When Sami was almost a teenager a salesman came knocking on their door. She spied him trudging in the yard between buildings, scanning windows for the best prospects. No one wanted to open their door to a stranger when the heat shimmered above the pavement and the smog squatted low in the sky.
Bony and wan, he wore his hair in a thinning comb over. Maybe those sad wisps were the reason her mother let him in. Maybe it was because the sun sucked the life right out of him, leaving him bleached and wilting. Whatever her reasons, she welcomed him, and he stumbled across their threshold, pulling a large black wheeled case behind him.
He eyed their sofa when he entered the room. It had been shiny with wear for as long as Sami could remember, the fabric almost translucent in places. A photo in her parents' dresser captured them seated on those threadbare cushions. Her mother wore a flower print dress, and her hair, long and parted down the middle, was like a sleek black curtain. Her father wrapped his arms around her mother and smiled into the camera. Sami had never known her father's affection, and her mother wore her hair much shorter now, bits of white and grey peppered throughout. Only the sofa could convince Sami that those young people were her parents.
The salesman perched on the very edge of the cushions, resting his hands on his knees. His slacks rippled with the sheen of cheap polyester and the edges of his leather loafers were frayed. When he opened the black case he revealed a shining chrome and red machine. Gleaming steel and knobs, plastic hoses and a puffy bag all tumbled onto the living room floor. He hummed as he knelt, connecting hoses, twisting valves, and clipping the bag over the intake.
Her mother turned to her with big eyes, and Sami shrugged. There were no shiny new things in their apartment. Like the sofa, the Hoover that chugged across their carpet pre-dated Sami. She dreaded the sound of its motor grinding to a halt. They'd spend the better part of an hour wrestling with the roller brush, untangling the hair winding like a vise around it.
Once he finished, he sat back on his heels, head tilted, examining his work. His sweaty shirt clung to his chest and beads of perspiration dripped down his forehead. He chattered about the vacuum while her mother got him a glass of water and handed him a paper towel, suggesting he wipe his face. Blushing, he took it and mopped his brow. Then he crumpled the napkin into a ball and shoved it into his pants pocket.
Clearing his throat, he leapt to his feet and turned on the vacuum. He narrated all the machine's functions as he pushed and prodded it across the floor, occasionally pausing to point out its marvels. Sami wondered how he lived and imagined a shabby studio apartment. He ate frozen microwave dinners at a rickety table every night. Television game shows filled his evenings until he nodded off on the couch. His life might be just around the corner from their own.
He expounded upon the years of dirt hiding in mattresses all across homes in America and offered to demonstrate on their own. Her mother laughed and shook her head, but he insisted, adamant. Eventually, she relented, smiling at his earnest face. He needed to convert the machine to hand-held operation for the demonstration and knelt on the floor to detach the bag. In his eagerness, he knocked the glass of water over. Apologizing, he pulled the balled-up paper towel out of his pocket to dab at the dampness seeping across the floor.
Years of shuffling feet were written into the matted carpet. The soaked napkin in the man's hand came away covered with a dark residue, and her mother saw it. Her nostrils flared, and her head snapped upright, as though struck. She snatched the paper towel out of his hand and disappeared into the kitchen. When she returned, he opened a cardboard box with the word, "DEMO," scrawled across it. He removed a filter and waved it in front of their faces.
"See how clean and white this is?" They nodded obediently, and he inserted it into a black plastic and glass tube that he attached to the vacuum.
"There we go!" He rose to his feet, gripping a handle on the base of the machine. "Down the hall, right?" He pointed towards the corridor that led to the bedroom. Her mother scrambled to her feet, and he trailed close behind her, impatient. Sami followed.
When her mother opened the door to the bedroom, the salesman pushed past her. He made a beeline straight for the bed, flipped aside the blankets, and ripped the sheet off, revealing the stained, discolored surface of the mattress. Sami felt exposed, as though he stripped them of their clothes and they stood naked before him. She shrank back, squeezing between the dresser and a metal drying rack draped with clothes. He placed the vacuum on the bed and it began rumbling against the mattress.
”What most people don't realize is the amount of dirt and microbes that can build up." He bellowed above the noise of the machine. "You shed pounds of skin in your sleep over the years." Sami imagined flakes of her mother's brown skin swimming in the mattress mingling with her father's pale flecks. She wondered if the salesman vacuumed his own bed every night.
He scooted the machine along the top of the mattress, stepping on the pile of linens. He kicked open a shoebox on the floor, sending flat tins of shoe polish and old socks her father used to burnish his shoes skittering into a corner. Her head began to ache from the stink of rubber and plastic filling the room, overpowering the lavender her mother placed in the drawers.
