October 30th, 1974.  3:00 PM

 

I had been hearing about beads for several hours.

            Then the subject turned to beading followed by beaders and then came full circle back to just plain beads. 

After a brief segue into clasps it was beads all over again.

            I shouldn’t have found this so boring considering talking about beads is what I do for a living.  However, the presentation was being given by Hubie Three – the rat of a man who ran the day-to-day business of the company in my stead – who not only had a knack for making things boring and tedious but, I truly believe, reveled in the opportunity so gleefully that he went so far as to hone it as a skill in his spare time.

            Every year at this time all the company salesmen travel from their particular regions and meet at the home office in Seattle to see what the buyers have added to our inventory.  When my great-aunt started the company, she chose this time of year for the annual gathering because it gave the sellers plenty of time to get back on the road and show their customers exclusive merchandise that could be purchased before Christmas.  At first, even with Hubie Three’s horrible presentation, I was interested in what he was showing us.  He must have sensed the interest I and the six other salespeople were showing because after a short time his tone became more and more monotone.  He knew we had to listen to him so he did his best to make us not want to.

            Who knows how many times I’d heard the word “beads” that afternoon when I felt my eyelids growing heavy.  On a couple of occasions my head nodded, and it was my chin hitting my neck that woke me.  I didn’t know if my drowsiness was discovered by anyone else in the room, but I knew if it wasn’t it surely would be if it happened too many more times.  So I let my mind take a break from paying attention to Hubie Three and looked around the room.

            Our headquarters are on the second floor of a three-story office building. The walls hadn’t been plastered over or painted, so from between filing cabinets, desks, and stacked boxes of inventory, old red brick peered out.  Large windows made up the upper half of the wall behind Hubie Three, and outside the weather was gray with sporadic periods of light rain.  This was my favorite type of weather, but unfortunately I enjoyed it so much because it helped me relax, and a calming influence was not what I needed right then.  It was as if everything going on in that room had been choreographed to make me doze off, thereby embarrassing myself in front of my employees.  We were even out of coffee.

All but one of the salespeople had been with the company longer than me, and I was sure they held at least some animosity for the new guy who strolled in and was suddenly in charge.  I was therefore adamant that I do two things:  first, not let anyone catch me slumbering during Hubie Three’s rundown of the new merchandise, and second, pretend not to notice if any of the others were.

Each time Hubie held up a new bead, he told where it came from, how much of it was in stock, what key words we might use to make it sound more exotic to a buyer, and which competitors had or didn’t have that particular bead.  Then he would hand the bead to Grace Evermore who sat to his left at the conference table.

Grace was a hawk-faced woman in her late thirties who dressed in outdated business suits in which the skirt, jacket, shirt, scarf around her neck, and the frames of her cat-eye glasses were always exactly the same shade.  She tried extremely hard to maintain rigid posture and a no-nonsense expression; it was her dream, apparently, to remind people of their most humorless schoolteacher.

Grace’s parents either had an acute sense of irony, or were oblivious to her most obvious shortcoming when they named her.  Grace was not graceful.  In fact, she was a klutz.

Each time Hubie Three handed her a bead, she took it between her thumb and middle finger, moved her arm back and forth until it reached the perfect focal length, tilted her head back and looked over her glasses, and then dropped the bead.  (For anyone who’s ever dropped a bead, I don’t need to tell you just how far those things can bounce and roll, especially when they’ve found their freedom across a concrete floor.)  When finally the bead was retrieved, Grace’s head would bang on the tabletop as she attempted to get back to her chair.  An instant after the thud she would utter a little squeal of surprise and settle back into her chair as if nothing happened, smooth her blazer with her hands, pass the bead to her left if she was the one who retrieved it, and look to Hubie Three as if to say, “okay, let’s get to the next bead.”

Grace would then pass the bead to Oliver Hampton, the salesman who had been with the company the longest.  Oliver was a thickly built man of short stature.  His military-style haircut was as square as his shoulders, and he always wore a dress shirt with short sleeves from which the bottom half of his fading United States Marine Corps tattoo would peek whenever he lifted his arms. 

