Successful people have successful thoughts. That’s from page one of The Dream Machine rep’s handbook. I repeat this mantra in the mirror as I finish tying my Windsor. No one else at the office uses them. They’re all quick slips and clip on ties. Unreliable. Reflects poorly on the product. Mine takes longer, but is a solid knot to hang from and customers need those details. Tells them the machine follows through at preventing assailants from preying on their family. I follow through. If I didn’t then I wouldn’t have these silver cuff links. The prize for selling the most Dream Machines last October. Forget it’s May; they’re real silver. They have enough value to pawn.
I gather the Dream Machine’s large box and move to the kitchen. My wife, Debbie, reads the want ads while our ten-year-old son, Jimmy, chomps cereal. I lift my lunch bag off the table. It feels light, so I ask, “P.B.N.J?”
“There isn’t anymore lunchmeat.” Debbie says and looks away. In most households this means inconvenience, but for us it’s an barometer of everything else there isn’t anymore of.
“Peanut butter ‘n’ jelly is great, Mom.” Jimmy says wrapping his arms around us. He’s become our glue. “I know you’re gonna sell lots of Dream Machines today, Dad.”
After Jimmy runs off to school, Debbie’s pretty “mom” face fractures into deep worry lines. She regrets staying at home, not finishing college, not having a backup plan, but only says, “Bill, we’re going to lose everything.”
“I’ll break this streak, like before.” I say to my shoes.
From a box underneath the calendar Debbie picks up a pile of collection notices and says, “That stupid machine is going to destroy us!”
“It stops assailants from preying on your family,” I quote the sales pitch without thinking.
Debbie throws the mail at me then runs out of the room crying. Unpaid bills smack and slide down my Windsor. Some land into the sink where scraped clean jars of PBNJ sit. An empty bread bag hangs out of the trashcan. My successful thoughts stumble.
At work, the room is filled with two-dozen salespeople trying to sound casual while reciting a sales pitch script into phones. Mornings are for cold calls, which are any number in the white pages my pencil tip falls on. Everyone’s goal is to set up afternoon appointments and demonstrate the Dream Machine.
My boss calls himself Dick Diamond. He has a speck of glass on a gold front tooth from selling so many Dream Machines. The company had given him the rare gold cuff links, but his Cajun upbringing melted them down to this regional expression of success. Lunchtime, Dick Diamond carries in a bucket of chicken drowned in barbecue sauce, signals for silence and asks, “Anyone hungry?”
PBNJ is cold and thick in my mouth. Dick tells me to stand up. He walks around the room, offers everyone else a pick from the bucket, and then asks, “Does anyone know what kind of animal a salesman is?”
Someone behind me howls.
“Yes! A salesman is a wolf on a hunt!” says Dick reaching into the bucket and walking to the sales grid on the wall. Cells with stars show sales. His drumstick is used to pontificate. “A wolf catches the hunt! A wolf brings the hunt home to the pack and no one goes hungry!” The drumstick stops at an empty row. Red sauce smears by my name, “Bill, you’re not selling, so you’re not…”
Everyone with barbecue stained lips glares at me. I’m holding up their hunt.
I follow through and say, “A wolf?”
“And that makes you a goddamn possum!”
“I’ll sell it,” I say as a statement, but it sounds more like a plea.
“Sell it today or you’re fired,” Dick says walking out of the room, “I don’t need a possum.”
I finish the PBNJ in my car.
I drive to the first address on my sales list and ring the doorbell. I think successful thoughts. I will sell this machine and when the door opens, I explain they’ve won a free shampooing of their house with The Dream Machine.
If the customer has a baby crawling on the carpet, I tailor the pitch. The Dream Machine stops assailants from preying on our families. I attach a paper filter to the Dream Machine and sample a small area of their carpet. The filter becomes swollen with black clumps of pollen, pet dander, and dust mites. I show them a large laminated photo of a magnified dust mite eating dead skin cells.
