It was afternoon and the sun was not filtering through the overcast sky very well. The lone light bulb hanging on a long black wire dropping from the center of the ceiling in the gray paneled kitchen was doing little to impart light in the room just beyond. I was playing with my Groucho Marx “You Bet Your Life” game while my mother began rattled together the pots for cooking dinner.
I placed my little plastic figure of Groucho into the center of the board in its round hole after asking the question and trying to answer. Groucho’s response, once the base he stood on was in place, was to rotate to the correct answer. It was magic to my child’s mind watching him spin in the center of the board along with the plastic rod in his plastic hand rotating to the correct answer. It was all done with magnets, one in the Groucho’s base and one in the slot that base sat in. The question and answer card fit around that slot and… come to think of it, it’s still magic even in my adult mind.
“I got that one right, mommy!” I was yelling in my excitement. It was the first I had answered right in the last half hour.
“I’m so glad to hear that, darling,” she replied while checking the cupboard for the can of spam that always marked Tuesday evening’s supper call.
“What comes out of a cocoon in the spring?” I read aloud.
“What’s that, dear,” asked my mother as she grabbed the frozen peas from the refrigerator.
“Just another question in the game. I think it’s a butterfly,” I said slipping Groucho into the hot seat again. He spun. His rod pointed to “A Butterfly.”
“Two in a row!”
“That’s nice Rickey,” she mumbled into the steam coming from the pot on the stove.
“Next question,” I reported. At that moment there came a knock at the front door.
“I’ll get it!” I yelled jumping up from the floor. I ran to the door and opened it slowly peering around. There was a lady in a dark dress standing in high heels. She was surveying the area waiting for the door to open. I slipped around the door and stood behind the screen door. I watched her as she straightened her hat then ran her gloved hands down the side of her skirt. Catching sight of me she jumped slightly.
“Well, hello there, little boy,” she said bending toward the screen. “Is your mommy home?” Her smile radiated warmth.
“Yes ma’am,” I answered.
After a pause she asked, “Do you think I could talk to her for a few minutes?”
“I don’t know. I’ll go ask.”
I ran into the kitchen. My mother was bent over the stove looking into the oven where the slices of spam were heating beneath the broiler.
“Mommy, there’s a lady at the door. She wants to talk to you.”
My mother looked around at me. “Did she say what she wanted?”
“No ma’am. Want me to go ask?”
“Yes, please. I’m kind of in the middle of something here.”
I nodded and ran back to the front door.
“My mommy wants to know what you want.” My blunt sentence was met with a ruby lipped smile.
“Tell her I have the answer to your future here in this bag,” she said pointing at the huge leather valise sitting next to her foot.
Back in the kitchen I waited until my mother closed the oven and placed the lids on the boiling pots.
“She has my future in a suitcase,” I told her.
Mom looked at me quizzically.
“Guess I need to see what that’s all about, huh?” she said taking my hand leading me to the door.
“Croucher, Helen Croucher,” said my mother.
“Mrs. Croucher I was telling your delightful son that I have his future stored right here in my valise.”
“Yes, he told me that. What do you mean?”
“Could I have a few minutes of your very valuable time to show you?”
“I don’t know. I’m in the middle of fixing supper and my husband will be home shortly.”
“It will only take a few moments but they could be the most valuable moments of your son’s life,” she said picking up the valise.
“For my son’s future you say? If it can be made better I could spare a few minutes, I guess.” She opened the door for the lady who smiled and entered into the dark hallway.
“Is there a place I could sit and have a little room for display,” she asked eying the chair I had been leaning against playing my game.
“Oh, I see your son is inquisitive. The Groucho game is a really good educational toy. May I?” She pointed at the chair while placing the valise to the side.
“Yes, of course,” my mother said. “Would you care for something to drink.”
“Oh, yes, please. I’ve been walking all day.”
My mother watched her as she began opening the bag. After retrieving a glass and filling it with water my mother returned to see books spread out in front of me. My eyes were wide drinking in the pictures on the pages of the one the woman had opened in front of me. I was lost in those pictures as she knew I would be.
“Yes, I can see your boy has a curiosity you will want to satisfy. See? He’s already looking through the first book I’ve laid out. Oh, thank you,” she said taking the glass offered.
My mother watched me as I turned the pages relishing everyone.
“You’re selling books?”
“Yes! But not just any books. This is a thirty volume set of the Encyclopedia Americana.” Her announcement was embellished with the first volume held out to my mother. It was a deep brown cover enclosing slick pages filled with knowledge as up to date as the publishing companies could make it. “Fresh off the presses,” she added.
I looked up at my mother who was backing away from the offered book.
“Oh, I don’t know. That looks very expensive. Our budget could never cover the cost of that. You said thirty volumes and they all look like that? Too expensive, I’m positive.”
The lady continued to hold out the initial volume as she continued to offer her words.
“This is not just a set of books. This is the world’s knowledge at your child’s finger tips. How old is your little boy? I’m sorry I didn’t catch his name.”
“Rickey and he’s five.”
“Five and a half,” I piped in. I grabbed another of the picture books.
“He certainly seems to like exploring the information locked up in those pages. Look at the intensity in his eyes.”
My mother watched me.
My mother watched me.
“Yes, he has always been very curious.”
“He’ll be six,” the lady said looking at me, “in another six months and beginning school. He could be way ahead of the other children with this set of books on the shelf. You and your husband will be able to answer so many questions that I know Rickey will be asking. I bet that would ease the anxiety of not knowing the answer for him.”
