Fiction Issue 2012: "The Gentle Grift" | Fiction | Chicago Reader

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Fiction Issue 2012: "The Gentle Grift"

Sometimes you've just got to encase the boss's Mercedes in plastic wrap


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Jack Dunphy drove his 16-year-old fist into the face of the kid who was sitting on him and felt the nose give way under his knuckles. Hot red drops freckled his face and then the weight was gone from his chest. He got up and ran. He didn't run home. He ran to the tracks that bisected his little hometown and, when a freight train finally slowed at the Willow Street crossing, scrambled into an empty boxcar. His father had warned him: next time he was caught fighting, it was back to military school. He took his father's warning seriously, but at five feet nothing, with acne so bad that his face was more pus than skin, pacifism wasn't an option.

It was dusk when the train rolled past the refinery on the edge of town. The flames dancing on top of the smokestacks seemed significant to him, burning away the waste. He leaned back against the wall of the boxcar and watched the fires recede. The vibrating steel excited his whole skeleton.

Jack had spent the last 20 minutes listening to Lenny Disco and hadn't heard anything interesting yet. He looked at his notes: "Put call center number on the top of all pages . . . email Janice about copy for cover . . . check with HR about 401K . . . dress code (tuck in shirt) . . . they WILL dock pay for tardiness." (Tardiness? Who the fuck do they think they are?) "Sign-up sheet for ass-kissing fest in break room."

He looked around himself. Every face was dutifully trained on the boss, who droned on, enthralled with his own voice. Everyone called Hank Lenard "Lenny Disco"—though not to his face, of course—because (1) all of his clothes were 100 percent synthetic, and (2) disco sucks. Attendance at these weekly meetings was mandatory, and Jack had been attending them since he'd started at Lenard & Frey, a mail-order outfit, two years earlier. After the first three or four he'd devised a little game to make them more entertaining. Every week he'd ask Lenny Disco a question. They'd started out as fairly sincere inquiries about the company's outdated business model, but lately they'd taken on a surreal tone.

He held up his hand.


"Well, Hank, I was just thinking that, due to technological advances in the marketplace, our print catalog hasn't kept pace with our Internet marketing. Especially in the area of interactive advertising. We have audio and video product demos and little games on our website, but all you can do with the print catalog is read it."

A few of the newer employees were looking at Jack now. The rest were staring at their notebooks or looking out the window.

"I'm not sure there's much we can do about that, Jack. After all, print is—"

"Scratch and sniff."

A woman from the call center moaned. Jack's supervisor, David Finney, glared at him.

"We have several products that would really benefit from an olfactory marketing initiative. Just off the top of my head, I'm thinking scented candles and cheese logs."

To celebrate his 18th birthday, Jack decided to treat himself to a jar of pickles from the corner market. He picked up a jar of big dills and waved to the clerk as he strode past the register and out the door. The clerk dashed after him. Jack let him keep pace for awhile, then increased his speed and left the clerk wheezing behind. He took a corner too fast, and the jar of pickles flipped out of his hand and kept on going. He tried to grab it as it sailed away from him, tumbling end over end. It exploded against the curb.

"Motherfucker!" he said.

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