by Daniel Picker
The previous summer, around the end of June, with the weather still cool in the morning, I joined two older kids in the neighborhood, both of whom lived on Twin Birch Avenue, the next street which our street curved and flowed into, on a bike hike to downtown.
I had a low black bicycle my father had put together from various bikes he had found, or were in disuse in our garage; my bike had twenty inch wheels and tires. It was far from a new bike, but it served its purpose. My dad had moved out of our house the previous year.
Finlay and Fenny were both at least two years older than I was then. Fenny was originally from New England and I had never entered his house, but I had seen him and heard him shout from the second story window above his steep lawn; his house was similar to ours, but it was white and behind two sycamore trees.
But Finlay lived in the only house in the neighborhood that housed his family on the top two floors, and another family on the first floor. He had no dad as far as I could tell, and I never saw his mom around either.
When I showed him the art books with pencil drawings of women he seemed very disappointed. I don’t know why or how I ended up being friends with either of them; perhaps they were just lingering up their street one day where we played “Cross the Ice” in front of Finlay’s; I do remember one day walking to school on Main Street and walking beside them for a bit over the bricks and past a small colonial office building near the Town Hall, and Finlay rhapsodizing about “Lacey Brynne,” the daughter of a local realtor, as we walked past her father’s small office.
But this bright morning about 10 AM as we crossed Montcreek Street on Tulip Poplar Avenue, just one block from Fenny’s and Finlay’s street, Finlay shouted out, “Let’s race!” and they were off pedaling as fast as they could on bigger bikes.
I recall turning down their street and pedaling fast past first Finlay’s, then descending the steep hill at speed, then passing Fenny’s house and blurrily seeing them waiting for me at the flat bottom of the hill straddling their bicycles over the grey macadam. Then my handlebars started to wobble and shake and I had a sick feeling in my gut of great fear and two seconds later I seemed to fly over my handlebars landing in such a way that I was soon crying and my mouth was bleeding.
Someone ran over and up our more gently – sloping hill to get my mom who was probably still sleeping on the couch in the living room. I recall her rushing down the hill while wearing her purple bathrobe over her pajamas and helping me up as another mom was wiping my face with a damp towel. Mom walked me back home after that fall; I had felt deep embarrassment seeing her rushing down the street, but I was glad she arrived to rescue me that bright Saturday morning.
Later, that fall I began my first paper route which was my very own. I had handled another neighborhood kid’s route, but never handled my own route. Fenny, whose middle name was actually Fenny, had abruptly decided to give up his route for The Evening Bulletin; I don’t remember why exactly. Fenny’s first name was Theodore, and teachers called him Ted; once, early on the first cold morning that fall, Teddy wore a tan, fuzzy velour jacket; he had a big, round pumpkin head; kids, boys mostly, that day in school started yelling, “Teddy Bear!” or “Dancing Bear!” down the hallways at some distance in elementary school after he had walked by. As that went on through most of that fall of fifth grade, he eventually asked school friends and teachers to call him “Fenny.”
“Fenny?” we said to ourselves in school and after.
After school, in the afternoon, below the orange-leaved maples, with a flame red maple across and further down the street from my house, I rode my bike from my street the day before I took over his route; that fall afternoon, Fenny didn’t seem eager to start folding his papers as yellow leaves scattered beside his feet. Fenny didn’t seem interested in delivering his papers either as I watched him pull one paper from the middle of the bundle and open it, and begin reading the front page; my main interest in the paper was usually just the front page headlines and the headlines and photographs on the Sports page, until I had more time later at home to read the paper.
But after school Fenny would become so engrossed and read and read, all the while concentrating his heavy forehead and brows down on the paper as if he were up to something of great seriousness and importance. He had a big, oblong pumpkin head. He sometimes had this look of concentrated consternation on his face.
I asked that afternoon, “Don’t we have to get folding? Aren’t you going to show me the route? We are not going to finish the route before dinner time!” I exclaimed.
“That’s prescient of you,” Fenny said.
He enjoyed demonstrating his sophisticated vocabulary at odd times.
A few minutes later, sitting in front of Fenny’s house, he cut an audible fart as his father came out the front door of their white house and stood on the porch. His dad, Mr. Van Grundy worked odd hours and seemed to be home in the afternoon often. I had heard he had been an English teacher and coach in New England before they moved, but now he ran Fenny Glens Men’s Store downtown. His dad came down the steps and heard Fenny’s fart and saw Fenny leaning over the newspaper spread out over his legs, and noticed Fenny’s reddening face and embarrassment.
“Do you have to go grunty Fenny?” he asked.
