I Know Why Sales Clerks Fall from the Sky
by Mark Heath
16 October 2000
A month after the sky began raining sales clerks, Indian Summer arrived. It was September, my first month at Eaton University, momentarily famous as the only campus built on (and with) the remains of a Boy Scout camp. My cabin was small and hot, a twelve-foot square oven split down the middle to form two rooms. My bedroom on the left, my every-other-room on the right. When Mom helped me move in, she hung several mirrors on the walls, promising me that the reflections would create the illusion of space. Instead I felt trapped. The mirrors were stacked by the fireplace in the other room, along with a card table piled with yard sale dishes, a wheezing Coleman stove, and a clothesline for a walk-in-and-around closet. I was sprawled on my cot in my underwear, wondering if the eighty degree heat would cause my body to phase-shift. Perhaps I'd soak through the thin mattress and puddle on the floorboards, then drip through the cracks and sink into the earth. Normally a crazy idea, but no more astounding than thousands of sales clerks giving up the ghost and vanishing in bursts of heat lightning. No more remarkable than thousands of sales clerks reappearing in the clouds and falling from the sky like ectoplasmic rain.
Mom hated that gooey rain, but I loved it. And not only because I hated shopping. The sound of clerks bumping and skittering on the tarpaper roof and rustling the bushes and splashing the lake soothed my spirit. But the only noise at the moment was my little battery-powered fan, perched on the apple crate I used for a nightstand and blowing hot air across my face. Even the frogs in Clear Lake across the dirt road were silent, stewing in warm water. For a moment I entertained the idea of joining them, wading into the lake, the cool muck sucking at my feet. And then I thought of Mom in her bathing suit, splashing beside me, spilling handfuls of water over her bare skin. "This feels delicious," she'd say, cupping water in her long-fingered hands. She'd stand before me and let water trickle down my chest and belly.
And once again I was reminded that there are worse things than melting into a puddle. I shut off the fan to save the battery and pulled on my shorts. Outside wasn't much cooler, but I stood barefoot on the one-step porch, risking splinters, and felt relief for an instant, the difference of a few degrees briefly noted then forgotten. I fanned myself with the screen door. I smelled rust. Sweat. Desperation. Even with the mirrors off the walls, and me out of the cabin, I felt trapped.
When my eyes adjusted to the night, I noticed a faint glow at the end of my short driveway. A sales clerk snagged on a pricker bush.
I'd swept up all the sales clerks that afternoon, a waist-high pile to melt in the sun. He must have blown over from another cabin. In the light of the half moon he looked forty-something, maybe fifty pounds overweight, with a long nose like a jug handle. He was naked and smooth and the color of lime Jell-o. The unnatural green of a glow-in-the-dark watch, or a dime-store ghost. I wasn't sure if his eyes had popped yet. Against the glow of his face they looked like holes. He was flopped over the bush in absolute comfort, undisturbed by sweat and hot air. I took a deep sniff and smelled his clean icy scent.
My baked insomnia sparked an idea.
I picked my way over the sharp rocks and twigs of my driveway and tore him from the bush. Bits of his body remained on the thorns, but he was mostly intact. I'd like to say that his face was the usual sneer of a salesclerk, but ectoplasm is a poor medium for catching a person's likeness -- or fingerprints -- and his face was the usual anonymous copy. But he did have his distinctive nose. His eyes were still in his head, bright green bubbles, and his lips still offered a slight bump in his face. Perhaps he'd drifted head-first into shade, before the wind tossed him on to the bush. If a co-worker were handy, I imagined that the generous nose would inspire a positive identification. But sadly for Jug Handle, I was his last customer.
I grabbed his nose. It was cold and slippery like a bar of soft soap. I lifted him with one hand and steered him into my cabin. I spread him on the floor near my cot. I brushed the pine needles off his gelid skin and saw that he had already sublimated in bits: no penis, no toes, mere nubs for fingers. In another hour or so the eyes would pop; a few hours in the sun and the body would collapse into a dirty puddle.
But this was Jug Handle's lucky night. I'd spare him a watery grave. I tossed a T-shirt over his face and anchored him to the floor with fat books on his paunch -- Early American Lit. and Greek Mythology. I set the fan on my lawn chair and aimed it at Jug Handle's body. He rippled like a bird bath in the breeze, pinned in place by the books. I hopped onto my cot with a shriek of rusty springs and sighed as his icy air swept over me. Except for the brief notion that I was breathing his soul (assuming, of course, that sales clerks had souls), Jug Handle's misty dissolution led to a wonderful night's sleep.
