A hundred and fifty Keswick Home and Office sales representatives were neatly packed into a tiny Midwestern hotel conference room. The room had been booked at the last minute because the original location – a much bigger and fancier hotel, better suited to the needs of the Keswick Home and Office sales people – scheduled two conferences for the same day at the same time, and so the hundred and fifty Keswick sales reps were relocated, courtesy passes provided. I was one of them.
The keynote speaker - official title: Spiritual Business Consultant Guru - was here to teach us how to better connect with the customer on a spiritual level so we could capitalize (important note: capitalization is not the same as exploitation) on their subconscious mistakes.
The speaker was a handsome man, tall but not freakishly so. He looked to be the love child of The Dude and Donald Trump: his long, straight hair just touched the flaring lapels of his cream-colored four thousand dollar suit. He walked across the stage and knelt at the edge and established eye contact with an overweight woman sitting in the front row. The woman jumped slightly when he pointed at her. You must ask yourself, he said, who’s capitalizing on your mistakes? Do you capitalize on your mistakes? Or is it your spouse? Your boss? And then he walked back to the center stage podium.
Penicillin. Cinderella. The chocolate chip cookie. The greatest things in life began as mistakes, he said. Perfection is a myth.
According to the keynote speaker of the 23rd annual conference for Keswick Home and Office Appliances sales representatives we’re all mistakes, cosmic mishaps, and therefore we all make mistakes but we must capitalize on our mistakes (“humans errors” he called them) as well as the mistakes of others. Whoever can do this will bring the most success to their company and in the end obtain the most valuable commodity of all – personal success and fulfillment.
Had I stayed for the ending Q&A session I might have asked the following: How can something built upon a succession of mistakes be considered valuable?
But I didn’t stay for the ending Q&A session. And I didn’t stay for the slideshow of the yearly top earners followed by the company raffle and the geographically-ignorant company trivia game in which Ohio is considered to be in the West and Texas in the East, ending with the sales rep meet-and-greet. I found myself leaving at about the fifteen-minute mark. A new personal record.
I stood and shuffled past Hugh. Hugh Poleznik from Chicago. Well, outside of Chicago. Near Chicago. Northern Illinois, really. But a Pole through and through, he’d told me and then chuckled, a laugh one would expect from a much larger man, gruff and deep but cut short as if his attention were drawn elsewhere mid-joke. He was endlessly cheery at sixty-six, short and thin and bent at the shoulders. His parents’ accent lingered around the ends of his words. He was my assigned roommate, a new feature of this year’s conference. Not to save money, they’d assured us, but a way to strengthen morale and relationships throughout the Keswick family. My wife, Sandy, was the owner’s daughter, and I knew nearly everything was done for money.
Hugh was new, and this was his first conference, but he’d come prepared. He was furiously scribbling into his notepad as I brushed by him.
This is fascinating stuff, eh? he whispered. Always learning, always learning. It’s how I stay so young.
Yeah, some real gems, I said. Excuse me.
Where ya going?
I’ll save your spot.
I walked five paces to my left and then another ten paces to the exit and after I walked through the double-doors I turned right and walked another twenty paces to the hotel bar. I made sure to bring my nametag because I’d been told I could exchange it for a free drink.
The bar was an unremarkable space. Three wall-mounted plasma TVs served as the primary decorations. Peeling brown wallpaper depicted various Western scenes: cowboys roping cattle, Indians dancing in front of teepees, wild horses with front hooves raised. A lone female bartender wiped the counter as I sat down. I held out my nametag, but she just shook her head no and continued wiping.
Sorry, sir, she said. But that deal doesn’t begin until the conference is over. It’s their way of making sure people stay until the end.
I couldn’t go back now. I’ll have a whiskey sour, I said.
I watched as she made the drink. She paused to review the guide before moving on to the next step. I will have to pay for this, which means she will expect a tip. She’s capitalizing on my mistake. Maybe the Spiritual Business Consultant Guru does know something. She moved to stir it when I stopped her.
It’s shaken, I said.
Of course, she said. I always confuse the two.
She was young (maybe twenty-two? twenty-three?) and blonde and pretty with large breasts that made up for her face. Not that her face was bad per se. It just wasn’t as nice as the rest of her body. Or was it her body that didn’t match her face? Who decides these kinds of things? She had a nice body and a nice enough face. That was it. Nice enough for what? It’s just one of those things people say.