Fenny’s face turned even deeper red and he abruptly got up and ran up the front steps. He returned some minutes later after his dad said to me, “He’ll be out in a minute.”
He seemed gone for over 10 minutes; he had the paper with him.
The next day, my first day handling the route the sun was still warm after school and the sky was still blue with those thin gauzy white clouds high up, cirrus clouds stretched far beyond the tallest oaks and tulip poplars and buttonwoods on which the orange turning leaves still danced from the cool wind through the high branches.
As I pedaled my bike I could hear the rustling leaves under my tires shoosing by the spokes. This was the bike mom had bought me just weeks before for my birthday. I recalled after my fall in the summer she and dad took me to a local Penn – Jersey Store; dad drove us; as we stood looking at the new bikes, dad asked, “Which one do you like?”
I couldn’t make up my mind, and felt sick to my stomach and dizzy.
“I don’t feel so good, couldn’t we just go home?” I asked.
But months later, a season later, now with my new green Columbia Sting-ray bicycle I enjoyed a low silver-grey banana seat and the handle bars accommodated my aluminum “horns” as Mr. Hidalgo called them. The horns wrapped around my handlebars and I balanced my canvas newspaper bag upon them. Earlier, just after school I saw the bundle of papers on Fenny’s street since the newspaper company had not yet switched the drop off address to my street, near my house, or in front of Driscoll’s past the top of our hill where Strawberry and Neil picked up their papers. But earlier on this day I sat on the grass slope just above the sidewalk in front of Fenny’s, and with my box of fresh red rubber bands proceeded to fold in thirds and wrap that day’s papers: 29 of them, and at least one extra.
That day I looked down Fenny’s street to “the old man’s house.” The house was a dull dark brown, the dirty windows dark with ragged lace white drapes; the wooden porch under the black shingled roof was a dull grey, completely devoid of any paint, just deeply grooved, dry, worn wood. Fenny, with his younger brother Robert nodding beside him said very matter-of-factly that “‘the old man’ shot rock salt at us from his shot gun when he came out on the porch and would at anyone else who even approached his front walk.”
This story filled me with silent fear and I accepted what they said as the truth. From the appearance of that dark, mysterious house it seemed entirely plausible. I never thought to question Fenny or his brother Robert or their next door neighbors, those two brothers, Sean and Conor, who were nearly the same age, just a few years younger. Fenny’s street was lined with old, strong towering buttonwoods with rounded bumps like ancient gargoyles on their peeling trunks; Fenny’s street descended and curved down just as my street did, Buttonwood Lane, and both streets seemed similar to a witches’ glen.
Fenny and his younger brother were the first family I knew who kept rabbits, many of them in their wire-fenced pen in their backyard; they sometimes picked them up and brought them in the house; they handled them tenderly. The rabbits were grey and brown and furry and friendly with noses which wiggled. Fenny called their droppings, “rabbit putsies.”
I recalled as I folded papers all by myself, once, a few years before, when I was with my mother at the A&P Market downtown I had seen the old man near the back at the checkout aisle where I swung from the metal railings that divided the check out aisles above the green and cream tiles of the floor. The old man wore old baggy denim overalls and his deeply creased face looked out below straggly white hairs across the top. But his face was neither a kind face, nor an unkind one; but just an old face. I had heard from Fenny that his wife had died years before.
That afternoon at the A&P, a few years back, I saw him a few minutes later putting the brown paper grocery bags in the back of his old, faded green and dull white Studebaker wagon; that vehicle was of another era; there was no other car as old in the entire town. We rode in a dull green Checker Cab of Main Street Cab Company; the cab was huge with two small flip up jump seats between the back of the front seat and the big back seat where mom sat.
Previously, I saw the old man driving his car beside and past the side of his tall dilapidated house which stood stark above the railroad tracks which ran alongside and below. Those same railroad tracks where years before my older brother and his friend Corey at age five had walked and walked and then sat down, not realizing trains still traveled those tracks and one was fast approaching. A police officer in his car saw them sitting on the burnished tracks that afternoon as he drove down the curving hill, and he flipped on his lights and siren and the train was able to stop above and before the curve of track that led to them. They were oblivious as the officer ordered them to “walk on home and stay off the tracks.”
But now those tracks curved behind a tall wire fence.
The old man’s large backyard, the entire green expanse grew hidden behind these massive hedges of about 15 feet which were not only tall, but also thick; you could not see through them or around them as they wrapped around and enclosed the entire deep backyard.