Oliver’s career in sales began in the Bible biz.  He went door to door talking families who couldn’t afford it in to buying not just a Bible, but also an heirloom.  The covers were made from the best imitation leather, and the family name would be emblazoned on it in painted gold, old English style letters.  As luck would have it, Oliver’s strong-held religious beliefs drove him out of that game.  The company he worked for demanded that if the customers showed any sign of disinterest, the salesman was to bring up the possibility of the whole family endangering their souls to an eternity of torment if a few hundred dollars meant more to them than God’s Word.

To Oliver’s left sat Toby Bartman, a salesman’s salesman if ever there was one; a man whose physical appearance was the only thing phonier than his personality.  His hair was dyed a shade of blond that was too light to be genuine on a person with skin as dark as his.  His dentures were too white and rectangular, as if he wanted to display the concept of perfect teeth in his ever-present, overly jolly smile.  His handshake was designed to squeeze bones to the point of almost snapping, with an arrhythmic pumping motion that made the recipient feel not only pain, but confusion.  He also prided himself on the old salesman trick of finding out the name of a prospective buyer and using it as often as he could in a conversation.  The problem with this tactic, however was Toby was horrible at remembering names. His conversations with Toby often went something like this:

Toby:  “Hey, there buddy, Toby’s the name.”  (The painful handshake would begin here.)

Stranger:  “Nice to meet you.  My name’s Mark.”

Toby:  “Great to make your acquaintance Mike. Say, you got a wife or girlfriend…or maybe both?” He would wink and laugh heartily, as if it were the first time he’d ever told the joke.

Stranger:  “Wife, yeah.”

            Toby:  “Well, Matt, I’d be willing to bet she likes pretty things, jewelry, beads whatnot, right?”  He would continue getting the man’s name wrong accidentally, while purposefully adding pressure to his hand, until he had annoyed the customer into submission.

            During Hubie Three’s droning that afternoon, Toby would often make sounds like “hmm,” or “uh huh,” to give the impression he was paying more attention than the rest of us, though his glazy stare betrayed his boredom.

            Toby would then pass the samples to me.  I’d study them briefly and hand them over to Eliza Jones.

            Eliza was the youngest at the table, and the most recently hired employee.  Her background was not in sales, but political science.  She had graduated from Washington State three years prior, found a low-paying job working on the campaign for a Senate hopeful who was discovered to be a crook before he was elected (which, as we all know, is the only time that kind of revelation can hurt a politician,) and found herself unable to keep up financially with her insatiable appetite for buying beads.  She was so knowledgeable on the subject she often corrected Hubie Three, mentioning he had the country of origin wrong on this bead or that, or reminding him we had tried selling that cut of crystal the year before, only to discontinue it for lack of sales.

            I had recommended to Hubie we make Eliza a buyer, and for once he agreed with me, but Eliza didn’t want to stray far from home.  She was a Seattle native, and the Northwest territory was hers.  She was the only salesperson who didn’t have to travel far to be at today’s meeting.

            After studying a message bead made so badly it was impossible to tell what message it was meant to convey, she handed it over to Donald Neitz who chuckled when he looked at it.  This was no surprise -- Donald Neitz chuckled all the time.

            Donald may have been the thinnest man I’d ever seen.  His large head defied gravity, as it seemed impossible that it was held up by his goose-like neck.  From that neck protruded a fist of an Adam’s apple that bobbled up and down with those snorts of humor.  When he spoke I was reminded of the weight of a carnival game; a counter-lever struck by a heavy mallet that sent it gliding up his neck, almost to his jaw where – if it ever reached the top – I was sure I’d hear a bell ring and a carnie would hand him a Cupie doll. With each of his bursts of mini-laughter, Donald would run one hand through his wild, blond hair, and with the other  dig a finger underneath his collar, over his red bowtie, and then bring them both to rest on his paisley suspenders.

            “That’s a nice one, yesssiree!” he had said dozens of times that afternoon as he placed whatever bead he had just studied into the hand of Randy Tutler.

            Randy was one of those people you don’t want to think of much less write about.  He fancied himself irresistible to the ladies, though I had never seen him with a member of the fairer sex.  However, I’m sure his bravado, pork chop sideburns, and liberal use of cheap aftershave aided him in his self-delusion.  But as if that weren’t enough, he was always dressed in the flashiest double-knit leisure suits and cheap silk shirts unbuttoned down to his navel, and he used his thick, black chest hair as a display mat for his collection of gold chains and medallions. If you were a man, Randy would want to talk sports with you, and it didn’t take long to realize his knowledge was limited.  If you were a female unfortunate enough to find yourself in a conversation with him, he would tell you about his poetry or how he loved animals as he figured out a casual way to put his hands on you. 