Something about the way she looked right through me reminded me of Sandy’s sister. The bitch, not the nice one. Helen was nice but Trina was a real bitch. Maybe I shouldn’t have called her that it in front of Sandy, because after all, sisters are sisters over everything, but things just happen. Things are particularly bound to happen when everyone has had a few drinks and your sister-in-law starts to point at you and laugh like you’re just some asshole who’s wandered into a private party. She does that thing where she puts both her hands besides her face and makes a sad puppy face and says, awww Johnnie poo it’s okay, our family will take care of you, not all boys can be successful. And then she laughs again and says her sister made a mistake by marrying you, the boy from Cleveland who’d rather cut cucumbers than close deals with customers. But it isn’t too late to start over, Sandy; you don’t have kids yet. You ignore her and blame the wine.
But a year later she does it again, only this time she tells Sandy you only have a newborn, the kid’ll never remember him if you leave now. And there’s Sandy, sitting in between the two of you, unable to defend her husband because that would mean there’s something to defend, so instead she drinks from her wine glass and then clutches it close to her chest and stands up. Says the pool behind her parents’ house has always been her favorite place in the world; if you stand on the diving board in the evening you can see the sun setting behind the Ferguson’s house. And you wish she hadn’t said anything because in speaking she confirms what they all know. That you’re a man supported by the success of your father-in-law like a lost dog that’s wandered onto the estate of a wealthy man. So that’s when you say it: Trina, you’re a real bitch. Just like that. Just the way you’ve imagined yourself saying it all these years. But she doesn’t break down the way you thought she would so you regret saying it, not because you’re sorry, but because it didn’t work and now you just hate her more because of your failure. But Sandy looks at you and starts to cry and you know from the look on her face that the car ride home will be silent. And Trina just laughs and laughs and sips wine while the kids go up and down, down then up, the pool slide. Inside, her husband and father smoke cigars while discussing the economic advisability of investing capital in emerging third world markets.
The bartender handed me the glass and I smiled big and made an attempt at humor, something about drinks and days and doctors staying away. She didn’t laugh. The drink was heavy on the lemon juice and light on the whiskey and she hadn’t a sense of humor. If I recorded such things it would’ve been strike two.
The game was on the TV behind the bar and we were down three runs in the fifth. I asked her to change the channel.
We might make a comeback and win if I’m not watching the game, I said. I’m very superstitious, you know.
Oh, she said.
The Royals were down three games to one in the 1985 World Series, I said. The night of game five I was driving home late. I turned on the wrong station. Sandy must have changed the presets in the car. You know when people do that? Drives me crazy. Anyway, I begin looking for the right station when a car hits me from the side. I was distracted, my mistake, but still his fault. At least the insurance company says so. I spent the night in the hospital. We won the game 6-1. I didn’t watch another game that series. We won in seven, 11-0 in the final and I didn’t see any of it but I knew I had a hand in the victory. Took one for the team that year.
Neat, she said. You from Kansas?
No. Cleveland, I said. But Kansas was my favorite band in highschool so it only seemed natural.
I never did like baseball. A player makes a nice play but the other guy messes up so they call it an error. Why not credit the guy who made the nice play? Seems unfair to me. And it’s too slow.
She switched to the news. The broadcaster was commenting on a recent failed suicide bombing in the Middle East. I tried another joke.
If I stayed any longer that might’ve been me, I said. Anything is better than those conferences.
Yeah, she said. She was a good sport. Maybe I’d misjudged her. Why’d you leave? She looked at my nametag. What was it for anyway, Mr. Carl?
It was Carroll but she said it like Carl but I didn’t feel the need to correct her.
It was a company circle jerk, I said. Everyone stands in a big circle and holds hands and sings Michael Jackson’s ‘We Are the World’ and when the song is over they jerk the person standing to their right. But if you’re left-handed you jerk the person on your left. Things can get a little confusing if there’s two lefties side by side and usually there’s a big mess to clean up at the end. But the top earners don’t have to worry about that stuff. They get to stand on stage and jerk the executives and have their picture taken while doing it and they usually make it to the company newsletter.
Oh, she said. I see. She really was a good sport. She hid her discomfort well.
Yeah but I don’t bother with that. I’m a small earner, the lowest of the low. Less than thirty sales a year. We have to jerk ourselves. There used to be more of us, but now there’s just me and Stan from Chicago, but he usually doesn’t show up to these things. Last I heard he was arrested for solicitation. So I had to leave. I have no other options. My dad was a small earner. It’s in my blood. His brothers were all small earners, too. Always have been, always will be. I’ve got to leave every year. A man has to have some dignity in this world.
