Toothpaste and Bumper Stickers
by Josh Gross
Before Ned had been crushed by a drunk driver last month, Dexter had been able to perform surveys with ease. He almost liked it, the way you could knock on a total strangers door and get a tiny window into their life through their answers to simple questions: Do you have a job, kids? Who are you voting for? What brand of toothpaste do you feel best represents you as a person? But now those simple questions drilled into his head during training were gone. In their place: pain. No matter how hard Dexter tried to think of anything else, it seemed to inevitably drift to images of Ned alone on a darkened street fully aware that his guts were dripping out of his ass and that even if anyone could hear his panicked whimpering, there wasn’t a thing they could do to help him. Any sort of conversation had become impossible. A supermarket cashier had asked Dexter how he was that day and he’d almost told her.
In fact that was the worst part: Dexter wanted to tell people. He wanted to walk up to strangers on the street and shout that Ned was a great guy, the best, and that he was fucking dead, then sob on their shoulders. But he couldn’t. He was just composed enough to realize that would be insane. And it would be even worse to knock on someone’s door to shout at them about the death of some teenager they’d never met; definitely a fireable offense. And that wasn’t something Dexter could risk. It had been months since his last job and his landlord wasn’t the type for charity. He and Ned had planned to move to the coast and look for work on a boat, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen. This job was all he had even though the act of doing it made him physically sick.
The first day back, terrified he would be fired, Dexter had filled in the survey cards on his own as he hyperventilated in an alley. Then he did it again the next day. And the next. And though he’d gotten out of the alley, he hadn’t knocked on a single door since. Instead he used the available clues every house displayed to fill in the answers. Minivan in the driveway? Kids. Volkswagen van? Liked natural soap. Manicured yards meant career professionals and unkempt ones indicated academics. Apartment-dwellers worked in the service industry. And then there was the wealth of data available from bumper stickers. They almost did his market surveys for him. Dexter justified it to himself as educated guesses. His answers were based on his observations from the time when he actually did his job properly, and though it would have been easy for him to fill in extra cards to boost his numbers, he never did. He wasn’t a crook; he was hanging on to a very thin thread, one that he could suddenly see was about to unravel.
“Did you hear me?” Roddy said.
“Yeah,” Dexter mumbled. “You’re going to do evaluations during tomorrow’s rounds.”
“Right, so fair warning and all that,” he grunted.
Dexter agreed. It was fair. And that was probably more than he deserved.
The van ride to turf the next day was torture. Primarily because no one else seemed remotely concerned. Tina about a club she’d hit over the weekend while Diane put on sunscreen and Jim restlessly scanned through radio stations. Michelle didn’t say a thing, but she never had. Just sat in the back listening to a set of oversized headphones. Roddy was going over routes on his clipboard in the shotgun seat.
It was the first time anyone had sat there since Ned’s last day.
Dexter was trying to silently rehearse his rap, but he instead found himself staring at the seat for blocks at a time. Next thing he knew they were at the drop point and he felt ready to vomit.
“I’m gonna start with Tina,” Roddy said, slamming the van door shut. He wriggled his mustache as he checked something off on his clipboard. “You all know what to do. I’ll catch up with you when it’s your turn.” Then he hitched up his pants and started off in the direction of Tina’s turf. Tina shrugged to Diane and hurried to catch up.
“What a miserable fuckwad,” Jim chuckled. “Wants to follow us around being all serious. A monkey could do this job, you know. A retarded monkey even. With a gimp-leg.”
“Right,” Dexter offered halfheartedly.
“I should be a doing carpentry. But whatcha gonna do, right? I got kids to feed.”
Dexter just nodded, standing still as Jim started off in the direction of his turf. Rebecca’s back was already vanishing into the distance. But Dexter stood still, pretending to get his paperwork in order until Jim was out of sight as well. Then he sat down on the curb, sucking in breath after useless breath. He couldn’t do this. And yet he had to. That was all there was to it.
“Just stand up, start walking,” he said to himself. “And quit talking to yourself,” he hissed. He sucked in a few more breaths, then stood and forced himself to walk in the direction of his turf for the day.
He found the first house after ten minutes or so. It towered three stories above the ground with trees positioned around the grounds like sentries. Dexter felt his chest tighten up at the thought of laying siege to a castle like this and kept walking, cussing under his breath. He reached the end of the block, then turned around and came back determined to give it a go. He knew he couldn’t hide any more. But the house looked no less imposing on second glance, Dexter’s breathing was no less labored and Ned was more alive.
Ned wouldn’t have had this problem, Dexter thought. He could’ve charmed the pants off a nun in the middle of an earthquake. I can’t even keep it together enough to ask them about bath products.
