Find a focal point, the manual preached, a defining feature and zoom in. With Eve it was a daunting job, the landscape was overwhelming. But in time I reached her eyes, as I knew I would—wide and brown, with specks of green and blue orbiting like meteor dust. I remembered them watching me from behind the same curtained window of this same room when we were kids running by without slowing. They tracked me even closer now as I scattered Panko crumbs in an unnatural drift on the matted rug.
“People forget how fat I am when they get up close,” she said, taking a sable brush from the sample case and sliding it across her lashes.
When we were in high school she’d corner me sometimes, standing so close I could hear the folds of her skin rubbing together. Her eyes would lock on me and I’d slam the doors of my own shut to try to keep her from getting in. As I pushed past, she whispered the same thing each time, her breath falling on me: “Too slow.” Twice I ran into people who didn’t expect me to keep coming, eyes closed, down the crowded hall.
The rug sweeper bogged down, the Panko turned soggy and glommed into the nap. I could smell urine when I leaned down to agitate the flakes, rising up fresh and strong.
“What kind of dog do you have?”
“I don’t have a dog.”
“We have some great pet cleaning products— natural enzymes to eliminate odors, remove stains…”
“I don’t have any goddamn pets.”
“Ok, well. If you get any—”
“Just the brushes, Willy Loman.”
No one bought products door-to-door anymore, hadn’t since Eisenhower. The job was thanklessly Sisyphean, even on a good day. I’d only applied because I remembered the brush man’s visits when I was a kid, twice a year with his case and patter. The brushes nestled in velvet-lined cutouts in the case, the bristles cat-soft when my mom swept them across my cheek. But mostly it was the transformation he brought along with him, turning my mother attentive and engaged, singing under her breath, even giggling. Nothing like her customary morning self, stiff and motionless at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee going cold in front of her. The welcome he got back then was the one I wanted now.
“So what have you been up to?”
I was working at the sodden crumbs with a double-H nylon brush and holding my breath. Eve stopped in the middle of burnishing her left eyelid.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Yeah, I do. There’s a manual.”
“Could have used that twenty years ago.”
She’d been hurt, okay, but who hadn’t sometime in those years? She picked up the Nile Jewel Eye Kit, squinted at the price tag hanging from the zipper.
“Are you kidding me?”
“Look, I’m just selling this shit, okay? Trying to.”
She threw the packet across the room where it clanged off the wall heater and thudded to the floor.
“We’ve got other ones. Cheaper.”
There’s a fundamental brush man equation that factors time spent pitching against a likely sales return, with the end result being what’s known as the “bail product.” Every order book contained a lookup table at the back, with invested minutes cascading through color-coded zones toward the bottom of the page—green to blue to pink to red. I was deep into the red with Eve, well beyond my exit node. But I owed her something, I thought, a little time at least.
I went through the case top to bottom—crease brushes, spa brushes, brow combs. She didn’t stop me. After I’d showed and stowed the last one, she got up from her chair, crossed the room, and retrieved the eye kit that had somehow remained intact at the base of the wall. There was a block of text on the back recounting the entirely fictional origins of the Nile Jewel Eye line, a ridiculous Egyptian fairy tale cooked up in some office in Anaheim. Eve produced a pair of glasses from the folds of her dress and put them on. Her eyes disappeared behind them and her face succumbed to the hard light and the elapsed years.
She looked up, saw me watching, and snorted.
“They hoodwinked us good, didn’t they?”
“Waiting in our little cocoons, biding our time—that’s what they told us.”
“I don’t know who—”
“Our teachers, parents, everybody. We were supposed to be completely different people by now.”
“Well, they might have believed it. They weren’t any smarter than us.”
“Baby fat, they said.”
A TV came on behind the closed door off the hallway, the Wheel of Fortune theme blaring.
“We were their responsibility.”
The TV went up another notch, and Eve’s voice went down one.
“And look at us.”
I preferred not to. I began gathering up my wares, packing them away in the case. Eve took off her glasses and fixed her eyes on me, drilling in, tearing at my seams. I felt the skin along my jaw tingle, the air stir as if a wind were sweeping down on us off a mountain front. Our childhoods rapped at the window, then sprinted off across the yard. Eve let out a sigh and collapsed into her sprung chair with the faded irises on the arms.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Being who we are.”
But we both knew better.
She bought a single quill liner out of pity, and let me find my own way out. From her front walk I looked down the street at the rows of lawns and tried to remember the feel of them under my bare feet, grateful for every beckoning door after that slammed in my face.
Photo used under Public Domain.