“Just so you know, we keep our deformed son chained in the basement,” the farmer said. “So when you hear rattling and wailing in the middle of the night, that’ll be him.”
“Ah,” said the traveling salesman. “That’s interesting, I guess.”
“Now, you may get it into your head that you want to go down the stairs and investigate, but I assure you, when you gaze upon his horrific visage you’ll wish you’d done nothing of the sort. He is absolutely disgusting. I mean, simply vile. My stomach hurts a little just thinking about him.”
“Not to be rude,” said the traveling salesman, “but that’s an unusual attitude for a parent to take.”
The farmer nodded. “I get what you’re saying. And if he were maybe twenty percent less deformed, I’d agree with you. But this kid…let me tell you, when he popped out of his momma, I said ‘Shove him back in, he’s not done yet.’ Normally that would be the kind of thing I’d say out loud and immediately wish I’d kept in my head, but everybody in the delivery room, my beloved wife included, agreed with me.”
“We didn’t shove it back in, though. That would’ve been impractical.”
The traveling salesman had already wished he hadn’t run out of gas on the desolate road in the middle of the night, but this conversation made him wish even more than he hadn’t ignored the sign that said “Last Chance Gas Station.” He’d figured it was a deceptive marketing campaign.
“Here’s your room,” said the farmer, opening the door to a small but tidy guest room. “If you value retaining whatever food you’ve eaten today, I’d advise you not to leave it. Do not enter any other room under any circumstances.”
“What’s in the other rooms?”
“Do you have a daughter?”
“Don’t make me regret my hospitality.”
“All right. I promise I won’t leave the room.”
“The obvious exception is the bathroom. You’re welcome to leave your room and go into that room if the need arises. I wouldn’t deny you that. But otherwise, stay in your room.”
The traveling salesman thanked the farmer and went to bed, where he dreamt of a nubile young woman eating a hoagie. Around two in the morning he awoke with the need to empty his bladder. He crossed the hallway and quickly used the toilet for its intended purpose.
After he flushed, he heard rattling and wailing from below.
Did the farmer really keep his deformed son locked in the basement, or was this something even more curious?
What kind of traveling salesman would he be if he didn’t investigate? He was supposed to be a man of the world, and here was a part of the world he’d never experienced. If he didn’t go down into the basement, he’d forever wonder if the farmer had been telling the truth.
As he stepped out of the bathroom, he stood in the hallway for a few minutes, listening for any sign that the farmer might be awake, such as footsteps or muttering. Aside from the wailing and chains rattling, the house was silent.
The traveling salesman decided that he needed to go down there. What was the farmer going to do, stab him through the face with a pitchfork?
He very slowly walked down the stairs to the first floor. Then he crossed through the living room and through the kitchen, until he reached the basement door.
He took a deep breath. Maybe this wasn’t a great idea. What if the deformed son was so hideous that the image was permanently burned onto his eyeballs? What if the traveling salesman were, say, about to enjoy a perfectly good hamburger, but instead of the top of the sesame seed bun, he saw only the face of the deformed boy? That would ruin his hamburger.
He should turn back.
He turned around. The farmer stood just outside of the kitchen, looking most unhappy with him.
“I told you to stay in your room,” said the farmer.
“Ah, yes,” said the traveling salesman. “I do specifically remember us having that particular conversation. What happened is that I woke up, as I often do, confused about my surroundings. I suffer from insomnia and often take a sleeping pill to aid with my unconsciousness, particularly when I’m on the road. So I wandered around the house, trying to remember where I was, until the sight of you just now brought everything back. I suppose I’ll head back upstairs now and return to the bed that you so generously provided.”
“I don’t have a daughter,” the farmer said.
“I never suggested that you did.”
“That’s what you’re looking for, right? A sixteen-year-old daughter to ravish?”
“What? Goodness, no.”
“You traveling salesmen are all alike. Always looking to score with a farmer’s underage daughter.”
“No, no, no, sir. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even if she were of the legal age of consent, I would not be creeping around your home in hopes of spending time in her company. That would be disrespectful. It was the sleeping pill. Entirely the sleeping pill.”
“Would you be willing to show me the bottle from which the sleeping pill came?”
“That would not be my preference.”
“If you’re not trying to find my beautiful willing daughter, then the only other explanation is that you wish to gape at my deformed son, which is the behavior of a mentally unstable person. I’ve said quite clearly how unpleasant he is to the eye. He will turn your dreams into a maelstrom of nightmare images that will forever haunt you. Is that what you want?”
“Then return to bed, and forget that you ever came down here.”
