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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing March 2023
The Life of a Salesman, short story by Arthur Broomfield.
The Life of a Salesman
I don’t want to drag you through a description of the interior of the lobby of the Kilcoole hotel, fascinating though that grand tour could be. Fascinating in the way my mechanic describes the process involved in changing the tyre on my Opel Astra. I could tell you about the door, if that’s what you really want, I picked a seat facing it. I waited there, with none of Joab’s patience, glad though to be in refuge from the November fog. I sat still. The spring that was causing minor torment to my left buttock might rip an incision in my Dunnes Stores chinos, bought for the occasion.
The stains on the cover of the bucket seat – 1970’s vintage – disguised what may have been a floral pattern, a tasteless precursor to the Laura Ashley style, aimed at the nouveau-waged market of that time, when holiday-makers hauled borrowed caravans behind their Morris Minors to Salthill or Tramore for a week in the rain.
The location wasn’t of my choosing. Grassy Muldoon, a wheeler-dealer friend – we shared a common aspiration in getting rich quick from the quick sale – had set up a meeting for me with one of his contacts.
‘He’s some contact, Jonno, got stuff no one can get, at knock down prices too. He’ll put you back on your feet in no time.’
Time dragged. I wished I hadn’t rushed this morning. My boots could have done with polish. The tie with the SAS logo, who dares wins, might not impress a serious business associate.
‘Don’t wear that cap, you’ll look like a chauffeur for Keegans’ hearse,’ Margo, my live-in girlfriend, said, looking up from History of the World Wars that she’d salvaged from propping the door the hen coop.
‘Stay at your books love,’ I said.
‘Try reading one yourself, you won’t be gassed for it’.
Clouds hung over the yard as I stormed out of the cottage. I jumped into my unreliable Astra, parked on the hill that descended to my escape route, the boreen that led to the M7 motorway, hitting one of our two hens in the hurry.
My corn was at me. Fuck this I thought. I relocated to the edge of the seat. The tan boot on my left foot, a remnant of a previous life, in sales to vets and farmers, was proving resilient. My phone rang.
It is Franz. We have the appointment?
Yes. I’ve been waiting far too long. Where are you?
‘I am delaying. Has your lord mayor died?
‘He hasn’t been born.’
‘I’m caught in the funeral procession; can you please wait?
‘I’ll wait. This better be good.’
“I’ll be wearing the black leather trench coat. I walk with the limp foot.”
I put my boot back on, put my ten-blade penknife in my pocket. Too much bother paring my corn. Time dragged so slowly I wondered would it run out. He must be walking, I thought, carrying that stiff leg. Next thing my fucking piles ‘ill start. Coffee might be an idea, though the slop they call coffee here can be guaranteed to induce nausea.
‘Black coffee please,’ I hailed in the direction of two aspiring waitress leaning against the pillar that probably supported the whole hotel. They ignored my summons and continued to chatter, arms folded, heads nodding, oohing and aahing ‘did he’ and ‘he wouldn’t be my type’ responses to what I assumed to be mutual revelations of their love lives.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, louder this time.
‘Patience, patience, can’t you see we’re busy. I’ll be with you in one minute.’ Five or so later ‘he wouldn’t be my type’ marched to my table and assaulted it with a mug of temperate zone liquid, the identity of which was beyond my field of expertise.
I had been trying, between breaks in the clatter of crockery, to earwig on the sales pitch pouring out of the three-pieced chancer to his captives at the table to my left. Two of them, in their late forties, had the drawn faces of women with alcoholic husbands. The third, in his sixties, had the bull head and short back and sides of a retired garda. What looked like the shirt he wore on his last day in uniform was beginning to fray at the collar and cuffs.
‘I represent Seenagog a multi-national company that manufactures glasses. We’re based in Belgium,’ Chancer was saying.
He fed them numbers and projections and ambitions for the Irish market, ‘where you will be key players’.
’It’s the ideal product for the recession.’
They were lapping up his pat like bears at a beehive.
‘It’s an anti-scratch breakthrough,’ he announced. ‘The prototype was created by the Germans in Auschwitz.’
Auschwitz! Memories raced back, flooded my brain with smells and smarting eyes and stinging wounds on my elbows and knees; my mother, as she tried to sooth me with creams that only added to the pain. Even now, forty or so years later, I couldn’t understand what had got into my father’s head.
