“This Is What We Do”

We ride in vans. We knock on doors. We sell subscriptions to magazines. You’ve heard of these magazines. Would you like to buy a subscription? I’ll earn points; I’ll make money. Would you like to help me?

We work the territory, different every day. We lie about our age. 14, 16, 18. Try to make ourselves older or younger. We walk this neighborhood, that one, morning to night. We see housewives, old people, poor people in the daylight hours. Families after dark, sitting down to dinner on the other side of lighted windows. Watching TV, all together on the couch. Father with a tie and a beer. Mother with a glass of wine. Kids snuggled in between.

Look what you have, where you are. Would you like to buy a subscription?

We sleep in motels. Boys in one room, girls in the other. Most of the time. Four to a room; maybe five, six. Lowest earner on the floor, in the tub. Up at the crack of dawn to watch the video. Staring at the motel TV, the VCR on top. The video older than most of us. Strange fat white guy in a powder blue suit. He talks about sales techniques. Making eye contact. Keeping a positive attitude. Boss rewinds the video at the end, ready for the next day.

Boss gets a room to himself. We can hear him through the wall.

We wait in line for the shower, hairdryer, space at the sink. Get dressed; look presentable. Not too much jewelry. Cover the tattoos. Out all day and then back to a different motel. Room looks the same, though. Lowest earner does pushups. Lowest earner does squats. Lowest earner complains and gets taken out to the stairwell. Don’t complain. Keep your mouth shut. Keep a positive attitude.

We earn money. We pay for gas, van upkeep, motel rooms. Boss keeps the cash. We win prizes. New pair of Nike Lebron 12 Elites, cherry red. New Fila tracksuit. New Yankees cap. Top earner gets a bed alone. Top earner gets to call home.

Amarillo, Flagstaff, Enterprise, Bakersfield. We drive on Sundays, hellbent in the van. Always a new picture out the window. Every once in a while somebody says, I know this place. Or, that’s my old middle school. Or, that’s where my mother died.

We tell our stories in the motel at night. Why we joined up. We joined up because we were beaten or bored or scared or not scared enough. Because we wanted things. Money, drugs, freedom. Not to be in that apartment, that house, that school. Because we were sick of the city or the farm. Tired of the same faces, same voices.

Because we’re running, away or towards.

We rehearse our pitch. Motel room mirror, van mirror, mirror in another face. Would you like to buy a subscription? I’m trying to earn points to help my school. I’m trying to earn points for a trip to Disneyland, to London, to Cancun. I’m trying to earn money to send back home. My mother is dying, my baby’s sick.

Would you like to help me?

We wonder if anyone is looking for us. Some of us hopeful for that; some of us terrified. We see familiar faces on sidewalks or behind car windows or hear familiar voices calling Gimme a second after we knock as they come to answer the door and we freeze with longing or fear.

We party in the van; we party in the motel room. Singing, drinking, smoking. Calling our crew name out motel windows, out van windows coming into or leaving some town. Fast Earners. High Priority Crew. Top Shelf Sellers.

We leave kids who won’t sell, can’t sell. Motel rooms, truck stops, side of the road. The worst is the bus station with empty pockets, no ticket. Standing out under the overhang in the heat and exhaust, watching each bus leave without you.

We knock on doors. We ring bells. We give the pitch. You know these magazines. Wouldn’t you like to help me?

We don’t take no for an answer. We refuse to leave your front porch. Using a dried out pen tip we carve, Next time anser the fucking doorbell bich into the siding beside your door when no one is home, both out of anger and desperation.

Answer the fucking doorbell, bitch.

Is this a scam? Should I call the police? Do your parents know you’re doing this? Do you have parents? Is somebody looking for you? Does anybody know where you are?

Top earner gets a Scarface DVD. Top earner gets a bottle of Chivas Regal.

We wonder about mothers and fathers, sisters, babies, friends. That was my old middle school! Yeah, well, maybe. They all look alike. We have dreams, sometimes, where we think we’re back there, with them, and then we wake up here, with us. We fight over money, cigarettes, each other. A motel room in Hemet—ten, twelve kids fighting. The room becomes a seething beast, a rat king; teeth and nails and fists and feet. Lamps broken, mirrors broken. Blood on the wall.

We get asked: will these magazines actually show up? We get asked: is this a scam? The answer to both of these questions is no.

We watch the video. We listen to the boss, the veterans of the crew. Stay out of the stairwells. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your head facing forward. Don’t think about what’s back there. There’s nothing back there. That wasn’t your fucking middle school.

Runaway Sellers. Hard Money Crew.

We tally points. We win prizes. Pair of Beats Mixr headphones. Carton of Winston XStyle Blues.

Top earner gets a bed alone.

Top earner gets to call home.

About Scott O'Connor

Scott O’Connor is the author of the novella Among Wolves, and the novels Untouchable and Half World. He has been awarded the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, and has been shortlisted for the Sunday Times/EFG Story Prize. Additional work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Zyzzyva, The Rattling Wall, VLAK, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.