© 1998 Michael O. Starr
Hey, Paperboy! Over here! That was his big brother Delmar's voice ringing out across the whole Casper, Wyoming bus station, joyful, almost challenging. The same voice he'd use talking David into a game of one-on-one. Come on! I'll just use one hand! But David had not felt challenged in the bus station all those years before: he was relieved after his first long bus trip. How many years? David thought about it as he pulled up to his rack in front of the Wag A Bag. I was what, just turned sixteen? Must be going on thirty-six years. Funny, I can still hear him, seems like, after all this time. Hey little brother. Shaking my hand like a grown-up. Good to see you.
David opened his door to get some light, counted fifteen newspapers off the top of the pile on the passenger seat, and carried them to the rack. Automatically he dipped a quarter out of his pocket with his right hand and dropped it into the slot.
Pull door with right hand all the way flat, prop open with left knee. Right hand takes paper out of door, puts it on the leftovers inside. Remove leftovers with left hand and put in today's issue with the right, one of which the right hand turns over and pops into a flattened U so that it stays stiff to slide into the door. Tuck leftovers under left arm, freeing left hand to close the door and pull it once to check the mechanism, which clicks, then clunks and holds the door solid. Good. With one step to the right, fish keys out of right pocket and open the back of the rack. Dump change into left hand then pocket. Close and lock rack, repocket key.
The process rarely took over a minute. All that broke his stride was the time it took to bag the accumulating change or get more papers out of the back of his Toyota station wagon. Most of the time David had to handle few returns, since he could tell within three or four papers how many issues of the Natchez Democrat would sell from each of his forty-five racks. Most racks he let sell out because he hated to pay for and carry around papers that didn't sell. Besides, he did not fear lost business since he had all the racks in town, anyway.
On the way to the next rack David lit a cigarette. South Pearl Street was deserted, with flashing yellows instead of stop lights. His mind wandered, imagining it in the seventeen hundreds, when it was first laid out: a wide dirt street then, easily accommodating the largest horse-drawn traffic, but now a tight fit, barely enough room for a one-way street, since the city put in parallel parking downtown. That's progress, I reckon. Since '58, downtown was all one ways, alternating directions at each block. This meant two three-block detours every night getting to just four racks, a big pain in the neck. Nevertheless, he'd stopped running the wrong way on one-way streets, even if it was only one block at a time and he knew the law didn't care. Get killed like that one night. Not worth the risk for the one decent rack left in the middle of town. These racks have dried up like the rest of downtown, going with the people out to the mall. Don't start some more renovation this whole place be run down to nothing soon. He passed the scaffolding and cement mixers out front of the Eola Hotel. Be nice when that's done, at least, place used to be a palace inside. Every high school prom since 1930 happened there. Condos, what a shame. Still, I hope they redo all these old buildings. Better to see them burn like the old Natchez Museum last year, get it over with, than to let 'em fall brick by brick. Fix 'em up, get more people living downtown again, I might be taking money out of these racks instead of taking out the racks.
Finished servicing his rack in front of the Jitney Jungle, David turned for the Mississippi River bridge. He passed the municipal park and fountain behind St. Mary's Cathedral on his left, a tangle of sprawling live oaks and Spanish moss. The tired Confederate atop his pillar of salt-white marble leaned as ever on his long rifle: one of the Natchez Marksmen who never had a mark to shoot at since the war never reached Natchez, too far south of Vicksburg to have any strategic value. Delmar told David when they were kids that the soldier was their great-great-uncle, and David, still years into his most gullible and trusting youth, for years didn't remember that their father was the first Aster any of them knew of to live in Mississippi. He smiled now to think of it.
David turned on the dome light and checked the date on the newspapers again, though he had it memorized from checking it four times already. June 29. What was it about that day? Birthday? No. Anniversary? No. For the life of him David could not remember what it was, even though he thought so hard about it that he forgot to turn off the dome light until he was halfway across the river.
