Excerpt

“The Knife Salesman”

Woody Skinner

November 16, 2017 
The following is from an excerpt of a short story in Woody Skinner’s collection, A Thousand Distant Radios. Written with dark humor and folkloric flair, the stories in A Thousand Distant Radios capture the passions and compulsions of modern America in unforgettable imagery and saturated color. Woody Skinner's work has won the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award and appeared in Mid-American Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Hobart, Another Chicago Magazine & elsewhere.

Today is not about sales. Here at Cutcorp, we’re interested in establishing long-term relationships. We’re interested in community. So every now and then, we host a “Cutters of the Future” day at a local elementary school. This is one of those days.

I do my usual demonstration for the kids, the one with the rubber snakes and the tomatoes and the crash test dummy. I’m under strict contractual obligation not to sell to anyone under eighteen (part of Cutcorp’s Safety-First Policy), but what happens between the kids and their parents is beyond my control.

When I walk out of the school gymnasium, there’s a line of minivans waiting for me in the parking lot. Most parents already have the checks made out. To each and every one of them I recount the responsibilities of Cutcorp knife ownership. I tell them a Cutcorp knife will slice through a pinky finger like a soggy carrot. Still, when I hand over the knives, the parents toss them haphazardly into the back seat, into their screaming children’s arms.

It’s not uncommon for me to enchant parents with my passion for their kids’ wellbeing. Today, five people — three mothers, two fathers — actually ask me on dates. Meanwhile their children stare at the blades, transfixed by their own icy reflections. I would worry, had I not spent the last half hour of the knife assembly talking about safety.

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I’m a leading knife education advocate for our country’s youth. I always say to parents: you can make sure your children brush their teeth twice a day, you can make sure they eat their green beans, you can make sure they’re dressed warm in winter, but whatever you do, don’t hide the knives from them. Because one way or another, in the world we live in, those precious, silky little hands will find their way to a blade.

*

I serve a variety of cutting needs — from the local butcher’s gory, blood-spattering hacks to the delicate dices of pearl-necklaced housewives. I’ve worked for Cutcorp seven years now, won the company’s National Salesman of the Year three times in a row. It hasn’t even been close. I sell what I want to who I want. I’ve sold butcher knives to blind nursing home patients. Field-dressing knives to card-wielding PETA members. Steak knives to San Francisco vegans.

It hasn’t always been this way. I didn’t always possess such talent with knives and people. I started in the Whet Your Feet program as a sharpener and, upon graduating, began my apprenticeship under a Cutcorp legend, one Doc “Wallet-Shredder” Henderson. Doc became famous in the knife sales world for his five o’clock shadow trick — he’d scrape Cutcorp blades down his bristled cheeks, shave himself in clients’ living rooms, the black wool of his face wafting onto white, vacuum-crisp carpets.

On those long, hot, slow afternoons during my apprenticeship, Doc told me the legend of Jack McGregor, the patron saint of Cutcorp. McGregor had been a prominent New York City surgeon until one day, in the middle of an emergency appendix removal, infuriated by the dullness of his scalpel, he walked out of the surgery, walked out of the medical profession, walked out on his wife and two daughters, in search of a higher order, in search of sharpness. He sought steel that could glide through skin and muscle and bone. But when he found it, he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted steel that could cut through everything. He wanted steel that could carve away the hulking mystery of the Earth.

*

Today I have a house call with a woman I met while staked out at Starbucks. Her name is Hillary, and she lives in a tall, narrow Victorian in St. Louis’s Shaw neighborhood, where rich people who like old things dwell. I feel like I’m on the set of a digitally remastered black and white movie. The houses are old. The cars are old. The people are old. Even the dogs they’re walking look old, like they’re just waiting around for the vet’s needle.

When I ring the doorbell, a cleaning woman answers, invites me in. The ceiling is so high I have to squint to see it. The place smells like a drawer from the card catalog at my middle school. She directs me to the living room, where these cloud-haired old women await on overstuffed furniture. Their bodies are draped in earth tone clothing, beaded necklaces dangling over their blouses.