The customer always snatches their baby off the floor.
I ask if they have any stains they can’t remove. They usually show me something red, like cranberry juice or spaghetti sauce on beige carpeting. I switch on the shampoo attachment; spray the area, and the Dream Machine takes action.
“Well look, where’d the stain go?” I ask.
They ask the price. This is where my dry spell begins: Two grand.
I live at the bottom of the Louisiana food chain. We work in casinos, oil refineries, or chemical factories. Everyone is living from PBNJ to PBNJ.
However, I am not a possum.
I vacuum their mattresses to show them the toxic molds they sleep in. They say no. I put on the extension wands and suck spider webs out of hard to reach places. They say no. I convert the vacuum into a leaf blower and clear refuse from their rain gutters. They say no. Dick Diamond phones to drop the price again and again. No. The price ends at nine hundred dollars, meaning both my Boss and I won’t get anything but a star on the sales chart. No. Every month the sales channels offer a free trip for anyone that brings in fifteen stars. No.
I get in five “No’s” before dusk.
My cold calls have sent me onto the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. This is middle of nowhere swamps. Finally there’s a gas station. It has a bar attached. A pasta strainer is fastened above the entrance. The air stinks of fish and factory belch. I claw coins from dark places in my car for a beer. It’s sick that a beer costs less than a sandwich.
The bar is busy with an after-work crowd from the refineries. It’s coon-ass-ville: warped wooden floors, frayed seats, an alligator head near a crucifix, and no free snacks on the bar. No one talks. Their thoughts are like mine; drink to ignore the panic that comes from creditor calls and repo threats. There’s a stool at the far end beside an old man with a face like an albino raisin. He balances himself between a cane and the lip of the counter.
A draft is in my budget. I use my phone quickly, uncertain when they’ll cut service off for nonpayment. Three calls just ring and one hangs up twice.
“You look like you just lost your best friend in the whole world,” says the old man and prop his chin on the cane’s handle.
“If you call a paycheck a best friend,” I say putting away my phone.
“Then what are you doing out here?” He says smiling. “With a tie like that, either your car broke down or you’re a door-to-door dancer?”
I take a sip of my flat draft and say, “The second one.”
He drums his lips with a finger for a minute and then asks,“Do you know why there’s a colander out there above the door?”
“It’s for the Cajun werewolf; Loup-garous,” He says. “The Loup-garous has to count all the colander’s holes before it can enter.”
He shakes his head and says, “Ask anyone here.”
“What happens when the countings done?”
“Usually, by then the sun’s up and they’re human again. It’s easier to shoot them when they’re human,” He says shrugging, “Otherwise throw a frog at them. Frogs make them explode for some reason.”
A laugh leaps from my gut. It’s the first one in months and for a second, I get that feeling everything going to be okay, but the bar looks on. Suspicious faces. A pack of misery that devours hope. I think of Debbie, Jimmy, and empty lunch bags. I slump down and say, “Thanks, I’ll remember that.”
“So unless you’re selling colanders, I don’t think you’d have a good reception out here.”
I notice his clothes are casual expensive and ask, “Are you a salesman?”
“Not door-to-door. I dabble with old things for auctions,” He says with a sly smile. “There’s lots of old things in these swamps. By profession, I’m an archaeologist. Oil companies can’t drill anywhere without excavating first. It’s a federal law they haven’t been able to get rid of. My business squares off so many feet, hire students to dig up artifacts, and I assess if the location has a significant historical value. This determines if the oil companies can drill there.”
“You ever stop them from digging anywhere?”
His face changes so fast I feel like I slapped him. The bottom of the cane touches his right foot while his voice full of a heaviness says, “Once, but the findings didn’t suggest it was a good place to drill.” The cane makes a thump against the floor. “I mean, for historical reasons of course.”
With caution I ask, “Where do you sell artifacts?”
“There’s no money in museum. Better to go with private collectors,” He says offering his hand, “My name is Milton. Milton Throckmorton.”
