Authors: Gerald W. Page
THE YEAR'S BEST HORROR STORIES 7
GERALD W. PAGE
1: Dennis Etchison - The Pitch
The third floor came down to meet him.
As far as he could see, around a swaying branch of sphagnum moss that was wired to one of the brass fire nozzles in the soundproofed ceiling, a gauntlet of piano legs staggered back in a V to the Kitchen Appliance Department like sullen, waiting lines of wooden soldiers. C-Note shuddered, then cursed as the toe guard clipped the rubber soles of his wedgies.
He stepped off the escalator.
He turned in a half-circle, trying to spot an opening.
A saleswoman, brittle with hairspray, dovetailed her hands at her waist and said, "May I help you, sir?"
"No, ma'am," said C-Note. He saw it now. He would have to move down alongside the escalator, looking straight ahead, of course, pivot right and weave a path through the pink and orange rows of the Special Children's Easter Department. There. "I work for the store," he added, already walking.
"Oh," said the saleswoman dubiously. "An employee! And what floor might that be? The, ah, Gourmet Foods on One?"
If it had been a joke, she abandoned her intention at once. He swung around and glared, the little crinkles fanning out from his eyes, deepening into ridges like arrows set to fire on her. Her make-up froze. She took a step back.
A few women were already gathering listlessly near the demonstration platform. Just like chickens waiting to be fed. Ready. All angles and bones.
May I help you, sir?
I'll plump them up, he thought, swinging a heavy arm to the right as he pushed past a pillar. A small ornament made of pipe cleaners and dyed feathers hooked his sleeve. He swung to the left, shaking it off and heading between tables of rough sugar eggs and yellow marshmallow animals.
They looked up, hearing his footsteps. He considered saying a few words now, smoothing their feathers before the kill. But just then a sound pierced the muzak and his face fisted angrily. It was "Chopsticks."
He ducked backstage through the acetate curtain.
"They don't even notice," he wheezed, disgusted.
"Why, here he is," said the pitchman, "right on time." Seated on a gold anodized dining room chair borrowed from the Furniture Department, he was fooling with the microphone wired around his neck and waiting blankly for the next pitch. "All set to knock 'em dead, killer? What don't they notice?"
"They don't notice my hand going in their pocketbooks in about fifteen minutes." C-Note sprawled over the second chair, also upholstered in a grained vinyl imprinted with lime-green daisies.
"Ha ha! Well, you just rest your dogs for now," said the pitchman. He spooled out a length of black plastic tape and began dutifully winding another protective layer around the microphone's coat hanger neckpiece.
C-Note saw that all was in ready: several cartons marked Ace Products, Inc., barricaded either side of the split curtain and behind the pitchman, leaned against two large suitcases, were lumpen bags of potatoes, a pried-open crate of California lettuce and a plastic trash can liner brimming over with bunched celery and the wilted cowlick tops of fat hybrid carrots. C-Note flexed his fingers in preparation, turned one wrist up to check his watch and pulled a white-gloved hand through his lank hair. He was not Worried; it would not fall in his eyes, not now, not so long as he did not have to lean forward on a stool over another scale. Sometimes he had thought they would never end. Up and down, down and up.
"We got fifteen units out there," said the pitchman, "another forty-eight in the box here. I don't think you'll have to touch 'em, though. The locations we do our best is the discount chains. You know."
"Sure," C-Note lied, "I know."
He overlaid the word with a doubtful emphasis. "-They're all snobs, you know?" The pitchman cut the tape and then paused, eyeing him as he pared dirt from under his fingernails with the vegetable knife.
C-Note stared at the man's hands. "You want to be careful," he said.
"Check, kid. You got to slant it just right. But you can sell anything, can't you? You talked me into it. I believe you."
That was what C-Note had told him. He had come up to the platform late yesterday, hung around for a couple of sets and, when the pitchman had scraped off the cutting board for the last time and was about to pack up the rest of the units in the big suitcases and carry them out to the station wagon, he had asked for a job.
