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My oldest brother rested his hand on my shoulder. “Want my paper route? Since I leave for college in August? The tips are great.”
I nibbled a fingernail. Regular spending money? Something to do besides watch Gilligan’s Island every afternoon, Monday through Friday?
I grinned. “Sure.”
The next day, my brother stood so close our shoulders touched.
“Fold the left side of the paper over two to three inches,” he said, “crease it, then roll the right side toward it a couple times and tuck it inside.”
Mike stopped in front of our next door neighbor’s house, squinted his right eye, and arced the paper roll onto Mr. Waugh’s porch. I whistled in admiration.
He gave me a thumbs up. “Rubber bands and plastic bags are for sissies.”
He heaved the big canvas bag with the wide, bright orange strap off his shoulder and held it out.
“You carry it, so you get used to it.”
Two weeks later he left for Concord College.
I perched on the arm of Dad’s recliner as he made his usual Sunday night phone call.
“May I talk to Mike a minute?”
Dad handed me the phone.
“How often do you miss Ms. Thorn’s paper box?” I said.
Mrs. Thorn lived on North Queens Court. She had at least eight dogs. Eight dogs and their poo piles, and the reek of their poo piles. There was a chain link fence all around her yard. So the dogs wouldn’t shred her newspaper, you had to lean against the fence and try to throw the paper into a two foot by two foot wooden crate on her porch. If you missed, you had to go into the yard and fetch it. The dogs weren’t mean, you just had to navigate your way through the poo-pile landmines and the gauntlet of wagging tails. I’d pet the pups with one hand and pinch my nose with the other.
“Can I speak to Mike again?” I said to Dad the next Sunday.
He held out the phone.
“Guess what, Mike? Mr. Perkins on Green Oak Drive said he’ll give me his antique Karmann Ghia, the robin’s egg blue one not the Atomic Fireball red one, when I grow up.”
Mike huffed. “Don’t believe it for a second.”
I pooched my lower lip out. “Really? 'Cause I love it. He says when I get my license—”
“Does he hold your hand a super long time when he pays you?”
My eyebrows flew up. “How’d you know?”
“Be careful with him, okay?” my brother said. “Maybe take someone with you when you collect money. Promise?”
In the summertime, on really hot days, Mrs. Fitzgerald always let me spray myself with her garden hose.
“That’ll cool you off,” she’d say.
When it was super muggy she’d offer me a glass of sweet tea and while I drank it, we’d chat in the breezeway between her house and garage. When I was done with my tea, I’d cut through her yard to make my way over to Locust Street. Four boys lived in the house behind hers.
“Woo hoo!” the youngest one would say if he was out. “Wet t-shirt, I like it.”
When his mom was on the porch with him, he wouldn’t make that remark. At least once I week I’d give her a free newspaper. She always tried to pay me for it.
I’d swat at the air between us. “Don’t worry about it. They always put an extra one in my bundle.”
Sometimes in the fall she’d give me a brown paper Big Bear bag.
“Get you some chestnuts, honey. I know how you love them.”
“Hey, Dad,” I said one Sunday, “let me tell Mike about the dogs that almost ate Holly last week.”
Mike growled. “The black and white Great Danes over on Linden Circle?"
"Yeah, how'd you know? The lady came outside to write her check but she didn't shut the screen door good. The dogs tore out of the house and they were on Holly like rice at a wedding." Holly was our Heinz-57-mostly-Beagle dog.
I heard Mike inhale through his nose. “How’s Holly?”
“Her tail might be broke, but she’s okay. I beat the tar out of 'em with my rolled up newspapers and they backed off. I think the lady felt bad 'cause she gave me a five dollar tip and a popsicle.”
“You calling Mike tonight?” I asked Dad.
He dialed and pressed the receiver into my palm.
“I busted my lip on the route on Friday,” I told Mike.
“You know the last house on the route? The one at the bottom of Locust, before Norway Avenue? And how there’s that bent over fence in between it and the house next door?”
“I pretended like I was a horse jumping it, but my foot got hung up and I fell, really hard. I busted my knees to beat all, and both my hips are black and blue now."
Mike groaned. “Bummer.”
“Oh, that’s not the worst part,” I said. “My bottom teeth went all the way through my lower lip. Mom wanted to take me to the E.R. for stitches but I talked her out of it 'cause I hate needles.”
“You’re doing a great job with my route, you know,” my big brother said. “I’m proud of you.”
I handed the phone back to my dad, wrapped my arms around my waist and grinned.
I kept the paper route for years. Blew pretty much all my profits on Certs, candy cigarettes, and wax lips at the Convenient Mart in Gallaher Village. Mr. Perkins never did give me the cute blue Kharmann Ghia. His wife gave him a divorce though.
Then one day John, another one of my big brothers, said, “Want my job at Tudor's Biscuit World? Since I’m starting Marshall soon? You can take over as the official sausage gravy taster.”
I tapped at my front teeth with my fingernail. A weekly paycheck? Air conditioning? All the made-from-scratch-biscuits I can eat?
I smiled. “Sure!”