In March, the forsythia buds swell and the ice in our unpaved driveway turns to mud that tugs at the soles of our shoes. Swarms of tiny black bugs appear whenever the sun comes out, and the salesmen arrive. They bring paint and vacuum cleaners, insurance for this world and the next; samples of cosmetics and kitchen utensils; and bushels of last year’s apples, rotten on bottom, firm and polished on top.
The first to come after the winter hibernation was a blond young man, bent under the weight of a vacuum cleaner. He stood in my doorway with the rain dripping from his hair and the heavy box of attachments dragging him down on one side. I didn’t have the heart to send him away. The living-room rug was sprinkled with cracker crumbs. I thought I had nothing to lose but a few minutes of a gray day.
I gasped when he turned a bag of cork shavings on to the floor. He cleaned it up efficiently, however, and left a light colored square to show what might be done.
“You have a bad sand and dust condition here,” he said, like a doctor urging an operation. “This is what you permit your children to breathe,” and he showed me the contents of his dust bag.
He made it plain that only a calloused mother and inept housekeeper would live with an outmoded cleaner. I found myself admitting that my cleaner was ten years old and even agreed to discuss the matter with my husband.
“I’m sure he wants the best for you and the children,” he said. “The offer is just for today. Why discuss it? Why put it off?”
The company was offering a new suit of clothes and a trip to Miami to the young man who sold the most the fastest. “This sale means an awful lot to me,” he said.
I had to tell him the truth. I did not plan to buy a vacuum cleaner. I did not care whether or not he went to Miami. Did he care whether I went to Miami?
He swore softly as he gathered his hoses and brushes. He had no use for people who weren’t serious. I had wasted his time and lessened his chances to win the contest.
The rain turned to sleet that day and icy roads protected me from the outside world. But several days later, as soon as the sun came out, two women came to my door. One was middle-aged and stout; the other a young girl with a pony tail tied in a pink ribbon. She smiled as she spoke. “We come to bring you word of the true religion.”
The older woman shook her head in agreement. “People have fallen into bad ways. We live in a corrupt world,” she said, and I could not disagree.
“It’s like in Noah’s time,” the young girl said. “God saw the earth and it was ruined. All flesh ruined its way on the earth.”
My daughter hugged my knees and shared my uneasiness. “What does she say?” Nancy asked.
“It’s in the Bible, deary,” the older woman assured her. “God’s word is all in the Bible.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. The baby rattled his crib impatiently.
“For your good and the good of your little children,” the girl begged. “The time is at hand for Jehovah to bring his punishment upon us all. Terrible destruction awaits us.” Her voice trembled. I thought I saw tears in her eyes. “True religion brings great blessings and love,” she said desperately, pressing some pamphlets into my hand. “A little gift,” she said. “Only ten cents for this little gift.”
I took a dime from the change the milkman had left and gave it to her.
“God bless you and teach you repentance,” the older woman said as they turned to go.
“Tell me,” Nancy pleaded, “tell me what they were selling you?”
On Friday, the paint salesman came. The children were playing in the sand box. I was typing at my desk near the window while I watched them. It was the first quiet moment of the day and I was not happy to see a car in the driveway. A heavy young man in a leather jacket pulled a briefcase out of the back seat. He came up to the front door with a confident smile and waved when he saw me at the window.
“I would like just ten minutes of your time,” he said cheerfully.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m busy now.”
“Come on,” he urged. “I’m here to do you a favor. What can you lose?”
“My place,” I said angrily.
“What are you doing, writing a book?”
“Yes,” I said sharply.
“You’re kidding,” he laughed. “Look, when I decide to do someone a favor, I do it. So relax. I’m not selling anything. I just want to offer you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don’t have to tell you that your house needs paint.” He scraped his fingernail along a shingle and the blistered paint flaked off. “Your friends and neighbors must have told you already. It’s just your luck that we have a special this month. We just finished the Cory house down the road and they gave us your name. Now if you take advantage of our offer Cory gets twenty-five dollars off his bill. Now I’ll be happy to give you the same amount for every person you recommend. You recommend fifteen people, you get your job done for free.”
“We’re not painting the outside this year,” I said firmly.
“Why not? Give me a good reason why not?”
