Our father told it that Jim was caught dressing up in my grandmother’s black Mikimotos when he was scarcely two years old, but the first time I considered jewelry was the morning I stole my mother’s wedding ring. It was white gold. A hundred-year-old Art Nouveau band with eleven diamonds in two rows across the finger, garnets that were sold as rubies in the centers of tiny roses on both sides, and hand-engraved scrollwork on the underside where it held the skin. It was the only precious thing she had left. It was never from her hand. But there it was on the sill of the window, above the kitchen sink, next to a yellow-and-green plant she kept.

I needed the money. My girlfriend was leaving me for a grocery store produce clerk named Andrew, a high school basketball forward, and I knew I could buy her back. So I took the ring and put it in my pocket. I removed the red rubber stopper from the drain so that my mother would believe the ring had flushed into our plumbing. For good measure I ran the water to wash it down. She might be in the other room listening.

There was a pawnshop I trusted on Seventeenth Avenue, two blocks from my old high school. Woody’s Cash Canada. It had a banner in the front window that read: “We buy broken gold.” It was on the first floor of a three-story building with a barbershop on the second floor and a pool hall on top. We were told never to go into that pool hall. Of course I should have gone to a pawnshop further from home but I had not yet learned to reflect in that way. The barbershop was on the second floor and there were stacks of Cheri, Fox, Club Confidential and other shiny porno magazines on the wooden side tables next to the chairs where you waited. Some men fingered them while they were having their hair cut. When my brother and I were kids I was afraid to look at those magazines, then when I was older and went in alone I pretended to be uninterested.

Woody’s was the authentic variety of pawnshop, the kind I would come to love: three full jewelry cases with real bargains on minor-brand Swiss watches, early twentieth-century American fourteen- and sixteen-karat rose and copper gold watch heads, Art Deco Hamiltons and Gruens, and odd antique pieces—this was a place where you might even find a natural pearl or an unrecognized tsavorite garnet, or a piece of really good old orange citrine—mixed in among crap like gold nugget bracelets and blue topaz pendants and amethyst rings.

“I know it’s not much. It’s an old ring, I guess.”

“It’s not so bad. Let’s see what it weighs. Is that platinum? Or just white gold?”

“I don’t know. What’s platinum?”

That was not a question for the seller to ask.

“I know those are diamonds, though. Those must be worth something.”

“Take a look under the loupe. Full of carbon. See those black specks? That’s called carbon. That’s what it is, too. Carbon molecules that never crystallized. Imperfections. Really hurts the value. Lots of inclusions, too. Internal flaws. But at least no cracks. That’s something. I couldn’t touch it if there were cracks. Too risky.”

He knew his business. Didn’t steam it, didn’t clean it at all. We were looking at sixty years worth of dirt, hair and skin.

He gave me three hundred dollars for the ring, which was about correct. Given his position.

“I hate to sell it. I inherited it, you know. My grandmother.”

“I can loan against this,” he said. “This is a loan no problem. Normally I will do better for a loan. But on this I advise you sell it outright.”

Then I wished I had said it was a friend’s. In case he called my parents or something.

“But there’s this girl.”

“Love is a good reason. The best reason. Think about it. That’s why your grandmother left it to you. She didn’t think you were going to wear it, did she? No. It was for a girl. If you need to sell it for the girl that’s what she would have wanted. Women understand these things. What matters and what doesn’t. You should hear all the love stories they tell me in this place. A pawnshop is the place to learn about love.”

“Your grandmother had good taste in jewelry,” he said, after he had paid me. “This won’t be here long.”

Good, I thought.

Today that ring would retail for seventeen, eighteen thousand, but at that time I imagine it brought three grand.

John Strickland who ran Woody’s was an old guy, and not a friend of mine, but he had bought several things from me, including a heavy walnut box holding sterling flatware I found in the bureau of an actual friend’s home. In fact it was not the friend’s home but a friend was baby-sitting there and a few of us got together to steal drinks from their liquor cabinet and watch a video. While the popcorn was popping I wandered into the dining room and found the silver. My friend Tina, the babysitter, came around the corner and caught me. But I had not moved it. I had only opened a drawer. She raised her eyebrows at me and said, “Bobby what are you doing?” I explained that I was looking for a bowl for the popcorn. Before we left, after several drinks, while she was kissing the other friend of mine in a corner, I returned there and hurried out with the heavy box full of silver in my arms. I lost two friends that way. But I wasn’t ready to blame myself. They were not diligent about it. They could have spared all three of us the loss, if they had tried.