“Okay, okay, okay, okay,” he wheezed. “What you need is a nice start. Get things going easy until you get your groove and then get back on the horse.” Dexter knew this was a bullshit cop-out, but it was at least a sensible one.
He looked the house over a few times and decided it was clearly owned by a contractor, one who’d built an extra floor on his place for practice and who’d been able to afford it through aggressive use of generic dish soaps. Three kids. Easy as pie, Dexter thought. He strolled to the next house where a pair of childless lesbian architects insisted on recycled packaging and then next where a widower preferred spearmint toothpaste for his two prized show bulldogs. There was actually a bumper sticker claiming registry in the AKC, so Dexter didn’t feel this was too absurd.
He was cooking along, but still didn’t feel ready. Though that didn’t really matter anymore. He had to get it together before Roddy came along or he’d be fired for sure. And as bad as he felt now, that would be worse. The next house would be the point where he turned it all around.
It was a white tudor surrounded by a picket fence and a lush green lawn, like something out of a ‘50s sitcom. The elderly woman who lived inside probably baked cookies and threw the neighborhood Christmas party. This was the kind of house he could handle.
Dexter stepped through the gate feeling confident that even if he broke down, a kindly soul like that would probably invite him in for hot chocolate.
The giant Doberman that suddenly appeared was a whole different matter. Dexter sprinted back out the gate to what he thought would be safety. However the Doberman seemed to think of the fence as little more than a formality and hurdled it with ease. Dexter sprinted down the sidewalk for dear life and desperately scrambled up a tree in front of the next house with the Doberman close behind. He’d gotten a good hold of the lowest branch, but Dexter struggled to hoist himself all the way up. Instead he clung to the bottom of the branch with the snarling dog’s impossibly large mouth nipping at his bum.
With a tremendous effort, Dexter hooked his heel onto the next branch and pulled himself to safety, though he felt something in his calf strain and stretch in a way he knew it wasn’t prepared for.
The dog wasn’t snarling anymore. Instead it was sitting perfectly still, staring at him, ears and eyes as sharp as its teeth. Dexter’s clipboard and survey forms lay scattered around the dog’s position like a nest.
Dexter chuckled to himself. So long as the dog stayed put, he’d just gotten a reprieve.
It had been dark for at least a half-hour when Dexter heard someone calling his name.
“Over here,” he said. “But be careful of the—”
“What are you doing up there?” Michelle asked, suddenly appearing beneath the tree. She patted the Doberman on the head. It nuzzled up against her, then wandered off.
“Nothing.” Dexter said. He lowered himself down cautiously.
“Everyone’s been waiting for you.”
“Sorry.” Dexter gathered the scattered forms. “I’m ready now,” he said.
Michelle lead the way back to the van through the darkened neighborhood.
“What were you doing out here anyway?” Dexter asked.
“Roddy sent us to find you,” she said. “After what happened to Ned…”
“Right.” Dexter just realized that in the panic of running from a mad, apparently sexist, dog, he’d forgotten all about Ned and he felt a brief pang of guilt and choked up a little bit.
“Are you all right,” Michelle asked.
“Yeah, just, I’ve never known anyone who died before. It’s a lot to process.”
They walked the next block in silence, then Michelle suddenly stopped.
“Look, I wasn’t going to say anything because I know you think Ned was your friend and all, but I can see you’re really broken up about this and you have to know, he’s not worth it. Not worth a single tear.”
“What do you mean?” Dexter felt a little hole burning in his chest.
“Fuck it, I don’t mean anything,” Michelle said and started walking again.
“Wait, no stop… Clearly you mean something, so what is it?”
“He just wasn’t such a stellar guy, that’s all.” She kept walking.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“Then you shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“Fine,” she snapped. “You ever wonder why he took this job?”
“It’s a tough market. Everyone’s gotta get by.”
“Yeah, but did you ever notice how while we’re just getting by he never seemed to be short on cash.”
Dexter tried to remember who’d picked up the majority of the lunch tabs, but this was all happening too quickly for him to think clearly. “I don’t know, maybe.”
“Yeah, well, trust me, he did. And that’s because he was a mule.”
“A mule? A deliveryman for drugs.”
Though she’d said it of Ned, it felt like a personal accusation against Dexter. “That’s not true,” he stammered.
“Fine, it’s not true.” She started walking again and Dexter trotted after her.
“How do you know?”
Michelle kept walking.
“How do you know?”
“I just do, all right?,” she said. “Just like I know that’s why he wanted to go work on a boat and why he wanted to take you with him. I used to think he was my friend too.”
“Why did he want those things?”
But Michelle didn’t answer. She put on her headphones and grunted for him to hurry up.
When they got back to the van a few minutes later, Roddy asked where he’d been and not knowing what else to say, Dexter told him the truth.
“I was in a tree hiding from a giant dog.”
