An Intellectual Beggar
By Bruce L Cook
Copyright 1999 Bruce L. Cook
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He was from England and he cared for his work. His tin table never moved from the entryway between the supermarket on his left and the gift shop on his right. Shoppers had to confront him in his suspenders and tweed when they entered the foyer. When their eyes graced his table they became the encyclopedia salesman's rightful prey.
He had adorned the table with samples of his wares-an 18-volume set on General Knowledge, an 8-volume set of children's stories, a 24-volume set of the Classics, and a one-volume Complete Works of Shakespeare. The main set cost $350, but a combination with the other volumes was more economical. Therefore he concentrated on selling combinations.
He had only one sample of the encyclopedia, the one with all general knowledge starting with "C", and he was reading a little of it every day. Many hours would pass with nobody looking at his wares, so he studied the volume to expand his knowledge. It was going badly because the print was small and he read every word. Still, by last Friday he had finished through "CE." Now he was well into "CH." Yesterday he had resolved to skip reading all the details when the articles were long. The present article was four pages long, and he wanted to skip this one altogether.
He sensed a man's presence. Boots and thick green coveralls. He had the appearance of a builder. Someone who did outdoor construction. His skin was ruddy from wind and sun.
The salesman looked into the man's clear blue eyes, which moved from the grocery to the table. Now the salesman felt the man's eyes focus on the books. The boots crossed to the table and came to rest.
The salesman leapt to his feet a thousand times in his mind and carefully unfolded his legs from his low wooden chair. He placed the "C" volume on the table, open to the article he was examining two minutes ago.
He watched in fascination as the man's worker hand moved to the volume and traced a thick finger down to the heading for the article the salesman had been reading. The thick finger stopped. The heading was "Christ."
The customer started to read the article. A slow reader, thought the salesman. The finger traced an ancient painting of the Christ Child. Then it stopped and the blue eyes were upon him.
"May I read this?," the man asked.
At this the salesman lost control. He was, after all, a salesman, and his sales were miserable in this month of January. Today his urge to sell had become almost biological since he'd limited his diet to bread and tea for the past four days. This morning he had realized that next time he bought tea, he'd have to go without the little bags. Not that he lacked funds, since he had stored away enough money to bring his wife and son from England. But now he was waiting for sales to improve. If sales were better, he would bring them.
"Yes yes, go ahead, please read!," he urged. He laughed jovially, "You'll find it a good book actually. Of course you need to sort of spot what you like in it. It's rather like trying to locate a good book in a bookstore. I mean, you've got to search about inside to find something that suits your taste actually." He blushed. The man was looking at him. He wished the man would say something. Anything would do.
The customer sighed and took off his crisp straw hat, revealing a short growth of gray wispy hair. His forehead gleamed white where the hat had protected it from the sun. "I find this interesting," he said in almost a whisper.
Encouraged, the salesman blundered on. He walked around behind the customer and placed his hand on the strong shoulder, and then he leaned down to point. "What is your exact interest, actually," he asked. "I mean some people prefer art and some literature or music. And some people, well, they prefer no particular thing, I would guess. What about you? Perhaps you prefer art?"
"No," said the customer, shaking his head
"It's strange, you know," the salesman continued, cutting the man off. "We all have our interests. Why just this morning I was reading an article on caves, or was it cages? Oh bother. I've forgotten the details now, but it was quite a good article. I'm reading the entire volume, actually, although I can't wait to finish so I get on to the Classics. Here look," he continued, pulling The Iliad from the display. "You see? The print is very large and the color of this page is so pleasant."
Reluctantly the customer looked away from the article and tried to read the maze of words in the Classic volume. It lacked paragraphs and looked dull. The words were unfamiliar. So he listened politely as the salesman continued.
"Imaging owning all the Classics for only $150," the salesman urged. "Why, one encyclopedia set alone is worth $350, yet you can have that and the Classics as well for something over $400. I'm not certain how much; let me see how much it will be, actually." He drew a laminated price list from his pocket and pored over the figures with satisfaction. "Ah yes," he said, "the two of them separately would cost $700," but I can give you both for just $495. It's amazing!"
