Tuesday
Jun142011

Paperboy:
A Dysfunctional Novel

By Bob Thurber



Casperian Books
May 2011
262 pages
978-1934081310

 

 

Sam says the numbers don't add up. He means my numbers and he's right. I'm buying too much junk from the vending machines in the cafeteria at Carol Cable, and feeding myself every other day at Times Square Diner, plus slipping my mother her ten bucks every week, but I'm not really making anything. The change in my pocket is never my money. It's always Sam's and there's never enough to pay my weekly bill. I should quit. Quitting would be easy. All I have to do is not show up anymore, though Sam knows where I live and might come get me. Every day on my way downtown I think about quitting. I pretend I'm just out strolling, no place to go. Then I arrive at the corner, talk to Huey, load up, and go to work.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

It's only two hours. About two. Some days it takes me three. When I first got the route it took me four because I kept getting lost, plus I dragged my ass. The weight was too much. The strap cut into my collarbone. Now I understand the faster I go the sooner the bag loses weight.

Sam wants me to take on a Sunday route, but I can't see that happening. "Good money," he says. "Good tippers, Sunday people."

What he doesn't say is that Sunday papers weigh well over a pound; they get delivered to the newsstand in bundled sections throughout the week—junk and comics first, then classifieds and features. Front-page news and the sports section print last—and at the crack of dawn Sunday, you have to insert the sections, build your own papers before you load up. They don't pay any extra for that.

"Sunday route would help you catch up on your bill," Sam says.

And he's probably right. But why should I get another job to pay for the one I have now? Who wants to work every single day of the week? Get up every Sunday before the sun, on my only day off? For what? I tell Sam it is out of the question because my mother makes me go to Sunday school before church.

"If you hustle your ass you'd be done in plenty of time for church," he says. "Plenty of time."

I explain how before Sunday school I have to go to Bible class, though that isn't true. I don't think there is a Bible class. Sam might think so, too. He makes faces at me like he makes sometimes at Huey. I owe Sam a lot of money, I don't even know how much. But that's not my fault. I'll pay him in time unless one of us drops dead before then. Meanwhile, I work the route. I don't quit, I don't complain. Each day I learn more than I earn. Things are going to get better.

 

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to do the math. The newspaper is sixty-five cents a week. That's the subscriber's price, which The Times prints right on the front page in tiny type beneath the masthead. It's hard to see, but it's there. So sixty-five cents is the amount I'm supposed to collect from each customer, not including tips. Out of that I pay Sam forty-five cents, which means I make twenty cents a week for each subscriber, not including tips. I don't know how much Sam has to give to the people who publish the newspaper. I bring the paper right to your door, six days a week, for twenty cents. I deliver in the rain and the snow and the heat, for twenty cents. Not including tips. I haul forty-five papers but one is extra, so I can sell it in case somebody asks. If I don't sell it, and most days nobody asks, I can just bring it home. Sam only charges me for forty-four.

Forty-four customers times twenty is $8.80 a week, not including tips. That's what I should earn, minimum, every week, if you do the math right. With tips, even lousy tips, I should bring home about ten bucks a week. Easily ten. With decent tips more like twelve. Or fourteen. But let's use ten as a conservative estimate. Okay. The route takes two hours. Six days a week times two hours a day is twelve hours. If I earn ten bucks for that time, I'm making eighty-three cents an hour: barely half of minimum wage. Slave wages, Kelly calls them.

But I'm a kid, right? What are my options? Shine shoes? Tried it. Mow lawns? Done that too. Try steering a push-lawnmower through knee-high grass. Shovel snow out of some old lady's driveway? Tried and failed. The competition is fierce, and people expect you to have your own shovel. So I suppose I should be happy to pocket ten bucks a week for doing little more than walking city streets, going in and out of buildings, climbing up and down stairs.

But here's the thing. I don't make ten. I never collect more than six or seven dollars above what I'm supposed to turn in. Nevertheless, every Friday I hand over ten to my mother. My weekly bill for the forty-four customers is $19.80. That's the amount I'm supposed to hand over to Sam each Saturday. So far the most I've ever turned in for any week is $16.01.

Every Saturday when I pay my bill, I'm short a few dollars. One week I was short $8.78 and Sam flipped. His eyes got big and his face turned so red I thought he was having a heart attack. He wrote the amount in his book, added it to my total, which is a fast-growing negative number. Every Saturday I'm short. Every week the amount I owe Sam increases. And every week he asks me twenty questions, then shakes his head and gives me a speech. It's always the same speech, how he can't figure out where the money is going. I don't tell him about the ten I give my mother, or the money I spend feeding myself at Times Square Diner.

