A kid with a black eye is standing on Carl’s doorstep. Carl sees the kid on his Ring Doorbell app before the kid even rings the bell. The kid is wearing a yellow sweatshirt with paw prints.
The kid totters on the doorstep for a while and rifles through the pages on his clipboard. He has long tousled hair like a kid from a time gone and beyond him the November sun is softening, and the evening is setting in like a mist.
For a second the kid looks directly into the doorbell camera as if staring into the eyes of a friend or someone dearly loved. Carl blinks slowly. “Now there’s something,” he says to his phone.
He gets up and limps over to the door. He crouches so that he cannot be seen through the glazing. He waits for the bell to ring. When it does, he opens the door.
“How-do?” he says, resting one arm on the doorframe.
The kid doesn’t say anything. He just looks up at Carl. He’s about eighteen. Peach Fuzz. Skinny as a greyhound. He’s forgotten his lines, Carl thinks.
The kid looks down at the clipboard. Then he looks up again. Carl watches him. The kid’s mouth is ajar as if caught on the beginnings of a word and his breath comes out in rushed plumes of vapor.
Finally, he manages to speak, and his voice is soft and slightly nasally. He explains that he is raising funds for a charity and would appreciate anything that Carl could give. After he’s finished explaining, Carl says, “How did you get the black eye?”
The kid blinks. He ruffles his hair so that his wrist briefly covers the bruising. Striations form around his lips, like so many splinters. “I can’t remember,” he says.
“It needs some ice. I’ve got some ice in the freezer.”
“It’s alright,” the kid says. “It’s not fresh.”
Carl points at his sweatshirt. “That’s why you clean your dog’s paws after it runs around. That sweatshirt is ruined now. And it was such a nice color.”
The kid peers down at himself. “Oh,” he says. “These are just prints. They’re not real, sir.”
“No,” Carl says, more to himself. He takes a breath. “You know, I used to be a salesman when I was a kid. I used to go to people’s houses and sell them vacuum cleaners.”
“Yeah?” the kid says.
“I used to have to lug that vacuum cleaner from house to house. I always started with a joke. People are less likely to antagonize you if you make them laugh.”
“Yeah,” the kid says. “That makes sense.”
“Because I used to have to demonstrate the vacuum cleaner, see. And that meant they’d have to let me in their house. People are kinder to you when you’re in their house, you know. When you’re outside their house, you’re exactly that. An outsider.” Carl points down at the threshold. He waves his hands toward one side and then the other. “Inside, outside,” he says.
“Yeah,” the kid says.
“You know another thing I did? This will make you laugh. I used to carry a tape-recorder. I stuffed it in my pocket before every shift. It was huge. Like a giant walkie-talkie.”
The kid grins and shuffles his weight from foot to foot and turns his head and looks for a second out at the street behind him.
“I’d record every pitch. Then when I got home, I’d listen to them all and make sure I was hitting every mark. It’s funny, the things you forget. Sometimes I’d even forget to introduce myself.”
“We’re not allowed to disclose our names,” the kid says.
“Now that’s just crazy. How am I supposed to connect with you if I don’t know your name?”
The kid shrugs his shoulders. He bites into his lip and his one good eye is wide and muddled as if he has never considered this question before.
“We’ll give you a made-up name,” Carl says. “We’ll call you Jake.”
Jake doesn’t say anything. He is suddenly very still.
“Another thing that I’d do, Jake — another disarming tactic, shall we say — is I’d compliment the customer. People love to be complimented. They can’t help loving it.”
Jake nods but he is running his hands through his papers again as if to locate something vital.
Carl says, “I understand that a compliment might be difficult in my case.” He chuckles. “I understand there isn’t much to compliment.”
“Oh, no,” Jake says. “I wouldn’t say that.”
A breeze passes through the trees and hedges that line the street. The trees are jagged and almost bare and in the greying light they are like black silhouettes of disfigurement, misshapen arms and hands and thin twisted fingers sprouting from the earth and frozen in their eternal agonized solitude. Beyond and around them the lights are coming on in the houses and families are gathering for their Sunday roasts.
Carl leans over the clipboard. “Dogs, is it? Heh. I always wanted a dog. Every boy needs a best friend.” He smiles at Jake but Jake stays looking at the paper. Carl says, “My dad never let me have one. And I’m too old and arthritic to care for one now. But I like dogs, sure. You can sign me up for this.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jake says. He breathes a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
“But I’ll need my reading glasses. Can’t sign something I can’t see.”
“Come in,” Carl says. “Talk me through this. Tell me about the process.”
Jake shakes his head and backs away. He makes a sound like a laugh, but his cheeks stay tense. “We’re not supposed to go into people’s houses,” he says.
“I’ve got beer,” Carl says. “Netflix. Or we could just sit and talk."
Carl says, “I won’t take much of your time.”
The kid is looking at his paper.
“I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself. My name’s Carl.” He offers Jake his hand and Jake obliges, and his skin is soft and icy but somehow also warm, as warm as a bed recently used. Carl lets go of his hand and feels the warmth give way to the fierce autumnal air as it laps against the mottled skin like waves from the coldest sea. He nods at Jake and feels the urge to thank him. Instead, he says, “You’re a good listener, Jake. I’ve never told anyone about my job as a vacuum salesman.”
“Thanks,” Jake says, looking away.
“Sometimes you need to tell people about the things that have happened to you. Otherwise, you’re in danger of forgetting. Or you start to question whether they even happened at all.”
Jake straightens up. He exhales sharply and his expression becomes one of grim determination. “Look,” he says. “Five pounds a month is the typical donation. You can pay by direct debit. We’ll give you regular updates about where your money is going. You can sponsor a dog of your choice. You can cancel at any time. What do you think?”
“You’ve got a good haircut,” Carl says. “All the kids had their hair like that when I was young. I wish you’d come in.”
Carl watches the kid walk up his drive and back to the street. He peers out at the greying sky. Brown leaves skitter in the breeze, like things discarded. He feels the air against his face. Prickling the skin. He tightens his dressing gown and before he goes back inside, he stares for a moment into the Ring Doorbell, into the cold invisible eye that has been watching.
That night, in bed, he rewatches the recording over and over. He thinks about all the things he should have said. He looks at Jake but also he looks at the old man who stares into the camera. The sagging cheeks, the tired eyes, the white, wispy hair. He wonders how this man could ever have sold vacuum cleaners. Door-to-door. A boy making sales, and conversation.
Eventually he closes his eyes. The recording still plays. It seeps into his dreams.
is a young writer from Purley, Greater London. Currently studying for a PhD in Literary Practice at the University of Warwick. An avid reader and writer of short fiction, particularly influenced by the works of Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, and a host of others.