"Come here!" her mother demanded. Sami shook her head. "Come on, come on." Sami approached reluctantly. Her mother made her look through the tube. The cotton filter looked grey and fuzzy, and Sami recoiled.
Her mother yelled, "Can you believe it? So dirty!" Sami said nothing.
For several more unbearable minutes the man hunched over the bed, brow wrinkled in concentration as he wrestled with the machine. Finally, the thing completed its purge of the mattress and he switched it off. In the sudden quiet, the chaos of the bedroom stood in silent reproach. Blankets and pillows were strewn across the floor, and a brown shoe print muddied the faded pink roses of the bed sheets. The smolder of the setting sun through the window shone like a spotlight on the mottled old mattress.
The man raised the now black circle of fabric in a gesture that reminded Sami of the priest during Sunday Communion. Her mother puckered her face in shame, eyes and lips squeezed tightly against the sight. As though the machine still roared next to him, he shouted, “Look at how much dirt was in your bed!” Pausing to lower his voice, his next words dropped like stones, “Now think about your entire home.“
Her mother shuddered, and Sami tugged on her sleeve, unable to bear another second in the bedroom. For the first time, the salesman noticed her.
"Just a minute, honey. Your mom and I are talking." He turned the corners of his mouth up a little as he said this. Her mother placed a hand on top of her head and looked around, as though seeing the room for the first time.
"We should get out of this room," she said. The salesman made a brisk exit with his machine, the mother and her daughter following more slowly.
He waited for them in the center of their living room. When they walked in he clapped his hands and rubbed them together.
"Let's talk about getting you one of these machines. I'm going to do something very special for you. Because I like you. You're genuine people." He grinned at her mother, who suddenly busied herself with re-arranging pillows on the sofa. Sami could tell she was trying to avoid looking at him. "I can sell you my demo-- this machine here-- for just fifteen hundred dollars. With our special reduced interest rates, that's just eighty dollars a month, for twenty-four months. You can't beat that!" Her mother stiffened, clearly panicking at such an astronomical amount.
"Oh no, no. We can't do that." The man's face stilled.
"It's an unbelievable price. And this interest rate won't last!" Her mother swallowed, casting a furtive glance at the door. Sami moved closer to her mother, leaning the length of her body against her.
"No, no. It's too expensive. We could never afford that."
"Why don’t you talk to your husband?" The man spoke soothingly, as though to an anxious child. Her mother clasped her hands tightly together and muttered,
"No, he would never do it.” The man's shoulders sank.
"Alright." He began packing up his machine. He worked in silence, the jangling of the metal pieces and plastic knobs dropping into the case the only sounds in the room. The whiff of rubber hung on the air as he took apart the base, and Sami covered her nose and mouth with her hand. When he stood up, he handed her mother a card. "In case you change your mind." Her mother smiled hesitantly.
"Thank you for showing us the vacuum." A brusque nod, a mumbled goodbye, and he left, pulling the case behind him. He had an awkward time maneuvering his case through the yard: twice it rolled into the low plantings and he had to bend down and yank it out. Finally, he plodded away under the burnt orange sunset, his shirt still a little sticky, the delicate hairs on his bald head in disarray.
Her mother clucked her tongue.
"What a terrible job! I feel so sorry for that man. To have to do that, in this heat.” Sami said nothing, keeping her relief that he was gone to herself. Her mother stared at the front door a moment, murmuring,
“He seemed lonely, didn't he?"
Sami did not reply, instead heading for her bedroom. Her mother fussed with the damp spot on the floor, until she cried out,
"The box! He left his box!" The cardboard box lay on the floor next to the couch. Her mother picked it up, frowning. "Quick, run and give it to him. You can catch him, if you hurry. Hurry!" Sami slipped on her sandals and grabbed the box, sprinting out of the apartment and through the yard. When she was out of view down the sidewalk she stopped running and opened it. Inside was a clear cellophane packet of cotton filters and the plastic tube. She looked around and saw him further down the street, trundling along with his case.
The nearby traffic was too loud and he was too far away to hear her shout, so she ran after him. She saw him stop at the phone booth next to the gas station on the corner and slowed to a jog. She was unused to exercise and her thrumming pulse filled her ears as she passed some of her neighbors. They parked their cars on their lawns, some of them up on blocks, all of them in various states of disassembly. She panted so loudly that some of the men looked up from underneath the hoods to stare after her, curious.
She drew near the phone booth, chest heaving. He had his back to her, the phone wedged between his right shoulder and ear. The black case, too large to fit inside with him, jammed the door open, and he rested his left hand on the handle.
