The figure of a man shimmered in the heat waves rising from the dusty road. I watched, intrigued, since few visitors ventured out our way, our being twenty miles from town and all.
When the man got to the end of our lane, he stopped and wiped his brow. Even from my perch on the porch steps, I could see dark arcs of sweat under his arms. He shifted his suitcase to his other hand and flung his jacket over his shoulder.
He sauntered up the lane, swirls of dust eddying around his feet.
“Ma,” I hollered through the screen door. “Company!”
My mother came out, swabbing her sudsy hands with her apron.
“Now who would that be?” she asked the sweet peas, because I couldn’t possibly know who the mysterious stranger might be.
He stopped at the bottom of the steps and lifted his hat.
“G’afternoon, ma’am. I wonder if I might take a few minutes of your time?”
Ma nodded, but I could tell she was perturbed and uncertain, mostly because she was up to her elbows in wash day, but also because guests were a rarity, especially any who arrived uninvited and on foot.
The young man set his jacket over the porch railing and placed the scuffed suitcase on the step, unlatching it. I moved closer, the better to see. I knew I should make myself scarce, since Ma had fired me a warning look, but I was too curious for my own good.
“I have an item here that will be of great interest to you, ma’am. I can see you are a woman of good taste, taking pride in caring for your family and home. Isn’t that true?”
Ma smiled, but it was a hard smile, not really friendly.
“The White Fleece Paper Company has introduced a new product that will become standard in homes of high principles. It will be the hallmark of fine judgment and discernment.”
With a dramatic flourish, he held up a roll of paper, too narrow to be writing paper, too wide to be a bandage.
“This, ma’am, is tissue. For use in the restroom.”
Ma looked puzzled.
“For the bathroom, ma’am. The privy?”
Paper for the outhouse? Instead of the well-thumbed catalogue?
“A new procedure devised by the White Fleece Paper Company has enabled them to manufacture paper of snowy whiteness and softness. It is very absorbent. Soothing and absolutely pure.”
If the pages of a catalogue were crumpled up, then smoothed flat, the paper was suitably soft and, well, useful.
“Furthermore, ma’am, White Fleece paper is guaranteed to be completely free of splinters.”
I saw the twitch by Ma’s left eye.
“After all, you wouldn’t want your little boy here to have even a tiny sliver on his tender bum, would you?
The word hovered in the air, like dust on a windless day.
Ma’s lips disappeared into a thin, pinched line. Mentioning the unmentionable and using such words didn’t sit well with her. The man kept talking.
“We’ll ship you a month’s supply at a time, in an unmarked box, for discretion, of course. If you sign up your neighbours, we offer a substantial discount.”
I supposed the man hadn’t noticed we didn’t have any neighbours. Besides, Ma was too busy to go traipsing all over the countryside asking people to buy something they already had for free.
“Young man,” began Ma, “you went to plenty of trouble coming out here to sell me something I have no intention of buying. Because it’s the mannerly thing to do, I’m going to offer you a glass of lemonade and then you can be on your way.”
I knew by Ma’s tone she wasn’t finished yet. I was right.
“You might want to take some of your wonderful pure paper and wipe your mouth.”
The young man was smart enough to look contrite.
He thanked Ma for the lemonade and set off down the road. I watched until he vanished into the rippling heat waves.
Ma never saw the variety of bathroom tissue that eventually became available. Quilted, coloured, double ply, and scented. Until the end of Ma’s days, a tattered catalogue hung on a wire in the outhouse, adequately smooth, and adequately enlightening a small, inquisitive boy about the wonders of the female form.
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