It was 3:45 in the morning on the first day of summer vacation, and I was riding up Crescent Hill Road on my way to the Times District Distribution Center, also known as the ”Paper Shack.” This was where trucks dropped off bundles of the local newspaper to be delivered by adolescent losers, of which I would soon be joining the ranks.
I stood up on my pedals and pushed towards the top of Crescent Hill. My legs pumped in rhythm to the song: “I hate par-ents.” Well, I didn’t hate my mom. It was Jack. I’m not sure why I hated his guts—it’s not like he was a creep or anything. He was just so freaking annoying that I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him.
My real dad would never have forced me to get a summer job. When he was around, we’d have fun together—playing catch or watching sports on TV. Jack didn’t like sports. He liked to read. He’d sit in his chair for hours, hair sticking out of his head like pieces of half-cooked spaghetti, wearing the same wrinkled clothes and the same slippers.
My mom used to have my back, but ever since Jack moved in it’s like she doesn’t trust me anymore. Last year she wouldn’t let up about my grades, my friends, and whether I was happy and shit. So now, all I have is my best friend, Drew. Last night we were down in his basement watching some late night monster flick while I griped about my own, personal nightmare. At least he was sympathetic.
“Sucks to be you,” he said, and grabbed the bowl of popcorn out of my hands.
“So, how’d they get you to do it?” He threw a piece of popcorn in the air and tried to catch it in his mouth. It missed and tumbled onto the floor.
I shrugged. “It’s not like I had a choice. I was eating some breakfast, and they came into the kitchen to talk. I thought it was going to be about something fun. The next thing I knew, I had a job.”
“Yah, but a paper route? How come they wouldn’t let you cut lawns or something?”
“Because,” I said. “Jack is such an asshole. He totally went behind my back. He called some guy at the Times, and I guess they had one route left. Jack told them that I’d take it.”
“Wow,” said Drew. “There’s no way I’d let my parents force me to deliver papers.”
I picked up the remote and cranked the volume—I needed some werewolf gore to take my mind off having to get up in about four hours.
“I hope they give you a good route,” said Drew. He took a gulp of soda and belched. “Mark Chiles delivered papers last summer and it almost killed him.”
“There are bad routes?” Here was something I hadn’t considered.
“Sure. They give all the new kids the shittiest routes—long, hilly, that sort of stuff. But the worst one is 9-13. It’s fricking impossible. Just hope they don’t give you that one.”
The back side of Crescent Hill was winding and steep; I coasted most of the way down, weaving between potholes and deep cracks in the pavement. I reached the bottom and turned onto Westfield Avenue. My front tire followed a wobbly blob of light on the road that came from my bike lamp; it cut through the dark with all the strength of a wet match. My mom and dad got me the bike on my 11th birthday. It used to be great, but now it was a piece of crap—it rattled, and it was too small. Jack said that I could use the money from the paper route to buy a new bike. What a jerk.
My real dad used to get me stuff all the time. I knew that he was just trying to make up for not being around much. He always said that ninety percent of parenting was showing up. Anyway, he sucked at math. My mom does seem happier since he moved out. She used to drink and yell a lot, but not so much anymore. Jack’s not a yeller—he’s into “talking things through.” He should have been a therapist.
Yesterday, after my parents had ruined my life, I was lying on my bed watching a bug crawl across the ceiling. I heard a tap on my door. I knew what was coming.
Jack was one of those adults who used the same stupid expressions over and over. One of his favorites was: “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.” When I messed up around my real dad, he’d give me a smack, but then it was over. He said that once I had my punishment everything was forgotten. Not Jack. Once he got disappointed, he could stay that way for weeks.
My door cracked open. “Dennis?” Jack came over and sat down on the end of my bed. “Listen, Dennis. I know you’re upset, but I think we should talk about this.”
I flipped over towards the wall and ignored him.
Usually, that was the end of it, and he’d get up and leave, but Jack didn’t move. I turned back to make sure he was still breathing. He was staring at me with a strange expression on his face—like he was sad or something.
“Dennis,” he said. “Your mother and I can’t force you to do the route. But we’re asking you to try. We believe it’s time that you learned about responsibility and commitment.”
I had to shut him up quick or he’d go on for hours. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
That surprised the hell out of him. “Well—great. Thank you, Dennis.”
Actually, I had no intention of going through with it, but for the rest of the day they seemed so damned happy that I couldn’t back out.
The sky had brightened by the time I pulled up to the Shack. I could see a group of teens standing by the side of the building; there was a thin, blue haze hanging over their heads. I thought about going over for a smoke, but I didn’t know any of them, so I just dumped my bike and climbed up the three steps to the Shack. There was a large “9” painted in black on the side of the door along with a ton of graffiti.