We shake, “Bill Maxwell, Dream Machine representative.”
“That sounds wonderful. What is it?”
I’m careful not to give him a pitch. When salesmen meet, they know the pitch is bullshit. I talk about technical details and what I’ve seen the product do. The more calmly I speak, the more excited Milton becomes.
“I have a problem,” He says. “I have a rather big dog, an Irish Wolfhound. Ever see one? Loves to hunt, but brings his catch inside. Ruins the carpet.”
“Is this your Loup-garous?” I ask. There are too many wolf references today.
“Wolfhounds hunt wolves.” He says and shrugs. “Bring a frog if you want. I’m old and need a large dog for security. Your machine might be a solution to cleaning up after my dog. If you have time, perhaps you could show me it in action? Maybe you can go home without it.”
Outside, it’s dark. Milton starts his red MGB. My car has never look more beat up. Milton floors it. I chase. The winding road leads deeper into forever swampland, but eventually a train of ground lights appear. These end at a large security gate. We slow to a stop. Out his window Milton waves a remote. The massive iron door opens to a painfully manicured lawn and a giant plantation house. The front porch has columns too wide to hug.
Scarlet O’Hara, eat your heart out.
As I get The Dream Machine out of my trunk, Milton excitedly talks about his houses’ renovation project, how the details matter more than the whole. “Like this stain in my study; nutria blood. Ruins the feeling of the whole house.”
The house is a museum. Milton passionately points out ancient treasures: Spanish coins, pirate’s swords, a Capuchin Friar’s bible, and Arcadian dueling pistols. “These are just a few things I’ve acquired. I also have warehouses.”
Milton leads me into a study with double doors to a patio. Thick books fill the shelves. On the wall is our state’s topical map dotted with thumbtacks for digs and finds. Below it is a slanted top desk with a laptop displaying a Japanese auction website. Across the room, a black ceramic mug with two handles sits on an end table beside a leather sofa. On the white carpet is a dark red football-sized stain.
“This is called a tyg. It’s a seventeenth century beer mug.” Milton picks up the mug, “The second handle is for passing it on.” He hands it to me and then stabs the stain with his cane. “I’ve made my cleaning woman cry over this damn spot. Skip the song and dance, show me what you can do, and I’ll get us some wine.”
I gently place the tyg back on the end table. I set up The Dream Machine; plug in the cable, attach the shampoo piece, pour the cleaner, and saturate the spot. The machine creeps over the shiny reflective bubbles and pulls on the edges of the stain. It’s possible the stain is set, that the cards are against me, but I have a chance. I have the Dream Machine.
The stain goes from red to pink, slowly lifting. I give it another shampoo treatment and pay attention to the details like he said.
Nutria is the rabbit’s ugly cousin. They have big buckteeth, grow to about knee high, and have long rat-tails. Poor people train them to charge salesmen.
The stain is gone.
I’m dizzy. I’m loopy. I’ve won. I’m imagining the smile on Debbies face and Jimmy’s high-five. I’ve got to close this deal. I follow through. I run the Dream Machine over the rest of the room and under the couch. There is an ugly clicking sound from something the silver-plated motor has sucked in.
I turn off the machine, drop to my knees, and pop open the motor. Inside is a hard white piece no larger then a fingertip.
“What do you have there?” Milton holds two wine glasses.
“The machine found this…” I say terrified I’ve destroyed a dinosaur bone.
“Take this,” He says exchanging a glass for my find.
Milton turns it over carefully. “Do you know what this is?”
Sweat dots my upper lip as I say, “Nutria tooth?”
“Why yes,” He says pocketing the damn thing and offers a toast.
We clink glasses. I watch Milton drain his in one swallow. I copy him. The wine is smooth. Milton moves to his desk, sits down, leans to the side, and disappears from view. I hear a lock spin and a metal door open. Milton sits back up and asks for the price.
I lower my eyes and answer.
