Daddy was a civil engineer trying out to be a Fuller Brush Man. He’d bought a sales kit of samples—Fuller hairbrushes are guaranteed forever!—from the guy who would see if Daddy could sell door-to-door once they left the motel room in Tyler, Texas, where we’d stay behind. The three of us and Mommy. We’d never been to Tyler and had no idea where to go or what to do, so we waited in the motel room to see, once they were done, if Daddy got the job as a Fuller Brush Man.
Yep, all of us sat in the motel room, nothing particular to do. I’d just turned eight and liked to read, so I read one of my books—Conrad’s Magic Flight—about how this young boy has a magic record spinning on his gramophone that takes him anywhere and to any time, and he learns about great composers. My sisters, three and five, weren’t reading much. So I read to Linda and LV to pass the time.
The night before we had gone to a store and bought some food to keep in the motel room, which had a small refrigerator. After Daddy was gone several hours, Mommy decided it was time to eat. We had a table in the room with one chair. Mommy sat at the table with the food, we on the floor or bed. Mommy had taken a few dishes and glasses from our car parked in the crunchy gravel outside—always smallest car around—it was from England and called an Austin. It had four doors and orange turn signals that swung out high between the doors, right by the roof. It was green.
Mommy gave us each a glass of milk and a couple of fig bars to start. Fig bars were one of our favorites. We’d have the Thompson seedless grapes later. Possibly after we found out how it went for Daddy.
I never knew why we were in Tyler—what was there? Apparently not much for a civil engineer. Why else would Daddy be trying out to be a Fuller Brush Man? What I knew was we’d travelled to Tyler—the three of us kids sitting snug in the backseat—from Beaumont, Texas. I gather at one time before any of us was born, Daddy had worked in Beaumont for an oil pipeline company. But they now had no work for him. Which was fine by me. Beaumont, Texas, is one old stinky, ugly city. At least Tyler had trees. I was hoping Daddy’s luck might change in Tyler.
We’d finished our lunch, what it was, fig bars, milk, and those green, tart grapes we decided not to wait on. We’d just have to see how Daddy and the Fuller Brush business went. We probably had hours, so we sat in that warm motel room, windows open, and the cicadas working up a racket in the trees outside.
Despite being cooped up in a motel room there in Tyler, we were glad to be with Daddy. We hadn’t seen him for most of a year. Yep, for my whole school year. I’d been in second grade at John J. Pershing Elementary in San Antonio, when Mommy and the three of us stayed with Grandpa and Grandma at their place in San Antonio on Seguin Street. Grandpa’s grocery store was in front and in back was where we lived. Right behind the store was the room with Grandma’s rocking chair and a television where I watched that Senator McCarthy and the communist investigations. Then next was the kitchen with a pot-bellied wood stove and bedrooms off each side. Grandma kept guinea hens outside. Why I don’t know. We never ate the eggs.
For so long, it was a blur why we ended up taking the train to San Antonio, where Grandpa met us at the station downtown with his Chevrolet pickup truck. Earlier that summer, after school was out, Daddy had started a new job in Sacramento. He would drive from our rental house in Fair Oaks. Things seemed fine that summer. I spent most of my time catching pollywogs by the American River and running around outside. I don’t know what my sisters did. They probably played in the backyard.
I recall starting second grade at Fair Oaks, but I forgot the school name. My classroom had multi-pane windows to the ceiling along one wall. Gave lots of light and the teacher could open the top half of the window with a long pole, an L-shaped hook at top undid the latch. Anyway, I was there for a week—or maybe only a few days—getting to know kids, everyone new, and boom! we were moving again. We were taking the train to San Antonio to visit our grandparents, except it wasn’t a visit, it was for a long time. What I remember about the train ride was some kids kept coughing the whole trip. Whooping cough, Mommy said.
And years later, many years later, I learned what happened. Daddy’s job was as a civil engineer and he was registered with the State of California. When he signed something his registration number made it professionally approved. Daddy being new on the job wanted to do well. The job could lead to better things for all of us in time. Why he took the job and we moved north. After a few months working there, however, Daddy’s boss came to him and asked a favor. He wanted Daddy to sign off on some papers for a bridge design. Somebody must’ve made a mistake and the boss could not sign himself or he might lose his registration as a professional engineer. The boss said, You don’t have as much at stake. You could say you’d just started. You didn’t notice the specification was wrong. I need the favor and you’ll be fine. I’ll see to that.
Then Daddy surprised his boss. After we all moved halfway up the state, he quit his job. He refused to sign. He would not cover up another engineer’s mistake.
So I guess Daddy and Mommy talked it over and realized without a job and not much likelihood of getting another one soon, the savings would run out if we tried to stay together as a family. That’s why we caught the train for San Antonio, us kids and Mommy.
