Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Poverty Pack

Dennis Starr liked to get outside by himself on his breaks and sit on the low log fence in the car park away from the noise and the swirling, dust-filled air in the yard. Rubbing his back with one hand he stood up and threw his cigarette away with an expert flick of the other wrist. He was a small statured man with a circle of flab around his middle resembling a child’s safety float. His hair was starting to recede but there were still signs of the blonde frosted tips he’d sported for over a decade. The thick gold chain peeping out from beneath his checked shirt contrasted markedly with his dirty jeans and work boots.

In a couple of hours he’d knock off and head home to a dinner of spaghetti on toast in front of the idiot box. Home these days was a dingy caravan in a run-down park on the edge of Kalangadoo, but not for much longer. One good thing about mindless labour was it gave a bloke plenty of time to think and he’d come up with some brilliant business ideas. Now all he had to do was find a financial backer willing to take chance on him and he’d be back in the game. He could forget all about that deceiving son of a bitch who’d caused him so much grief. Tracey and the girls could move out of her mother’s place and everything would be sweet again. He was sure of it.

Half an hour later sweat dripped into his eyes and blinded him like salty tears as he hauled timber across the yard and stacked it. He was too old for this shit. Lyle, of all people, he thought as he paused to mop up the sweat with his sleeve. He still couldn’t fathom that someone he’d trusted had screwed him so royally.

“Fucking unbelievable,” he muttered to himself, rubbing his hand across his eyes.

“Hey, Dennis, man, what’s going on? You’re slowing us down. Get back to work.” It was his supervisor, Wayne, a guy he’d gone to school with years ago. All Dennis could remember about him was that he was a sickly kid who was always getting picked on by the older boys. Now he didn’t hesitate to wield his tiny slice of power over anyone beneath him.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Dennis, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”

“What was that?” said Wayne, walking towards him.

“Nothing,” said Dennis, bending to lift some timber so Wayne couldn’t see his face. “Asshole,” he said under his breath.


“I’m absolutely fantastic, thanks for asking,” were the words Dennis had used to greet his staff each morning for years. It had become a kind of running joke with them and he’d been happy to play along. After touring the yard it was his custom to pause in front of the glass doors to the office and turn back around to survey his kingdom. Before him he saw cars, row upon row of them, slick and sparkling in the morning sun. Colourful flags fluttered in the breeze all around. The vision had caused him to stand taller and push out his chest, drawing the fumes from Parramatta Road into his lungs. For a moment he’d become one with the endless hum of passing traffic.

“Dennis the Menace,” they’d called him because no one could match him when it came to making money. “Unlike the other guys out there I’m not going to promise you the world and then hand you an atlas,” he was fond of telling the private sellers who entrusted their cars to him. “It’s all there in the fine print,” he explained with a sympathetic smile when their cars didn’t sell and they were hit with a multitude of hidden charges. There were plenty of tears and tantrums. Some threatened to come back and shoot him, but most of the time he managed to tuck them back into bed.

After surveying the yard he’d held a meeting in his office every morning to pump up the troops. First on the agenda was haranguing anyone who’d dared to take the previous day off. “Doctor’s certificates don’t cut it. Unless you’re dead you come to work.” This was followed by some motivational talk. “You all need to push harder for the premium models with new cars. Make them feel like shit for going for the poverty pack. At the very least get them to commit to some optional extras. Remember, you have to shoot for the stars with every sale. It’s the only way you’re going to land on top of the mountain.”

These meetings usually ended with him standing over the telemarketing team with clenched fists, uttering in a deep voice: “Bring me some cars, boys, bring me some cars.” He’d mastered the art of looking at them from under his brow in a way that struck fear into their hearts and made them eager to gain his approval. Their respect had never been diminished by his frequent botox treatments, tattooed eyeliner and unnatural tan, at least as far as Dennis was concerned. They knew how important appearance was in this game.

“It’s not about truth,” he’d told those who balked at some of the techniques he taught them to close a deal. “We tell people what they want to hear, make them happy. What they don’t know won’t hurt them, as long as you make them believe they’re being looked after.” If selling cars had taught him anything about human nature it was this.

There were also many people out there who loved nothing better than to argue over price, and he and the sales team had their act down pat when it came to the hagglers. “Are you trying to kill me?” he’d bellow, sending the salesman scurrying back out of his office with fear written all over his face. Once he’d gotten so carried away he’d thrown a chair out the window. Eventually he dropped the price slightly so the customer felt like they’d won.

“It’s the show they love,” he always said, “We just give them what they want.”


One of the great benefits of running a car yard was having a stable of prestige vehicles at his disposal and Dennis hadn’t needed to own a car in years. Every third weekend he’d roared out to the country house on his Harley to see the missus and kids. The rest of the time he’d chosen the best looking vehicle on the lot to spirit him and his girlfriend around town. His long-term squeeze had been called Tracey like his wife, which made his cheating seem like less of a betrayal.

It had been easy to gloss over any sightings of the car or unexpected speeding tickets that turned up in the owners’ mailboxes. There were test drives after all, and cars couldn’t sit idle for weeks at a time. “I give my personal guarantee that any vehicle leaving the yard is fully insured and housed overnight in a locked garage,” he said.

A black stretch limo was the most memorable car they’d had in. Nearly the whole staff had crammed into it one Friday night like clowns in a comedy sketch. He’d driven them from pub to pub, complete with a chauffer’s cap, buying drinks and supplying optional extras. The tangle of arms and legs in the back had become more chaotic as the night progressed and someone had thrown up all over the leather upholstery. The smell still lingered two weeks later when the owner came to collect the car.