The first day of my route, as I folded and counted, I liked seeing the crisp dark headlines atop the paper; the Philadelphia Flyers’ season had commenced and the Phillies’ season had come to a merciful close. Once I had the bag full with folded papers I knew I still didn’t know my route by heart, so periodically I would sometimes slow and cease pedaling and stop below the shade of a large tree and study my small black spiral book for the next address. Fenny had shown me his route just once the day before, his last day. The first part of the route was not so difficult, riding my bike up and down familiar streets, one of which I walked up and down to and from school. Even though this was my first week, I knew I would need to begin collecting this Thursday and Friday to meet my bill on Saturday with Mr. Hidalgo. Fenny had quit in the middle of the week of the last week of a two – week cycle.
That first Thursday began as the day before, but after the first three houses, and stopping at each, putting my kickstand down, balancing my bike, and taking a paper from my grey canvas bag I realized this was going to be a very long afternoon. Already, two homes of the first three customers yielded no response to my ringing the bell and knocking on the door. I had a total of $4.00 in my red canvas collection bag that Fenny had given me. There was with it one $1.50 tip in the form of that fourth one dollar bill.
Earlier, I turned down Montcreek Street, the first side street of my route, where I delivered just one more paper, before heading further down Tulip Poplar Avenue and pedaling past the huge houses set back from the old giant trees which lined both sides of the street. There the trees towered and over reached the street as they also did on the side streets.
The second house on the side street Montcreek, on the left, set back from some narrow stone steps that cut into the steep hill of the narrow front lawn belonged to the O’Fallon’s, and Kelley O’Fallon, I believed the prettiest girl in my grade, partially due to her long brown hair, and also partly due to her sweet smile, and her fair face with tiny freckles; the fact that she was not taller than I added to my fondness for her. I hoped silently that after I rang the doorbell that she would arrive at the door and open it. When I saw her through the screen door after she opened her big dark brown front door I chortled out, “Collecting for The Evening Bulletin.”
“Hi Billy,” she said.
I heard her mother’s voice call from the darkened living room.
“Who is it, sweetie?”
“It’s the paper boy; we have a new one.”
Kelley asked me conspiratorially in a lowered voice, “How much is it, Billy?”
“Two dollars and fifty cents,” I said and smiled.
I’m not certain my Keds were still touching the dark bricks of her front porch. Her smile, her long softly shining brown hair and her bright green – brown eyes made me briefly lose a sense of where I stood, and I could not help smiling after she replied –
“I’ll be right back.”
“OK,” I said with my throat suddenly dry.
When she returned she pushed open the screen door and reached her hand toward me; the closeness of her forearm, wrist, and hand were striking to me, but then she did something unexpected; she pressed her hand with the folded bills in it deep into my open palm and smiled. It was a smile that silently said “don’t worry about the change.”
Then she said, “I’ll see you in school tomorrow Billy,” and she smiled again.
“OK,” I said.
She had given me four folded one dollar bills. I uncinched my bag and stuffed them inside. As I turned and walked down her walk I was aware I was still smiling. I recalled that she and I held a secret.
Two years earlier I discovered inside my small rectangular wooden desk in Mrs. Pascal’s third grade class a folded white paper; within it were two pale orange rubber monsters, one with a suction cup below its feet. The other had wild rubber hair and protruding rubber eyes. The note said, “These are for you Billy; I really like you. Don’t tell anyone.”
I remembered that from years before and seeing her in school that fall because just before Christmas she and her family moved away and I never saw her again.
Before school, in the early morning during that year, we would sometimes stand near each other watching bigger, older kids playing box hockey. There were two rectangular boxes of worn grey wood, and in the middle were square holes in the board that separated one half from the other. We stood on the shadowed macadam in the still dark, dim early morning light behind the oldest brick school building with the small yellow and black Civil Defense sign just above the stone foundation of the Administration building. With long, thin grey wooden sticks, usually a lanky blonde girl, a few years ahead of us furiously battled a boy in her grade. Her forehead glowed and glistened below her pulled-back blonde hair where a few strands strayed. Her cheeks were damp and pink.
Once they put their sticks down as their bell rang – the junior high kids bell began their day about five minutes before we were called into the school by our bell – Kelley and I stood looking at each other; we both picked up sticks, and there was a ball in the middle of the box. She whacked it through the square hole and then smiled at me; I whacked it back, but missed the square hole. The game seemed more interesting to watch than to play. But when I looked up I saw Kelley was still there smiling, but then the bell rang loudly, and she threw down her stick and said, “Let’s go!”
But this afternoon, I started to kick up my kickstand, and then I remembered that I didn’t check the O’Fallon’s off in my book as “Paid.” After Fenny introduced me to Mr. Hidalgo, the District Manager, Mr. H. as he told me to call him, said, “Always check who paid right after you receive the money; otherwise, you won’t remember who paid and who didn’t, later.”