I don’t know what Daddy did during my second-grade school year. He probably wrote Mommy, but that was it. He must’ve lived off savings and tried looking for work. He rented a room in a couple’s house to stretch his dollars, but it now seems he was lost. He drove that Austin a lot. He told Mommy once he was driving and realized he didn’t know where he was going. He must’ve been really down on how his life had gone, after coming out of World War II, alive. He was civil engineering at Hickam Field during Pearl Harbor. He survived that and came back to the States from the Territory of Hawaii, met Mommy in San Antonio, and before long we kids came along. Then blam! all his civil engineer work and things going hunky-dory and he had to quit his job and split up our family. Well, as I say, I don’t know what he did during those months when I, but not my sisters, was going to school.
Near the end of that time away from us, he drove from California to see his parents in Barnesville, Minnesota, almost two thousand miles. Then after my school year finished, he drove down to San Antonio to see us. Then he drove back to Minnesota so we’d, too, see his parents. Next we left and he drove even more—did he like driving—Iowa, Georgia, the deep South, where we’d stop around dinner time to eat a watermelon we bought along the road, finding a park with picnic tables and the watermelon was our dinner. Needless to say, eating like that left us as skinny as string beans.
I had some vague sense of what was going on in the larger world outside our family. We had a new president. I LIKE IKE! My grandfather in San Antonio had told everyone he was voting for Eisenhower because he’d bring the boys home from Korea. In all that travelling, I once saw a newspaper with the big news the Rosenbergs, Ethel and Julius, had been executed—electric chair for both—because they cooperated with the communists, gave away our atomic bomb secrets.
Once we got to Texas, we stayed in Orange where my parents had lived before I was born, when Daddy had that job in Beaumont. We had lunch with the couple that rented my parents a house. By then, the couple had a son, but younger than me. Still, they asked him at lunch to pray. He did well for a kid and asked the Lord to bless the soldiers in Korea and bring them back home.
We left those people and went to the motel in Beaumont, where Daddy’s old employer had no openings. So on to Tyler and the Fuller Brush Man tryout.
Late afternoon, Daddy showed up and his face was looking long. How’d it go? Mommy asked. He said, No sales, left it at that. He set down his Fuller Brush Man samples kit, what he had to buy to try out for a sales route. Now it was his with the samples he wasn’t going to sell. So we kept it all. I got a comb for myself.
Mommy suggested we go down to San Antonio and see our grandparents again, especially after so much driving around. We were all for that, but I could see where Daddy having failed to get a job in Beaumont or Tyler wanted to keep looking somewhere else. Still we went anyway for a short visit with the idea we’d stay there while Daddy looked for work in Austin, which had government places that might need a civil engineer.
I can see now why Daddy might not’ve liked a second visit to San Antonio with Mommy’s brothers and sisters, or some of them anyway, asking, How’s the job hunt going?
Grandpa, however, would have no such nosiness. He just told anybody who’d listen, My son-in-law is a go-getter, always trying to better himself, trying out new things, and Grandpa said nothing, of course, about Daddy’s not finding a job. Grandpa was head of Mommy’s family and thought Daddy was a good husband for Mommy. Grandpa was a real salesman and tried to see the upside everywhere. When he was five, he held his mother’s hand and they first walked across the footbridge at Nuevo Laredo to the States. He started with nothing. Now he had his own grocery store and property with a house in the country. Self-made, he never worked for anyone once he became an adult.
So Grandpa might have known some hard times, too, like Daddy, and Daddy must’ve welcomed Grandpa’s words of confidence. He went off to Austin and we stayed at Grandpa and Grandma’s.
A week or so later, he came back. We were moving to Austin. He’d even rented us a place. Daddy was now a sewer inspector for the City of Austin. He was doing a civil engineer’s work, and I’m sure he convinced them to hire him once he heard Grandpa’s supportive words and once he found out he was not meant to be a Fuller Brush Man in Tyler, Texas.
And one other thing, Daddy decided we three kids were growing and getting too cramped in the backseat of that little green Austin A40 sedan. So he test drove and bought a used Studebaker Champion, also green, but with plenty of room for us kids. Getting a buyer for our Austin in Austin was not easy. Austin people weren’t keen on foreign cars, especially without any dealers around. Mommy, however, had her dad’s sense of how to sell. She said we’d take it down to San Antonio, where its military—servicemen and ex-servicemen—had been in Europe and loved foreign cars. Mommy sold that Austin A40 before the day was out.
Charlie Dickinson has published short fiction at Amarillo Bay, Eclectica, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. He posts a blog at cosmicplodding.net.