Death of a Peddler: Short Stories of a Long Life
Richard J. Vielmetti, 1921-2006
Sunday, October 22, 2006
the presence of absence
We saw him hours earlier. He was flattened against his pillows, milky eyes fluttering, shallow breaths barely fogging his oxygen mask. Fluid gurgled in his lungs, his hands cold and twitching. The foam boot that had kept his diabetes-ravaged foot in place lay on a nearby chair, infection now feasting freely on the bone. He had no assets, no possessions, no teeth. Just a nursing-home johnny. He died yesterday at 7:21 PM. He was Richard J. Vielmetti. Child of the Depression, youngest of four brothers and a sister, World War II veteran, cross-country hitchhiker, ice cream maker, vacuum peddler, donut salesman. And my father-in-law.
This morning’s sky was crystal blue and I saw Richard everywhere. In the frosted leaves in the driveway, in the lone goose peeling off from the line, in the rutted streaks of cloud that reminded me of the back roads he used to travel, truck loaded with vacuum bags and parts. Stenciled on the back window: “Lifetime guarantee if you promise not to live too long.” Many of his customers were poor and missed payments. He called on them at their rural homes and sometimes accepted a power tool or dinner instead. Richard grew up with nothing, the son of immigrants, his mother a one-lunged cripple. These were his people. Most everyone else thought he had a screw loose.
One of Richard’s favorite pastimes was Skip-Bo, a simple card game of sequence. He wore out deck after deck and passed them on to us. Richard and I once played Skip-Bo for six hours straight. Last night, Chris, Shea and I dealt a round in his memory. When we were done, we separated out one of the wild cards to tuck in his shirt pocket when he’s cremated on Thursday. When Shea asked to play again this morning. I grabbed the lone card off the counter but Chris stopped me. “We should play without it.” She was right. It was a beautiful thing. The three of us sitting around the woodstove, dogs at our sides, none of us playing with a full deck.
posted by caleb d. at 5:28 PM
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Daughters, nieces and nephews, he took them all on his sales calls, tried to teach them the trade. His disorganization and bumbling was his charm. The plastic sleeves of vacuum parts flew out from boxes, his truck a jumble of vacuum bags and hoses and attachments. I’d lose my head if it wasn’t screwed onto my shoulders, he'd say. At one home, he absent-mindedly snapped a tablecloth into his briefcase and headed for the door, taking the setting with him. He still made the sale. And the next one, and the one after that. Fallen leaves swirled up from beneath the hearse and washed over our hood. Thank god stories don't fit into urns.
It was a late October afternoon. The mountain foliage had turned a dull orange. The tour buses and motorcycles were gone. Against the grey clouds a necklace of geese. Chris and I followed the hearse from the funeral home in Northfield, Massachusetts, to the crematory in Troy, New Hampshire. Inside a cardboard box, a door-to-door salesman making his final call.
We wound along many of the same roads Richard traveled over the decades, his Ford pick-up loaded with Raleigh home products or vacuums or donuts. Lettered on a side panel: “Everyone gets a break. One leg at a time.” Route 9, Route 119, Route 12. Humble Main Street storefronts, peeling churches, hooded teens on undersized dirt bikes, gravel roads broken up with double-wides. His kind of towns.
posted by caleb d. at 9:27 PM
Thursday, October 26, 2006
In the car outside, we turned back in our seats toward the small, non-descript building with the short smokestack on top – no smoke yet only a shimmer of heat burrowing into the grey sky. Chris rolled down the window, to breathe in her father one last time, opening up the deepest parts of her lungs. In the distance, a cloud had slit itself open and bled out the afternoon’s last light.
Inside the cardboard box, Richard was dressed in a pair of grey slacks, frayed and discolored at the hems. The pocket of his striped shortsleeve shirt sagged – stretched by the multiple notebooks he always carried for vacuum orders and payment notations. Into that empty space, we had slipped photos of his daughters and granddaughter, and a wild card from his favorite card game.
We stared through a viewing window into the sparsely outfitted incineration room. A single desk in the corner. Looks easy to clean, Chris said. Behind a blue curtain, hair follicles were plucked, a finger printed, a photo taken, a once-over for foul play. Then the medical examiner was gone, not looking our way. We went in.
The cardboard box could have held a bench or ironing board. I imagined Richard packed in foam peanuts. Chris ran her hand over the tan container. Richard would take three-and-a-half hours to burn, at 1,400 degrees. Probably higher since fat and oils burn hotter and Richard loved doughnuts. At his prime, he might have been a 2,200-degree man, but he’d lost weight since a stroke four years ago forced from his beloved country roads into a nursing home.