"Yeah, yeah. I know. I just couldn't make it up the hill." He listened to someone on the other end, and she considered rapping on the glass, when he spoke again. "Chinese, I think. Maybe Filipino. No, they're all Mexican further down the street." He paused, listening. By now, the sun had almost set, and Sami began to shiver in her thin shorts and t-shirt. "Remember those Koreans in the valley? They loved it. Not these people. Too ghetto.”
At his words, a chill sank into her shoulders, spreading down her spine. He continued complaining to the person on the phone and she crept away, clutching the box to her chest. When she could no longer hear him she started jogging. Still tired from her earlier headlong rush, she soon slowed to a walk. By now, the neighbors had closed the hoods to their cars. Two of the men wiped their hands on oily rags and swigged from bottles under the waning light. A plump woman appeared in the doorway of one of the houses.
"Mija, dinner," she called out to a toddler intent on pedaling her Big Wheel the full length of a cement driveway. One of the men wearing grease stained coveralls swept the child up into his arms, and carried her giggling into the house. Sami moved on.
When she reached the apartments, she scanned the street for the salesman one more time. He was just a speck in the distance. She turned back to her home. The grey paint covering the buildings looked like ashes cooling in the dusk. Lights flickered on in some of the apartments, illuminating the forlorn succulents and stunted shrubs. She clenched her fists and set off down the path towards the rear of the buildings. In the parking lot behind the apartments sat rows of cars like so many sleeping beasts. She glanced about, and satisfied that she was alone, walked over to the large metal garbage bins in the back corner. She pulled the tube out of the box and dropped it on the ground. Raising her foot high, she brought it down with a stomp. The tube cracked and snapped, the sound splintering the growing darkness. She lifted her shaking foot and evaluated her work. Part of the tube had split down the middle, but the glass remained intact. She stared at it a moment and then slammed her foot down again and again, reveling in the crunch and the grinding sensation under her heel. When she picked up the mangled tube a satisfying shower of plastic and glass fragments cascaded to the ground. She managed to lift one of the heavy bin lids and tossed everything inside. She let it slam shut, the clang echoing amongst the cars and buildings.
As she walked back through the yard, her foot tingled and the thrill of destruction hummed through her. Soon, however, she noticed the lingering shadows and faltered, remembering a recurrent nightmare. In it, she played amongst the scrubby plants of the yard, her feet unsettling the mulch to reveal candy bar wrappers, cigarette ends, and crumpled take-out menus. Suddenly, huge, bat-like creatures with odd, angular bodies would appear above her. Their immense wings rustled as they flew towards her, and she tried to dash for her apartment. No matter how hard she tried, though, her feet stuck to the ground as if she stood in molasses. When she felt the rush of their wings overhead, she would try to scream, but no sound came out. Then they swooped in, claws out, teeth ready to sink into her flesh. That was when she woke up. After the first couple of nights, she realized they were origami bats, made from black construction paper. This should have made them less frightening, but actually made them all the more uncanny.
When she walked through the door, her mother asked.
"Did you find him?"
"Oh, I'm so glad. I felt bad we couldn't buy his vacuum."
"He's fine, Mommy."
"I suppose." Her father would be home any minute, and the sounds of pots and pans soon filled the apartment as her mother began dinner. Sami peeped out the living room window from behind the curtains, resting her elbows on the chipped sill. A street light crackled to life above their apartment, and she let the curtain fall.
She walked into the kitchen to watch her mother cook. She dropped a scoop of dark red curry paste into the pan. On the counter, grayish pink pork chops rested in a bed of white styrofoam. She tipped them into a different skillet and stirred a pot of green beans bouncing in boiling water. Meat and vegetables sizzled as she added them to the hot curry paste, the vapors prickling Sami's nose and making her eyes water.
The front door slammed, the sound of her father's footsteps preceding him into the kitchen. He was tall, yet already stooped like a much older man. His tissue paper thin skin bulged with blue veins in his hands and on his forehead.
Her father wrinkled his nose and asked, "That's not for me, is it?"
Her mother shook her head. "No, it's for us. I have your pork chops here."
"Good," he said, mock shuddering. "Let me get out of these clothes." He walked down the hallway towards their bedroom. Too late, they remembered the pile of bedding on the floor.
"What is this mess?" he yelled.
Her mother pursed her lips. "Go tell him."
"Why do I have to go tell him?"
"Do you see me here, cooking your dinner? Go tell him, now!"
Sami sulked down the hallway to the bedroom. Her father stood, hands on his hips, scowling.
"What is all this? Who stepped on our sheets?" He pointed at the man's shoe print on the pile of linens.
"The salesman did it."
"The salesman? What salesman? In the bedroom? Why are the sheets on the floor?" When upset, her father's skin turned bright tomato red.
"He was showing us how dirty our bed was. He vacuumed the mattress."
