again to the guy who had cleaned up after Hurricane Edna. Basically the guy had identified a disaster that had struck everyone and he had identified a problem that faced everyone who had been struck by the disaster. Then he had gone in with a solution to the problem.

Somewhere around midnight the idea came to him.

“Joe,” he said, “you’re in big trouble.”

Special K

In the morning the sun was shining, birds were singing, and there was dew on the grass. The crazy thoughts of the night before did not look so bad. They looked crazy, but they did not look like crazy things he would seriously think about trying out. Everyone gets crazy thoughts from time to time, it’s what you do about them that counts.

It was time to turn over a new leaf. Eat right. Get some exercise. For instance, instead of taking the car, why not walk to the store?

He walked over to the 7-Eleven and bought a box of Special K and a carton of skim milk.

On his way back to the trailer park he saw a heron fly over the lake and vanish in the reeds. “Now if you’d taken the car you wouldn’t have seen that,” he said. “It’s a beautiful world. You have a right to be here. Now let’s get back to the trailer, have us some breakfast, and get out there and sell some vacuum cleaners.”


After breakfast he washed the bowl and left it to drain. He did not wash the rest of the week’s dishes because it’s important to be able to prioritize. He shaved and dressed and put the Electrolux in the car.

“Skooby dooby doo, exchanging glances, skooby dooby doo . . . by dooby dooby,” he sang, shifting to Drive. He pulled out of the trailer park and headed down the highway for the next neighborhood on his list.

The highway went along the beach. This was a part of the beach that never saw much action at the best of times, and at this time of day it was pretty much deserted. The tide was out. The sand just above the water gleamed white in the bright morning sun, and tiny sandpipers darted up and down. Out to sea a line of pelicans flew low over the waves.

“It’s a beautiful world,” said Joe again. “You have a right to be here.”

He started singing the song “Everything is beautiful in its own way,” which he had never expected to want to sing voluntarily and so had never learned past the first line. “Everything is beautiful in its own way,” sang Joe. “Skooby dooby doo, dooby doo, dooby doo, dooby dooby by doo . . .” Maybe it had something to do with starting the day with Special K.

He kept driving along, one hand on the wheel, singing the first line of “Everything is beautiful in its own way” and grinning and looking out to sea. The pelicans were just tiny specks in the distance, but the sandpipers were still running up and down.

Years later he could always get a laugh out of an audience telling the story. Because the thing of it is, this is a thing that crosses generations. You take a bunch of guys and maybe for some of them The Man was Elvis, and for some of them it was Jimi Hendrix, and for some of them it was Kurt Cobain, but the thing they all have in common is that they would never sing “Everything is beautiful in its own way” unless someone held a gun to their head (and maybe not even then). Except that every one of those guys will have had the experience of being up at sunrise and going out and being alone in the world and wanting to sing something. He could get a laugh because he only knew the first line of “Everything is beautiful in its own way,” and the other way he could get a laugh was by explaining that he went on to sing “Oh what a beautiful morning,” and he actually knew all the words because his mother drove him crazy playing the record when he was a kid, but he couldn’t quote them in his autobiography because he would have had to have paid a lot of money.

Well, he finished singing “Oh what a beautiful morning” and he found that he had taken his foot off the accelerator. The car was slowing down and he found that he was putting his foot on the brake and turning off the road. He stopped the car on the sandy shoulder and parked it and turned off the engine. He could hear the soft whisper of the waves and the piping of the sandpipers.

There are things that you spell out in words for an audience that you don’t think in words at the time. In his mind he was just seeing the heron with its long sharp beak and spindly legs. He was seeing the sandpipers running up and down the wet sand. He saw the pelicans with their big beaks that could hold a whole fish. They were flying low over the waves because they knew where to find the kind of fish they could put in their beaks.

He opened the door and got out of the car. The Electrolux, with its accessories, sat in the back seat.

He closed the car door and folded his arms on top of the car, looking out to sea. “I don’t have what it takes,” he said. He had never said it before because saying it would be like admitting he couldn’t make the grade. But now he said it and he wasn’t blaming himself. Does a heron go around complaining because it doesn’t have the kind of beak you can stick a whole fish in? Does it say “Where there’s a will there’s a way” and go flying low over the waves, beak or no beak? Like hell it does.

