Before reading this, please go to chapter one: here.
“You think no one would ever cheat you,” Howard’s telling me, “but that’s your trouble, you trust people too much.”
“That’s not true.”
“Don’t interrupt, just pay attention.”
It’s Wednesday night, just finished delivery, and we’ve started the most exciting part of having a route: collecting the money. Howard pulls four paper punches from his pouch. “This one is heart-shaped,” he says. “We’re using it this week. Next week we’ll use the diamond.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Will you listen? For every customer there are two cards, one for his home and one for you.” He holds up a ring of 4” x 6” manila cards. “Each time they pay, you punch a hole in both at once. People who want to cheat get their own punch and make holes themselves. Then they say you forgot to punch yours, as if you made some kind of mistake or were trying to cheat.”
“No one would cheat a paperboy.”
“Stop interrupting and listen.” He makes a punch in a blank card. “See, the heart's for tonight. Last week I used a club, next week a diamond, week-after it’ll be spades. Customers never know which so if they’ve cheated, you can say, sorry, sir, that’s not the one I used that week, show them the other cards, and they have to back down.”
“Nifty, I get it! They’d better not try to cheat me," I laugh. My brother gives me a look like he thinks they’ll not only try but succeed, but I ignore him.
“We’ll start here. Listen, watch, and don’t talk. You need to learn technique.”
“But,” I ask, as we climb the stairs, “have you ever had to make someone back down?” Before Howard can answer, the porch light goes on and the door opens.
“That time again?” The customer reaches for his card––which, like most people, he keeps stuck under the woodwork by the door––then pulls out his wallet.
“Yes, sir. Thirty-five cents. A dollar-forty if you want to pay the whole month.”
“How ‘bouts I give you a dollar-fifty and you keep the change, only you promise to put the paper in the box so it won’t get wet.” The customer’s face tells me his paper has gotten wet but it’s the extra money that gets my attention. Howard smiles politely, places the customer’s card on top of his and punches through the two of them, completely business-like and as if the extra dime’s no big deal. “Thank you, sir,” he says, and as we start down the stairs the customer calls to Howard, “Who’s the friend?”
“Just my brother, learning the route because I’m going to play...”
The man interrupts. “You got polio, too?” he asks me.
“No,” I answer. “I’m just limping for now, not forever.”
The customer nods. “That’s good,” he says, and he watches as we walk away. I wave good-bye and he smiles. I like our customers.
The next house has a large oval window in the front door and Howard whispers: “See what I see?” Dotty Jorgenson smooching with some guy. They’re hugging and he has his hand in a place he shouldn't, so I look away. But Howard grins, “Watch this,” as he punches the doorbell. Dottie and the guy jump in the air; then she runs down the hall. The guy pushes his face against the glass and yells, “Come back when her parents are home, you...” Then he uses a dirty word.
As we cross the street, Howard says, “You’re gonna see things you never saw before.”
As if he knows so much. But it’s true: a paper route can open up New Worlds, as my principal would say.
On the Boulevard we walk up to the perfect house with the perfect lawn and when a man comes to the door, I recognize him: the artist who visited our class on Career Day. And he remembers me, too. He says, “You’re that talent!” Then asks, “Would you young men care to come in for a frosty Coke?” But instead of accepting, Howard frowns and says, “No, thank you, sir. We have to hurry.” We collect the money, leave, and few steps from the house Howard growls, “How do you know him?”
“He spoke to my class on Career Day. He liked my drawing.”
“Well, stay away from him. Do you hear me?”
I nod my head and don’t talk back but I recognize jealousy when I see it.
Next stop is a dark, scary apartment house in need of almost every kind of repair. “I hate this place,” Howard shudders, as he opens the screen door and trudges down the steps into the basement. Because of my knee I have to use the banister, which is made from an old pipe, filthy and sticky, with what I don’t know. At the bottom we enter a dark, creepy hallway, lit by a single bare bulb, with numbered doors on each side. Howard knocks on one of them and we hear a shuffling of feet. When it opens there’s an old man, bald and stooped, wearing nothing but underpants. Skin hangs from his pale chest and arms like one of Grandma’s plucked chickens. His room smells and I hear a cat but can’t locate it. Howard flips the guy’s card over to where he’s previously written ‘35¢.’ The guy squints, then creeps slowly to his unmade bed and reaches under the mattress. Peeling a dollar from a wad of ones, he returns and stands with arms wrapped around his chest, shivering. No words are said, everything’s done in gestures, and when we’re finished he stares like he’s forgotten what’s happening. Howard pulls the door shut and we walk, then run, up the stairs into the fresh night air. But as we hurry on, I wonder: what does he eat, does he have relatives, and just how lonely is he?