“Yes, he will be starting school next year. You think this set would be a help?”
“Oh, yes. The time will come when he has to make reports. Guess where the information comes from? The encyclopedia. Most children will have to go to the library to gather information. That’s a saved trip right there.”
My mother’s face lightened some. She opened the volume handed to her.
“This book doesn’t have the pictures like the one Rickey is looking at right now. I don’t think this would do him much good until he could read.”
“Ah, that’s the beauty of the deal I have for you with this one time offer.”
Handing the book back to the lady my mother said, “You must know, I’m sure, we don’t have the money for such an expensive set of books. You may want to go ahead and pack up for the next house.”
“Now wait. We can discuss money after I have given you all the details.” She handed me the third volume of the orange hardback books. I took it and dived into it.
“Do you see how quickly he rushes into that book?”
“I do but that isn’t the encyclopedia you are offering.”
The lady looked at my mother. She sighed and then spoke.
“Since I can see that your boy is going to really enjoy this set of books, I will let you in on a secret. I can give that set as a bonus for buying the thirty volume set.”
“How can you do that?” My mother frowned. She had always been taught nothing was for free.
“Simply because I see the curiosity in your son has been aroused. The set he is looking through is called Chlidcraft and with the purchase of the Encyclopedia I can give you that as well for a small fee.”
“You just said it was a free gift.”
“Yes, I did. I wasn’t supposed to say that but little Rickey’s keen interest in that set made me blurt it out.”
“You’re just trying to make a sale here. You did hear me say that our budget would not afford that, didn’t you?”
“Yes I did. Let me ask you this. Can you put a price on little Rickey’s future? Don’t you want to give him the best advantage possible?’
“Yes, of course we do.”
“Well, let me put something else onto the table. Along with the thirty volume set of the Encyclopedia Americana, what would you say if I added another eighteen volumes of The Book of Knowledge?”
“I would think the price is going even higher.”
“Not as high as you think because in addition to those two sets and the set of Childcraft we are prepared to offer a twenty volume set of the Book of Science. This is every scientific discovery from the dawn of time to the very present atomic era. How about that?”
“The more you talk, the more I know I can’t afford it.”
A sizzling in the background made my mother turn to see a cloud of black smoke issuing from the oven.
“Oh, the spam!” she yelled jumping up. She grabbed a dish towel as she opened the oven door. She poked around with the dish towel covering her hand for tray inside as the smoke billowed around her head.
“Rickey! Go turn the fan on high!” she yelled from the dark cloud surrounding her.
I ran to the fan clicking the button to high while mom threw our dinner in the trash on the back porch. The fan sucked a breeze from the back door, through the kitchen and out the window along with the black smoke and smell.
“Thank you, honey. You can cut it down now.”
We met back at the chair the sales lady occupied. She looked up sheepishly.
“I’m so sorry I kept you from the kitchen.”
“Don’t fret yourself. I’ll fix it after you have gone.”
“Let me get back to my offer. I really believe you cannot turn it down,” she said taking out a clipboard with papers attached.
“I don’t think so. I just don’t think our budget will allow it.” My mother was beginning to slip behind the stone wall now.
“Wait. Let me just show you how this can be affordable to you.”
My mother did not discourage her.
Seeing my mother’s lack of response the sales lady slipped forward in the chair.
“OK. This is the price of the thirty volume encyclopedia.”
My mother looked down at the figures and gasped.
“Oh, that would be impossible. We could never afford that.”
The lady wrote some figures down on the paper. “How do you feel about that figure?”
“It’s still way beyond our means,” said my mother handing the clipboard back.
“You do realize that at that price your get the thirty volume set of encyclopedias along with the eighteen volume set of the Book of Knowledge and the twenty volume set the Book of Science and, too, since it slipped out of my mouth, I will throw in the fifteen volume set of Childcraft all for that price.”
“It’s still a lot of money,” said my mother softly.
“OK. If you can’t pay up front I can set it up on a monthly payment plan over twelve months. How about this amount monthly?”
My mother looked at the figures.
Seeing my mother’s face frowning again she made a last ditch effort.
“Alright I can stretch the payments out to eighteen months at this price per month. What do you think of that?”
My mother looked at it then looked at me. “Rickey do you think you will read all those books? The Childcraft?”
“Oh yes, mommy. I know I will.”
“Will I get a bill every month to be paid?’ she asked the lady.
“Of course. Each month a bill will come in the mail which you pay like any other bill until the end of the eighteen month period I will set up. Then all eighty-three books will be yours. Oh, and included is a book case for the thirty volumes of Encyclopedia Americana. I think it is a splendid deal. What do you think, Rickey?” she asked me.
“When do I get them?” is all I could say.
“They will be in the mail after I turn in this paper work. I’d say in about six week’s time they should arrive.’
“Yay!” I yelled.
My mother smiled meekly at me as she signed the contract.
“It’s really a good investment in your son’s future, Mrs. Croucher. It will pay for itself over the years, I promise.”
The lady began packing up her books into the valise. I handed her the three volumes of Childcraft which she pushed into the bag with effort.
“Thank you, Mrs. Croucher. I know you won’t regret it,” she said shaking my mother’s hand. She took mine too then turned to go. My mother walked her to the door.
Later while I was playing with Grouch once more I looked over at my mother while she found another can of spam. She wasn’t smiling like before. Her face seemed to have a worried look about it. I went back to Groucho.