Before reading this, please go to chapter one: here.
Howard’s sad. Pressed against the back seat of the car, cap pulled down to cover his face, he’s banging a ball against his mitt and muttering. I try to reassure him: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. That’s what Mr. Lowry says.”
“I don’t want to hear about your damn principal.”
Oh-oh, Howard said a swear word––with our parents right there in the front seat! I scoot over and pat him on the shoulder. “Leave me alone,” he grumbles, then turns and stares out the window. He’s unhappy because the season’s over and his team didn’t win a single game. I’d like to cheer him up but it’s hard to feel for such a loser when you’re as lucky as me. It’s less than three months since I took over the route and I’ve already got eighty-three dollars in my savings account. And since Monday’s paper, I’ve got something even better. Just wait until Clarence finds out.
We’re on our way to the train station to pick up Clarence, home from college. Dad’s speeding through the streets of North Omaha, it’s dusty and hot, the air so heavy it makes noises sound strange. The wheels on the road sound like an orchestra; people hollering at kids (jumping through sprinklers) sound like a chorus; and I can hear telephones ringing inside houses, houses filled with people we don't even know! School’s not even over and summer’s already arrived.
Just last week it got so hot that me and Howard cut off our old jeans and when I deliver the route I have to take off my shirt and stuff it in the bag. Day before yesterday it was so bad I wore cut-offs to school––something no one else ever did before––and now everyone’s doing it. Even eighth-graders! And when our school visited Thomas Jefferson for Tri-School Choir, the kids there saw us wearing cut-offs and came back from lunch dressed the same way. I’ve started a fad, all by myself! And I was just trying to stay cool.
I push forward in the seat to catch the breeze from the fan on the dash, place my arms on the back of the front seat, head on my arms, and act like I’m not eavesdropping on my parents.
“Oh, don’t worry,” my mom’s saying. “Nothing bad happened.”
“You saw what Cliff was doing,” my dad says, as he takes a corner too fast.
“Yes, I saw him, but I also saw that you just ran that stop sign!” Mom’s losing her temper and we're supposed to be a happy tonight. “Sorry,” she corrects herself, “but really, it was a church event and that's the way all the kids dance these days.”
“Well, they shouldn’t,” my dad grumbles.
“This is city, that was country,” Mom coaxes gently. “Times have changed.”
Dad’s not impressed. “Some things are fundamental.”
“I agree, but your son wasn’t doing anything dirty. They were just dancing.”
“When we were young we had to keep a ruler’s distance apart.”
My mom pats Dad on the arm. “Perhaps if you had a talk with him.”
“I come from a time when we didn’t talk about such things,” Dad says proudly.
“And you still don’t,” my mother sighs. “I know, but…”
“What were they doing?” I ask.
“Mind your own business,” Dad barks and Mom shushes me with her finger.
“You’re foolish to worry,” she continues, trying to calm him further. “The Drexels are chaperoning till we get back and everyone’s there––the Smithsons, Archie Drier, Mrs. Boynton, Rhonda––nothing’s gonna happen that shouldn’t.”
Unless someone’s got two cigarettes.
Dad follows the traffic into the parking lot out front of the train station. There are thousands of cars, millions of people, everyone’s excited to be going somewhere or picking someone up. I pull the clipping from my pocket and hide it tight within my fist. It’s the first thing I’m going to show Clarence.
* * *
“I saw him first!" Howard yells, as we run through the crowd, past the long line of steaming black railcars. We both grab at Clarence’s bag. “One at a time!” he laughs. Howard pulls the bag from Clarence’s hand and lugs it forward, laughing because he thinks he’s won, but I take Clarence’s arm and guide him to our parents––which is as good as carrying a bag.
“Here he is!” I announce, and I watch my parents (arms open wide) and see how happy they are, how proud (Mom’s crying, Dad’s grinning ear to ear) and I guess it's right since he is a hero––he got a scholarship to Harvard and he is going to be a minister. Still, it makes me kind of angry. But tonight’s too important to hold a grudge so I pull Clarence down close to me: “I’ve got the route now, you knew that, right? Well, guess what: Monday night in the paper...” But Dad pulls Clarence away to give him another hug and Mom kisses him and I’m left behind. I follow as they make their way through the crowds, across the station––babbling to each other the whole time––and get into the car.
Clarence’s skinnier and taller, his hair’s cut Ivy League, and he’s wearing a blue-striped suit. And though it’s hotter than blazes, he’s wearing a tie, a bow tie. “Get in front with your dad,” Mom tells him, “I’ll ride in the back with the boys.” But Clarence says, “No, it’s too hot back there, and besides, I got some tickling to do.” Then he gets in and starts to tickle me. I beg him, “Stop, stop! I gotta show you something,” and he finally says, “What?” and I say, “This!” and hand him the clipping.