The customer remained still, holding the straw hat in his hand. He gazed at the volumes and waited. He moved his foot back and continued the gaze. Finally he met the salesman's eyes and said, "No, thank you."
"But can't you see?," sputtered the salesman. "See how the Classics are covered in leather with large gold letters. It's very attractive, really. Elegant. It's a compliment to your taste in fine literature and, if you don't mind my saying it, a credit to your knowledge. And the print in the Classics is so large that you will never get lost between the lines, so to speak. Yes, I think it a particularly good set, especially at such a low price."
The customer shifted on his feet. "I'm sorry. No." he said.
"But surely your children need a set of encyclopedias," continued the salesman, unabashed. "Of course you wouldn't deprive them of that? And besides, you never know when you'll need to use these for your own needs. Why, I find myself coming back to them all the time. Just last night I was able to read about Julius Caesar before I saw the movie. Very pleasant doing it that way. Very informative. And when your children grow, well, you'll have the Classics ready for their higher education."
The customer gently set his hand on the salesman's shoulder, saying, "I have a library card."
"But sir!" the salesman countered. "Imagine the convenience. Why, you and the children will use these volumes much more often if you have them in the home. And here," he continued, tearing one of the children's volumes from the table, "just look at these children's books!" He clawed the book open and thrust it at the customer, reading, "Mary had a little lamb and its fleece was white as snow, actually."
The salesman read further quotations from the children's book as the customer settled the straw hat back on his head in preparation for departure. The salesman plunged on, hesitating only when he noticed the man's glance at the outer door. "So," he said with enthusiasm. "Have you decided which of these sets you'd like to buy, sir?" The salesman painted on his best smile.
The customer still looked friendly enough. He winked and leaned close to the salesman, saying, "Why are you trying so hard?"
The salesman looked down. He dropped the children's book onto the encyclopedia. His shoulders drooped. He watched as the customer moved the children's book aside.
"It's not much of a secret," stammered the salesman. "My sales have been slow,of late, and I just don't have enough money."
"Ah well," said the customer, touching the salesman's elbow, "let me offer some..."
But it was too late. Now the salesman had plunged into his personal vacuum. "Oh I have nothing, really," he said. "And nobody has enough money to buy my books anymore. For myself, I could wish I had that kind of money. If I had enough, I could bring my family together again. But now I have so little money coming in.
"And I've completed college too, mind you. What has it given me, sir? Why it has made me an intellectual beggar, that's all. I ask you. I've done my best to stay with scholarly pursuits. But there is no profit in this. Why, when I shipped over from England I told my wife and my son I'd send for them in short order. Here now I am sending them a few dollars when I can, and my wife has begun working as a common housekeeper, and I slowly attempt to save money for their trip. Sometimes I feel that I will never see them again. I wish I had gotten a job laying bricks!"
"Yes," said the customer.
"But there is no job laying bricks," complained the salesman. "There is simply nothing of consequence here." He looked away. "So you," he said, looking at the customer, "are another one who buys nothing."
The customer's gaze fell to the ancient painting. "Maybe," he said quietly as a gleam entered his blue eyes. He tapped a thick boot on the cement floor. Finally he said, "Yes, I will buy. Only the encyclopedias." But his warning finger caught the salesman's eager eyes, and he almost whispered, "There is a condition."
The Englishman looked down and away.
Now the customer was warming to his own idea. He studied the wrinkles in the salesman's eyes and continued, "I will buy if you can answer a question by this time tomorrow."
The salesman leaned back. "What question," he breathed. "Tell me the question."
The customer leaned close and said, "Tell me who would not complain."
The Englishman was perplexed. "But but," he sputtered. "How could I discover something like that?"
The old man kept silent.
"But sir!" groaned the salesman, grinding his hands together. "That's not just. You are offering me a sale and you are taking it away at the same time, if you don't mind my saying so. I am in no mood for a joke, sir."
