Travis Cannell is a graduate of University of California, Santa Barbara, where he studied computer science and worked as a reporter for the school newspaper. Currently, he works for Intuit. He’s been dedicated to studying his craft through weekly workshops and regional conferences/events, and won the “Debt of Honor International Writer’s Workshop: 2018 Award.” When he’s not writing, he’s busy sailing, boating, or flying an airplane.
VACUUMS ON CREDIT, DRUGS FOR CASH
Two songs had just enough time to play before they pulled up to the parking lot of the Creekside Inn. Michael turned off the engine, killing the music and plunging the two into silence. Zach spit and then set Cherries—the truck’s beloved spittoon—on the floor. Neither of them moved. There was a gentle twilight as they sat motionless, not wanting anything to change. But the night and the rest of their summer was coming on and they couldn’t stop it no matter how hard they tried. Michael turned to Zach and nodded his head. They took deep breaths and then took the leap.
The two-story motel was a product of the ’70s, clinging to life with coats of paint. The sign above the lobby read “Creekside Inn” with light blue lettering and a magenta circle. As the two entered, they were hit by a smell: a mix of air freshener and plastic. Behind the counter a young woman sat reading. She glanced up and then back down before folding a corner of the page and closing the book: “How can I help you?”
“We’re looking for K International? They told us—”
“Oh, that’s room 132. Right down the hallway on your left.”
She held out her hand, pointing down a wide hallway. Her eyes locked with Michael for a second as she tried to read him, driven by a curiosity to know what was about to happen in room 132 with the scary man from K International. These so called “interviews” usually involved a lot of cigarettes with that man, Johnny, who described the setup as a “job interview,” but how could this be an interview? And for what? And why didn’t they do it in the office next door? These two kids were barely out of high school. The motel gave the group a special deal for room 132, on account that they didn’t use the bed. She tried to imagine how the interview would take place. Just then the kid in sandals pulled a gob of chew out of his mouth and threw the sticky mess into a tiny cigarette ashtray, finishing off the ordeal with a spit. Her eyes narrowed—this was a problem for the janitor—and then she reopened her book.
“Ha, almost went to the interview with a chaw,” Zach tried to chuckle. Now the door was in view, the number 132 glistening in the bad hallway lighting as their bodies came alert. Michael put up his hand and knocked only once before a voice bellowed from inside—“Come in, the door’s open.”
The room was big, an odd duck size that doesn’t line up or match the others, the kind of room that a hotel owner squeezes into the plans at the last minute. The interview room was wide toward the end with a large desk sitting alongside a window facing out to the parking lot. Behind the desk sat a man in his mid-thirties. He had medium-length, curly black hair that swirled unkempt around his face. His eyes were a serious brown color and wide open as they shot like laser beams at the two boys. His face was small, cheeks a puffy red, and the skin tone uneven. His upper lip hung down like a curtain flapping in a breeze. Michael couldn’t look away as the man put both hands on the table and sucked in the lip curtain so that the flesh folded inward, sucked in well past what should be possible and looked at the two, nodded, and said, “Welcome.”
Michael and Zach froze as the lip curtain slowly peeled back as he pronounced the “W.” The man’s canines stretched the curtain out like two trees supporting a hammock. To the boys’ horror, he continued, “My name’s Johnny.”
His hand shot toward them, and the lip curtain started to rise as he pronounced the “J” and then lifted entirely as his hideous smile revealed a vast nothingness where his four upper incisors had once held the lip and his smile in place. They could see pink divots where the four top front teeth had once connected to his upper jaw. Michael and Zach froze without a breath between them as their heads angled back three inches in unison. For a few seconds nothing changed: two paralyzed adolescents, hands at their sides, eyes staring into the void and Johnny standing tall, his hand outstretched like a statue and his crazed smile still front and center with the hole and pink dots pointed directly at the two young graduates. It was Zach who started forward first with a small flinch and put his hand out like his father had trained him.
“Hello, my name is Zach.”
Their hands met, and then Johnny moved on.