 

***

 

Often, at night, when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and it was winter and the snow was falling, I would leave our neighborhood and climb the hill up into Mount Royal, to walk through their streets and look into the illuminated windows of the houses. You know what that’s like: when it is very cold and motionless, because the snow is coming straight down, it hangs in circles in the streetlights, and inside the houses there is calm or happy movement, as though people are eating and laughing, and their lamps by their windows are like gold and jewels. I would listen to the snow under my tennis shoes, and fold my arms deeper into my coat. These houses were enormous: three, four, five times the size of ours, with larger and faster cars, yards like fields, and they were made of stone and brick, but nevertheless they seemed welcoming, they were warm places, you could see that easily enough. My father had grown up in a house like one of these. My mother, though, was raised in an apartment.

When we were down in Florida at Christmas my father would tell me: “You can have a poverty-consciousness, son, like your mother, or you can have a wealth-consciousness. It’s up to you. Some people are bound to be poor. Your mother and that idiot she married. They can’t help it. ” That was a reason for those walks. To work on my wealth-consciousness.

 

***

 

Even with many seasons of practice I have never been adept at stealing and when they kicked me out of high school it was stealing that did it. A case of class rings for the graduating seniors. When I got them to the pawnshop—after my mother’s ring I was using a different one, a dark-cornered place by the Alberta Liquor Store on the south edge of downtown, where you always stumbled over a couple of drunk Indians on the sidewalk, and the smell of human urine was strong—they proved to be base metal mock-ups. Brass and iron lightly electroplated in ten-karat gold and sterling silver.

The principal Mr. Robinson and the high school security guard had been after me for three semesters so it was an excuse for them to play detective.

“But they aren’t even worth anything,” I said. “You cannot expel me because of some fake rings.”

“You don’t belong here, Robert,” Mr. Robinson said. “This place is for good people. You are not a good person. You are a thief, a liar, and a coward.”

That made us quiet for a moment. Across his desk we sniffed one another. I suspect we both knew I smelled better than he did.

 

I sat outside on a curb in the parking lot and read Siddhartha. I kept that book in my backpack for occasions like this. Sometimes I would switch it out with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or On the Road, or Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, or Journey to the End of the Night. These were all favorites of mine I had read many times.

 

When I called my big brother Jim to tell him about my expulsion he tried to sell me on the jewelry store. I should have known that as soon as the pitch started Jim believed the lies he was throwing me. It’s like being an actor or Prime Minister, you get all worked up with the audience and you think you can say nothing false or unbelievable.

“It is not your fault,” he said. “The same thing happened to me, more or less, it was just drugs instead of thievery. Head south. The U.S. is where all of us should be, Bobby. That’s what I’m saying. Move down here with me. I’ll pay for the ticket and you pick it up at the counter at the airport. Dad knew what he was doing when he moved to the States. You and me lead the next charge. Let me handle Mom. I’m making five grand a week down here. That’s twenty thousand dollars a month. Plus the company car. A Porsche! Next year I get the convertible. You would live rent-free. I am practically a gemologist now. You can take the classes too. Live with us. That’s college! You do it in the mail. You could be a gemologist in a year. You won’t believe what those guys make. The real GIA gemologists. That’s the Gemological Institute of America. That’s a whole lot better than university, Bobby. Paychecks. Not to mention the prestige.”

“I don’t really want to go to university, anyway,” I said. “I hate school.”

“Me too. I always hated school. That’s natural.”

“What about my girlfriend?”

“Of course you’ll meet girls! You’ll meet a thousand of them. That’s what Mr. Popper hires if he can. Half the sales force is girls. College girls, too. Co-eds! You know what they’re like. And customers. Girls love jewelry, Bobby. That’s most of the market. And women, of course. But lots of girls. You should see the girls! Everybody knows about the girls in Texas. They are the best girls in the whole country. These do not look like Canadian girls. You wouldn’t think they were the same kind of animal. And they are all over Canadian guys. They love the foreign accent.”

