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 They’d started out as fairly sincere inquiries about the company’s outdated business model, but lately they’d taken on a surreal tone.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.
He looked back up the street. He didn’t see the clerk but decided to keep moving anyway. They might’ve called the cops. He grabbed two pickles, wiped them on his pants, and walked off. Usually he boosted cheese. It was easy to hide and had plenty of protein. Sometimes he’d buy a soda or something so he wouldn’t look suspicious. Once he’d stuffed a pepperoni down the front of his pants so the checkout girl would think he was well endowed. The memory made him laugh out loud.
Jack turned into the alley that ran behind the movie theater. Sometimes there was popcorn in the Dumpster. A movement caught his eye and he recognized a familiar red wool cap.
“Littlebit! What’s shakin’ bro?”
Littlebit slipped something into his pocket and looked up.
“I ain’t your brother, kid. Where’d you get the pickle?”
Jack tossed him one of the pickles. “What you got in your pocket, ‘Bit?”
Littlebit took a healthy bite of pickle and pulled out a small silver-colored box. He handed it to Jack.
Jack first met Littlebit on a job. He’d been hired to clean the floor at a grocery, and Littlebit was the guy the agency had teamed him with. They moved up and down the aisles of the empty store with Littlebit pushing the scrubbing machine and Jack scraping up gum. Littlebit told Jack that his name came from being the runt at the foster home where he grew up. There were five older boys living there who’d attack the platters at dinner like they were afraid they were going to get up and run away. The foster mother always yelled at them to “save a little bit for the new boy.”
Littlebit was old enough to be Jack’s father. He told everyone he lost his leg in Vietnam but, in fact, he lost it to diabetes. Jack first noticed Littlebit’s fake leg while bending down to attack a pink wad of gum with his little trowel. He could see Littlebit’s fading footprints on the damp linoleum, and the left one was always lighter than the right. Littlebit didn’t put as much weight on his prosthetic leg as he did on his real one, so his gait looked like it was driven by an elliptical cog.
After an hour or so Littlebit had complained that his stump hurt and went to sit down in the back room. When Jack had finished the cleaning and waxing by himself, he found Littlebit sleeping on the floor with his leg off and an empty pint of Dewar’s in his hand. Jack picked up the leg and looked into the socket. It had a sour odor. There was a hollowed-out part of the calf that was just the right size for a pint bottle.
Jack lifted the top off the little silver box. It was empty but for a green felt lining.
“What is it?” he asked.
Littlebit scrunched up his face.
“That’s a jewel box. Probably held earrings. My old moms used to have one just like it on her dresser.” He took the box from Jack and put it away.
Jack knew that in a few days Littlebit would be telling everyone that the box had belonged to his mother and was his most treasured possession. And he wouldn’t be lying, exactly. Littlebit believed his own stories. Jack didn’t hold that against him. Reality was tenuous enough, he thought, that if a man truly believed what he was saying, it held the same weight whether it was true or not. The only problem was if the lie affected someone other than the liar. Much of Jack’s philosophy was the product of alcohol, marijuana, and beatings from railroad cops and rednecks.
“I got two bucks from a lady down by the library this morning,” Littlebit said. “She told me to have a nice day.”
Jack put his hand on Littlebit’s shoulder.
“C’mon bro. I’ve got a buck and a half. With your two we can probably get us a jug.”
Jack was sitting on a bench in the park across from the office, eating the avocado-and-cheese sandwich his wife had made for him and watching the geese chase each other back and forth. David Finney sat down next to him and opened a can of soda.
“Didn’t see you at the party, Jack. You OK?”
“Fine. I just had some work to do.”
“Well, I think Maureen saved you a piece of cake.”
“What’s up with you lately, Jack? You’re surly. You don’t come to any of the company functions. You ask these cockamamy questions in meetings. I don’t get it.”
“Nothing’s wrong, David. Everything’s normal.”
“You’re not having trouble at home are you? I mean, I don’t want to pry, but—”
“Thanks. No. Nothing’s wrong at home. Sunny and I are fine.” Jack held up his lunch bag. There was a red crayon heart drawn on it. “She packs me a lunch every day. I’m just feeling a little overwhelmed by the cubicle farm. I’ll get over it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, like this birthday cake thing. At least twice a month we all waddle out of our cubicles like fat, blind lab rats, exchange greetings, eat snacks, and waddle back.”
“We’re just trying to boost morale. What would you do instead?”