Well you look good for your age. My dad is forty-five and you don’t look that much older than him.
She poured me another drink and I drank it. And then another. And then another. And I drank all those, too. She still used too much lemon juice but by the fifth drink the taste began to improve.
The conference was almost over so she let me turn in my nametag for a free drink. By this point we were friends.
Did you know I wanted to be a chef? I said. Of course you didn’t but it’s true. I wanted to be a chef when I was younger. I dreamed of having my own restaurant. A classic Italian place in a small town somewhere. Homemade meatballs and ravioli. That kind of thing. But it didn’t happen. I married the daughter of a salesmen and then I became a salesmen like my dad and his brothers before him.
Yeah but it isn’t the same, I said. In a restaurant your word is law. You mean something. At home you’re just another guy, reduced to a short order cook peeling orange skins for soccer games and leftover pasta three nights in a row.
You don’t think there’s something admirable in that? she said.
I finished the last of my drink and wiped the moisture from my lips. There would be, I said. Except they don’t need me.
Oh, she said. You ever eat at Trattoria? Right off 903, just down the road from here. Great food. Last time I was there I ordered the lasagna. They brought it out to me a little cold. I was going to send it back but I took a bite and it was the best lasagna I ever had. Something about the chilled sauce and the warm pasta made all the difference.
I could see she was determined to make this all about herself. Neat, I said, but I’m not from around here. Just in for the conference.
That’s right, I forgot. What are you guys selling anyway?
Kitchen sets. Office appliances. Swivel chairs with calculators in the arm. Those kinds of things. It was inevitable. My wife’s father offered me the position before we were married. Forced me into it really. It was his one reservation. She comes from a conservative family so when she got pregnant while we were dating we had to marry. And I had to take the job. Said he couldn’t have his daughter dependent on nothing but a cook’s pay. I told him I wasn’t a cook. I was a chef. He said it was a mistake to think the world thought the two were different. Three months into the marriage she miscarried and I was stuck selling his products.
Tough break, she said. That must’ve been real hard for you.
Her words were delivered with tints of sarcasm. She must think I’m some kind of jerk, I thought.
Not stuck. Stuck is a bad word, I tried to explain. It’s been sixteen great years. I wouldn’t trade them but you know how it is. Sometimes I just think about how it all began as a mistake. I’m the highest paid, lowest performing salesman at my father-in-law’s company. Downright crazy when you think of it. I come to these conferences year after year and each year it only gets worse.
Your father-in-law is in there, now? she said. And you’re here. Shouldn’t you be in there?
He doesn’t even come anymore. Hasn’t for a few years. But none of that matters. It’s like he was saying, all that matters is who capitalizes on your mistakes. There’s only two kinds of people in this world and all that, right? That’s what it’s all about. I should go back in there, shouldn’t I? Hear what else he has to say.
What man? she said.
The man, I said. The man on the stage.
Oh, she said.
I should go.
This man, he said there’s only two kinds of people in the world? What two?
I don’t remember, I said.
Oh, she said. Another drink, first?
So I took the drink and when I’d finished the bar began to fill with post conference sales reps. They were a great khaki-clad army armed with business cards and portfolios and handshakes and they all seemed to be smiling and laughing at some great silent joke only known by themselves.
They descended upon my perch from all sides. I was surrounded. I looked to the bartender for help but she was attending to another man. Loyalty is a lost art. I thought of calling to her but I had yet to learn her name. Unassisted, I turned back to face my drink.
I saw Hugh walking towards me. Rather, I heard him. I heard his laugh coming towards me like the dusty bursts of a blown muffler. His hand was on my shoulder before I could leave.
Where’d you go? he said. That was some great stuff in there. Perfection is a myth. Capitalize on mistakes and all that. Could’ve used that in my divorce. Wife got the house and the car but what are you going to do. Anyways, we needed you in the trivia game, you know.
Yeah? I said.
Yeah we almost won, you know that? We were so close. But the West won again. I hear they always win. Well next year, eh? I bet they say that every year. But I can feel it this time. It came down to the last few questions. You believe that? This close. He held up his thumb and forefinger and made a vice shape to indicate just how close it had been.
The world’s smallest violin, I said.
Nothing. Just a joke.
