From Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel
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In the dream I’m riding this red Schwinn Stingray Fastback: 26-inch wheels, nubby tires, high-rise handlebars. Very cool bike. Same model Jack & Harry’s Hardware sticks in the window every Christmas. Same candy-apple red, same slick nail-polish shine.
I’ve got my name stenciled in gold across the chain-guard, two chrome-wire baskets mounted saddlebag style, and another deep basket bolted to the handlebars. All baskets are full, heaped with newspapers, each paper neatly tucked and tri-folded and secured by a green rubber band. I’ve still got my dirty canvas bag looped across my chest, but it’s empty, a useless sack. I wear it just to remind people what I am, and to advertise the name of the newspaper.
There’s no traffic — the only cars in sight are parked in driveways — and I’m cruising down the middle of this smooth, black asphalt street, riding the centerline, barely pedaling as I reach and toss. A throw to my left, a throw to my right. Every house is a customer and I work in a regular snap rhythm. All my tosses are perfect. Each paper travels in a high arc, then lands soft, dead center on each porch’s welcome mat like it was placed there by careful hands. People open their doors, look down in amazement. Everyone smiles and waves.
I pedal and throw, working steadily but never frantically, delivering two hundred newspapers in less than an hour. The street ends in a cul-de-sac with newly constructed homes and I cruise the circle, looking at the pretty empty houses, deciding which one I’d like to buy and give to my mother for Christmas. I hit the brakes, skid into a half spin, and come to a dead stop. I take out my green book and a stub of pencil and place a checkmark next to every customer’s name, confident I haven’t missed a single one.
Then I turn the bike around and head for home, traveling the road I came, passing the same houses, the same lawns. Some of my customers are still waving, but my baskets are empty now, except for one last tightly tucked newspaper, which is for my mother. The empty canvas bag flaps behind me catching the wind like a flag as I pedal, pumping hard, my ass high off the seat, chest forward, my hair streaming.
What I want to ask, what I need to know, is there a place like that, a street that peaceful and serene, a route so straight and effortless outside of dreaming?
* * *
Friday, May 2, 1969 — I wake up hard in the dark, no idea which room I’m in. Our apartment only has three, so any guess is a good one. I wake up afraid, which is nothing new. The air tastes dry and thick. The darkness has an oily blue tint. A radiator is hissing, but I can’t get a fix. My hair is damp, my T-shirt soaked. I’m sweating like I’ve got a fever, and when I shift onto my side, checking to see if maybe I’ve wet myself, something prickly presses against my neck. I turn slowly, carefully. A pink curler, barely visible, is wrapped tight against my mother’s ear. It’s big as a roll of quarters. Above her head I find the windows, two rectangles of gray cut into the slanted ceiling. I map the room. Everything is reversed. I’m in the big bed, covered by a sheet. My mother breathes in whispers and moans.
Where’s Kelly, I wonder. On the couch? I hold my breath and listen. I wait for some sound that will tell me my sister is on my rollaway cart at the foot of the bed. You can’t breathe on that mattress without the cheap wire frame squeaking like an early bird. How did I end up here? What time did I fall asleep? Did Mom carry me to bed?
I hear slippers sliding across the linoleum — Kelly’s up, searching the kitchen for food. But it’s only my mother grinding her teeth between short wheezing breaths. Curled slightly, clutching her pillow, she’s the length that I am. She shifts her hold on the pillow, slides a knee up until it bumps my thigh. She’s way past the middle, taking up more than half the bed.
I lift the sheet off and pinch the top of my shirt away from my chest. Why is it so hot? Why am I in bed with my mother? Why is the radiator hissing? It’s May. In six weeks school lets out for summer.
I’m about to get up when I remember where Kelly is and how long she’s been there, locked up in a room far, far away. I do the math. I work out the number of weeks, then days. Seventy-seven. It seems longer than that. I figure out what day it is, what day it will be. Saturday, May 3rd. My sister is coming home. Mom is signing her out. That thought makes the room cooler, the air easier to breathe. I close my eyes and try to get back to dreaming.
