Note: Certain critics among our “journalistic peers,” so-called, have impugned the integrity of The /dev/null Staff with accusations of “unprofessional and unsavory tactics” pertaining to the reconstruction of this particular sequence during The Plantman’s ordeal on earth. The Staff did hire a professional hypnotist to delve into this part of The Plantman’s past prior to The University and his subsequent employment at Coolman Associates Advertising Agency. But the subject was not coerced in any way, and willingly submitted to this particular technique in order to recover certain (dare I say call them what they are?) facts that he could not otherwise consciously recall. This is, after all, a recollection of first love in the bloom of first youth. Such memories are inevitably fraught with painful recognitions, but The Plantman was eager to assist The Staff in their research, for his commitment to the whole truth and nothing but the truth was as firm and exacting as our own. Indeed, let those of our Big Media “colleagues” who would cavil about “ethics” and “journalistic integrity” from the climate-controlled sanctity of their glass towers cast the first stones. Should any doubts be cast upon the scruples of The /dev/null Staff in its research, I will take full responsibility to answer any criticism with all the righteous indignation that is in my power to summon. It is but a short step from “Salesman” to “Ad-man,” but a very great leap from innocence to shame, and the fall is steep and hard indeed. The Salesman, c’est Plantman. That is all ye know on this earth, that is all ye need to know.
Up in the warehouse of the Novelty Factory, The Salesman, wearing a mask of fame, gagged Rena with a plum. Rena almost-woman million-dollar T&A and not a scent. Sterile darkness of her mouth, his own reflection in her eyes. The Salesman yanked a mask from the “throwaway box” and stretched this false face over his own.
He said, “I’ll sell you The Nation. I’ll sell you to The Nation.”
Rena lay spread-eagle on a crate of rubber scalps. Her crotch, tufted with genuine human pubes, oozed Tasty Gel. The Salesman didn’t dare unzip his fly. What had he been thinking?
“The Manufacturer took me under his wing and I smelled what frailties grew there,” said The Salesman. “And anyway, who is he compared to Papa?”
So in the weird lighting of the warehouse he deflated Rena, folded her, and stuffed her into his old school knapsack. He threw the plum across the warehouse where it would rot among crates of false mustaches and plastic thumbs. He went to see The Manufacturer.
The Salesman sold novelties by phone. He spoke to the people of The Nation. He sent them catalogs. He made them aware of choices. He schmoozed them and felt them out to see what might interest them. All the salesmen at the Novelty Factory received lists of names from market research firms. Once your name is on a list, anyone can call, even The Salesman.
The Manufacturer was a genuine success. He started out at seventeen with a portable souvenir stand at a dying amusement park and now he owned the largest, most profitable novelty factory in The Nation.
Once, The Salesman believed in The Manufacturer. He looked to him for guidance. He believed The Manufacturer was, in his way, a great man. This belief had given him confidence to succeed.
“You are my chosen one, my greatest salesman, the brightest star at the Novelty Factory,” The Manufacturer had told him, and consequently, it was so.
The Manufacturer sat at his desk. His Son sat on a swivel chair before him. The Salesman entered without knocking, but neither man looked up from his drink. The Manufacturer drank brandy and The Son sipped beer. The Manufacturer fiddled nervously with the hand-carved wooden bison with an arrow jutting from its side — or perhaps it was a bull with a sword in him, The Salesman could never tell — that served as a paper-weight for important documents. Beside the bull/bison was a square black box just large enough to contain recipe cards or a dead bird.
The Manufacturer appeared subdued as he only appeared in his office behind closed doors, when The Salesman came to see him. He looked glum.
“You’re too thin,” The Manufacturer said to his Son.
The Son’s clothes were indeed too large for his gaunt frame.
“You feed me,” said The Son. “How could I be thin?”
The Manufacturer opened his desk drawer and pulled out two Double-Corona cigars. He handed one to The Son.
“Are these gonna explode?” sneered The Son.
“They’re not from The Factory,” The Manufacturer replied. “They’re from a reputable tobacconist in The City.”
The Salesman eyed The Son and wished that he too were smoking. He imagined himself savoring the cream of the cigar, the final third, at which point his saliva will have insinuated itself into the leaf and each damp draw rich with the cobalt ether of himself.
The Son said, “When they laid out my mother in the funeral home, half of her face was fat. She looked absurd. Yet you insisted on an open coffin.”
“My wife died while undergoing liposuction,” The Manufacturer said aloud, obviously for the benefit of The Salesman, though he still did not formally acknowledge him.
“A standard jowl-reduction with state-of-the-art instruments and the most advanced surgical techniques. Who could have foreseen… ?”
“With all the money you’d spent on doctors, morticians and whoever else, all the technology,” The Son accused. “You would think that someone, someone would have allowed my mother the dignity of symmetry at her own damn funeral.”
“So, you’re all ready for college. My how time flies,” The Manufacturer said.
“An open coffin,” The Son spat. “Big Daddy and his Castle of Jokes.”
