I’d been married for six months. Nancy had finished school a semester ahead of me and, since January, she’d been teaching music to “special ed” kids. The thought of looking for a job had barely ever crossed my mind. What had been clear to me, four years earlier—what had led me to move from Baltimore to Scranton once high school was through—was that I could no longer remain in my parents’ house.
Now, with another graduation over and the summer started, I picked a job at random from the newspaper. And one Monday morning I found myself sitting in the backroom of an empty store whose Main Street windows were appointed with small round tables and long tablecloths displaying china and crystal place settings. I was listening to a young man in a coat and tie, not much older than myself, who was explaining to me and a few other strugglers through life what it took to sell pots and pans and dishes to young girls as hope chest items. I had despised him since I’d first laid eyes on him. He had, so far, succeeded in convincing me that his stainless-steel cookware was of some quality, but I’d decided that everything else he said was a lie – including the words I could almost hear him saying to himself.
“You must do one thing, if you do nothing else,” he told us, holding the smaller frying pan of the set up near his ear. “You have to convince yourselves that this is something that your customers need. People look for a better way of life. All people. And that is what we are out to give them. So your customers do need this. It’s a question of priorities. People have money to spend and we have something that’s important to them. It’s your job simply to explain to them how important our product is. What we are offering here is revolutionary. Cooking with our product is healthier because, as we’ve shown, our Waterless Cooking Method seals in all the vitamins and minerals in the food.”
He had a speech impediment, a peculiar way of voicing one particular consonant. But rather that allowing that to cause him any discomfort, he had incorporated it and he displayed it as if it were an official stamp: YOU CAN TRUST THIS MAN. You were to pay attention to, to be distracted by this badge—by the impairment in his speech. I could imagine his speaking to a prospective buyer and, without any overt effort, convincing her and the mother—who it was required must also be present at each Demonstration—of his genuine concern for the girl’s future. He would be the neighborhood boy making good; the college student working his way through school. Or he would be the handsome young man the girl had been waiting for—he would throw in the dream gratis, if it would help him make the sale.
Each sentence, each word he spoke, each syllable was a lie plain and simple—an outward lie, like he told to his customers, but also an inward lie—a lie he told to himself. He’d been lying for so long that he was covered in his lies—concealed by them. You could pick apart each separate lie, but there were so many of them, voiced and unspoken, that—and this was his intent – you would never find him.
He stood behind a table on which he’d just cooked a carrot and a potato in one teaspoon of water using one of the pots and a hot plate. I hated the way he looked. His tailored suit and starched shirt and polished shoes—that was just a disguise. It was the uniform of people who thought alike, but he wore it because he wanted to infiltrate not to join. There was no one he would not use to his own ends.
“Nothing is lost in the cooking,” he said. “This is the starting point to our whole program. We believe that our product will improve the lives of our customers. Now I want you to convince yourselves of this fact. You’ve seen The Demonstration and later on today we’ll go through it again and then tomorrow we’ll have you all start on The Demonstration yourselves. But what I mean to point out here is how essential this fact is to you: the Waterless Cooking Method made possible by our product will substantially improve the lives of our customers.”
He paused and put the frying pan down on the table and looked out at us with an expression designed, with some care, to convey his concern for our well-being. But I wasn’t buying it. The young man sitting next to me was writing with great concentration in the top one of the three notebooks on his knee.
Our mentor continued.
“I want you to do yourselves a favor.”
He set out slowly for the right side of the room, looking at the floor as he spoke.
“Now you can take my advice or you can ignore it, but let me tell you this: Seventy-five percent of you will not be here after two or three weeks. We know this for a fact. Three-quarters of you will be gone and you will have wasted your time sitting here listening to me talk. I wish I knew who you were now, so that I could save you the trouble. Three-quarters of you are not going to make it.
“And the reason you are not going to make it is very simple. Very simple. The reason is this: you will fail to follow the program. It’s as simple as that: you will fail to follow the program. So please listen carefully to what I’m going to say to you today and tomorrow, watch the presentations, take notes if you feel it will help you, follow through on our suggested ways of making your calls—but above all please don’t tamper with success. We’ve done this for years now; we know what works. And that’s what I’m here to give you—our program for success.”