“Whatcha giving me?” Clarence asks, and he pulls his glasses from inside his suit coat and starts to read out loud (as I knew he would):
The Omaha World Herald Monday, May 18, 1956
Letters to the Editor
We’ve got the happiest sound in our neighborhood this spring and it isn’t baby birds or a new record on the hit parade. It’s our whistling paperboy! His name is Michael Drew Pozner and he’s the fourth young man in his family to deliver this route. It’s a family affair! Each day as he delivers the papers, he whistles a happy tune and everyone in our house thinks it makes getting the unhappy news of today’s difficult world a little easier. Other workers could learn a lesson from this hard-working, cheerful little earful!
(signed) Mrs. Mary Irma McBride and Family
“This was in the paper?” Clarence asks. I nod my head. “Well, that’s terrific. You should be proud.” He reaches over and tousles my hair. “This bodes well for your future.”
“It’s not like he’s the first,” Dad interrupts. “Mary McBride wrote a letter about you, too, Clarence. Remember?” My dad smiles though the rear-view mirror.
What? Wait a minute. I thought I was unique.
Clarence looks up at Dad and frowns, but I pull at his arm: “Did Mrs. McBride write a letter about you, too, Clarence?” Clarence takes a deep breath, “I don’t remember, exactly, but, well, she says here you’ve got a great whistle! Now, where in the heck did you learn to whistle?” I start to answer that he taught me, but Dad interrupts: “She wrote about what a great paperboy you were because you did the route wearing a brace and how there was no one else like you.”
And Dad would have gone on except Mom interrupts, “How’s the weather back East, son?” Then Howard, touching Clarence’s suit, scrunches his face in disgust and asks, “What kind of cloth is this?” And Clarence answers, “Seersucker." Then Clarence tugs at Howard’s cut-offs and asks, “More importantly, what kind of pants are these?” And Howard, making like a hick, twangs, “Them’s cut-offs, them’s the kind of thing us farmers wear when it gets hot.” Which makes everyone laugh and we ride on, talking and joking, and Clarence keeps his arm around my shoulder all the way home. Me, I just hold my clipping in my lap and stare at it, trying to make it important again.
When we arrive at the house, Cliff, waiting on the porch, reaches behind his back and secretly rings the doorbell; Clarence gets out of the car and the rest of us purposely lag behind until Cliff opens the door and everyone inside yells, “Surprise!”
* * *
After we’ve changed into good pants, Howard and I get to serve: celery sticks with olive butter, party mix in paper cups, triangle sandwiches. We walk from group to group with trays and everyone mentions how tall I’ve gotten. Finally Mom says, “It’s time for you boys to go up to your rooms.” But we ask and get permission to watch from the top of the stairs.
Cliff and Clarence and the other guys roll up the carpet, bring out a record player, and start dancing with their shoes off. Howard tells me it’s called a sock hop, as if that’s new information. None of the adults dance, of course, but all the kids do. Except Rhonda. Nobody dances with Rhonda. She stands against the wall, making smart-Aleck remarks. Every once-in-awhile she waves at me and smiles and I always wave back. She acts like she doesn’t care that no one wants to dance with her, but I think she does. At one point her father offers to dance but she shrugs him off with a grimace. After about six dances, Sue Worthington goes to the pile of 45 rpm records on the coffee table and announces: “Everyone form a line for the Kansas City Hop!”
And everyone does, which means this is a dance even Rhonda can join. But Rhonda’s not satisfied with just her getting to dance; she decides that me and Howard should dance, too. She runs up the stairs, grabs my arm and pulls me onto the floor. Howard refuses to come, yelling, “You can’t make me!” But I’m glad Rhonda’s stronger than I am. I want to be part of it.
It’s the kind of dance that tells you what to do: “One step forward, two steps back. Slap your thighs, don’t lose track...” At one point the line hops through the dining room, past my dad who’s talking to my principal (proves how important Clarence is that Mr. Lowry would attend his party, though it surprises me because I heard Mom complain he wouldn’t help Clarence with his college applications). Then, as the line passes them, Mr. Lowry leans over and whispers, “When you get a m-m-minute, I’d like to s-s-speak to you.” Which is so surprising, I trip; and that makes Rhonda step on my ankle and we both fall; and that causes the line to break up completely––but no one’s upset. It’s not only okay to do such a thing, it seems to be what people want. When the record finishes, everyone applauds and Rhonda gets so excited she picks me up and throws me over her shoulder––which causes her dad to step in and say, “Not so wild, Rhonda Jean, not so wild.” Then Clarence’s friend Connie comes over and says, “Aren’t you just the cutest thing?” So I say, “I have to talk to my principal,” and back out of the room to find Mr. Lowry.
