The Good News Salesman
In a time not so far from now there lived a man named Igor, who had a homely wife and three sons. It was a time of great poverty in their grey city, and Igor was very lucky to have a job at the factory one hour away.
His youngest son Niko was quite ill. They couldn’t afford a regular doctor, so they had to rely on what the doctor said one year prior: “Niko is quite ill and must be well-fed to keep his strength.” It was hard to keep fed, let alone well-fed, in a time like that, so each night one family member would forego a meal so that Niko could have seconds. On rare occasion, there was enough for everyone to eat and for Niko to eat twice.
Niko would spend sometimes eighteen hours in bed per day, though not all of them sleeping. His mother would attend to him however she could, and when she was not nearby she would grip her rosary with bony hands and pray.
Meanwhile, Igor would be at the factory in torn clothing, thick smocks, and hard helmets. He would work with fire and would sweat his body away bending and shaping metal. Usually, he did not know what for. For all the exports, there was rarely any money in the city. Every man on the line with him was poorer, hungrier than the next. He knew only their names and nothing of them as men, for the factory was too loud and, indeed, too hot to do much of anything besides work.
The only man in the factory who did not go home to nothing was the factory lord, a plump man who watched the work from behind the glass of his office on the second floor and who occasionally peered out from the catwalks. The factory lord, Andrei, would do a review of each employee once per year, and this was the only interaction he had with employees except to fire them. On this day, it was Igor’s turn for his review.
Igor walked the wrought iron steps up to the office, a box of a room with harsh yellow light in four-cornered corrugated steel. The desk in the office, too, was metal, and the factory lord sat, leaning back against his chair. He pushed himself forward only to glance at the paper before him, and then looked up at Igor.
“Igor, is it?”
“Please take a seat.”
“Tell me how long you’ve worked here.”
Igor glanced at the paper, uncertain why that information was not on it, and also uncertain why the factory lord did not know. “Five years sir.”
“You are a devoted employee, then.”
“Your supervisors tell me that you do a fine job.”
“You are on time coming in and leave promptly as your shift ends.”
“You have nothing to say to that?”
The factory lord leaned in. “You don’t find that you may, perhaps, seem undedicated to your work by coming so close to your start time and leaving as soon as you can?”
“Sir, I have a family that needs me. If I could work longer hours, I would gladly.”
“Longer hours! You are one of the highest-paid employees here. If anything, I should cut your hours.”
“But sir — ”
“All I am saying, Igor,” said the factory lord, laughing slightly to himself, “is that in polite society, one often goes above and beyond to show a level of dedication. It looks good.”
“But, sir, you just said you wouldn’t pay any more — ”
“Igor, Igor. I’m not saying I pay you for this extra. I’m saying that it looks good. It’s what one does in polite society.”
Igor sat, sweating and hot, with a blank look on his face.
The factory lord readjusted his papers on the desk and moved them to the side. Then he produced a curious object from his desk. It was a small box, ornate and painted, that did not belong in a building such as this. He opened the box and took from it three small, gray pieces of paper. “Do you know what these are?”
The factory boss shook his head. “No,” he said. “You wouldn’t, would you? What I hold here is…good news. This is all very hard to come by. The good news salesman pays a great deal of money to get newspapers and news clippings from lands very far from here. He sells them at a premium. But beyond all drink, all drug, this good news is what keeps some of us going. I have these three pieces of good news here, and this good news is all mine. When I get sad or upset, I re-read the good news. But, I must admit, it loses its luster after time…I must go back for more. And it sets me back a great deal. Do you know why I’m telling you all of this?”
“No. You wouldn’t, would you? Igor, Igor. Before the great collapse, I was a very hard worker. I worked so hard I became the lord of my own factory. After the great collapse, I was able to keep my job and be one of the few who did not suffer as you and your colleagues do. And now — in a world of such misery — I can afford good news. Igor, if you work as I know you can — harder, longer — think of what fortune may occur. Do you know of any good news, Igor?”
“No sir. As far as I know there is none.”
“Ah, but there is. Just not here. So we must visit this very special man.”
“And this man — where might one find him?”
“Igor, Igor, my boy. You could not afford even one piece of good news with what I pay you.”
“I’m sure sir. I don’t mean to suggest I could. But where could I find him if I just wanted to — perhaps, preview the trade?”
The factory lord smiled. “Ah! Igor! I see it has worked. I have inspired you. Good Igor. Good boy! The good news salesman works in the dark alleys of the fourth district in a building cloaked in red. If ever you wish to see what you could have one day through a bit of hard work, I would recommend you go to see the building! But do not go inside. You would only waste the time of harder working men like me and the good news salesman himself.”
“Of course sir.”
“Well, Igor, that is all. Back to work.” Igor nodded and stood. “Oh! Wait just a moment, Igor.” The factory lord glanced at the clock on the wall. “You were in here for eight minutes. Please be sure to stay an extra eight minutes after work today to make up for it. I don’t pay you to sit around.”
“Of course sir.”
Igor turned and walked back to the heat and metal.
The thought did not leave Igor, though. As he worked on the metal and felt the heat bearing unnaturally against his human skin and as he walked through the wintry world outside, encumbered by snow and sleet and the huddled masses all in black and gray, the thought was beside him. It whispered songs of hope into his cherry-red ear.
