The Apprentice Learns Business

A Swiftian Tale of Crump

Mr. Crump was a very important man who owned a great deal of property on an island on the East Coast of the world’s richest and most powerful country. Mr. Crump wasn’t his real name, but he was so important and his first-born son, Little Crump, was to become so important – even to achieving the elevated office of the President of that rich, powerful country – that it was advised to change his name to allow all to ponder this simple tale in a sober and objective light and digest its valuable insights about a great man without the taint of hero worship.

Mr. Crump’s son had not yet become the President, and no one dreamed such a thing could occur even after it occurred, but Mr. Crump was grooming him, teaching him, showing him the way to becoming a great man of the business world and Little Crump was trying to learn as best he could.

As the years went by and his four children, one after the other, oozed uncomfortably into adolescence, then young adulthood, Mr. Crump got richer faster and faster because he was so important. And because he was so important, he was in the weary position such important people have: of having to make decisions that only made him richer. In fact, he was becoming richer faster than he could teach Little Crump and the itsy-bitsy Crumps how to be rich, too, because they seemed to be outgrowing their brains. (This is to be expected in adolescence, but by young adulthood the brain is meant to catch up.) In fact, Mr. Crump’s young adult crew seemed perfectly happy to get towed along in their little lifeboats behind Mr. Crump’s enormous cruiser, content to play in the waves and muck that monstrous vessel churned up wherever it went. But this is not what Mr. Crump had in mind. It is not what he had in mind at all.

They were supposed to leap out of those lifeboats and captain mighty cruisers of their own. But not one made a move. Mr. Crump had to figure out a way to make them rich, and once they were rich, it would make them important and then they wouldn’t have to do anything, because they could make things happen just the way he did, just by saying so. Even if they decided to get back into their little lifeboats, they would be able to make decisions from there, or just wave their hands, and that would make things happen that would make them richer and all would be taken care of.

To get the ball rolling, Mr. Crump decided to employ his children. They didn’t like the idea until he explained to them what those jobs involved: Sit in a fancy office – each got his own – overlooking some of all of Mr. Crump’s vast properties. A footman would open doors for them, limousines would take them from their fancy homes to the office and back. They only had to go in on Wednesdays, and for fun time, Mr. Crump would take them to a big lunch afterwards and hold the weekly board meeting of the Acme Supply Association, which was the name of the new company they were given the heady responsibility of steering. Each was assigned an assistant to do whatever he was told. Their job, Mr. Crump warned his youngsters gravely, was to tell those assistants to do the right things in the right way. From his massive leather chair, Mr. Crump stared sourly across the shiny expanse of his great desk at the sad next generation of his empire. He could see they were trying to pay attention because he had mentioned money several times, and power, too. They wanted to be rich and powerful just like their father. All they had to do was:

Sit at their big desks by their executive-size windows and receive bills from all the suppliers and service providers who maintained Mr. Crump’s vast network of skyscrapers and tenement houses. Little Crump got the cleaning bills because Mr. Crump felt he should learn all about that. Oldest brother but one got the bills from suppliers, oldest brother but two got the repair bills, and little sister got bills for outside maintenance: bushes and lawns and mailboxes, too. Mr. Crump arranged it this way on purpose because he had always told everyone his children were specialized, and now they really were. Mr. Crump now had four expert specialized children.

The first part of Little Crump’s job was fun and fine: getting driven to his new office in his own limousine because he wouldn’t share with the others even if they were getting driven to the same place along the same route at the same time in the same business-like attire;

exiting the vehicle, right past the gloved hand of the bowed doorman clasping the handle;

watching the doorman rip past him to pull open the doors to Mr. Crump’s great building where Acme Supply Association had its offices, a building so tall and so imposing they called it Crump Pylon;

eying the doorman as he whipped past yet again to hurl himself against the grand elevator, pushing any possible interfering objects, such as others waiting for the elevator, aside, and the elevator button in the same desperate plunge of his uniformed arms;

entering the elevator; pivoting with perfunctoriness; scowling out at the flunky, whose duties accomplished, had faded back looking a little wrung out (there were three more to go); watching with supreme satisfaction as the elevator doors cut off all views of the sidewalk world; and exalting as the sliding box conveyed he who was learning to be great up to his office.