Johnny spoke as he turned around, “So glad you came; we’ve been doing interviews all day, and we’re just barely able to fit the two of you into our schedule.” He motioned for them to sit at the table so that they had to face him. Outside, day had yielded to night.
The room felt small to Michael. Pamphlets and documents were spread out over the table. Cigarette smoke, old and new, enclosed the space. Johnny picked up a stack of pamphlets and straightened them by letting them fall through his hands as they hit the table—tap, tap tap… “Yeah, thanks for coming. We have a great opportunity here, and many folks are taking advantage of it. I can already tell that each of you two have a big ol’ swingin’ pair of balls, and you know why—well, you picked up the phone today and decided to give it a shot! You men will be glad you came. Period. And now I’m going to show you a way to make a pile of money.”
Johnny smacked over the word “money” slow, so that it came out crisp and caused the two applicants to nod to show that, yes sir, they did like money and that they were clever enough to go after it.
“First, let me introduce myself, proper: My name is Johnny Ray Williams and I’ve been working for this company for seven years and it has been good to me. Came from a small town in eastern Washington state and…”
How many teeth was he missing? Michael was trying to count the little pink divots in Johnny’s mouth that popped into view between words. Had to be at least four. Hopefully less than six. And the most disturbing part was that he didn’t try to hide any of the hideousness but thrust the whole thing forward toward him, not in shame but glory… “I’m one of the top representatives in the business in our region and am well on my way to opening my own branch in Kalispell. Right now, though, we’re working out of our Missoula office where we…”
As Johnny’s mouth formed the W in “we,” a tunnel opened with no light at the end, the top of the opening consisting of bright red gums—a dentist’s nightmare—and the teeth that did remain were stained yellow with neglect. “Now I’m a pretty good judge of character, and I’m sensing that you two are smart and willing to do something different. That’s why you are here today. Am I right when I say that you two are the type that seize an opportunity when you see one?”
The candidates glanced at each other before responding automatically: “Yes.” Michael was reminded of childhood summer camps where the kids shouted out “Yes!” to questions during group exercises.
“That’s right—you two know a good thing when you see it! You got to have the gumption to try something new, something where your growth isn’t limited to five bucks a fucking hour. And there’s always a pile of money waiting for people who have the balls to do something different.” They were starting to get more comfortable in their plastic chairs as the sermon started.
However, the words were not Johnny’s. He was adding swagger to the “Kirby Manager Sales Book” that outlined how to interview new recruits in makeshift offices and how to entice and explain, in the nicest way possible, the absolute brutality of what was in store for them. And around the country, at that very instant, thousands of Michaels and Zachs sat in folding plastic chairs listening to calculated pitches about how different, smart, unique, and ballsy they were to embark on a new “groundbreaking scheme.” Johnny’s pitch wasn’t his creation. The words came from a vast corporate enterprise with teams of professional marketers and managers who spent all their time thinking about target audiences, market segments, and response rates. What the recruits couldn’t see were the calculations from on high at the home office that placed them into their plastic chairs and stuck the simple newspaper ad headline into their minds—$2,000 per week!—and freeze-dried it there.
Johnny leaned back a little, speaking with his hands outstretched to both of them—”Now, let’s talk about the company! I bet you have a million questions about K International. That’s just a business name we use here in Missoula, our company is called Kirby, and I have two words for you—Warren Buffett, the Billionaire! Awww hell, that was three or four. Ha! But I betcha you’ve heard of him or seen his picture before. He’s the smartest investor on Wall Street and he’s rich. Have you heard of Warren Buffett?”
The gap shooting out the pitch was finding its place in the hotel room amongst the plastic furniture and musky odor. Zach responded, “My dad talks about him from time to time; they call him the ‘Oracle of Omaha’ or something like that,” and he almost went to spit but then just rubbed his gum where he keeps his chew.
Johnny shook his head in agreement and noticed the gum rub, “Chew if you want; I don’t care.”
He gestured to the garbage can in the corner that took Zach by surprise—“Uh, no fuck it, I mean, ha-ha, no it’s fine. I’m good.” He turned a slight pink from swearing, and Johnny dismissed it all with a wave of his hand.
