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Authors: Bentley Little

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BOOK: Dispatch
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But the reason I wrote a complaint letter was that I'd received a typewriter for my birthday. Not a word processor, not even an electric typewriter, but an old junky manual typewriter that had been surplused out at my dad's work. It had been sitting in my room for almost a month, but the previous weekend I'd cleared off my desk to make room for it, and I finally decided it was time to try it out.

To my surprise, I received an apologetic letter from Buck himself and three coupons good for free full meals (burger, fries and drink). Buck thanked me for my opinion and said no final decisions had been made but that the trial period for the new fries would be going on for another month or so. He said he hoped I would come by again and give them another try.

I showed the letter to Robert and Edson at school the next day, and they were amazed that I got free food just for complaining. "It's a miracle!" Edson cried, dropping to his knees and bowing before me.

"Get up," Robert said, looking around as students passing by turned to stare at us. "You look way too at home in that position."

Edson stood. "That's funny. Your mama told me the same thing last night."

I didn't show my parents the letter or tell them about the free coupons, but on Saturday, my friends and I made a day of it. We hit the downtown, going first to the new-wave comic store, where we browsed without buying anything, then to the Salvation Army to check out their records. Robert and I had both become somewhat fanatic record collectors over the past year, and for a buck I picked up an early Todd Rundgren album and the Beatles'
Rubber Soul

"Why do you like that
music?" Edson sneered. "Even my brother's finally dumped those dinosaurs."

"They're only fifty cents apiece," I pointed out. "I'll pretty much buy anything for fifty cents. Besides, just because it's old doesn't mean it's bad. There's good and bad music everywhere."

Robert grinned at Edson. "I got a Charlie Daniels, a Waylon Jennings and a Hank Junior." He'd recently been on a country-music kick that none of us understood.

Edson just snorted disgustedly and shook his head.

"Video killed the radio star." Robert prodded him.

We walked from the Salvation Army to Buck's Burgers. I handed out the free passes, and we all gorged ourselves on complimentary junk food.

"You have to do this more often," Robert told me.

It was a good idea, and I wrote complaint letters to every fast-food franchise I could think of. McDonald's, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Wendy's. Taco Bell, El Taco, Del Taco, Pup 'n' Taco, Der Wienerschnitzel. I wrote the same thing to each, that I was a longtime customer who had recently had a very unpleasant experience at their eating establishment.

The complimentary passes came rolling in. For the rest of my junior year, my friends and I ate free. We didn't have to buy a single meal. Pizza Hut and Domino's provided us with party pizzas. Baskin-Robbins gave us dessert. I let everyone I knew in on the secret (except my family), and a couple of them attempted to write letters themselves, but for some reason only my efforts were successful. The few people who received replies got only form apologies. I got free food.

"If there's one thing Jason knows how to do," Robert joked, "it's complain."

As a lark—or, more accurately, as an experiment—I wrote a letter to Familyland, pretending to be the president of a campus club who was looking for donations for our fund-raiser. To my complete surprise and utter delight, I received five free passes to the park. I thought of inviting four friends to come along, but then realized that I really had only two
friends: Robert and Edson. It would be better just to invite them and then put the other two passes away for later. So that's what I did. I told my parents Edson had won free Familyland tickets in a contest and had invited me to go with him, and on Saturday morning the three of us were on the bus and headed for the amusement park.

We'd taken to riding the bus a lot. All three of us had driver's licenses, but none of us had cars, and we didn't like the restrictions that went with borrowing the family vehicle. Riding the bus kept us free and easy, independent and unencumbered.

I found myself wondering if I wrote a complaint letter to the bus company, whether I could get a free pass.

We got to Familyland early, just as it opened. Our plan was to stay there all day until the place closed at midnight. We wanted to get our money's worth—even though it was free. The first part of the morning was spent racing to the good rides, the thrill rides, so we could get on them before the lines got too big. After that, we tried to pick up chicks in the gift shops and the arcades, asking any female who looked even remotely close to our age if she wanted to go on a ride with us. Finally, two sullen fat girls agreed to accompany Edson and me into the Haunted House, and in the dark of the ride I managed to grab the sweaty hand of the brunette I was with and hold it for a few seconds before she pulled it away. Robert, who hadn't been able to find anyone to go with him, rode alone, which provided a lot of the humor for the day.

