Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Boy Who Drew Dirty | Part One: A Paperboy Hero | Chapter One

            In the winter of 1956 I got the two things I most wanted in life: a Scrabble game and hair around my peeper. I also got my paper route. Look at me: there I sit at the dining room table, drawing mazes. I hear noises at the side door, galoshes on the stairs, then Father enters the room. I cover my work and jump to attention. “Wheres your mother?” he demands, impatiently jangling the keys in his pocket.
            Up here, Im coming!” Mom hollers, and we listen as her high heels tap on the floor above, as she scurries from bedroom to bath, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, finally down the stairs. “Im ready.” She wears a brown hat, brown shoes, brown suit. With one hand she flattens the hats netting over her forehead; with the other she hands me a brown paper bag. “Happy birthday,” she says, as she nudges my father, who obliges her by adding, “Yes, Michael, happy birthday.” Then Father smiles. Everyone says he has the greatest smile and he does, even when forced. “Its what you wanted most,” Mom adds.
            Of course, I already know that. Ive been careful to mention nothing else for fear of confusing them and Ive searched high in the closet, behind the shotgun, where theyve always hidden presents. As usual I fake surprise: “Scrabble! Just-what-I-wanted-I-can-hardly-believe-it.” Moms expression shows she knows Im faking; shes caught me snooping so many times. “Were glad you like it,” she says, flatly. Then, looking me in the eye and speaking slowly to prove shes in earnest, “…and were sorry we cant spend the evening with you.”
            “But to get there on time, we have to leave now,” my father interrupts.  
            Mom and Dad are going to the Blue-and-Gold Banquet, the most important thing that ever happens in North Omaha. Its the night the Scouts, churches, and schools get together to give awards to everyone whos done stuff for the neighborhood. My parents are always doing stuff for the neighborhood. Moms been den leader and PTA vice-president, she's headed the paper drive, taught Sunday School, and substituted for choir director. Dads been Scout Master, President of the PTA, superintendent of the Sunday School and Deacon, he goes to all the Camporees, and he even started the first Negro Scout troop in town.
            So they have to go. My birthday or not. 
            Besides, Im not hurt. I have always appreciated the chance to be in a house alone. I listen as the car backs out the driveway and when Im certain theyre gone, I relax. Still, its unwise to get comfortable too fast. Parents can return home without warning, surprising kids in problematic positions. So I bide my time. By opening the Scrabble set. 
            The box is maroon with a leatherette finish that looks and feels like genuine leather, and the tiles and holders are made of wood, not cardboard; its obvious this game was made for adults. And thats just part of its appeal. The other is, its a game I can win. I never win at anything else, not baseball, cards, tumbling, nothing. But I know all sorts of words other kids dont and if I can just get someone to play with me, Im sure I can beat them. I tear open the cellophane, spill the tiles onto the table and fill the holder. Each player gets part seven tiles to spell words and I already see one forming: s-n-a-k-e. Then, searching for a ‘dand doffing the ‘s, I rearrange the letters to make the word: n-a-k-e-d. And why not? No ones gonna surprise me by returning home now.
            I run up the stairs to my room, dropping my shirt along the way. Hopping on one foot, I pull the shoe and sock off the other and push down my jeans and shorts. My pant-leg catches on the shoe I havent yet removed and I fall at the side of my bed; then I pull off the other shoe and sock and Im naked. Crawling across the floor to the chest-of-drawers, I snake my arm beneath it and pull out Dads magnifying glass. Months ago I stole it from his stamp collection and hid it there; sneaking each time it was needed would be dangerous. Magnifying glass in hand, I run back down the stairs.
            In our living room weve got a scratchy old sofa, uncomfortable against bare skin, but I use it because, hanging from the wall, theres an adjustable lamp which not only pivots left and right but goes up and down as well––making it an excellent tool for my investigation. Sitting on the arm of the couch and pulling the lamp down into my crotch I can light the area, and using Dads magnifying glass I can discover things that might otherwise go unnoticed. Like hair. My brother Clarence would call it incipient hair. First time I heard him use that word I looked it up (adding it to my notebook of 100 Erudite Words). Problem is, to this date, Ive found nothing––just pale white skin and my smelly peeper. But today I place the magnifying glass between my legs and there they are: three incipient hairs, so blond they're almost transparent, but still, they count. I get so excited I burn my stomach with the lamp and at the same time I hear the side-door open. Quick! Pushing the lamp back into reading position, I shove Dads magnifying glass behind the cushion and run for the stairs.
            Not fast enough.
            My brother Howard catches me. “What do you think youre doing, rat-boy? And what are youre doing down here naked?”
            I turn on the landing, halfway up the stairs, hand covering my peeper: “I-was-taking-a-bath-when-the-phone-rang-but-by-time-I-got-down-here-it-was-too-late-theyd-hung-up.
            “If you were taking a bath, you crazy little invert, why arent you wet?
            “I hadnt gotten in the water yet.”
            Well,” he smirks, “wouldnt want the water to get cold, would you.” He rolls his eyes. “You are such a clown,” he complains, as he throws me my shirt (which Id dropped at the bottom of the landing).
            I start back up the stairs. “Hey, creep,” he stops me. "Like to take over my route?”
            I freeze. Paper route? Then turn. “What do you mean?”
            “I mean, lover boy, I mean that your talented brother, your handsomest brother, has been picked for the team. They need me bad and Ive decided to help them out. But practice is same time as delivery.” Howards standing at the base of the stairs, hands on his hips, plaid jacket, rolled-up jeans, sure of himself as always. I hate that about him. 
            “Would Mom let me?” I ask.
            “Of course shed let you,” he scoffs, "...if I put in a good word for you.” He smirks again. “So, whatcha think?  Or do you ever think?” I ignore this defamation of my character. Howard always talks like this; no one pays attention.
            “Do you think Im big enough?”
            “Dimwit, of course youre big enough. Now, whether youre smart enough…”
            Im covering myself with my shirt, right hand double-covering my peeper, Im turning thirteen at 11:14 p.m. and Ive got hair starting to grow down there. Now, to top it all off, Im going to get the paper route. As I turn to start up the stairs, I hear my brother sing out: “Short-stop! Gonna play short-stop and gonna be the star!"
            “Hey,” I say, turning back. “Wanna play some Scrabble? I got a set for my birthday.”
            “Not right now,” he answers. “Maybe later.”

