American Soap

by Chris Whitehead

by Chris Whitehead

“So tell me a little bit about the soap industry.”
Frank looks at me. “Scum Off?” he asks.
“Tell me about Scum Off.”
“All right, I’ll tell you about my experience with Scum Off.” Frank nurses a cold one and settles back deeper, more comfortably into the couch.

Scum Off, as the label reads, is a 100% guaranteed, eco-friendly shower cleaner that’s goodon tile, marble, granite, porcelain, and fiberglass. It’s biodegradable, non-toxic, and removes 99.9% of germs. It is by far the world’s greatest soap.

Jason Frank is a traveling soap salesman, a trade he learned from his father. He started young, helping his dad: carrying boxes, setting up booths, that sort of thing.

“I’ve sold rugs, mats, sink swivel things, chamois, metal polish, all sorts of stuff.” Now he sells soap at fairs and home shows from Washington State to Washington DC. “Tell me,” I ask, “do you meet a lot of crazy people out there?”

He thinks for a minute and while he thinks I eat some homemade chicken and ham lasagna (Jason made it) and wait anxiously for the tales of pink elephants and tiny, angry carnival workers that I assume go hand and hand with selling soap.

Jason Frank looks like a grizzly bear in a red flannel shirt and although he doesn’t smoke, you feel like he should smell like grandpa’s pipe tobacco.

I met Jason in the Marines. It was the weekend and everyone else was out for a night on the town. I was sitting on my bunk reading and all of a sudden the door flings wide open and in walks this guy carrying a bag of tacos and a stack of brightly colored paper.

“Would you like some?” he points to the bag.
I don’t refuse free food.
Frank sat down at a small desk and starting cutting into his stack of paper. He had so many different scissors. He had straight scissors, straight-line cutters, circle cutters, and scissors with cute, wiggly edges. Why would anyone need so many scissors?

Turns out he was scrapbooking. I had heard of scrapbooking, and I’d even seen it on TV. I just hadn’t seen it in the Marine Corps infantry.

“I’m making a gift for my mom,” he says like it was nothing. You can’t argue with that. From then on we’ve been pretty good friends.

Jason and his wife own a couple of Australian cattle dogs. They’re trying to lick me, but Jason tells them to go lie down. Finally he answers my question. The old men, he says, are “the best.”

He explains that a lot of junk is sold at fairs. That’s the attraction. For example, there’s a workout device that goes back and forth like a teeter-totter. All you have to do is stand there and it works out your legs, butt, and abdominals.

It’s always the old men that run these booths. They get cute chicks to stand on the machines, and they’re just shaking all over the place while the old men just sit back and laugh. Frank gives me his best impression of a dirty, old man laugh.

My phone rings.
“Trina?” Frank asks. He always says my wife’s name like he’s Scooby Doo.
“Ya sorry, hang on just one second.”
Back home my truck is stuck in the mud. I hand the phone over to Frank and he tells her, step by step, how to get the truck out.

Frank gets off the phone and thinks for a minute. “Candy John,” he says after a minute, “he was an interesting guy.” Candy John worked the booth next to Jason at a small town country fair this summer. He’s an older gentleman, a veteran of Vietnam, who sells homemade candy and fudge with his wife.

“He was a Nazi.” says Frank taking a drink. “He was a Nazi. His father was Nazi, his grandfather…way, way back all Nazis. He told me,” Frank continues, “that the secret to good fudge is marshmallows.”

I’m not sure how to reply to that. I met Candy John once, but I’d missed that part. I did see John carrying around some old, hardbound book. It was blue and the corners were all crumpled and worn white and the pages were yellow and smelled funny kind of like the 50 cent book bin at the goodwill. John didn’t believe in the Bible, but he believed in that book whatever it was.

“He believed in that one book and he also believed that candy was the key to success,” Frank says.

He believed some other things too. For example, Candy John believed I should replace my psych meds with marijuana.

“They’re no good for you…quit takin’ meds and smoke the reefer.” John showed me the hand motions in case I didn’t know what he’s talking about.