* * *
The next morning, the traveling salesman awoke, packed his suitcase, and walked downstairs. “Thank you for your hospitality,” he said. “If I might ask one last favor, now that it’s daylight, would you drive me to the nearest gas station?”
The farmer took a sip of his cup of coffee and shook his head. “I don’t own a car.”
“But there’s a car in your driveway.”
“That hasn’t worked in twenty years.”
“What about a tractor?”
“Tractor doesn’t work, either.”
“How do you sustain a farm without a car or tractor?”
“So you have no way of giving me a ride?”
“Is there anything from which I could syphon some gas?”
“How far away is the nearest gas station?”
“About thirty miles.”
“That’s problematic. I guess I’ll have to call a tow truck or something.”
The traveling salesman called every auto-related business in the area, and none of them could send a tow truck until the next morning. He was extremely disappointed by this, because every day he wasn’t on the road was a day he wasn’t selling blenders. The farmer offered to let him stay in his home for another night, and the traveling salesman had no choice but to accept.
“Let me repeat what I said before: do not leave your room. I cannot emphasize strongly enough just now much you would not enjoy the sight of my deformed son. He’s got a decent enough personality, but personality can only take you so far, and even the least superficial human being in the country would gag. They might do it discretely, but they’d still gag. Stay in your damn room.”
But when the traveling salesman woke up at two in the morning again, he needed to see what was down there, wailing and rattling the chains. What if it was something really cool? He had to know. And though the farmer had been upset with him when he caught him in the kitchen, there was still no reason to believe that it would lead in a pitchfork-through-the-face direction.
What was the worst that could happen?
He very carefully snuck down the stairs, through the living room, and through the kitchen. He placed his hand upon the knob to the door to the basement and ever so slowly, he turned it.
The door was locked.
But it was locked from this side, so he unlocked it.
Ever so slowly, he turned the knob.
He pushed open the door.
The wailing and rattling of chains grew louder, although it wasn’t because the actual noise had increased in volume, but rather that the door was no longer muffling the sound.
The traveling salesman suddenly broke into a cold sweat. He’d always prided himself on being a courteous guest, but going into the forbidden basement was more than discourteous, it was flat out rude. If he had a deformed child locked in his basement, he certainly wouldn’t want gawkers going down there. He should go back to bed before he saw something he regretted.
No. Not knowing would drive him mad. He just take a quick peek.
He flipped the light switch. The wailing abruptly stopped.
Slowly, one step at a time, the traveling salesman walked down the stairs.
A large cobweb-covered curtain hung from the ceiling. The wailing and the rattling of chains was coming from behind it.
The traveling salesman’s heart raced. What monstrosity was behind that curtain? How many heads did it have?
Slowly, one step at a time, the traveling salesman walked forward.
He reached for the curtain.
And pulled it aside.
And there, chained to the wall, was a deformed little boy.
He was gross, no doubt, but somehow the traveling salesman had expected him to be even grosser. The boy’s eyes, though odd in both color and size, could have been quite a bit odder. It was a nose unlike that which he’d ever seen, yet he’d anticipated a nose that was larger, droopier, and greener. His head wasn’t all that malformed; you could still get a hat on it if you tried.
There was nothing attractive whatsoever about that little boy. The farmer was right to keep him chained down there. But still, the traveling salesman couldn’t help feeling unsatisfied. He’d expected to be forever haunted but instead he’d just be queasy for a few weeks.
Somebody came down the stairs.
The traveling salesman spun around, wondering who the intruder could possibly be.
It was the farmer.
“You fool!” the farmer shouted. “I warned you! I warned you and you didn’t listen! You just had to look, didn’t you? Your sanity isn’t doing so well anymore, is it? Is it?”
The traveling salesman shrugged. “He’s not as off-putting as I thought.”
“Oh. Well…good, I guess. I mean, he’s the product of my loins, so if you don’t think he looks that bad I suppose it’s a compliment.”
“He’s wretched, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that with all of the buildup, my imagination created an image that reality couldn’t surpass. He couldn’t live up to the hype.”
“I’m strangely disappointed by your reaction,” the farmer admitted.
“It’s okay. If you hadn’t said anything, and I’d snuck down here to investigate, I’m sure I would have shrieked and crapped my pants.”
“Can we go back upstairs?” asked the traveling salesman. “The way he keeps wailing and rattling those chains is kind of irritating.”
“Oh, sure. We should both go back to sleep, anyway.”
The next morning, a tow truck arrived and took the traveling salesman to the nearest gas station, where he fueled his vehicle and then went on his way, hoping to have a couple of really strong days worth of blender sales to make up for the time he’d lost.
He would often look back on his experience in the farmer’s home, and each time he did, he’d remember the valuable lesson he’d learned about managing his expectations.