He had come to rest at the far end of his pacing line and now he paused, bent forward just a bit at the waist. Then he straightened up and peered at us—and the room took a breath. And when he turned around to face left and went back to his self-satisfied pacing, the room exhaled. I hated the room.
“What you’re going to be doing is helping people—there’s no other way to look at it. Our product will improve the health of our customers; your task is to make sure they have our product. For this reason you must learn how not to be put off by the people you will see. When they say No to you, it will be as if they hadn’t spoken. Because you have important information for them: you have to get them to hear you out. And once they’ve heard what you have to say and seen what you have to present to them, it will follow naturally, believe me, that they will want to place an order. How could they not? What you’re bringing them is something that is vital to their well-being.
“I want to make this clear—because you have to believe this, you have to get fired up about it; you have to love what you’re going to do for them. This cookware is your gift to the people you will meet. You are doing them a favor in calling on them. So be happy. Be confident! Know that what you are doing is worthwhile and valuable.”
He stopped again and looked out at us with his joyless smile.
No matter what words his mouth released into the air, no matter with what finesse he presented his items for sale before us, I could see behind it all and to me he was revealing . . . himself:
“I,” said his eyes.
“I. And only I. I alone. I impenetrable. And if, for a time, You, then only in the service of the I, the secret I, the strong I, the calculating I . . .”
He moved on to his next point. Of course it would not only be valuable to the girls we spoke to, if we went at it correctly—with the proper spirit and energy and commitment—but there would also be, needless to say, benefits to ourselves. A young man named Jack Rosen had sold five sets his first week and had made $400—and he had worked only twenty hours. Kevin Maloney had been with the company for several years and had just been awarded a car for his particular manifestations of devotion. We too could join the success club. He’d held back these revelations, saved them for the last: they were the most important—the actual point of the whole program.
But no, it wasn’t like he said . . . The real program he was talking about lay underneath what he’d outlined during The Demonstration. The Four Points about Waterless Cooking, and the Six Reasons the customer might give not to say “Yes,” and the Five Ways to turn the “No” or “My husband writes the checks” into “Yes and where do I sign”—these were only superficial. The real program—the one I could see so unmistakably—the real program was the one he was demonstrating to us—to me—in his own person. The real program was the scheme of lies. The fact that you would be offering something of quality only upped the ante. When you made a sale and left the house, no pot handles would melt or fall off; no marriage’s first meal would be ruined. The quality of the pots and pans—that was a solid truth. But it was at the center of a complex of lies:
The tale about the cookware being better because it’s newer: With the concept of Waterless Cooking as another step into the glorious future, persuading the customer to buy is actually an act of heroism—you’re doing your part to move humanity forward. The propaganda of capitalism (that has for centuries infected everyone on the planet): There is a supreme significance in exchanging something—anything—for money. The falsehood about equality: There’s no question that you might be taking unfair advantage of your customers—we’re all one here, hence it follows that anything is permissible between equals. The whopper about the company: That it will back its product forever, so that what you’re really offering the customer is a kind of stock in this same glorious future aforementioned. And then the one about marriage and family: Everyone’s dream-come-true.
Once you’d accepted—bought into—this program of deceit, you were completely prepared for anything the customer might have to say.
But most important was the invention about personal salvation our guide had left for last: It is natural and good that you too should benefit. And: The money you make will set you free.
I hated him and what he said and what he did not say. I hated the tables on display in the front window and the one on which The Demonstration had been conducted. I hated the room and the building and the city where the building was located. And I sat there with the others and I took notes on what he said to us and then I got in line to pick up my samples and my list of prospects. And the next day, having, I felt, no other choice, I went out and got a map of the city, and I started making phone calls and knocking on doors.
“Waterless Cooking” was published in another form by Ontologica.
Karl Williams has published two books with leaders in the self-advocacy movement (the civil rights work of people with intellectual disabilities); his play, based on one of these, “Lost In A Desert World: The Autobiography Of Roland Johnson”, premiered in San Diego. Songs from Williams’ six CDs have aired on NBC, Fox, cable, public television, and German TV, as well as on SIRIUS and earth-bound radio stations around the world.