“Novelties keep people sane,” said The Manufacturer. “The people need new, amusing things. We keep the people hopeful through the shocks and disappointments of their lives. We enter by proxy the bedrooms and living rooms of The Nation. We bring laughter, even ecstasy to the dreary moments of the people. We bring comfort to the lonely and confidence to men who wouldn’t or couldn’t appear at parties and social gatherings without a joke of some kind, something to capture the center of attention while at the same time diverting that attention from the spectacle of their miserable selves.”
The Novelty factory supplied such people with a lifetime of jokes, gags, curiosities and intimate gadgets for the jaded, the restless and the sexually adventurous: the 20-inch black mambo; the Velvet Vulva; the Tan ’n Tasty; the Erotic Skull; gels, creams, ointments and mechanical girls.
“I worked hard all my life,” The Manufacturer said.
The Son did not disagree.
“I worked hard so that you should never work hard. So you could go off to The University and pursue pure talk. That’s what you were meant to do, The Son of privilege. Go off to The University and talk.”
The Son protested, but The Manufacturer continued.
“You don’t understand. This is what I want for you. Refine yourself. One manufacturer in the family is enough for generations. Go off to The Academy and fill your head with words.”
The Son left, slamming the door behind him.
The Manufacturer raised his glass in a toast to The Salesman and said, “I was waiting for someone. Who better than a great hero of The Nation? I salute you.”
The Salesman had forgotten to remove his disguise. He still wore the face of a great and famous man. In one deft motion, like a matador maneuvering his cape, The Manufacturer unmasked him.
“So it’s the sad young man who haunts the factory. Is this the secret of his success?” The Manufacturer held the mask aloft. “Does he impersonate our National Heroes over the phone?”
“There are no secrets, nor is there success,” said The Salesman.
The Manufacturer pointed to Rena’s shriveled leg, which hung over the lip of the knapsack like a botched embalming. The Salesman had stuffed her away improperly in his haste. The Manufacturer laughed deeply.
“No success,” The Salesman repeated. “No sales this week. Not one. My numbers have been steadily declining.”
The Manufacturer waved him away.
“You are young,” he said. “A prosthetic companion like Rena is for older men who’ve already been broken. You are not yet broken. In fact, I see no reason for you to break at all, if you live right.”
“I’m going to be a father,” The Salesman said. “Yet I can barely pick up the phone, much less sell novelties to The Citizens of The Nation. How will I support Lucretia and the baby? What will become of us?”
He couldn’t concentrate. He wasn’t moving product. His mind whittled the hours into grotesque totems of Lucretia, Papa.
Again The Manufacturer waved The Salesman’s words away and with them the significance of his woes.
“My protégé,” he said, misty-eyed. “My finest.”
In his eyes, The Salesman could do no wrong; his embarrassing slump was not even worth mentioning.
“I’d like to take this bull or buffalo or whatever the hell it is and bash your head in,” The Salesman said.
The Manufacturer nodded. He paused, and nodded again, as if agreeing with whatever The Salesman hadn’t yet dared imply.
“I have despaired. I too have experienced disappointments in my life.”
He removed the black box from his desk and placed it on the glass table before The Salesman. He opened the box. Pasted to the ceiling of the lid was a stage view of a theater scene depicting rows and rows of audience ascending to infinity. The box emitted cheers, whoops, whistles and applause. When The Manufacturer toggled a switch on the side of the box, the applause turned to supportive laughter.
Years ago, The Manufacturer invented this device to take him through the nightmare days and sleepless nights.
“I kept it on my night table. It helped me sleep,” he said. “I’m going to share this with the world.”
The Factory was in the process of mass-producing the boxes for The Nation. The Manufacturer expected the “Li’l Box of Love,” as it was called, to yield millions.
“Now every hard-working Citizen will have his audience. You’ll sell these to The Nation, you, my best and brightest salesman.”
The Salesman left the Novelty Factory bearing the Li’l Box of Love as a gift for Lucretia
Papa owned the largest cosmetics company in Europe. Lucretia wore his top-of-the-line unisex cologne, Earn, the ultimate in olfactory technology. It stirred the molecules of the individual wearer, bringing out the fullest scent potential of his DNA. It was Lucretia’s scent that first attracted The Salesman. The intercourse of Earn with deep-musk estrogen; a blast of pheromones that knocked him for a loop.
“Papa too began as a salesman,” Lucretia had said. “As a teenager he went door-to-door, or in the marketplace with his suitcase full of cheap perfume. He educated himself. He read Demosthenes and Cicero. He learned English and French mingling with tourists; he read Joyce and Proust. They sent him to head the branch in London, then Paris. He worked his way up. He worked like an animal, day by day, year by year. This was everything to him, to rise to the top of the company. Now he is the major shareholder and Chairman of the Board. All the branches report to him. He meets with the most powerful people in the industry. The models, the designers, the advertisers — everyone reports to Papa.”
Papa was everywhere and all-consuming. Lucretia had to cross an ocean to think clearly. Papa owned sprawling estates all over Europe. The blood of his vineyards fermented to world-class wines. He dined with the most powerful people on the planet.