“I see,” He says and touches his fingertips together. “You do take cash?”
I can’t hide my smile and feel dizzy. The room blurs. My legs are numb. I try to steady myself with the Dream Machine’s handle.
Milton stands, concern on his face and asks, “Bill, are you okay?”
“No,” I say falling on my back.
Milton opens the double doors to a dark patio and says, “Good.”
I am paralyzed. Indigo spots swim before my eyes almost covering a full moon over the backyard. I go blind and hear Milton hobble away until his footsteps are lost in crickets and cicadas songs.
I blew the sale.
The insects become silent. A panting starts. It gets closer and louder. The room feels hotter. An incredible pressure builds against my skull with each pant, like my brain will squirt out my nose.
My eyes open slowly and focus on a large grey dog sniffing The Dream Machine. Green snot trails from its nose over the chrome finish. Large doesn’t define the animal’s size; hulking comes closer. It has shaggy matted hair and rows of sharp yellow teeth with strings of drool.
Milton’s dog notices me. It growls like a revving diesel truck.
I am a possum. Possums play dead and get left alone. This beast wants to hunt. It wants to chase something that’s alive. If I flinch it will pounce and rip open my throat. If I blink I will never see my beautiful wife or child again.
A big furry front paw rises and lands next to my face. It sinks deeply into the carpet and black nails graze my cheek. I stare past it ignoring how my dry eyes feel like cigarette cherries are being slowly ground down into them. Milton’s Dog steps awkwardly over me. One of its back legs hops to keep balance.
Its’ breath stinks of dead foul things. My stomach turns sour. I’m going to puke. I feel it rising up my throat when a cold wet nose presses against the Windsor. The weight shoves the solid knot to hang from against my throat. My windpipe threatens to collapse.
I am a possum.
It sits back and howls. The windows seem ready to shatter.
I am a possum.
Milton’s dog whines disappointed, steps over me, and pisses on my chest.
I am a marked possum fire hydrant.
Milton’s dog slowly pads out the patio doors.
There is no such thing as Loup-garous.
The full moon turns the dog’s gray hair silver before it struts into the night. I must get out. Forget the machine. If Milton wants it that badly, he can keep it. Dick Diamond can come pick it up and get eaten. I’ll never go door-to-door again.
Slowly I stand and stare out the open back doors. There’s nothing but the moon. I step to the left, trip on the Dream Machine’s cable, and crash into the end table. The tyg slides over the edge. Suddenly, there is so much damn noise.
Milton’s dog bolts in. My leg is in its mouth. Its teeth dig down. Its head shakes, trying to rip my ankle off. I’m reaching for anything to stop it. The Dream Machine rises up and I smash it down on that damn dog’s head. I follow through smashing again and again. The gray hair turns red. My ankle is ready to snap like a toothpick, but the Dream Machine stops assailants from preying on our families.
Milton’s dog collapses.
Yellow mist rises from fur with a rotten-egg stench. Smoke chugs out of the beast’s mouth and I get the hell away. The dog deflates. Its hair singes like Fourth of July sparklers. My eyes sting so I wave madly at the smoke. It parts and I can see the side of the dog’s broken face with a human eye. I swear it sees me, winks, but then the awful yellow smoke covers it up.
When the smoke finally clears, there’s a really bad stain on the carpet.
I’m feverish. My leg looks like ground meat with yellow puss. I’m going to puke and I don’t know why it matters, but I don’t want to throw up on any of the museum stuff. I don’t know why I’m not sprinting out of the house. I barely make it to a wastebasket behind the desk before everything inside me rips out of my mouth. I puke and puke and puke.
I’ve let my family down.
With what remains of my suit, I wipe up tears and snot strings. I hate successful people with successful thoughts. I probably have rabies. I have no insurance. I check on my leg.
There is no wound.
I sit there staring at my ripped pants and intact leg. I piece together a story. I tripped and hit my head on the end table. The dog came to eat me, Milton got in the way, and I used the Dream Machine to kill them both.
