by TJ Fuller
One Friday I linger until I am alone and start rifling through my coworkers’ cubes. We sell security systems and we save everything: sales scripts, client binders, marketing folders. We notate lead lists and pocket bar napkins. Me too. My drawers don’t lock either. My notes expose me. I’m sure I’m not the only snooper.
Only Dolores’s desk lacks clues. But she never hits reply-all. She never signs the get well cards. Dolores won’t claim a mug in the kitchen or pin up pictures of her family. She sorts her files with an unlit cigarette stuck to her lipstick, and every time she wins employee of the month, she asks for a new picture, gives us a new smirk to face. A lesser man would need metaphors for Dolores’s body parts but I need them for her sales numbers. They rocket or sail or conquer. And her desk drawers are empty. Her notes are not where I can find them.
Thankfully, everyone else exposes themselves.
Monday morning feels different. I strut from the coffee pot to my cube. I raise styrofoam to anyone who notices.
“Good weekend?” Sharon asks.
“What did you do?”
Sharon runs a long con, stopping by multiple times a month, developing a friendship. Her notes detail flowers a home might appreciate or the kind of tea she saw on the counter. When someone finally buys a security system, Sharon’s met their children. She might have their spare key. Robert, on my right, shills once and lets the local news do the rest of the work, burglaries and assaults. He’ll even slip the crime section into someone’s mailbox. He keeps a couple of copies in the drawer at his left knee.
Mornings, we map. Mornings, we decide between new homes and re-visits. We stop by long shots early and better leads later. Now I know only some get the leads who call the office. I’ve learned some score conversations, five being most likely to cave, and others plan emails and pamphlet drops. I try a little of both. I draw a route through a split-ranch neighborhood with mostly new addresses and a few old favorites. Two—no four—I feel cynical about and grab pamphlets. I refill my coffee cup and bring it with me to my company car.
Doorbells sing failure. They sing unemployment paperwork and redundant online applications and reintroducing myself to whole new crop of coworkers. Most homes are empty. Two people say no thanks through screen doors. Only one deadbeat, in an undershirt and gym shorts, lets me work myself into a spiel.
“No one likes to talk about it, but everyday in this city someone is burglarized or assaulted in their home. It’s a fact of life.”
He glances at the baking street behind me. “I haven’t even had my coffee yet.”
“I apologize, sir, but safety is important at every hour.”
He accepts the glossy pamphlet. “Do you have medical services too? If something happens to my mother?”
“Two more pages. There they are.”
I let him read. I should be painting pictures, but the possibility seems tender, and I don’t want to squash it with words.
“Is that included in the basic package?”
Absence—that’s my method. I try not to get in the way of a sale. I hope the print and opportunity are enough. I mean, look, I walked all the way to the front door. But my method sucks. Sharon would notice the azaleas in his window. Robert would have memorized the zip code’s crimes stats. What would Dolores do? I breathe through my mouth.
“Well,” Deadbeat says. “I need to talk to my mother about it.”
Don’t let them ponder. Get dates in ink. Get estimates scheduled.
“I understand that,” I say. “Let me give you my card.”
In my car, I hang my head. I score him a 4, no a 3. I promise myself I’ll bring back one of Robert’s crime reports, and I try to remember the accent color of his living room. Blue. It was probably blue.
The company empties cubes often. Most of us don’t make eye contact. Sharon hugged her friend who couldn’t make it. The one with the pinky ring told his sister he’d call. Tuesday, Boss walks another desk packer to the door. “I wish you all the luck in your next life,” she says. The office isn’t big enough. We can hear her. I pray over my leads, beg them to bless me with signatures.
But after a few doorbell songs, I’m determined to see Dolores, and I drive through the neighborhoods she might be shilling in.
Dolores is in charge of the hills. Her rubes have views. Views, too—opinions about everyone living much closer to the sea floor. What they actually have is sway. Commissions and boards and politicians listen to those who look over the city. And the lookers listen to Dolores.