*     *     *

            I lock myself in the bathroom, start the water and turn toward the mirror: bony chest, scrawny legs, arms too thin for short sleeves––am I strong enough? Newspapers can get heavy! I flex my muscles: bigger than last year, so maybe. On to other parts: nose, chin, face. Dad says Clarence got all the good looks in the family but at least I dont have pimples. I get out a comb and try to make my hair lie flat; but it never does. Hey, if I get the route Ill be able to afford barber haircuts and wont have to put up with Moms scalping anymore! At least, thats what happened when my brothers got it.
            See, my familys had this route forever, over six years; we own it. First my oldest brother Clarence got it­­; people said he wouldnt be able to handle it with just one good leg but he did fine, always does. Then Cliff got it, but he didnt last long. Finally Howard claimed it and I figured hed keep it through high school and Id never get the chance, but here I am thirteen and its gonna be mine already.
            I plop into my bath and soak, adrift on a Sea of Possibility (as my principal would call it). My peeper sticks up out of the water like Krakatoa, the island volcano in my favorite book, The Twenty-One Balloons. I imagine incipient palm trees growing around its shores and I get the desire to pee straight up, like Krakatoa blowing its top. But I refrain.
            Then Im putting on my pajamas, deciding whether to read or draw, when Howard calls out, “Hey, little brother, want some pancakes?” and I go downstairs to find the kitchen dark. Howards made a stack of pancakes and stuck a dinky little birthday candle on top. It looks stupid, shining all alone, reflected in the syrup, but I like it. “Happy birthday, you puny little swine,” he says and he hands me a present wrapped in notebook paper, bound with rubber bands. Inside: his paper punch. “Youll need it for collecting money on the route,” he explains. Then, using two fingers, he snubs out the candle, throws it in the sink and flicks on the light.
            After we eat I ask again if he wants to play Scrabble but he repeats not right now so I return to bed, where I draw my specialty: three-eyed cars (extra headlamp in the center of the hood). I use my new punch to fit them into the proper notebook. To date Ive got nine notebooks, each with a different collection: Three-Eyed Cars, Maps of Outer Worlds, Cave and Fort Designs, Volcanoes, Mazes––that kind of thing. Theyre part of my Hundred Notebooks Project, each one a collection of exactly one-hundred drawings, labeled, numbered, and arranged alphabetically. And no matter what my dad says, I think they're neat; a unique accomplishment, as my principal would say. 
             I fall asleep with the light on. At some point during the night I hear Cliff come in, and later my parents. Mom and Dad make so much noise I go downstairs to investigate. Theyre carrying a giant mirror with beveled edges, decorated with etched pinecones. The mirror is a reward for being named the Blue-and-Gold Volunteer Couple-of-the-Year and Dad says its gonna look really neat over our fireplace.