There is no such thing as a loup-garous, so the words ‘murderer’ and ‘self-defense’ jockey for first place.
Then I see something behind the desk. There’s an open safe with enough money for five machines. The house is empty. The MGB is parked outside. The Dream Machine erases the evidence that anyone was ever here tonight.
No more PBNJ ever again.
Milton’s Dream Machine doesn’t have a scratch on it. I throw it off the Huey P. Long Bridge and watch the heavy vacuum sink out of sight.
I’ve watched enough movies to know I have to keep quiet. Details matter. Follow through.
The day after Milton’s dog, I call Dick Diamond’s answering machine, tell him I sold it, but I’ll be in late. I seal stacks of hundred dollar bills in plastic wrap. I tuck them under the attic’s insulation, because it floods here. I take a full wallet to the casinos. I buy lots of chips, sit at a table and lose. If I win, I tip it to the staff. After an hour I cash out into twenty-dollar bills. No one at the supermarket inspects the serial numbers on a twenty.
Dick is crazy for the sales’ paperwork. I tell him I sold it to a crack house. He loves selling to dealers because they pay cash and there’s no sales tax. He slaps me on the back, calls me a wolf and puts a silver star on the sales chart.
I read the news every day. There’s no mention of a Throckmorton murder or obituary. I think successful thoughts. I channel the worry into sales. Almost every day I sell a machine. It’s a simple game of deciding whose family is going to eat tonight and nothing is going to make mine go without ever again. Price doesn’t matter; there are financing plans. I am a wolf on the hunt and catch the sale. Stars go up on the board. The boss puts a bucket of barbeque chicken on my desk and tells me not to share it with anyone. The other salespeople turn away, hiding their hungry faces, and quickly dial cold calls.
I savor the new smoothness in Debbie’s face.
On the calendar in the kitchen, I mark off paid bills and see symbols for the cycles of the moon. Today’s date is marked with a white circle in a black outline. At the table, Debbie asks Jimmy about a girl at school. He blushes brightly. My stomach drops and I think they are in danger.
Maybe, Milton’s dog followed me home.
Even though there is no such thing as a Loup-garous.
I say I have a late sales call. Debbie complains, but kisses me for luck.
At a cheap hotel two hours from home I nail eight strainers throughout the room. From the pet store, I take the top off a slotted box. A frog hops into the bathroom and takes up a spot under the toilet. I sit on the bed in my underwear, sweating, no a/c, and hold a colander by both handles.
I must look like a complete idiot.
Counting holes is hard work. I keep losing my place and have to start over. Hours pass. Nothing happens. I get bored and turn on the television. “Braveheart” is on. I love that movie, except the end. When it’s over, the clock says four. It’s same time I left Milton’s house. I collect the frog and put it against my temple like a loaded gun. Nothing happens.
See, there is no such thing as a Loup-garous.
The frog gets released into the wild and I check out. The clerk bumps his Bloody Mary. It spills on the carpet. He complains that inheriting a chain of seedy hotels is depressing. They’re all filthy and stained buildings he wants to convert to business class. If there were just something that could help, he’d buy it in a heartbeat.
I close a deal with a chain of hotels. I win the trip. It’s an all-expenses-paid vacation for my family to Disney World. So what if it’s really a sales meeting.
We arrive at the dense and sweaty Orlando Airport, then get whisked to the Mouse compound. Our room is in the Caribbean area, not posh, but still lovely. You know something good is happening when you can leave your shaving hairs in the bathroom sink and someone else cleans it.
The meeting is at Epcot. Debbie and Jimmy love it. They hit the rides. I get face time with the Dream Machine’s Inventor and CEO, Roffe Grandholm. He’s a buff Swedish immigrant that carries himself like a Viking God of Vacuums. “I owe my success to two things. The first is my nationality. Swedes insist on very neat orderly houses.”
“Like IKEA?” I ask.