Once immersed in the finger lake of his soon-to-be vast empire, that is to say, the cool, regal, titillating ambience of his new office, Little Crump strode to his desk and stared out the window. He shoved his chair to one side and paced around it like a tiger searching for the best spot in the long, sweet grass to make its bed. The moment Little Crump had taken his seat, his assistant appeared with a silver tray conveying an iced bottle full of Mr. Crump’s favorite refreshment. Little Crump grasped the bottle, scowled, and took a giant swig as he stared out the window some more, then sighed and pursed his lips. He felt better now.

“The paperwork,” Little Crump croaked, not having spoken yet that day. With a tidy about-face, the assistant exited to reenter a moment later with a second silver tray conveying a neat, not overly high stack of bills. Placing the tray on Little Crump’s desk, the assistant waited to be requested to sit down. He knew he would be requested to sit down because it was he, the assistant, who would be doing the work.

“Sit down,” Little Crump commanded, not a request after all.

The assistant sat down and waited, fully aware of what was coming, but obliged to wait and react to whatever command did come as if he had been hit by an insightful, thoroughly unexpected bolt of brilliance that opened up in the most refreshing way a vast perspective on the age-old method of buttering bread, that is to say, working. Although it never was.

“Give me that one.” Little Crump pointed imperiously to the bill on top. The assistant handed it to him with respect and dignity, eyes averted, as waiters do when customers enter the mighty PIN.

Little Crump looked at the bill and scowled. It was a big scowl this time. The next part of his job, in fact, the last part, in fact, the only part, was an act of uttermost importance. What he decided in the next seconds would show to the world and his father – at that tender phase in Little Crump’s career, only the latter was interested – what kind of a businessman he really was. Little Crump’s task: to decide just how high to hike the bill before he returned it to his father for payment.

“Got that calculator ready?” Little Crump barked to the assistant.

The assistant drew his calculator from his pocket – Little Crump forbade computers; they broke up the shininess of all that desktop spread out in front of him; when he sat forward, he could watch himself in it and that made him feel good.

The assistant hunched over his calculator, waiting.

Little Crump now hurled himself into action, letting fly his acumen and shrewdness and penetration in a colossal volley: “What have we got here?” He stared at the bill, found the bottom line, and declared: “Fourteen thousand.” He sat back in his chair and stared out the window of his father’s pylon at some of all of his father’s empire. His next command came fast and sure: “Twenty percent.”

The assistant bent himself to the task.

“What is it?” Little Crump demanded to know.

“Sixteen thousand eight hundred,” the assistant reported.

“What’s that mean for the spot check?”

“Two thousand eight hundred, Sir,” the assistant apprised him.

Little Crump scowled. “Do fifty.”

The assistant looked up slightly, a little nervous. “Mr. Crump said–”

“Nothing – to you,” Little Crump bawled. “A man who doesn’t waste words wouldn’t tell you anything. I know what he wants. I know how to do business. Where am I sitting? Where are you sitting? And in this office, I’m Mr. Crump. Fifty percent.”

The assistant bent himself to the task.

After a significant pause to give the assistant plenty of time to get it right, Little Crump demanded: “What do we get?”

“Twenty-one thousand.”

“Effort for spot check?”

“Seven thousand, Sir,” the assistant replied meekly.

“Go with it.” Little Crump handed the bill back to the assistant, who took it, assiduously marked down the amount to be charged for work performed in that office – not the assistant’s work; he was being paid by the Mr. Crump who was not in the office – and set it aside.

Little Crump pointed imperiously to the next bill on the pile. “Give me that one.”

The assistant handed it to him with respect and dignity, eyes averted.

“Got that calculator ready?” Little Crump shouted in high spirits. He was getting the hang of this.

The assistant indicated that he did. The procedure was repeated with that bill and the next and the next until no more bills were left on the silver tray.