“What I was saying was I met a girl up here. A girl in one of classes. In my old school. I guess she’s my girlfriend.”

“That’s great! I say give it a try. You can have ten girlfriends. Plus you can always go back. Make some real money and fly her down for Christmas. Think of the presents you can buy her. That’s another thing. You can buy any jewelry you want. For employees it’s all twenty percent over cost. You don’t know how cheap it is until you’re on the inside. You can buy jewelry for nothing! I had no idea. It’s triple key, quadruple key, five times. That’s industry language. Triple key means you sell it for three times what it costs. You’ll learn all that when you get here. It’s called Fort Worth Gold and Silver Exchange. Like a stock exchange. Only better, because anyone can buy. Anyone can walk off the street and get something for their money. And jewelry goes up in value! It’s an investment! That’s what I am telling you. I am not trying to talk you into anything. You have to make your own mistakes.”

 

Jim hung up. I called Wendy. I wanted to speak to her while I was enthusiastic.

“Why don’t I come over?” I said. “What are you doing?’

“I have too much homework,” she said. “I have chemistry homework and physics.”

“That’s joke homework. Do it before class starts. I’ll sneak in to the library and help you with it. I’ll meet you in the parking lot. I can do it there if you want. I know that stuff.”

“I’m not learning it that way. We can’t do it like that anymore. Anyway I have to get off the phone. I can’t see you tonight. I am supposed to go to the grocery store with my Mom.”

“The grocery store?”

“I said I would. I said I would go with her.”

“I could come over afterward.”

I knew about the grocery store. His name was Andrew. He went to high school by Wendy’s house. It was the high school she was supposed to go to before we met. Then she decided to go to my high school, which also had the Honors program she wanted to be in, which was the reason she went there, and not falling in love with me. But whenever anything went wrong at Western it was on account of me that she had come to this lousy school. Now I was kicked out and she was hanging around the high school by her house. She even went to their basketball games. She was going to the grocery store with her Mom because Andrew worked in the produce department. She imagined herself spinning on his cock in the iceberg lettuce bin. He might stick a cold cucumber up her ass. I remembered that when I was in third grade Sean DeBoer had said that to me: “You walk like you’ve got a cucumber stuck up your ass.” I understood the remark.

Wendy was not a virgin but she preferred anal sex. She said it was because she could not take chances. As a matter of method she lied to herself first before lying to other people. Or she would lie with a truthful statement, like: “I can’t get pregnant if you come in my ass.” That was true but concealed her genuine agenda.

“Fine. I get it. Go see grocery boy. I’ll just see you tomorrow.”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is maybe you shouldn’t come over anymore.”

“You said you were going to the grocery store with your mom.”

“I said I was but I won’t. Fine. I’m staying home. I don’t care. That isn’t the issue. You are not listening to me.”

“Is your Mom mad at me?”

“My Mom is not the problem, Bobby. Okay. I didn’t want to say this. But you are giving me no choice. You made me say it. We shouldn’t see each other anywhere. At all. And don’t say what I know you are going to say. It’s not about anyone else. It’s about us.”

I listened to the telephone. I reassured myself that she did not understand the words that were coming from her mouth, and maybe did not even hear them.

“Us and Andrew, you mean,” I said. I hated to remind her of his name. But I wanted to hear her deny it.

“You’re not even in high school anymore, Bobby. I mean, what are you doing with yourself? What are you going to do? Just be a dropout? Sleep in the mall every day?”

To keep my mother in the dark, in the morning when I was going to school I would just take the bus down to the zoo or to the mall. I did not really sleep there. Wendy said that because I had fallen asleep in the Food Court once and been kicked out by a security guard. I only started going to the mall in the first place because Wendy liked the Caesar salads from The Copper Creperie and I would bring them to her for lunch. I had to sneak in and out of my own high school, because Mr. Robinson had his eye out for me. He had chased me right down the main hallway and out the front doors only a few days before. I later told people that the reason I was expelled was that he had caught me in the hallway by one shoulder and I turned around and clocked him one, right in the nose, and he keeled over like a cut tree. Flat on his back, right there by the cafeteria doors. My old man had been a boxer and he had taught me how to throw a right cross and a few combinations, I explained. That part was true.

