I’m a lousy salesman. That didn’t prevent me from becoming a signed, sealed, and certified Fuller Brush salesman in the cold, wet spring of my junior year in high school. Tuesday and Thursday nights, I would rattle around the countryside in my 1950 Plymouth coupe with a stack of Fuller Brush catalogs, my samples — not just brushes, cleaners as well, scrubbing things, special cloths, terribly boring stuff — and my order forms.
Once past the gate, I lit a cigarette and noticed that my hand was trembling.
One dark night, I was rattling along a dark, dismal country road in Still River, a small community on the far side of Harvard, Massachusetts. I came upon a high stone wall that ran along a narrow verge between the road and a forest. Gloomy, I thought, and shivered. At the next crossroad, I came upon a heavy oak gate, stained dark brown. The gate was lit by a meager bulb in a lantern that hung at the gate’s apex from an arch with a crucifix perched above it.
I stopped on the road before the open gates. Down a shrub-constricted lane I saw an equally grim stone building, lit by a second dim lantern. Hell,” I thought. This is creepy. But in those days, I would try anything to escape the boredom and ennui of my teenage plight. I dared myself to head down the lane, pull the Plymouth up to the door and give it a try.
Taking my samples, catalog, and order form, I shut down the rattling flathead and knocked on the door. A thin-faced woman in a black and white habit that pinched her face further opened the door and looked at me with a look that I can only describe as neutral. Her small, dark eyes moved deliberately from my face to the old Plymouth behind me, and back to my head. Taking her time, she dropped her gaze slowly down my body from shoulders to waist, legs, and feet. With the same measuring gaze, she raised her eyes slowly and looked down her thin nose at me. “Yes?” she whispered.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m selling Fuller Brushes. I thought you folks might want to look over the most recent catalog. We have quite a few new items.”
She turned away from the door. “Father?” she called, her thin voice barely raised above a whisper.
The hallway behind her was stained dark brown, shit-stain brown, I remember thinking, with the same meagre light punctuating the darkness inside. The place smelled of dusty drapes and old carpet.
A curtain parted and a robust woman stepped into the hallway’s gloom. She stood there for a moment, looking past the mantled doorkeeper. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that the robed figure was a man, a wide man of medium height. Round, brown buttons gleamed down the front of his cassock.
Wrapped around his girth, a broad magenta cummerbund held a heavy crucifix, pinned at the top of the bright belt, its beads symmetrically draped in two heavy pendula up his chest and around his neck. He began to walk toward me, gliding really, his feet never showing beneath the pyramid of the cassock. He smiled at me the way people smile when it has never come naturally, a kind of forced grimace that revealed his yellow teeth. I remember thinking the low, yellow light in the hallway perfectly matched the hue of his stained incisors.
The man floated forward, both hands reaching out. “Come in, my boy,” he said.
The door closed behind me. The woman, garments billowing like crows’ wings, retreated down the dim hallway.
The man attempted to take my hands in both of his but stopped, foiled by my sample suitcase and catalog. “I’m sure we can use something,” he said. “Cleanliness, godliness, all of the same cloth, right sister?”
The crow turned, her face white in the yellow light, nodded, and disappeared through a second curtained doorway.
“Come with me.” The man took my elbow and ushered me through curtains that opened on a study with diamond-paned windows and dark furniture. A green glass shade glowed on an old-fashioned brass desk lamp, and a single light shone outside the window.
“We’ll have to sample your wares,” he said, smiling that forced grin. “Won’t we,” he said. A hand stretched out for the catalog and I recall seeing age spots of the kind my grandfather sported. “Give me that,” he said, “and please sit down.” He gestured to a low leather hassock to the right of his desk, a big old table, also stained shit brown. It gleamed under the desk lamp.
“I’m okay,” I said. I didn’t want to sit.
“Fine,” he said. “Suit yourself.” Again, that grin. It seemed to leap onto his face like a small rodent or a large insect. His eyes measured me as had the sister’s at the front door.
“We’ve got quite a few new items,” I said. This certainly felt creepy, but priestly seduction wasn’t in the forefront of my mind in those days. I was too parochial at that age, sequestered in my small, New England world, to consider any possibility of wrongdoing. But the place smelled musty and dank. I turned my thoughts to the possibility that I might make a nice commission off this creepy guy and his creepy mansion, monastery, whatever.
He sat in a high-backed, ornately carved chair and turned the catalog’s pages. The sound raised the hair on my arms. Muffled footprints scampered down the hallway behind me. He leafed through, methodically, then flipped back to the beginning. “All right, boy,” he said. “We’ll have…”
He rattled off an order of sweepers, indoors and out, brushes, and cleaners. I filled out the order form, struggling to keep up with his raspy, hissing list.
I finished and stepped forward. “Thank you, sir,” I said, and reached to pick up the catalog off his desk.
“Father,” he said, holding onto the catalog. “You’ll call me Father,” he repeated.
“Right, father,” I said, pulling at the catalog.
“Good lad,” he said. “And you’ll be back with the order… in person. Yes?” He held the catalog.
“Yeah, father,” I said. “I’ll be back next week with your order.”
“Good,” he said and let go. I stumbled backward a step. He stood up. “We’ll see you then.”