The roar of propane fire filled our ears, our mouths. The crematory operator slid the box into the dusk of the retort oven. The door came down and the tiny window glowed a bright orange glow. In the morning, a magnet will be passed over the ashes to extract any metals. His 185-pound body will then fill an urn the size of a milk jug. For now, there was nothing more to see.
posted by caleb d. at 10:54 PM
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Sunk in the grey dust were pale bits and shards – parts of a tooth? A rib? The ash was fine, like ash from a woodstove or barbeque grill catch. Not like kitty litter. This was Richard. Rain hammered the driveway of the funeral home and gusty winds whipped thick drops against the windows. We decided to put off the scattering. After the service, we ate at Denny’s Pantry where we sometimes brought Richard from the nursing home. Cheap breakfast-served-all-day kind of fare, torn vinyl seats, wide bathrooms, chubby waitresses. We are in no way affiliated with the Denny’s Restaurant chain! Richard waited in the car, in a red velvet box. Good thing. He’d be dismayed at the tip we left. He was a ten-percent man all the way. I’m not made of money. We drove back to Vermont with Richard on the floor behind the driver’s seat. Next to a half-empty 12-pack of lime seltzer, Shea’s schoolbooks, my work bag, and Chris’ long knit scarf. I thought about his multi-clasp suspenders, his orange knit cap, his flannel shirt often dusted with sandwich or cookie crumbs. “You dress like a slob, Richard,” a customer once told him. With a self-satisfied look, he turned and answered, “I know.” The rain kept coming, our wheels humming on the wet asphalt, wipers whispering, each of us silently slipping beneath the hush.
posted by caleb d. at 11:07 PM
Saturday, November 25, 2006
nothingness & everything
We drove along the same country road where Richard taught his immigrant parents to drive when he got back from the war. His Austrian father spoke eight languages. But the Depression kept them dirt poor. His mother took in laundry, 25 cents a load. Richard was their fifth child. He now filled a hard plastic urn under our coats in the back seat. The asphalt turned to gravel and the pines grew into towers, rocks crunching under our tires. The Green River glinted through the trees. After a few miles, we pulled over.
We clambered down a short embankment and made our way to a bend in the river. The water was shallow and fast-moving, the stony bed shimmering in the sunlight. A breeze pushed against our faces. Chris stepped on a dry rock and started shaking Richard from the container. He poured out like a scarf. Then filled the water like a dye cloud, blotting out the bottom, blurring all sense of depth and dimension. And for a moment, Richard was the river. Then he moved on, a ghostly tan mass hugging the bank, drifting toward the waterfall above his favorite swimming hole.
“There goes a bit of his duct tape,” I joked to Chris and older sister MJ.
In his later years, Richard walked the lanes at the pool at the local Y. Instead of a new suit, he patched his chlorine-thinned trunks with duct tape. In the end, it was covered silver. He once told the aide who lowered him into the pool. “You’re not getting your mitts on this suit.” Richard never paid much mind to clothes, so long as they kept him warm. Joked that his disarray helped him sell more vacuums. “Customers feel sorry for me,” he grinned.
Richard didn’t care how anyone looked. He’d talk as easily to a homeless man as to a CEO in a three-piece suit. He just wanted to be with people he liked. And have a full belly. In fact, his stomach grew so big, he had to wear his trousers lower and lower. For a while, this resulted in his pants falling down. In stores, in homes, in parking lots. Suddenly they were pooled around his ankles. This didn’t bother him particularly. It was just life. He’d put up with worse. Decades ago, he saw his wife become trapped by his youngest child’s mental illness. Mother and daughter had become one, and Richard was kept to a back room, told to stay away from the house until after 11 PM and to always use the garage entrance. He never talked about this. Chris bought him suspenders with multiple clasps.
Some of his remains had settled onto a flat rock like pale silt. I stuck my hand into the bone-cold water and ran my finger through the white-grey dust. A minnow had arrived and was darting and nibbling at the pebble-like shards. I looked up and watched the current. The tan clouds were gone. Richard was now nowhere in the world. And everywhere. We stood at the river’s edge a few moments, then got back in the car. Grabbed Chinese for lunch. And drove home.
posted by caleb d. at 9:58 PM
photos by c. vielmetti daniloff