“What does that come to altogether?” Little Crump asked.

A very embarrassing moment followed indeed.

“For spot checks, sir?” the assistant asked timidly.


It was the assistant’s first day in his new job, and the question caught him off-guard.

“Well,” was all he could say.

Little Crump turned a furious face with lowered brow his way, a veritable Zeus before the storm. A terrible sight it was. The assistant whimpered softly.

“Well, what?” Little Crump thundered.

“I didn’t know you would want to know that,” the assistant faltered. “I don’t have my laptop and I have to adjust tax on all that and–”

To the miserable assistant’s unbounded surprise, Little Crump waxed magnanimous: “Go do.”

“Yes, sir. Right now, sir.”

“And add some tax for me.”

“Of course, Sir.” The assistant exited rapidly with the stack of bills and the silver tray, the simple calculator slipped back into his pocket.

“And,” Little Crump called him back.

“Yes, Sir?”

“Let me know what the rats nest came up with. Don’t tell them. Just tell me. Oversight function.” Little Crump sat back aglow, delighted at his invention. Oversight function. He was going to use that again. He couldn’t wait.

“Of course not,” the assistant assured. “Priority perk.”

After the assistant had left, Little Crump tried out the feel of those new syllables. “Priority perk.” He liked them, too, thought for a moment, then rang for the assistant. The assistant appeared immediately, looking a little harried.

“This is too much work,” Little Crump declared matter-of-factly. “From now on, you figure out the numbers to get the best bottom line for spot checks.”

“Certainly, Sir,” the assistant acquiesced, surprised the strategy had taken quite so long to crystalize.

“By the way,” Little Crump asked him as he admired his reflection in the big window. “See this?” He patted his hair.

The assistant assured him he did.

“It looks like a nice big pancake, don’t you think?” Little Crump asked.

The assistant assured him it did.

“A nice golden pancake,” Little Crump said. “I like it.” After awarding his hair-do all the admiration it deserved, he noticed the assistant still waiting. “Go, go, go.”

“Thank you, Sir,” the assistant said with a brief bow.

Thereafter, Little Crump’s job was listening each Wednesday to the single number the assistant came up with after adding fifty percent to each bill, then nodding as if he loved it. There was just not much else Little Crump could do. Mr. Crump had said he wasn’t paying out any more than fifty percent because none of the next tide of Crumps deserved more than that. And they had better get used to the idea, because he wasn’t about to make them rich and powerful all at once.

One Wednesday afternoon, after listening to the assistant announce the number for the week, Little Crump stared moodily at his pretty desktop and the reflection of the pancake of hair that floated above his ham-shaped head, a manly breakfast profile.

Little Crump finally spoke. “I’ve been thinking.”

“You have, Sir?” the assistant asked. “Well. That’s … something.”

“Those bills there.”

“These ones, Sir?”

“Yes, those ones. I’m allowed fifty percent for spot checks.”

“That’s right, Sir. Maximum.” The assistant looked downcast. You see, Little Crump’s face was all lit up with an immense idea. That worried the assistant.

“If those bills were bigger, what would happen to that fifty percent?”

“It would be bigger, too, because fifty percent is half of it.”

Little Crump scowled. “Those companies have been undercharging me.”

The assistant looked up amazed. “They have, Sir? But why?”

“To make me look stupid.”

“Oh,” the assistant said, and could think of nothing to say to make Little Crump feel better. Then he did think of something. “That’s too bad.”

“It’s too bad for them, because I’m on to them and this is what you’re going to do – your new assignment.”

“But I get my assignments from–” The assistant scrupled, then shut his mouth. He had fallen into a sticky situation.

Little Crump heard no protest, so overcome was he with something startling and new: an idea, followed by another idea, and another, a deluge of ideas. He had never before experienced such a thing. His father should see him now.

“Your new assignment is to contact all of those businesses.”

“All of them?” the assistant asked weakly, looking at the stack of bills.