The racks in Vidalia were done at barely past three on the Concordia Bank clock. Now that he was finished with the Louisiana racks, all he had left were the throwing route and the last ten racks south of town. He was getting through earlier since he'd started running the most distant parts of the route north of town first, finishing up out south. Plenty of time for another smoke and maybe early breakfast at the Waffle House. David counted the remaining papers, finding five extras. An overcount by the press attendant, he thought. No wonder. Whoever heard of counting by threes like that? It's just not a natural way of thinking, in threes. At least the error went his way this time. He considered each of the racks between him and the end of the route, deciding where to leave the extra papers.
He drove onto the Mississippi River bridge from the west. Nearly a mile long, darkness and lack of traffic made the structure seem even larger. David looked downstream, seeing only the green running lights on a distant south-bound barge, and the warning lights of electric cable towers casting broken red and yellow lines across ruffled water marking the main current. The reflections were no more to the river's width than the power lines were to the sky. Upstream a barge had just cleared the bridge, so that he could not see it, but saw its beacon scanning the points of the left-hand oxbow above Natchez. David barely idled along, watching the beacon scan bank to bank. Willows and windowbox-sized sandbars lined the Louisiana shore. At this hour traffic was nonexistent. He had time to think about the day he'd accepted Pick Davison's dare and walked across the bridge end-to-end and back, the wind and traffic at their worst. Caught holy hell when Daddy found out. Got my last full-fledged whipping out of it, too. David leaned his head out the window and listened. There. He heard it again, better than ever, and stopped the car completely. The bridge hummed all around him. There was no wind whistling in the superstructure, so he could hear distinctly the murmur produced by millions of feet of water swirling around the bridge's pilings each minute. One hell of a lot of power it must take to play this sucker like a mouth harp! David almost turned the car off to give it a closer listen. Why not? But a car came along from behind, horn blowing as it passed, so he resumed speed.
The Bellemont Hotel was his last rack because it was nearest to the start of the throwing route. A decrepit building with oversized pillars and a scrollwork frieze, it had survived the previous forty years on landmark mystique, until dry rot and termites brought down a section of the roof in the back building, and all the rooms were condemned by the city, leaving only the restaurant and bar doing business. Turning off the highway David noticed the white Ford pickup truck backed up to a side door. As he entered the parking lot a tall, thin man with a ponytail backed out of the doorway, two cases of whiskey in arms. Seeing David, he put the whiskey down fast and hurried back inside. David slid his .38 out from under the seat. The first guy and two others exited right away, each with two more cases. One got into the back of the truck to take the cases from the other two, then got down from the truck bed to drive. The other two jumped in back, raising the tailgate as they pulled away so that David could see Wilkinson County tags and the letters ADS. That oughta help, he thought, as they disappeared fast down Highway 61 South. He put his Smith & Wesson back in its place.
He called the law from the pay phone next to his rack, then opened the tailgate and sat on it. Since he had to wait anyway he'd roll the last of his throwing papers, most of which he rolled while driving from rack to rack. Reaching over the seat for the box of rubber bands, he looked over his shoulder down Highway 61. No way they'd be coming back. Just kids, looked like, but nobody was around to stop them if they did decide to come back for trouble. He thought of Juanita's nose crinkling under her bright blue eyes, flashing like anger, almost, as he'd tell her about it. Dave, it's not worth it anymore. I'm worried for you. He'd have to tough it out with her again. He knew he could take care of himself, even with only two-thirds of his heart still working; what he couldn't cover, the .38 could. But Juanita couldn't trust that.
Yet in all these years on the route, or rather since '47 when the Democrat became a morning paper, he'd been out in the pre-dawn hours, and never had any more trouble than occasional kids drinking, having a little too much fun. Besides, that wasn't all there was to it. He'd always liked the night, and the morning half of it best of all. At night sometimes it got calm like no other calm, when everything seemed to take and hold a deep breath. Or before a storm it might get that real deep black just before it broke. The storm's pitching and wailing was all the wilder when he alone was there to witness it. And once or twice a year, on the backside of the neighborhood where the woods were still thick, he'd see one of those hand-sized moths, that only lived that one night a year, flapping so loosely in the beam of his headlights that he was amazed it could fly at all, like a scrap of newspaper had picked up and flown away. The kids he'd find parking in this or that dark spot were looking at each other, not the night itself. The sheriff's deputies mostly stayed in the Waffle House or the Donut Hole. David knew that the night in this town was his own, that he was one of the very few that even wanted it.