They discuss a book. It’s a physical object, pages glued together at the spine. I am patient. I lean against the wall and listen to them talk about a pretend family named the Berglunds. I am bored until they begin to argue about whether the writer is a snob. A woman in a hemp pantsuit gets very emotional — she claims to have gone to elementary school with the author’s aunt (he grew up in St. Louis, apparently). It doesn’t take long for things to get ugly. The hemp woman bats another old woman’s glasses off of her nose — that’s my cue.

When you interrupt a geriatric catfight with boning knives in both hands, you get the room’s full attention. I wheel my suitcase between the couches, lift it onto a coffee table shaped like the hull of a Mississippi riverboat. When I unzip it, the women sit down in unison, like a church congregation spellbound by the silvery gospel of its contents, the holy shimmer of the blades.

I stopped off on my way here and purchased a few supplies for this particular demonstration. I may drive an SUV and I may enjoy watching professional football on humongous high-definition televisions and I may own three different pairs of Oakley sunglasses, but I haven’t made it this far without an uncanny understanding of my market. I reach into my suitcase and pull out a burlap bag full of organic produce and Spanish wines.

Without asking permission, I line up a row of fruits, veggies, and cheeses on the big coffee table. I set the wine bottles on the right, next to a lush tomato. With my left hand, I chop my way down the line of food, halving the oranges and grapefruits and bananas, until the blade melts through a block of goat cheese. The rhythmic cutting, the sparkling tick of the knife, leaves the women entranced. They forget who or what that book is about. By the time I make it to the eggplant, they forget who or what they are about. I keep my left hand moving, punching down through the last of the veggies, while I raise a cleaver with my right hand and swing at the wine bottles. The blade sings through the glass necks and the decapitated tops drop to the floor. The bottles remain standing, blood-red wine spilling down their sides.

I look around the room. I have taken these women to a place more mesmerizing, more real, than anywhere their books have ever taken them. Their faces droop with the weight of what they have witnessed. Saliva drips from unhinged jaws. I sense their hunger, their longing, for the banquet spread before them. So I take a steak knife and stir all of it up — fruits and vegetables, wine and cheese. When I’ve got one big preservative-free pile, I stab the knife into the stack, the food sliding onto the blade like a shish kabob. And without saying anything, as if instinctively, the old women crowd around me, their mouths open, ready to eat from the blade. I know — they know — that with even one small miscue, a tongue will sever and drop to the floor with a slobbery splat.

*

My first two big breaks occurred on a single night five years ago. I was at P.F. Chang’s on my first date with Mandy. The service was good, the lighting was low, and the music was unfamiliar but cool. The only problem was the cutlery. It was mid-grade at best. A few months earlier when I’d talked to Jimmy the manager about upgrading to Cutcorp, he’d laughed me off and said silverware operations were handled by the corporate office in Scottsdale, Arizona.

My date was going well. Mandy and I were telling each other work stories when I noticed her struggling to cut a piece of chicken. Something inside me, something primitive and protective, snapped. I unsheathed the BuckBuster Pro I wore on my belt, lunged across the table and, with a quick flip of my wrist, sliced the chicken into strips. Mandy was dumbstruck, but her face reddened with gratitude.

The people around us stopped eating. One by one, they set down their silverware — an impulsive protest of the blunt mediocrity of their utensils. I’ve never wasted an audience, so I stood on my chair, raised my Cutcorp blade above my head, and demanded a boycott until P.F. Chang’s rectified the unforgiveable dullness. People began to stand up as I talked about tired wrists and inflamed arthritis, struggles with tough meat and knotted noodles. They stood slowly at first, but soon they were rising into a standing ovation. In the middle of the crowd a man threw down his silverware, utensils yelping across the tiles. Soon pieces were clattering to the floor all around and the air thickened with silver as metal lofted overhead, glinting in the muted restaurant light. It could have been dangerous — for the first time, I was glad the silverware was dull.