“Exactly; boxes that neatly fit into other boxes.” Roffe Grandholm laugh sounds like thunder. He shakes my hand and inspects my new gold Dream Machine cufflinks. “The second is successful thoughts. I see you have them too.”
I attribute these solely to his machine and feel dirty, like I just gave him a hand job. He smiles pleased.
At dinner that night, marketing pages me. They feel the hotel chain is a hot topic and want to use me as a success story. Arrangements have been made for a photo of me with the Inventor and a Dream Machine at The World Showcase Lagoon. There, eleven different countries are represented as restaurants around a 41-acre lake.
And all you have to do to be here is kill someone and his pet. While the photographer sets up, I try to convince myself the hotel chain got me here. It doesn’t work. Floating on the big silver Epcot golf ball is that dog’s human eye.
It finds me and winks.
The Illuminations light show starts. A recorded female announcer is pleased to present an international fantasy of music and light. The Floridian sky is filled with fireworks. From behind the marketing pack, Debbie and Jimmy wave to me. The Flight of the Bumblebee symphony, with its seizure sounds blasts over the water. Lights flare on and off at the different countries. Machine-made smoke from the surrounding shore crawls across the lagoon’s surface and meets in the center. There, a giant metal ball lights up with the names of each country.
The photographer calls me over.
“Clear sky tonight,” Roffe Grandholm says as someone uses a lint brush on him.
“Good for the fireworks.” I say finishing my Windsor.
“I wonder where the moon is?” Roffe Grandholm cranes his neck around. “It’s supposed to be a full moon tonight. Maybe Disney doesn’t own it yet.”
“The full moon was two weeks ago. I saw it on my calendar.”
“No, that was the new moon,” he says pulling out his cuffs. His gold cufflinks show. “Most calendars mark both phases.”
I’m beginning to sweat. I don’t need to. There is no such thing as a…
“Say, cheese.” Roffe Grandholm suggests.
I crack a smile and it feels like a nail shoves through one of my top teeth. I stand there, shaking the hand of Roffe Grandholm with a Dream Machine between us, and have a pain so intense my legs are buckling. I grab my face. Roffe Grandholm looks concerned. I reach between my lips. My eyetooth gashes my finger.
The photographer gets huffy having missed his shot and then goes white. He drops the camera. The lens cracks against the asphalt. Blood spills out of my mouth as more teeth push down. From behind the Epcot ball peeks a full moon.
Debbie covers Jimmy’s eyes. She can’t scream. I cover my mouth with a furry hand. Someone pulls Roffe Grandholm away. People collide. Parents grab kids. Sandals stomp pink cotton candy. An old woman makes the sign of the cross.
My family is frozen on the sidelines.
I tell them it’s only a phase. It will pass. As long as they chain me up once a month, make me count holes; we can still be a family.
My explanation comes out as a piercing roar that flattens the hairs on their heads.
Time is running out. They don’t know about strainers. There are no frogs available. The only thing between my family and a monster is a Dream Machine.
It stops assailants from preying on your family.
I am not a possum. Milton can’t have them. I’m not going to be a tyg and pass this on. I grab the Dream Machine and leap with powerful hind legs at the water. The bumblebee music shrieks. I splash into the deep lagoon filled with hundreds of lighting fixtures on miles of rollercoaster tracks.
Milton’s dog wants out. It hates water. It knows I can’t swim.
I tie the Dream Machine’s power cable to the nearest light fixture. A chain is pulled on a track toward the center of the lagoon. No time for a Windsor. I loop the slack many times around my hairy neck. Dogs need leashes. The cable tightens. I’m dragged away from the shore on a noose while the Dream Machine trails along behind.
Milton’s dog struggles and breaks the surface howling, but I’m yanked back under. The Dream Machine is caught in a cross shaped piece of track. The light fixture moves forward while the trapped Dream Machine pulls back. The cord between them closes tightly on my throat. My family is safe. I think successful thoughts. I follow through.