Shelia Lamb “Lodestone”

 

Honeysuckle rode in on the back of thick humidity as wind blew through the opened restaurant door. The sweet scent cut through the smells of rib eye, buttered corn, and candied strawberry shortcake. Heat lightning flashed across the darkened sky. Toby welcomed the brief respite from the stale glare of fluorescent lights.

He’d not grown used to the southern damp that mixed with the too cold air conditioning, rendering an indoor climate all its own. He tried to balance a cardboard poster on a cheap, plastic easel lent to him by the Buffet Bonanza when the air conditioning switched on. The poster wavered and slid to the floor.

Magnet Health! the poster proclaimed in big black letters. Sleep on a bed of magnets and you’ll be cured. Toby had been driving throughout the southeast, trying to sell his product at prearranged appointments in buffet-style restaurants. Virginia was his northernmost stop.

Lode, thought Toby, as he laid newspaper articles on top of the gravy-stained table. The articles were splotchy with blue ink, copied by an old mimeograph, encased in plastic sleeves. Lode meant, “to lead.” The Greeks realized the stone’s ability to find true north. Roman scholars studied the lodestone with fascination. Magnets represented leadership. Not long ago, Toby led a group of engineers in the design of nanomagnetic computer chips. His invention was on its way to the patent office, under the company’s name, not his.

The magnet…a metal which subdues all other elements, it precipitates itself towards the source of an influence at once mysterious and unseen…wrote Pliny the Elder. How the mighty have fallen. Toby thought of the ancient Roman naturalist as he viewed the whole sorry set-up: the poster, the mimeographed articles. You and me both, Pliny. Barely a footnote in history.

“Is this the place for the free dinner?” A husky man in denim overalls approached him as he tried to balance the poster again. Behind him stood a Mexican-looking woman and two kids.

Toby skimmed the reservation list attached to his clipboard. Dunlop Murphy plus three. He had hoped the plus – three were adult friends. With money.

Toby stuck out his hand. The show was on. He had an empty bank account and merchandise to sell, so he had to make nice. “It sure is. Come on in and have a seat.”

The man’s palm was soft and damp. Toby dropped it quickly as Murphy gave him the once over.

“The invitation said this presentation was for adults only,” said Toby.

Murphy arched his iron gray eyebrows. “The invitation said free dinner. I RSVP’d like it asked. I told your secretary that I was bringing my kids. Can’t get no babysitter for them.”

This was Wanda’s fault. Old Joe’s wife answered the phones down at the Savannah office. When she felt like it. When she wasn’t too busy watching her reality T.V. Which meant she usually screwed up the reservations.

“Can we eat? My kids are hungry.”

“Everyone can go to the buffet after the presentation.” Toby gritted his teeth. He didn’t want confrontation. He needed sales. He couldn’t risk angering a potential customer. Ten percent of nothing was still nothing. Plus he had to pay for the guest’s buffet dinner. According to Magnet Health, the cost of the dinner was an incentive to sell. He pulled a section of the accordion-style folding walls, separating his presentation room from the restaurant.

The Murphy girl took out an iPod and flipped through the screens while her brother looked over her shoulder. Apparently they found something they agreed on, and shared the ear buds, one apiece.

“What’re you selling anyway?” Murphy’s wife asked in a heavy accent.

Before he could answer, a couple entered, a man and woman, jeans and blazers, mid-thirties. Toby got the their names, and penciled in a check mark next to Brandon O’Keefe and Megan Lyttle. Megan pulled a phone from her pocket and immediately began tapping away on it.

Toby used to carry a BlackBerry, back in California. He’d checked it constantly. He’d looked busy. Important. He pressed his hands over his faded blue corduroys, envious of Brandon’s crisp khaki’s and shiny wingtips. Toby had a wardrobe like that, too. Button-down shirts, polished shoes. Used to. Until he got laid off. Unemployed. Ripped off.

“Is this a time-share thing?” Megan said to Brandon. Loudly.

Toby flinched. The mailers, post card invitations to the free dinner and an introduction to a product that would change your life, were purposely vague. That’s how Old Joe wanted it. Hook them with the dinner.

“No, it’s a diet thing. A health thing,” Brandon answered.

“At the Buffet Bonanza? A health thing? Really?”