Ten minutes later, Jimmy the manager, with permission from corporate headquarters, signed a contract guaranteeing P.F. Chang’s nationwide implementation of Cutcorp products. I retrieved the emergency silverware I kept in my SUV and handed it out to customers. People returned to their tables, resumed their meals. And so, like the participants in so many great negotiations before us — those fateful pacts in faraway places like Plymouth and Paris and Versailles — Jimmy the manager and I had come together to end the St. Charles P.F. Chang’s Rebellion of 2008.

Mandy and I married the next day, a small ceremony at the courthouse, our immediate families the only guests and the courtroom stars and stripes our only decoration. We honeymooned for three days in Joplin, where I stopped into a deer hunters’ expo and sold an apocalyptic number of knives.

Nine months later, Mandy gave birth in the middle of the night. A boy, Jefferson Mills. Jeff, we called him. Sitting on the hospital bed next to Mandy, I held him for the first time. In my arms, his body felt harder, less fragile, than I expected. It radiated with the warmth that began in his mother, began in me. His breaths puffed like tiny whispers, tiny words that spoke the name of the world.

*

Hillary, the host of the book club meeting, works for a local talent agency. She’s decided I’m an act worth representing, so she’s arranged something bigger than the house call. I keep telling her I’m a salesman, not an entertainer, but she insists I am both. She’s rented out the Scottrade Center, where the St. Louis Blues play, and for the last two weeks, she’s had cable ads running four times an hour throughout the entire metro area. She’s named the event Cut-a-Palooza, and the ads have promised “live uncensored cutting.”

The show starts at 2:30 p.m., but the parking lot is full by noon. Drivers are honking and screaming, their heads hanging out the windows. Thousands tailgate outside the arena. Classic rock blares, the afternoon air flush with the aroma of scorched hamburgers, the sweet vapors of domestic beer.

Just before the show begins I walk down a long tunnel toward the arena floor, rolling my suitcase along beside me. I stop to wait on top of the red X, like Hillary told me. From the tunnel I can see out onto the empty floor. The lights have been dimmed for a laser show; the arena blinks with my favorite colors — our favorite colors. Freddie Mercury’s voice squeals through the PA speakers as the audience stomps and claps. My cue is the fog machine. Yesterday, in our final pre-show meeting, Hillary said that if I start a casual gait when the fog machine begins, the timing will be perfect: the bald eagle will soar from the rafters, out over the crowd, just as I emerge from the tunnel.

The fog machine begins its hiss, a bitter haze filling the tunnel, the floor vibrating beneath my feet, throbbing with screams and applause.

*

Hillary and I sit in her cinema room, reviewing the footage, critiquing my performance. I began with my standard fruit and veggie routine, working in some knife juggling just to give them a taste of what was to come. Though it was a swooping blur of feathers and beards and clucks, I’d nailed the flying turkey decapitations, clipping all ten birds from the air in less than two minutes, their headless bodies gliding above the floor, blood streaking behind, fanning flecks of red onto faces in the crowd.

The film, projected through the crisp, dustless air of Hillary’s screening room, plays with pristine resolution, my performance painfully vivid. I sit up in my chair as I await the final sequence. Yesterday, I wasn’t sure the crowd was ready for the grand finale, the bullfight and subsequent butchering. And after I used the tee-shirt cannon to shoot a dagger through the bull’s side, after the humane swipe of the beast’s throat, as I cut the hide from the meat, I began to worry the scene was too gruesome. A dense pink steam arose from the blood-drenched organs, innards splayed across the cold concrete. But as I watch the film today, I see what the crowd saw, feel what the crowd felt. It is sad and strange and beautiful, I decide, all the things a good knife show should be. I made the audience feel things they had forgotten how to feel.

I say so to Hillary. She tells me yes, they must have felt something powerful — by intermission, the concession stands had sold out of knives.