It wasn’t an accident that none of the women in the room chose to sit next to him.

           

October 30th, 1974.  4:15 PM

 

It was the day before Halloween, but for the people who worked for me it was Christmas.  Since this is the only time when all of the salespeople and buyers were in Seattle, I had decided two years prior to enhance Great Aunt Helen’s annual meeting with a yuletide festival.

            It not only gave us all a chance to talk about something besides beads, but helped guarantee that everyone would converge in Seattle and not come up with some excuse not to hear Hubie Three rattle on and on.  So when he finally asked if anyone had any questions or comments, I was sure we’d all look at each other blankly for a few moments, and then I’d stand and tell everyone it was time to head to O’Donahue’s Bar & Grille to get the party started.  But I didn’t get the chance,

            “Say, I got a suggestion if y’all don’t mind.”  Toby Bartman stood, hitching up his pants, and started pacing up and down the length of the conference table.  “I need to get myself some more of them blue beads.  You know, the weird lookin’ ones.”

            After no one shared their views on the blue beads, he realized he had to be more specific.  “The ones that are kinda shaped like a football where the air was squeezed to one side?  Kind of like crystals, but the facets are more rounded, and it was sort of milky.”

            No one knew what he was talking about.  He looked to Eliza.  Surely she would know the name of the bead.  She didn’t.

            “It had a little thing inside, you could sort of see it in there, looked like a little….oh, I don’t know.”  He held his thumb and forefinger really close together to indicate something small.  “You don’t know what I’m talking about?”

            “Sounds kind of ugly,” was Eliza’s only input.

            “Yeah, it was, now that you mention it,” Toby continued.  “I didn’t even realize I had it.  To be honest, no one seemed to pay too much attention to it.  But I was in this bar in Spearfish talkin’ to a fine little miss and she brings up beads.  Well, I hadn’t even mentioned I sold ‘em.  Our conversation had been more, well, personal up to that point.”  He laughed too loudly.

            “So, long story short, I get out my display case, and she hones in on this bead.  She asks me how much, and I had no idea.  I mean, no idea at all.  So I was just about to say something like two bucks, when she offers me 50!  Fifty damn dollars for this weird lookin’ bead!  Don’t that beat all?”  He was standing directly behind Donald and to accentuate his point he slapped the poor guy on the back so hard his head wobbled around on that spaghetti-noodle neck.

            Leaning back, in an effort to open his shirt and expose more of his chest hair, Randy spoke up.  “Maybe it was a diamond or something, got in there accidentally.  I’d say you’d been had, Toby.”

            “Nope, nope, nope, not a diamond, no chance.  It was all scratched up.”

            Grace took off her glasses, trying to look like she was in deep thought, but then dropped them and just looked clumsy.  “It doesn’t sound like anything I carry,” she said as she groped around on the floor.

            “Well, I’m just sayin’, at 50 bucks a pop, without even a sales pitch, I’d say we should get ourselves some more of them, that’s all.  If’ I’m ever back in Spearfish, I’ll try to track her down, find out what it’s called, and why it’s so valuable.”

            “You met her at a bar, and you expect to find her again?  Good luck.”  Randy spoke from years of personal experience of chatting up women in taverns and having them disappear on him.

            “I’ll just look ‘er up,” Toby said confidently.  “Her name’s Celia, Celia Andrews.  Pretty blond girl.”

            Donald’s head swung around, his eyes got wide.  Randy stammered, as if trying to say something but having no idea where to start.

            “Holy Christ,” was heard softly coming from the ex-Bible salesman.

            And me, well, I felt a little dizzy, a little confused.  The name Celia Andrews brought me back to a roadside hotel during a thunderstorm.  Adding to my shock was, for the first time since I’d known him, Toby remembered a name correctly.

            Grace fell off her chair.  Not because Toby’s story sounded familiar to her, she was just prone to doing that.

 

 

 ..................to be continued

 

© 2006 Brightlings Beads and M. Robert Todd