In the second gated neighborhood I scope, I see her company car. I park behind it, but the sedan is empty. How much hoofing can she do in a neighborhood like this? The lots are large. They’re not lots—they’re acreages or estates. Maybe selling in this neighborhood would be easier. Maybe I’d believe in the product more if I thought the customer had something to lose. On the east side, sure, here and there is a new television or a heirloom necklace, but so much of what I’m trying to convince them to protect is not worth the effort of hauling it out of the house. It’s particle board, last generation, gold plated.
Here, every front door is around another bend, and after three addresses, I’m panting and checking the dark spots growing in my armpits. I can’t hear Dolores and I can’t see anyone—not even any dog walkers or joggers. Creeks run between estates. Ancient oaks and willows hide yards. I turn back, clammy hands smudging my own limp leads.
Where would I be without this job? I would never see these hills. I probably wouldn’t ever own a house. I’d be begging my landlord for security. I’d be doomed to forever snooping, forever just looking over shoulders, through desks, into windows.
The only clue in Dolores’s desk is two punch cards for the same float spot. Sensory deprivation. Just you and two ear plugs and two hundred gallons of salt water. That night, I drive there and her company car is parked in the first curb spot. I chime my way inside.
Keyboards drizzle from speakers stuffed in fake palms. Cubbies with shoes cover one wall. I can’t spot Dolores’s.
“Good evening and shalom and aloha,” the waif behind the counter says. “Where are you going this evening?”
She smiles. “Now, where?”
They offer soaks and sweats and those pitch black relaxation tanks. I find my credit card and ease out of my shoes.
“Lockers for your clothes are here. The showers are through that door. Then you’re in tank three in the building out back.
Ten naked feet of tile separate the lockers from the showers. Beyond the door, there are no clothes. I spy fleshy blurs moving between the sauna and the tub, a few bare heads bobbing. I fake an emergency call and ask for a refund.
The next two days, I blow leads and cross off addresses. My words lack conviction. Potential customers smell fear. They smell a lack of faith. I decide to go back to Deadbeat’s. First I buy him a three pack of blue shammies at the gas station.
He squints through the screen when he sees me.
“I know, I know, sir, but just yesterday a home in this neighborhood was burglarized. They came in an open window, got two laptops and two cell phones. Even our most basic package makes sure no one can an open a window without you knowing about it.”
“I told you I needed time—”
“Did you know you could cancel in the first month, no questions asked? Did you know the first thirty days are free? Why not make your decision safely? Under the watch of our twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance?”
“I have your card,” he says, closing the door as he speaks.
“Sir, sir, can I tell you what I’ve noticed? You’ve recently repainted the windows.”
“Took me all summer.”
“There are still paint cans by the garage. And now none of these front windows are locked. My guess is the catches won’t close. You painted over the last coat instead of sanding.”
“Which means anyone could jimmy up these windows and sneak into your house at any time—whether you’re watching tv or playing a board game or out to dinner while your mother sleeps alone in her bed—”
The veins in his neck tell me I should have kept mouth breathing. I lose whatever he’s yelling to the slam of the door.
Back to the sensory deprivation. This time I undress. I glow like yogurt in the canned lighting. The towel is not much help. After a long, hot shower in which I almost curl inside the shower head, I pad into the backyard. Trees aid the fencing. Two hot tubs boil a gaggle of men my father’s age. We try eye contact. None of them are Dolores.
The sauna is two narrow benches facing each other, reaching back toward the steaming rocks. Even after I pour two bucketfuls of water on the rocks, the steam cannot hide me.
Three of us watch our toes sweat. No Dolores.
I step alone into my tank chamber. I close the hatch behind me.
But my senses don’t starve. I still feel my body drift from side to side, occasionally touching the cool metal edges. The water bobs in and out of my ears. I smell salt and my own rank from the sauna’s heat.