“Thanks, father,” I said. I backed out of the room. At the time, I wasn’t aware I had done that, but I felt a pressure to get out and, to my surprise didn’t want to turn my back.
“Sister!” He called.
“Oh, no, sir… Father,” I said. “I know the way out.” I beat a hasty retreat out the door just ahead of the rippling cascades of black habit that followed. The door slammed behind me. I crossed rapidly to the old Plymouth, hoped it would start, and, when it did, I did a quick U-turn at the cul-de-sac, and powered out of there. Once past the gate, I lit a cigarette and noticed that my hand was trembling.
The order didn’t come for two weeks. Fuller didn’t really give a damn, but once I had the bundle of brooms and brushes and cleaners, I headed back, ready to collect my commission. I made a few stops first, working my way into Still River and the closing forest. The sun had set pink, squeezed between dark gray clouds and the wooded hills.
I drove beneath the lamp and the crucifix, pulled down the driveway and, my arms full of brooms and bundles, I knocked.
Again, the hooded thin-nosed visage opened the door and stepped aside. I turned to her, arms full. “This is what ah…” I paused. Who was he? To her? A father? A bishop? His holiness?
She swept the brooms and brushes out of my arms. The box full of cleaners fell with a clatter. The father burst out through the curtains of his den, a look of fury on his face. His face softened. “Ah,” he breathed. “It’s you.” He opened the curtains. “Come in,” he crooned. “You’ll want to settle up.”
The woman scrambled to pick up the brooms and scattered cans of cleanser.
I followed the man through the curtains, fixed on the magenta beanie that he wore on the back of his head. I wondered how he could walk in such a stuffy manner with that ridiculous pink thing covering his bald spot. But no matter. I’d collect the money and be out of there. I could hear the woman in the hallway, still scuttling to pick up the assembled products the man had ordered.
“Now,” the man said, standing beside his ornate throne. “How much do we owe you?”
I pointed out the price on the invoice.
“Mother Mary, that’s steep,” he said.
“That includes my commission, sir.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Father.”
He turned around and bent over a long cabinet that stood behind his desk and his throne. He seemed to be fumbling around back there, but I heard a metal box open, the rustle of paper.
The old man turned around. In one hand he held a small sheaf of bills. His cassock was open. Not all the way open, like to his flesh, but unbuttoned from the collar down. The magenta cummerbund gleamed. “So, my boy,” he said. “Kneel down.”
“What?” I said. I wasn’t playing dumb. Nobody had ever hustled me before. I was lucky if I could get a sophomore girl to look at me, never mind pay any attention. And the boys all called each other “homo” or “queer” as an insult. No one ever, no teachers, no parents, not one of the many authority figures in my young life had ever done anything like this.
“I said,” the man repeated, slow, “Kneel down…”
“Why?” I said. I may not have fully gotten the implication of his command but to me, this guy was acting way over the line, just on his pompous asshole quotient alone.
“Because I said so,” the man said. His face grew red. He held up the cash. “You want your money?” He stepped around the desk, an ugly, fat man. “Kneel down and say the Hail Mary.”
“The what?” The anger was rising up in me. “I’m not even a Catholic.”
“Everybody needs to pray to the mother of Christ,” he hissed.
“To hell with that,” I said. I was surprised at how quickly the fury had risen in me. “Give me the damn money.” I took a step toward him.
He stepped behind the desk and held the money high. “The hail Mary, boy,” he hissed.
“Fuck you, old man, I said. “You can keep your fucking money.” I turned to walk out the door. I could feel hot tears behind my eyes. I didn’t fully understand what was happening, but this whole deal had gone weird. Very weird. And I felt scared. And weak. And helpless. I didn’t know who else was in the house or where the crow-wing woman was. I didn’t care about my commission or the Fuller Brush company. I just wanted to get out of there.
“You’ll burn in hell,” the man hissed behind me. “You’ll burn in hell!” His whisper had a throaty cracking tone that made him sound crazy. I turned to face him. He was quivering, the money in his hand. “I swear you will,” he rasped. “You’ll burn in hell.” He threw the money on the carpet.
I looked down at the money. I looked at the man. “No,” I said. “You will.” I walked to the curtain and turned. My whole body was shaking. “You already are,” I shouted. “You already are. Burning in hell!”
He stood by his desk, red-faced with rage, his hand steadying his shaking weight against the desk. “Get out. Get out!”
I drove home. I called the next day and quit my job with the Fuller Brush Company. I hated the dumb job anyway. I never told my parents what had happened. I was too embarrassed. Besides, the whole event seemed impossible to describe and I wasn’t sure anybody would believe me. What would I tell the kids at school?
It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the fat man in the magenta cummerbund was a powerful Boston-bred Catholic Jesuit priest who had for years broadly expounded his belief that there was no salvation for anyone outside the Catholic church. His dogmatic views on Catholicism and his vocal anti-Semitism drew the attention of the Vatican. He was excommunicated and retreated with a sizeable cult to his own monastery in Still River, Massachusetts where I met him. He died of Parkinsons at the age of 80.
More important, as a result of my experience with the fat father and the Fuller Brush company, I caught the first glimpse of what so many of the girls and women I know had gone through, over and over again. I never forgot that glimpse or the feelings of rage and helplessness that had sprung up so quickly inside me.
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.