Paperboy

Cool now out in the yard at this time of morning. Yet he’s started working already. Why he is up so early shoveling, he can’t figure. Stubborn even against his own tendencies.

Position the spade.  Step.  Push the handle down.  Bend, lift and toss.  Repeat.  These simple efficient motions, so pleasing in their economy.  Repeated since he was so little, digging holes just for fun out behind the barn.  And now digging the garden before coffee, while his sweetheart still sleeps.

A constant fight, he thinks, to stay in the game. You stop moving and you die. And at the same time he knows the ridiculousness of this, this worry. Empirical evidence of a life lived in motion argues against his fear. A holdover from childhood. Weak, lazy, prone to the quick and easy way out. A sneaking suspicion about himself that every friend who knew him well or barely at all would find hilarious. Such is the nature of things said in one’s impressionable youth.

And he wonders, like Heisenberg’s principle, how did this casual judgment affect the outcome? Was it incorrect, or did he just spend a lifetime successfully trying to disprove it? In other words, he thinks, might he have been lazy if not told he was?

The paper bundle gets thrown out of the station wagon at just before six a.m. This was in the days when afternoon papers still existed. His grandparents subscribed to the morning paper and another in the afternoon. You read the morning paper before work over coffee and on the bus. The afternoon paper you read when you got home, maybe before dinner or after dessert. But on weekends, the afternoon paper – delivered after school on weekdays – arrives in a bundle at the paperboy’s house at six a.m. for morning delivery.

Hard now to imagine a world in which ordinary people read this much. Hard to imagine ordinary people expecting their weekend paper to arrive at seven a.m. so they could begin their busy weekend morning nearly before the sun. Did TV replace that, he wonders? All that reading? All that activity that was neither work, nor commerce? He remembers his own grandpa, building, building, ever hammering, painting, fixing. And cards at night with friends, his Honey and grandpa. And sure some TV then too, mostly “Bowling for Dollars” and national news. Hard now to imagine what other people’s grandparents were doing after they drank their coffee and read the paper at eight a.m. on a Saturday morning.

The paper bundle hits the sidewalk maybe a little early at five-thirty and what a boy about ten or so should be doing at that time of the morning: sleeping. The alarm goes off at 6am and he promptly turns it off and goes back to sleep. Just for a few minutes, please.

What drove his step-dad, he wonders, to take it upon himself to worry about the boy and his paper route, whether he was late or on-time, whether he appeared responsible or irresponsible? Such a mysterious other world view. A compulsion to instill certain values in our children, by hook or by crook. A fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of human nature and what motivates people. A generation of Dr. Spock behaviorists at war with all things natural.

At six-fifteen, dad wakes him up. Shaking the bed or his foot. “Get up,” he says, “Your papers are here.”

He stops for a moment digging.  Rests his hands against the shovel.  Looks at one hand and then the other.  Not course and rough, like his grandpa’s hands.  But still, they have their scars and rough spots.  Evidence of a life spent working in one way or another.  “Honey?” a call from the house, a face looking out a window.  He waves and smiles and gets a oh-there-you-are look, a smile in return.

A battle of wills, he guesses, is how step-dad must have seen it. He imagines him now, awakened by the slap of the bundle on the driveway. Lying in bed, wakeful, listening. The alarm goes off from the next room. Listening for feet hitting the floor, drawers opening, floorboards squeaking, a door. Hearing none of this, a familiar anger rising. A sense of frustration mixed with a hint of pleasure, like a tooth ache, a feeling of place and role and irresolute duty and knowing that every knock left or right puts the boy a little more in line. And dad knows, God, how he knows, from his own kids how little it takes for boys to get far off-course. Willpower and discipline and firm rules, all that separate kids from a tumble into the wrong path.

The next visit at six-thirty is less subtle, “Get up” and the covers come off. A little boy in PJs suddenly cold, suddenly awake, looking up startled, frightened, but with the merest trace of the defiant righteousness of someone who knows he is being bullied. Something he knows he’s carried right into adulthood.

“Okay, okay,” he says. “I’m getting up.” Step-dad waits silently, and the boy has to turn this concession into action and swing his feet to the floor before he leaves silently.

Six-thirty a.m.  Nine months of the year, it’s still dark out. The boy rubs his eyes, tests his shaky legs. There’s a false promise on the air — he thinks this every Saturday and Sunday morning — that if he hurries through his route, he can go back to bed. It’s never happened and probably won’t. Because when he gets out on his bike early on a weekend morning out in the cool air, a whole free day ahead of him, the world is his oyster.

He remembers his ex-wife saying once as they were in the homestretch to a meltdown, “I don’t know why you have all these projects, you never finish anything.”  A comment said with such ferocity and disgust that it made him uncertain for years.  Now he looks back and sees such a stretch of things accomplished, ideas hatched, plans made, projects finished, that it makes him feel humble.  A complicated proud and humble feeling.  On good days, a feeling that he is merely a vessel of energy of which he has responsibility.  Still, he thinks of this moment with his just-about-to-be ex-wife every time he finishes something.  And here again, he wonders about Heisenberg.

But, oh, so many steps to go before he can ride. Put on warm clothes. Open the garage. Unbundle the papers with a little explosion as the plastic ribbon tie is released. Slide in any inserts. Saturday morning: no inserts. Sunday morning: more inserts than the rest of the week combined (excepting maybe Wednesday). The only consolation for this extra trouble, reading the Sunday funnies while he folds. Folding the papers. Saturday, the slim paper gets folded vertically into thirds. Sunday, it’s too big for this. The Sunday paper is folded once over horizontally, that is, folded in half parallel with the paper’s masthead. There’s a right way to do this, he thinks. The paper should be folded so the masthead itself is still visible. This has nothing to do with his feelings about the newspaper. It’s his own funny way of things. If you explain something to him, show him how to do something, and it seems to fit, you’ll never have to show him again. If your way is not quite right, the long way, wasteful of energy, unclear of reasons, awkward, there really isn’t much you can do short of a thrashing that can get this boy to do it your way. And he’ll say he forgot, and that isn’t completely untrue. He’s not willful quite, just something else. He knows he’s carried this trait right through to adulthood too.

The papers go in the bag, and the bag gets wrapped around the handlebars just so. The bags, the papers, the rubber bands, the inserts, the bike, these are tools of a sort of trade. All so familiar, like his left arm or pinky toe. He’s sure, even now, he could easily get on a bike. The weight of the paper, the subtle flick of the wrist could put a paper right next to someone’s door from ten yards away, these years later.

And closing the garage door and closing the gate, he’s off on his bike, sometimes with his dog chasing off in front, sometimes no, riding into adulthood with all its insecurity and independence.

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