The following week I used clerks to chill Cokes, preserve Ben and Jerry's, soothe a sunburn, and when the heat dripped tar through the cracks in the roof (tar slapped on by the school's maintenance crew to prevent leaks), I tossed a dozen clerks on the shingles to cool things down (careful to kick them off before they melted through the same cracks). I only tried the roof trick a few times. The Dean didn't like the idea. Maybe she was right. No one really knows what ectoplasmic sales clerks are. Or even who they were. It was clear that thousands of clerks were disappearing from sales floors, leaving their clothes and "Can I Help You?" pins behind. And it was reasonable to assume that the precipitation of solid ghosts were the clerks halfheartedly reborn. But maybe not. Ectoplasm lacks DNA. Birthmarks. You can't point at a ghost and name it. It was easier to pretend that the downpour of clerks was a B-movie symbol standing in for a rainbow. A warning from God to sales clerks: when a customer walks up to the desk for help, stop talking to your girlfriend on the phone, goddammit. But the Dean, who drove an old Toyota with a "God Does It On Sundays" bumper sticker, suggested I knock the clerks from my roof. "Andy," she said, "it's too much like a graveyard up there. Holocaust Lite. If your roof leaks, I'll have maintenance look at it."
But of course she wouldn't, or couldn't. Eaton University has a small budget, and the state's lowest tuition. Half of the campus lives in cabins without electricity or running water (though the school is scrambling to hook us up before the snow falls). It's an experiment in stretching the New Hampshire dollar. I don't know if the school will survive more than a few semesters. I know that I won't. Eaton U. was my ticket from home, the only ticket I could afford. A thirty-minute drive from North Conway and Mom and Bill. It was my first step, but not my last.
Because now I had an idea.
After a lifetime of hating clerks, I've come to love them. As soon as I have investors, I plan to tape the sweet sound of falling clerks and market it as a Windham Hill sort of thing, "Raining Clerks in New England." I'll pay a lab to fathom the ectoplasmic chemistry and bottle the clerks' snowy smell. And then I'll write a best-seller in the spirit of B. Kliban, 101 Uses for a Dead Sales Clerk. With the profits, I'll have the tuition for a better and more distant college, far away from Eaton U. and the bones of Boy Scouts and the arms of my mother.
As it happens, I'm not a Boy Scout. When it comes to my mother, I'm the anti-Boy Scout. The things I imagine, the fantasies I dream, make the daily rain of sales clerks seem routine and humdrum. That's why I need to earn a small fortune, to attend a school further than a short drive from home.
Because if I don't, one of these days the weather will change, along with God's mood, and I'll be the one raining down from the heavens.
Mom stood in front of my cabin's only window -- rusted screening, not glass -- watching the plow clear clerks from Beach Road. I could hear it scraping through the pines to Whittier House, the rich guys' dorm down the road. By rich I mean lucky. Their tuition checks cleared first and they got rooms in Eaton's newest building -- a combination dorm/cafeteria/student center -- wired with lights and flushing toilets and the use of a weed-free beach (not counting the daily precipitation of assistant managers and floor walkers, bobbing in the water, drifting to the shore). I didn't enjoy lugging water up from the beach to fill my toilet's tank, but as long as Mom continued to visit, living alone was prime real estate.
"I hate this rain," Mom said. She spoke like a farmer staring down a flood. "God promised he wouldn't drown us again, but now he's got his loophole. We're the rain. That's what Bill says. Laughs when he says it." Bill Reilly was her second and current husband. A jug-eared conservative I routinely disagreed with. Until now.
Mom didn't turn around, so I kept my smile. "It's not funny at all," I said. I sat back on my cot and took a deep breath. The torn clerks on the road chilled the air with the smell of an open freezer. I would have asked Mom to step aside for the light breeze, but her blue dress was stained purple in the small of her back, and I couldn't look away. "Want a Coke or something? It's ice-cold."