You want to buy one? Then don't waste my time.
But C-Note had barged through the curtain with him and picked up a unit, covering one of the kitchen chairs as if it had always been his favorite resting place. As he had done just now. And the pitch. The pitch he auditioned was good, better even than the original mimeo script from Ace. If he pitched as well out there today in front of the marks, the head pitchman just might earn himself a bonus for top weekly sales. Of course, C-Note would never know that. The pitchman had agreed to pay him cash,
right out of my own pocket,
for every sale. And how would C-Note know how much commission to expect? He would not bother to go to the company, not today and not next week, because that would mean W-2s, withholding-less take-home. And the new man looked like he needed every dime he could lay his hands on. His white-gloved hands.
"Here you go," said the pitchman. "I'll hold onto your gloves. Shake out a little talcum powder. That way you won't go droppin' quarters."
"The gloves," said C-Note, "don't come off." And the way he said it told the pitchman that he considered the point neither trivial nor negotiable.
The pitchman watched him bemusedly, as if already seeing juice stains soaking into the white cloth. He stifled a laugh and glanced aside, as though to an audience:
Did you catch that?
"Well, it's two o'clock, pal. I'm goin' up to the cafeteria. Be back in time to catch your act. You can start, uh, on your own, can't-?"
"Take it easy," said C-Note, waiting.
"Don't worry, now. I'm not gonna stick you with no check. Ha ha. Cash!" He patted his hip pocket "Not every demonstrator's that lucky, you know."
"I appreciate it. But I'm not worried about the money."
"Yeah." The pitchman handed him the neck microphone. "Sure." He looked the new man over again as if trying to remember something more to ask him, tell him. "Check," and he left, looking relieved to be leaving and at the same time uneasy about it, a very curious expression.
C-Note left the microphone on the chair and set to work on the units. He had to prepare them and these few minutes would be his only chance. If the pitchman had not volunteered to go to lunch, C-Note would have had to beg off the next demonstration and remain backstage while his boss pitched out front in order to get to them in time. He tightened his gloves and dug his fingertips into the big Ace carton and ripped the cardboard. They did not hurt at all anymore; he was glad of that, in a bitter sort of way.
"… And today only," droned C-Note, "as a special advertising premium from the manufacturer, this pair of stainless steel tongs, guaranteed never to rust, just the thing for picking baby up out of the bathtub…"
He lifted a potato from the cutting board and plunked it ceremoniously into the waste hole. Most of the ladies giggled.
"That's right, they're yours, along with the Everlast glass knife, the Mighty Mite rotary tool, the Lifetime orange juicer
the fruit and vegetable appliance complete with five-year written warranty and two interchangeable surgical steel blades, all for the price of the VariVeger alone.
you all promise to go home and tell your friends and neighbors about us, extend our word-of-mouth. Because you will not find this wonder product on the shelves of your stores, no ma'am, not yet. When you do, next fall sometime, the new, improved VariVeger alone will list for a price of seven dollars and ninety-five cents. That's seven ninety-five for the shredder, chopper and julienne potato maker alone. You all remember how to operate this little miracle, don't you, so that you'll be able to put it to work on your husband's, your boyfriend's, your next door neighbor's husband's dinner just as soon as you get home tonight?"
"Just crowd in close as you can now, 'cause this is the last time I'm going to be demonstrating this amazing…"
"Say, does that thing really work?"
"Three years of kitchen testing…" C-Note saw that it was the head pitchman, watching from the aisle, a sporting smirk on his lips. "Three years of testing by the largest consumer laboratory…"
There was something else.
Distracted, he let his voice roll off for a brief moment, heard the reverberation replaced by the dull din of milling shoppers, the ringing of cash registers and the sound of a piano playing on the other side of the Special Children's Easter Department. He hesitated, his teeth setting and grinding. Why wouldn't she let him stop? He hovered over the soggy cutting board, waiting for the sharp crack of the ruler on the music rest, just missing the knuckles.
A gnarled hand reached up, grasping for a VariVeger. C-Note snapped to.