*

I’m two weeks into my nationwide tour, lying in a hotel bed in Albuquerque. I grip a knife in each hand, hold on tight while I toss and turn. The blades shred my cool satin sheets into gauzy scraps, tear up tufts of mattress, rip through feather pillows, until I’ve pieced together a nighttime nest.

I finally nestle into sleep and dream back to an old time long before me, a time remembered from childhood textbooks. I see St. Louis. I see Lewis and Clark. I see wagon trains heading westward. I see trappers and traders, pioneers of the real America. I see broad expanses of prairie, mountains that scratch the surface of the sky and, farther still, I see an ocean, the Pacific, just waiting to fill American eyes, to fill American bodies, with the electricity of its blue. I see space: vast and empty and wild. I see savages scattered across the land in small villages, overwhelmed and lost, waiting for Us to save them, to show them what God made this land for, what He made this Country for.

And St. Louis: oh St. Louis! That is where it all started, where people hitched up their wagons, watched their fears blow away like dust from a barren road, and set out to follow the blood trail of their dreams.

And sometimes, in mid-sleep, I smell it. The salty musk of horses, the mildewed mud of river docks, the sour vapors of mash, the dizzying must of whorehouses. I smell prosperity.

And then I see the knives. Then I see me. I stand on a busy street corner with a wooden cart, selling knives long and short, Bowies and daggers, blades so fresh they’re flame-warm, just carried over by the blacksmith. And a line of people stretches down the street, waiting. They hold things they’re planning to barter, flintlocks and skins and sacks of flour. Some are more desperate. Some say goodbye to their children, prepared to trade the servitude of their offspring. I’m so swamped, I feel relieved to have the help.

It’s wonderful, these people appreciating my knives not because of my silver tongue or gimmicky demonstrations but because they need the blades. They need to butcher wild game. They need to split open the reddened western sky, rip through the unforgiving landscape, spill the choked, bloodied guts of anything standing between them and their collective fate, our collective fate, Our Manifest Destiny. And just for a moment, as I’m drifting toward the end of this dream, I sense something much bigger than myself, much bigger even than my knives. But then I wake up.

*

Outside a monolithic arena in Wichita, Kansas, a girl asks me to cut her. It’s an hour after the show. The swarms of breathless fans, chests swollen with edged faith, have left the arena. The parking lot is empty. I don’t see it coming as she approaches, her face blank, blonde hair lilting in the prairie wind. Preparing to sign a poster or ticket stub, I pull out my pen. But when she reaches me, her hands hang to her thighs, empty.

She asks me to cut her.

I decline. I’ve never taken the blade to human flesh.

She insists that I cut her. She tells me she’s seventeen and she lives in the suburbs, says her father is a surgeon and her mother a homemaker. They’ve given her a Lexus and a platinum credit card and a waiting college trust — everything she’s ever wanted — but they won’t cut her. As she speaks, her eyes glint like specks of spilled silver.

I tell her it sounds like her father is qualified to cut her.

She tells me she asked him. He wouldn’t do it. Instead, he sent her to a psychiatrist with dyed black hair and a thick lisp. She tells me she wants to be cut just this once, to make sure there’s still blood inside.

I take out my Cutcorp pocket knife and open it up. I ask her where she wants it.

She points to a spot on the outside of her arm, just below her shoulder, the place where a roofer might get a tattoo. I move closer. I lift the sleeve of her tee-shirt and press my hand against her skin, imagining the blood vessels beneath my fingers, wondering how deep I need to go. And then, without nervous chatter, without a word, I raise the knife to her arm, the blade pointed at the ground, and press it gently at first, but then harder, into her skin. I run it down her arm. A single gash, three inches long.

The blood rises slowly, red dotting the surface of her arm. But soon blood fills the slit I’ve carved and pools on her skin, sticky and thick, smelling like iron. She turns her arm inward, leans over her shoulder, and watches as the blood slicks down, drips onto the hot black asphalt.

__________________________________

From A Thousand Distant Radios. Used with permission of Atelier26 Books. Copyright © 2017 by Woody Skinner.




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