There are guys who can persuade someone they want a new vacuum cleaner even if they have only just bought one. There are guys who can persuade someone they want a new vacuum cleaner even if the vacuum cleaner they have now is more a member of the family than an appliance. In all probability half the people who bought an Electrolux after Hurricane Edna had a perfectly good vacuum cleaner that had come through the hurricane miraculously unscathed. The reason they had bought a new vacuum cleaner was that they had come up against a guy who was born to sell vacuum cleaners. The reason they did not want to buy another vacuum cleaner now was that they were dealing with a guy who did not have what it takes to sell vacuum cleaners.

Well, if you don’t have what it takes you can go on trying to sell vacuum cleaners till the cows come home. When you look back over your life, what you’re going to see is that you ate a lot of pumpkin pie.

If you’re a salesman, you have to deal with yourself the way you are. Not how you’d like to be.

If you don’t have what it takes, you can waste a lot of time asking yourself “How can I get what it takes?” The question you should be asking yourself is, “Is there something else that takes what I have to offer?” Because if there’s something you can succeed at, just the way you are, you won’t have to waste a lot of time trying to change yourself. Which you’re never going to be able to do, anyway.

If you ask most people what’s the hardest thing about being a salesman, they will usually say the rejection. “People always trying to get rid of you,” they say, “that’s what I’d hate.” Or sometimes they say it’s the travel that would really get to them, all those hotel and motel rooms blurring into each other, it must

get really lonely. Or sometimes they think it would bother them to be selling things to people that they didn’t really need, pressurizing people into buying things they were not really able to afford.

Well, at one time or another every salesman has probably felt all of those things. But the thing that’s hardest about the job is something you can’t leave behind you by getting another job. A salesman has to see people as they are.

Most people spend their lives trying to avoid doing that very thing. Most people see what they want to see. But a salesman can’t afford to see people the way he might like them to be. He has to see them the way they actually are. And he also has to see them the way they’d like to be. Because no matter how badly people want something, if they don’t want to be the kind of people who want that kind of thing you’re going to have an uphill battle persuading them to buy it. He has to see what it is they don’t like about the way they are and convince them that the way they are is OK. Or he has to see what it is they don’t like and persuade them that he has just the product to fix it. That’s the hardest thing about the job.

Now if you’re selling encyclopedias it’s obvious you’re selling people the idea that they can be what they want to be. But even if you’re selling vacuum cleaners you’re selling people the way they could be—they could be people who will clean their stairs and the furniture and curtains using appropriate attachments, instead of people who could save themselves a couple of hundred bucks by just borrowing a vacuum cleaner for Thanksgiving and Christmas from their next-door neighbors. You’re selling the chance to fix something that’s wrong. What you’re selling, basically, is the idea that there’s nothing wrong with the customer; maybe they don’t know as much as they should, or maybe they happen to live in a dirty house, but that’s just because they don’t have the one thing lacking to put it right.

What you’re selling, obviously, is the idea that if they don’t buy that one thing there is something wrong with them. They could put something right that needs fixing and they chose not to.

The reason it takes a salesman to do this is that left to their own devices most people will just drift along thinking I really should do something about that one of these days. That’s the way people are, and it takes a salesman to get them out of the rut and take some action to actually achieve their goals. It takes a salesman to show them that something they hadn’t thought of as a goal, such as reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica on a regular basis, could be a goal. An achievable goal. The longest journey starts with a single step. In this case, the step of buying the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

What this means is that a salesman is constantly confronted with the human capacity for self-deception. He has to recognize that most people will do just about anything rather than face up to the truth about themselves. That’s the hardest thing about the job.

He looked out to sea over the roof of the car. The waves threw down their veils of foam and drew them back, and the sandpipers ran piping over the glistening sand.

He thought: An animal has no shame.

It hunts what it eats and it eats it.

It shits when it needs to. It pees when it needs to. That’s why a parked car gets covered in bird shit. The bird doesn’t wait to find a bathroom. It doesn’t understand the concept of bathroom. It just goes when it needs to.

Then he started to think: But wait a minute, if you see a dog or a cat trying to shit while someone’s watching they look kind of embarrassed. And afterwards a cat will scrape dirt over it. Is that just because it’s left over from the days when the animal would be vulnerable to a predator, or a predator could track it, or something?

And the really interesting thing was that instead of getting side-tracked the way he usually did he just thought: Screw that.

In other words, when something was genuinely important he didn’t get side-tracked. There was something inside him that was able to tell when something was genuinely important.

The thing that was important was that animals have the instinct to mate and they do it without shame.

He thought: Humans do nothing without shame.