Late in the afternoon, we stopped at the Space Bar outside the Rocket Ride to get some Cokes and I heard a familiar voice call out, "Hey, asshole!"

I looked up to see Tom standing in line for the Rocket Ride. My brother was with some skank that he'd been dating for the past few weeks, and he waved at me, grinning. "Thanks for the tickets!"

He'd stolen my other two passes! I wanted to kill him. He'd been snooping in my room, and he had to have been looking pretty deep to find where I'd hidden the tickets. I felt violated. That fucker had invaded my privacy. Thank God I didn't keep a diary or anything. I tried to think of what else he might have run across, what other secrets of mine he might have uncovered.

I hated him at that moment. I didn't like Tom even at the best of times, but at that second I could have easily slit his throat and not lost a moment's sleep.

Laughing, he moved forward in line, and he and the skank disappeared behind the ringed globe of Saturn.

"What was that about?" Edson asked.

But I was too angry to answer. I was trying to think of ways to retaliate. Telling my parents would do no good—they'd just be mad that I kept
in the dark about my free tickets—and even though I'd experienced a growth spurt over the past year and was now actually taller than my brother, he could still kick my ass. I thought of the bitch he was dating, and I had an idea.

"Jason?" Robert was waving a hand in front of my face as though trying to awaken me from a trance. It was obvious that he'd been attempting to ask me something.

"Let's get out of this area," I said, grabbing my Coke cup. "My fucking brother's here, and I don't want to see him."

"The Wild West!" Robert announced. He'd been wanting to go to the cowboy show all morning. Part of his country-western infatuation, I assumed. We'd heard banjo music from behind the wooden fort fence as we'd passed by earlier.

"No way," Edson protested.

But I was the swing vote, and Westernland was far enough away from Spaceland that it sounded good to me. "Let's do it," I said.

"Yee-hah," Edson muttered.

I arrived home that night just after eleven, the three of us having caught the final bus. Tom still wasn't home by midnight, and my parents were fuming about it. Banging his bim in the backseat, I assumed, and I was glad to hear through the walls that my parents were thinking along the same lines. He was going to be in deep shit when he got home.

I was glad.

But that wasn't enough.

I went into Tom's room, found the name and address of the skanky bitch, then went back into my room and took out a sheet of lined notebook paper.
Tom Hanford
, I wrote, carefully disguising my handwriting,
is gay. He is only using you to get back at me because I dumped him. Don't fall for it.
I signed the letter
and did kind of a flower thing for the dot on the

I put the letter in an envelope, sealed and stamped it.

I then wrote to the president of Familyland, enclosing my torn ticket stub, and said that I had had a very bad experience at the park and would not be returning.

A week later, I was sent two more free tickets.

And though nothing was ever said, Tom stopped seeing the girl.

Fuck you, Tom
, I thought. And smiled.


And the living wasn't easy.

Life at home was just as bad as ever. During my junior high years, my dad had become, if not a full-fledged alcoholic, at least a more-than-occasional drunk. But after he'd totaled the car and very nearly killed a woman in a horrific accident that was entirely his fault and resulted in a year's suspension of his driver's license, he'd quit drinking and had even become somewhat religious. Not that there was any discernable difference in his personality or the way he treated me and Tom. He was still as mean and angry as he'd always been, and in some ways more dangerous, since the alcohol had kept him a little less focused and now he was able to concentrate fully on one thing at a time.

Like me.

I was, as he never let me forget, a huge disappointment. Despite the fact that he was a complete asshole at home, my father put on a hearty public face and, like a lot of heavy drinkers, was agreeably gregarious in social settings—even now that he was sober. I, however, was socially awkward and to my dad's dismay had yet to go on my first date, though I'd just turned seventeen. He was also a big sports guy. He was fat now and the most exercise he got was yelling at coaches while he watched ball games on television, but in his day he'd been on the high school football, basketball
baseball teams. I was lucky to get a C in PE.

