A voice with all the sex appeal of a federal tax audit called out to the crowd of people waiting in the reception area, “Mister DuMond? Mister DuMond? Kevin DuMond?”
Jack Apple straightened up his six-foot frame in the custom-tailored suit he’d bought for the occasion, but it took a moment for him to recognize the alias he’d chosen for today, so Jack looked around the reception area like everyone else before realizing that he was the one they were calling. This job interview was for the first legitimate employment in Jack’s life, but that didn’t mean he was giving these people his real name. After all, things could go wrong. There might be personality conflicts. The position might pay less than Jack feels he’s worth. The benefits package could be sub-par. And, most important, even Jack couldn’t discount the possibility that he might want to rob the place eventually. After all, Jack was a thief.
Was a thief.
It was long past time for the thirty-five-year-old Jack to grow up and be responsible, even if the concept of living in a world where he couldn’t simply take whatever he wanted disagreed with him. Responsibility for one’s life also included things like not giving potential employers an alias so one could hide a criminal record, but if his experience with the civilian world had taught Jack anything, it was that he wouldn’t even be considered for employment by most companies with criminal strikes on his record. He wasn’t sure how society expected people to become productive members when no one would hire them and they needed to earn a living, but something in him suspected that rehabilitation wasn’t high on everyone’s priority list. A company might eventually catch on and fire him, but that was a chance Jack was willing to take. Better to have a little bit of something than a whole lot of nothing.
Living on the right side of the law proved to be much tougher than Jack thought it would be. Expectations for citizens in a decent society didn’t end with only those things that were legally binding. In addition to laws there were ordinances, ethics, responsibilities, duties, expectations, protocols, morals, procedures, and common courtesies that had to be followed, sometimes all at once. When you were a criminal? Not so much. You did what you wanted. It was much easier.
The receptionist was getting testy and impatient. “Is there a Kevin DuMond here?”
“Yes, hi. Hello. I’m sorry. That’s me.”
Jack walked over to the service window and leaned in but couldn’t see a face below the cut out in the wall, only the receptionist’s Aqua-Net infused black bouffant that was lollipop round and stiffer than a New England family reunion. The woman’s pale, chubby forearm held out a black clipboard dangling a blue-ink Bic pen on a telephone cord wrapped so thick with Scotch tape it made Jack wonder if there was some crippling pen shortage going on that no one told him about. Jack smiled into Lollipop Head’s disinterested face. This was a woman who was clearly tired of fake enthusiasm.
“I have a resume,” Jack told her as if it mattered. It was all made up anyway.
“You still need t’ fill out the application. U.S. Guvmint’s rules, not mine,” Lollipop Head instructed, snapping the gum in her open mouth.
“Do you have a pen?” Jack joked. She didn’t get it. He hated people with no sense of humor and it was hard to believe Lollipop Head didn’t have one considering her hairstyle.
Jack sat down in a chair to fill out his application. Position applying for? Jack wasn’t even sure what they did at this company. He had sent out so many resumes for so many jobs these past few months, it was hard to keep them all straight. Maybe he was being hasty. Overreacting to his current situation. He was still short the fifty grand he needed to start this new business up so that he could get on his feet and get away from crime for good, but was a sales job the solution? He had a reputation to think about. People looked up to him. They would certainly think less of him if he worked here, and they were criminals.
Millions of people do this every day, Jack told himself. From now on he would be a regular guy, a rush-hour commuter, fighting lights and rush hour traffic like every other person who had no choice in the matter. He would travel to this same office every day and park in that same dodgy parking lot on the side of the building, then he would ride that rickety elevator that felt like it was going to drop him to his death at any second, which might be the only tangible benefit of working there. At the end of this daily journey, there would be Lollipop Head with her white-lady afro, the garish, circus-clown makeup, and her surly, contemptuous attitude. This would be his life. Every day, four weeks a month, month after month, year after year, until Jack had enough to retire on even though by that point he would likely be too old to enjoy it.
It didn’t matter what Jack thought about getting a job. It wasn’t optional. A condition of Jack’s parole was that he be gainfully employed, which Jack saw as his best excuse to find another line of work since Jack doubted he would even be able to compete in the criminal trade anymore. Things changed so much in only three years. The assurance and confidence he had prior to prison were such that he never noticed it was there until the day he noticed it wasn’t. Before Jack went to prison, he had every confidence that he could pull off any job, at any time, and on a moment’s notice. Jack’s talent for thievery was a gift, but now it seemed that gift was gone. Whatever made him so good was lost, and Jack had a bad feeling it would never be found.
When Jack was released from prison two months ago he realized that he had precious little to show for a lot of years of hard work. He also knew that he never wanted to go back to prison ever again. Jack led an opulent lifestyle when he was young: successful, single, and casual with his morals, but time and experience had shown him that lifestyle was unsustainable. He was bleeding cash when he went to prison. Now that he was out, this job interview was his big plan to turn his life around. This is what regular people did. Regular people took regular jobs. He would be a regular, law-abiding person from now on, whatever that meant.