Even eating is shameful because it makes you fat. And some things are so shameful you can’t even use a word for them without swearing. You say “go to the bathroom” and “sleep with” because the actual words would be bad language.

What he was thinking, as he watched the sea and the birds, was Look how strong the impulse is! Because you can sell people just about anything if you can convince them it will give them a better chance to get sex. You can sell people just about anything if you can convince them it’s a substitute for sex. The only thing you can’t sell is the actual thing itself. That is, obviously people sell it, but you can’t sell it without shame.

Well, just look at how much time people waste because they can’t get it without shame! Look how much time people waste in conversations, asking people about their interests. Look how much time people waste fantasizing. And just look at the risks people take! Because he had read about a case where a man had harassed a woman by dropping M&M’s in the pocket of her blouse and getting them out, and his firm had to pay her a million dollars. Or it might have been more.

Well, if people are willing to take those kinds of risks you know there’s got to be money in it. And if people are going to do things that put their company at that kind of risk there’s got to be money in it. Plus, if you could give people a way to get it out of their system they would be a whole lot more productive. They’d be happier about themselves. Because there had to be a lot of guys like himself, guys who didn’t want to be spending the amount of time they were spending thinking about sex, guys who given the chance would rather get it out of their system and concentrate their energies on achieving their goals.

Now the way he saw it was, gay men seemed to be able to get it out of their system without too much trouble. Their only problem was there were not that many of them around. But normal men could be in an office full of women without finding an outlet. You have to deal with people the way they are, not the way you’d like them to be, and unfortunately most women did not seem to have the same urges. Or if they did, they wouldn’t admit it. They probably didn’t, anyway. But if they did they wouldn’t admit it.

Because you have to deal with people the way they are, not the way you’d like them to be, and unfortunately most men tend not to respect women who have the same urges they have. Or even if a woman doesn’t have the same urges, but just provides an outlet, men tend not to respect her. Because if you take people the way they are, most men tend to see sticking their dick into someone as a form of domination. To be honest, if you take people the way they are, that’s what they like about it. It’s not just the physical sensation. That’s exactly why masturbation is so unsatisfactory. The physical sensation is pretty much the same. But the domination is all in your head.

So even if a woman wanted the physical sensation just as an outlet she would probably not admit it because of all the aggro.

But the thing to remember was that some women were prepared to provide an outlet, in spite of all the aggro, if the money was right. And lots of guys were prepared to pay, in spite of the aggro. And what the aggro boiled down to, if you thought about it, was the shame of being known to be the person who had been involved. That was why prostitution was so degrading. A prostitute knew that somebody knew she was a prostitute. So whatever else she did with her life, there was always the chance that it would come back to haunt her. And likewise, even if nobody else knew, a man knew that a prostitute knew that he had been to a prostitute.

If you could work out a way to offer anonymity you would have a solution to a disaster that made Hurricane Edna look like a variable breeze.

Now the night before, sitting on the steps, he had thought of a way to offer anonymity and he had decided he was crazy.

What he thought now was: An animal knows no shame.

In other words, the reason he had decided he was crazy was just because he was human. A salesman knows you have to deal with yourself as you are, and that includes a tendency to be ashamed to sell things that society has decided are shameful.

Well, the question to ask yourself is, are they right? And in this case the answer had to be no. A physical urge is a physical urge. What’s shameful is to look the other way and let the devil take the hindmost, instead of dealing with it responsibly. Because the fact was, these unsatisfied urges were causing an incredible amount of wastefulness and suffering. Women were being molested in the workplace solely because their colleagues did not have a legitimate outlet for urges they could not control. Men who had worked hard and who had a valuable contribution to make were being put at risk, through no fault of their own. And it was shame, false shame that had kept people from dealing effectively with the situation.

Humans are animals, he thought. All these instincts, these incredibly powerful instincts, are just thwarted by all these taboos. If you can break through some of those taboos for people, there’s got to be money in it. A lot of money. But the money is big because those taboos are so strong. Do you have what it takes to break through that, Joe? Do you have what it takes to look someone in the eye when they’re thinking it’s disgusting? Because the thing is, Joe, a big idea is ahead of its time. That’s why there’s money in it. It’s going to be a long, long time before people catch up with you. If they ever do. You’ve got to know you’re right, because they sure as hell won’t. People are going to give you a lot of grief. A lot of grief. So if you can’t take it, Joe, let’s call it quits right here and now.