He got into his paper-rolling rhythm, fold, turn, fold, roll the quartered paper into in a tube and band it. With a twelve-page paper he could get it down to the size and density of a broomstick. When Delmar first let David and Pick roll for him that was the way he'd shown them. Paid them a nickel per fifty rolled. Forty-odd years later David still used the same technique, but never, in all that time, never had he seen anybody roll like Dell, so fast it was hard to see his hands wrap the band - three times so it'd be real tight, take people five minutes to get their papers opened. Time for their coffee to cool! he'd say, grinning like a possum. David smiled. Rolled that tight you could throw them halfway to China, have people looking in their back yards for their papers. Though when Dell broke the window out of the Gayosa Street Baptist Church parsonage it put a damper on that sort of foolishness.
David looked at a headline on the front page: another dope arrest, this time some boy he was afraid had been a friend to their oldest son in high school. He grimaced, as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. They're gonna have to learn, just like me. A crutch is a crutch. Booze or dope or whatever. Never saw but one person throw down a crutch, either, when Aunt Velma took her torn-up knee to the circuit preacher what was his name Floyd no Boyd Brother Boyd praying so loud they could hear him down at the sawmill a quarter mile from the church. He laid hands on her so she could believe, then she stood up, Praise Jesus! and threw 'em down and we all cried and cried. Thank you Lord. Doctor'd already told her she'd never have the use of it again but by God there she was. Carried 'em home on her shoulder. Damn whiskey is just like dope, a crutch, just not quite so fast to kill a body. Wonder how much I damaged myself with two six packs a day for fifteen years after I started counting. Plus the odd pint of whiskey or whatever. Moonshine that time with Juanita's uncle Finnan, so nasty I had to spit out the first mouthful. Heh heh, it does have a little bite, don't it. I swear that man could drink battery acid and like it. It all adds up. And for the life of me I can't make myself remember what I know good and well June 29th is. Might be some connection. What is June 29th? Must've been this time of year, summertime, I got my first twenty-dollar bill. Mr. Grierson back on Linton Place just got paid and I happened to have the change. The paper was seventy-five cents a month then. Came into the house all sloe-faced told Mama I had just one bill to show for the whole day's collecting, had her loving all up on me before I showed her. A twenty-dollar bill! Boy it was really something and Mama laughed and laughed. Daddy swore he hadn't seen one himself in almost a month. Clear profit too, since I'd already paid the company. I'd do anything to see Mama like that one more time. Why not? I've seen one miracle.
Newspapers flipped mechanically into the back seat as David started on his last bundle, staring sightless at his hands. Papers for breakfast for the earliest of risers - even if they had the 5:30 shift out at the paper mill, his customers would get to read their papers first. That meant few complaints come collection day. In his life, he wondered, how many doors had he knocked on? Who is it? Paperboy! Sometimes they were standing right behind the door, just being cautious. Other times he'd obviously caught them at a bad time, but the people were just too polite to ask him to come back later. Barefoot, wet from the shower, even wrapped in a towel, they'd come to the door sometimes. No no! That's all right. How much do I owe you? Rarely did he get the coolness, the more distant courtesy from someone who'd been interrupted doing something they really didn't want to stop doing. God knows what. What they've got in their drawers, or stashed under their beds, what they've got in their hearts God knows. Paperboy! Bet every single one of them could have called me by name, but after a while paperboy was what I called myself. How about that?
Because of the neon glare from the sign out front of the Bellemont, David didn't notice his shadow forming across the dark end of the parking lot, growing fatter as the sheriff approached him from behind. A bear-sized man with a chronic grin under a thin moustache leaned his head out the window and called.
"Hey Dave! Seen you a little action tonight, huh?"
"Oh nothing much, Ezra. Looked like three boys in a Ford longbed, plain white, Wilkinson County tags, first three letter were ADS and I think the first number is a six. Stealing whiskey out of the store room, looked like. Headed off down 61 South not ten minutes ago, yet."