So there were plenty of conflicts to go around.

Luckily, Robert had gotten me a job at Gemco, a discount department store, so at least I had a legitimate reason for getting out of the house at night. Robert had the position I wanted—working in the music department selling records, tapes and stereos—but I was desperate to earn some extra cash, and I was grateful when there was an opening in Toys and he recommended me to the store's assistant manager.

After a pro forma interview, I was hired to work twenty hours a week, eight of them on a weekend day, the other twelve spaced out over weekday evenings. It was an easy job. The hardest thing I had to do was clean up after kids who'd taken toys off the shelves, played with them and left them in the aisles—an occurrence that happened numerous times each shift. But my supervisor, Ellis Cain, was a complete prick. The toy department was his domain, and for me to suggest that it was anything less than a demanding job that could be handled by only the brightest and most industrious was belittling to him. He resented the fact that I, a mere high school student and part-time employee, found the work simple, boring and easy to do.

So he took it out on me. He blamed me for anything that went wrong, he constantly let me know that the girl who'd had the job before I did had been far better at it, and if ever a kid puked or pissed his pants or spilled his Slurpee, he made sure that I, and not a member of the maintenance crew, cleaned it up.

I grew to hate that son of a bitch.

But I liked getting a paycheck, and I liked the feeling of independence I got from not spending all my evenings hiding in my room listening to my parents fight. All in all, it wasn't such a bad deal, and if Cain could just transfer to another store or even another department, all would be right with the world.

Robert and I usually spent our breaks together sitting on the low brick wall behind the store. It kept us from having to sit in the break room with the lifers—old women who'd been working there since the Stone Age and who took their jobs
too seriously. One Wednesday evening, Toys was dead—there hadn't been a sale all night, hadn't even been a browser since six, when I started my shift—so I decided to take an early break. I walked over to Music, where a frail old man in an ugly plaid jacket was arguing with Robert. "That's not what I wanted, and you know that's not what I wanted!"

Robert sighed as though he'd repeated his defense a thousand times. "I
you, you wouldn't like it," he said. "I warned you."

"That's not the music I wanted! I told you I wanted the music from

"Yes. And you said the theme from
was called 'Heaven and Hell.' I told you we had the Black Sabbath album
Heaven and Hell
but that it probably wasn't what you were looking for and I was sure you wouldn't like it. You bought it anyway, and I said that if it wasn't the right music, you could bring it back. You did bring it back, and I gave you a refund. I don't know what else I can do."

"I want the music from

"Well, I'm afraid we don't have it," Robert told him. "Maybe you should try a record store."

"I am very dissatisfied with the service I've received! Very dissatisfied!"

Robert did not respond.

"Your supervisor will be getting a letter from me!" the old man promised. "I can assure you of that!"

A letter.

I was like a cartoon character with a lightbulb going on over his head. I stood there as Robert finished dealing with the man; then the two of us walked out the service entrance to the loading dock. We talked about an upcoming U2 concert we had tickets for, but my mind was on the exciting idea that I could write a letter to Gemco complaining about Ellis Cain. I thought about the quick results I'd gotten from my letter to Buck's and all of my subsequent missives to fast-food joints and amusement parks.

There was nothing retail businesses feared more than dissatisfied customers.

I went home that night and wrote a letter to the store's manager, another to the president of the company at the corporate headquarters in Delaware. I pretended to be an irate father who'd been trying to buy a new Hot Wheels set but was given the runaround by the incompetent Ellis Cain.

I was off the next week—I'd worked too much over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, covering for the full-timers who were on vacation—but when I returned, Cain was gone. I don't know what went on behind the scenes, whether he was given a lecture and quit in a huff, or whether he'd accumulated other complaints over the years and this was the last straw and Gemco fired him. All I knew was that I suddenly had a new supervisor and Cain was no longer in the picture.

BOOK: Dispatch
2.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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