What he thought was: I don’t know if I have what it takes or not. I’ve never really been tested. I’ve never had the chance to find out what I’m capable of. But I know one thing. It’s one thing to try, and do your best, and fail. All you can ever do is give something your best shot, and sometimes that’s just not enough. But it’s another thing to not even try. This is the first time I’ve had a chance at something really big. If I just walk away from it, what does that make me?

“Look, Joe,” he said. “Let’s not get too serious here. I’m not saying it won’t be a lot of work. But it should be a lot of fun, too. Are you having such a good time selling vacuum cleaners? And OK, you may get some funny looks. But just try to see the humor in it. Besides, at the end of the day, you’re doing everybody a favor. That’s something to feel good about. So just do the best you can, and remember, if it all goes horribly wrong, you can always shoot yourself.”

He was grinning. He slipped off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants, and he walked up the cool soft sand of the low bank beside the road, and then down onto the beach. The sand near the road was choppy, warm where the sun hit it, cool where the hollows were in shade. Then the sand was firm and ribbed, and then it was flat and wet.

The line of pelicans was coming back along the waves. He watched them, shading his eyes.

“Look at those beautiful birds,” he said. “Is there one single thing wrong with them, Joe? Does a pelican have one single thing to be ashamed of?”

He was walking along in the shallow water. He turned to face the sea and put his hands around his mouth.

“MY NAME IS JOOOOOOOOE!” he shouted. “Yabba dabba DOOOOOOOOOOO!”

So Long Electrolux

The first thing he did was he returned the Electrolux and its accessories.

“Well if it isn’t the hot shot!” The head of the sales reps was in a meeting. His secretary had been interrupted in the middle of a book by Danielle Steel and was none too pleased at having to break off and check the vacuum cleaner back in.

“Not such a hot shot after all, I guess,” he said.

The girl was looking at him mockingly.

“I guess I just don’t have what it takes.”

He said this with a quiet conviction that is rare in salesmen.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” the girl said. She was still looking at him mockingly, but there was a kind of undercurrent of sympathy.

“Now the guy who was there before me was a real operator,” said Joe.

“Believe me, I know,” said the girl.

“If you ever want some testimonials for the product, you should talk to some of the people there. They’ve all got these stories about how it saved their life after Hurricane Edna.”

“Yeah, we keep getting letters from them. That’s why I’m saying, don’t be too hard on yourself. Billy Graham couldn’t have sold a vacuum cleaner in Eureka. Billy Graham could have gone door to door telling people he had vacuum cleaners that were personally endorsed by Jesus K. Christ, and he would not have sold one single one. Ed has a kind of mischievous sense of humor is all. If he’d have given you the chance to show what you could do in some other district it might have been a different story.”

“Well, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise,” said Joe. He was looking at the girl. His eyes kept being drawn to her breasts and then he would smoothly keep moving his gaze on as if it had just happened to travel past her breasts en route to checking out the pencil sharpener. He’d spent a lot of time on his own, after all. This kind of thing must happen all the time when the sales reps came in after a long time on the road. “Do you have much trouble with sexual harassment in your job?” he asked.

“What?” said the girl.

“With the sales reps, maybe? They spend all that time on the road and I just wondered if you ever had any problems.”

“Well, it’s not a job for shrinking violets if that’s what you mean,” said the girl. “But the way I see it is, and this is no disrespect to you, it takes a certain type of personality to succeed in sales. And it takes a certain type of personality to be able to deal with that type of personality. If you look at the skills, there’s a lot of people could do my job. But what it really boils down to is being able to deal with people. You have to be able to give as good as you get. There’s things about the job that would bother a lot of people. But that’s taken account of in the package they offer. The way I see it is, I’m quite a strong person. If I can get a salary that takes that into account, why would I want to settle for a job that doesn’t need those strengths?”

One of the things that’s perennially fascinating about the world is the way people sell things to themselves. If people feel the need to sell something to themselves, that tells its own tale.

“That’s very interesting,” said Joe. “But doesn’t it ever get to you? What I mean is, just suppose for the sake of argument that a guy like me, a guy you know is never going to make it to the top, comes up to you at the Xerox machine and does something inappropriate. Drops some M&M’s in the pocket of your blouse and tries to get them out. What would your reaction be?”

“Well, if you’ve ever had a secret ambition to sing with the sopranos I suggest you try it and see.”

“But say a top sales rep, say the top sales rep did something like that. You might have feelings about it that you would not feel free to express in the way you would to a guy who was not in that kind of position.”