Papa taught Lucretia to fish, ride horses, shoot a gun. She’d hunted, sailed, kicked footballs with her brothers. The eau de cologne she splashed over her smoldering glands belonged to Papa, the czar of olfactory technology. He made people smell the way they should, the way he wanted them to.
The Salesman returned home to find two strange men in his apartment: Allain, the youngest, most hot-tempered of Lucretia’s brothers, and Dr. Spaeiouk (pronounced “speak,” but also “spoke, spake, spike and spook” in various regions of his native land). Dr. Spaeiouk was an older man, a year or two past sixty, dressed impeccably in a suit that might have been fashionable forty years before, which made it all the more appealing. His prominent nose supported gold pince-nez.
Allain wore smart black shoes. His hair slicked black brilliantine, he wore dark glasses. His cologne was Lucretia’s cologne unmitigated by Lucretia: the raw bouquet of Papa. He uttered a string of curses, but realizing The Salesman spoke neither Italian nor French, switched to English, which he pronounced only a little less perfectly than Lucretia.
“Look at him, the bastard. He takes her to live with him in the toilet bowl.”
Disgust distorted his face as he surveyed the studio apartment.
It occurred to The Salesman that speaking another language in addition to the language of The Nation might be a very good thing. He knew no language but the one that formed him, the one he manipulated to sell novelties to his co-linguists throughout The Nation.
Allain looked down at Lucretia, who lay on the bed in unlaced boots.
“She’s in a state. Her eyes are irregular,” Dr. Spaeiouk said. “They’re dull and cloudy. Like semen.”
He and Allain stared accusingly at The Salesman.
Allain went to comfort Lucretia. The siblings communicated in French, Italian, German, as if to mock The Salesman.
Allain caressed Lucretia perhaps too intimately for a brother.
“An abduction would be absurd,” muttered The Salesman.
Dr. Spaeiouk explained that Lucretia had left Europe against his expressed medical advice and Papa’s handwritten command.
“This is a situation,” said The Salesman.
“Yes, precisely,” said Dr. Spaeiouk. “A situation.”
Lucretia had gotten herself into situations before, though none so grave as this one — the Doctor pointed to her swollen belly. There’d been a situation in Paris — something to do with a Swedish fellow on a motorcycle — and that troupe of psychic drag queens in Berlin. Wildness, dissipation —with The Salesman it had been neither, just withering, and futile attempts to dodge the scent of Papa.
Every so often Dr. Spaeiouk would break away from the tedium of explaining things to The Salesman and engage Allain and Lucretia in clever, polyglot discourse. The Salesman grabbed his sleeve.
“Has he contemplated me here in The City, plunging wild-eyed into the furrows of Lucretia, rendering her thick and agonized with child?” asked The Salesman.
“Papa is a busy man,” said Dr. Spaeiouk.
“It was the milk thing that freaked her out. That she who could create intricate, complex paintings must also produce, against her will, a substance of nourishment, a tepid cream,” said The Salesman. “After The Face appeared she stopped painting. She stopped eating, she stopped bathing, she stopped doing. She moped in the apartment, her clothes unwashed, her hair a pungent clot of night.”
“She should never have left Papa’s side. And to come to The Nation of all places. . . .”
“I thought he might send me a token, a flake of his enormous empire, perhaps some toenail shaving of omnipotence,” said The Salesman.
“Such lunatic dreams are born of desperate minds,” said Dr. Spaeiouk.
“I’m drowning in alien sounds,” moaned The Salesman.
“There, there. Now, now,” consoled Dr. Spaeiouk. He placed his hand on The Salesman’s trembling shoulder. “Lucretia and the child will both fare better at home, in the proximity of Papa.”
He motioned to Allain, who led Lucretia from the bed, past The Salesman and Dr. Spaeiouk, and toward the door. The Salesman kissed Lucretia as she passed; her cheek was cold, and dry like wood. Allain dropped a wad of bills, foreign currency, like dirty napkins, to the floor.
Dr. Spaeiouk studied Lucretia’s painting. From a sea of abstract shapes and colors a monstrous face emerged, a gargoyle at the vanishing point — it sucked all light and vigor from the work. It seemed to escape from the bowels of the design, an image born of the very womb of the canvas, bursting the fragile membrane of Lucretia’s colors. She had worked furiously, but was unable to camouflage or erase it. With every layer of paint the face grew more defined.
“You see,” said Dr. Spaeiouk. “She’s been thinking about Papa all this time.”
Dr. Spaeiouk folded a dollar bill, clean currency of The Nation, and pressed it into The Salesman’s pocket.
“You’ve made the smart choice,” he said. “If you’d caused even the slightest bit of confusion, Papa would have squashed you like a bug.”
Alone, The Salesman opened the Li’l Box of Love. He listened to the laughter through the night, until the batteries weakened and the encouraging sounds faded away.
“Papa!” he screamed at the exhausted machine. “Papa…”