As we turn onto Fort Street, Howard lets out a yell: “Hey, Pritchard! How you doing?” And I look down the street to see a bunch of kids coming towards us––the ones I lied to in the park last week after choir. My brother runs to meet them but I hang back. I can hear them talking about baseball––Howard’s telling them how we’re gonna be the champions while their team’s a bunch of losers––and they’re joking and laughing until one of them recognizes me: “Hey, there’s your phony brother!”
“Who you calling a phony?” Howard growls and he grabs the guy by the jacket. So another kid yells out, "It’s true! We saw him last week, faking a bum leg.” Then they tell Howard how I told them I’d hurt myself––but Howard defends me: “Come here, Michael!” And he pulls up my pant leg. “Undo the gauze.” I hold my knee up to the streetlight and they cringe at the huge, crusty scab. Howard spits, then says, “My brother––who you call a phony––got that jumping off a truck going sixty miles an hour. None of you would have the guts to do that.” Then he turns and walks away. He’s so great at that kind of thing. “Come on, little brother,” he yells, and he spits again. “We’re not wasting our time with hoodlums.” I roll down my pant leg and hobble after him. One guy shouts, “So why’d you tell us you hurt it playing basketball?” Howard’s too far away to hear, which is lucky because I don’t know how I’d explain.
And how do you explain such a thing? Predestination?
When we finish, we return to the barber’s for our bikes and find Finelli standing next to his blue DeSoto, talking to a girl in the alley beside his shop. She’s young, pretty, and dressed all in black––a beatnik. I’ve seen beatniks in Life Magazine, this is exactly how they look. As we approach, he hugs her and she walks off. He starts to get into his car, but hearing us, he turns.
“Oh, great!” my brother cries out. “You close early while us young guys gotta work all night.” Howard really knows how to talk to people.
“You should be in bed, already,” Mr. Finelli laughs, “playing with yourselves,”
I like Mr. Finelli but I don’t get his jokes. But Howard does, I can tell, because he sasses back: “You should know!” And they both laugh, the two of them.
Ha-ha-ha! Big deal! Laugh all you want. Go ahead. Leave me out. I hate it when Howard leaves me out. He does it just to make himself look big. But I’m almost big as he is and I’ve been delivering the papers the whole time he’s been sick and made only three mistakes––which were his fault: if he’d only made a better map. So later, when we're riding our bikes home, I take a deep breath and say what I’ve been trying to get the guts to say all night: “Shouldn’t I get some of this money?”
“Don’t get greedy, Michael.”
“It’s only fair.”
“Oh, don’t cry. I’ll give you a dollar.”
“That’s not enough. You get ten dollars a week...”
“Okay-okay, don’t bug me. I’ll give you a dollar-and-a-half.”
“Still not enough. I delivered more than half the week. So I figure I deserve...”
Howard screeches to a halt, stands astride his bike and looks me straight in the eye: “Deserve has nothing to do with it. I’m the boss and bosses get more money.” But I can always tell Mom, so I insist and he gives in. “Okay, you little invert, I’ll give you a dollar seventy-five and that’s final.” He pulls the money from his pocket. “But don’t forget,” he adds, “I could have sold the route to someone else.”
“No, you couldn’t,” I smile. “Mom wouldn’t let you.”
Howard acts like he’s going to hit me, but doesn’t. Even if he had, it would’ve been worth it. Back on our bikes, we ride no-handed the rest of the way and I raise my arms, clap my hands, and yell, “Dirty lucre! Coming my way!”
Howard looks back. “What’d you say?”
“Dirty lucre. That’s what my principal calls money.”
“Oh, brother, you are such a pain."
* * *
The next morning when I pick up Molly, I show her my money.
“What you gonna buy me?” she asks.
Wait, I don’t want to spend this money. I want to keep it.
“Come on, what you gonna buy me?” she repeats, and she slaps me on the arm.
“You promised,” she laughs. “The spring shoes, remember?”
“You want the spring shoes?”
“Well, no, not really. But you could buy me something else.”
“Gee,” I start to lie, “I can’t buy you anything right now because…” Molly’s smile disappears,“...cause I gotta use this money to...to buy my dad a new magnifying glass!”
“Why would you have to do that?”
“I can’t explain, I just do.”
Molly looks down at the ground and she won’t look up. So I nudge her in the ribs with my elbow: “Come on, listen, please. I will buy you something, but later, okay? There’s a lot more where this came from.” And I know she believes me because she nods and in a very soft voice, says, “We’d better get to school.”