The old customer was watching the Englishman with sympathy. Yet, if he were tormenting the man, he would feel no regret. "Oh well," he said. "Reach high for the answer." He chuckled, turning to enter the supermarket and said, "See you here tomorrow at four!"
The Englishman collapsed into his chair. Never before had he dealt with anything like this. He needed this sale more than anything, but there seemed no way to have it now. He felt stupid. The customer probably wouldn't even come back tomorrow. So many people promised to come back, so it would be easier than saying no. Then, after a few days, he would know they had been just putting him off. The more he thought about the customer the more bitter he became. He felt like a teased animal.
After fifteen minutes the crust of his rage yielded to the babble that filled his shelter, the voices of people filing past his table with its open volume and the ancient depiction of Christ. One murmur of conversation emerged: "...and the telephones are always ringing down there." It reminded him of the volume's article on "Cable, transatlantic" and he remembered the photograph of the cable-laying ship.
"All night that thing booms like a cannon," another said. The Englishman remembered the article on cannons. All useless information. What would he ever have to know about cannons?
"The size of that church is amazing," said a boy. The man remembered the article on cathedrals. Worthless.
"Drat those lousy kids," said a woman. He thought of his son. His own child. A lad who filled him with pride. Oh, to see him again. And his wife. How he longed for them when he was alone.
"I didn't mind the trip, except for the cholera shots," said a businessman. The Englishman remembered the article on cholera epidemics.
Suddenly came the shrill cry of a young boy, protesting, "But Daddy, it had at least a thousand legs!"
The salesman remembered the full-page photo in the article on children. He had wept when he read that article a few weeks ago, had wept because it had reminded him of his wonderful son. And now his eyes made tears again. There was nothing he could do to stop.
He tried to think of something else. Perhaps the article on caterpillars. He shuddered to imagine the exploded view of a hairy caterpillar that had appeared in the "C" volume. "Aacch!" he cried suddenly, as he saw hundreds of insects in his mind. He clawed at his eyes. He forced his eyes open and strained to look outside and to escape the horrible vision.
There, in front of him, he saw his son. The boy stood in a heavy winter coat, and he held his woolen cap in his hand respectfully. It was the same as the worn picture the salesman had carried in his wallet these two years. Happily he coursed to the boy in his mind and embraced him, shouting his name in a chord which soared to the heavens. He kissed the boy and held him close. But the child faded away and ran out the door and all the Englishman could say was, "Oh God. Oh God!"
It was nearly four o'clock and the Englishman still had no idea when a man would not complain. He had listened all day for ideas, and he hadn't slept well last night.
He had listened to many conversations but nothing reminded him of an occasion when someone would not complain. Now he was trying to imagine the opposite of a complaint. But the gnawing awareness continued-no sales today-not even one customer-so it would hurt even more when the old man would fail to show up. It was an insult, after all. Telling the salesman you would return and then not returning at all. It was, he often thought, the ultimate mockery of a salesman. A degrading condition, entirely. And it was his lot to live it every day.
He tried again to reason out the old man's question. Surely it would become clear if the man came back to ask. And then the salesman would be furious at himself for not thinking of the answer. What could he do? Perhaps he should approach the question like a mathematics problem.
Let's see, he thought. What was the given. He knew that everyone complained. Under what conditions did someone not complain? Was it the rich that complained, while the poor did not. That had possibilities. Maybe the old man wanted the salesman to say that he, the customer, never complained. As the salesman recalled, the customer hadn't really complained yesterday.
Perhaps it was a man who was sick, or in a coma. Or a man who was dying. Surely he would brace himself for the next world, and try not to complain at that moment. He could say that it was the dying man who did not complain. At least that would be a good guess.
But it didn't seem correct. For the dying man would surely have complaints of some kind, even if they simply related to pain or discomfort. Surely the dying man would explain these problems to his doctor or nurse.
It was no use. He didn't have the answer the old man had demanded. So he just looked at the cement floor.
Two nurses entered the enclosure, deep in conversation about a dying man. "He was comatose. He was febrile. And he was thrashing in his bed continually. You should have seen the sores."