“And inform them that I’m on to them. I know they’ve been undercharging me to cheat me of my rightful spot-check fees, as if I didn’t know what I was worth. There’s a lot of work in spot checks. Trying to make me look stupid.”

“How terrible.”

“You tell them that I know all about it and from now on I expect the regulation amount and will ask no questions.”

Under that confusing sequence of logic, the assistant flinched not. “What is the regulation amount?”

“Fifteen percent.”

“Fifteen percent?”

“That is, fifteen percent more than what’s on these fake bills. Very odd that they’ve all been giving me fake bills at once, don’t you think? You tell them they are to increase these fake amounts by fifteen percent to the regulation amount, and for the favor of not leaking this massive conspiracy to the press and for saving them from the auditor – I’ll have one here in a heartbeat if this happens again – I expect ten percent.”

The assistant thought hard for a moment, his face red, his hair mussed. He was really embarrassed now. He had no idea what the man with the golden pancake hair-do wanted him to do. “Ten percent off the bill?”

“You’re not even good enough to be an assistant,” Little Crump complained, remarking the man’s discomfiture and keen to point it out.

“I’m really sorry, Sir.”

“They are to send the regulation amount for each bill, which is what I just told you, and for that oversight on my part, they are to send ten percent of that to me personally, sort of – that’s something I’ll have to work out, just exactly how they do that.”

“Then what?”

“Then business as usual,” Little Crump exploded at having to deal with such a donkey. “You take the regulation bills, add the amount that reflects the spot check effort this office performs, and off they go to Dad.”

“Fifty percent.”

“What a jackass. Yes.”

“Am to contact them about these?” the assistant asked reluctantly, indicating the bills that had already been processed by himself with his little calculator.

That notion put Little Crump in a foul mood, not directed at the unhappy assistant this time but out the window at most of all of Mr. Crump’s empire. “Too late for that. They have to go in today.”

“Shall I get started on them now, Sir?”

“Now.” Little Crump waved him out of sight.

“Thank you, Sir,” could be heard, but from the next room. Oh, it was a sticky situation now.

That evening, all four assistants assembled in Mr. Crump’s waiting room, each with his packet of bills to present for payment to the Acme Supply Association for services and supplies rendered. Little Crump’s assistant was called last of all into Mr. Crump’s office, which was just fourteen floors above the offices of Acme Supply Association. The assistant was therefore the last to get home to his supper and partner love.

In Mr. Crump’s presence, the assistant was confronted with a familiar imperative: “Well?”

The assistant handed over the packet of bills and a separate sheet listing all the numbers that might interest a man like Mr. Crump. Mr. Crump studied the figures. “No imagination whatsoever,” he huffed.

The assistant quaked, not sure whose imagination was getting pummeled by that statement. He cleared his throat and squeaked, “No?”

Mr. Crump slapped the sheet of paper down on the desk. “Fifty percent straight up and down. The limit.”

“Oh,” said the assistant. “Yes.”

Then a terrible thing happened. Mr. Crump glared straight at him. The assistant snapped to attention, feeling he just might faint, but should he do so would faint at attention, if it were at all possible.

“Has he shown any progress, that whippersnapping fog-horning showboat of a son of mine?”

“Well, yes,” the assistant said truthfully. “He showed what I think you might consider a great deal of imagination.”

“And what was that?”

“He honors your limit of fifty percent markup, Mr. Crump. He does. With all his heart. But he figured out that he could accuse the cleaning suppliers of misrepresenting the bills to make your real estate business look like it skimps on cleaning services, which could possibly hurt your reputation, and demand they add fifteen percent to the bills and then, on top of that, that they send him ten percent of that as a kickback for the favor of letting them charge you five percent over their normal fees. But he came up with that idea because he figured that with a higher bill from them, tacking on the fifty percent markup limit that you imposed – which he honors, Mr. Crump, with all his heart – he would get the remuneration for his spot checks that justly – my interpretation of his sentiments – reflects his industry, skill, and of course imagination.”

Mr. Crump sat back flabbergasted. “I’ll be doggone.”