“He loved his pot…loved his pot,” Frank recalls.

My phone rings again. The truck is still stuck and the dogs are licking me again. I hope my recorder is still on. Good…it’s still going.

Jason heads to the kitchen for another drink. John’s wife had a close encounter with extraterrestrials. She was driving down the road one evening, probably listening to the radio, and possibly thinking about a new fudge recipe she’d like to try when she turned a corner and…all of a sudden…as if out of nowhere…hovering out in the middle of a field was an alien space ship.

That night she lay in bed, eyes shut tight and trying to forget what she’d seen, but she had a dream. She dreams that the aliens are putting her up on some sort of surgical table. Night after night for three months…same dream. Finally one night she told John and the dreams stopped.

That’s Frank. You know him for a few hours and you want to tell him all your personal stuff. I don’t know what it is…maybe his confidence?
Confidence like the time he mouthed off to a corporal during a field training exercise and as a result got to do about 2,500 pushups.

“My arms were dead….dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.”

We talk about the Marines. Why did he join? What did he get out of it? We talk about his deployments and the people he knew.

“This one time we were in Australia.” He starts telling me about the Australian MRE’s. The Australian MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) are great. They’re real food and you cook them with real fire, unlike American MRE’s which are heated with a glorified hand warmer. With ours “you felt like you were probably gonna get cancer within a month after pulling it out of the wrapper.” Frank makes a face.

They spent two weeks training outside of Townsville, Australia where “it’s dry as hell and there’s grass as far as the eye can see.” It’s windy too.

A guy in Frank’s team wanted to cook some food so he walked over and found a good place to start a fire. He lights a little starter fire and starts prepping his food. Everything is fine until he sees the fire start to flicker in the wind. Luckily a few feet away there are some crates he can use to protect his fire.

“That’ll work,” he thinks to himself. He stumbles over and picks up a box. It’s kind of heavy. He weighs it in his hands.

The box was heavy because it was full of mortar ammunition.

The 81mm HE mortar has a casualty radius of about 30 meters. That means if you are within 30 meters of a mortar explosion, you are going to miss weekend liberty in Australia. For some reason this guy used crates of explosives to protect his fire and then left his fire unattended. Frank laughs. That guy “got thrashed all day long…Australia was fun.”

This isn’t the only time Frank was inside the casualty radius of his own mortars.
An 81mm mortar is a nine pound projectile that can fly over three miles through the air before exploding. The secret is highly flammable (highly flammable) charges of gun powder that ignite when the mortar hits a firing pin. Occasionally mortars get stuck in the tube before they can drop far enough to hit the pin. When this happens you’re supposed to kick the tube and let the mortar fall the rest of the way.

Frank’s Platoon Sergeant showed him another way to do it. Leaning over the opening of the mortar tube, puffing on a cigarette, Gunny pulled the jammed round out with his bare hand like it was no big deal.

Well we’re still sitting on the couch. The dogs have given up on my face and are lying on the other side of the room. Frank’s finished his beer and my wife is calling to see if when I’m coming home.

“So Scum Off?” I ask again.
“I don’t think I’ll keep doing it.” Frank says thoughtfully. The money isn’t very consistent. He tells me about a couple times where he lost money driving out to fairs in the middle of nowhere. Speaking of driving, it’s time for me to go. “I’ll see you Thanksgiving though,” I say on the way out. Jason hands me a can of pumpkin and a recipe so I can bake my own desert when I get home.

I’ve got four more hours to drive. The sun’s disappearing behind the horizon and, while I’m not in bat country yet, my eyes are starting to play tricks. I’m tired.

Still I have to smile. I got some good food, some good stories, and of course…a bottle of Scum Off.

The End.

Chris did two Iraq tours and a float with the First Battalion, Fourth Marines. Now he is pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing at BYU. His work has been featured in Line of Advance and Central Penn Parent magazine. He is still, and always will be, on the lookout for camel spiders.

 


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