Pete is in the back room on his lunch break. When I walk in, he raises his fist up over his head and then pulls it down and says “Ka-ching.” I know he’s made his numbers for the month.
“Are you kidding me?” I ask.
“Two this morning compadre. You picked a shitty day for a doctor’s appointment.”
“One Perfect Sleeper and one Elite.”
In the three years that I’ve worked here I’ve never sold an Elite. Not many people can afford a fifteen hundred dollar mattress.
“Fuck you,” I say.
“I know, right?” he says and takes another bite of his sandwich. “Sold it to some thirty year old woman from Amazon who wanted to know what it was like to fuck on memory foam. She was worried it wouldn’t be bouncy enough.”
“You are so full of shit.”
“Scout’s honor,” he says. “She even bounced around on it a bit. It was hot. I almost closed the shop afterwards so I could rub one out.”
I haven’t made a sale in over two weeks. A point Pete likes to make by drawing a big zero on the calendar and then turning it into a frowny face.
“Next one is all yours bro. Turn that frown upside down,” he says.
I go to my locker and pull out my name tag and the phony wedding band I slip on every time a couple walks into the store. That was one of the first tricks Pete showed me. When I was in training I watched him sell these newlyweds their entire bedroom furniture set. While he was talking to them, he kept twisting the ring around on his finger and then he paused in a seemingly self-conscious way and looked down at his hand. “Sorry,” he said. “I just got married and I’m still getting used to wearing a ring.”
Their faces lit up.
“Us too!” they said.
Unlike me, Pete has never been married. He has a girlfriend who, quote “doesn’t go in for that kind of institutionalized commitment.” So, technically his wedding band is fake, whereas mine is only meaningless.
Back out on the floor, Pete is flirting with a customer. I wander over to the sofa section and rearrange some pillows.
Sometimes, after a really good sale, Pete leaves the customer with a pat on the back and a friendly reminder of when they can pick up their merchandise. He stands in the doorway and waves. “Bye now,” he says and then turns back inside. If there is no one else in the store he actually struts across the showroom floor. He bites his lower lip and bobs his head and says, “That’s what I’m talkin about,” and then admonishes me to give him a high five.
When I make a sale I thank the customer for coming in and I tell them to have a nice day. The first time I did this I looked up and saw Pete standing on the other side of the showroom. He was pinching his nose closed and shaking his head. After the customer left he said, “Pee Yew! That stinks. You’ve got to work on your closing lines kiddo.”
Pete comes over and flops down on a couch.
“What did the doc have to say?” he asks.
In truth I wasn’t at the doctor. I had spent the morning in a meeting with an academic advisor at the University of Washington, but I lie and tell Pete that it was just a physical.
“Did he give you the old prostrate exam?” he asks. “I used to date a girl who liked to put her finger up my ass. Every time I get that exam done I think of her. Jenny something or other.”
“They don’t give those to people unless they’re old.” I tell him.
“You’re old brother, you just don’t realize it yet.”
It’s true. After I got divorced, I dropped out of grad school. At the time, I called it a leave of absence. That was seven years ago. Today, the academic advisor told me that I would have to re-apply to the program. If I got accepted, I could start over from where I left off.
One day, a few months after I had been working here, one of my old classmates walked in to the store. We had slept together a couple times after my wife left but it never went anywhere. When I saw her come in I ducked into the back room and hid there until she was gone. Pete started talking with her and I could hear her laughing. He was using what I later learned was his “flirt and skirt” technique, it involved flirting with the customer and skirting the issue of how much any one item cost. The trick with this technique was to convince the customer that you were on their side, and when they finally bought whatever it was you were selling, you acted as if it was some kind of victory over the stifling pragmatism of adulthood. The two of you were a team and the team just won.
When I came back out Pete was feeling good, “I love selling things to cute chicks.” He said. “She just bought one of those two hundred dollar pillows.”
“I went to school with her,” I told him.
“Is that why you disappeared?”
“No. I had to go to the bathroom.”
“Bullshit. I saw you duck in there as soon as she walked in,” he said. “I don’t know what you studied in college kid, but it’s time for Salesman 101.”
