The Salesmen Approach

by Dustin M. Hoffman
The Salesmen Approach by Dustin M. Hoffman

We’re watching your subdivision. The entrance sign reads MEADOW CORNERS, but we know there is no meadow. We know how you all leave at sun-up, return in your hatchbacks when the sky melts into copper. We know you avoid us, escape to your office where you hide, knees hugged to your chest and back against the door, biding your time until our working hours evaporate, and we turn to husks in two-piece suits, too tired to sweat after a day of lugging our briefcases. You imagine that we return to our unfed children, swaddle them in our limp arms. Then you tire of imagining our lives, kick your feet up, and we disappear. But you imagine wrong, underestimate your adversary.

We’ve changed tactics. We’re raiding at night. We’re storming the lanes, attacking the cul-de-sacs, ambushing from the manicured shrubs. We pour in at twilight, twelve dozen lines of hunched shoulders and swinging briefcases and neckties knotted snug around our perspiring throats. You see us coming, and you try to pull the blinds, but they are designer valences, too short and sheer and silky, and we see your silhouettes quivering back there. We take aim, stab our fingers at your doorbells, and there’s no escaping us now. We buzz and ding and knock and buzz and ding and knock. We’ll wait all night if we must. We’ve been here since before your foundation splashed into the earth. We’ll be here long after your mortgage goes sour and the real estate agent stakes a foreclosure sign into your browning sod.

So answer this damn door. Face our wrath. Face our bleached smiles that hide the disappointment of ten thousand slammed doors. Open this door, face us face-to-face, and then try to make us disappear.

You give in because you must. You give in because there’s only so much guilt one man can take. Because you know what it’s like to be turned down for a raise once again, turned down when your family desperately needs it, when that extra $94.35 per pay period is the only thing that will save your Eames lounger nestled in your favorite nook in this house you can’t afford in this subdivision that’s split into twelve dozen quarter-acre plots that used to be meadow, swamp, cornfield, where a farmer named Enos finally gave in and sold his great grandfather’s land because he just couldn’t afford to keep it going any longer. Enos is one of us now. That’s him over there, also wearing a blue necktie, also flashing bleached teeth, also knocking, his finger poised over the clasp of his briefcase, waiting for you to open the door just a little farther, because how can we possibly do our job through such a tiny slice? We can only make half eye-contact with your one hazel eye peeking wildly at us. We require full eye contact. We require your fullest attention.

Open fully, we say unto you.

That’s better. Hello. My name is H—– and you will forget it by the time I’ve finished this sentence. But let’s not get personal, even though I’m standing two feet from you and your home where you keep your wife and your three children and your English setter Elvis, where stowed in the attic is your childhood baseball card collection you were sure would make you rich one day, though now it’s just kindling printed with the faces of men you’ll never meet and you can’t remember ninety-eight percent of their names.

Hello. My name is H—– and I’m selling widgets. They are indeed real. You always wondered. After seven years of algebra problems where you had to solve for widget, and you asked Mrs. Dunwoody what a widget actually was, and she ignored you. And you asked her again, and she knelt by your desk, whispered in your ear, told you to forget the details and focus on the numbers. That stung your twelve-year-old heart, made it impossible to fantasize about marrying Mrs. Dunwoody and someday unbuttoning her beige blouse and cupping those wonderful breasts. And yet you asked again, and she said it was the magic thing your father bought at the bar every night so he could stand coming home to you. The next month your father left home, and your mother said that he loved you and your sister, but he had this problem. That problem and the need for a new Mustang and a twenty-seven-year-old blonde named Lindsey Callison. And these problems were a problem of solving for widget, and the problem of widgets explains why you can’t get an erection some nights, why other nights you can’t quit holding your wife, why you can’t get that raise, why your boss secretly thinks you’re a sniveling kiss-ass with a business degree and no business sense.

