The Middle Distance 9.30.11: A Fine Salesman

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photo by Sean Cayton

My father was a traveling salesman. A cut-up, a gambler, a ladies man, a nimble third baseman, a guy with a joke and a story always at the ready, he loved the road and he loved the thrill of the sale.

When I was growing up, he traveled Kentucky back roads stocking the shelves of small, family-owned grocery stores with shaving cream, toothpaste, shampoo, Listerine, and Band-aids. When I think of him then, I see him palming the big steering wheel of his company car with his right hand, his suntanned left arm angled out the driver’s side window.
Daddy spent his life believing he’d one day hit the jackpot, win the big one, sell the product that would make him rich. And he never stopped yearning for the road. Two days before he died, he bribed a janitor at the hospice where he had been admitted with end stage lung cancer to give him his car keys. He drove himself home to die.
He left behind a closet packed with freshly laundered, starched shirts, and a recent model Chevrolet with a trunk full of Excedrin PM and Clairol Herbal Essence bath gel. On his desk were route sheets and order forms, tracking his sales performance of the previous few months, scribbled with a nubby pencil. Besides these and his armed services discharge papers, he left behind nothing personal. I took his drivers license and key ring as mementos.

We arranged for his funeral at the Kirby Brothers Funeral Home in Bowling Green where he would be buried in the old city cemetery next to his mother and father.
The Kirbys had a shiny new brick building out on Small House Road, bordered on one side by a flat, treeless new cemetery, and on the other by a truck farm with a produce stand.
I arrived at noon, photo and comb in hand, charged with the task of making sure Daddy’s hair was right. He had a fine thick head of hair and would’ve hated being laid out with it slicked back or combed over. A kind man in a polyester suit showed me the way to the chapel and offered a bowl of water. Daddy’s hair wasn’t pliable, as in life, but I managed to ruffle it up a bit, adding the only touch besides a good-looking suit and tie that made this strange body look remotely like my father. For several minutes I didn’t believe it was him. His eyes weren’t crinkled in laughter, leaking quick tears. He was a rosy man gone ivory in death.

The guests arrived and we set to visiting—old Kentucky neighbors, Nashville friends, second and third cousins, a high school buddy, James, carrying a photo of himself and my father leaning against the Plymouth Daddy proudly owned back in 1940. A broad man, James wiped away tears as he handed over the fragile photo.
“Ol’ Billy sure loved that car,” he said. In the black and white photo, Daddy’s blue eyes shone silver and his lanky body rested easily against the massive hood of the Plymouth, his baggy cotton slacks fluttering in the breeze.

Around two o’clock, just as the service was due to begin, a violent thunderstorm knocked out the power and all lights at the Kirby Brothers Funeral Home, a gilded parlor with no windows and, apparently, no supply of candles or flashlights. For twenty, thirty, forty-five minutes, then an hour, the guests milled about in the dark, voices kept to a whisper to match the absence of light.

Finally, laughter erupted in the far corner of the hallway. James and some of Daddy’s buddies slapped each other on the shoulders and threw their heads back.
“Ol’ Billy got the last word,” hollered James.

“Yep, he ain’t goin’ easy,” yelped another. These friends knew my father’s mastery with the practical joke. Before the Lord took him, he’d have his way.
The service was sweet and sorrowful. Brother Richard, the preacher from our childhood church, officiated, though Daddy hadn’t been to Glendale Baptist or any other church for at least 30 years. It was hard to imagine what Brother Richard would have to say.

He stepped up to the podium next to Daddy’s coffin and cleared his throat. My sister and I shifted nervously in our seats. My mother always said Brother Richard looked a lot like Billy Graham, and he did with his thick sweep of gray hair and his square jaw.

“Bill Carpenter,” said Brother Richard, pointedly meeting eyes across the room, then pausing for effect. His stern expression broke into a slow smile.
“Bill Carpenter,” said Brother Richard, “was a fine salesman.”

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


6 Responses to The Middle Distance, 9/30/11: A Fine Salesman

  1. nick adams says:

    I would love to have hung out with your Daddy

  2. Anne Lennox says:


    Your writing absorbs me and leaves me speechless. I wish I had your capacity to accept and love someone who was not an easy person to live with.

  3. Barbara Summerville says:

    Thanks Kathryn, I have been exploring that era myself as I lost an Aunt Verna of 96 years this month. The pictures of her touch me as I see her as a young woman going off to college with all that freshness. Thanks for the story. Barbara

  4. Rose Enyeart says:

    I loved your story. I laughed and cried. I’m also glad that you could share something so real with us. It spoke to those of us who lost parents and weren’t able to give them the sort of send off that we’d liked to give. Your Daddy had the last word. Good on him!

  5. Paula says:

    Mother still calls her dad, “Daddy”. Northerners just don’t do that,, it’s good to hear again.

  6. Lynn Young says:

    Thanks for the chance to remember and picture my daddy’s suntanned arm, draped out the window (just like I do now)and those baggy pants (the ones momma put into big metal frames to dry). Yup, all of it! Now freshly blowing in my mind because of your gift, Kathryn!


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