They’d ended up at Star City in the early hours and he’d dropped about $8,000 on the pokies, but it had still been a great night. One of the best. Lyle, his accountant, a balding, bespectacled man who looked every inch the part, had talked him into limiting his access to the business account after that. Fortunately the kickbacks he got for looking after the dirty laundry for some of his bikie mates helped to subsidise his more expensive habits.


            The irony that he’d met Lyle while playing the pokies still left a tangible bitter taste in his mouth and Dennis had to resist the urge to lean over and spit in the sawdust at his feet. The high pitched whining around him was giving him a headache but it wasn’t enough to block out the memory.

Lyle had been sitting at the machine next to him that night and when he’d tried to start up a conversation a few times Dennis had blown him off. Then a big win had lifted his mood and he’d decided to cut the meek looking man some slack. He figured Lyle was just a lonely guy looking for some company. While they were talking Dennis won some more free spins that paid well.

“I must bring you good luck,” Lyle had said, buying him a drink to celebrate. He told Dennis he was an accountant currently between jobs and when he found out who Dennis was he almost fell off his chair. “You’re a legend. The best in the biz.” Before he knew it Dennis had hired the man to look after the yard’s finances. And why not, he had years of experience and he hadn’t batted an eye at some of their less orthodox business practices.  “Don’t worry, I’ve seen it all,” he told Dennis, “and I know how to be discrete.”

After that it was: “Can I get you a coffee Dennis?” “I’ll pick up your dry cleaning.” “Don’t worry about ordering out, I’ll bring something healthy back for dinner. You need to take better care of yourself.” “Would you like me to book a massage, you look tense.” Nothing was too much trouble. Every time Dennis turned around Lyle was there, and he’d come to depend on him in more ways than he’d realised.

By the time he found out that Lyle had already spent time behind bars for embezzlement to feed his gambling addiction it was too late. Now he was back in the slammer but he’d be out in a couple of years to do it all again. Meanwhile Dennis had been forced to sell nearly everything he owned to pay his shady financial backers. They’d made it clear the consequences would be severe if didn’t cough up.

Despite all this he was loathe to let anyone know how desperate his situation had become. Once the stench of failure attached itself to you it tended to stick forever and he refused to be an object of pity to anyone. That’s why he’d come back here to work, at the same place he’d started out as a teenager, and where his father had toiled away the best years of his life. There was one thing only about Kalangadoo that drew him back; it was a town of nobodies and he didn’t care what anyone here thought of him.

 Later, in the break room, he was pulling his jacket on and preparing to step out into the bleak afternoon when Steve, one of the guys who hung out with a pack of wannabe bikies approached him.

“Coming to the pub?” he asked. Ever since Dennis had told them he’d owned a Harley they’d wanted to be his mates. They were nice enough blokes but were all talk and no action, and he’d secretly nicknamed them the poverty pack. “It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys,” was one of the mottos he lived by.

“Maybe,” he muttered. His phone began to vibrate in his pocket, cutting short the conversation. Few people, apart from the missus called him these days, and he didn’t bother to check the caller ID before he answered.

“Dennis Starr speaking,” he said out of habit

“Dennis, I’m glad I finally caught up with you. It’s Tom. I heard what happened with Lyle. What a mess.”

“Yeah well, shit happens.” Tom was a business associate and friend, and one of the last people he wanted to talk to at that moment.

“Listen, I’ve got a job you might be interested in. It’s only a small yard, but there’s room for growth.” Dennis didn’t have to ask for the details, he already knew what it would be like; one of those tiny two-bit lots, a blink-and-you-miss-it hole in the wall with about 30 cars, all of them shit boxes. There was no money in it and most of them folded within a few months. Of course he would be able to make it work, but it would mean starting again from scratch.

He looked out the window where the rain had started to come down in sheets. It could be a way out of here, a stepping-stone to something else, and he might even be able to bring Tracey and the girls to Sydney. But what would people think? He’d be a laughing stock, a joke. No one would take him seriously ever again in a business where image is everything. No, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell he’d take something like that on.

“Are you there, mate?” said Tom.

 “Thanks mate, but I’m good. I’ve moved into timber, mate. I’ve bought a timber yard.”


“Yeah, the old man was in the timber business, so it’s in the blood.” He cleared his throat. “Listen, Tom, it’s great to hear from you but I’ve gotta go.”

Putting his phone into his pocket he turned to leave, but someone was blocking his path. He’d thought he was alone after Steve left, but Wayne must have been standing there long enough to have heard everything.

“See you tomorrow, boss,” he said with a smirk. Dennis’ face burned and his fist ached to slam into that smirk.

Later that night, sitting at the cramped table in the caravan he picked up his phone to call Tracey, but then hesitated and put it back down again. He’d already left three messages. She was taking her sweet time calling him back these days and he wondered if she was seeing someone else. He could hardly blame her if she was. He hadn’t exactly been a model husband.

Outside the rain swept silence was broken by a burst of laughter from the old men who had gathered to drink and play cards in the rec room. After his first night there he’d made excuses not to join them. Most of them were retired from the mill and they planned live out the rest of their days here. They were all divorced and rarely saw their families. The laughter turned into raised voices, like it always did when they’d had a few. Dennis picked up his phone and flicked through it till he found the number he was after. He expected it to go to voice mail, and he jumped a little when the familiar voice said hello.

“Yeah, Tom, its Dennis again….I’m absolutely fantastic, thanks for asking. Listen, I’ve had a think about that job, and it looks like I might be able to help you out after all.”

He’d give it his best shot, shoot for the stars and sooner or later he’d have to land on top of the mountain. He was sure of it.