This is an excerpt from Robert Martin’s novel, Boxcar.
Between junior and senior year, Jenk worked as an intern at a 3M office park. He entered numerical data into spreadsheets and sat behind a waist-high partition that quarantined him and four other interns, all of whom were, like Jenk, sons or daughters of upper-middle managers with the company. Within two weeks, Jenk had covertly penned and laid out his first zine, which he published via 3M’s Xerox machines in an initial printing of 200 copies, which he stapled and folded in his half-walled cubicle, staying late as though working hard.
He titled the zine Superfluous, Man after a phrase that caught his ear in one of the few English classes he’d attended during the school year. They were reading some long Russian poem, something he was glad to have skipped reading, but the phrase lingered. He toyed with it on his tongue as he worked too hard on the little pamphlet, illustrating his doodles on Microsoft Paint when his bosses weren’t paying attention, which was a majority of the time. He had no grand plans for the zine, just felt compelled not to perform what tasks 3M assigned him. The final product, finished in late July, consisted of fragmented rants and metaphors:
From page 2: Do you know how to read? That’s great! Now try not to read this. Did it work? Don’t have a choice, do you? Sucks for you.
From page 9: I saw a pigeon on the sidewalk the other day with a growth at its ankle, an acorn-sized knob of a tumor growing right out of its bird-foot-skin. When I got close, it flew away, but it couldn’t pull the sick leg up. So it flew crooked, one wing flapping twice as often as the other.
From Page 13: Brand new, my car cost $26,450. Right now it’s worth $12,000. By my next birthday, it’ll go for less than $8,000. How quickly do wars depreciate?
Pages 14–16: Somewhere right now a man or woman is advancing their paycheck in order to make rent. They’re promising to pay interest on this loan, and whoever will eventually collect this interest is already spending that money, buying up land, buying ownership stock in other companies. The money they’re spending doesn’t actually exist, because the poor person borrowing it isn’t able to make payments, but the people who spend it don’t wait for the debt to be paid—as long as it’s owed, it’s real.
The propagandist tone was embarrassing enough that he left the work anonymous. Safer, too, should 3M trace the publication back to their depleted reams.
Of the 200 copies he printed, he distributed 175 around St. Paul in bus shelters and coffee shops, and he even dropped a handful off at the co-op bookstore. The other 25 he stored in a shoebox in his closet, as though he would want to remember this effort, or in case someone might one day value them due to the shit he’d later do that would make him famous.
That year in school he accidentally made friends. He’d joined the Yearbook Committee to cloak his abuse of the program’s Adobe Suite while crafting Superfluous, Man #2. The quality over the previous issue, it was undeniable, was immense. One of his co-Yearbookers once told him he’d be cute if he ever took out his piercings.
“You’d be cute if you took your glasses off,” he told her. Her frames were more clumsy than ironic, yet she was considered among the fashionable girls in school. To Jenk, her hair seemed too curly for her skull. It roamed horizontally above her ears like a mushroom cloud. Even after two semesters together on Yearbook, mocking up layouts and belaying each other up Adobe’s learning curve, Jenk consistently mistook Jenny’s hair for a hat.
“Nobody’s here,” Jenny said. “Just let me see what you’d look like.”
“This is what I look like,” Jenk insisted.
Jenny said, “If you take your piercings out, I’ll let you kiss me.”
“You’re assuming I want to kiss you,” he said.
“I’m really not,” she shook her head. “But I think you might do it.” Then Jenny did something amazing: she pulled the mushroom cloud of hair to the back of her head and affixed it with one of the rubber bands scattered across the tabletop. It revealed an elegant, proportional neck. She looked stunningly different—not stunning, just different. She pulled her glasses off and blinked, reacquainting herself with what must have been, judging by the thickness of her lenses, an extremely unfocused world.
“You look really different,” he said.
“This is what I look like.” She didn’t go so far as to pucker her lips and lean. In fact, she leaned away.
