Another excerpt from Radio Signals from the Edge.
Finally, dad gets another job. He is back in the familiar field of meat sales. This company, a much bigger outfit than dad’s one man truck show, provides appointments for the sales staff. Times are set for salesmen to sit down in people’s homes and try to sell meat and grocery delivery services on a recurring basis. They also offer food accessory items, like freezers, china, cookware, silverware, things of that nature. Dad’s sales kit is a giant briefcase, too large for me to lift, inside of which are all of his flip charts, menus, and a slot for some vacuum sealed steak and a small sauté pan.
After several sales calls and no sales Dad comes home discouraged.
Mama greets him at the door, late, around ten. My sister is already asleep and I am at the kitchen table still struggling over my math book.
“Hi honey! Any good?” she asks him sweetly, reaching to hug him.
“No dear.” He spits the word 'dear' like an curse.
Mama freezes like a frightened doe, dropping her extended arms, but continues in a kind voice.
“I’m sorry, honey. You’ll get ‘em next time.” She turns to me. “Manda Leigh, it’s time for bed. You can finish that math tomorrow”
I close my math book with a thud, a final, self-congratulatory gesture, but I pack my pencils and paper away slowly. I am still listening.
Dad drops his giant briefcase behind the couch.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. This just isn’t working.” he says ominously. “The kids were out of control. They wouldn’t leave the parents alone long enough for me to get a word in edgewise, and this is the third time this week that’s happened. People should hire a babysitter when they have an appointment.”
I have slowly moved to the spot where the living room and the hallway to the bedrooms meet and am standing there, trying to make myself small. From my corner, I venture meekly “Maybe I could help?”
“I don’t think so. Go to bed." Dad says in a clipped voice.
“But I help with the little kids at church” I insist, gaining steam with the idea
“I could sort of babysit them while you and their parents talk and" I hurry on before he can object "if there aren’t any kids, I could just read my book”
Dad opens his mouth to disagree and hesitates.
“Maybe” he says.
And so begins a partnership wherein I trail along behind him as he works, like I have done since I was small.
The first time he takes me with him, the lady who opens the door is obviously disgruntled to discover a salesman with a briefcase full of steak and a child in tow. But my father, in his way, preempts any objection to the arrangement, saying;
“Hi! My name is Bill, with Colorado Prime. I think Angie from the call center spoke with your husband about our appointment this evening?” No pause for breath, he continues “This is my daughter Amanda. She is your complementary babysitter this evening! Where would be good for us to chat? A table perhaps?”
He practically wedges himself past the woman and into the house, although she hasn’t exactly opened the door wide in welcome. I meet her eyes in concession to the unusualness of this situation, an unusualness I feel she and I exist alone within, like a very small room painted in bright colors which clash violently enough to make you uncomfortable. But then I dart past her, after my father, because I am slightly concerned that concession or no, she might shut the door in my face.
“Uh. Over there would be fine” she gestures to the dining room table. She seems sort of dazed, as if scrambling to reassert herself as an actual resident of the home in which my father has made himself uninvited master. A small child, smaller than I am comes darting into the room.
The child slides to a stop when she sees me. I wave at her.
“Faye” the woman says to the girl “This is Amanda. Why don’t you take her to your playroom and play?”
And since the souls of children are still untarnished by rejection and are therefore universally friendly, there is no hesitation before the young girl chirps
“Okay! Come on!”
And so, with a backward glance at my father, who is already well into his warmup schpiel while unpacking a filet on the dining room table, I follow the girl back to a spare room full of toys and books, more I’m sure than I’ve ever seen in one room.
For the better part of three hours, which is how long the presentation took my father, although not how long it was intended to be, I stay with Faye. I cater to her every whim, which are many and measured in the tiny ruler lines of a five-year old attention span.
At about the two hour mark, Faye begins to tire.
“I’m going to get my mommy” she says.
I panic. My heart begins to race. She can’t disrupt the presentation.
“No, Faye! Stay and play with me!” I beg.
