The Watkins Man

Published in The Quiet Quarter: Ten Years of Great Irish Writing (anthology), New Island Press, 2009. From An American Scrapbook, five radio essays broadcast on The Quiet Quarter, RTE LyricFM, 2008.


We didn’t perform Duck-and-Cover drills in Osborn Elementary School, but in retrospect I’m a little surprised that we didn’t. The Cold War was rumbling along, and yellow-and-black signs in the lower corridors of the building designated the areas near the toilets as bomb shelters. Stencilled cardboard boxes sat the halls, storing the crackers and American cheese that we were supposed to eat while the missiles and bombers blasted Cleveland, Akron, and Toledo into rubble.

My mother looked down her nose at the whole idea of Civil Defense – to her it was just another excuse for self-important small-town men to boss other people around. But we had our own Duck-and-Cover drill when the Watkins Man came to our house.

The Watkins Corporation employed salesmen who peddled soap, scouring pads, and other cleaning products door to door. They, and the Fuller Brush Men, were the last vestiges of an American tradition of itinerant peddlers who had walked from farmhouse to farmhouse in the old days, selling needles, lace, and other odds and ends that were known as “household notions.” The actor William H. Macy appeared in a made-for-TV movie about a handicapped man who sold Watkins products door-to-door in Seattle. Bill Macy was endearing. But the Watkins man in Ashland was a smelly old coot who wouldn’t take No for an answer. There was something sinister about his persistence. He’d push himself halfway into any door that a housewife would open, conjuring up disturbing possibilities of intrusion and murder.

My mother, who was friendly and polite, had no weapons in her arsenal to deal with the Watkins Man. And on a sunny summer afternoon in 1957, she burst into the living room where my sister and I were whiling away the time with a jigsaw puzzle. “Tom! Susie! Come here!”

My nine-year-old sister began to cry. Mom shushed her and herded us into the corner of the living room, away from the windows. We crouched on the floor. After a few seconds there were heavy footfalls on the front steps. The doorbell rang.

Susie started to cry again, and Mom put a hand over her mouth. She whispered, “It’s the Watkins Man!”

The doorbell rang and rang. I desperately wanted to peek through the window to see him, but I knew I’d catch his eye – people always seemed to notice when I looked at them – and then he’d never leave. We huddled motionless for what seemed like an eternity, the silence punctuated by Susie’s quiet snuffles and the jarring, brassy alarm of the doorbell.

When the ringing stopped, I started to get up, but my mother held me back. “He’s probably still out there!” My knees hurt, and I had to pee. I could hear the cars in the street. The silence seemed to accumulate, and eventually I could hear our next-door-neighbor’s kitchen radio.

Mom finally risked a look and announced, “He’s gone!” We stood up and stretched like civilians emerging from a bomb shelter. I looked out the window and watched for a long time while a shabby man in a duffel coat limped down the street.

Copyright © Tom Sigafoos 2009