Oh, he continued. What is Dan Keswick’s – the CEO, you know? – middle daughter’s middle name? That was the question. I said Kate. It’s Catherine. Can you believe that? That close. He held up his thumb and forefinger again. It was still close. She’s the one in all the commercials. You know, ‘you don’t need to marry Mary Catherine Keswick to be a part of the Keswick family’? That’s a family I’d like to be a part of. Oh, and there’s a little jingle that goes with it, too!
Look Hugh, I said before he could begin his song, I’m going to head back to the room now.
So soon? But you have to do Keswick Karaoke, it’s a tradition. Or so I hear. No fun and you’ll turn into an old man. I’m the senior citizen here, not you. But if I wasn’t working I think I’d die. You need to have some fun. You’re still young. A little gut (hah!) but you have all your hair and it’s still dark. That’s the key. Stay and sing and have a few drinks. No? Well there’s always tomorrow. The rumor is that we’re doing charades. East versus West again. We’ll get them. I’m sure of it.
I finished my drink, paid my tab and left. I walked outside and stood in the hotel parking lot. I watched taxis pick up sober couples and return drunken ones. I looked around hoping to find someone with a cigarette and when I finally did I paid the bellboy five dollars for a single. The first drag was long and smooth and felt right in the cool night air.
The hotel was situated beside a major boulevard. I walked down the road hoping to clear my head. I got about a quarter mile when I saw a large, dim sign: Trattoria 903. I crossed the street hoping the place was still open. The lights were off and the front door was boarded up, closed due to health violations written in large bold letters across an orange paper. I pressed the cigarette butt against the door and tossed it into the street and began to laugh at some great joke only I knew. I turned and walked back to the hotel.
When I reached the driveway I noticed a drunken couple arguing at the parking circle’s edge. By the patience she displayed I took them to be dating or married, probably dating. A married man wouldn’t attempt to be so helpful. The man was trying to put the woman’s shoe back on her foot – she’d gotten the heel stuck in a crack and it snapped. She was telling the man it was okay, she didn’t need his help, she could just walk barefoot, but the man wouldn’t listen and continued to tug at her ankle, repeating that she was his Cinderella. I walked by the couple and when the man looked up at me I shrugged my shoulders.
I entered the hotel and passed the bar. Hugh was singing a rather rough version of “Sweet Caroline” to the delight of all those around him. Everyone was clapping and laughing and urging him to do more. I stopped and peered into the room. Hugh paused every third line or so to emit one of his laughs. When the bartender saw me standing there, she motioned towards me as if to offer me a drink but I declined.
The elevator was in use so I took the stairs. I went to the fourth floor when I remembered I was on the third floor. I walked down a flight of stairs and found my room. When I reached my room, I turned on the television and watched the late night highlights.
Maybe Hugh was right. Maybe I should’ve stayed to sing karaoke and drink with company men and women. Exchange business cards and stories about hostile customers; embrace the Keswick way. Maybe leaving the conference was my mistake. If I stayed longer I might have learned The Secret this year, the information that would allow me to leave the ranks of small-earner and become a mid-size earner, maybe given enough time, enough work, start wearing the right clothing, etc…I could become a top earner. Make Sandy proud. Shut Trina up. Be like Dakota Loris from Nashville. Top earner four years in a row. She knew how to sell. One time she told us about a new family that came into the store thinking there was a sale happening but it wasn’t until the next day. Dakota convinced the family to stay and she even sold them an entire kitchen appliance set – a refrigerator with matching oven and dishwasher, all with aluminum chrome detailing, very nice. She never told us how she did it. That takes talent. You’re either born with that kind of talent or you aren’t. That’s it. I just wasn’t born with talent like that, not like Dakota. Maybe my mistake was thinking I could sell like Dakota. But it just isn’t in my genetic makeup. Maybe my mistakes were made long ago, made by someone else even, and all I can do is live with them.
Blankets were always too tight at hotels. I laid in bed and pulled the sheets free from the mattress so I could feel the air against my feet. We lost 7-6 in the 11th. At least it wasn’t me this time.
My greatest mistake is me and so I have to capitalize on myself. I can only be me, John Carroll from Cleveland: thirty-seven married one kid two car notes and a mortgage. From now on I will be me. Tomorrow I’ll stay and show the other sales reps John Carroll, the new John Carroll, who is really just the old John Carroll, but they don’t know that. Tomorrow they will. There is always tomorrow. I’m pretty good at charades, too.
About the author:
Adam McNichol is a Philadelphia native although he currently studies at St. Lawrence University in Upstate New York. He plans to pursue two of his passions, writing and traveling, after his graduation in the spring.