“Maybe I should leave,” I said. Let’s see what she says about that, I thought.

“Where are you going to go? When? Are you going to live with your brother? That’s a good idea.”

This was not the response I had expected. I did not even know how she might have guessed about that.

“I thought you loved me,” I said. That did not come out right either. “I mean, don’t you love me?”

“I would only want you to go to Texas because I love you. Because you need a change. I wouldn’t want you to go for any other reason.”

“You want me to go? Because I will go if you really want me to go. But I don’t think that’s what you honestly want. I think if you ask yourself honestly you will know that’s not what you want.”

“What I’m saying is I know it’s for your own good. Even though I don’t want you to go. You could go and then you could come back. That’s what I’m saying.”

“If you say you don’t want me to go then I won’t go.”

I did not understand how it had happened that now I was going. Before this conversation had begun I knew I could never move down to Texas. What was I going to do, sell jewelry for a living?

“I think it’s important that you go. That is what I am trying to say. I will miss you but sometimes it is good to miss a person. Then when you come back things will be different. Better.”

There was silence on my end. I wondered if she was in her bedroom, alone, or if she was in the kitchen with her mother listening.

“Is your mother there? Is your mother making you say that?”

Wendy’s mother had liked me for the first several months. It was not difficult to arrange. I flattered her, dressed cleanly, and smiled often. “You have such nice teeth, Bobby,” she told me. “I just can’t believe you never had braces.” But then, a month or two before, she had found some pornographic letters I had written Wendy—it wasn’t my idea, she insisted on them, it was a job I had to do in order to have regular sex with her—and her mother had found the letters, which in itself might not have been disastrous, but one of the letters was about a mother-daughter-boyfriend thing, and since then she could not tolerate me.

“No. I am in my bedroom. You need to go. It will be good for us,” she said. She made that yawning noise she always made when she was lying.

“You are yawning,” I said.

“I am yawning because I am tired,” she said.

“No, you are yawning because you really don’t want me to go,” I said. “Because you are lying when you say you want me to go.”

She yawned again.

“You are right. I don’t want you to go. But I think it is really important that you go.”

“I’m going,” I said. “To go, I mean.” Now I had her where I wanted her.

“Good,” she said. “I’m glad it’s decided. I’m proud of you. But now I have to go. I have to go to the grocery store with my mother.”

“What? You are doing what?”

“I slipped when I said that,” she said. “I didn’t mean to say that last part. I am staying home.”

“Stay on the phone, then,” I said.

“I have to go, Bobby. I have to do my homework. I am turning off my phone so I can do my homework.  Otherwise you’ll never hang up the phone. You’ll just keep calling back and you won’t let me work. I love you but I have to get off the phone, now.”

“I love you, too,” I said. “I’m sorry,” I said. But I knew she had hung up as soon as she told me she loved me. She always hung up before I could. That was how I preferred it.

 

***

 

My mother was out of the house, walking our dog with my stepfather. That was part of their regular routine. I waited until they had been gone ten minutes or so, to be sure they would not duck back in for something they had forgotten. An old plastic bag for the dog poop, for example. Then I called my Dad.

“The hell with that, son!” he said. “Don’t be silly! You aren’t supposed to be a jewelry salesman. Let your big brother hold down that end of the fort. That’s not the right situation for you. If you’re ready to leave the nest and move to the States come live with your old man.”

My father had never asked me to live with him before. He had often insisted that I could if I wanted to, but he had never requested it.

“Come on, Robby!” I loved it when my father would use that name for me. “The real South! Sunshine and oranges! You don’t want to waste your time in Texas with all those cowboys and rednecks. I’ve got grapefruits growing on the tree in the backyard! I eat them for breakfast.”

“Florida?” I smiled and blinked back the tears.