I try to stay calm, but in the back of my mind there is a thundering herd of desperation. I have started to understand, in the way children do, that the clipped conversations my parents have are violent arguments in non-threatening tones and they and the cracking silence which follows have everything to do with money, and dad being able to make money. The details may be unclear to me, but the fact that the situation has reached a critical point of impending disaster is not.
And so I have come to believe that it is up to me to make sure Dad can do his job, because who else is there? My sister is too young, my mother must stay with my sister and dad seems to be having trouble. So there is only me. If unruly children are the problem, then I will make sure the children are ruly.
Faye doesn’t understand though, that the world as I know it hinges on whether or not I can convince her that for these few hours, nothing could be better than staying here in the playroom with me.
She doesn’t understand, and she is firm.
“No. I’m going to mama”
“But look, we can read Goodnight Moon again!” I waggle it at her, promisingly.
“I don’t want to”
“How about if we play hide and seek then?”
She hesitates. “Out by mama?”
“No, in here” I say with steel-tipped cheerfulness
I place myself between her and the door, since she looks like she might make a run for it. Her lip begins to quiver as she senses her entrapment. I feel well and truly sick to my stomach now, and in a last ditch attempt I sqwunch my eyes shut and begin to count loudly, brightly, my back against the door.
“One, two, three, four…”
I hear nothing, no movement, just the quaver of indecisive breathing.
“Five, six, seven…I’m going to count to ten, Faye, you’d better hide! eight…”
At last a scrambling noise and the sound of a closet door.
I heave a sigh of relief.
“Nine, ten! Ready or not, here I come!”
I take as long as I dare to find her. I fuss profusely about what a good hider she is. She beams and shrieks “Count again!”
We pass a few precious minutes more at the game before she finds a book she forgot about an insists I read it to her. I will, I say, if we clean up the playroom first. We do and I do. I do my best to imitate the way my mother reads to me at night, her comforting voice rising and falling like the tide as she makes the story crash on the shore of my imagination.
Faye falls asleep on my lap as I read. I don’t dare move, even when I’ve finished. By the time the woman sticks her head in the door, looking surprised to find the playroom tidy and her daughter fast asleep on my shoulder, my arm is coursing fire and my fingers have fallen asleep. I’m beyond tired, by now, but I refuse to let go of my hard won victory.
“You’re quite the babysitter!” she whispers. The colors in the room of interpersonal understanding have turned into warm and complimentary tones, and I smile at her, gratefully. She tells my father, as we finally take our leave that I can come back next time, when they re-order.
That night, my father closes his first sale with Colorado Prime.
“You’re my lucky charm!” he says blithely, once we were in the car on the way home. I sit huddled low in my seat, curled against the side of the door to escape the cool night air gushing in the open windows. I am already falling into a wide sea of stars as we rode, but I still have time to exhaustedly think “I don’t think it was lucky. I think it was work”
From then on, most nights dad expected me to go with him. To say no earned me a wave of his hand and his famous dismissal;
“Come on, you’ll love it”
It was said in a tone balanced precariously on the edge of belligerent aggression and a cheerful if not phony insensibility to displeasure.
It was the tone which let me know that I had reached an intersection. Moving forward I could willfully suspend my reluctance, giving every impression that, like a dog, I had rolled over and submitted to his wishes. Choose this and I’d be rewarded by a winsome affability, a companion who was likely to tell puns and offer to buy me a cherry pie from the gas station.
Or, I could say no and incur the hurricane force of his will. In that storm, I could be strong like a brick house, but it didn’t really matter, because he came at me with everything within reach. Not just the wind and the rain, but trees and cars, umbrellas and shoes, all debris was mustered to his arsenal, so thorough and indefensible was the attack. I’d find myself battered with things relevant and irrelevant. Things I never thought could be used as a projectile were suddenly protruding from my fragile eight year old heart like stake through the chest. The aftermath would leave me gasping at the destruction, still not exactly understanding what had just happened, or why, just that it hadn’t left much.
So most times, I opted for the affable companion, even if exhausting in it’s own right. Although, to this day I have an especial dislike of those little gas station cherry pies.