"Just another minute, ma'am, and I'll be handing out the good-will samples. If you'll just bear with me, I'm sure you'll go away from this store feeling…"
And so on and on. He peeled a potato, set it on the grid of the VariVeger and slammed his hand down on the safety guard handle. Dozens of slim, pallid, finger-like segments appeared underneath. A susurrus of delight swept the crowd.
"No need to hold back-the patented safety grip bar makes sure you won't be serving up finger stew tonight!"
Then he took up the Mighty Mite, needled it into a radish and rotated the blade, holding to the protective finger guard. And a good thing, too: without that tiny ridge of aluminum the blade would continue turning right down through glove, finger and jointed bone. Five seconds later he pulled the radish apart in an accordion spiral.
"Here's just the thing for that mother-in-law you thought you'd never impress!"
Oohs and ahhs. Nothing worked like a non sequitur.
He diced onions, he ripple-cut potato chips, lateral, diagonal and criss-cross, he sliced blood-red tomatoes into inflationary slips-
"This is one way to stretch that food bill to cover the boss, his wife, your in-laws, your husband and all sixteen screaming kids!"
He squeezed gouts of juice from a plastic spout like a magician with a never-empty lotta, he slivered green beans and cross-haired a turnip into a stiff blooming white flower. He shredded lettuce head after head, he riced more potatoes, he Wavy-edged a starchy-smelling mound of French fries, he chopped cabbage, he separated a cucumber into a fleshy green Mobius strip, he purled twists of lemon peel, he segmented a carrot, grated another, then finished by describing the Everlast glass knife, stacking the packages into a protective wall in front of him. You know. You know what he said. And he gave the signal and the money came forth and he moved forty-three unit combinations at a price less than one-half of the fanciful manufacturer's retail, the bills folded between his fingers like Japanese paper water flowers, blooming and growing in the juices as his gloves became green, green as Christmas trees made of dollars.
He scraped the garbage into a hole, mopped his forehead, put away twenty unsold packages, stripped off his plastic apron, unplugged the mike and departed the platform.
Just as he was about to peel the drenched gloves from his hands, the head pitchman appeared at the slit in the curtain.
C-Note left his gloves on.
The pitchman flashed his hand forward, then thought better of it.
"Hell of a salesman," he announced.
"We thank you," said C-Note. "But-"
"Don't let it go to your head, though."
"No, sir. I got-"
"Hell of a salesman. But what the hell was that business with the knife?"
"I sold the knife. 'Long with the rest of the package. Isn't that all right, sir? But if you don't mind, I got to-"
"But you didn't
the knife. What's with that? You afraid you're gonna cut yourself or-"
C-Note's sharp eyes nailed him where he stood.
"If you don't mind, I got to go now." He started for the curtain, head down. "I mean, this gut of mine's startin' to eat itself. If you don't mind. Sir. If you think I earned my lunch."
"Hell yes, you earned it, boy." The pitchman put a foot up on the kitchen chair. His toe brushed the carton, the one with the torn-open top. "Hey, wait a minute."
C-Note drew back the curtain.
"Look, you want your money or don't you?"
C-Note turned back.
"Ha ha." The pitchman unfolded some money. C-Note took it without counting, which made the pitchman stare. "Hell of a salesman," he muttered, smiling crookedly. He watched the heavyset man leave.
"Kid must have to take a hell of a leak," the pitchman said to himself. It was only after he had counted and stacked the limp piles of bills in the money box, counted the units, shaken his head and paced the floor several times, lost in some ambitious vision, that he noticed the torn-up carton. "Hell of a salesman," he said again, shaking his head with pleasure. He poked around inside, counting the reserve. Cutting his finger on something, he drew it back with a grimace and stuck it in his mouth. "Well goddam," he said slowly, patiently, pulling up the crease in his trousers and seating himself before the carton from which, he now realized, unpackaged units had been inexplicably switched, "what in the name of the…"
goddam holy hell do we have here?
he might have said.