Roddy chuckled. “You must have been over on 35th today, right?”
“Probably shoulda warned you about Cujo. He goes after someone every time we’re working this neighborhood.”
“Yup,” Dexter said, feeling his skin bristle. “You probably should have said something.”
“It’s all right,” Roddy said. “I guess we’ll just have to do your evaluation tomorrow.”
“Fantastic,” Dexter said.” He didn’t say another word for the rest of the drive.
The next day’s turf was the kind of sub-development where every third house is exactly the same, along with every resident. It was exactly the kind of place where Dexter’s strategy to avoid human contact would have worked flawlessly, were he allowed to use it. But the instant the van was parked, Roddy got out and down to business.
Roddy made the standard mark on his clipboard and hitched up his pants. “Let’s get this over with,” he said gruffly. Dexter thought he looked the tiniest bit like a Walrus.
Regardless, he followed behind in silent dread. On top of the anxiety over actually talking to anyone today, Dexter no longer knew what to think about Ned, who’d brought it on in the first place. Since Ned was gone, there was no way to confirm or deny anything Michelle had said. But even if he could, would it matter? Ned had shown Dexter what ropes weren’t plainly visible in this job and offered him a friendly ear after their shifts ended. And then he had died miserable, scared and alone. The image was so real to Dexter he felt as if he’d been there, as if he was the one whose bones and innards were crushed beneath a set of Goodyears, whose blood trailed for half a block and who the papers has said was still conscious for an hour after being hit.
“All right, first house on your list, here it is,” Roddy grunted. “Ready?”
“Yes,” Dexter said weakly.
It wasn’t just that he didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to be anywhere, but here least of all.
He opened the gate.
His lungs seemed to shrink a little bit with each step to make room for the rest of his insides to vibrate violently.
He walked up the stairs.
And then on the doorjam he saw a Mezuzah. Wasn’t Ned Jewish? Was this his parent’s house? Dexter knew they lived around here and there weren’t that many Jewish families in the area.
He knocked on the door.
His heart pounded harder and harder with each of the three knocks. His lungs had now shriveled down to singularities. His skin crawled. They would open the door, know who he was, that he had switches routes with Ned the day that he’d died, know that it should have been Dexter walking on that street. And they might even forgive him, tell him there was no way he could know about the car, that it wasn’t his fault. Dexter could hear the creaking inside and knew it was going to happen any second.
“Aw there ain’t no one here,” Roddy grunted, shifting around on the wooden stairs that lead up to the door. “Let’s hit up the next one so I can get back to my route.”
And so they did, and two more after it, Dexter’s panic seeming to run in a loop. But no one was home at those houses either.
“These fucking early start times,” Roddy said. “I keep telling corporate no one’s home at three in the afternoon. People got jobs you know.”
“Right,” Dexter said.
Roddy shifted around from foot to foot and grimaced. “Look man, I’ll be frank with you. This evaluation BS is a waste of time. Crackheads can do this gig you know.”
“You barely even need to talk to these people to know what they’re gonna say half the time, just read their bumper stickers.” Roddy snorted. “Look point is, this was all supposed to be done yesterday and I gotta get back to my turf, which is the way the hell in the opposite direction. Ya understand?”
“So I’ll just mark down that I saw you and you did great and you’re a fucking model employee and a testament to the company training strategies and all that and you’ll buy me a beer on Friday. Deal?”
Dexter could feel the air scraping the dryness of his throat. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “You got your own work to do.”
“Right, right,” he said and hitched up and his pants again. “I’ll see you back at the van then.”
Dexter watched Roddy disappear around the corner and then slumped down on the curb.
The house across the street from him was plain, neither imposing or inviting. The people who lived in it were also probably plain. He couldn’t be sure of course, but he also couldn’t say which was better or worse.
He bit into his lip, knowing this would all go away if he’d just knock on their door. The panic would subside and he would remain gainfully employed. But now that the evaluation was past, he didn’t even have to bother. He could go back to filling in the cards, turning them in and collecting a paycheck without concern. Roddy and Jim were both right. A retarded crack-addicted crippled monkey could do this job. So long as the cards came in, no one cared. He should feel happy, relieved. He didn’t. Dexter wanted to cry except that he felt too angry.
Across the street a car pulled into the driveway and a man stepped out. He opened the trunk and began to unload several bags of groceries. He was exposed. He was vulnerable. The time was right.
Dexter stood up, dusted himself off, and threw his clipboard in the first trash can he saw. His apartment sucked as much as his landlord and he knew few people outside of work. He’d take the check due him on Friday and make his way to the coast. It didn’t matter what Ned was or wasn’t, Dexter was going to find a job on a boat.
© 2010 Josh Gross
“Toothpaste and Bumper Stickers” won the 2010 First Place Individual prize.