"What the hell..." her father clomped down the hallway to the kitchen. Sami sat down on the bare mattress. The rubber odor persisted, suffocating the lavender.
”What kind of stupid shit is this? Letting a man into our bedroom?"
"He was just selling vacuums. You wouldn’t believe how dirty our mattress was!“
“Did you buy anything?”
“No! But our vacuum always breaks…”
“What the hell am I supposed to do about that? I had to pay the rent five days late. You think we have money to throw away?”
“I don’t know what you’re thinking, letting a strange man in like that. He could have been a serial killer or a rapist.” Her mother's response was inaudible above the clink of dishes and silverware.
"Dinner's ready," announced her mother.
Her father already occupied the living room sofa, eyes glued to the basketball game on the tv. A plate of pork chops and green beans sat on a folding table in front of him. At the kitchen table, her mother set two plates of pork and green bean curry over rice, topped with an egg fried until it had a crispy brown lattice around the edges. With the first bite Sami closed her eyes, savoring the creamy egg yolk and rice mingling with the spicy caramelized meat and vegetables. Her mother beamed and slid a little more pork onto Sami’s plate. The doorbell rang, and they heard the sound of low male voices.
"Well, you can take a look if you want," her father grumbled. Footsteps crossed the threshold and the egg was suddenly rubbery in her mouth. When she swallowed, it felt like rocks in her throat. Her mother moved to stand in the kitchen doorway.
"Hello, again," she said.
"Oh, hi there. Did you find a box? My demonstration box? I think I left it here." Sami's eyes darted towards her mother, who cast a puzzled glance over her shoulder.
"I thought you got it..." her mother's voice trailed off. Sami stared at her cooling dinner. A thin sheen of oil sat on top of the egg.
"I wouldn't be here if I had it." She saw her mother's gaze, and gave her head a short, staccato shake.
"We don't have it," her mother replied over her shoulder, still staring at Sami.
"Are you sure? I didn't go anywhere else after your place."
"I would have noticed."
"Let me check the bedroom. I bet I left it in there."
"Oh, come on now," her father broke in. "This is ridiculous."
“You’ll have to pay for it if I can't find it. I've only got one, and I know this is the last place I used it."
"I don't know what you're trying to pull, but it's not gonna work." Her father scraped the words out, razor thin. She couldn't see his face, but she knew he had the same hunted look he got when the cashier opened the bounced check registry at the store.
"Well, I'll have to call my supervisor. He may consider this a stolen property kind of situation."
Pounding strides, and someone threw open the front door, smacking it into the wall. Her mother retreated backwards into the kitchen.
"Get out." Her father snarled. Her mother glared at her.
"Where is it?" she hissed. Sami opened her mouth, closed it, and held up her hands helplessly.
"You'll be hearing from us," the salesman continued, "maybe the cops, too."
"Are you kidding me?" continued her father, "you think we stole some plastic crap from you?"
"It's proprietary. It will take me weeks to get a replacement from corporate. I use it for all my demos, and I had to pay for it myself."
"I don't really care. Get out of my house." A series of rapid footsteps, and he was gone.
After he left, her father began cursing and her mother whispered, low and urgent to her,
“What happened? Why didn’t you give it to him?”
Sami couldn’t bear to tell her what she heard when she eavesdropped on the salesman, so she said nothing, instead staring at the cold, greasy remains of dinner on her plate.
“Somebody want to tell me what the hell that was about?” her father shouted. Her mother ventured reluctantly into the living room.
“How could you be so stupid?"
"We don't have it! He lost it somewhere."
"You shouldn't have let him in in the first place..."
Sami pushed her plate away, and stood up. The voices went round and round, and she ran out of the kitchen, past the living room. She slipped into the bathroom on the right, locking the door with a quiet snick. She put the lid down on the toilet and sat in the dark. She could hear them railing at each other, so she put her fingers in her ears and sang softly to herself.
When her butt grew sore from sitting too long, she stood up. Their voices still rang through the apartment. You’re lazy and selfish. You don’t love us anymore. How should I feel? Look at what I come home to. Dishes crashed into the sink.
Sami turned on the shower and the water sputtered, spraying her and drumming against an empty shampoo bottle lying in the tub. She peeled off her clothes, and as she began to step into the shower, blood dripped from her foot. Some glass must have slipped into her sandals and cut her when she stomped on the tube. The trickle of blood wound its way across the tub, mingling with gummy soap ends and damp coils of hair spooled around the drain. In the rising water, the clumps of hair gently undulated, like a tangle of black worms. She stepped in and the mucky water crept up over her toes. She closed her eyes and imagined the shower dribbling into the dirty water was rainfall on a silent lake.