She shuddered. "No thanks, Andy." Mom didn't approve of my icebox for the day, a clerk I'd stuffed under the cot just before she arrived. I bent and reached between my legs and pulled a Coke from his stomach. I brushed off the ectoplasmic goo, popped the tab, and after a long sip, discretely pressed the icy can to my crotch, willing my erection to subside. No luck. I covered myself with my textbook and pretended to study, slowly turning pages, my wrists sore from shoveling and raking. Clerks aren't heavy -- they weigh as much as cotton candy, if you buy it in five-foot cones -- but the bodies flop on the shovel and gum up the rake, and it takes time to herd them into the sun. It's easier to let them melt where they fall. But when Jerry, my neighbor in Cabin Twelve, ambled by after breakfast with a phone message he'd plucked from the cafeteria board -- Andrew Pauquette, your mother will be stopping by this a.m. -- I grabbed the yard tools. There's nothing sexual about an ectoplasmic sales clerk (though I've heard stories that some people enjoy them, which is fine with me; ectonecrophilia hurts no one, compared to other perversions, and I speak with authority). But when they're sprawled in the yard with legs spread and backs arched, pairs piled together in coincidental embrace, they suggest a debauchery that might upset my mother.
Mom said something, but I was distracted by the wet spot in the small of her back. It seemed to be expanding, creeping around her waist, coyly reaching for her ass. Jesus, Jesus, what was I thinking?
"Do you like it?" Mom asked.
"Do you like it here?"
I guzzled my Coke. The can was too small; when I finished the last swallow, it was still afternoon, and Mom hadn't left for home. "Sure. Love it." I looked up from my book. Mom was still staring out the window, her hands on her hips. I imagined coming up behind her and taking those hands, pulling her close to me.
"You know what I'm thinking?" Mom asked, not turning from the window.
I straightened, felt my tee shirt peel from my back, as if I were a brown paper package coming undone; no, as if I were the recipient of the unraveling package, exposing a new toy from a mail-order sex shop while still in the post office. I thought she had said, "I know what you're thinking," and it took a moment for my heart to catch its breath. "Time for a swim?" I blurted.
She turned, brushing damp bangs from her eyes, and for a moment I thought she was going to say yes, a swim would be delicious, and I felt the book shift from my overtaxed erection. "It just rained," she said, her broad mouth pursed, her green eyes lost in a squint. Mom loved to swim -- that may be where my fantasies began, standing on a dock and watching her glide through the water in her striped bikini --but she reacted to the translucent clerks tossed in the lake as if they were two-legged jellyfish.
I gave her a half-smile and turned back to my book. I stared at the page and knew I had an excellent chance of passing tomorrow's test if a bonus question were added, such as, "Why do boys desire mothers when they know God is watching?" Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mom walk over, heard the soft slap of her bare feet -- they'd be dotted with tar after a few hours -- and I knew that if I looked up I'd catch her slipping out of her dress, explaining in her practical way that it was too hot to wear so much clothing, which would explain her lack of underwear. Then the dress would fall at her feet and I'd stare at her soft brown belly, the light from the window highlighting the bell curve of her hips . . . .
No, that's not true. Mom's dress was a sensible light cotton, a summer dress any mother would wear on a hot day. The remarkable outfit was her son, sweating in shorts and a tee shirt, contemplating an Oedipal striptease. Mom was an attractive thirty-eight; she unconditionally supported her only child. She sent me twenty dollars every week with a note urging me to treat myself (when I first read the message, I thought she meant I should see a therapist and treat my condition). And because I was a plain-faced eighteen, as well as a virgin, an only child, and seriously twisted, I knew in my heart that she was flirting.
I smelled her rose perfume as she stood beside me. A whiff of chloroform would have worked the same spell. I was a hostage. I couldn't read the words on the page. I was only partly certain that I had a book on my lap.
"That for a test?" Mom asked. She joined me on the squeaky cot, the cabin's only furniture for sitting when the lawnchair was outside or occupied inside (as it was now with a bag of groceries, courtesy of Mom). Her words blew close to my ear. My earlobe tingled. I bit my lower lip and reminded myself that the cot was small and the springs were shot. That's why she was sitting so close. Leaning so close. That's why I felt the heat of her skin.
"Yeah," I said. When Mom was around, everything was a test. I heard the whisper of crossed legs, the hungry crawl of her skirt inching over her knees.
