by William Michaelian
I hated selling magazine subscriptions, but everyone at school was doing it, so I was too. Well, at least I tried. The first thing I did was check in with all the neighbors, but it turned out someone had beaten me to it. So then I went to other neighborhoods. It was the same thing there. I didnít sell a single subscription. I told my mother Iíd had enough and that I was quitting. She said she didnít believe in quitting, that quitting wasnít a good habit to get into. What else am I supposed to do? I said. Iím too late. No one is buying anything. Well, she said, youíll just have to try harder. Try a new approach.
And so I began to rethink my strategy. I had already tried the time-honored method of ringing someoneís doorbell and asking them politely if they would like to buy a subscription. I told them my name and smiled, and showed them my glossy list of magazines. I told them what school I was going to, and how we needed to raise money. I didnít tell them what the money was for, because I didnít know. Luckily, no one asked. It didnít matter anyway. One after the other, everyone whose doorbell I rang said the same thing: Oh, someone was just here. Oh, we just bought a subscription. Oh, oh, oh.
It was maddening, especially since I knew kids at school who were selling mountains of subscriptions and winning all sorts of prizes as a result. When I asked them how they did it, they described a process that was exactly like mine. Well, I said, it doesnít work for me. This made them laugh. Oh, well, they said. You canít win them all. And then they laughed some more, and walked away and formed small groups, and continued laughing.
It was too much. To get away from the laughter, I went to the rest room. It was nice and cool in there, and the smell of urinal deodorizer cakes helped me think. I washed my hands and looked in the mirror. And there, staring back at me, was the answer. I was ugly. I had a misshapen head, a big nose, oily skin, bristly hair, and way too many teeth. My neck was too long, my body was too short, I had sticks for legs, and my arms could have belonged to a monkey. It was a genuinely disturbing sight, more so because I didnít know how or when it had happened.
Well, I said to myself, itís no wonder you canít sell magazine subscriptions. You scare people. Then the bell rang. Instead of going to my next class, I left the school grounds and started walking around in the surrounding neighborhoods. When I got tired of looking at houses, I went to a nearby park and looked at the grass and the squirrels. When I got tired of looking at the grass and the squirrels, I walked downtown and looked at the people. Pretty soon, a policeman stopped and asked me why I wasnít in school. Because Iím ugly, I said. For some reason, this made the policeman smile. Since when is being ugly an excuse to skip school? he said cheerfully. Just as cheerfully, I told him he could shove it. Get in the car, he said then. Iím taking you home. Fine, I said. At least no one there will tell me Iím ugly.
After the policeman had finished talking to my mother, he drove away. He didnít apologize, and neither did I. Why didnít you tell me? I said to my mother when we went inside. Tell you? she said. Tell you what? That Iím ugly, I said. What do you mean, ugly? she said. Youíre not ugly. Where did you get that idea? A little bird told me, I said. My mother looked confused. So I told her what had happened at school, and how I had looked in the mirror and learned the truth. That is utter nonsense, she said. Just because a few kids were laughing, that doesnít mean youíre ugly. You donít even know if they were laughing at you. And anyway, even if they were, you know how junior high kids are. Theyíre like chickens. If one is weak or sick, the others peck at it. Right, I said. And they also try to kill it. I know all about chickens. Grandpa told me.
Suddenly, my mother looked very sad. No one is going to kill you, she said softly.
I know, I said. If they did, then they wouldnít have me to make fun of anymore.
Donít talk that way.
What way shall I talk, then? Itís true, isnít it? I am ugly.
Iím sorry, she said. Iím terribly sorry.
My mother started to cry. She was still crying when my father came home from work expecting to find supper on the stove and everything running smoothly. Whatís wrong? he said. Did something happen? She nodded. My father took her in his arms. You feel cold, he said. Are you ill? Do you need to see the doctor?
I left my hiding place in the living room and went into the kitchen. No, I said. She doesnít need any doctor. I do.
Whatís this all about? my father said. Are you sick?
My mother sighed. Heís having trouble selling magazines, she said. And the other kids were laughing about it at school.
Oh, my father said. Is that all? Whatís the big deal about that? Everybody I talk to in town says theyíre sick of kids going door to door, asking for money. Besides, people already have the magazines they want. The school has no business making kids do their dirty work. Let the principal sell subscriptions if he wants. Or let him donate part of his salary. He makes too much anyway.
That may be, I said. But Momís not telling you everything.
My father looked at me, then at my mother. What arenít you telling me? he said.
That Iím ugly, I said. Not that you didnít already know. Then I told my father the whole story, including the part about the policeman.
Nate, he said when I was finished, youíre not ugly. No matter what you say, or what you think, or what happens. Youíre not ugly. I know how the kids are at school. I remember. I also know what itís like to look in the mirror. I do it every day. So does your mother. For your information, none of us are prize-winners. But what our faces lack in refinement, they make up for in character. Remember that. Because, the truth is, you donít know what ugliness really is. People who are ugly are ugly from the inside, not the outside. The ugly people are people who lie for a living, and who lie to their families, and spend their whole lives lying.
Like politicians? I said.
To take just one example, my father said. But it doesnít matter what your job is, or if you even have a job. If youíre dishonest, that dishonesty eventually tells on your face. Thereís no escape. Do you understand?
I nodded. I think so, I said.
And another thing, my father said. At your age, itís hard to look like a movie star. Youíre growing so fast, sometimes even I donít recognize you. First your arms are too long, then your nose is too big, then all of a sudden your face decides to grow. About all I can say is, donít worry. The process takes awhile, but everything will come together in the end. And hey ó who knows? With any luck, you might even end up handsome, like me.
My father smiled. And as he did, for the first time in my life, I really looked at him. As it turned out, he was nowhere near handsome. But his face was a good face. An interesting face. And I looked at my mother, who was busy drying her eyes. She wasnít beautiful at all, and yet I could see how easy it must have been for my father to fall in love with her.
Later that afternoon, I sold my first magazine subscription. The next day, I turned the check in at the office and told the secretary I was through. She answered with a smile that told me she didnít care. On my way out, I caught a glimpse of the principal sitting in his office. He was talking to someone on the phone, and just as ugly as ugly could be. Poor guy.
William Michaelianís newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelianís other books and links to this siteís other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.