The Shack was the size of a small classroom with whitewashed boards for walls; old, water-stained planks made up the roof. A tall, skinny teenager wearing a beanie was standing behind a small desk looking down at a clipboard. He glanced up at me as I came through the door. Without anything better to do, I just waited and picked at the paint. The Shack stank of old basement.
“Wilson, right?” the teen said. I nodded. He didn’t say his name, but I already knew that he was Aaron Wenker. Drew had told me that he went to Miller Street School, ninth grade, and was as stupid as shit. I don’t know if the last part was true, because Drew said that about everyone.
“Ever delivered papers before?” He looked me up and down. I shook my head.
“Okay,” he said, “come over here.” He stepped between the large, central table and the waist-level shelving that bordered the outside wall. I followed him down the narrow aisle to the back where the paper bundles were stacked. He grabbed a bundle and lifted it onto the counter next to a red-haired kid who was about my age. The kid was busily folding papers and then hammering them flat with his fist.
“Hey, watch it Wenker,” said the kid. When your last name was Wenker, no one called you by your first name.
“There’s lots of room, Clement,” said Wenker. Clement shoved his bundle down the bench a foot or so and then resumed folding and hammering. He put the finished, folded papers into a canvas bag.
“You get your papers from here,” Wenker said, pointing at the bundles on the floor. “If you need extras to make up your number,” he pointed to an open bundle, “you get them from there, okay?”
I shrugged, not wanting to come across as an idiot.
Wenker said: “Do you know how to fold?”
I shook my head.
Wenker sighed and looked up at the ceiling. I could tell that he knew I couldn’t fold papers and was just being a dickhead. “Well, I don’t have time to show you, but lucky for you Saturdays are light—you can usually get foursies.”
I felt like I had to say something. “I was told to meet with the district manager.” Being that this was my first sentence of the day, my voice wasn’t exactly prepared, and the words came out like I was a three pack-a-day smoker. I coughed and then horked. Wenker scowled.
I tried again. “Mr. Smith is supposed to meet me here.”
Wenker’s voice went up like three octaves. “Smith? At the Shack? Who the hell told you that?” He looked towards the door and then laughed, nervously. The other carriers had stopped folding and were staring at us.
Feeling a bit panicky, I tried once more. “I’m supposed to follow around with the kid who’s leaving.”
Wenker took a deep breath. He turned and walked towards the front of the Shack. “He’s not coming,” he said over his shoulder, “so you’re on your own.”
“What?” I said. “On my own? I can’t do this.”
The kid called Clement said: “You’re delivering papers, Dufus. It’s not like you’re building rockets.”
I almost told him to fuck off.
Wenker returned and handed me a sheet of paper. “This is your route.”
On the front was a faded map with street names and house numbers. At the top was a large stamp: 9-13. Big surprise.
Wenker tapped the sheet with his pencil. “Route 9-13 has eighty-five houses. Numbers are on the back. You need to be finished by 6:30, so you’d better get started.” He turned back towards his desk.
“Hey,” I said. “I don’t have a bag.”
“What do you mean you don’t have a bag?”
“Mr. Smith told Jack—told my stepdad that I’d just be following today.”
Wenker overacted a long sigh. “I guess I can lend you one, but you’ll need to be better prepared tomorrow.” From behind his desk he pulled out a dirty-white bag and tossed it to me. “Just hurry up. The deliveries have to be done by 6:30.”
“Route 9-13,” Clement snorted. “What a loser. You should be finished around—never.”
I looked down at the sheet. The route went up into the Harland District—known for huge houses, steep hills, and monstrously long driveways. Then it ran along Hania Bay Drive and the adjacent streets from Stratford Avenue all the way over to Midland Road.
“Crap,” I muttered.
“Yup,” said Clement, chuckling.
By the time I got started with my first bundle, the Shack had already filled up with carriers. Clement confirmed that Saturday was usually “foursies”—which meant that you could fold the paper four times, making a slim, tight, throwing instrument. I tried to copy him—fold, fold, fold, fold…smack…tuck—to produce something that was halfway decent. It took me forever, and most of the carriers were gone by the time I had finished my first bundle.
“Have fun, Jizzface,” said Clement. He hoisted his bag and walked up the aisle towards the door.
Now it was just me, Wenker, and a couple of stragglers.
“What the hell, Wilson, you should have been long gone by now.” Wenker stood beside me, hands on hips.
“I haven’t finished folding.” I grabbed another paper—fold, fold, fold, fold…smack….tuck. The bag was pretty much jammed full, and I still had another thirty or so papers left.
“Well, you need to move.” He looked at his watch. “It’s already 4:55 and I’m closing at 5:00.” The only other kid in the Shack picked up his bag and strolled out.
“I don’t have any more room.”
