Superpolynomial (The Problem with Salesmen)
by Joshua Chaplinsky
The Salesman stepped off the bus into the haze of the urban heat. He set his briefcase down on the concrete, its leather cracked and flaking, and produced a handkerchief to wipe his brow. Sweat subdued wisps of gray hair. He looked left then right and then left again, surveying the street signs as he tried to orient himself. He looked down at the slip of paper in his hand and frowned.
“Excuse me, miss…” He held the paper out to a passerby but she pushed right past him. She put her shoulder into it like a linebacker and followed through. A couple street rats laughed and pointed. The Salesman smiled like he was in on the joke and straightened his tie, before setting off in the opposite direction. He didn’t know if he chose the right way or not.
He scanned faces for one that would be receptive to approach. Most of them hid behind dime store surgical masks. Any gaze he successfully met would just as quickly look away. After a while the crowd began to thin, so he ducked into a newsagent for some coffee.
“You wouldn’t happen to know where Whitney Street is?” he said to the clerk as he traded quarters for a steaming styrofoam cup.
“Yeah, sure,” the clerk said. “Three blocks up to Harvard, then hang a left. Can’t miss it.”
But the clerk was wrong. The Salesman could and did miss it. He turned left on Harvard and then came Menger and then Carlton. No Whitney.
“You sure he didn’t say a left on Havarti?” an old man asked. “Because it’s back in the other direction.”
“Havarti like the cheese?”
“I wouldn’t care to speculate,” the old man said and continued on his way.
The Salesman sighed. By now his suit had lost its crispness and his shoulder ached from carrying his briefcase. He rotated his arm and felt the cartilage rubbing together. He retraced his steps to Harvard and tried again. This time he passed Kirkman and Thomas in his quest for Whitney, not Menger or Carlton. Must have gone in the wrong direction, he thought.
He looked at his watch. A bit early for lunch, but his feet throbbed, so he took refuge in a hamburger joint. He pressed a large, plastic square with a picture of a combo meal on it and threaded money into the machine. After collecting his food from a dumbwaiter he sat in an empty booth. Sticky patches of half-dried ketchup dotted the table.
He stared at the slip of paper as he ate. He knew the address backwards and forwards, but he had nothing else to read. He became so absorbed in it he didn’t notice the woman now sitting across from him.
“You mind?” she said, indicating her tray. She had a weary face and sharp eyes.
The Salesman looked around the restaurant. There were plenty of empty seats. He gave her a stiff, closed mouth smile and returned his attention to the paper.
“Anything interesting going on in the world today?” she said.
“Excuse me?” The Salesman looked up from his reading.
“A joke.” The woman dropped a folded-up newspaper next to the Salesman’s tray. “Here, try mine.”
The Salesman glanced at the headline. It read “Automated Anarchy.” Below it—the top half of a picture of an assembly line fire.
“That’s okay,” he said. He returned the slip of paper to his suit pocket. “I’m almost finished here.”
“What’s the rush?”
The Salesman looked out the window and squinted against the glare. An ant crawled across the glass.
“Gotta get back out there.” He could have been psyching himself up.
“And what is it you do out there?”
“I’m…” he patted the briefcase next to him.
“A traveling salesman?”
“More or less.”
She leaned back in her seat and chewed on the straw of her drink. The Salesman watched the ant bridge the expanse between the window sill and the table.
“Must not be a very good one.”
“You said that already.” The woman picked through her fries. Not finding one to her liking, she moved on to the Salesman’s tray.
“I’m on my way home, if you must know.” He pulled his fries out of her reach.
The woman rubbed her fingers together, to get the salt off.
“Taking the heuristic approach, I see.”
The ant skirted the salt and made for a smudge of ketchup.
“I’ve been away a long time,” he said, his tone defensive.
“Easy, buddy. That’s a YP, not an MP.”
The Salesman grinned. “Actually, it’s an NP.”
“I’m speaking in terms of computation.”
She gave him a blank look. “I don’t know what that means. You sure you’re in the right city?”
The Salesman stared as the ant nibbled at the ketchup.
“I don’t know.”
The Salesman trudged up the high rise stairs, suit jacket slung over his shoulder. His tie hung open against his wrinkled shirt. Sweat marks spread from under his arms.
He stopped in front of a door on the twelfth floor. He checked the slip of paper one last time. Satisfied the address matched, he produced a key to unlock the door. It clicked against a metal plate. There was no keyhole.
He rang the buzzer and waited. She could have changed the lock. A lot of buildings had upgraded to those magnetic systems that required a passcard.
“Who is it?” a tentative voice said through the door. He scanned his memory, told himself the voice sounded familiar.
Nothing happened. He counted seven one-hundreds. Then the door opened to reveal a middle aged woman wearing an apron. She eyeballed him from across the threshold while he held his breath. She looked unsure, which made him unsure. He was about to repeat himself when she finally shrugged, then stepped aside to allow him into the apartment.
He left his briefcase by the door and followed her into to the kitchen. She sat him down and plunked a hot meal in front of him. He ate it with gratitude.
When he finished the woman cleared the table and set about washing the dishes. The Salesman got up and wandered the apartment, trying to kickstart his memory. He didn’t come across any pictures of children, which was good, but he didn’t come across any pictures of himself, either. What he did find was the bathroom, so he took a shower and shaved. The woman already lay under the covers when he entered the bedroom.
He laid down next to her, after putting on the pajamas she had left out for him. Freshly washed flannels that felt soft against his skin. They gave off the faint smell of detergent. Without saying a word, the woman turned off the bedside light. As The Salesman’s eyes adjusted he noticed a Morse code trail of ants traveling from one end of the ceiling to the other. They disappeared into a hole in the wall.
“All it takes is one,” the woman said. “They mark the path and others follow. When there’s nothing left for them, that’s when they stop coming.”
She put her hand on his and squeezed. He flinched but did not pull away. Before long he fell asleep.
He awoke the next morning to the sizzle of bacon. He went to the closet while the grease sang, found a fresh suit which he put on. He hung his old suit in its place, next to a row of other wrinkled suits. He resisted the urge to count them.
Breakfast waited for him when he sat down at the kitchen table. As soon as he finished his meal, the woman cleared the plate.
His briefcase stood by the door where he left it. He picked it up, feeling the familiar grip of the handle. He reached into his pocket with the other hand and froze.
In an instant, the woman appeared at his side, holding out a fresh slip of paper. He looked down at the new address and back to the woman. She kissed him on the cheek and smiled.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” he said.
The Salesman put the slip of paper in his pocket and stepped out the door into the day. He had a bus to catch, and a new city to visit. Eventually he would find his way home.
Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor.com. He has also written for the popular film site TwitchFilm and for ChuckPalahniuk.net, the official website of ‘Fight Club’ author Chuck Palahniuk. He is the author of ‘Kanye West—Reanimator.’ His short fiction has appeared in Zetetic, Motherboard, Dark Moon Digest, Thuglit, L’allure des Mots, Pantheon Magazine, Fabula Argentea, and Crack the Spine.