My mother grinds her teeth like she’s chewing gum in her sleep. The radiator whispers psst, psst. I try counting sheep, but Kelly’s face keeps popping up. I miss her too much. Thinking about her makes my head hurt. Sometimes, in school, I drift off, like I’m asleep with my eyes open. So maybe I’m crazy, too.
My whole body aches remembering the last time, that special feeling, a warmth better than any other. It’s such a strange and sudden happiness, one so brief and special, I’m sure it isn’t allowed. Not for kids. Not for me. It’s something meant for grownups. Adults only. And I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to be married. I feel like I’ve been stealing money; not the little I pinch on my route every week, but filling my pockets with big handfuls from the church’s collection plate.
A noise makes me jerk — a siren, a cat? Maybe it’s a baby crying. A little girl. I open my eyes and stare at the blue-tinged darkness above my head and I try to imagine the room my sister’s sleeping in, if there are bars on the windows or any windows at all, and I listen for the sound of traffic, for the squawk of early birds, for some sign of morning.
My grandmother used to say, “A new day always forgives you, unless it’s raining and you wake up in jail.”
* * *
Saturday, May 3, 1969 — It’s May and it’s snowing. Huge flurries, like the ashes that float up from the backyard when our landlady, Mrs. K, burns rubbish. We’re three floors up and the view looks like Christmas, which is nuts. Summer starts in three weeks. The radiator valve is hissing steam, so I’m careful where I put my elbows. My mother works as a waitress now, but back when she pressed shirts in a dry cleaner’s she got a nasty L-shaped scar from not watching where she put her elbows.
I’m eating Froot Loops from a mixing bowl, sitting on the windowsill — eating them dry because the only milk we have is lumpy Carnation’s Instant. I’m looking across at the Marshall house, hoping to see Patty Marshall parading in her underwear. Patty used to babysit Kelly and me a few years back and now she goes to junior college. I haven’t seen her in a while. This morning there’s a light on in her bedroom and the shade is at half-mast. Patty has nice breasts, and I’m hoping a glimpse of them, even in a bra, will take my mind off my life, but the snow is wrecking my view.
It’s a freak storm, a total surprise with no warning from the weatherman. The forecast called for heavy rain. Two guys on the radio are explaining the unseasonable temperature with jokes and excuses. Their booming voices make them sound like a couple of smart-ass jerks.
I’ve already got the storm figured out. Some idiot blew up the sun. Some dumb Russian general pushed the wrong button and launched one of their million missiles, or maybe NASA misaimed one of our test rockets. Either way, the sun is gone and we’re now engaged in a nuclear shootout. It’s the end of everything. Batman and Superman aren’t coming and James Bond doesn’t have a trick up his sleeve to save us this time. In a week or a month, we’ll all freeze to death, just like in that Twilight Zone episode where the pretty lady is burning up with fever, dreaming the sun is baking the world dry, when really the Earth has dropped out of orbit, is hurtling further and further away from the sun, rapidly turning into a big ball of ice.
One of the radio men mentions how the Apollo 10 astronauts, who are scheduled to take off in a couple of weeks, might be better off with Eskimo parkas and skis instead of pressure suits and space helmets. Then the first guy gets dead serious and predicts the temperature will gradually climb and all the snow will turn into rain. He promises a downpour.
I stop thinking about moon rockets and exploding suns and start worrying about my route. Sam takes Saturday mornings off unless the track is open and the horses are running. He leaves Huey in charge of the newsstand through most of the weekend. Huey is a freak, a burn victim, and a mess of ruined flesh. Pinkish scars cover his face and neck, and he’s short a couple of fingers on a claw-shaped right hand. He looks sort of like a wrinkly old pig that got into a fight with a pack of hyenas. Otherwise, he’s a nice guy, though not too smart. My mother says you don’t need to be a genius to stand on a street corner selling newspapers. I’m hoping Huey remembers to set forty-five aside and keep them dry for me. On Saturday the bundles arrive early, usually by ten, and I generally finish by noon, then walk back to the corner to meet up with Sam and pay my weekly bill. But I’ll start my route late today.