“I don’t have to give you any reason,” I said angrily. “We’ll paint when we’re good and ready and we’ll do it ourselves. You’re just wasting your time.”
“It won’t cost you a cent,” he said. “I put it on your mortgage and you don’t lay out a penny. Let me show you a sample of the work we do. You could never do it! You’ll paint this house yourself? What are you talking? It’s impossible!”
He did not look at me, but stared rudely at the dining room behind me. The table was set for a Friday night supper. There were candles and a braided challeh on the white tablecloth.
“Isn’t this nice. I haven’t seen this since my old grandmother died. How nice you keep it up! I really like this kind of thing, I really do. I’ll tell you something. I’ll take off fifty dollars for being you’re in the family. What do you say? Do yourself a favor!”
I couldn’t get rid of him until the baby fell and cut his lip on his pail. “Where’s your doctor?” he asked solicitously. “I’ll give you a lift.”
“Will you please go?” I found myself screeching. “Just go!”
In the course of two weeks I resisted a photographer, a tree nurseryman, and people wanting me to subscribe to magazines I had no time to read. But all my experience could not prepare me for Mr. Stern.
He came out on a Sunday morning when I was trying to turn a day that was neither Sabbath nor Monday to some account. I imagined that I could hurry spring by painting kitchen cabinets. The children squatted at my heels. My husband helped without enthusiasm.
“Not company,” I groaned when I heard the doorbell. Dishes and cans were piled on the living-room couch. The children had turned the kitchen furniture into a train.
I knew in a moment that the visitor was a stranger. Our friends did not wear gray felt hats.
He asked for me and I assured him that I was myself.
“I pictured you older,” he said thoughtfully. “My wife and I love your stories. They have a mature point of view, an understanding of life. I’ve wished a long time for the opportunity to tell you.”
A flush of embarrassment and pleasure went from my cheeks to the back of my neck. I found myself staring down at my green-speckled dungarees, one leg rolled to my knee, the other slipped to my ankle.
“We’re painting now, but won’t you come in?” I said as I turned to take a pile of dishes off a chair.
“There aren’t many people I can drop in on like this,” he said. “You can only do this with a mature person, who takes life seriously. . . . Is your husband in. I would like to meet him too.”
It was then that I first noticed the leather briefcase. Nancy ran to get her father.
Mr. Stern stood up to shake hands, but withdrew from the green fingers. “I’m sorry to interrupt your work, but I was passing by and I had to speak to you and your wife. We’re expanding every day and prices are going up. It would not be wise to delay.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought I mentioned that I am on the staff of the Hillside Memorial Park.”
I still looked blank until my husband said, “You mean the cemetery?”
“You mean you’re trying to sell us a plot in the cemetery?” I said.
“I’d like you to think of it as insurance, as an investment in the future. It’s protection for you and your children and a chance to get the most for your money. That’s exactly the proposition I want to offer you.”
I took a deep breath. “We’re painting this morning,” I said tightly. “Why don’t you come back in about twenty years?”
“I’m glad that your wife has a sense of humor,” he said. “But in all seriousness, if you wait for an emergency, a plot can set you back as much as five hundred dollars. If you buy now you can get two for that money.”
He was ready, pencil in hand. “How many children do you have?”
I shook my head mutely.
“I have a site on the hill,” he said. “The view is breathtaking. It’s right beside the chapel where memorial services are held, which is a real convenience. I can show you on this diagram that it’s a perfect location, right on the path. The inside plots are not as desirable because you can’t go right up to them.”
The baby crept in quietly and knocked his leather Gase over. “No!” he shouted, so sharply that we all jumped.
“I’m not interested,” I said.
“You can’t ignore it, my dear,” he said. “The five hundred dollars you save by purchasing now can go toward a child’s college education.”
Stevie sat under the dining-room table sucking his thumb, looking with yearning at the hat on the mantel.
“It’s not only the money, it’s the aggravation. Why not protect yourself from a difficult decision at a time when it’s hard to make decisions? I offer you here the most beautiful, the most dignified cemetery in New England. You’ll never be ashamed of it. It’s the best, the very best that money can buy.”
He spread his glossy photographs out on the floor. Some looked like a well-tended golf course; others like a botanical garden. There were fish ponds and weeping willows, formal flower borders. Outside my window was a bumpy lawn, bounded by a tangle of blackberry brambles, goldenrod, and sumac.
