Jeff Phillips: The Sundrop Salesman

 

Sundrop sales2 copy

Julian Husk, for a time, worked as a grocery store clerk. When winter brought not only its dropping temperatures but its dip in the hours of available sunlight, Julian appreciated the bright red laser glow from the barcode scanner at the end of the conveyor belt. It also made a precise blip noise each time an item was scanned. The blip was a happy sound, and Julian imagined it came from a chubby, hand drawn smiley face puffing its cheeks to emit a cheery chirp. Julian himself was on the petite side, with a resting facial expression that resembled smiling. His peers assumed he was a virginal, simple man, partly due to his stature, but mostly because his natural grin made it seem he was younger, more inexperienced. He was just a happy guy, unblemished by the world. Happiness, however, didn’t always come easy to him. He needed to fixate on things to perk him up like they were magical talismans

Management at the grocery store decided to replace the registers with a newer technology. The scanning of one’s groceries no longer resulted in the pleasant blip, the innocent percussion that charged Julian’s step home through the crusty snow drifts and all-encompassing chill. The new barcode scanner made a soft wisp noise that made Julian think of wind sweeping across a frozen river, or a ghost tsking his presence. His coworkers’ jokes about the shopping center being built on an old Eskimo burial ground no longer seemed like exaggerated chatter.

Julian started looking for a change of pace. He felt trapped at the checkout station and answered a job ad for a door-to-door sales opportunity. He wasn’t necessarily interested in sales, but those were the only types of jobs that were posting vacancies. And the job title implied movement. He wouldn’t be stuck in one spot the entire shift. That sounded refreshing.

He was hired by a company called Sundrops that sold these gold colored hard candies infused with herbs that were supposed to bring cheer to a person during the darkest of the winter months. Especially when there were only 222 minutes of sunshine. One would suck on the candy and feel the warmth trickle down their throat, the buzz perk up the center of one’s brain and open the pupils wider to soak up and enhance what little light there was.

“Stop pouting, you sourpuss!” His mother once yelled at him when he was younger. It embarrassed him in front of his friends. Her shout echoed against the mountains surrounding the frozen pond they often went to for ice skating. He couldn’t remember what had prompted such a scolding but it embedded into his mind that any expression of unhappiness was a lousy trait.

He had to invest a small sum for his supply and take them door to door in the township and surrounding villages. The walk was invigorating at first, but after the first morning on the job, no matter how fast he walked, and how thick he layered himself with coats, the air seemed to freeze his guts and spike a shiver to jitter up his sales pitch. He wasn’t having much luck. His sales numbers were labeled a goose egg and his boss expressed apprehension at keeping him on after the first week.

Julian Husk would suck on a few Sundrops here and there, right before he was about to pitch a household on purchasing a few pouches to fill a snack bowl. He didn’t like the idea of sucking away at his supply, but he felt it was an unfortunate cost of business. How could he sell these if he looked like an icy lump, a miserable red face; jaw muscles clamped tight by an Arctic freeze, hardly allowing out the proper words to convince, to pluck the shopper’s impulse to pull wallets from pockets. A little suck of the Sundrops to bolster performance. To loosen his chops and make liquid his tongue. To stir pleasantries, to encourage buoyant language to propel from his diaphragm’s depths and introduce the people to a hot new product they wouldn’t dare to run out of.

But the sales pitches he pepped himself up for were cut short with slamming doors. The people didn’t want to hold the door open for much longer than a hello. Some didn’t want to open the door at all and risk an extra draught slipping in from the foyer and on down the hallway. The people were distrustful of what was inside these little Sundrops. What drug was it really that would blind them to the darkness? Maybe they were so used to feeling glum that glee was annoying and to be avoided?

He had once dreamed of being a mad scientist, but didn’t do well in chemistry classes. His parents further discouraged this fantasy when the one time he tried out his chemistry set at the kitchen table, he mistakenly set fire to the napkin dispenser. He shrugged this off as much as could with a smile. “I’m just not a science guy, I guess.” His teachers had often told him, since he was such a pleasant guy, he could do well serving customers. He was now failing in the only occupation anyone thought him capable of succeeding.

Julian Husk finally made a sale to a portly bald man, the hair a thin frizz on top of the man’s noggin. The man was desperate for a girl’s attention, maybe if he had a little shine in him, some charisma he could digest and display. The man said yes to his offer! But the deal breaker was that his satchel was empty of the Sundrops. It wasn’t, however, lacking a fist-sized hole at the bottom that wasn’t there earlier in the morning as he embarked on his rounds.

“Fucking grime of a God! He fucked me! He did! He’s a fucking fuck! Oh fuck him!

The portly bald man closed the door, saying “thanks, and good day.” A disappointed customer resigning himself to the shop being closed and unable to treat.