The door swung open, causing the accordion walls to shake. Toby breathed in the momentary sweet damp. Thunder boomed. He grasped at the makeshift walls and felt the vibration. An overweight woman dressed in pink polyester stretch pants pushed her way in, followed by her husband and two teenagers who wore matching NASCAR T-shirts and baseball caps. The last three were thin, wiry, and hungry-looking.

The dessert buffet was situated behind the opened door with plates piled high: chocolate-dipped Rice Krispie treats, strawberry cake, and trays of brownies. Mrs. Granger, Toby noted on his list, took her seat next to the door and craned her head to look around the corner, as if she needed to keep her eye on the food.

Toby pulled the door shut. Mrs. Granger glared.

He walked to the front of the room and forced a smile. “All you all have to do is listen to a bad spiel and get on out.”

No one laughed. It was a self-deprecating joke that worked on eighty-year-olds. He tried again, with a smile so wide it hurt. “How many of you are open to trying something new?”

Nine faces stared at him politely. Expectantly. Not even knowing what it was he would try to sell them. Toby twisted eight pages of sales pitch. His lines were typed up on a well-worn script, used by countless salesmen before him. Awkward. Canned words.

“If I told you that there was something that could save your life, right now, would you try it? This will cure your addiction to smoking, addiction to food, take care of that back pain.” Yeah, right. Well, at least it wouldn’t hurt anybody.

Megan rolled her eyes at Brandon. “Food addiction? Really?”

“Now this won’t help you with those occasional binges. I took my wife on a cruise and I gained ten pounds!” Toby gave a fake laugh and hitched his corduroys up by the belt loops. That ten pounds was long gone and so was Cynthia.

He launched into the next part of the presentation. Active audience involvement. Persuasive speech. Make them identify with the product.

“Try this: Cross your arms as you normally would.”

All of his potential clients obeyed.

“Now, cross them the other way, opposite arm on top.”

They struggled, realizing the awkwardness of the position.

“See how hard it can be to try something new? But it doesn’t have to be that way.” Toby flipped the pages of the script and pointed to his first poster. On it were photographs of the Magnet Health Mattress factory. To prove it existed.

“Um. Power Point?” Megan said to no one in particular.

Heat rushed to his face. He wished she would shut the fuck up. Just shut up. Toby had taken this job because he had nothing else. A gig where he had a chance of selling something was better than no gig at all.

“The powerful 4250 gauss – that’s the strength in the magnets – cures sinusitis, arthritis, low back pain and fatigue.”

Toby looked at his script again. The physics principles of magnetic strength were true, but he doubted they had any effect on human health. Pliny believed the lodestone could cure eye problems. Toby had written a college essay on how Pliny was a product of the first century and medically, was incorrect. The lodestone, he had argued, does not have healing properties.

“Pliny,” he said, “found that magnets could cure gout. All the way back in the first century, magnets cured people.”

“Who’s Pliny?” asked Mrs. Granger.

 

How much of magnet healing was the power of suggestion? Toby tried to suggest to Cynthia that things would improve, that sooner or later he would get a job. It’d had only been a year since he was let go unexpectedly from the software engineering firm. Sure, the dot com bubble had burst, but Toby was the lead engineer. They’d offered to keep him on as a consultant. He refused. Fuck that, he’d told the company owners. He’d invented the damn nanomagnetic chip.

Cynthia wasn’t interested in hearing it. She’d heard his indignant story many times. Her mind was made up. She wanted a divorce. Just like that. He’d never bothered to tell her that he’d called the company six months later, begged for the consultant position. Fuck that, the owner told him.

What phenomenon is more astonishing…? Pliny had asked about the inscrutable nature of magnets.

This is how it worked. Take the money. Put in the order. Wait for Joe to send the commission cut. Maybe in six to eight weeks, folks would get their mattress. Maybe not. The spotty service gave the Better Business Bureau cause for alarm. Investigations were underway. Joe had told him this when Toby had called the number sent to him in a spam email. “Salesmen Needed.” Toby didn’t ask about the problems. Joe had offered him a job and that was all he needed to hear. As a commission-only salesman, it was barely even a job. It was a wish, a string of luck, a gamble. Like Tom Joad in reverse, he packed up his truck and drove east.