The world went on as it tended to do. Niko grew sicker, and Igor’s wife, Helena, began to notice that there was slightly less food. After a month, she said: “Igor. Why is less money coming in? We can barely feed four now!”
Igor, shameful, looked down. “I had my performance review, Helena. The factory lord Andrei has reduced my salary. He said that I am the highest paid and that he cannot keep me on with a salary so high.”
Helena began to cry. He held her even as he felt the press of a billfold against his back pocket.
A month and a half after the performance review in Andrei’s office, Igor stole away after work in the bitter cold of January and went skulking to the fourth district. The red building was apparent, but Igor’s heart dropped when he came upon it.
There, emblazoned upon the glass window in gold-leaf lettering, were the words Natasha’s Tea Shop. He grimaced and looked at the patrons drinking tea. It then occurred to Igor that his boss had said something about an alley in the fourth district, something about the dark alleys. It all was dark in the January evening, but Igor walked to the side of the building and found a few frozen dumpsters against the red brick wall. He walked along it and found some concrete steps and a wooden door.
He knocked. He felt quite strange, but he knocked.
There was silence and then the door opened.
A man nearly seven feet tall with dark skin and cold blue eyes peered down at him. His hair was long and black as the sky above. “You are?”
“My name is Igor. I have come looking for the good news salesman.”
The man only turned away from Igor and walked in, leaving the door open.
The room had an ornate rug and smelled of cinnamon, but besides that had only a wooden table and stool. Upon the table were two boxes, one steel and one wood.
“Welcome Igor,” said the man. “I am the salesman of good news. I trust you know that, good news being very difficult to come by, I must charge a great sum.”
“Yes, yes,” said Igor. “If I may — where do you get the good news? How does one — procure it?”
The good news salesman sat on his stool and nodded. “It is difficult. However, there exist some places in this world and, indeed, some places in other worlds, where good things do occasionally occur. Sometimes, they are documented. I have here in this chest some of that documentation.” He set his hand upon the wooden box.
Igor felt uneasy as he looked around. “What if someone stole that box?”
The salesman’s face dropped. “There are protections here that you would never understand.”
Igor nodded and let go of the subject. He had heard whisperings of odd mysticism as of late but preferred not to think of it. When the salesman told him the price for one piece of good news, his heart sank. He had enough, but he knew it could be used for two weeks of food. Nonetheless, he paid the cost. The salesman put the money in the metal box and took a gray clipping from the wooden box. “Since this is your first time, I will give you a longer one. This piece tells of — well, I’ll let you enjoy it.”
Igor took the paper, thanked the salesman, and left. Outside, beside the dumpsters, he read the good news of a faraway, unheard-of land where the farms became fertile again and the animals reproduced as they once did and where no one went hungry anymore. Alone in the alley beneath the snow, Igor wept. He wept with hope.
It was not enough, though. Igor soon needed more. One piece of good news was not enough. He wanted more. And he wanted it sooner. He took more money from his salary and his family’s food so he could purchase a second piece of good news.
“I would advise you not become obsessed with this, Igor,” said the salesman. “It pains me to know that I have caused the undoing of some good men and women.”
“You cannot tell me to not obsess over good news as a man who has always held all of it. I have had it but once — from you!”
“Then here is another.” And the exchange was made. In late February, Igor read his second piece of good news: a community had come together to pay the medical bills of a poor child. He wept again, this time thinking of Niko, and of his own shame.
In August, some time after Igor’s seventh purchase of good news, Niko passed away.
The family was devastated, but Igor most of all, for he knew his actions had led to the passing of his son.
It was a cold day in September when Igor arrived home to find Helena peering at him in the doorway.
She threw a small stack of gray paper at his face as he neared the threshold. “And what is this?” she asked.
Igor’s stomach drew up into knots. “Good news,” he stammered. He knelt to collect the papers and put them in his pocket.
“Good news? The good news I’ve heard about being sold in the fourth district? This with all the mysticism as of late? You think any of that will bring my son back? And how much did you pay for this?” The conversation was long, and Igor wept a great deal, and got to his knees and begged, and apologized, but by the end of the night, he was wandering the chilly streets. Helena had left him, had taken the kids, had seized the house, had evicted him.
He knew of men who would beat their wives — the very same men he worked with — but he did not. He knew he had done wrong. He was destitute and wandered the streets of the city with torn clothing and an empty stomach and a pocket full of coin and another pocket full of old news.
He wandered and wandered til there was no sun in the sky, nor a moon, and wandered further still.
In his periphery he noticed the red tea-shop, though he had certainly known toward what he was wandering the whole time. He wandered further still toward the alley and knocked on the wooden door.
There was no answer.
A woman poked her head around the corner and called out. Igor turned.
“My name is Natasha,” she said. “I run this tea shop. That man who rented this space from me — he left a month ago. Many have come looking for him, so when I saw you pass by in the window, I knew to tell you.”
Igor rushed toward her, frenzied. “Where did he go?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He left me more rent than necessary and a note thanking me, but the note did not say where he went.”
“Did the note mention me?”
“The note did not mention anyone.”
Igor’s face contorted, his eyes filled with tears, and he dropped to his knees the second time in a day. Natasha nodded knowingly, as though she had seen this very thing before. “I am sorry,” she said. He backed up against the wall and read the old good news with agony. All of the news was old and he did not care to read it again.
And so the tale of Igor ends, with a pocketful of useless coin and a handful of happiness but none of it his.