The Travelling Salesman
Tom sits on his motel bed, above the covers in the Atlanta summer heat, when even at night the sticky air retains its heat. He wonders for a second whether it’s the moisture that keeps the air warm or the air that keeps the moisture warm. Then he lights his third cigarette since sitting, the butts of the others in that mass grave of ash, tobacco, and filter on the windowsill, which his right arm shares after a drag.
He sells speciality knives to professional chefs. He knows they aren’t a hoax and takes pride in his job. His commission isn’t bad, either, which at this point in his life he’s grateful for, because his wife’s medication isn’t cheap but it is running low.
The plan seemed simple: In two weeks, Tom wanted to visit ten cities with emerging restaurant scenes. He’s been selling knives for years and knows his audience - the newbie chefs who are still assembling their equipment, refining their techniques, finding themselves in their work. Those are the chefs that need Tom, and need Tom’s knives. Tom had heard about the restaurants from friends in those cities. He didn’t only keep mail correspondence for new leads, but damn did they come in handy in a pinch.
When he left for the trip he left in a rush with no plan and no destination. The problem Tom didn’t see was not just where to begin, but the entire order of his visits. He’d have to cross more than one state line, and two weeks would only be enough time if he moved as quickly as he could. He wasn’t even sure it’d be enough time then, but it had to be, because in two weeks he’d be flat broke, that damn medicine is so expensive, and his wife wouldn’t have to throw him out of the house because the bank would take it back.
So Tom takes another drag and thinks hard, real fucking hard, because today is day ten and he’s only about to drive to city six. Even driving only at night, which Tom does to avoid traffic, doesn’t put the miles on his odometer quick enough. He fumes smoke out his nostrils, now sure Newark was the wrong place to start. Tom only chose Newark as his first stop because he was pointed in the right direction and it was the closest city he needed to get to by the time he decided he needed a plan. He thinks about the other cities along the way, and realizes, far too late, that his greedy Newark decision forced him to drive hundreds of extra miles now, making his two week journey at least sixteen days by now by his account. He couldn’t have known, a fact that wouldn’t comfort him.
He breathes so hard out his nose that his cigarette embers. Tom takes a pen and a small notebook out from his suit pocket, his only suit, and after ten days of constant wear in the balmy East Coast summer it’s his most expensive sweat rag. On the paper he draws ten circles and labels them, each one a city. He connects them around the edges. He’s stared at maps long enough now he knows the mile distance and approximate driving time between each pair of the ten cities, although he doesn’t know how many pairs that is, except too many to think about all at once. Tom adds the miles in his circular circuit and it’s nearly ten times what he’s already driven. He thinks at least Newark wasn’t the biggest mistake I could have made.
Tom rips the paper from the notebook and lets it waft its way down to cleaner than expected motel floor. He draws the ten dots again, with the same labels. He connects Newark with his home town. Then he connects the other dots as he’s been visiting them. He looks at the last few, unconnected. The shortest distance from Atlanta to a next stop is four hundred miles. He connects the dot. Now the shortest distance is four hundred thirty miles. Connected. He thinks he catches a break when the next connection is only three hundred odd miles. But the last two stops, before he has to drive back and buy the damn medicine and make the damn mortgage payment, are almost two thousand miles together. Royally fucked, thinks Tom. He rips the paper out and draws it again on the next paper.
Five dots connected. He hastily connects the dots of his remaining trek, spiting both rhyme and reason in an indulgence of random fury. To his surprise, this outcome is five hundred miles shorter than before. He tears out the paper, carefully, setting it down next to him so his sweat-lined suit won’t ruin his best shot so far at keeping his life together. On the fresh page he tries his random fury again, but does no better. He tries again, and again, and again, and again, and after twenty more tries Tom rips the second to last page from his thirty page notebook. His shortest and best bet is still not good enough. On his last page he decides to see where he went wrong.
He draws out the ten dots one more time. He no longer has to draw lines between the dots, he hallucinates them and each of their labels in miles. He makes groups of threes, determining instantly the quickest paths between them. He finds the three groups of three with the quickest paths, but when he tries to connect just two of the groups the possibilities overwhelm him. He’d need a dozen notebooks, and much more time. He inhales and coughs as the filter briefly ignites.
Tom pulls another cigarette out after depositing the filter next to its expended kin. He smokes it fast to wake him up — he’d need to hit the road in fifteen minutes no matter what. He thinks it’s a damn good thing he slept that afternoon, his best bet is a five hundred seventy mile sprint. Staring at the dots, he thinks whether he could have sorted the cities. No, Tom concludes, sorting would give him the shortest distances in order, but choosing the short trips first almost certainly means making the later trips even longer. If he started with the worst trip? No, no, that would make him end up driving almost double his best bet now.
The phone rings. Tom set a wake up call, or as he internally refers to it his get the fuck out of Atlanta call, for 8:30PM, late enough to avoid all traffic but that caused by the most unpredictable of accidents. He lifts the phone an inch and hangs up, grabs his best bet off the bed at his side, hustles down his cigarette, and is in his car before he’s out the door.
He’s fifty miles down the freeway and he can’t get the dots out of his head, their connections more clear to him than the headlight illuminated road. He doesn’t even try to think about the answer any more. He thinks maybe he just couldn’t have done it. Maybe any way he sliced it was a bad bet. Life doesn’t always just work out for the sake of working out, and he knows damn well he’s a salesman and not a mathematician so why would he even be expected to work this out?
With Atlanta far behind him, Tom found a moment of peace. There existed for him a comfort in knowing that he was trying his damnedest, that his wife would love him for trying, that, that…
For fuck’s sake, he thought, I could have done it in twelve.