 

The next day, during another of my mother’s dog walks, I called Wendy. When I told her I was going to move to the States to live with my father she agreed to see me again. Because it was my father, I think, and not my brother, which made the plan sound real.

“Take me out on a date,” she said. I was making a plate of microwave nachos while we talked. “I want to see you before you leave. You weren’t going to leave without saying goodbye.”

 

At the end of the date she said she didn’t want to go home, yet. “Let’s drive out to the field,” she said. I knew what that meant.

We suffered the sex on an oily blanket in the back of my borrowed tow-truck.

“This is your goodbye present,” she said. “Your so-long fuck.”

Why does she have to use the expression ‘so-long,’ I thought.

“This is too much work,” I told her after several minutes. “You are never going to come. Maybe if we move to the grass.”

I had my legs wrapped around the armature of the towing apparatus for leverage.

“No, I am close, don’t stop now,” she said.

“My jaw hurts,” I said.

“I’ll make it worth your while. Don’t stop. You’re next,” she said. “There. But softer. Right there,” she said.

The tow-truck came from an old job of mine, the Shell station on Sixth Street, which was down the street from the Safeway where Jim had first taught me to steal Du Mauriers cigarettes. My friend still worked at the Shell station, and because I got him the job he would often allow me to borrow the tow-truck for a few hours in the evening after Erik Jensen the white-headed Danish owner left.

After Wendy came and the two or three minutes of my sex were over we wiped up and rested on one another. That was frequently the only part of our sex that was thoroughly happy for me.

“Can I have your jacket? It’s getting cold out here.”

A few years ago her parents had moved to a new development on the north end of the city and we were parked out at the end of it in a long pasture where new houses would eventually be. Beyond there were pine trees. We could see the sun going down behind the mountains. All the mosquitoes were dead from the cold and it was nice to be in the field with the last bits of sun on the sparkly white tips of the mountains. I gave her my jacket. I was glad she asked for it. I was in a short-sleeved t-shirt and the hairs on my arms rose with the wind.

“It smells like it’s going to snow,” I said.

“I’m excited for you about your dad. I wasn’t surprised but I was excited.”

“I was surprised,” I said. “You can come down too. We can lie on the beach together.”

“Do they have a beach in Palm Springs? I thought that was in the desert.”

“No, he’s back in Florida.”

“He moves all the time,” she said. “That must be great. I wished I lived in California and Arizona and Florida.”

“I know. Me too. I mean, I guess I will be.”

She was quiet then and ran her hand across my stomach. I flinched because I did not want to have sex again. But she did not notice and she continued to stroke my stomach. Then she put her hand under my t-shirt. Her hand was hot and gluey.

“He used to live in this house right next to John Lennon,” I said. “Once we were out on the balcony, Jim and I had a balcony right off of our bedroom, and I remember there were mirrors on the closet doors. We were out there and my dad was smoking his pipe and he pointed to the other balcony, the next house over, and he said, ‘Do you boys know who the Beatles are?’ I didn’t know but I said that I did. And my dad said, ‘That fellow over there is the one who started the band. That’s John Lennon. He’s a famous musician, boys. He’s my next-door neighbor. Let that be a lesson to you, boys. You can be anything you want to be. He was just some poor kid in the streets of Liverpool and now he is famous and lives right next door to your old man.’”

“That’s a good story,” Wendy said.

“I know it sounds made up. But you can ask my dad. When you come to visit.”

“I’d like to meet him. You should invite me.”

Wendy was beautiful but I was not sure my dad would think so. He would think she was a bit thick in the ass.

“That is a good idea,” I said. “Maybe he could even pick up your ticket. He does that kind of thing. He is making a lot of money these days.”

She had her hand in my underwear now. She was patient and she knew what she was doing. She applied her intelligence rigorously to sex, unlike most people.

“I’ll give you a present if you ask him,” she said.

“I’ll ask him,” I said. “I will sure try. He would like you,” I said.

She laughed. “I am sure I will like him,” she said.

I knew she would, of course. Every woman did. That was another reason not to invite her. Because of the comparison, I mean.

 

***

 

A few days later, on the weekend, my Dad called back.