“I see what you’re saying,” she said. “But the way I look at it is, every job has its drawbacks. You can make yourself miserable dwelling on them and thinking if you go elsewhere you’re going to find the perfect job. The fact is there is no perfect job. The perfect job does not exist. People are people. Any job you go to, you’re always going to find people. And the way I look at it is, let’s say somebody steps out of line. You’ve got to keep a sense of proportion about these things. I don’t care what he’s making, I don’t care how many Goddamn vacuum cleaners he shifts, he can’t force me to do anything I don’t want to. As long as we’re here during office hours I don’t have to do anything not specifically covered by my job description. And as soon as I leave the building my time is my own.”

“Well, there’s a lot in what you say,” said Joe.

But what he was thinking was this. A guy could be the top earner in a company and have a house and a car to reflect that, but when it came to something our instincts have programmed us to want more than almost anything else you can name he was basically no better off than Joe Schmoe.

If he wanted an outlet for his sexual urges he would have to invest the time talking to someone about her interests, with no guarantee that anything would come of it, or he would have to go home and jerk off to a magazine or video, or he would have to pay someone, with all the risks that entailed. But how much time does the top earner in a company realistically have to talk to someone about her interests? If he hires someone, on the other hand, a guy in that kind of position has a lot to lose. He has a reputation that can be damaged. What real choices does he have? If he’s at the office he can’t even put M&M’s down somebody’s blouse. Let alone get any kind of real sexual satisfaction. And a guy like that is going to be spending a lot of time on the job. He works his butt off and at the end of the day he can go home to a magazine. Just like Joe Schmoe sitting on his butt all day in a trailer.

If you’re Joe Schmoe in the trailer you tend to think if you got off your butt and got your act together you could have real girls just like the ones in the magazines. You wouldn’t have to do anything. They’d be yours for the asking. Well, if it was actually like that you wouldn’t get guys trying to get off on behaving suggestively in the office.

Well, if you have a situation where the top earner in a company still can’t get what he wants, and where he can jeopardize his career trying to get what he wants, jeopardizing the profits of the company in the process, you know there’s got to be money in it.

“Well, I’ve enjoyed talking to you,” said Joe.

“What are your plans?” said the girl.

Joe was standing in front of her desk. Behind her desk the wall was a floor-to-ceiling mirror, with potted rubber plants along the base. In the mirror, between the rubber plants, he could see a guy wearing a tired brown polyester suit. It wasn’t rumpled or wrinkled because that’s the whole point of polyester. But it wasn’t crisp, either, because polyester does not have it in it to be crisp. The guy was standing there among the plants with this suit wilting on his shoulders. If a guy like that came up to you and tried to sell a vacuum cleaner you might feel sorry for him and offer him a piece of pumpkin pie, but you would not buy a vacuum cleaner. If a guy like that came up to you and made an innovative suggestion for rewarding the top earners in your company you would reject it out of hand. He was just the kind of guy you’d expect to come up with the kind of dirty idea that was totally inappropriate to your company.

“I’m going to buy a new suit.”

More from Issue 12

Issue 12 Conversion Experience

The historical record grows long enough for us to ask: Has there ever been a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian…

Issue 12 Conversion Experience

We would chat while they thought we were working; they would grow old and die; we would inherit the earth and chat forever.

Issue 12 Conversion Experience
Issue 12 Conversion Experience
Issue 12 Conversion Experience

Like many young people at that time, he conceived of himself as seeking purity.

Issue 12 Conversion Experience
Issue 12 Conversion Experience
Issue 12 Conversion Experience

In the muggy last days of that June, while the trial was ending, I was busy wearing out the kindness of a boyfriend.

Issue 12 Conversion Experience
Issue 12 Conversion Experience

In the last decade, no organ of music criticism has wielded as much influence as Pitchfork

Issue 12 Conversion Experience

This was my first musical on Broadway—a fact I’d concealed from the editors of n+1 when persuading them to assign me this…

Issue 12 Conversion Experience

The best books purport to be about one thing and are about all other things, about tradition and decency and experiment.

Issue 12 Conversion Experience

After a lifetime of crashing into fire doors I find the open corridoricity of Chicago a great freedom.

More by this Author

November 1, 2011

Tutor! Donate sperm. There are ways to monetize your intelligence that doesn’t do damage to your craft.

March 22, 2012
Regrets at Fordham
Issue 6 Mainstream

You open the book. Who are these people? What’s going on? Where is it going?

October 28, 2011

If I’m trying to work on something, I try to be reading the things that are relevant to that book.