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Summer 2008
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Author: Terry Hertzler
Location: San Diego, California

diamond icon Terry Hertzler has worked as a writer, editor, and teacher for 30 years. His poetry and short stories have appeared in The Writer, North American Review, Margie, and Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology. They have also been produced for stage, radio, and television.

Shucking Corn

Back from Vietnam not quite a year, already blown through three jobs—bank teller, security guard, offset press operator. This new one, selling vacuum cleaners, doomed too.

But in the three months I followed leads across north-central Ohio (free set of steak knives to listen to my spiel), I saw amazing things:

that woman in Mansfield whose entire living room was white: white carpet, white couch & love seat, white paintings in white frames on the white walls. And plastic everywhere—plastic runners like airport runways, directing traffic, plastic slipcovers smothering furniture, her bright plastic smile. All I picked up during my demo was lint, and hardly any of that. "I think your vacuum is too powerful,” she said, showing me the door. “It’ll ruin my carpeting.”

And the woman in Shelby whose lipstick rose a quarter-inch above her lip, who kept asking, “Sure I can’t get you a little drink, honey?”

The Mennonites, whose prim house squatted in the middle of corn fields down a long dirt road, all dressed in dark colors, white bonnets on the women, who apparently had been testing all the options, discussing merits of my Filter Queen versus the Rainbow and Kirby. Couldn’t close ’em.

And finally, miles from anywhere one fall evening, I knocked on the door of a farmhouse, not quite sure I’d found the right place. “Come on in,” the man who answered said, holding the door for me as I carried my sample cases into his kitchen. The kitchen floor was covered with ears of corn piled four feet high.

“Just shuckin’ some corn,” the man’s wife said. “Welcome.” There was no carpeting in the entire house, just linoleum. And the section of the living room that wasn’t filled by a pool table was taken up by an old Harley Flathead. An hour’s drive each way, I thought. What a waste. But when I reached the part of my demo where I sucked up a handful of nuts, bolts and screws, the man’s eyes grew wide and he started grinning. I sold them the deluxe model, with all the attachments. They paid cash.

Afterwards, heading home, I pulled to the side of the road, got out of my car and stood for a few moments, listening. The only sounds were the ticking of my engine as it cooled and the murmuring of a stream that ran beside the road. It was dark, not as dark as Vietnam, but still—out in the country, away from lights—about as dark as north-central Ohio gets on an autumn evening, stars scattered like salt from a broken shaker.

I thought about that couple, sitting on their kitchen floor, shucking corn, the absurdity of their purchase of an expensive vacuum cleaner they had no need of. I was happy with the transaction. I needed the commission. But sales seemed arbitrary. Flip a coin. In the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time. All a matter of luck.

And I remembered the old Vietnamese couple at a hamlet near Ap Lai, squatting in the dirt in their black pajamas as their hooch burned, their water buffalo dead in a rice paddy, target practice for a PFC with an itchy finger riding the .50 caliber on a half-track escort. And I looked at the sky again, stars sharp and cold, millions of tiny holes punched in the broad black night, twinkling—why were they twinkling?—and I started to shake and couldn’t stop.

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