 *    *    *

            Next morning, Saturday, Mom says I should go to the paper station to talk to the manager about taking over the route. “But not in that shirt,” she adds, pointing a finger at me. Howard smirks, but I refuse to pay attention because his taste in clothing is ordinary.
            Instead, I demand, “Whats wrong with my shirt?"
            “Whats wrong with that shirt is its uppity,” Mom says, turning to the stove.
            “But Uncle Charlie gave it to me,” I complain. Uncle Charlie is an artist who lives in Chicago, hes sophisticated and so is the shirt: a black turtleneck, like a beatnik would wear. I've only been allowed to meet him once because spends much of his time in hospitals; hes a manic-depressive. "I like this shirt," I insist. "Its different.”
            “Too different,” my mother insists, putting my eggs in front of me. “And theres never a reason to look different––unless you're thinking youre better than others...”
            “Wear plaid,” Howard interrupts, slapping Grandmas apple butter across a piece of toast. “Everybody does. Youll fit in fine.”
            I start in on my eggs and Im reaching for toast when my brother Cliff glides through the room, grabs the toast from my hands and disappears into the basement where he keeps his snakes. Since he turned seventeen, Mom complains she cant do a thing with him. Then Dad comes in, still dressing: “Got to hurry or Ill miss the trolley." Mom puts down the spatula, straightens his tie and tells him, “I need you to take some food to church this afternoon and Michael needs you to take him to the paper station to get Mr. Briggs okay about the route.”
            My dad looks at me. “Not in that shirt.”
            “No,” my mother assures him, “not in that shirt. Ill make certain he changes. But get going!” He tries to kiss her but she turns away. He puts a hand on each hip as if hes gonna complain, then says nothing. He slams the door on his way out.

*     *     *

            Dad returns a little after one––Saturdays he works only half-days––and we load up the Plymouth. Yesterday Mom prepared Jell-O salads and let them set just enough to prevent the fruits and celery from sinking to the bottom when stirring them in. This morning she added her secret white stuff and let me decorate them with Mandarin slices from a can. Grown-ups like both of her salads, kids hate the one with celery, those of us in the family have to eat both. In the car Dad tells me to pay attention to the dishes sitting in the back seat, Im supposed to make certain they dont slide off. When he catches me looking out the window, he complains, “Cant you do anything right?”
            Arriving at church, he sends me up the sidewalk to block the door open with a stone. On my return to the car I almost slip––a little ice remains though its been thawing for a week; buds have appeared and waters running along the curb, above us the sky is blue and clear as a marble. But right now Id better pay attention to what Im carrying and stop gawking––or so Dad nags. We enter the church through the Gymnasium, where a basketball game is about to begin. There are fathers present and kids choosing up sides.
            “Hey, Pozner! Well take you.” 
            No one ever chooses me unless I'm the only one left but Peter Toledos captain, the kind whod lose a game just to make someone feel good. I shrug (careful not to drop the Jell-O) and start to respond, but Dad answers for me: “You dont want my son,” he says. “He cant even catch a ball, let alone dribble.”
            And suddenly it's as if the whole world stops. Kids' mouths drop open, fathers stop their conversations and turn. “Pick someone else,” he advises, with a smirk. For a second Im scared Im gonna cry. My face turns red, I get hot all over, but somehow I maintain. Forcing a smile, I continue into the kitchen but as I do I notice everyones still staring at Dad. He tries to get a smile from the referee, the other fathers, even Peter Toledo, but everyone turns away.
            Im going to kill you, I think, as I lay the Jell-O on the counter. Im going to shoot you with the shotgun, going to come into the bedroom and youll be sitting there, head in hands, moping because youre started a fight with Mom and tried to blame it on us boys and it hasnt worked, and Im going to tiptoe into your closet, get down the gun and shoot you through the top of your ugly, fat head.
            In the kitchen, Mrs. Turner and others are preparing an after-funeral dinner. Shes heard nothing; shes happy to see my father. “Wayne Pozner, youre so sweet to bring these, but Lordy! how many trays have you got? Helen mustve worked all night. Wait, you two were getting that award–-and everyone agrees: no one deserved it more. Turning towards me, she lifts my chin with her moist fingers and smiles into my face. “And how are you, Michael?” Hands on her hips, she looks me over. “Youre so skinny! And you look a little peeked. Feeling okay?” She pulls a carrot stick out of a bowl of ice and shoves it into my mouth. “Let me take your temperature,” she laughs, then spins me around and smacks me on the butt. Afterwards, Dad and I leave, but not by way of the gym. Instead, he leads me the long way, past the choir loft, through the empty sanctuary.

*     *     *

            We drive in silence to the paper station. Im thinking: its not my fault I cant play ball, it's not like he'd ever teach me. He never plays ball like other fathers. Only way I could get any practice is to go to Linda Tremaines; her father likes to help. He put up a basketball hoop and doesnt even have a son. Still, I cant be going over there all the time: too many girls, everyone would call me a sissy. Not that I care. Id rather draw. By myself. 
            My dad coughs (supposed to stop smoking) and I realize Id better patch up things before its too late. Dads no good at making up; someone always has to do it for him. Not that I want to––Ill hate him till I die––but if were not speaking by time we reach the station he wont put in a good word for me and I wont get the route. Still, I want to make him pay for what hes done so I slouch way down in the seat, something I know he hates. “Will you please sit up,” he growls.
            Dad parks back of the station. Boys are milling around, drinking cokes, smoking, playing mumbly-peg with a knife. They turn silent as we pass and I stare at the ground because I know they think I shouldnt be here with a parent. But in our family parents help, whether you want them to or not.
            Upon hearing my dads voice, the station manager jumps up, smiling, and offers his hand. In turn, Dad offers him a cigarette and the two talk sports while I stand silent, looking around the room. The stations a storefront with sawdust-covered floors, a desk for the manager, a Franklin stove, and high tables used by the carriers to count and roll their papers. Ive been here before but never paid much attention; today I memorize it all. When I get home Ill draw blueprints of it from memory. Im good at drawing blueprints. 
            “Think you can handle it?” Mr. Briggs asks, pulling me close, squeezing my shoulders and arms, lifting my shirt, thumping my chest. Adults always do things like this but what can you do? “If Clarence could manage on one leg,” Mr. Briggs starts out (his eyes shift quickly to Dad, who smiles, so I guess its okay to have said that), “you can, too. Even with those skinny arms. And watch: theyre gonna fill out fast! Tell you what,” he points to a bale of newspapers at the far side of the room, “bring that to me.” At first Im afraid I cant lift it, but using everything Ive got, I heave the bale onto the table. “Guess youve got the job,” he says. Then he frowns. “You can add and subtract…” I nod my head. “Well, then, soon as youve learned the route, its yours. And dont worry, youre gonna have no trouble.”  
            I like Mr. Briggs. 
            Dad and I say good-bye, make our way through the boys in the back alley (they sneer at me when Dads not looking) and we start home.

*     *     *

            In the car, Dad actually tries to make up, flashes his biggest smile and says, “So, finally, youre gonna become a real paperboy.” And we both know what he means. 
            Ever since I was a little kid all Ive wanted to do is draw, even before I realized the significance of my middle name: Michael Drew Pozner. Anyway, Dad thinks he knows all about me and my drawing but he doesnt. (And hed better not find out.) What he does know is when I was six and came back from living with my grandparents, he and I didnt get along. I was afraid of him and would refuse to answer, no matter what he said or did. My dads a draftsman for the railroad, they use lots of forms in his office and sometimes a mistake gets made and they throw them out. One day Dad brought home an enormous stack of them for me to draw on their backsides. It was more than anyone could use in a thousand years, the best present ever because it meant I could draw as much as I wanted. People say it was then I started talking to him again, that he started bringing me paper every week and began calling me his little paperboy. Soon all the relatives were calling me that and some still do, though thank goodness, the ‘littlehas been dropped. Now, whenever Dad calls me ‘paperboywere supposed to stop fighting, Im supposed to smile, and hes supposed to stop grouching––it's the kind of rule never written down but everybody knows.
            Only its not gonna work today. Today Im gonna make him pay.
            Heres what I do: I turn and give him a big grin so he thinks Im gonna forgive and when he starts to relax, I hold the smile a little too long and through my teeth I say, “Yes, Father,” with all the hate I can muster. Then I stare straight ahead. He despises that but whats he gonna accuse me of? And that makes me happy because this time I figure Ive won good. But today he pulls out a trick of his own: “When I sat down on the sofa last night I broke my magnifying glass, which someone had hidden under the cushion. From your first earnings on the paper route, I think youd best buy me a new one.”

                                                            *     *     *

            My familys gathered in the kitchen: my oldest brother Clarence stands opposite the sink talking to Dad, my brothers Howard and Cliff perch on stools at the breakfast bar, and Moms at the stove. Me, Im standing behind Howard and Cliff, waiting for whatevers gonna happen next. Which doesnt take long. We hear the buzzing of a plane outside the window, far in the distance but approaching fast. Its one of those fighter planes used in World War II; you see them all the time in old movies on TV. The sky the plane flies through is blue, winter-clean, but the plane leaves a nasty gray gash, a smoke trail behind it, as it banks, levels off, then zeroes in for our kitchen window. From where were standing each of us can clearly read its machinegun mount. Howard and Cliff jump to their feet, knocking over their stools, which, in slow motion, fall to the floor, noiselessly bouncing again and again and again, as if theyre made of rubber.
            The first person to get killed is my dad. The rat-a-tat-tat and his death are one. Im not sure the window has even shattered before he cries out and falls to the floor. Next, Clarence gets it. For a second the brace on his bad leg holds him upright but he soon falls inward towards the center of the room––as my mother, then Cliff, then Howard, grasp their chests, grimace, and fall together in a pile. Blood is splattered on the walls, the breakfast bar is a mess, the linoleum floor a bright, shiny red. My mother's hand still grasps a box of wax paper but the paper (which has unrolled) is pocked with blood. 
            Outside, the plane continues roaring towards our window, so near it must bank tightly to avoid crashing into the house itself. He comes so close that were it not for his goggles wed be able to make out the identity of our aviator through the windshield of his cockpit. I listen as the plane turns away and resumes the long curve I know will bring it back for its final target: me. And yet I cant move, my feet are suction-cupped to the floor, I can only stare out the window and cry. The plane, now a half-mile from the house, levels off and with propellers screaming, wings burning, returns for the kill. I stand frozen, preparing for bullets to rip through my T-shirt, my jeans, my body––when suddenly, all about me my family is standing again in the exact positions theyd assumed before death. And I move aside slowly and watch it all happen again: first Dad, then Clarence, then Mom, Cliff, and Howard. And as before, at the last second I am spared. And the plane flips upwards and over, destined to repeat these same maneuvers forever.

*     *     *

           I try to scream but cant. So my father, from the next room, yells for me: “Youre going to wake the whole neighborhood!” Here in bed, my body and brain fight to waken as I listen to the noises of Dad and Howard rising to deliver the Sunday paper. Its dark, three-thirty a.m., the time they always leave, and how will I ever get up that early? But I dont have to worry about that yet. I fall back into my pillow and sleep.

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