“Son, it’s not right for you to move to the States. Not now. This an important time for you. Listen to what your mother is telling you. This is a time to finish high school and take care of your responsibilities. Your mother’s right, for once in her life. I don’t like it any better than you do, son.”

I silently listened to the betrayal develop. He was a parent and so was expert at it. The deception was comfortable for me, too. I did not mind having him to blame.

“The truth is I talked to the boys about all this last night.”

That one made me take the phone away from my ear for a second to look at it. I knew he would pull that kind of thing when it did not really matter. But I did not expect it on something as important as this.

‘The boys’ were astral beings my father soul-traveled to while the rest of us were sleeping. He relied on their advice for many of his decisions. He would also take counsel from a woman named Priscilla, who was not precisely an astral being but lived on a parallel plane. My father’s deep confidence in the existence and wisdom of these otherworldly advisers had convinced me, when I was younger, that they were real. At this time I wouldn’t say I believed in them, but maybe I didn’t disbelieve, either. My beliefs on the matter were troubled.

“The boys have been keeping an eye on you for me. And they all agree. You need to stay in Calgary right now. The States is a dangerous place for you for the next few years, son. It was a unanimous vote. I fought like a tiger for you to come down with me. But when the big boys upstairs all have the same idea, you shut up and listen.”

I did not want to say even one word to him or hear his responses.

“You’re being dramatic, son,” my father said. “Talk to me.”

 

***

 

At the airport the snow melted in the parking lot and Wendy stood at the curb with her hand on the open car door.

“Aren’t you coming in?” I said. “Will you walk me to the gate, at least?” I hated to sound like that but I had no choice. I couldn’t say goodbye to her yet.

“Aren’t you cold?” she said. I wore shorts and a t-shirt because I was going to Dallas. I had a backpack and a book she had given me to say goodbye. In the cover she had written, “Friends forever.”

I tore the cover off once I was on the plane and stuck it in the pouch on the back of the seat. I was angry and tearful. The old woman seated next to me inspected me with skepticism.

“That’s not a trash bin,” she said. “Is this your first flight? Are you afraid of flying? I don’t want there to be any accidents.”

“No,” I said.

“Are you going to get sick?” she asked me. “Use the vomit bag if you are going to get sick. Maybe I should change seats. You look like someone who throws up on airplanes. I don’t like that. I am older than you are.”

It was sunrise. From the windows in the airport we could see the runways and the fields beyond, and beyond them the dark line of the mountains. The snow was more shiny than usual. I had only hoped that Wendy would stop me so that I might turn around and stay with her. But she called my bluff. On the jet bridge I had paused. I turned, and as I turned I saw the look of fear on her face. She was afraid that I would come back.

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CLANCY MARTIN's debut novel How to Sell (Picador) was selected as a best novel of the year by The Times Literary Supplement, The Kansas City Star, The Guardian, Publisher's Weekly, and others. His fiction and essays have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Esquire, NOON, and McSweeney's. A philosophy professor, he also translates Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.

London Review of Books Diary #1

London Review of Books Diary #2

The Faster Times: "How Goethe Can Get You Laid".

Look for Clancy Martin’s article "All That Glitters" in the June Harper's.

5 responses to “How To Sell: An Excerpt”

  1. […] For an excerpt of How To Sell, click here. […]

  2. The El Nino of positivity about this book has repeatedly blown my way. I’m ashamed to admit I’m waiting for it to come out in paperback, or, even better, thefting it from someone. Congratulations, Clancy, on simultaneously hammering through the gates of sales and lit cred. I’m jealous as well as genuinely looking forward to reading. Ah, shit, okay, I’ll buy it. Hey, while you’re translating Kierkegaard, you should pick up a copy of Lars Husman’s book. So I can read it. Thanks.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    “and her mother had found the letters, which in itself might not have been disastrous, but one of the letters was about a mother-daughter-boyfriend thing, and since then she could not tolerate me.”

    Despite all the deception and sadness in just this short excerpt… I’m going to be laughing at this for a long while.

  4. Clancy Martin says:

    Thanks, Sean and Simon! That bizness with the letter actually happened, Simon.
    I’ll buy Lars Husman’s book, I don’t know it.

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