Jesus Christ Almighty, I'm going to Hell. Mom never guessed that Dad was cheating on her until the divorce, and she never suspected that her son was a pervert. Mom trusted too easily. She watched reruns of seventies sitcoms, assured that the character motivations were reasoned and realistic. She gave to the Jerry Lewis Telethon, as if Jerry handled the cash. She was the sort of person who wore a bikini because she liked the feel of water, not to arouse others. The sort of person who described everything as delicious because it was the first word to come to mind, not because it was the right word: that movie was delicious, that joke was delicious; even, occasionally, that meal was delicious. I once gave her gardening gloves for Christmas and when she said they were delicious, I felt myself blush just short of combustion, as if I'd given her a best-selling item from Victoria's Secret. It's not her fault. I can't blame my perversity on her vocabulary. I think I became a momophile (a case of Oedipus Simplex) because Mom wasn't around a lot. I was seven when Dad ran out, and Mom worked as a waitress for the next ten years, taking any shift to pay the bills and the babysitters, the books and the clothes, and the mother I knew best was the one I imagined.
"I'm thinking this isn't all that homey." She waved at the ceiling, the spotted floor, the bare gray walls, the dirty and unusable fireplace. "I'm thinking you could move back home. It's just a little ways, and I know Bill wouldn't mind."
My hard-on vanished, thank God for Bill Reilly. I suppose he's okay, as right-wing conservatives go, and if I owned a car I'd be happy to bring it to his garage. But unless we leased the Superdome, we couldn't live under the same roof. When I told Mom that I wanted to live on campus -- even though Eaton was only thirty miles down the road -- she assumed it was Bill I was getting away from.
"Didn't he turn my bedroom into an armory or something?"
"A few of his guns. He doesn't mind moving them."
I started to reply when I heard the sudden patter of sales clerks brushing through the treetops, the snaredrum slither as they skipped and rolled off the tar paper and rattled the bushes. I heard faint splashes in the lake. An unexpected afternoon shower. Even with Mom sitting close I relaxed a little. Mom pulled away from me, crossed her arms. She frowned and I followed her gaze to the window as a fat clerk sank out of sight. If the heat didn't let up, I'd pull him in later and fire up the fan.
"Just not right," Mom said, shaking her head. I knew she wasn't talking about me. The karmic dispatch of so many clerks distressed her. She loved shopping. Eaton is just down the road from North Conway with its hundreds of factory outlets, the main lure for tourists when the blackflies are too thick or the foliage has passed. And Mom was a native. She knew the joy and value of shopping. She had the essential talent for deflecting rude clerks and getting what she wanted. A talent I didn't inherit. Shopping made me feel stupid. You want a book and you don't know the title? You want new sneakers but you don't know your shoe size? That's why I privately cheered when they vanished from stores in flashes of light and reappeared as falling balloons of ectoplasm. People were disturbed -- especially clerks -- but few could argue the benefits. The remaining clerks, those willing to risk ectoplasmic retirement for the huge jump in pay (I've read that clerks, once satisfied with minimum wage, now bank the wage of High Steel workers), were exceptionally polite and earnest, or at least worked hard to appear that way, on the chance that it was centuries of bad service that had pissed off God.
Mom stood, smoothed her dress, and walked back to the window. She shook her head, staring at the clerks on the ground. I wondered if any would land on her Escort. She'd parked under a tall pine, but ectoplasm is worse than birdshit. Short of a tarp, clerks are hard to avoid. They not only fall, they drift. One clerk could spoil a roof. I imagined myself driving home that point, convincing Mom to immediately wash the car. She'd put on cutoffs and a halter top, I'd pull on a bathing suit, and we'd pass the afternoon hauling water from the lake. And because the slopping bucket is heavy, she'd stoop, and I'd see her breasts, and someone for God's sake put a gun to my head, this is why I can't live at home. This is why I need the money to transfer out of state where Mom can't swing by every weekend. And lacking a car, I wouldn't be expected to visit.
"I don't have a car," I said.
"I can't come home because I don't have a car."
"You could use Bill's old Rambler."
"He'll fix it."
"I don't know. Bill and I. You know . . . ." I shrugged, letting her finish the sentence. I had a headache from the heat and conversation. I toyed with the idea of hauling the clerk from under the cot and wrapping him around my shoulders, the antithesis of freezing pioneers who slit open their horses and crawled inside the bellies for warmth. I was dying from exposure. Mom looked at me, waiting for something more. She looked absolutely beautiful, and I knew she would grant me anything I asked.
I forced a smile and shrugged again.
"Okay," she said. "But if you want to come home, the door's open. You know that." And I did. Mom never closed her bedroom door. She said she liked the cross-breeze, but I've always imagined she left the door open for me. I've had a hundred fantasies like that, any one of which deserved a lightning bolt from Heaven, or a handshake from Hell.