 

Mrs. Granger and her pole-thin husband whispered to each other. They were talking about the mattress. Debating it. Megan continued tapping on her phone. Toby didn’t know why she and Brandon bothered to show up. That girl reminded him of Cynthia. High maintenance. Too good to be there. Dunlop Murphy sat with his arms folded across his overalls, unmoved from the first exercise of the evening.

Almost done. One sale was all he needed, just one. A couple hundred bucks commission. He hoisted up the mattress pad, a demo to bring to shows. It was the same two-inch thick mat he slept on in the back of his truck during his sales route. Magnet Health didn’t cover hotel costs either.

Toby patted the beige covering, turning the side with the coffee stain away from his audience. Hastily, he brushed off a few dried leaves that stuck to it.

“Magnets embedded in the cushion heal racehorses. Whenever one of those million dollar animals goes lame, the owner calls us. Eight out of ten products we make are for horse farms and veterinary clinics. Padding wraps and blankets for the horses. The other two products, the full mattress or this mattress pad, are for you.”

“Maybe it works on horses. How do we know it works on people?” asked Dunlop Murphy.

“Remember the testimonials I showed you? The gauss, the strength in the magnets eases wear and tear on the body.” Magnet Health did make those veterinary sales, Toby argued to himself, as if Pliny smirked over his shoulder. Something in them must work.

Dunlop Murphy pursed his mouth. “I ain’t no horse.”

 

Toby had camped out as he drove eastward to his new job. Saved money that way. He went to wash up in the bathroom of a KOA campground in Arizona. When he returned, everything was gone from the back of his cap-covered truck. His sleeping bag, clothes, his business suits, his laptop, his cell phone. All he had were his keys – which he could have sworn he used to lock the cap – his wallet in his back pocket, and his toothbrush. He wasn’t even wearing a goddamn shirt.

He’d peeled out of the campground and headed south on I-17 until he exited into downtown Phoenix, driving around city blocks until he found a thrift store.

“Sir, you can’t come in without a shirt.”

Toby stalked past the cashier, throwing a dollar bill at the register. “That’s what I’m here to fucking buy.” He pulled a t-shirt off the rack and put it on. Then he went through the store, rationing out his remaining thirty-five bucks. Work clothes first – the navy blue corduroys, a couple collared shirts and a sweater vest, the scuffed brown loafers. Then he sat in one of the rickety folding chairs for sale in the back of the store and held his head in his hands. He had lost everything.

 

Dunlop Murphy was right. He wasn’t a horse. But he was in Virginia. Horse country. If that was where the money was, then there was no reason why Toby couldn’t get into that market himself, go to the farms, to the racetrack. He’d figure out a way to get around Old Joe. Call in to the distributor himself. Set up an account.

He smiled at Dunlop Murphy, pleased. Murphy scowled in return. At that moment, the posters, balanced on the easel, fell forward again. He shoved them into a black plastic Hefty bag, regardless of torn edges or bent corners. How foolish he must look with his trash bag of cardboard. It didn’t matter now. He had a plan, a way to get out of this dead end job. He threw the bag behind the table and tugged up his sagging pants again.

“How much?” asked Mrs. Granger.

“Glad you asked.” Toby raised his voice, trying to sound like he had authority. Like he was a confident salesman. Like he believed in his product. “One thousand even for a twin. Eighteen hundred for a queen. But if you order today, the twin goes down to eight, the queen down to sixteen. The king stays the same at two grand.”

“Two grand for a mattress?” said Dunlop.

“And over four thousand gauss of powerful magnets. Think of all the money you’ll save on medical bills. On prescription drugs.”

Dunlop Murphy tapped his empty plastic water cup on the table.

Scam, Megan mouthed to Brandon.

God, he was sick of that girl. Tired of her eye-rolling. Well, he’d soon be out of it. He’d drive west to the big Virginia farms and sell to people with money. None of this buffet crap. He’d go right to their door. He didn’t know much about horses, but he knew about magnets. He’d throw away this script, and the testimonials, and talk to them about the ancient Greeks and Pliny’s remedies. All he needed was one sale, Mrs. Granger perhaps. He’d have enough to buy himself some food, to fill up the truck with gas.