Where’s the mind supposed to go here? Would a professional floater meditate? Picture fields and rivers and blooms? I’m stuck with my body, and the sense that another job is dribbling away from me. I’m stuck with time—thirty minutes to float; two more weeks to hit my numbers; forty-some years to matter.
When my chance is up, a waif knocks on the tank. I pad back to the showers and that’s when I see her, in the hot water, one foot from me, the tile wall between us waist high. Dolores’s hair is down. Her eyes are closed. I stare without staring.
“Oh,” she says.
“How was your float?”
“Too long until it wasn’t,” I say. “By the end, I realized I was just getting started.”
“Endings are the worst,” she says.
We share the label-less soap bottle.
“How was your work day?” I ask.
“What day is it? Thursday? It was a Thursday.”
“Mine sucked again.”
“You’re the one with the candy drawer, right? Who laughs at Robert’s jokes? Who smokes but won’t buy a pack? Who puts his pictures in his desk drawer every night?”
“You smoke filterless,” I say. “You make your daily dials from the ashtray in the parking lot. You brought a leather chair from home. You don’t always wear your wedding ring.”
“Certainly not now,” she says.
Neither of us mind the diner’s bright light. We split desserts, chocolate pie and cheesecake. We share failures. She has more than I expected.
“You get used to the ups and downs,” she says.
“What’s an up even like?”
“Once a window wire shorted and a woman I’d talked into emptying her savings was robbed blind two weeks later.”
“My first two sales, I forgot to explain the installation fee. I paid it for them out of pocket.”
“I do get better leads than you. The better you do, the better the leads.”
“I know. I went through everyone’s desks.”
“Really?” she says. “Give me some dirt.”
“I don’t think I have any. One woman’s drawers were empty—save for a punch card for a float spot.”
She arches a brow.
“What are you looking for?” she asks.
“I can’t lose another job.”
“I can’t guarantee that.”
“What are you looking for?” I ask.
She sets her spoon on a plate, her hands in her lap. I liked her hair better down, full of bright accidents. She says, “Come see my new place.”
Dolores packs her coffee table with pictures. Between plates of glass, she’s fanned a hundred snapshots and walks me through too many of them, vacations and concerts, names I’ll never remember, cousins and college friends. No husband. She pours us wine in stemless glasses while I read her prescription for nicotine gum and her foil-edged certificate for passing the first Reiki Warrior level. The hallway still has frames that need to be hung, and the bedroom turned into an office has boxes that need to be unpacked.
“I’ve only been here a month,” she tells me.
This desk is empty too. But the box on the carpet has her old training manual and sales scripts and first list of addresses. She lets me search it all. She sits on the desks and slips off her shoes and I read her marginalia.
She scores leads one through five and tracks emails and pamphlet drops and reminds herself to get dates in ink. Nothing I haven’t seen before.
While she refills her glass, I crack open the other boxes—homemade ceramic bowls and board games and stereo equipment. I search through the closet—empty luggage, wrapping paper, winter sheets. There’s something more. Something she’s not showing me.
Two more glasses of wine get us into bed and I hunt under her blouse, snoop inside her fitted jeans. She dozes, and I search every junk drawer, hall closet, and plastic tote.
Dolores catches me emptying the kitchen cabinets, looking behind the pans and juicer and rice cooker. She asks, “Who does this?”
In my car, I imagine her telling our coworkers. My flat ass and squeaky sighs. The fever I’d worked up emptying her closets. Maybe packing up my desk is for the best. But Dolores never lingers after hours to tell stories. She never joins the crew moving the conversation to a local bar. Maybe I can avoid eye contact.
Maybe I still have too many sales to make.
The sun is hiding when I find myself back in the deadbeat’s neighborhood, parked at his curb, crouched at his bedroom window. The rails are too old and bent, so I can’t open the window without banging and grunting and cursing once I catch a pant leg on the jamb. But I don’t care about being seen. I’m ready for the truth to come out.
TJ Fuller writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Pacifica Literary Review, and elsewhere. He can be found online @fullertj.