“Fuck a flick!” Julian went on. “I will flack the fuck, oh fuck, be fucked, you and fuck the butt ugly night! I want to eat my face!”

Julian grabbed his satchel’s handles and repeatedly swung the satchel to slap against the portly bald man’s lamp post.

“I want to eat my face!” He shrieked out into the long, cold night. He continued to attack the lamp post until the glass casing shattered, and the bulb popped, the yard’s light snuffed. The portly bald man watched from his window, partially hiding himself behind the drapes. He didn’t have the confidence to step out and stop this man from damaging his property.

When Julian exhausted himself, he sat down and cried. The tears were quick to coat his cheeks in a frozen sheet. “I want to eat my face,” he mumbled.

Julian was flustered as to why his satchel even had a hole. Had he leaned up against a bench that had a sharp icicle waiting to pierce the fabric? Were the Sundrops just blazing away, burning their way free? Did God want to drive him toward such despair that he’d willingly step out onto thin ice, to sink down, forever lost, in a hole himself?

Julian Husk went back to his boss but his boss wouldn’t sell him another pouch of Sundrops. His boss said he couldn’t let another batch go to waste on someone so useless. Julian thought about going back to work at the grocery store, if they would even take him, but the wispy sound of the new barcode readers seemed too much like the sound of disappearing pride.

Julian wanted another shot. He knew how beautiful the Sundrop’s juices were, and what a beneficial service they could be. The wind seemed to cheer on another shot for Julian Husk as it built up behind him, pressing with force, overpowering his stride’s direction so he would veer off toward the library where Julian realized he could research how to make Sundrops of his own.

He found a microfiche of a news article where per the government’s regulations the ingredients of any consumable needed to be published for public awareness.

So the wind cheered Julian again as it flapped his pant legs into a screaming sail, while he trotted to the herbs shop, where a hydroponic stock of fresh, green goods were waiting to be reborn in his boiling soup, to first become a mash, then a strained broth, then a hardened golden sheet to be chipped and chiseled into a smooth oval.

In the herbs shop Julian gathered up a thick stalk that would burst with a spice when pressed. He bagged a leafy shrub that would release a potent stimulant as a tangy oil. He bagged a flower that would crumble, its petals housing a complex sugar. He grabbed a basket full of bark that when snapped would ooze its amber syrup. He reached for several clay jars of dried plankton, those little sponges soaked with the sun. He couldn’t leave without a sack full of bee pollen, the embodiment of a buzz, and a few lemons, limes, grapefruits and oranges for the citrus guts. The kicker, the active ingredient that would tie the whole thing together, was a clumpy powder ground from a fiery, red beetle only found near the equator. He would need plenty of it and the shop accepted credit.

At home Julian brought this all to a boil in his largest pot, but he made the mistake of not considering in what order each ingredient should be added into the concoction. The boiling liquid foamed up once the heat was right, causing the chemical compounds to react, producing a frothy explosion that splattered all over Julian, scalding him. And it continued to foam as it stuck to his skin and clothes, the singe screaming down into his pores.

Winter’s draught was quick to bring this froth to cool, and just as quick to harden, before the shocked Julian could wipe himself with a towel. It encased him in a hard shell, locking his limbs. And there he stood, only a few feet away from his stove. A weighted statue, doomed to wait for starvation, and the eventual shutting down of his body. Tissue preserved in an amber tomb. Julian, the glimmering monument of failed attempt.

Of course the stove’s flame hadn’t been turned off. A residue in the pot started to burn and the smoke accumulated around him. Just as a hole was a disaster for a bag full of goods, a small hole allowing smoke to seep in and sting the inside of his nostril, allowed the wafting, albeit burnt, aroma of a raw potent pick-me-up to make the doomed Julian Husk feel good. Inside the trunk of an oddly shaped hard candy, the man’s chest spun with a spooling sensation of elation. He felt like singing. He could only hum. So he hummed. He hummed loud because he felt so good, that his hum should take on the world, that it should celebrate his efforts and laugh off his downfall and maybe even claim his second chance.

The humming was so loud, and vibrated at such a deep baritone register that it provoked cracks in the candy shell. Sheets of the candy flaked away from his face, freeing his mouth. Julian Husk continued to sing as the shackles slowly chipped and showered down, shrugged off from his back and shoulders, shaken from his head, to collect as a pile of chunks at his feet. Loose shards, shimmering bright from the overhead bulb, easy to kick onto a platter he could later pass around.

Some burns still stung the skin of his face, on down the front side of his neck. He opened the window a crack to let the night be his coolant. He still hummed, he couldn’t stop himself.

I may not be much of a cook or chemist, he thought. But if there is a man whose job it is to stand inside the sun, pushing up to give it shape, I want to be the guy he taps to take his place, when he needs a good walk to cool off in our climate.

 

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