An excerpt from a novel by María José Ferrada translated by Elizabeth Bryer.
D began his career selling hardware items: nails, saws, hammers, handles, and magic eye door viewers, brand name Kramp.
The first time he left the guesthouse where he lived with a sample case in hand, he couldn’t work up the courage to step inside the leading hardware store in the city, which back then was just a town, until he’d walked past it thirty-eight times.
His first sales attempt happened the same day man took a step on the moon. The townspeople assembled in the square to watch the moon landing. A projector that the mayor had wheeled out to his office balcony cast the moving image onto a white sheet. Since it played no sound, the fire brigade band provided the backing track.
When D saw Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon, he thought that anything was possible—all it took was the right attitude and the right outfit.
So the next day, after approaching the hardware store for the thirty-ninth time, he stepped inside it in the most polished shoes the city had ever seen and offered his Kramp products to the person in charge. Nails, saws, hammers, handles, and magic eye door viewers. He didn’t close a sale, but he was told to come back the following week.
D treated himself to a coffee and jotted down on the napkin: Every life has its own moon landing.
Later, when D told his father that man had reached the moon, his father said it was an out-and-out hoax, that God created man with his feet on the ground and with no wings to speak of, and everything else was lies spouted by the president of the United States.
Either way, the following week D made his own small step for mankind: he sold a half-dozen saws and a dozen magic eye door viewers. When he left the hardware store with the order inside his suitcase, he felt that all moments of happiness, large and small, deserved to be projected in a town square.
Over the next few weeks, D delivered three photographs and four Chilean escudos to the Traveling Salesmen Registry. Fifteen days later his ID was ready, no. 13709.
With the ID in his pocket and at a discount that was equivalent to a commission for 2,356 saws, 10,567 nails, 3,456 hammers or 1,534 magic eyes, he bought a Renault. Seated inside it, he began to travel to nearby towns, following the advice of an old-timer salesman. Really it was a piece of advice and a declaration.
The piece of advice:
“When you come to a town, your first task is to find the central coffeehouse and the hotel where the other traveling salesmen stay. Usually it’s on the same block as the town square and the bar.”
(That’s where he would come across the men who, from that moment forward, would be a kind of floating family. A family with no relatives and, for that reason, more tolerable than any other.
The Made-in-China plastic products salesman.
The Parker pens salesman.
The English cologne salesman.
And everyone else.)
“All towns are the same: godforsaken shit heaps.”
It is their nature, and there is nothing you can do to change the nature of things.
Bit by bit, D started to construct his own epistemology. And the first thing he did was separate life events into two groups: the probable and the improbable.
It was probable that he would visit seventeen clients that week. It was probable that ten of them would make a purchase. And it was probable that it would rain, because it was winter.
It was improbable, and D repeated this while looking at himself in the mirror, that a house constructed from 80 percent Kramp products would topple in the event of an earthquake or a tornado.
And it was improbable that due to a bus strike a woman would be hitchhiking to university on the very same corner that D’s Renault passed by.
That was exactly what happened on 13 November 1973.
D thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. And the woman, who hadn’t laughed for a long time, thought D was talkative and entertaining.
A year later, on 13 November 1974, they got married.
On leaving the Civil Registry, D asked the woman to wait a second and went to find a serviette where he jotted down what had just happened (their wedding) in a subcategory of his classification of things that he baptized “truly improbable things” (“those phenomena that make us think that some kind of god exists”).
D and the beautiful woman built a house out of Kramp products and, some time later, had a daughter they called M. I am M.
Soon, my parents designed a learning plan that would allow me to understand the things that a child—a girl, in this case—needed to make her way in the world.
Thus, I began with an early classification of things.
In my first year of life I discovered, for example, that there is something called day, something called night, and that everything that happens in life fits into one of those two categories.
The second year I learned to look out the window. My parents told me that over the course of my life I would win and lose many things. I shouldn’t worry: the world would always be out there.
The third year I discovered the existence of people. Once more my parents used the window to explain to me that people could be classified as either summer people or winter people. I still don’t know what they meant by that.
In my fourth year of life I went out to the patio of my house and saw fireflies. I decided that this would be my own memory, and it would be unclassifiable. The fireflies wouldn’t stop glowing.
When I was seven (it was a spring day, I know so because my mind insistently drenches that memory in a yellow hue) I heard the story of the moon landing and its moral for the first time: with well-shined shoes and the right outfit, anything is possible. And, to shield me from the nature of life, I think, D added that a little luck was needed too.
The same afternoon I polished my patent leather shoes with a brush, put on a green dress that I teamed with green socks, and decided that I would be D’s assistant.
I went out to the patio, lit a cigarette and took a slow drag. I’d stolen it from D’s pack, as in the evenings he fell asleep smoking in front of the television.
I’d inherited from D an uncommon gift for persistence. So a week later we got into the Renault—which now had, on both its doors, a Kramp products logo—and set out for a neighboring town.
When we parked the car by the town square, D gave me a few instructions:
- Go for a walk if you get bored, but don’t venture beyond the same block.
- Say thank you if the person in charge gives you a chocolate or anything.
And he promised that if we closed a sale or collected the amount owing for the previous month’s sale, in the late afternoon we would go to the coffeehouse.
We visited three stores that sold Kramp products alongside chocolates, toys, buttons, magazines, colognes, and dishcloths. On our first few trips I could already see that objects designed for a vast array of uses established a kind of camaraderie in the towns. I developed the habit of looking in the display windows for objects with no apparent relationship to each other and telling myself that, if I discovered whatever the relationship was, I would have good luck that day (a wooden pencil was connected to a metal handle because the handle would be put on a door one day. A wooden door. Pencil–wood, wood–door. Luck).
That day we sold three hundred saws and collected two amounts owing for sales closed the previous month.
I was also given a puzzle book and a can of pineapple, for which I said thank you.
In the late afternoon we went to the coffeehouse. So began our partnership.