I hadn't been back for long. The sticky red dust was still on the jungle boots they let me keep, and I was still allergic to the egregious excess of supermarkets. Seventeen different brands of toilet paper came as a bit of a surprise after the war. Imagine that. In Vietnam they crapped where they stood and got back to work. Back in the world there's quilted, patterned, colored, scented, multi-ply, and, hell, for all I know, reusable.

I'd been away a while and, like the man says, things had changed. Where had all the hippies gone? Why was everybody so up-tight all the time? When did pot get so expensive? What do you mean I don't get to talk to school kids about what happened? This is America?

I was so-recently-returned that I didn't realize I'd never get the war out of my head. Never never never.

But I needed a job, and there weren't any. I don't mean I couldn't find a job. I mean jobs didn't exist. I was living in Santa Barbara, and I needed to wait almost a year to get into a slot at Brooks Institute of Photography. On the G.I. Bill. This would require money. I am not prone to armed robbery, and I had other personal reasons to remain in town, so I got to know the Santa Barbara News-Press real well. Every morning.

One day I answered one of those ads at the bottom. You know the type. It sounded too good to be true. It was.

I found myself in a too-small room with a too-big crowd of pale, over-weight, anxious quiet men. This was way before computers, so these guys weren't nerds. No electronic countermeasure experts here. No entrepreneurial stand-outs. You could call us all losers if you like. You wouldn't get too much disagreement, based on our choice of aftershave. The odd Vet was sprinkled indiscriminately here and there. You can always tell. Yeah. Losers. With a desperate look and smell.

Into the room, like a slick vaudevillian visionary marionette, comes Duh Man! Duh Man! talks a rap-and-a-half about money and how to make it. Desire and how to quench it. Need and how to fulfill it. Success and how to define it. It's the better part of half an hour before we find out we're all recruits for the Kirby Vacuum Cleaner Company, a division of Scott & Fetzer out of Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A.

Jesus Christ. Five years of college, two years in the army, if my father knew how low I'd fallen he'd kill me himself.

Well, like everybody else in the room, what did I have to lose? What-ho, I gave it a go.

Sales. The arterial life-blood of America. Enthusiasm. Its main component. A good product. Well, that goes without saying. The Kirby kicked the Rainbow's ass. It ate Hoovers for lunch. Westinghouse, Electrolux, Regina, Eureka—step aside, boys, you don't do squat. The Kirby Sucks!

Every morning we'd report, like proud draftees in the Red Army, to that little room for our Indoctrination. Our Pep Talk. Our Group Sing. Yeah. We had a Kirby Song Book. And we used it. Daily. In three-part harmony. After all, once you'd memorized "I've been working on the Kirby, all the live-long day," there was always another song: "Sell the Kirby! Sell the Kirby! On the road today...." Oh my god I was miserable. But I couldn't let it show. Not if I was going to successfully unload my Kirby Classic for almost six hundred dollars.

"Six hundred dollars you say?"

Of course! Quality! Construction! Tradition! Innovation! Plus you got the "Handi-Butler," the attachment that set the machine apart, made it truly incomparable. It polished floors. It waxed cars. It sanded. It had grinding wheels for serious metal-work, wire brushes for paint removal. There was a knife sharpener AND— the ne plus ultra in those days—there was a Swedish Massage Attachment. For when all the cleaning, buffing, sharpening, polishing, waxing and vacuuming was done. A little something EXTRA.

We learned AFTER the sale and IF the husband was present (he usually wasn't) to cement our new relationship (and encourage satisfied customer referrals) with the remark "You know, Joe, if you wake up in the middle of the night and Mary's locked herself in the bathroom with the Classic, she's probably not vacuuming the tile, right?" Wink-wink-nudge-nudge.

Why? you may ask yourself. That was the easy part. The commission. We weren't salaried, oh no; Scott & Fetzer, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A. was too canny for that. But the commission on the Classic was three hundred dollars. Cash. And near the end of every cell meeting Pep Talk, newly minted winners would give their testimonials. And one guy, Easy Edward, used to average three machines a day. That was damn-near real money.

Of course, Easy Edward got all the good leads. Yeah. Leads. They'd hand out the leads at the end of the meeting. They had a dozen women in the next room making cold calls, and whenever one of the calls turned hot, yes, I would be interested in a demonstration, well, stand in line, loser. Grab a lead.

Good leads and The Demo were the secret to the whole deal. We'd waltz into Mrs. Average American's home and take 38 minutes of her time. Usually we'd blow her mind, cause we rehearsed The Demo like it was Shakespeare. It was a sight to behold.

My favorite bit was when we'd walk right into the bedroom, throw back the covers of the old playground, and with the Classic in hand-held mode, vacuum their mattress. Yeah. Where they slept. And stuff. What would be…extracted…would be dead skin, a dusty gray unhealthy-looking substance that would embarrass Mrs. Average American into—if not buying at that point— at least really paying attention.