* * *
We wait for the taxi in the downstairs hall where the radiator is always ice-cold because our landlady, Mrs. K, thinks heating an empty hall is a waste of money. Mom folds her arms across her bulky coat and presses her back against the door of the storage closet that cuts beneath the curved stairway. There’s a new padlock on the storage closet’s door, put there by Mrs. K. I’ve tried to pick it twice, once with a bobby pin, once with a screwdriver, but it’s not a cheap lock. I could use a hammer and bang my way in, or borrow Grandpa Rudy’s hacksaw, but there’s really nothing I want except to look around. The storage closet holds our junk — Mom keeps Christmas decorations and old clothes and toys she paid good money for in it, and it’s where I used to keep my bike until it was stolen. And it’s where Mom once found Kelly naked to the waist, smoking Lucky Strikes that she had stolen from Grandpa Rudy.
Mom shifts her position, bumps the door, rattles the lock. “You forgot your boots,” she says, and I shrug. For the next minute I listen to the sound a cold hallway makes.
Then a horn blares and she pulls on the heavy door. But it’s just a car, just a neighbor. She stands there, looking foolish, with the door half open, letting the cold in. Snow slants down beyond the porch awning. The street looks slick and wet but it’s still black.
“It’s really coming down now,” she says.
I think about my sister, how she’ll look, how she’ll act. It’s been seventy-seven days. Mom says Kelly’s not right in the head, but I guess she’s better now. I grip the banister’s railing, bending forward, all my weight on my heels, and pretend I’m rope-climbing a steep cliff.
“You must be pretty excited,” my mother says.
I act like I don’t understand. I grunt and shrug, then pull myself up a step. In heels my mother is a full six feet. On the second stair I’m a couple of inches taller. “Excited about what? Riding in a taxi?” I say like I’m a complete idiot.
She frowns and looks at her shoes which are a darker blue than her dress, though they match her pocketbook perfectly. She looks nice, almost pretty, like we’re headed for church. I pull myself to the next stair wishing it was Sunday and I didn’t have to do my route. “Don’t act up now,” she says. “And when you see your sister, make sure you give her a big hug. This has been hard on her, hard on all of us.”
I want to say, “It’s your fault. You locked her up.” For weeks, every time she’s mentioned Kelly, I’ve kept those words ready. I want to say, "You ruined everything, you old witch."
I roll those words around in my mouth, hanging onto the rail, waiting for her to look at me. When she looks, I'll let go. But she unsnaps her purse and busies herself, searching inside. I wonder if she has enough money to pay for the taxi. I watch her lips to see if she's counting. In a minute, another horn sounds. My mother snaps her bag shut. "That's him. That's our ride," she says, and we go out together.
* * *
The snow looks gray and wet. I can’t tell if it’s falling faster or slower. I close my eyes and pull in a couple of deep breaths, but I get so dizzy I have to open them again. Wind sweeps most of the taxi’s window clean, but the inside is hazed from the heat. I swipe at the glass with my coat sleeve, clearing a peephole. I try to focus on the light above the door of the hospital.
Now and again, between bursts of static, the voice of a woman dispatcher asks the driver if he’s available for another fare. He says he’s not. He gives his location. She calls him Bill. After some more static she asks about the road conditions. “Not good,” Bill says.