A good half hour later a figure that fitted Franz’s description of himself struggle through the door. He entered in stages, first a cane of the type carried by the blind, then the body, right shoulder first, body. left arm extended backwards, finally a black leather briefcase.
‘This is the excitement product; it will help the needful and make your money.’ Franz shaped each word like a stone mason with a chisel. He slowly opened the briefcase, carefully removed a shallow, rectangular tray, and without a word laid it on the table before me.
‘What the… what do I do with these?’
Arranged in two rows sat six pairs of false teeth, the top set on the top row. Some had the odd gap between teeth, others had aged to a smokers yellow/ brown.
Franz looked at me as if he were trying to read the small print on a medicine bottle.
‘My father, who worked in the security services in the war, salvaged thousands of them.’
‘War,’ I said. ‘Don’t mention soldiers to me. I know all about them, my grandfather was one. If it was porn or prostitutes, they might buy… but these …not a hope.’
‘No! No! Mr Jonathan! It is for the widow, the old one in the nursing home. The peoples with the pension. It is what they want in the recession. How do you say it, a nicke market?’
It seemed good business, the way Franz put it to me. I’d buy a thousand sets of teeth for a thousand euro and flog them for a tenner each. He went on a bit about politics and his background, but I didn’t want to know. All I know is when I wanted the dole there wasn’t a politician to help me. Politics won’t butter your bread.
‘You’ll need the big number,’ he said, ‘there’ll be the different shapes and sizes of the mouths. The woman’s and the man’s, the undershot, the overshot. There will be many fittings.’
Franz assured me the product was genuine. Dentists and doctors could trace each set, not just to its previous location but to its previous owner whose name, nationality, and religion, had all been stamped on each set. Some sets, he said, were of very expensive material, handmade by the finest craftsmen.
‘Some of these sets belonged to very wealthy persons,’ he said.
‘What’s this B for,’ I said.
‘The B signifies for the Belsen, where my father gathered many sets.’
‘As long as none of them are called Auschwitz, I had a bad experience with that name’.
Franz hadn’t smiled since we met but now his teeth seemed to clench, his eyes squinted. He looked me over like someone waiting for a trapped rat to emerge from a shoebox.
‘No, my father applied for promotion to the Auschwitz but was eliminated. It is no longer the popular name.’
Well, I hadn’t been responsible for his father’s disappointment. Thinking I’d better not upset him, I said.
‘It’s OK now, it was a long time ago. Some kids are too sensitive, I suppose I was one of them, especially my skin. I couldn’t take the sting of that bloody soap.’
‘Soap!’ he said, ‘soap! What soap?’
‘God awful stuff my grandfather brought back from Germany. My dad took some of it. Nearly burnt my face off, got under my nails and up my nose. I’ll never forget the word Auschwitz, branded into it. Still makes my skin crawl.’
We agreed to meet again, me to hand over the money, he the teeth, and shook hands. I hurried to my Astra, keen to tell Margo the news. A rising moon was emerging through the clouds. The Dublin to Cork train hooted as it approached Ballyriddal station, nearby. A succession of cars, four or five maybe, swept into the car park at high speed. Wait till they taste the coffee, I was thinking.
‘Wait till you hear my news!’
Margo was standing in front of the tele, holding her favourite mug, the one adorned with the slogan, All history is bunk, that I gave her for her thirty fifth birthday.
‘Ssshh, will you. I’m listening to the news.’
‘Oh, what’s up? More gas discovered in the Irish Sea?’
Margo aimed the remote at the tele.
‘Strange, I was reading all about the camps this morning.’
‘The tinkers’ camps? ‘
‘No, you asshole, the Nazi camps, will you shut up and listen.’
She raised the volume.
‘Now for more on that breaking news from John Moorecroft, our Ireland correspondent. What’s the latest John?’
It’s about time they mentioned Ireland. I was thinking about all the money I pay for Sky sports, even in the weather forecast we’re ‘the west’ or the ‘southwest’.
‘…he’s a serious war criminal, according to German sources. He’s being detained in Ballyriddal police station. We expect members of the special unit responsible for hunting down ex-Nazis to arrive in town tonight. Meanwhile the hotel is closed to the public till the forensic team has finished its investigation.’
© Dr Arthur Broomfield
Dr Arthur Broomfield is a poet, short story writer and Beckett scholar from Laois, Ireland. His works and interviews have been published in Ireland, The United Kingdom, Serbia, India and the USA. He is current poet laurate for Mountmellick.