A Burning desire

It doesn’t start with a burning desire, but with trepidation. You’re about to do something you’ve never done, in a place you’ve never been, with people you’ve never met. It would have been the same with cruise ship work, or a job in an Alaskan cannery, those other summer jobs that have agents prowling the campus, pinning up signs and passing out brochures, looking for eager recruits. But your job is something different: you’re going to spend the summer selling books door to door.

The lure is money. You could net thousands, you’ve heard. You’re running your own business, and this is America: Anything is possible. Of course, anything means you could fail, too, and end up in debt, but you have so little idea of what you’re about to get into that nothing feels harder and more real than the profit you’re spending in your dreams. Some people are suspicious about the company and its promises, but not you, because one summer in middle school your mom bought these same books from a sunny English boy whose name you remember strangely as Large Tooth. You never used them, but you know that the product is real.

School ends, and you go to Nashville. The company’s weeklong crash course in sales feels like you’ve joined a megachurch, everybody insistently cheery and positive and bright, telling you that with faith and works the future is yours to make.

You want to have a burning desire, and you feel it there for a moment, listening to the keynote speech, the best speech you’ve ever heard in your life, but when the lights go up that burning desire sputters and winks out as quickly as it sparked. You listen to more speeches, learn the products, and you lug your turquoise sample case with you wherever you go. You practice your sales talkso many times that Mrs. Jones takes on flesh, and gestures, and sweetness, in your imagination: she’s your highschool girlfriend’s mother, the one who was always crazy about you, the one who always met you at the door with a joyous hello and welcomed you in.

Sales school ends, and they tell you your territory: Mobile, Alabama, as far south as you can get.

On the ride down, you dream of big brick. Big brick, you learned, is those clusters of upscale brick housing where the real money is. But you don’t know yet that in central urban Mobile, where you’ll be working because you don’t have a car, the brick is small. The money doesn’t live in brick, it lives in wood. It lives in the shade of sprawling live oak trees hung with Spanish moss, on broad shaded verandas cooled by twirling fans.

You won’t see big wood for a long time. First, you have to earn it. You’re new, and for now, you hustle up and down the long straight rows of lower middle income housing, African American families, Hispanic families, small brick, each house with a tidy fenceless front yard festooned with warnings from private security companies: Keep Out, Keep Off the Lawn, Beware of Dog.

You knock, and they answer, through the door’s metal security grille.

“You what?”
“What are you doing out there in the sun like that?”
“What are you selling?”
“You’re from where?”

You stammer through your sales talk. You still don’t have any names, any sales, and no references, but the words seem to work like magic: to your surprise, they let you in. A few people buy, but put down only small amounts: $10, $5, or nothing, with a promise to pay you the balance when you deliver the books at the end of the summer.

Little by little, in these small sales, you get comfortable with your talk. You start living in it, making it real, adding touches of color and gesture, until it’s a part in a play, half you, half someone better, someone more confident and more at ease in the world.

Storms tear into the early afternoon, and in the sweltering heat that follows you can practically hear the kudzu – invasive Japanese ivy – growing, swallowing up the bushes and fences and street lights at the rate of 30cm per day.

One day you’re running from a storm when a woman invites you in. She’s Black, and looks slightly too old to have kids, and walks with cane and a limp, but she talks almost like she’s shouting in church, laughing, full of joy. And her name is actually Mrs. Jones. Maybe she’s got a grandchild, or a niece, you’re not exactly sure, but she sits you down at her kitchen table and offers you fried green tomatoes on a disposable plastic plate. You want to stay on schedule, you try to start on your pitch, but your heart’s only half in it. You’re mostly just relieved to be out of the rain. And Mrs. Jones knows it.

“If you really want it, you gotta claim it!” she hoots.

Block by block through urban Mobile, you’ve been telling stories to Mrs. Jones, but now Mrs. Jones is going to tell you one. She tells you how she suffered, with her family, with her bad leg, with the material things of life, but when it came to things she needed, the Lord helped her claim them. If she wanted it enough, the Lord would make them hers.

“Do you know how I got my car? I claimed it! In the name of the Lord!”

She had needed a new car badly, and the Lord guided her into the dealership and showed her a new car: a big, burgundy Buick. The car dealer tried to sound her out, steer her elsewhere, but she walked right up to that car and sat down on the hood and repeated what the Lord had told her. She perched on the hood and refused to move until it was hers.

You’re not sure exactly what she means, but you know there’s a big burgundy Buick sitting in her driveway. And it’s hers.

And you know that for the first time since sales school, you are looking into the face of burning desire. Mrs. Jones looks nothing like that tall White man who gave the keynote speech, but they proclaim with the same righteous certainty that what they do not have will be theirs. For a moment, you worry the Lord might lead her to claim your books. But as you listen to her story, you feel that burning desire flicker to life once more in you.

You step off Mrs. Jones’s porch with a righteous certainty that will carry you through the next two months across Mobile, on a newfound bike, through small brick and big wood. You’ll get to know the people so well you can map their intertwining family trees from memory, know who the kids’ teachers are, the hard ones, the easy ones, and know which mother serves the best sweet tea. And you’ll sell and sell and sell. You’re sunburnt, you’re lean, you eat problems for breakfast to earn your day’s success. It’s inside you, driving you: You’ve found your burning desire.