Ezra took out a pad, made notes, called this information back to the dispatcher, then got out of the car and lumbered around back to the storage room for a look-see. David followed after he finished rolling the last few papers.
The oversized Master padlock had been wrenched free with a crowbar, judging by the gashes in the doorframe, and the door to the liquor room as well. There wasn't a lot left inside.
"Well Ezra, you need me for anything else?"
"Nah, this'll get it. Probably won't need no statement on this one. 'Snot all that likely we'll be catching up to them boys, anyway. They must be half way to the county line by now."
David went back to work. He rolled down the passenger side window and piled papers on the front seat. The more physical aspect of the throwing route did not mean he had to pay any closer attention to it. He tried to throw each paper straight out the window so that timing did it all. Each driveway, average width, say, fifteen feet, left him a one second margin of error, at best, in hitting the target, which was dead center of the driveway, fifteen feet from the street. One left. Two right. Two left. Throwing with both hands out both windows, steering with his knees, he quickly drained the passenger seat and had to stop for more papers out of the back.
The guys always used to make fun of a paperboy. Paper boy! What'n hell kinda job is that? Boy! Whatsamatter Dave? Can't get a regular man's job? Sour grapes, David thought, because the Democrat had always given the carrier an even split on the delivery price, and that came to good money. A good date, too, because he could afford to pay and he was free from having to work late in the evenings. And it was still fun, too. A good job.
Over half the neighborhood was completed when Mrs. Klotz' driveway came into view in the distance: a long span of cement over a drainage ditch bordering the left side of the road. With Mrs. Klotz' driveway he had his daily test of skill. Trees blocked the nearest streetlight. It was dark as the inside of a pocket watch, and a left hand throw, to boot. The paper had to fly thirty feet to clear the far end of the bridge. Falling short, it invariably slid off the driveway into the ditch. Overthrown, it ended up in the weeds which Mrs. Klotz let overrun the far side of the driveway: either way she'd be sure to be the first to call the office and complain. Never calls the house, at least. David speeded up a little to make it harder, threw the paper with a slight grunt and then let the car coast. He leaned his head out the window to hear. Waiting, waiting, and finally smiling at the PLOP and the faint sliding sound as the paper skidded to a stop on cement. That made fifty-eight times in a row. Haven't missed since May the second. And that almost doesn't count, since it was raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock.
Dell taught him to throw sidearmed like that off of a bicycle around the time he'd taught them how to roll, so they could cover his route for him when he needed time off, before David was old enough to have his own route. It's all in the wrist. Make it spin like this, so it cuts the air.
Suddenly David stopped the car in the middle of the quiet, deserted street. He seemed to lose his breath and sag inward. That's it: 6/29/49. That was when they had to go get Dell, bring him home and lay him to rest, the first of the family to go, died before Mama's hair was grey, though it greyed all the faster for that. Went off up and country and never came back. How Many Hopes Lie Buried Here! they had carved on the stone. Dell. Dead for thirty-four years. David reached over and fished a pack of Kleenex out of the glove box and blew his nose. Almost forgot about it last year, too. He took off his glasses and with another tissue wiped his eyes, then his glasses. And now Mama and Pick too, before his time. Plenty there to greet me, I guess, when I get across.
He threw the rest of the route, turning into the last driveway and throwing the paper forehand almost all the way to the front door. That finished it. He'd been working for just over four hours. Now the rest of the day was his.
Dawn was still an hour or more from its first paling. David wished for it sooner so he could go visit his father, who would most certainly remember what day it was. He didn't know where to go in the meantime, but finally decided he felt more like drinking a pot of his own coffee than that of the Waffle House.
David caught a glimpse of Orion's belt standing almost vertical through the trees as he headed for home, then Cassiopeia and what were they called, the Pleiades, all of which he knew because Dell had shown them to him when he was a chap. He was thinking I bet Dell already knows that, too. It's nothing to be afraid of. I bet he'd tell me it's just like a warm summer night, with family and friends waiting at the house for you when you get off work, with love they've been storing up for thirty years or more. And I always did love the nighttime anyway.