“Well, folks. I sure do appreciate you being here tonight. Order forms are on your table.” No one made a move. “Order tonight and you’ll receive your new mattress in just six weeks.”

They quickly emptied the room and rushed toward the never-ending buffet, leaving the order forms untouched.

Toby brought his list of attendees to the front of the restaurant.

“Nine,” he told the cashier.

“You reserved the room for twenty.”

“Yeah, well, only nine showed.”

She looked up at him with her brown eyes, contoured with thick black liner. Clumps of mascara stuck in her eyelashes. “You gotta talk to the manager.” She waved her hand, motioning to a man in restaurant uniform.

“He only wanna pay for nine, but reserved that back room for twenty.”

“Sorry, sir.” The manager wiped his shiny bald head with a paper napkin. “A room reservation is two hundred. Plus twenty guests at ten dollars a pop.”

“But there weren’t twenty guests!” said Toby.

“You took up twenty spaces from my restaurant. That’s eleven people that didn’t get a place to sit because you reserved it.”

“But -”

“Four hundred total. Leticia will take your payment.”

Four hundred dollars. He had sold four mattresses over the past three months. He’d saved up a little bit. Gave him the motivation to continue. Now, every cent he had earned, gone. Toby pulled a wrinkled check from his pocket and smoothed it out on the cashier stand.

“Cash or credit.” A pink bubble slowly exuded from her mouth. Toby could smell it. Watermelon.

“You said on the phone I could pay with a check.”

She shrugged, then tapped a torn up sticker on the front of the register. “Cash or credit.”

He threw his Visa on the counter. It ran through clean, even though he pushed his balance to the limit.

“What kind of meeting you have back there anyways?” she asked as he signed the receipt. When he didn’t answer, she added, “Don’t forget the tip for your waitress and busboy.”

Leaving the flourish of his signature for the exact amount, he returned to the meeting room. He was broke, beyond broke.

“Do you have a catalog or website? I’d like to show my dad,” Brandon O’Keefe had returned from the buffet, his tray loaded with sweet rolls.

“It’s a one-time deal for the discount. Buy tonight.” It was the only way to get commission. If they all ordered off the distributor’s website tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter. Toby would get nothing.

“But I can’t drop a thousand bucks in one night.”

“Yeah, well, I just dropped four hundred on all of your food.” Toby was curt. Mean. He’d learned something from Cynthia. He picked up the black plastic bag and stalked to the door. “Eat up.”

He pulled out a map and studied the back roads toward Loudoun County and farther west to the Charles Town Racetrack.

Rain fell as he drove out of town. Lightning flashed to the west.

Instead of taking 15 all the way out, he cut off to Route 50. Better chance of finding a place where he could pull over, sleep in the truck. At least he still had the demo mattress pad. He’d find a pay phone in the morning, call the warehouse, and get his own account. They wouldn’t care. Toby would have to convince them not to tell Joe, to keep it on the down low.

In his mind, he ran through pitches he could try with the horse owners. They’d know about Pliny.

He turned off from Aldie, following the signs for a Boy Scout camp. Rain beat down harder. He followed the curvy, hairpin road. Snickersville Gap. He fishtailed twice around a curve, hearing the scrape of barbed wire against the passenger side of his truck. If he was lucky, he could get in an accident and spend a few nights in a clean hospital bed. But then he’d have repair bills for the truck. And, thanks to Cynthia kicking him off her plan, he no longer had health insurance.

Toby slowed down in the darkness. He crossed over a one-lane bridge, over Goose Creek, the sign said. Farm country out here. And horses. One sale, that’s all he needed to get on his feet. Maybe two. Then he could find something else, tell Old Joe to take a hike.

The slick road curved again. He’d have to go about twenty if he were going to make it to the campsite alive. At the bottom of the hill, water rushed in front of him. The meandering creek now flooded the road. Way over the height of his tires. The turbulent water glowed green under his headlights, choppy waves in the middle of a Virginia forest. There was no way to cross it. He’d have to back up. On the one lane road. He gunned the Nissan into reverse. It groaned and stalled out against the steepness. The truck slid down toward the floodwaters. He turned the key in the ignition again. Backed up, uphill. He had to. There was no other way.

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