At the exact moment the thought of normalcy crossed his mind, Jack’s cell phone vibrated. He knew he shouldn’t have picked up the unknown caller, but Jack believed there were no accidents in life. Things happened for a reason. He picked up and let the caller talk.
The voice was surprised and cheerful. “You changed your number? Twice in a month!”
“Who’s this?” Jack whispered, thinking he’d have to change his number one more time.
“I got you something, Jack.” It took a moment to recognize that the caller was Chicko, the alias for a fast-talking setup man whose real name Jack didn’t know despite their long and sordid history of working together. He didn’t need guys like Chicko in his space if he was going to turn his life around, that was for sure. He made that mistake already.
“You owe me nothing, Chicko. We’re good.”
“Yeah, well, ah, it wasn’t so much I thought I owed you anythin’. I just thought maybe you might be lookin’ to, you know, fill the days.”
“I’m good, Chicko. I’ve filled enough days, and life’s too short to spend the rest of them in a 6×8 cell,” Jack answered. “Hey, I’m about to meet up with this guy. Call you back?”
“Sure,” Chicko said. “Yeah, call me back.”
“You know it,” Jack answered, with no intention of ever calling Chicko back. Lollipop Head was giving him the stink eye for his audacity in talking on his phone in their reception area, so Jack ended the call and put his phone away. Lollipop Head gave Jack another sour expression, her face pruned and twisted like someone was holding a tiny poop on a small spoon right under her nose.
“Mr. Brightman will see you now.” Lollipop Head announced the information like it meant something and the sad part was, it probably did mean something to her. She led Jack down a narrow hallway where heads prairie-dogged out of their cubicles and work stations to see who was coming. Visitors were obviously the best part of their day. As Jack walked, desperate, bugged-out eyes pleaded with him to make a run for it while he had the chance. Jack looked for the nearest emergency exit. Anxiety was taking hold in his chest, tightening and squeezing him.
Maybe I’m dead. Maybe I got hit by a bus this morning and I’m dead, and this is Hell. My Hell. It’s not fire and brimstone Hell, either. My Hell is spending eternity in a place like this.
Lollipop Head walked toward Felix Brightman’s corner office, which was marked by a large, pretentious, shiny black nameplate that could likely be seen from space, declaring Felix the “Vice-President of Human Resources” with the same sober gravitas one would afford a visiting foreign dignitary. A steady stream of text messages continued to distract Jack, burning up his phone on the walk to Felix’s office.
HEARD YOU’RE BACK. YOU LOOKING? Russell. What an idiot. Jack wondered how Russell made it through the day without seriously hurting himself. Russell was five of the ten dumbest people Jack knew. He wouldn’t trust Russell to get him across the street safely.
LET’S HAVE COFFEE had nothing to do with coffee. He thought he recognized the number, but the number wasn’t saved on Jack’s phone, so it was either someone he didn’t know or someone he didn’t want to know. He had no time for mysteries. He had to focus.
Jack turned his phone off, despite his bad feeling about the interview and the worse feeling he was having about the actual job. Lollipop Head deposited Jack a good ten feet away from Felix’s door, her slight, pudgy hand wave letting Jack know that he was on his own the rest of the way. Lollipop Head wobbled away down the hallway with her emperor penguin strut, presumably for another hair spray shellacking or perhaps a snack of fresh mackerel.
“Come in,” the nasal voice inside responded when Jack raised his hand to knock on the door. Jack entered and Felix Brightman stood up, even though it was hard to tell the difference from when Felix was sitting down. A squat, middle-aged man with thick black glasses and an ill-fitting gray suit, Felix rocked a 1950’s era gelled black pompadour that looked like it could be lifted off his head entirely in one piece. Jack began to wonder if you had to have a distinct hairstyle in order to work at this company.
The droll, low-energy Felix might have been less interested in Jack than Lollipop Head was, something Jack would have doubted was possible five minutes ago. Felix offered Jack a moist, dead-fish handshake, then segued into his canned schtick about the company, what they did, how long they’d been in business, and other bland corporate nonsense. Jack was transfixed. It wasn’t what Felix was saying. Jack couldn’t take his eyes off Felix’s impressive head of hair.
“So, Mr. DuMond,” Felix intoned. “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”
Here is where Jack would make up any lost ground. His personal and professional history was a practiced monologue that hit all the right interview answer buttons. It made no difference that the story was almost entirely false. Jack might not have lived in this world, but he knew people and he knew the things that he needed to say to them and how he needed to say them. This interview may have started off awkward, but that would end once Jack opened his mouth. Nothing Felix would say could throw Jack off. He was a pro at engaging people one on one, which was presently evidenced by Felix nodding his head to key points in his story.
“After graduating from college,” Jack continued, “I worked as a Regional Director for a nationwide video distributor until their corporate restructuring…”
Jack stopped talking once he noticed Felix’s eyes fluttering, right before they closed shut. At first, Jack thought Felix might have something stuck in his eye. Once Felix’s head rolled backward and his snoring resonated against the top of his opened mouth, it was obvious. Felix had fallen fast asleep in the middle of the interview. Jack wondered if this was a test.