Jack sighed. David Finney was OK as managers went, but he was no genius. Jack imagined that David bragged to his friends about his many contributions to the corporate culture.
That morning Jack had looked at his own hand under the fluorescent lighting in the office and seen his skeleton. He was becoming transparent. Soon, he thought, he’d be a shadow. It wasn’t right. People weren’t meant to live like this. They need to feel the sun on their faces and breathe unfiltered air. They need to use their muscles.
He tossed a piece of bread out to the geese. Two of them moved toward it, but a third, the one with the biggest wingspan, ran in honking and flapping and chased them away.
“I don’t know, David,” he said. “I’m not blaming you. It’s my problem. I’m just having a hard time figuring out what to do about it.”
“Well, try and tone down the sarcasm. Hank Lenard isn’t an idiot. He knows you’re yanking his chain.”
“I’m just trying to keep my self-respect intact. Hell, look what they did to Timer Guy.”
“That schmo from the call center who carries a kitchen timer everywhere he goes. His supervisor makes him carry it to keep track of how long he’s been away from his desk. I first heard it in the bathroom. There was a ticking noise coming from one of the stalls. I thought someone had planted a bomb. Turns out it was Timer Guy, timing how long it takes him to take a shit.” Jack tossed another piece of bread at the geese, aiming for the two who’d been chased away before. The big goose came barreling in with his head down and chased them into the pond.
On his first morning at the commune, Jack woke to the smells of pancakes, coffee, and sandalwood incense. They grabbed him by the nose and pulled him up from the floor, where he’d passed out smoking pot and listening to music the night before. He’d told the vanload of hippies who picked him up north of Santa Cruz that it was his 21st birthday, and they’d helped him celebrate. The only other person awake now was the girl who was doing the cooking. She was a little plump, with a heavy yellow braid and pink, glowing cheeks. Jack poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down to watch her.
“Good coffee,” he said. “I’m Jack.”
She smiled at him. “I’m Sunrise. They call me Sunny.”
“That would’ve been my first guess.”
“It used to be Margaret. I changed it.”
She manipulated cooking utensils with a grace that made simple moves erotic, and the incense haze surrounding her caught the rays of the morning sun. Jack was mesmerized.
He’d only meant to crash at the commune for a couple days—but that quickly turned into a week, and then a month, and then he found his name on the chore sheet. After that, he got up with Sunny every morning to watch her cook. She always drew a syrup heart on his pancakes before setting the plate in front of him. After breakfast he’d feed the chickens and their lone, old sow and then go into town with one of the other men who lived at the commune. Jack had got a job at a little printing plant in town. The money he brought in went to pay for things the hippies couldn’t make or grow themselves. They were the closest thing he had to family.
One January evening he and Sunny were lying in bed, talking. They’d just finished making love, and Jack used an errant drop of semen to trace a heart on her stomach.
“Do you ever think about what you’d be like if we’d never met?”
“I wouldn’t be as happy.”
“Thanks,” he said. “But I mean, what kind of a person you’d be. Would you be nicer, meaner, smarter, dumber—that sort of thing.”
“I haven’t thought about it. I think I’d be pretty much the same.”
“Not me. I’m definitely nicer. We’ve only been together a couple months and I can feel myself changing. I want to be a better person because you’re a better person. You care about things.”
“So, what if something happened and I wasn’t around anymore? Would you change back?”
Jack thought about Littlebit. The last time he’d seen his friend, he was in a diabetic coma in the bum ward at San Francisco General. Jack didn’t want to die alone.
“All I know is that right now I see the world in a different way than I did before. I always used to feel like I was being cheated out of something. Like I was watching a game of three-card monte and every time I thought I knew where the queen was, the dealer turned up a deuce. The bet was never enough to break me, but I always felt empty. Like I’d lost something I didn’t even know I had. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you.”
She leaned over and kissed him on the nose.
“If you really want to thank me you can come down to the shelter with me on weekends. We need someone to help out in the preschool room.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Kids make me nervous.”
Sunny got out of bed and walked to the closet. She rummaged around for a minute and came up with a big cardboard box.
“I think we’re about the same size,” she said. “You can wear this. The kids’ll love you. Getting into character makes talking to them easier. Plus, if you see them on the street they won’t recognize you.”
“What the hell is it?”
She grinned a grin that said, I’ve got you now, Jack. She opened the box and pulled out an enormous dog costume. It was black and brown with four sewn-on paws, a ragged tail, and floppy ears. She tossed him the head.
