NEWPORT BLUES, A SALESMAN’S LAMENT is influenced by the salesperson in all of us. You are or have been in sales, right? You can’t get through life without being faced with selling something at some point: a product, an idea, a service, or a cause. And many have had careers full-time salesmen and women. But a lot of us have choked over the thought of trying to support our families and ourselves by getting up everyday and selling something.
Let me introduce you to Sidney Lister and his unsettling tale.
When Jonesy Jones, the only salesman for Beeman’s International, drops dead, Sidney Lister is forced to fill the dead man’s shoes. Sidney is a ground-down ex-salesman who has been reduced to working as a shipping clerk for the small import gift business and is barely getting by. After Jonesy’s death, Sidney cleans out the cigar-fumed company Cadillac and begins a sales run down the Oregon Coast, announcing Jonesy’s demise at every stop. Reactions are often surprising, even bizarre. At the same time, Sidney is being hunted down by a man from his past who suddenly wants him dead. In this journey through Jonesy’s world, along with visits to a lustful ex-wife and a chance meeting of the most beautiful girl from his high school days, Sidney is making one last grasp for life’s brass ring and hoping to live to enjoy it.
I started putting together the story of NEWPORT BLUES, A SALESMAN’S LAMENT six years ago. And in the writing, I relived many of my own episodes of selling, recalling many days of trial and error just as my protagonist, Sidney Lister, does in this story. We slugged it out together, he and I, as it evolved into a tale of one man on the road, always selling, but suddenly faced with the threat of violence, matched by love, renewal, and the chance to begin anew following a life of unfulfilled promise. I hope you enjoy it.
Early Praise for NEWPORT BLUES, A SALESMAN’S LAMENT
“Want to know how a salesman lives…and almost dies? Read this book. Wright expertly weaves a compelling tale of intrigue and suspense, and surprises at every turn. I couldn’t put it down.”
—Gregory Nokes, Author of Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon
“George Byron Wright has produced a precociously entertaining book full of beleaguered yet beguiling characters who almost belong at the Oregon Coast.”
—Matt Love, Author of Gimme Refuge and Super Sunday in Newport
Excerpt from first chapter
Sidney Lister had always enjoyed looking at Mary Ellen Conway when she wore no clothes. In fact, from the first time he had seen her naked there had been no going back. And right then, as he sat up in her bed and leaned against two pillows with his arms folded, he was as aroused from seeing her body as he had ever been. The amber cast from the bedside lamp seeped out and crept up her thighs, fleshier now but still something to see, and shone on the breasts she had been proud to exhibit back then—and still was.
She stood at the foot of the bed, shamelessly patting the moisture from her arms and her belly with a fluffy white towel, and smiled at him. That always made Sidney feel the fool because he knew that she knew he couldn’t not watch her. It had been like that from the beginning when they were but kids. And because it was what it was—an addiction to her sensuality—he had taken Mary Ellen “Ellie” Conway to wed and bed two years out of high school, June 1977.
Of course the bed part had one inexorable rule, a tenet set by Mary Ellen from the very first time they’d touched each other; she had been adamant about not becoming pregnant. Sidney had never forgotten the time she had taken his manhood in her hand and held on until his eyes watered and he agreed to no sex unless she was protected. Having kids right out of high school wasn’t her idea of a fun time. Ever, really. No children to this day by Sidney or, later, the other man. So, no kids for Mary Ellen, no college for Sidney—he was off and running.
Mister Most Likely to Succeed assumed he could make hay any old way. Didn’t he have his winning smile and his wily native intelligence? And didn’t he have Mary Ellen Conway? Look out, world.
She blotted her face dry and padded off to the bathroom. He listened to the sounds she made: the medicine cabinet opening, water running, gentle humming—and watched the door like a dog for its master. She reappeared wearing an aqua-colored silky thing open at the front; it floated out as she walked back into the bedroom. Sidney did not take his eyes off her white skin, short black hair, and the triangular wedge beneath her navel; he pretended to ignore the smile on her mouth and the tease in her eyes.
