By Marilu Green
The stranger at my front door said the magic words. “I have a free gift for you!” I stepped aside and let him in.
In my defense the doorbell had awakened me out of a sound sleep that March afternoon and when I stumbled down the stairs from my upstairs apartment in Mrs. G’s house, I wasn’t tracking all that well. Luckily for me, cold-blooded killers were an anomaly in Rockford, Illinois, in 1966. Especially those offering free gifts.
Maybe on the front steps, maybe in the foyer, the stranger introduced himself. Not that all these years later I can recall his name or what he looked like. I only remember he was a pot and pan salesman and that he congratulated me on my impending June nuptials. But how did he know I was getting married in June? As if In response to my unspoken question, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the newspaper clipping of my engagement announcement— me in my college graduation photo awkwardly posed looking over my right shoulder and sporting a much lacquered blonde flip, 60’s “helmet hair.” In that photo I looked in no way like the person with bed- head hair who was standing before him. And he wouldn’t have been the first person searching for a resemblance. In fact, one of my English teacher colleagues, Miss Schmidt, a spinster who was known to halt lessons to feed pigeons on the roof outside her classroom, had remarked that the photo made me look like Lawrence Welk’s Champagne Lady. “Not like you at all.” she bit off the words. Weirdly angry at the misrepresentation.
Unlike Miss Schmidt, Mister Pot and Pan dared not be so blunt. After all, he wanted to make a sale. Besides, after a while all brides must have looked the same to him. He’d have quickly scanned past details of both my and my fiancé’s lineage, our wedding date, until he came to what would have been most important to him, my home address. And so he had come a’calling. Brides-to-be need pots and pans, right?
Still a bit dazed, I didn’t protest when he lugged his satchel of wares up the stairs to my apartment. Soon he had stacked and arranged pots and pans all over my living room floor. I sat in a metal turquoise patio chair while the salesman spoke of stainless steel construction and waterless cooking (which to this day I don’t understand). He demonstrated how one pan fit ever so neatly into another and that lids did double-duty. His pots and pans were nice enough but I wasn’t won over by their shiny good looks and versatility.
When I failed to swoon over the cookware, Mister Pot and Pan changed tactics. Surely a smart young woman such as myself would need good china for all the entertaining I would do when I married! I wasn’t so sure that as a cop’s wife, I’d be called upon to give dinner parties, but I agreed to take a look at the dishes so after he packed up all the cookware, he brought out plates, cups and saucers for my examination. Among the choices was some simple white china banded in silver.
“Hmm, this is nice,” I said lifting the dinner plate, feeling its heft.
“Quite elegant, isn’t it?” The salesman smiled, probably feeling optimistic for the first time all afternoon.
“Yes, it is.” I began picturing myself setting a lovely table. Perhaps stopping to adjust one of the lilies in the centerpiece. Ah, perfect. Our guests would be arriving soon. Policemen have to eat too.
“I can give you a very good deal on that china pattern.” The pot and pan salesman mentioned a price tag in the several hundreds. The number jolted me out of my fantasy dinner party with the chief of police.
“Oh, I dunno.” I said, shaking my head and remembering my first year annual salary as an English teacher was $5200. A wedding gown, actual furniture, rather than patio furniture, for our first apartment together took precedence over fine china.
I must have spoken my financial misgivings aloud because suddenly Mister Pot and Pan was quoting monthly payments that he was sure I could manage. I admit I was tempted until UNTIL he casually mentioned that the payment plan included interest.
Interest! I wasn’t going to pay interest. I had been schooled by my father, who did not believe in buying things on credit. He believed in saving up for purchases and not living beyond one’s means. Why he even paid cash for his cars! They might be nondescript dark-hued sedans, no frill models—my sister and I had to beg him for a radio, but my father owned them free and clear. Like many 22 year olds, finally on their own, I tried to shrug off my father’s ideas and values, but when all was said and done, I was my father’s daughter. So no matter what the salesman said to persuade me, however he might have tried to sweeten the deal, I was adamant. Like my father, I did not pay interest. I would not buy the china.
Dejected, my afternoon caller packed up the china and slung away down the stairs. Before he left though, true to his word, he gave me my free gift, a plastic handled serrated cake cutter, which I have to this day. That is more than I can say for the husband and the marriage.
© 2017 Marylu Green
Marylu Green is a writer who lives in Madison, WI. She is a big fan of public libraries, especially the ones with fireplaces. She bemoans the many hours she used to spend on hairdos and is thrilled now to have “wash and wear” hair. Though she no longer eats cake, she has found other uses for the cake knife.
Marylu, A nice homage to a world long gone. We live in a nice, quiet neighborhood in a small town and today, my wife won’t answer the doorbell or knock for fear of an intruder. As I read the piece I found myself expecting some sort of confrontation coming with your declining the pots and pans pitch then the tableware one. After the peddler’s efforts in lugging his wares up a flight of stairs and laying it all out on your living room floor I was expecting an irate response from him. Apparently that didn’t happen. That it didn’t happen is also a mark of a long ago era. Finally and most important your father’s admonition to know to separate needs from wants in order to manage your finances.