“Your name is Diggedy. I suggest you wear groin protection.”
Jack plopped down in the chair across the desk from David Finney.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Jack, Mr. Lenard asked me to have a talk with you.”
“About the crazy questions you ask every week. He knows you’re fucking with him and he doesn’t appreciate it. He wanted to fire you outright, but I went to bat for you and got you one more chance. Just keep your mouth shut. We don’t want to hear any more about raffling off an ostrich or National Salami Day. You’re a good worker, but Mr. Lenard—and, frankly, everyone else—is tired of your shenanigans.”
“You’re no different from anyone else here, Jack. You think you’re special? Such a free spirit? It’s time to get with the program. Get with the program or get out. Think about it.”
Jack thought about it. He lay awake half the night thinking about it. He thought about boosting a turkey dinner from the market so he and Littlebit could have Thanksgiving, and how his heart felt like it would bust out of his chest as he eluded the cops. He thought about the time he went to sleep in a dark field and woke up in the middle of a herd of buffalo. Guys like Finney and Lenard couldn’t understand how trapped he felt because they’d never been free. It was like trying to explain the joy of a warm summer breeze to a fish.
Around 3 AM Jack slid out of bed and dug his old Diggedy Dog costume out of the hall closet. It was ratty but still jaunty. He’d worn it to hand out candy two Halloweens ago. He stuffed it into his backpack. He’d shut up all right. He wouldn’t say a word. He’d just sit there listening to Lenny Disco and taking notes in his costume. He set the pack by the door and went back to bed.
For his 30th birthday Sunny had given Jack the one thing he wanted more than anything else: she’d married him. They’d left the commune right after she graduated from college. Jack had struck out at dozens of jobs. He never had any trouble finding work, but after a couple of months a subtle, inner turbulence would take hold. It’d build in him, coursing through his body, looking for release. Eventually he’d encase the boss’s Mercedes in plastic wrap or cover someone’s telephone with Vaseline. Finally, Sunny’s uncle got him the job at Lenard & Frey. Sunny began working with special-needs children at a local grade school. Jack was surprised every morning that she hadn’t packed and left while he was sleeping.
The marriage had been a negotiation. Where Jack wanted union, Sunny wanted stability. She’d patiently explained that she wouldn’t steal food or sleep in a car or live without a sense of purpose. If Jack valued her as much as he said he did, then he needed to show her that he could be responsible. They eco-honeymooned in Costa Rica. On their last night there, Jack woke to the sounds of the rain forest and realized that he was alone in the big rattan bed. Moonlight revealed a sliver of Sunny, sitting cross-legged in front of the sliding glass doors. Jack crawled across the room and sat, legs spread, behind her on the floor. He leaned forward and rested his head on her shoulder. Through the glass he could see the rain forest canopy—black and green with violet shadows—beneath the moon and the cloudless sky.
“We’re so lucky,” she said. “Not many people will ever see this.”
“If they did, they wouldn’t want to destroy it,” he said. “There should be a law that the CEOs of any companies that consume natural resources have to spend a week in the jungle.”
“When we get back I’ll research some lobbying organizations. There must be something we can do.”
“I mean,” she said, “I’m worried about us.”
Jack froze. “Why?”
“I worry about everything. I worry about what we’ll do if one of us gets sick. I worry about not having any money saved for retirement. I worry about unforeseen emergencies. Mostly, I worry that you don’t worry about those things. I worry that you’re going to quit your job again.”
He put his hand under her chin and turned her head. He wanted to see her face but all that was visible was an outline, from eyebrow to chin. Something shimmered on her cheek. He touched it with his thumb.
“You’re my family,” he said. “I can’t lose you. I know I’m not exactly Mr. Responsible, but I do my best. What do I have to do to convince you?”
She found him in the dark, pulled him toward her and kissed him.
“That’s easy,” she said. “Don’t lose this job.”
Jack set his backpack on his desk. He was an hour early and no one else was in yet. Without people to populate it and the fluorescents off, the cubicle farm seemed even more oppressive than usual. He walked to the back of the room to make sure he was alone, then returned to his cubicle. He wanted to get changed before anyone else arrived. He took off his coat, threw it on a chair, and unzipped the backpack. On top of the dog costume was a brown paper bag, his lunch. He pulled it out and looked at it. There was a red construction paper heart stapled to the bag.
Next: Teen Jeopardy