The studs in Jenk’s ears made no sound as he removed them, nor did the ring in his nose or the hoop in his lip. He held them in his hands like a pile of screws. Jenny didn’t react to his naked face, waiting perhaps for him to kiss her suddenly or shyly or passionately, or else for him to say something more specific about how she looked.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket. She held the display two inches from her face.
“Ugh,” she said, and answered. “Hi Mom… At Yearbook… Okay, I’ll be right out.” She pawed for her glasses and slid them on her face. She gave Jenk one solid, clear-eyed glance and then left.
In March, Jenk found out that the Universities of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California-San Diego had all been able to look past his GPA, duped by his statement of purpose, which was really just the copy from #3 rehashed in essay form. His only rejection was from the University of Kansas, but it had never been in question where he’d attend: his father was a legacy, and friends with the dean of admissions, at Carleton, just south of the cities.
In April he learned that 3M would extend an invitation for Jenk to reprise his internship in the upcoming summer. His father was the conduit of this good news, and he delivered it with a smile on his face and a pork chop on his plate.
Jenk cited his need to travel, to experience the world before entering the confines of collegiate life.
“Oh, it’s confining alright. You’ll be up to your ears in confinement.”
Jenk’s mom said, “College isn’t all fun and games. Balance is what you’re looking for.”
“College sounds great,” Jenk said. “Still, think I’ll pass on 3M.”
“Would you quit with this ‘Frank’ business?” Jenk’s dad set his fork onto his plate with a small clang. Still, his mom jumped at the sound.
“Sure. As soon as you quit with the ‘Kenny’ business.”
“Your name has been ‘Kenny’ all your life. Why is it such an issue now all of a sudden?”
“I guess I would have to say that it’s been an issue for much longer than I’ve been alive, Frank, and if you have an issue with me having an issue with my name, you might want to ask yourself why you have such an issue with me using yours.”
“Stop it,” said Jenk’s mom, whose name was Gwen. “So what are your plans for the summer, then, if you won’t be working at 3M?”
Jenk stared at the rim of his plate. Pale blue flowers intertwined along the border. “I was thinking about volunteering somewhere,” he said.
Gwen perked up. “You know Bea’s daughter just joined that organization, that young women’s league. They’re always starting new charities. I’ll ask around for you, see if there’s anything interesting opening up.”
Jenk shook his head. “I was thinking about New Orleans. Helping the Katrina victims.”
“Oh,” Gwen said. “Honey.”
“That was five years ago,” Frank said. “I think they’ve got it under control.”
“There’s still a lot that needs doing. People are still struggling. Homes are still destroyed.”
“Where’s this coming from? You see something on TV?”
Jenk draped his napkin over his uneaten dinner.
“Who are you kidding?” Frank said. “You’re not volunteering anywhere. You’ll sit around all summer on your butt. Though there probably is a lot still to do down there.”
Jenk stood up but didn’t leave. He waited for Frank to look at him. Then he left.
At the top of the stairs he heard his father say, “Did you ever call your father by his name? That’s weird, isn’t it?”
Gwen said, “He’s testing.”
“It’s rude. Nobody calls me Frank.”
“He means it endearingly.”
“Have you heard him? Do you listen to him? It’s not endearing.”
A small silence followed in which Jenk imagined his mother lifting her shoulders and tilting her wine glass. Using a tone he’d never heard his mother speak in, she said, “It’s arrogant, is what it is. Where do think he learned that? That disinterest? That detachment?” She sounded like an entirely different person. It was a rough-edged thing, that voice.
Frank—he went by Francis in the adult world—was saying, “Don’t you blame me. You’re the one who gives him everything.”
“We both give him everything,” she said, and it was still there, that humanity. She was not immune to disappointment, is what it meant.
This is an excerpt from Boxcar, a novel in four parts by Robert Martin. Read the other excerpts here.
Front page image by Stanley Forthright.