I find him talking to Old Lady Pearson. Mr. Lowry’s chubby and wearing the pink-brown suit he wears each day to school and it’s easy to understand why the kids call him P-p-piggly-W-w-wiggly. But me, I don’t make fun of his speech impediment. I respect him. He smart and he’s got a line for every occasion.
“Let’s go out on the b-b-back porch,” he says. “I want to talk in private.”
When we get there he gestures for me to sit down.
“M-m-michael, your parents have done m-m-more for the school than just about anyone and I know they do as m-m-much for your church. They’ve raised you boys well and I’m sure you’ll become fine adults. B-b-but when a boy gets your age, he has to start doing things for himself, m-m-make his own decisions and b-b-bear responsibility for his actions.” He squints his eyes. “You know what I’m t-t-talking about, don’t you?”
I shake my head, no. And I’m starting to feel uncomfortable––like everyone felt at Tri-School Choir when Mr. Lowry had the argument with our music teacher. He said the music she was teaching us was modern art bunk and she should keep to the basics; his face looked then like it does now.
He sighs. “M-m-michael, ever think about this? Ideas are the only thing we have m-m-more of after we give them away. The more p-p-people accept an idea, the bigger it becomes. And when you wore cut-offs to school, it was like bringing in a new idea and giving it away. A new idea, yes––but a b-b-bad one. And when your idea got stronger, other boys decided to follow suit––if you’ll forgive the pun––and your idea spread like a disease. Now everyone’s got the m-m-malady and the eighth-grade boys p-p-plan to wear shorts to graduation. Which would make a sacrilege of a truly hallowed occasion. And as you’re the one who originated this idea, it’s up to you to p-p-put a stop to it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s your job to stop the b-b-boys from wearing shorts to graduation.”
“But it’s not my fault...”
“Oh, I’m afraid it is.”
“Can’t you tell them? They have to do what you say. They’d never listen to me.”
“Yes, Michael, I could do that. I could make a directive, pass out a ruling, I could do any number of things. But that wouldn’t help you, would it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s time you took responsibility f-f-for your actions, Michael. Today. Now. Your parents have done everything for you your whole life long. Some b-b-boys are not so fortunate. For instance, I had to m-m-make it on my own and it wasn’t easy, I had to fight long and hard to get to the position I hold today. But you––well, I’m sure you meant no harm, you simply made a foolish m-m-mistake, but it was your action...”
“Mr. Lowry, they’ll never listen to me, they’d laugh in my...”
Mr. Lowry raises his hand to silence me. “Talk to B-b-bubbles Feiffer, Michael. He’s their ringleader. The other boys do exactly what he tells them. Convince him and you’ve won the b-b-battle.” Mr. Lowry pats me on the shoulder and walks towards the kitchen. “By the way, we won’t m-m-mention this to your parents. Unless we have to.”
“But none of them will listen to me,” I complain. “Not Bubbles, not any of them.”
In the doorway, Mr. Lowry turns and looks me square in the eye. He points his index finger towards the ceiling and says, “The elevator to success is broken.” Then, pointing his finger directly at me, “T-t-take the stairs.
* * *
“A hundred dollars.”
“Come on, Bubbles, that’s crazy!”
“Well, that’s what it’ll cost to do what you say.”
“But that’s stupid. Nothing’s worth that much.”
“Sorry, buddy, I think it is. And so do my friends.”
It’s recess and Bubbles Feiffer, big and fat, is standing on the playground with his pals. They’re wearing cut-offs and they’re bigger than me, eighth-graders; still, I try to bargain: “How about a pack of cigarettes? I can get you a whole pack.” (The pool hall next to the paper station sells anything to paperboys, no matter it's against the law.) His friends nod, but Bubbles laughs. “Ha! If you want us to change our plans that much, you gotta come up with something better’n cigarettes. Any jack can get cigarettes.”
The bell rings and everyone leaves for class. I trudge along behind, through the door and up the stairs. It’s awful. If they can get cigarettes by themselves, what chance have I got? I mean, what could be better than a pack of cigarettes?
In the middle of the night, I awake with the answer: two packs.
* * *
After I finish delivering my route, I high-tail it to the Drexels’ and when I ring the doorbell, Rhonda comes to answer. “Sorry, Dwayne-Bob’s not home.”
“Not looking for Dwayne-Bob,” I say, panting to catch my breath. “I need your help.” And I explain my predicament and tell her the solution and as a finale I pull out a whole pack of cigarettes. “They’re yours,” I say. “All of ‘em. All you have to do...”