After the regular Wednesday blow-out lunch Mr. Crump held with his children, who were getting wiser in the ways of business all the time, he waited for an opportunity to speak to Little Crump alone.


“Aw, Dad.”

“I’m impressed with your performance. Furlongs and furlongs ahead of the others.”

“Yeah,” Little Crump beamed. “They’re losers.”

“Don’t go too far, Fizzy. But there’s one thing more you’re going to have to do to launch yourself in the real world.”

“Anything, Dad. Anything.”

“Get rid of the assistant.”

“Aw, Dad.” Little Crump felt a warm itchy sensation somewhere under his jacket and his shirt and his undershirt and his gold Crump medallion akin to dismay. “I don’t know how to do that. I just started.”

“I know you don’t,” Mr. Crump said. “Now’s the time for you to get a lawyer.”

“Oh boy,” exclaimed Little Crump. “Big time.”

Mr. Crump laid an affectionate arm on Little Crump’s shoulders, although Little Crump outsized Mr. Crump now. “Big time, Fizzy.”

Mr. Crump had achieved a goal that had been worrying him for a long time: how to get his lazy litter of children off their fannies and act like they were worth something. That had now been accomplished in one brilliant stroke: founding the Acme Supply Association and setting up the executive board around which those pups sat.

Another goal – and sort of just as important but not exactly quite, because Mr. Crump was, truth to tell, greedy and selfish and vain and egotistical although cleverer, slyer, and more industrious than his children – had been to find a way to slide the vast fortune he had amassed over to those good-for-nothing so-and-sos without paying any inheritance tax. They definitely weren’t worth any inheritance tax. He only sort of wanted to do this because he definitely did not want to pay any tax on the money ever, but he also sort of really wanted to keep all that money for himself, although he knew that at some point in the abstract future it was going slide away from him forever anyway and maybe all go to taxes if he didn’t do some sliding of his own his children’s way beforehand.

So Mr. Crump founded Acme Supply Association, figured his kids could take in all the supply bills and cleaning bills and maintenance bills – of which you know all about – jack up the prices no more than fifty percent because they weren’t worth any more good fortune than that, then send the bills to him and he would pay them. Which he did. Which meant his three youngest kids were able, over the years, to put a million dollars in their own pockets each. But the eldest, Fizzy, furlongs ahead of the others, managed to suck off for himself – a credit to Fizzy’s ingenuity, of which Mr. Crump had not known but was very proud – two million and then some.

However, being kind of greedy, Mr. Crump began to resent having to pay such high bills just because he invested so much more in overhead than other landlords to achieve transparency over costs, about which the other landlords couldn’t care less, and all for the sake of integrity and honesty and frugality in the provision of thorough cleaning and repair and maintenance services for his staunch tenants. So, he did what any conscientious landlord would have to do to keep peace in his soul and vitality in his business: passed the costs on to those staunch tenants. Which meant that, over time, Mr. Crump’s tenement houses became the most valuable properties in the city because they had the highest rents in the city and poor Mr. Crump’s fortunes did not decrease one whit but continued to grow and grow, and the poor man found himself back in the same dilemma that started this modest tale: very sad and worried all over again about how to get all his money – which he didn’t want to part with really – over to his deserving kids – who were a bunch of no-goods anyway – without paying any tax, while managing the most lucrative slew of apartment houses for which the tenants paid by far the highest rents in all the city.

We can take satisfaction in the knowledge that Little Crump was now set to conquer the world. But this would not be a happy ending for poor Mr. Crump except that, a man of prodigious stamina, he got another big idea. He would talk that boy right out of his pancake hair-do and into a halo. Pancakes can be turned into halos with the right kind of fizz. A presidential halo. And then, who could tell? Maybe the inheritance tax would disappear.

1 thought on “The Apprentice Learns Business

  1. Masterpiece of deadpan tonality. By never blinking, by treating the Crump empire with seeming dispassion, the author goes a lot farther to expose the outrageousness of it than many other more spluttering commentators do. Hilarious in some places.

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