When Mason arrived at his first sales call for the day—number 5 Sycamore, he almost turned around and left. Two bald men stood like sentries on opposite sides of the doorway. They were identical twins, which came as a shock to Mason, who’d always thought of twins as being children. The prospect of them growing up had never occurred to him.
It was some sort of church, which posed another problem. To whom would he be pitching his wares? Mason almost gave up on the spot, but when he thought of the snarky comments his mother would make, should he return home empty-handed, it crystallized his resolve. He hoisted his Electrolux up over one shoulder and made a beeline for the front door—a straight shot through the twins.
The church’s wrought-iron knocker felt heavy in his hand. Mason tried not to look at either of the twins, who stared straight ahead without saying a word. The whole scene was like something out of Alice in Wonderland and not in a good way.
Sales should have been in Mason’s blood. His father had been in Fuller Brushes, and his father before him was a Watkins man, selling liniments and soap “Good for man, beast, or fowl.” Mason’s blood ran differently. He seemed to lack any kind of killer instinct. As a child, musical chairs never went well—Mason stood frozen while the others lunged for their spots. Easter egg hunts were a disaster. “He’s afraid of his own shadow, that one,” his mother would say, and she would throw her head back and laugh. Mason wasn’t much for games. He liked to tinker with things. The grandfather clock whose pendulum had stopped swinging. Old radios. After high school was finished, he’d tried to get a job at the cobblers, but they weren’t hiring, and neither was the TV repair shop. Business was slow, they said. These days, people just threw away their broken stuff.
It was Uncle Larry who’d gotten him the Electrolux job. “It’ll be good for the boy,” he’d harrumphed to Mason’s mother, as though Mason wasn’t of legal age and standing right in front of him. Mason had been working in his uncle’s division for months now and hadn’t made a single sale yet. His uncle threatened that if he didn’t close a deal soon, his contract would be “null and void.”
“Both?” Mason couldn’t help asking.
* * *
There was a scuttling noise coming from inside the church. The door creaked open. A short woman in a nun’s habit greeted him with a wide smile. Like someone expecting good news.
“I’m from Electrolux?” Mason said, like it was a question. Already he was forgetting his Dale Carnegie tips about projecting confidence. He tried to adopt his power pose but it was difficult with the vacuum cleaner weighing him down on one side. The contraption weighed a ton.
The nun seemed to read his mind. “That contraption must weigh a ton,” she said. Before Mason could stop her, the little woman, who’d introduced herself as Sister Mary, hoisted the vacuum off of his shoulder. She led the way through the church, scurrying along at a fast clip, a pair of fluorescent-green Nikes peeking out from beneath her dark robes as she walked.
“The sacristy is an absolute pigsty,” she called out over her shoulder. “Our Hoover’s been broken for months.”
They went through the basement, where a group of parishioners were organizing a fundraiser for an orphanage. Posters of wide-eyed children in tattered clothes were everywhere.
One of the workers called Sister Mary over to ask a question, and before long she was waylaid, solving one problem after the next. Mason stood around awkwardly for a time, until someone invited him to join the table and stuff flyers. Why not? He thought.
When Sister Mary was finally ready to move on, he stood up from the table and paused. He pulled a pile of loose change from his pocket and set it on the tabletop.
“Your first donation,” he said. “I wish it could be more.”
“Well aren’t you the sweetest thing?” Sister Mary commented, and they all nodded with approval, even the twins, who’d only just arrived.
* * *
Inside the sacristy, Mason began his demonstration. Sister Mary settled into her chair. When he snapped open the clasps on his salesman’s case, she rubbed her hands together. “It’s almost like a little magic show isn’t it?” she said. Mason glided the vacuum across the carpet and around all of the hard-to-reach places. Around the piscina. Under the chalice. He used his special attachments on the altar linens. Sister Mary oohed and aahed.
“How does it do with wine stains, Mason? Father Paul has a bit of a shaky hand.”
Without missing a beat, Mason poured the turbo shampoo into the turbo tank. He attached the rotating bristle brushes and let the Electrolux do its thing.
“Well I’ll be,” Sister Mary said. Mason felt his confidence balloon.
They moved on to the penance booth, where Mason deftly attached the fan blade duster to the extension wand, and went to work on the dividing screen, getting into all the little nooks and crannies until there wasn’t a mite in sight.
“You’re a real go-getter aren’t you Mason?”
Maybe it was because she was a nun, but Mason felt he couldn’t lie to her. “Not really, no,” he admitted. He shouldn’t have told her about his unsuccessful sales run or about his Uncle Larry’s threat but the words just seemed to tumble out.
“That’s a lot of pressure,” Sister Mary said, sinking into the seat across from him. She opened the little cabinet door between the compartments. Spoke to him through the screen. “I have a confession to make.”
Mason knew what was coming before she’d said a word. “You only called to get the free cleaning?”
Sister Mary dropped her head. “You seem like such a nice man. I had no idea you were about to lose your job.” She let out a mournful sigh. Pointed at the Electrolux. “ How much do these things go for anyway?”
When Mason told her, her eyes widened. “I suppose I could dip into the orphan fund,” she said. “We really do need a vacuum that works.”
Mason thought of the orphans. Their wide eyes. Their tattered clothes.
“Show me your broken Hoover,” he said instead. He was good at fixing things.
* * *
Sister Mary sent him on his way with fair payment for his troubles, and the names of several elderly parishioners who needed a reliable handyman. “They need a go-getter like you,” she said. “Somebody honest and trustworthy. ”
“Both!” he thought to himself and his spine straightened just a hair.
* * *
When Mason got home he disconnected his tubes and attachments for the last time. He emptied his canister, which had become full to the point of overflowing. A puff of dust rose high into the air. Particles danced in the sunlight, twisting and soaring, sparkling with a luminescence that reminded Mason of magic and of hope.
Alison Bullock's short fiction has appeared or is soon to appear in Peatsmoke, The Coachella Review, Bright Light Literary Review, The Writing Disorder, Halfway Down the Stairs, Anti-Heroin Chic, Boston Literary Magazine, Every Day Fiction, and the Momaya Annual Review. She lives in Massachusetts.