Even though it’s a woman’s voice, I pretend the dispatcher is Houston calling. I’m in a space capsule looking down at the surface of the moon. I’m supposed to land, but I’m low on fuel. There’s no air and my eyelids are dead weight. I rest my head against the seat and fall into a dream of Kelly and me in puffy coats trying to catch snowflakes on our tongues. Then we’re digging in the plowed heaps against the fence in the church’s parking lot. The plow truck leaves the snow packed dense and good for building. We work to create a huge fort in no time at all. Then suddenly, it’s summer and hot, and everything starts melting. An inch of water streams around my sneakers. Our fort turns gray and slushy. But my sister keeps working, digging like a maniac, tunneling until I can’t see any part of her. I squat down and yell into the hole. I tell her it’s not safe. “This is not a good idea,” I say. “The weather is all wrong.” Then Mom is calling us to supper, half her body out the window, her voice louder than a screeching bird.
A blast of cold air startles me awake. A girl is huddled on the seat beside me, a small red suitcase between us. She’s not fat, not at all, but she’s too thick to be my sister. Her hair hangs like a dark veil. My mother slides into the front and closes her door. The driver starts the engine.
I look at Kelly who is bent forward, hiding behind her hair. “Hey,” I say.
Mom turns around, sticking her elbow over the top of the seat. "She's not talking."
“Not to you, I’m not,” Kelly says.
My mother’s mouth drops open. She appears genuinely shocked. “Oh, good. I thought they cut out your tongue.” She hollows her cheeks and blinks at me. “Go on. What are you waiting for? Give your sister a hug and tell her you missed her. No point both of you being rude.”
I can feel sweat tickling the back of my neck, dripping beneath both arms.
“I didn’t bring them up to be bad-mannered,” she tells the driver. “It’s not my fault they’ve got their father’s stubborn streak. He was a Southerner, a no-good rebel. Why aren’t you talking to your sister?” she says to me.
“What? I said hello.”
“Well, maybe she’s lost her hearing,” Mom says. “They’ve got her all drugged up and acting like a zombie. Kelly?” she says, snapping her fingers twice. “Can you hear your brother?”
Kelly leans forward, clutching her knees, keeping her face down. Her hair is a lot longer than I remember. And she’s stopped biting her nails, because they’re almost as long as my mother’s nails.
The driver shifts the taxi into reverse. The wipers start swishing. Mom puffs a breath and shakes her head. She’s close enough to slap us both, one, two. She won’t whack us in front of the driver, I don’t think. She closes her eyes. “Hold on a minute, please. Don’t go anyplace.” Her voice is tight.
Here we go, I say to myself. Or rather, here we don’t. The driver pumps the brakes. He seems confused. The car lurches then slides a few inches sideways. I can feel a knot in my stomach, big as a fist. I look over at Kelly and think, Don’t be stupid. Say something nice or she’ll drag you back inside by your hair.
“I’ve got all the time in the world,” Mom says.
Kelly raises a hand and sweeps hair away from her face like she’s peeking from behind a curtain. The nail on her middle finger is longer than the rest. “Hi Jack.” I can’t see enough of her face to tell if she’s smiling.
“There,” my mother says, twisting to face front. “Was that so damn hard?” Her shoulders relax. “I apologize for that,” she tells the driver, who shrugs and starts us moving.
The taxi bumps along. The moment we pass through the gate, Kelly picks up the suitcase. She holds it on her lap like a dinner tray. I’m thinking she’s trying to turn to get a goodbye look at Emerson. Instead, she scoots over and leans her shoulder into me. Her hair tickles my cheek as she kisses beneath my mouth, just missing my lips. She grabs me above the elbow, squeezing, more for balance than anything, then tilts her head, offering her cheek in an obvious request for a return kiss. I check the front, scan the rearview, then give my sister a dry peck on the cheek. She pulls away, sits up straight. “Nice hairdo,” she whispers, staring at the dome light, slowly raking her nails over the spot I kissed as though scratching at a mosquito bite.
Bob Thurber was born and raised in Rhode Island and now lives in Massachusetts. He is the author of Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel (Casperian Books, 2011) and the recipient of numerous awards, including The Barry Hannah Fiction Prize and the Newport Review Flash Fiction Contest. Visit his website at www.BobThurber.net.