“Mr. Brightman?” Jack asked, sheepish.
Felix’s head suddenly jerked forward and his open mouth snapped shut. He stared at Jack as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened and waited for his answer. “Mister DuMond,” Felix said, “how do you see technology affecting our industry over the next…”
Felix’s voice trailed off as his head fell like a dead weight to his chest. Jack wondered if someone was messing with him. He looked around for hidden cameras, maybe for a stray segment producer hiding under a desk carrying a file folder of appearance release forms or anything else that might tell Jack that he was the unwitting contestant on some twentysomething targeted YouTube prank show. After a few moments, Felix snapped back into consciousness and continued as if he’d never stopped talking, albeit at an entirely different point in the conversation starting with, “…is really the best fit for your professional goals.” There was no producer was under the desk, popping out to surprise Jack. He wasn’t on TV or part of any YouTube prank. This was for real. Jack was legitimately putting this guy to sleep.
“Go into some detail about your sales experience,” Felix continued. Felix had a severe sinus problem that kept him sniffling and clearing phlegm from his throat with guttural sounds that were distracting and awful. He could have made a fortune in antihistamine commercials.
Jack was prepared for the questions about his experience. He had plenty of phony background stories along with oodles of fake professional references who would have sworn Jack was King of the Moon if asked, but Jack didn’t think they were necessary this time. Even though his chosen career path to this point had been criminal, Jack felt that doing it well required a very specific, very specialized skill set, one that could easily be adapted to whatever position he worked. Jack wasn’t sure if he wanted this particular job, so he didn’t feel he needed to lie about his experience. In fact, for once he could be very honest with an interviewer. The core principles of business were all the same and the interviewing practice was good for him. The key was keeping everything in context.
“I lead teams,” Jack began. “I assess situations, formulate strategic plans and then assemble a team of professionals to assist me in executing those plans. I coordinate all details, logistics and operational protocols for a successful campaign from start to finish.”
Felix looked skeptical. “What kind of jobs are we talking about?” The phone on Felix’s desk beeped and he looked at it like one would a disruptive child misbehaving in a restaurant. His hand reached over with fingers that looked like little stubby cigars and picked up the line. “I’m in a meeting. I told you, no interruptions.”
Lollipop Head answered, “I’m sorry, Mr. Brightman, but the caller insists.”
“Who is it?”
“It’s not…the call isn’t for you, Mr. Brightman. It’s for Mr. DuMond.”
Jack could have stepped onto Felix’s desk and relieved himself on Felix’s keyboard and Felix would not have looked more shocked than he did at that very moment. Jack watched as the gears in Felix’s head turned while Felix formulated the story he would post on all his social media pages along with the anecdotes he would share with colleagues at his next professional association luncheon. With the interview essentially over and nothing left to lose, Jack plucked the handset up from the cradle on Felix’s desk and took the phone call. He was just as curious to see who was calling him here. Felix was apoplectic. He had never.
“Mister DuMond? Is that your real name?”
“It is today. Who’s this?” It was a woman’s voice, and not one that Jack recognized.
“You’re not picking up your phone, Jack. Is this any way to treat a benefactor?”
“Do you have the wrong number?” Jack replied.
“You’re going to punch a time clock? Is this a joke? The great Jack Apple? What, you’re a ham-and-egger now? What are you doing? Did you turn your phone off, Jack? Every call went to voicemail, how do you expect people to reach you? Come work for me. I’ve heard a lot about you. You come very highly recommended. We need to meet. You’ll love me.” This was a longer conversation than Felix’s patience could tolerate, and his pumpkin-shaped head looked like it was ready to explode off his spinal column over this lack of professional courtesy.
“Spread the word, lady,” Jack said, “I’m done. No more.”
“You haven’t heard my offer, Jack. Besides, what are you going to do for money?”
Jack stared into Felix’s disapproving face then took in the bland, single-hued surroundings that smelled of stale coffee, dollar store hair gel, and failure. “Thanks for the call, lady. Good luck in prison,” he put down the handset and reached out to shake Felix’s hand.
“Thanks, Felix. I’m not sure about much in my life, but I’m sure that I don’t want to work here.” Jack turned to leave, but couldn’t resist at least asking the question. “This might sound weird and please don’t take this the wrong way. Do you think I could I just touch your hair? It’s amazing. Would you mind?” Felix cowered in his chair, picked up his phone and dialed Security.
“Security!” Felix yelled before dropping off into another deep sleep. His head bounced off his desk, which woke Felix up and startled him even more. Stress sometimes did that to people like Felix who had narcolepsy, which was information that would have been helpful for Jack to know ahead of his job interview. It made Jack wonder what other things they weren’t telling people. Working at a company like this the rest of his life would be like trading one prison for another, and Jack had no intention of going back to prison. He would find another way. He was used to plans changing. After all, Jack was a thief.
Was a thief.
Jack Apple’s adventures continue in “Burn One Down: A Bad Apples Caper”