Class was held at the bar and over the course of six rounds Pete explained his philosophy on life in general and sales in particular. He summed it up just after last call. “Every once in a while you get a customer that just wants to be told what to buy. They want to be reassured, they need a little hand holding, need to suck the teet,” he said and cupped his pectoral muscle. “You know what I’m talking about? It doesn’t happen very often, but when a customer like that walks in kid, it’s easy money. Everyone else that comes in, you need to sell. But here’s the secret,” he said. “You’re never selling the product, you’re selling yourself. You have to show them that you’re more than a smiley face and a nametag. You’ve got to give them a story they can relate to.”
My younger brother is a particle physicist. He just finished his doctorate at the University of Chicago and is moving to Switzerland to work on the Hadron Collider. Sometimes when I talk to him he asks me if I need money. I always tell him no. I can only imagine the load of student loan debt he is carrying.
My mother lives in a retirement community in Palm Desert, California. She drinks a lot and spends too much time in the sun. In the evenings, while she is sitting around sipping wine coolers with the rest of the retirees, she brags about my brother and will do her best to explain the sub-atomic particles she is familiar with.
“No Jerry, not a quirk, a quark. You are too funny.”
She tells everyone that I sell real estate.
My father died of a heart attack when I was seventeen years old. We were stuck in rush hour traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway. I sat in the passenger seat and could do nothing. When I got out of the car to look for help most of the drivers around me just honked their horns. One man called me a fucking moron. “Move the car you fucking moron!” he yelled.
When my ex-wife and I were newlyweds we bought our bedroom furniture at Target. It was made out of laminated particle-board. When she left she took her clothes, her laptop and her car. Four months later, when I got evicted from that apartment the landlord let me store the furniture in the parking lot for twenty-four hours. I covered it with a tarp, but it still got wet. When I moved in to my next apartment most of the bedroom furniture started to fall apart. The pieces that didn’t fall apart began to smell. Three months later, I threw everything into a dumpster at a construction site down the block from where I was living. A cop pulled up in the middle of my second load and gave me a ticket for illegal dumping.
The little doorbell at the front of the store goes off and Pete says, “You’re up brother. Time to shine.” There is an older man in a nice suit standing at the front of the store, looking around. I can tell he’s motivated. When I approach he says, “I’d like to buy a new bed.” Very calm, very confident. Maybe he’s a lawyer. I let him take the lead.
“Is there anything you had in mind?” I ask him.
“I’m worried about bed bugs,” he says.
This is another lever to pull. Fear is one of the greatest motivators of all time. I know I’ve got him, even if he doesn’t know it yet. “Well, that’s a legitimate concern these days,” I tell him.
I guide him past the traditional mattresses, mentioning how all those layers of fabric and fibers provide excellent nesting places for bed bugs.
“What you really want to be considering is memory foam,” I say, just as we get to the Elite. “This is our top of the line mattress,” I tell him and run through my spiel about what sets the Elite apart from the Perfect Sleeper. I invite him to sit down, to give it a feel.
He sits and gives a little bounce up and down. Pete calls this the paternal position. Get the customer seated and then stand over them like you’re their father. It’s supposed to reinforce the power dynamic between you. Supposed to work on an unconscious level. “It puts them in the position of a child waiting to be told what to do,” Pete says. I kind of think it’s bullshit, but Pete swears by it and I can’t really argue with his numbers.
I glance over and Pete is giving me the thumbs up. He pulls his fist down and raises one knee like a professional bowler who just made a strike. I try not to get distracted.
“What do you sleep on?” the man asks. I get this question a lot. It’s like when I used to wait tables and people would ask me what I liked on the menu. In the past I have lied. I told the customer that I slept on whatever model I thought they were most likely to buy. But this time I try a new tactic. I tell the truth.
“To be honest, I sleep on the floor,” I tell him. “I got divorced a few years ago and lost most of the bedroom furniture. I sleep on a Thermarest mattress that I bought for a camping trip before I got married.”
“Do you like it?” he asks.
“Not really,” I say.
And this is where I imagine the man being won over by my honesty, I imagine him not only buying the Elite, but being so impressed with me that he reaches into the breast pocket of his expensive suit, pulls out a business card and says, “We could use a man like you around the office.” But what happens is this, the man bounces two more times on the bed, makes a slight frown, stands up, and says “Well, that must be very uncomfortable.” and walks right out of the store. I look down at the Elite and I can just barely make out the indentation from where the man was sitting. It is rising, imperceptibly, the foam returning to its natural state. I look over at Pete but he has moved on to cleaning one of the glass top dining tables. He has just started wiping it down, his arm moving in slow, methodical circles.
–Art by Kaia Pieters