Mom crossed her arms, giving her cleavage a slight boost. I tried not to notice. Unlike many women, Mom was at ease with her body. She loved to stretch, and often seemed to be posing: bending over, reaching on tiptoe; gymnastics that seemed sensual in retrospect, but natural and innocent when presented. The first weekend at Eaton, she helped me settle in. She swept dust and mouse droppings, washed the walls around the fireplace, hung my one set of curtains. She wore red shorts and a faded blue T-shirt. The next day Jerry from Cabin Twelve asked who my girlfriend was and for a moment I didn't correct him. I let him believe that the gorgeous older woman was someone I slept with.
I slapped my book shut. If falling out of the sky was God's plan for rude sales clerks, I hated to imagine his plan for me. "Mom, I just remembered, I've got to go."
"I thought you had your last class this morning."
"My advisor. I have an appointment."
Mom tipped her head, shifted a shoulder, which lifted her left breast a bit.
"Mr. Breast," I said.
Mom laughed. "He must get picked on a lot."
I wanted to say, no, I meant Mr. Bennet, but my mouth felt hard and fake as a clerk's smile, and then I'd have to explain why breasts were on the tip of my tongue, so to speak. Christ. I needed a therapist. A doctor. An exorcist.
Mom stood and tugged at her dress. "Go ahead, honey. I'll find something to do."
"I could be a while. He's a slow talker."
"I'll fix a nice dinner." She shooed me off the cot, her fingers brushing my bare thigh, shooting a spark between my legs. She waved more of the disabling perfume towards me. "Go on. I'll make something delicious."
I could imagine. It didn't matter that my kitchen was a few bowls and a crippled Coleman stove. She'd manage to prepare oysters, baby carrots, steamed asparagus, topped off with a Spanish Fly dressing. She'd spread a clean sheet over the card table and we'd sit across from each other, and I'd watch her slide a moist green stalk of asparagus in and out of her freshly-lipsticked mouth. I'd look away, feverishly wondering if this was meant to be, if, perhaps, a mother and son in love were all that unnatural, and because of the heat both inside and out I'd lean forward to let Mom pull my T-shirt over my head and she'd shrug out of her dress and stand with her arms spread wide, while I'd look up from stepping out of my shorts and spot Jerry from Cabin Twelve, gawking through the window, snapping his camera, taking pictures to pass around school. The Dean would call me to her office. I'd be expelled. Made a demon in local papers. Shunned by investors. My dreams of wealth and security as the president of Sales Clerks, Inc. would be spoiled. And Mom would know me for what I was.
Girding my loins with the textbook, I backed to the door. Mom looked disappointed, and I almost kissed her goodbye the way we once did. Until last year, I kissed Mom with an open mouth, tongue against tongue. But no more. I couldn't trust myself.
"Okay. Sounds great. But I could be--"
And she vanished in a burst of white light that stung my eyes. As if someone had snapped her picture and taken her with it. When my eyes blinked away the flash, I saw her blue sun dress pooled on the floor. I stared at it for a long time before picking it up. My vision blurred and I wiped my eyes on the soft fabric. I smelled her perfume and sweat. I didn't know what to do. I stumbled to my cot and sat down, head in hands. I remember wondering if Mom was clerking part-time and hadn't told me. Every week she mailed me twenty dollars.
The news on the radio that night reported the splashy departure of thousands of middle-aged women in blazes of light. Though some were clerks, most were not. Many were customers. Some were housewives, others were executives.
The weather forecast called for heavy ectoplasmic rains. It was hard to distinguish the clerks from the women. All were naked and non-descript. All looked the same when they snagged on trees or rolled down highways.
That was two weeks ago. Women and clerks are still raining down every morning. For most people the sound of raining ectoplasm is doleful, no longer restful, and I don't plan to record it. For myself, the noise is bittersweet. It provokes memories of Mom in her blue dress. I try to forget, but every morning a fresh rain reminds me.
I read the Boston Globe this morning. Headlines and editorials, all clucking like hens in the shade of a farmer's ax. Beyond the sad truth that every woman left behind a family, there isn't a connection. It doesn't make sense. No one knows why certain women have been dropped from the clouds, or who will be next.
And I'm like the rest, more or less. I certainly can't explain why women are falling from the sky.
But I know who is next.
Mark Heath is a magazine cartoonist and greeting card artist. His work appears in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's, American Scientist, and other publications. His animated greeting cards can be found at Amazon.com. He lives alone with two cats who provide absolutely no inspiration. For more information about him, see his Web site.