"But," joked the second nurse,"one thing about comatose patients. They never complain!"
The first nurse chuckled as they started to enter the grocery store. "No!," she exclaimed. He was aware at the end. But he did not complain at all!"
To the salesman, these words were a sign from God. He felt a chill of inspiration. His body felt electric as the revelation captured his being. "Indeed!," he whispered. "It would be the dying man after all!"
He threw himself onto the wooden chair and waited for the customer. He watched the clock with a silly grin. He would have a steak sandwich tonight, and he would set 50% of tonight's profit away for his family's transit fund. He would have two beers tonight. Certainly he had earned it.
"Hello," said the old man as he entered the doorway at 4:00 sharp.
"Hello," came the salesman's eager response.
The old fellow laughed. "Your eyes tell me you have an answer," he said. "Out with it!"
"Yes, yes, I have it," said the salesman. He looked down at the table. "The man who would not complain is...." He stood up for effect. "Is the man who is dying."
"Mmmm," mused the old man. "That's not all wrong."
The salesman sat down, uncertain.
"Actually, you are closer than I predicted," said the man. "I am thinking of one man who knew he was about to die."
But the salesman had already reached for his pocket and its laminated price list. "The encyclopedia alone is not my best value," he began, running his finger down the list to the combination deals. "I must suggest that you consider a combination, actually, as the price per page and price per volume are so much better. Come, see this listing," he said, placing the price list on the "C" volume, which was now open to "Careers." The combination prices are quite good, as you can see."
"Stop!" the old man commanded. He pushed the list aside and starting turning the pages. He seemed to be looking for something as he said, "Who is the man who would not complain?"
The salesman look confused. But I already...."
"I need the name of the man who would not complain."
The salesman gazed dully at the page-turning hands. He remembered those hands from yesterday, when they had traced the ancient picture. Then he remembered.
"The man who would never complain," said the salesman, "was Christ."
The old man's hands stopped, revealing the ancient drawing.
In the evening the salesman sat in the far booth enjoying his steak sandwich. It tasted especially fine since it had cost nothing. How many months, the salesman thought, since someone had treated him to dinner.
"I should have guessed the answer on my first try," he admitted.
"No, your answer showed wisdom," said the old man as he toyed with his fish filet.
"Thank you," the salesman replied.
"Do you feel better now that you have made a sale?"
"When will you bring your family over from England?"
"Oh," replied the salesman. "I must wait until I have extra cash. As of now, I can bring them you see, but I would have nothing extra to offer when they arrived."
"But you earned some today. Will that help?"
"It is a good sign, but I must keep on working."
"Your son. What of him? Doesn't he need you?"
"He does," nodded the salesman, touching an eyelid.
"If you bring them, can your wife work?"
"Yes. She does now."
"Why not bring them here now?," asked the old man. "This chance may not come again."
"Oh, but I need to sell more volumes. I must convert a greater percentage of encyclopedia sales into multi-volume purchases. Then I can earn a useful bonus."
"Take a risk," the old man commanded. "Bring them now."
"But you don't understand. I will have nothing to offer. What would my son think of me, living this way? And my wife would see me living so desperately."
"Yes, they would see you and be with you again."
The salesman continued his rationalizations as he watched the old man rise from his booth, taking the bill. "This has been wonderful," the salesman said. "I just wish you understood. Now wait. Don't go yet. I just wanted to explain. You know how bad it is for a salesman..."
The man turned to look at him for a last time. His blue eyes gleamed like a child's.
Involuntarily, the salesman said, "I will bring them." He looked down.
The old man, sat down. He touched the man's arm. With his other hand he laid a business card on the table.
"Call me when they are here."
"Certainly," said the father.
"I want to meet them. And, you know, I may just have a handyman's job for you. Laying bricks. Would that interest you?"
"Indeed," the man breathed, father of the son, husband of the woman. "You are a glorious friend!"
"Until then," said the old man, taking his hand. And he left.
And the father relaxed into his booth with a new feeling of peace. They would come to him, he thought. And surely, he would never again complain.
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