The widget is not merely a substitute variable for a problem you can’t solve. The widget will in fact solve your problems. All of them. Gaze at my briefcase. Slowly, slowly. I’ll unclasp slowly, open the lid slowly, creaking hinges echoing through the darkness. It’s not actually an echo because all 144 of us are opening our briefcases right now for you and all of your neighbors in near-perfect synchronization. Creak, creak, creaking, like the sound of your father’s Mustang’s door at midnight. Creaking open and, behold, the widget.

What is it made of? Paper, steel, positively charged ions, hope and envy, all-natural herbs, astronaut-grade plastic, limes and lavender, centuries of ingenuity.

How does it work? Just flip the switch, clutch it to where it hurts, tell it what you want, plug it into a 240-volt outlet, turn the page. You don’t need to do anything at all except sit back and let it do the work.

What does it do?

What a question to ask. The answer to that is exactly why we spilled down your streets, marching like an army, like a parade. So sorry if the clomp of our loafers woke your daughter. She was having a nightmare anyway. A nightmare where you are a bear and your lips are ringed with blood and you try to open the jar of peanut butter but your paw just keeps spinning the lid, around and around and around, and it never opens.

The widget can erase all dreams, if you understand it. Consider this: if you buy thirteen widgets for seventy-five dollars and sell them for a house payment, what is your profit margin? If those thirteen widgets are riding in a train from Chicago to Detroit at fifty-seven miles per hour, how many more will it take to make it to Defiance, Ohio, to elope with your daughter? If you’re in a canoe with those thirteen widgets, and one-third fall out, how many more widgets will you need to buy to save yourself from drowning? Think hard about these problems. Answer slowly. Dip your hand into our briefcase and caress the smooth surface of this widget, and we promise not to snap the case shut on your fingers.

A demonstration is required. But you must open your door more fully, invite us in, let us stay with you for the full two weeks and three days necessary to illustrate the effects. Thank you for your trust. How lovely are your valences, your oaken mantelpiece, the vertical stripes on your daughter’s walls. It must have taken excruciating hours to get the lines so perfect, so straight. When you pulled away the blue tape, how hard did your heart break when you saw the paint bleeding through? How hard did you push your son when he smudged his palm into a palmetto stripe? Did you trust your steady hands to touch up the mistakes, to still your son’s choking tears, even though your steady hands shake, and you can’t stop them, because you know the color of the bank envelope the mailman will deliver tomorrow?

Don’t worry. Your mailman also works for us. He’s three houses down at the Palmers’ residence. The Palmers are, as we speak, deciding whether to purchase a bushel or a palette or the complete volume library of our widgets. The Palmers are watching right now as your mailman demonstrates how to paint perfect vertical lines with the aid of a widget. The Palmers are learning how to hide children’s bruises with seven easy widget strokes. The Palmers have always been a few steps ahead of you. Like when they refinanced and rented out the guest room to Ruta, who fell in love with Mrs. Palmer, who got the kids in the divorce, and now Mr. Palmer is renting out the garage from them. They will not lose their house. And if you simply trust in the widget—in us, in me—neither will you.

Hold your breath while I remove the widget from its protective case, its vacuum-sealed cellophane, its leather-bound cover. If this seems like an excessive amount of packing peanuts and bubble wrap, just remember the joy you took as a child in snapping the bubbles and frightening your dog Rudolph. Remember how you filled your hamster’s cage with these Styrofoam peanuts because, you told your mother, rodents love nuts, but really you understood the difference, understood a steady diet of Styrofoam could lead to nothing but a bloated ball of still fur.

Behold how the widget dissolves guilt from first lies and hamster homicide. And it clears up that carpet stain in one pass. In three passes it’s completely gone, and you won’t even remember how after you got the raise that was supposed to fix everything but still wouldn’t make the mortgage you drank all the rum from four New Year’s Eves ago and vomited and passed out right there. No matter. That memory is all gone now. The widget has cleansed it. The widget will take over from here, will stand in as the variable that equals the perfect family. The widget will hold your head, stroke your cheek with the back of its polycarbonate knuckles, kiss your children goodnight and lock the doors after you leave with us.

Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA from Bowling Green State University and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His stories have recently appeared in Baltimore Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Washington Square Review, Witness, and The Threepenny Review. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. You can visit his site here: