Before reading this, please go to chapter one: here.
I arrive at the paper station way too early and don’t know what to do with myself. Guys, warming themselves at the Franklin stove, look up and stare, don’t even try to hide it. It's not very polite. I wish my brother would get here. Finally, one of the bigger guys walks over to introduce himself: “Think you’re some kind of big man?”
“Talking to me?” I ask, pointing to myself, but turning to look behind.
There’s no one behind me, just bales of yesterday’s papers.
“Don’t act smart, you know who I’m talking to, you with your weird black shirt.” The guy leans forward, his face almost touching mine. He’s wearing a beat-up plaid jacket (tan––not red or green like most people’s); his jeans are faded and worn at the knees. I zip up my jacket and try to move away but he pushes me backwards, across the bales, onto the floor. The other carriers laugh. I get up, dust off my pants, then Mr. Tan Jacket jumps across the bales and knocks me down again. This time I grab his arm and we tumble together onto the floorboards. He keeps pulling at my jacket and I’m afraid he’s trying to reach inside to tear my shirt. I don't understand why he's doing this.
Someone yells fight! and kids appear from outta nowhere, clapping in unison: fight-fight-fight! Me, I’m holding onto the guy tight so he can’t get in a punch. I yell, “Not fair! You’re bigger than me!” But he shouts back, “You’re big as I am. Hit me! I dare you!” So I grab him tighter, a real bear hug, and I’m praying the station manager will step in, but from over Tan Jacket’s shoulder I see Mr. Briggs looking away and smoking, like he's deaf to it all.
Then, from outside my vision, an arm grabs Mr. Tan-Jacket by the collar and yanks him aside, dropping him to the floor as easily as emptying a wastebasket. “Miller, will you please leave my brother alone?” It’s Howard and I’ve never seen him look so big, or so tough. Apparently Miller-Tan-Jacket agrees, because though he grumbles and sneers, he quickly disappears into the crowd. Howard motions for me to get up as someone yells Truck! and everyone races for the front door. I stand and Howard brushes me off, whispering into my ear: “You’re as big as Miller. Don’t let him push you around. Fight or you’ll end up a loser. It’s all about appearance.”
“Sorry,” I say, and I mean it. I’ve embarrassed Howard in front of his friends, which is bad; but still, this Miller guy is twice as big as I am––I’m sure of that.
Meanwhile, the truck’s backed over the sidewalk and stopped tight against the open door. Four or five carriers jump in and start throwing bundles of papers to others waiting below; a line forms and bundles are passed from one kid to the next; soon the bundles are stacked against the wall. The driver holds out a form for the manager to sign, then climbs back into the cab. Four kids jump into the rear of the truck as it pulls out and others run behind as it gains speed, yelling at the top of their lungs: “Jump, jump!” I don’t get it at first but then I do: the last one to jump becomes the hero!
The truck’s halfway down the block, going full-speed, and three guys have leapt off. But one remains, crouched on the back bumper, staring down at the asphalt, afraid to jump. He waits until the truck slows for a stop sign, then leaps––not as good as if he’d have done it while the truck was speeding, but good enough for applause. He bows proudly as struts down the middle of the street, back to the station: I’m the one, I’m ace-for-the-day.
Mr. Briggs has ignored it all. He’s shouting route numbers and handing out papers. Ours is route 4A. We go up for the count: one-hundred-and-three papers––four bundles plus three singles. We lug them to one of the tables and my brother shows me how to set up the bag. We start rolling and placing them inside. Neatness counts, he says, otherwise they’ll fall out. “Usually I don’t roll them here,” he explains, “makes them too bulky to fit in the bag. I wait until I get to the barbershop. But today you’ll be carrying half.” With a flip of his hand he closes up one of the bags and shoves it my way.
I eye it. It looks heavy, like it’d make riding a bike pretty tough, and sure enough, after we load it in the basket, I can’t get started without Howard’s help. But he gives me a shove and we’re off! Riding fast down Twenty-fourth Street towards our route.
I like pedaling behind my brother with some place important to go, being adult, having a job. It makes me want to whistle, but when I do Howard looks back like I’m stupid. Still, I’m really enjoying it until my front wheel gets caught in the streetcar track and I start to wobble. I slow down, splay my feet outward to keep balance and skid to a stop. A car swerves around me, honking crazily. I can hear him yelling at me through his closed windows. Howard bikes on, oblivious to my predicament and I try to pull my tire out of the track alone. But the load’s too heavy, I teeter and fall, papers fly right and left, tumbling all about me onto the pavement.
“Hey, Howard! Wait a minute!”
I tug my bike to the curb and scurry back to pick up the papers. More horns are honking now, more cars swerving, and a block south a streetcar’s moving my way. I scoop up the papers and shove them towards the curb, kicking some, grabbing others. Soon, most of them lie at the side of the street or are piled crazily near the sidewalk. I turn back one last time and watch as a green Chrysler runs over my bag.
“Crime-inetly! What’d you do now?” my brother yells from down the block.
“My tire got stuck.”
My brother pedals back to my side. “If any of them are ruined, you have to pay.”
“Sorry,” I say, and I can’t help thinking if Dad were here he’d add some comment about how stupid I am; so I’m glad it’s Howard who’s my teacher––he’ll crab but he won’t destroy. I retrieve my bag and repack the papers. Some are dirty, one or two are torn, but when I hold them up for Howard to inspect, he shrugs it off. “Give the dirty ones to the people at 7305. They’re so behind on their bills, they can’t complain.”
By time we arrive at the barbershop I’m already exhausted.
* * *
Howard introduces me to the barber, Mr. Finelli, who’s sitting in one of his chairs, waiting for business. He's got a goatee, curly hair, and he's reading a book in French––poèmes (almost like English). Finelli lets us leave our bikes at his side door in the alley and half of our papers in his shop while we deliver the first part of the route, and on cold days he lets us warm up inside. In return he gets a free paper.
“How old are you?” he asks, and when I answer thirteen, he says, “Look at least fourteen.” That’s the first time anyone’s said that so I decide I like him and I shake his hand, offering my hand first, like grown-ups do. “Ain’t you something,” he laughs. Then he reaches over and runs his fingers through my hair. “Who gave you this haircut?”
“Shoulda guessed. Get up here.” He points towards the big chair he’s just left and I turn to Howard to see if it’s okay. He shrugs.
“I don’t have any money,” I warn him, but Mr. Finelli says, “First one’s free.” I climb into the chair, he starts cutting and in no time at all I look handsome––least that’s what he tells me. I check in the mirror: could it be true?
But then I notice Howard, looking pained: “We’re gonna be late.”
We pick up our bags and I turn to thank Mr. Finelli. “Forget it,” he says. I wave good-bye and outside I ask Howard if Mr. Finelli always does that.
`“Never did it for me,” he answers. “And you should be careful who you accept favors from.”
"He's kind of a beatnik, wouldn't be surprised if he smokes reefers."
"Do I look like a talking encyclopedia? Find out for yourself."
* * *
Delivery starts on Ogden Street. There’s a Methodist church at the corner which gets no paper, then a bunch of plain wood houses, three apartment buildings and a nice brick home. Almost every house gets a paper but some have special requirements. For instance, you have to hide the brick house’s paper in the milk box because somebody’s been running off with it. The apartments require special learning, too: at one you have to go to the basement and the other two make you throw the paper up high, to second-floor porches. Which I can’t do. Still, I don’t see why Howard has to act so annoyed about my running up the stairs to deliver them. I do it cheerfully and without complaint.
Howard teaches me everything: which dogs are friendly, which are fierce; which houses give Christmas presents, and which customers don’t pay on time. At the end of the street, we turn right onto the Boulevard and he warns me about two in particular: one building filled with run-down one-room apartments, and a beautiful house with a perfect yard. “Stay away from the man who lives there,” he says.
“Just stay away from him.”
It’s a short block and we soon turn right onto Fort Street, which, like the Boulevard, has both nice houses and crummy apartments. We arrive at one in particular need of paint and Howard knocks on the door, then surprises me by opening the door himself. Inside, in a wheelchair, sits a fat lady. “Afternoon, Mrs. Gilliphan,” my brother says.
“Good afternoon to you, Howard,” the lady replies, taking the paper.
“This is my brother, Michael. He’s going to take over the route.”
“Are we gonna lose you, Howard? I’m so sorry. No one’s as nice to me as you.” “Michael will be. He’s known as a nice guy.”
“Oh, he is, is he,” says the lady, turning to look me over. She’s old, with frizzy hair, dark skin, make-up, and she’s got a feather-thing wrapped round her shoulders like she’s going to a nightclub. Of course she can’t be going anywhere because she’s also wearing pajamas and it’s 4:30 in the afternoon. Her shoes are old and tight and make her feet look bloated. When she smiles it's as if she thinks you’re looking at her because she’s pretty and it makes me uncomfortable when she winks at Howard: “We’ll just see if he’s as nice as you.” She motions at the stove. “Can I fix you some tea?”
Howard answers, “No, thank you, ma’am, we’re late already,” and I feel her eyes following us all the way to the next house.
“Don’t let her scare you," Howard tells me, "she’s okay. But she’s lonely and if you’re not careful she’ll take up all your time, telling stories.”
“How she used to be a singer. Says she was a star.”
“I don’t believe it. She gives me the willies.”
“Well, be nice to her.”
“I will, but do I have to ring the bell and give her the paper?”
“Yup. She can’t get out of her wheelchair so you have to hand it to her. Clarence, Cliff, me––we’ve all done it, it’s no big deal.”
We finish Fort Street, turn right through the alley and find ourselves back at the barber’s. Mr. Finelli’s got a customer so he just nods and keeps on cutting. Howard and me warm up by his stove and then Howard tells me to pick up the rest of our papers and we’re off for the second half of the route. It’s neat to be the one carrying the bag.
We start down Twenty-fourth Street, covering both sides by crisscrossing back-and-forth. It’s a nice block, with one house bigger than the rest. Howard tells me to throw the paper all the way to its porch from the sidewalk and I try but fail. It lands short, in the bushes. I don’t care. I drop the bag, run up the walk, swoop down and pick it up, and still running towards the house, throw it at the door. Just then the door opens and I recognize her immediately: Judy Forneau. She takes one look at me, screams, and slams the door. I hurry back to Howard and pick up the bag.
“That’s the Forneau house,” Howard says.
“Judy Forneau’s house.”
“Yeah. Why? You like her?”
“Course not!” I hit him with a paper and he hits me back, harder.
We cross the street, my brother lobs a paper onto a porch and it lands right in the center of the welcome mat. As for me, I’m keeping my head turned away from Judy’s; I don’t want her looking at me and I don’t want to have to look at her. At the corner we turn right onto Ellison. My brother’s yakking on and on about the customers and though I’m supposed to be memorizing the route, I can’t stop thinking of Judy and how I don’t want to see her again, ever. When he notices I’m not listening, he barks, “Pay attention.”
Ellison's a short block, eight houses, small yards. At the corner we cut through a backyard and head down the Boulevard to where we’d left it on Ogden. Then back up the other side and we’re done. “Not too hard, huh,” says Howard, and we run back to the barbershop where we’ve left our bikes. We ride home along the Boulevard and on the way we spot Dwayne-Bob Drexel, the only guy I can sort of claim as a friend.
“Hey, Dwayne-Bob!” I yell. “Guess what I’m doing!” He canters over, picking up a pinecone and a stick, never losing his gait. “I’m taking over Howard’s paper route!”
“Big deal,” he says, as he throws the pinecone into the air, batting it across the street with the stick. Then he stares at us, his bad eye gone awry, and Howard turns away. I’m used to it, his eye doesn’t bother me, not even the fact that my brother Cliff is the one who caused it. But everybody else hates Dwayne-Bob because of it and for lots of other reasons as well. Of course, that’s how we ended up as friends: nobody wants either of us. That and the fact our parents are close so we’re brought together all the time, whether he likes it or not. Still, I think the getting paper route impresses him because he asks: “Want to stay over?” and I look at Howard for permission.
“Don’t ask me,” he says. “Call Mom.”
Howard bikes on home while I follow Dwayne-Bob into his house and telephone Mom. I don’t tell her Dwayne-Bob’s parents are going out, so she says okay.
* * *
Dwayne-Bob’s sister Rhonda plays the marimba and will let you see her breasts for two cigarettes. At least, that’s what one of Cliff’s friends told me; he said, go ahead and ask. Me, I’ve never had two cigarettes but it doesn’t matter because I’m not sure I want to see them. She’s almost seventeen, big and tough. Nothing like Molly. Molly’s soft and sweet and blurry-looking, while Rhonda’s tall, bulky, and hard like concrete.
When Dwayne-Bob and Rhonda finish playing Ebb-Tide and I don’t want to hear Walk Through a Storm a third time, I suggest we play Scrabble and Dwayne-Bob says sure, but only after we've had dinner. And it turns out, Rhonda can cook!
Sitting around the table, she throws pancake after pancake onto our plates. And sausages. And pickled green beans my mom gave them, from our garden. Rhonda suggests adding applesauce and we agree that’s a good addition. Rhonda and I use separate bowls but Dwayne-Bob lops a dollop on top his pancakes––syrup, butter and all. For dessert we decide to make root beer floats and when Dwayne-Bob opens the bottle, the pop shoots everywhere, including all over Rhonda. She goes up to her room and comes back wearing a baseball jersey as pajamas, material so thin you can make out every part of her; and when she laughs or burps (which she does more than is ladylike) everything bounces, which is so upsetting I almost lose the game.
Later that night, lying in bed next to him, I repeat The Lord’s Prayer. (Dwayne-Bob: “What you whispering about?”) But I must not have prayed long enough or well enough because I have one of my nightmares, only this time the guy who does the killing is wearing spring-shoes and bouncing around the paper station, wielding a baseball bat.
* * *
On Friday, though I try not to, I again get to the station before Howard and run smack into Miller-Tan-Jacket outside the building. We freeze, our eyes lock, and in my head I hear the warning Howard gave me yesterday; so though it scares me, I glare back. Luckily, Miller doesn’t get up, just sits there, perched on the fire hydrant, smoking. At long last Howard arrives. He grabs me around the neck and, joke-choking me like he often does, pulls me into the station. He smirks, “Making friends with the other carriers?
* * *
Saturday. Howard’s sick, got a fever and throwing up. Mom wants to know can I do the route by myself? So I work with Howard to draw a map with squares for houses and numbers for how many papers each one gets. “Even you can do it,” Howard says. “It’s the smallest paper of the week, whole route fits in half a bag.”
I start out but have to come back: forgot to urinate. Then I’m off again but have to return for the bag. On my way to the station I ride past Dwayne-Bob’s to tell him what I’m doing but he’s not there and I remind myself what my principal said: being a grown-up means doing the difficult thing when no one’s there to see you do it. But stupid me, I forgot about Miller! It’s also stupid to speak loudly when I tell Mr. Briggs that Howard’s sick but don’t worry I can manage. I show him my map, turn, and run straight into Miller’s chest. Miller takes the map from my hand, wads it into a ball and drops it onto the floor. Then someone yells, “Truuuck!” as I back away from Miller, smack into the rear bumper of the arriving paper truck. What to do?
I jump in and start throwing bundles to the guys waiting below––thank goodness the bundles are small. When Miller tries to climb into the truck, I throw a bundle into his chest so he has to catch it and from then on every time he makes a move towards me, I throw another. Each time, I smile like I don’t realize what’s going on and it works so well I don’t notice that the truck has been emptied and everyone’s jumped out. Miller’s waiting for me to get down as I hear the engine turn over.
The truck pulls away from the station, kids are waiting for me to jump, but the truck’s gaining speed––and Miller can beat me up, I just know it. I feel the truck slow for the stop sign but still don’t jump because I’m too scared. It starts up again and I look out to see, way back at the station, the other carriers out on the street, yelling. The truck’s accelerating and I’m waiting for the stop sign when I realize there’s not another for ten blocks. I try to get the attention of the driver but there’s no window into the cab and though I yell, he doesn’t hear me. We’re moving really fast now but there’s no choice: I go to the side closest to the sidewalk, take a deep breath and jump!
Most of me lands on the grass between the street and the sidewalk, but that does not include my knee, which hits a fire hydrant. It’s torn, bleeding, and blood's oozing through a huge new hole in my jeans. I’m howling with pain, holding my leg tight against my chest to make it stop hurting as the first guys arrive at my side.
“Wow!” they’re yelling. “Way to go! You're good."
* * *
Early the next morning I push the pillow aside and listen to my parents in their bed in the next room: “What do you mean, his bike’s at the station?” my dad asks.
“He had to leave it there. He couldn’t ride. Didn’t you see his leg?” Mom answers. “We’re lucky he didn’t break it.”
“Well, what was he doing on the truck so far from the station?”
“He got confused. You know Michael, he's always in another world.”
I reach beneath the covers to touch the gauze Mom used to replace the bloody Band-Aids. It’s 3:30 a.m., Howard’s still sick, and I have to deliver the papers with Dad.
“You be nice,” Mom coaxes him. “He’s not ready to take over the route and his knee’s pretty bad.”
“You baby him.”
“Just do as I say. Please.”
On the way to the station Dad lectures me: I shouldn’t have been on the truck in the first place, should’ve waited for it to stop before jumping, should’ve acted more grown-up. I look at his face, lit by the glow of the dash: why can’t you like me? But what I say is, “Sorry.” And for insurance I change the subject––to the real hero of the family.
"When’s Clarence coming home from college?”
“The twenty-first of May and he'll be here till September third. Why?” he asks, turning towards me, smiling––he's happy now.
“Just wondered. It’s always more fun when he’s home.” We drive on through the deserted streets. “Dad, how was it Clarence got the paper route in the first place?”
“Like he does everything: got the notion and didn’t let anything stop him.” Dad turns and looks at me: “That’s something you could learn: stick-to-itiveness.”
We continue, block after block, house after house, windows dark, everyone asleep. But the darkness, my knee, my not being a hero, and Clarence––all these things make me think of Hubie. So I ask, “Tell me about the funeral, again. The polio funeral.”
“Why do you want to hear about that?” he scowls, as he slows for a red light.
“Come on,” I coax, because I know Dad loves to tell stories and I love this one.
“It’s not much of a story,” he complains, but it’s obvious he wants to tell it.
The light turns green and the car moves forward.
“It was 1948,” he starts out, “year of the epidemic, a week before your brother contacted it. You were four, maybe five. I was getting dressed for work when Cliff came running into the bedroom saying a man was pacing back-and-forth in front of the house, crying. Outside I found Chuck Renston walking in circles, holding his head and sobbing. Polio had hit his family, like so many others: one day everything’s fine, next day your kid’s sick, and by evening he’s crippled. Or worse: dead. That’s how it was in their case. And for your principal, too––he lost a son.”
“I know, I know. Go on.”
Dad takes a deep breath. He really loves to tell this story.
“Well, you know the Renstons, no church for them, and if you’ve got no church where do you hold a funeral? Renston says to me, ‘We don’t subscribe to no religion, but," and he could barely say it out loud, "but we need our son buried proper. Will you help?’ So I ask, ‘What do you expect me to do?’ And he says: ‘You’re the scout leader, scouting meant so much to Hubert. Please. Please give my son a Cub Scout Funeral.’
“So I did. Got all the scouts I could find, a double line outside the mortuary, in full uniform, with Explorer Scouts to carry the coffin––cubs wouldn’t have been strong enough––and we gave Hubie Renston a first-class Cub Scout Funeral. I know it made it easier for his family.” Dad lights a cigarette and while keeping his attention on the road, steals a glance at me. “I’ll never understand why you like that story so much.”
“I don’t know,” I lie. But actually, I do know: Hubie got a hero’s funeral! And I think it’s neat he had so many friends, even if Dad had to round them up. You wouldn’t carry a casket for someone you didn’t like, even if you were a scout.
But Dad’s resumed talking: “The next week,” he says––and it’s scary because his voice sounds so ghost-like, “the next week your brother started down the stairs, his legs crumpled beneath him, and he fell all the way to the first floor. I was dressing for work that morning, too. I picked Clarence up in my arms, put him in the car and rushed him to the hospital. And don’t think I wasn’t remembering what had just happened to Hubie. And that was it. Clarence didn’t leave the hospital for six months. Spent his thirteenth birthday there. And when he came out, we had to start the therapy.”
I watch my father’s face cloud over and try to not let any expression show but as we drive through the silent streets, I’m thinking: you sent me away then. To the country. To Mr. and Mrs. Courbeille. And I hadn't done anything to deserve it.
My dad pulls into the alley behind the station, looks over at me and barks, “What are you waiting for? Go get your papers!”
* * *
Getting up so early to deliver papers makes it even more difficult to stay awake through Rev. Schure's sermon. Today he's preaching Predestination and how those God chooses to go to Heaven will act right because we’ll want to; we’re that kind of people, the Chosen Ones. But what about The Others? And who are they? Still, he might be right. I know I don’t want to do anything evil to anyone––except maybe Judy Forneau, who’s stuck up there in the Children’s Choir while I’m down here in the pews with the adults.
But wait: what if Judy Forneau is one of The Others? When she dies, will she go to Hell and get tortured and burned or whatever they do to the non-Chosen? In Breugel’s Famous Masterpieces there are paintings about that, people doing things they shouldn't and getting tortured for doing them. Still, it's not fair if God creates people able to make mistakes, then sends them to Hell for doing so. He could just as easily create them so they wouldn't want to do things wrong; then everyone could go to heaven. Of course, Heaven never sounded so great to me, anyway: milk and honey, milk and honey, all the time, same thing over and over, with nothing to do––because God does it all for you. Me, I'd be so bored. I'd want something to do. Like: be a hero. Of the church, even.
Couple of Sundays ago I had nothing to do after choir and Mom and Dad were acting neighborly in Coffee-and-Catch-Up, so I went and drew on the blackboard in the Primary Department. I made a picture of clouds and sunbeams and in the center a stone cross with the words: “Here I am. Send me.” I drew the letters Bible-like, with curlicues, and it was so beautiful I wanted some adult to discover my drawing and recognize me as a person with a calling: a hero of the church! Then Judy Forneau would have to take back the bad thing she said and Dad would have to think good things about me.
But what's Rev. Schure saying now? That we “should live in such a way we can be proud of our actions at the moment we die?” What does he know about death? He says Jesus came back from the dead, and I don't want to doubt him but I find that scary. And how does he even know we die? Has he ever been dead?
Perhaps we actually live in various zones, like channels on a TV, and in each zone we think ‘everyone lives so many years, then dies.’ But each time we think we die, we just switch channels to one where people live longer, to seventy, eighty, or even ninety! And it's all done so well we never get wise and it goes on and on like that forever. And people who are sick in one zone? They get healed in the next! Multiple dimensions, multiple lives. Perhaps on some other channel, Hubie Renston has become an Explorer Scout and is on his way to col...
Mom elbows me in the side: "You're mumbling again, Michael. Quit it."