The only cemetery I had ever seen was the one in which my grandparents were buried. It was a poor man’s place, stone against stone, treeless, as crowded and ugly as the tenement in which they had lived. The ivy we brought each year grew reluctantly, looking like the sweet-potato vines that once trailed around my grandmother’s kitchen.
“It’s too fancy and too expensive,” I said, while my husband studied the photographs. “We bought two acres of land for five hundred dollars. Why should a tiny little plot cost that much?”
“You would look for a bargain?” he asked, as if I had hurt him deeply. “You are thinking of the place where your great-grandchildren will come to pay their respects. You owe them a spot that is dignified, convenient, and refined. This is a memorial garden, insured perpetual care by a trust fund. It’s a democratic cemetery, no difference between rich and poor. What more could you want? You pay it out in monthly installments and you won’t miss the money.”
He gathered his pictures and papers together. “I’ll give you a week to consider the special offer. Five hundred dollars for two, twelve-fifty for six, which not only saves you money but is the only way to keep a family united in a fine type of family estate. Think about it. I’ll be back.”
There was something ridiculous about this lugubrious little man in a dark suit and hat and carrying a briefcase full of contracts for final resting places. We laughed hysterically as he maneuvered his car in our narrow driveway.
I returned to the kitchen cabinets and the drying paint, determined to forget Mr. Stern, but my husband, whose vanity had not been wounded, could think of practical considerations.
“What if something happened to me at work? What if we were both in a car accident? Explosions, plane crashes, fires—anything can happen!”
“I’m responsible for so many things,” I argued. “I don’t want to worry for my great-grandchildren and I’m not so serious and mature that it’s time to bury me. We could buy a rug for the money, or a new vacuum cleaner. We could have the house painted instead of doing it inch by inch ourselves.”
The vacuum cleaner and paint salesmen did not come back, but Mr. Stern appeared week after week, a mortal angel of death in a dark gray hat. First he came to see if we had made up our minds. Then he came to tell us that prices were really going up. The third time he came to announce that two of our best friends had bought their plots from him and we could arrange to have congenial neighbors in the house of eternity.
I refused to speak with him. My husband hurried out to the steps to assure him that we had not been waiting anxiously for his arrival. The fourth time, however, I was not at home and Mr. Stern followed my husband around as he raked the debris of winter out of the gardens. He insisted that it was protection for me, an impractical and unstable woman; it was a favor to the baby playing in the sandbox; it was a man’s duty to look out for his family.
My war with Mr. Stern was lost that morning. A letter of congratulations was in our mail on Monday. We were prepared for anything the future could bring. I was too angry to read the details.
A subdued Mr. Stern paid a final visit two weeks later. “I want you to see it with your own eyes. I don’t feel it’s right to take your money without you seeing what you get for it. All I want is you should be satisfied.”
He drove us to the cemetery, past the gates, through the lavish gardens, the rolling lawns, past the fish pond and the formal arrangements of cedar, cyprus, and arbor vitae. When the road ended, Mr. Stern led the way on foot.
“You can’t expect much for such a small investment,” he said. “It may take five or ten years before the landscapers get to this section. It was your idea, sir, and if it’s what you want, you’re welcome to it.”
Our “estate” for two was in uncleared woodland, a tangle of thorns and young trees sprung up since last year’s fire and hurricane.
“It looks like our back yard,” Nancy said.
Mr. Stern pulled burrs off his coat. “Are you really sure that this is what you want? I can still change it.”
I picked the baby up out of the path of the poison ivy. “It’s fine,” I assured him. “It’s just as ready as we are.”
A few minutes later we were home again. Mr. Stern shook hands with us.
“The service and the contract are the same whether you pay a hundred or a thousand. Once they clear the area it will be as beautiful as the rest of the park. It’s just a question of time. I wish you a good life, free from sorrow, and I want you to know that I am your personal memorial counselor, ready to serve you in any way, at any time.”
He gave my hand an extra squeeze. “I hope we’ll be reading something of yours soon. My wife is a very literary person and has so many ideas. It’s a pity that she doesn’t have the time to write them down, but she was just saying this morning that if you ever need some ideas, she would be happy to talk with you and share some of her experiences.”