He shouldn’t have said that the buyer’s fish could be better. The meeting already wasn’t going well, and the words, as flippant as they’d been, opened a whole new stream of turbulence into the conversation. As soon as Allen uttered them, he knew he’d made a mistake. He could practically see a door close and the light go out on Tom’s face.
“Did you seriously just say my fish could be better? Wow.”
“No, no,” Allen said. Heat crawled up his back. He’d heard rumors about Tom, that he was an asshole, but Allen had assumed, as with so many rumors, that they were overstated, or didn’t apply in his case. Thus far, he’d been right, and the jocular, preemptive, distracted buyer had been friendly enough. He’d made Allen wait for too long, and he’d snapped his fingers and walked briskly out of his office when he was finally ready to go, forcing Allen to hurry along a step behind as Tom made his rounds, and then he’d ignored a pleasant hello from a stocker in produce, but on the other hand, he’d also seemed amused by some of Allen’s little comments and jokes. Met with decency and kindness, Allen usually found, most assholes could be coaxed into decency and kindness in return.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Allen said, “I just meant . . . things could always be better. You stock the best that’s available at your price points, for sure. You get really good fish. All I’m saying is, the product I’m showing you is possibly in a different category.”
“We have the best fish on the market,” Tom said. He stood with his arms crossed, legs planted, too short to look down at Allen but somehow affecting that posture. They’d reached the end of the dry-goods section, which bordered the children’s toys and books, and a pile of giant teddy bears formed a mountain behind him. “I don’t think you have any idea what you’re talking about.”
“At your price points, you have great stuff,” Allen said again, “but this is something that’s more like for special occasions. People love the lemon-herb sauce we do. The ingredients are extremely well sourced.”
“You don’t know the first thing about our clientele,” Tom said.
“I do, actually,” Allen said. “I’m one of them. I’m in here every month. Pushing a cart around.”
“I doubt that.”
In fact, Allen did come in every month or two, along with the thousands of other customers to Costco. That Tom had never identified him meant nothing. But he wasn’t going to say that now. The only way onward seemed more groveling.
“I didn’t mean to say anything about the quality of your fish,” he said. He spoke in his most honied drawl, dampening any semblance of edge in his voice. “I’m only trying to tell you that this, here, is a very special product, and if we can find a place in your freezer section, I think you’d be really happy. We’d be incredibly honored to . . .”
“I’ve heard all I need to hear. Thanks for your time.”
Allen hadn’t even had a chance to offer a sample from his cold bag yet. “At least give it a try,” he said, stunned. “I think you’ll be surprised.”
“Enough! Jesus Christ, what’s your problem? Do you not have ears?” Tom turned and stalked down the aisle, leaving Allen holding the box of frozen Alaskan cod. The Costco hangar ballooned all around him.
Allen exited the rear of the store to the damp loading dock. The day was gray and flat, with the faintest, mildewy hint of spring seeping from the earth. The heat of life was kindling somewhere just out of view, but not in a pleasant way, more like a creeping, invisible fungus. A guy on the platform muttered hello, and Allen forced a smile in return. Should he go back inside? he wondered. Try to explain again, better? No, he’d done enough damage already.
He placed the boxes in the cooler in the trunk of his Sentra and sat behind the steering wheel, dreading the call to his uncle. His uncle was the owner of Alaska Premier Fish, three fishing boats on Dutch Harbor, and it was his uncle and his crews whom Allen represented on these rounds. In his youth, he’d spent a few summers working the decks—running the flywheel, coiling rope, dodging cages, and generally trying not to die—but the life of fishing hadn’t been for him. The life of selling fish hadn’t been for him, either, but it was closer to it. He’d become the regional rep and as such maintained their positions in stores where they had contracts, occasionally adding a freezer here and there, and ever attempting to land the big-box placement, which hadn’t been easy. The great white whale, so to speak.
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