Selling It to Mrs. Foster


She's wearing her striped housecoat this morning, vertical stretches of color that taper her body, making her look more gaunt than she already is.  She nudges Jones from the easy chair and he stiffens his little white tail and glares at us, steps gingerly away.
      "Have a seat, Bitty," Mrs. Foster tells me, gesturing toward the chair.  I've worn my black slacks especially for this visit and make a half-hearted attempt to brush silvery fibers of cat hair from the gold velour.  It works like a charm.  "Oh, I'm so sorry, Bitty.  That cat sheds like there's no tomorrow."
      "Don't worry," I tell her, "I'll run home and change before my next appointment."
      When I was new at this, a visit with Mrs. Foster could last over three hours.  Now that I've figured a few things out, learned a few tricks, it rarely takes more than half an hour.  Half an hour and I walk away each time with at least a fifty-dollar order.  My best customer.
      "Well, what kind of goodies do you have for me this week?" Mrs. Foster asks.  She places her hands on her knees and leans in, a teetering Parkinson's triangle of bones, visible joints, and quivering skin.
      During one of my first visits, I sold her a bottle of nail polish by promising to come by and help her apply it.  There's a comma-shaped stain on her beige carpet, a little plumberry smile, from where I elbowed the bottle to the floor after dabbing her pinkie nail with color.  She hadn't been upset.  And I hadn't offered to sell her any more nail polish since then.
      I start to remove items from my vinyl bag.  Pearly jars of face cream, tubes of eye-makeup remover.  I arrange them on her coffee table, pushing aside the stack of Reader's Digests.
      "I've been to a convention," I tell her, "and you are not going to believe what I learned there."
      I go over the little speech I've practiced, embellishing along the way, because this is Mrs. Foster and she'll believe anything I tell her.  Or at least she'll let me think she does.
      "Did you know that just one night of going to bed with your makeup on can age your face by seven months?"
      Seven weeks is actually what they taught us.
      I widen my eyes, repeat "seven months," and Mrs. Foster's reply arrives accompanied by a jittery drift of her hand to her mouth:  "Oh my."
      "Exactly," I say.  I tap the little pot of face cream and tell her how important it is to use the product every day.  She nods and listens and I go on autopilot, my mouth moving, tongue pumping out words, while my eyes take in the familiar dark furniture and photographs of the long-deceased Mr.  Foster on the doily-laced mantel.  The bird-print coasters and crystal candy dish, the brass-edged clock above the hallway that has read 3:37 for the past four months now because the batteries have died and replacing them is too difficult a task for Mrs. Foster to handle on her own.  The first door off the hallway, the one that leads to a guest room, the one that was left unlocked during my last visit, when Jones nudged inside, leaving the door open wide enough for me to see inside.
      I fill out Mrs. Foster's order form.  Three tubs of face cream, two tubes of eye makeup remover.
      "Are you sure you can't stay for a cup of coffee, Bitty?"
      "No," I tell her, "I really can't."  I reach into my bag and pull out a crimson sack, stamped with our company's pale pink heart logo, the top of the sack folded over neatly, a receipt stapled to the fold.  "I almost forgot to give you your last order," I tell her.
      "I'll just get my checkbook," Mrs. Foster says, smiling.  She rises and walks toward the hall.  When she comes to that first door, she opens it barely wide enough to squeeze herself through and then closes it behind her.
      I imagine her going into the room, stepping over the dozens of stapled crimson bags I had glimpsed during that last visit.  They had given the room a reddish glow, all those unopened sacks crowding the bed, the floor.  I had been thinking about them all week, the way they filled up that tiny room, took it over.
      Jones leaps onto the arm of my chair and stares at me, his eyes slitted and small.  I shove him off just before Mrs. Foster returns, holding her check.  When I take the payment she puts her hand on top of mine and gives it a pat.
      "You're sure you can't stay?" she asks.  Her skin is slack on her face.  Her hands press into mine.
      I shake my head and pull away.  "See you next week," I tell her.
      I leave her order on the coffee table and head outside, where dark clouds smear the sky and the air feels sluggish and gray.  I flip open my compact, apply a fresh coat of bright lipstick, and step briskly, steadily toward my car.  
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