At first she looks confused, then unimpressed, finally shakes her head back-and-forth: “Geez-Louise! I don’t believe what I’m hearing.” I start to explain again but she stops me: “Just how naive are you, Michael? You believed it when someone said I’d show....” She looks down, shakes her head again, kicks a rock. “I oughta be offended but you’ve always been so weird, and jees...where is this ‘Bubbles’ character, anyway?”
“A couple blocks down, on Ellison Avenue, on my paper route.”
“Let’s go,” she says, and she takes me by the shoulders and steers me towards their barn where the Drexels keep their horses. She grabs her riding crop, jumps on her bike, and gestures for me to follow.
Wait till Bubbles finds out what I’ve got in store for him!
When we arrive at his house, I run to the door to knock but Rhonda stops me, leans back, hands on her hips, and yells: “Bubbles! Bubbles Feiffer! Get your butt out here!” Bubbles comes to the window, gestures he’ll be right down, and in a minute he comes out the door, barefoot, wearing a Camp Wakota t-shirt and cut-offs. Rhonda stomps over to him. Her being seventeen and big makes Bubbles look small, even though he’s not. “Just what do you think you’re doing?” she glowers as she hits her crop against her palm. “What kind of bologna are you giving this kid, anyway?” Then she pushes him hard, backwards, into the bushes.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, angrily, picking himself up and brushing himself off. He stays a few feet away, eyes riveted on her riding crop.
“Bubbles, you are trying to blackmail my friend,” Rhonda says, "and that is against the law.” She walks up so close their faces are almost touching and thumps down hard on his bare foot with her boot. “Further,” she says, pointing her finger into his face, “you are trying to purchase my body, which is also against the law. Finally,” and here she raises herself on her toes so she towers over him, “I am a juvenile. Know what that means, mister? It means you could go to jail! For a long, long time.”
Bubbles looks confused (I haven’t had the chance yet to tell him my great idea) and scared (Rhonda’s whacking her crop hard) and he’s looking at me for an explanation, so I interrupt. “Rhonda, I haven’t told him yet how you’re going to show him your...”
Just then the front door opens and out steps Bubbles’ mom.
“Hi, Michael!” she waves, smiling. “Don’t tell me it’s collection time again."
And now it’s my eyes that are becoming huge because things are going from wrong to worse. But Rhonda waves me aside: “Mrs. Feiffer, you must be real proud, what with Bubbles graduating on Friday.” She lays her crop on Bubbles’ shoulder, light and friendly-like.
“Well, yes, I guess we are, but who are you, dear?”
“Me? I’m Rhonda Jean Drexel, friend of Michael’s.” As Rhonda says this, she wraps an arm around me and gives me a quick hug, walks over to Bubbles’ mom and shakes her hand, then raises an eyebrow and switches to a serious voice: “Mrs. Feiffer, have you heard some of the eighth-grade boys have got it in their heads to ruin graduation by wearing cut-offs?”
“Why, no, can’t say I have, but who are you again, dear?”
“Rhonda Jean Drexel. But you can call me Rhonda. I only want to say that I can bet you’re right proud your son’s not part of this mess.” She glares at Bubbles and smacks her crop against her hand again, a little less friendly-like.
“Well, yes, I guess so,” Mrs. Feiffer says, a bewildered look on her face. “Bubbles, what’s this all about?”
Bubbles looks at me, at Rhonda and her riding crop, then back at his mother. “Nothing important, Mom,” he says. “It’s just something some of the guys...”
“Of course, you won’t be wearing cut-offs,” she says. “You’ve got that new suit. Why, the idea! No sensible parent’s gonna let a son wear cut-offs to graduation.”
“Yeah, I know,” Rhonda laughs along with Mrs. Feiffer. “But you must be especially proud, knowing Bubbles here is part of the group who refuses to ruin the...”
“Bubbles would never do a thing like that! His dad would beat the tar out of him.”
“Well, nice meeting you ma’am,” says Rhonda, and again shakes Mrs. Feiffer’s hand. Then the two of us pick up our bikes and ride away. In silence. A block from her house, Rhonda yells, “Why so glum? You got what you wanted.”
I don’t answer, I just follow as she jumps the curb and cruises the sidewalk.
I don’t answer, I just follow as she jumps the curb and cruises the sidewalk.
“I get it,” she says as she spits a big one, “you’re worried ‘cause you’re not the big man. Well, remember, Michael, it’s not important how you win as long as you do.” She looks back and smiles. “Anyway, you heard the lady: no parent's gonna let their kid ruin graduation.”
Rhonda turns up their driveway. “Ol’ P-p-piggly-W-w-wiggly was just trying to make you squirm a little.”
“What? What do you mean? Why would he do that?”
“Who knows? Some things just are. Forget about why."