“No problem, chewing or smoking is fine during the interview. Now!” He put one of the pamphlets on the center of the table.
“Here is a news article. Talks about why Warren Buffett purchased Kirby, the company that’s interviewing you. If you don’t know who Warren Buffett is, ask your dad because he will know. Buffett saw an opportunity to get in on a great company so he bought the whole damn thing! That is how much he believes in the ‘sales model’ and the product. Read all about it later and show your parents.”
Johnny handed them an article photocopied from the Wall Street Journal. The title “Why Warren Buffett is Long Kirby” was spread across the top. The article was fourteen years old and highlighted a few nuggets of information that Buffett had released prior to acquiring the Scott & Fetzer Company, which wholly owned Kirby. Johnny waited to see if one would ask the question.
It was Zach. “So, would we be working for Warren Buffet then?”
Johnny shook his head somewhere between a yes and a no. “You’d be working for me, which is just as good, see! Well, really, what it means is that Warren Buffett bought the company, which is a vote of confidence in the sales model.”
Zach nodded his head like he understood and came back in his power voice: “Now one other thing, did you say there was no wage? How do we get paid?”
Johnny leaned in. “There isn’t an hourly wage. And I’ll get to that, all those specifics about the pay in just a moment. You see, I want to lay it all out for you, and trust me I will, I’m not holding back, so here it is: We sell the best vacuum cleaners money can buy. Period. They are made of metal, so they last a lifetime and then some. They are self-propelled so that when you push them, they move all by themselves. The current model, the Kirby GSix 2000, has a built-in shampoo system.” He clapped his hands and stood up. “The best part is that the only way to get this vacuum is to buy through our ‘independent distributors’ during an ‘in-home demonstration.’ And these things do everything—they basically sell themselves—and you two just need to be there to collect the money!”
They froze again as Michael thought—did he just say, “Vacuum Cleaners”? Michael tried to focus on Johnny’s shifting brown eyes rather than his mouth, but he couldn’t so he turned to look at Zach to read his face before turning back to speak, “Soooooo—wait, what? Could you go over that part again? Did you say, uh, what did you just say?”
“Vacuum cleaners,” Johnny nodded his head.
Zach’s brow furrowed as he looked at Johnny. “Vacuums? Fucking vacuum cleaners?”
“Vacuum cleaners,” Johnny fired back this time without nodding, his hands together, silent, face of stone… Then, slowly, only a slight nod, eyes narrowed, daring them to say yes, to understand. Zach’s eyes almost crossed as he did understand—“Vacuum Cleaners?” Johnny smiled, showed them his pink dots, and repeated with reassurance, “vacuum cleaners” as he slapped his hand down on the table like a rhetorical gunshot.
Michael thought of their family vacuum, a little gray box that he used to curl up next to as a child because it vented heat. OK, so vacuums. He got it. But not all of it. “Wait, did you say something about, um, ‘in-home demonstrations’ or—?”
“You got it! In-home demonstrations.”
Another wide-eyed look was exchanged between the two draftees. Zach broke in—“Do we, so, um, go into…someone’s house?”
“You got it! That would be the ‘in-home’ part. And don’t you worry about it; don’t worry at all.” Johnny waved his hands in front of him. “We give you complete training so that you are very familiar with everything when you run the ‘demo,’ and that’s what we call them in the biz, a demo.”
Zach’s eyes almost uncrossed. “A demo?”
Johnny didn’t skip a beat—“Yes, the in-home demonstration, a demo. We’ve perfected the Kirby demo so that you just follow the script, no problem. Sells itself! You just collect the money.”
Michael’s eyes flashed. “Well, OK, so you do the vacuum demo in someone’s house but do you, I mean, how do you get into their—”
Johnny backed up, off guard, then chuckled—“Oh, how do you get in? How do you get in? What do ya think? You knock on their door and ask!”
The final grenade exploded in the room: All three descended into complete silence, they could hear people talking and a child running while babbling in the hallway outside. The two fearless recruits now had the full weight of this so-called opportunity in their minds. Door to door, in-home demonstrations. Vacuum Cleaners.