The closer was pretty much when we'd vacuum the living room (which she had already vacuumed, usually) with her machine, and then re-do the carpet with the Kirby. We had a little clip-on "jewel case" that would present the dirt her machine had missed like an accusation. A failure. A shame. Very effective.

I quit the game after three sales—one to a widow on welfare whose little apartment in the barrio was already immaculate, another to my brother-in-law the rocket scientist, who had no use for the Swedish Massage Attachment and therefore cut into my profit margin big time. In retrospect, I think I made a mistake.

The last time, I was impressed with the house, a big Spanish place up in Montecito where the movie stars live. The heavy oak door opened slowly, dramatically, and a maid in uniform ushered me into the living room, which was floored in hand-fired Mexican pavers, with expensive rugs strewn here and there. There was Southwestern art on the off-white walls, and a balcony ran, ringed in wrought-iron, all the way round the room in the Spanish style. It smelled good, real good, in there.

It smelled, in fact, like the lady of the house—definitely not Mrs. Average American— who breezed in like the prom queen who's nailed the CEO early and well and never looked back. She reeked of wealth and, one hesitates to say it, taste. Blonde, tan, built, bejeweled; the question ran through my mind what the hell am I doing here?, but I launched the demo. When we got to the mattress bit (I confess, it was always my favorite part) Andy, short for Andrea, insisted on proceeding me up the stairs to the bedroom. In her casual Southwestern skirt. Slowly. On her beautiful tan Southwestern legs. In her strappy little three hundred dollar heels. Happily. Gigglingly.

"Here it is," she gestured broadly towards the custom-built bed, big enough for a whole Southwestern Family. Of horses. "La plaza de toros," she intoned, insouciant, with the Castillian zee for effect. I did my dead-skin thing, and there was less than usual, which I suppose, looking back, should have tipped me off. But I couldn't get over the sheets, the embroidered bedspread, the pillows, and, again, the smell. She touched me gently, guiding me out of the bedroom onto the balcony. I saw the maid put down a tray of refreshments, down below in the living room. I followed Andy along the balcony, past pictures from her childhood, from college, from her wedding. And there He was. Younger than you'd think. Taller. More handsome. In uniform. A full-dress military wedding, a phalanx of sabres, the whole bit.

I skimmed along behind her, on a tipsy wake of scent. More pictures. Andy alone with a child. Him with buddies. Officer buddies; I'd know them anywhere. On a lark. On a mission. In the wet red mud of 'Nam. Once upon a time.

She led me to the spiral staircase at the other end of the room. Once again, the backlit waltz of possibility, as she clattered down the steps. She smelled like sex, if you want to know the truth. Like flowers smell to bees and birds. Like money smells to men who've got it. She crossed her legs attractively as we sat, downstairs, in the room that felt like a museum to me now. Bloody Marys. Little sandwiches. It was plain to see I'd made the sale.

Small talk. Vietnam acknowledged. She looked at me in a way only a very few people have since then, in a way that told me she knew. She knew.

I turned down the second drink. I was getting too comfortable. I was getting too aroused. The possibilities were too complicated. I made the decision to go get another machine out of the car, which was unusual for me. One of the Kirby deals was, you had to sell the machine you demo'd. It was all part of the process, a goad to make the sale: no replacements. We took great care to keep the tissue paper fresh, the machine shiny and clean. I wanted Andy to have a brand new Kirby. There was something in her eyes that told me I owed her that much.

The heat and light outside brought me back to my senses. I switched boxes and went back in. Andy smiled and handed me a check, and before I could turn away, she kissed me. I kissed her back, cause of the drink and the day and her smell and her Southwestern legs that pressed strong against my thighs.

Lips, tongues, perfume. Hands, arms, necks, tastes. Stay stay stay. Go go go.

I pulled away, finally, knowing myself all too well. There was hurt in her eyes, and doubt and longing and resignation. And as I pocketed the check, and as I got to the door, I happened to glance up to the balcony, past the pictures, in the direction of the bedroom.

There he sat, tall in his wheelchair, dignified and rich. Mr. Above-Average American. Watching. Which was pretty much all he could do.

On Vietnam:


  1. I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
  2. A long time gone
  3. How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
  4. Libber and I go to war
  5. Fate takes a piss
  6. Thanks For the Memory
  7. Back in the Shit
  8. LZ Waterloo
  9. Saturday Night, Numbah Ten


a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
Funeral Detail
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate

Breaking Starch
Combat Infantryman Badge
David Dellinger
Dickey Chapelle
Firebase Mary Ann
Garry Owen
Gloria Emerson
Graves Registration
I Corps
Project 100,000
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?

A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers

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