I'd give the route up, but my mother says I can't. She says if I quit that would make me a quitter and quitters, she says, grow up to be nothing but losers, plain and simple. I know she counts on the ten I hand over. She uses it to buy milk and bread and eggs and sometimes as part of the rent. Last week I told her I couldn't keep giving her ten, because I'm falling too far behind on my bill. "Sam wants his money," I told her.

"Too bad for him," she said. "He's a rich, old Jew with a house and two cars and his own business. And a snotty wife who goes to the beauty parlor every week. What's ten dollars to him one way or the other?"

 

The route takes me a couple of hours, except on Fridays, when I have to stop and collect. Then it takes me three. Sometimes more than three. I start at City Hall (three papers there, one to the mayor's office), except on Saturday when City Hall is closed. Then I do the fire station next door. The fire station is never closed because the firemen take turns sleeping there. Next, I deliver to seven small houses along Roosevelt Avenue, then across the street to the Carol Cable Company, then up Blackstone Avenue to a few tenement houses, then left onto St. Mary's Way (thirteen customers on that dirty, crowded, narrow, one-way street), up Exchange Street to Jack & Harry's Hardware, the credit union (except on Saturdays), the furniture store, the locksmith, the post office, the print shop, the G&T Tavern, Ray Mullin's Music store, the nursing home, the hearing aid dealer, up High Street to Roy's Plumbing and Heating Supply, then four papers to two nice apartment houses, and finally to my last stop, the white Victorian atop Blackstone Avenue, where I leave the new paper on the stack of old ones. (The next day it will still be there, though some of the pages will be wrinkled.)

Forty-four papers. Forty-five counting the extra.

When I first took over the route from a fat kid named Rusty, I had sixty-nine customers. Seventy papers, counting the extra, which is a lot of weight even on a Saturday when the papers are thin. By the end of my second week I had fifty-nine customers. After a month the number dropped to fifty, and now it's forty-four. Not my fault.

People moved without telling me, whole tenement houses emptied. One weekend I lost seven customers, all of them on St. Mary's Way. I didn't know, so I kept delivering their papers. Other people took them, I suppose. I don't know. I kept delivering papers to empty houses, then got stuck owing their bills. I told Sam nobody told me anything and I didn't think that was very fair.

"Fair," he said. "You want to talk about fair? You've lost twenty-five percent of your customers in two months. Every Saturday you're short a few bucks more. What in hell is going on?" He talked about trust, he talked about Huey. Then he accused me of stealing from him, robbing him blind, and I had to concentrate very hard to keep from crying.

I owe Sam a lot of money, so he has reason to be upset with me, but when someone moves without paying their bill, I shouldn't be the one who gets stuck.

 

Saturday, after my route, I go back to the newsstand. I dump everything out onto a pile of Life magazines and separate the quarters into stacks of four and the dimes into stacks of ten. I put the nickels in short stacks of five, keeping them in groups of four. I'm working on the pennies when Sam comes over. He adds it all up in a glance. "I hope you've got more than that," he says.

I hand him the four one-dollar bills, folded over so they look like more. He tugs and stretches each bill as he counts. The flesh beneath his jaw shakes. Sam has the face of an old dog. "What else? Fives, tens?"

"That's all of it," I say.

"You're kidding me." He drops the four dollars on top of the pennies. "You've got to have more than this."

I don't say anything. What am I going to say? Sam is waiting, so I check my side pockets, then my back pockets, then I shrug.

"This is no good," he says. "You're telling me this is all of it, every nickel you collected? All week?"

I nod yes.

"No, no. I can't believe that. I won't believe it."

I rock on my sneakers because I don't know what to say. Sam fingers a spot above his eyes. "Where's your book? Are you marking your book?"

I take out the green book and hold it open but he doesn't take it, doesn't look at it. "Don't give me a cock-and-bull story, now," Sam says. "You must have collected more than this."

I tell him a lot of customers owe, I tell him a couple more moved.

"How many and how much?" he says. His voice is fierce, hard. "Because this doesn't hold water, you know, week after week. It makes no sense."

I'm holding the book, ready to burst into tears. I start flipping the pages.

"You go through that book and count up all the customers that owe. Get me dates and amounts and give me a grand total. You've got twelve dollars here. Maybe thirteen with the pennies. Get a piece of paper and copy down all the names and addresses of anyone who owes you. And I'm telling you right now, it all better add up."

I go through the book one name at a time. I rip out a page from the back and use it to make my notes. Ten minutes later Sam is back and I hand him the paper. "What's this? A bunch of scribbles. I can't read this."

"You made me nervous," I say. "I can't write when I'm nervous."

He closes his eyes like he just fell dead asleep on his feet. He keeps them closed and crumbles the paper in his fist. He hands me the four bucks. "Take this and get the hell out of here."

 

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?