But of course he hadn’t succeeded, not as projected by the Grant High School yearbook staff, anyway, and not as Ellie felt she had every right to expect. The high point that first year was setting up housekeeping in a cute little apartment in northeast Portland and then admiring it—playing house. The wedding booty, all new and shiny, and the furniture the Conways had sprung for, made it seem almost real—their make-believe life. Claiming the success Sidney was due by proclamation proved more difficult. The routine of life bore down; meeting the same responsibilities over and over was a severe lesson. And a twenty-year-old still rubbing Clearasil on his pimples wasn’t about to become a member of the Realtors Million Dollar Club even though he had decided that the road to his financial success lay in selling property. Sidney had to hand it to Ellie; she hung on for ten long ones waiting and watching Mister Ought-to-Be turn out naught-to-be. That was the way she saw it, anyway.
She sat on the edge of the bed up against his hip, curled her fingers back on first one hand then the other, and examined her nails. He watched her indifference, recognized it for what it was, then raised his arms over his head and stretched.
“You bored?” she asked over the growl of his yawn. “Done looking?”
“Never done looking,” he said and reached out to swat her on the hip.
“We’ve got that, anyway. Don’t we?”
Sidney pulled the sheet up on his cooling chest and clasped his hands behind his head. “What was he like?” he asked.
She turned her head, tipped it, and looked at him; her eyelids lowered slightly. “In bed?”
“No. Come on, Ellie. That all you think about?”
“With you it is. What else is there?”
“Yeah, well we’ve been over that ground.”
She leaned across his legs and propped her head on an elbow, chin in a cupped hand. “So Ralphy—what was he like? Well, let’s see.” She clawed the sheet down and rubbed his stomach circling, the reddish blond hair into swirls. “You really want to do this? The other guy?”
Sidney lowered his arms and took her hand up. He kissed her fingertips and saw the liquidity come into her eyes. He could always do that; she had always been responsive to the sensual but never the domestic. The day-after-day waiting for Sidney to succeed had dragged her down. For Ellie, those years were an uphill grade riding on a downhill frame of mind.
“Thought we’d made a deal,” she said. “To not go poking around back there.”
“Forever and ever? Sacred?”
“It was the millennium, pretty sacred.”
Seventeen years. Seventeen years without as much as a phone call or a How the heck are you? Not a Christmas card or even an accidental encounter on the street. Their separation came in the spring; it had been exactly one month short of what would have been their tenth anniversary. The new season of green, the crocus, the daffodils, it all spoke to Mary Ellen Lister, and it said time to go. Time to find a new avenue of promise. In the beginning she had risen to the lure of Sidney’s next big breakthrough. First there was Earl Sidway’s Used Cars. Just until I get my real estate license, Sidney had pledged; it was the one promise Mary Ellen could point to in ten years that had actually been fulfilled. Sidney studied, sold seasoned Dodges and veteran
Fords and back-broken Buicks, and got his real estate license. But he was still a kid. No prospective buyers would have looked at the lanky boy with the tousled roan hair and seriously put the purchase of a lifetime in his hands.
Carl Draper didn’t care if Sidney looked fifteen; Sidney had a license and was innocent to deception. Draper had purchased a chunk of land in east Multnomah County, built a fancy brick entrance and put a sign up: Carlton Estates. Then the boxes went up: cheesy construction, two-bedroom, one-bath houses with one car garages squeezed in row after row on Vista Lane, Ponderosa Way, and Horizon Boulevard. Forget that there were no vistas, or horizons, or trees. Draper was the developer, architect, builder; and Sidney was the real estate agent. He convinced Sidney and Ellie to move into one of the houses, rent free, so Sidney could be his on-site agent and sell the boxes to other young couples. It was just like selling used cars: play up the image, downplay the product. Sidney barely eked out a living on Draper’s salary and commission plan. Then, with three houses left, including the one Sidney and Ellie were living in, Draper fired him and gave them two weeks to move out because he had buyers for every remaining house. He didn’t need Sidney and his pimples anymore. After following along as Sidney sold ranchettes in Idaho, beach cabins on the Oregon coast, then moved them back to Portland where the bright promise lay in pedaling wholesale janitorial supplies, Mary Ellen told Mister Most Likely to Succeed that she couldn’t watch his frantic pursuit any longer. And the money was bad.
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