As he said this he patted his stomach and then combed his wavy dark hair with his right hand. He wore a fat brown tie that was tied too short, and his gut showed below it through his beige shirt.
But this fall afternoon I stood with my bicycle leaning against my side and opened my book and checked “Paid” in the small square for the third week of October for O’Fallon of 45 Montcreek Street. I shoved the book back in my newspaper bag, kicked up the kickstand and swung my right leg over my bike seat, and began pedaling down the sidewalk of her street; then I rode down a driveway and crossed the street and began pedaling back toward Tulip Poplar Avenue, then turned right.
But before riding on toward Everett Avenue, there was one customer on Tulip Poplar. The biggest house on the entire street had a side door in addition to the large front door. The side door stood just past the wide overhang of the side porch that covered part of the driveway. Fenny had told me to “always leave the paper just outside that door on a small brick porch.”
That afternoon, I rang the doorbell and heard a screechy, scratchy voice ask from far above the dark stairwell beyond the closed door: “Who is it?”
“Paperboy: The Evening Bulletin,” I called out.
I then heard footsteps clopping down and down and down what seemed an endless flight of stairs, and the door creaked open just about four inches. The shadowed face of an elderly lady was barely visible and I could see only dimly up this endless, dark flight of stairs which seemed to ascend to not just the second floor, but all the way up to the third floor.
The woman then said rather crankily, “Just give me the paper; I’ll have to pay you next time; I left my purse upstairs,” and then this thin heavily-veined right hand, like a vulture’s claw, snatched the paper from me, and she said, “Thanks,” and slammed the door with a thud shut.
I was relieved to soon be back on my bike and feel the cool wind on my face and the fresh, late afternoon air blowing through my hair and past my ears. I made a left on Everett Avenue, and realized how long this was all taking, and how late it was already in the afternoon, and remembered what Mr. Hidalgo had said, “Start your collecting on Thursday; a lot of people aren’t home on Friday.”
But it seemed collecting was going to take hours, and some people were already not home on this Thursday, so I rode up on the sidewalk toward my next house on Everett, and threw a paper side arm on to the wooden porch of one of the duplexes, and then pedaled down a driveway, and up another, across the street, and did the same thing again; then it was on toward one of the busiest streets in my town, Woodrow Road. This road seemed busy with so much traffic it really seemed not safe to ride a bike on it, so I stayed on the brick sidewalk and rode under the towering trees to my next house, a tall Victorian with a wooden porch, and steep, narrow concrete driveway that went back and back into the shadows and where I never saw a car parked.
I parked my still shiny green bike below the steep steps making sure it balanced, and pulled one folded paper from my canvas bag. Surely these folks were home I thought to myself. The wooden steps had some peeling paint and the house itself was a dull white, also peeling slightly in spots.
With a little trepidation I rang the bell; I noticed they had a storm door over the stout front dull white door, of dirty enamel without gloss. I could hear the bell clanging inside and soon I could hear elderly voices calling out: “Is that the door bell Lois?” a man’s voice inquired.
“I don’t know, dear,” she said.
I pressed the small round plastic button once more.
“There it is again, dear; there’s someone at the door.”
I could hear feet shuffling inside and soon a white – haired lady stood just inside the door which was opened about a quarter way and an older man stood hunched beside her. Their front living room was dimly lit, and the lady looked at me, and said, “Yes?” as if posing a question.
“I’m the new paperboy,” I said, “and I’m collecting; here’s your afternoon paper.”
She then turned to the man near her and asked, “What did he say dear?”
“He said, ‘He’s the paperboy and he’s collecting.'”
“Come in,” she said.
As I looked at the husband’s face behind her I started to realize something; his one eye had a dull blueish hue to it and it was half closed. His other eye was completely closed, just a pale fleshy eyelid over his sunken eye. He moved sort of slowly, but his presence was essential to his wife, as her presence was essential to him. They were indispensable to each other.
She said to me, “Just a minute, let me get my purse.”
“OK,” I said. “It’s two dollars and fifty cents.”
When she returned to the living room with its drapes over the windows part way open, she turned to her husband and asked, “How much did he say it is, dear?”
“He said ‘it’s two dollars and fifty cents,’ I think.”
“Yes, its two dollars and fifty cents,” I said, with my voice raised a bit louder. I then realized something: while these two were a good team together, apart they could not truly function. As far as I could tell, the wife was completely deaf, and the husband was completely blind.
I had witnessed blind people; my grandmother was blind.
Then the wife turned to me and handed me a five dollar bill.
“This is too much,” I said, and “You’re only the third customer who’s been home this afternoon; I’m not sure I have enough change.”
“What did he say?” she asked toward her husband.
“He said, ‘He doesn’t have any change.’”
She turned back from him toward me and said, “That’s all right honey; you know what I mean, honey? I do not have any change either,” she said as she smiled toward me.
I thought I had been in their house for what seemed about half an hour, and the sky was growing a deeper gray. I felt a chill when I finally stood out on their front wooden porch again, high above the sidewalk and road. The rush hour traffic sped by and I had delivered less than a third of my route. I would have to forego collecting until Friday after all, and I could barely recall which house was next. I just knew I must somehow pedal my new bike across this busy road and head up Everett Avenue, then turn down either Heath Avenue or Cloverhill Road; I couldn’t remember exactly which was first now. But I had to get going, but safely too. People might be upset that they had not yet received their papers, and now it was almost the dinner hour. The sky had grown grayish purple as I finally pedaled across that road and up the Goodbrother’s driveway across it, then down the sidewalk and up Everett Avenue.
Nearly an hour later I turned my bike down my street. The air was cold and the sky was near dark. My bag was empty of all but one paper and my money bag held less than ten dollars. I rode my bike down our empty grassy driveway and leaned my bike against the garage doors and trudged back up the driveway with my bag slung over my shoulder.
When I opened the front door I heard mom call out, “Where have you been? You’re late and your dinner is cold.” She spoke with a slightly lilting English accent and I could understand what this meant.
“I’m sorry mom, but I tried collecting as the District Manager suggested; it really slowed me down.”
“Oh dear heart, sit down. This is all we have, a lamb chop and apple sauce. Would you like a glass of milk?”
“OK,” I said.
“I’m going back to my typing.”
I sat alone in the kitchen chewing the small warm chop and shoveling the cool apple sauce down.
I thought to myself: it’s the end of the week nearly, and called from the kitchen across the living room beyond where my mom sat in her library: “I’m going for a bike ride downtown.”
“OK, dear. Could you get me a pack of Lucky’s from the machine in Homestead Restaurant? Let me give you a dollar. Don’t be long.”
I walked out the front door and back down the mostly dark driveway as the kitchen light burned above and the wind reshuffled autumn leaves above me and at my feet. I could hear them crunchy underfoot and see the strange grey cold autumn shadows before and beside me. I held the handgrips of my handle bars. It felt good to push the bike without the horns and paper – stuffed bag over them. I reached the top of our drive, swung my leg over the seat as I pushed down on the near pedal and began pedaling up our street. I pedaled hard through the fall chill of buttonwoods, then down under the canopy of Tulip Poplar toward the school and past it toward the highway. I crossed the street and pedaled toward the a couple in long coats, he in a tan overcoat; she in a dark wool coat; another identical, middle – aged couple was several doors behind them. I rode past the lit Community Bookshop next to Lantern Lane; the Homestead Restaurant was dark behind me, but its many-paned front door emitted a dim light where I had walked back to the shadowed cigarette machine at the end of a long, dark, carpeted corridor to buy mom her Lucky Strikes. Then I rode past and away from Fisher’s Bike Shop where mom had purchased my bike, the one I rode, which once stood jauntily behind the plate glass windows that fall, and recalled that late evening, not unlike this one, when we stood side-by-side in the mid-October chill, and she asked me, “What do you want for your birthday?”
“That bicycle, that green Columbia Sting – Ray,” I said. “It’s the same brand as big brother Harry’s.”
And a week later she surprised me, with it parked in her library behind the big white heavy door. “Happy birthday,” she said, and reached down toward me and hugged and kissed me.
“Wow!” I said, “Thanks.”
I think that evening and the one a week before when she asked me what I wished for my birthday when we stood together in front of Fisher’s Bike Shop in the fall evening were the happiest moments of my life.
This night I enjoyed the freedom of pedaling past the downtown people, and sang to myself the words of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” the lilting up and down sing-song plaintive in my ears, and the pedaling cheered me somewhat, but I felt lonely, riding past the shadowed faces of adults in their long overcoats and I knew this was the only world I would ever know.
Daniel Picker‘s work has appeared in Harvard Review, The Sewanee Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oxonian Review, Poetry(Chicago), Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Sequoia: The Stanford Literary Magazine, Rune: MIT, The Dudley Review at Harvard, The Abington Review, and many more. He is also the winner of The Dudley Review Poetry Prize at Harvard, and a Fellowship from The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and he is the author of a book of poems Steep Stony Road.