“Jesus Christ,” Wenker muttered. “Look, you’re just going to have to deliver those folded papers first and then come back for the rest.”
“Alright.” I heaved the bag off the shelf and put the strap over my shoulder. It weighed a ton.
“I’ll put your other papers under the Shack by the door.”
“Just make sure you come back for them. I’m not getting into trouble with Smith because of your lazy ass.”
I hitched the bag and leaned forward—the weight shift launched me towards the door. I one-stepped down the stairs and waddled over to my bike.
I looked back at the Shack. Wenker was bent down shoving my remaining papers under the stairs. He saw me watching him. “Make sure you come back for these,” he called. “And get going, you’re already late.”
Even at my best speed, it still took me thirty minutes to get to Harland. At least I had plenty of time to think about how crappy my life had turned out.
My mom and dad got divorced three years ago. Mom said that sometimes people make mistakes when they’re young. So, now my dad lives in Florida. He calls me once in a while, but I think he’s still pissed at my mom for the divorce, and he’s afraid she might pick up the phone. I guess he was screwing some woman at the office, and that’s why mom kicked him out. I don’t blame her. It was a shitty thing to do. But he did say that he was sorry, and that he wasn’t perfect. I wish they had tried harder to work things out.
A year after they split up, my mom started dating Jack. At first, I thought it would be cool—he was a doctor and everything. Turns out he’s a doctor of history and teaches at the community college. How lame is that?
After the wedding, Jack moved in with us and things were actually okay for a while; he kind of left me alone. But then I got a few bad grades and actually failed a subject—history. Life has never been the same.
I finally got to the first house. I pulled up beside a tall, wooden fence and straddled my bike. I dropped the bag and reached to grab a paper. Then I heard a low growl coming from behind the fence. Before I could move, two dogs began barking their heads off and throwing their bodies against the fence. I yelled at them to shut up like a dozen times. I never realized how fast my heart could beat. Maybe I should stop watching late night werewolf movies.
An hour and a half later, I had delivered maybe thirty papers—I hadn’t even finished what was in my bag, and I still had to go back for the rest. I learned quickly that my folding technique sucked. The second paper that I threw from road to door exploded about halfway to the house. So, I had to get off of my bike, walk over, grab the pieces of paper that were strewn across the lawn, and jam them back together. Now the front page was: “Obituaries.”
After two more paper explosions, I decided to change my strategy and throw underhand. It was kind of girly, but at least the papers stopped blowing apart. My dad would have bust a gut if he saw me throwing underhand. We used to play a lot of baseball together when I was younger, and he took it pretty seriously. He was a top athlete in high school, and he had no problem calling me out when I screwed up—especially after he’d had a few beers. Don’t get me wrong, mostly he was great. It’s just that sometimes he could carry things too far. Like this time in fifth grade when I was talking to some girls, and Doug Fisher came up behind me and yanked my gym shorts down. Well, my god-damned underwear elastic was overstretched, so they came down too. Man, did I ever get a lot of grief from that. I got nicknamed “Pants.” I thought it was going to last my whole life. When my mom asked me why I was moping around I told her what happened. Big mistake. My dad overheard, and thought it was the funniest thing ever. And he just wouldn’t let it go. He kept saying things like: “Hey Pants, how’s it hanging this morning?” I could deal with that kind of teasing today, but in fifth grade—it was kind of harsh.
It was fully light now, but since it was Saturday there weren’t many people around. I was finally away from the Harland District and getting caught up. I must have been half-asleep because I almost pissed myself when I heard the yell, “Wilson.”
It was Wenker. He rode up on a wheelie bike that looked like it belonged to a second grader. He carried a canvas bag over his shoulder, and man, did he look pissed.
“You were supposed to come back for these.”
“I haven’t finished with the first batch,” I said, pointing at my bag.
Wenker stopped and stood over his bike’s middle bar. He unshouldered the bag and dropped it on the ground. “Here,” he said. “Smith already took a piece out of me.” Then he saw how many papers I had left. “Jesus Christ, Wilson, what the hell have you been doing? You should have been done over an hour ago. You have got to be the worst carrier ever.”
“Just try and finish the route, okay?” He looked up at the sky, which had been blue a few minutes ago but was getting grayer by the second. “It’s supposed to rain, and if those papers get wet…”
I got off my bike and grabbed the remaining papers from his bag. Of course they weren’t folded.
Wenker wheeled his bike around. “The Times is getting complaint calls because of you. So, quit jerking around and move it.”
I shoved the rest of the papers into the canvas bag, lifted my bike, and heaved the bag onto the handlebars just as the first raindrop hit me. Then I had a brilliant idea: I spun back to ask Wenker if he could give me a hand—but he had probably seen that coming and was already long gone into the mist that had settled onto Midland Road.
Rain. Fricking awesome. I got the rest of my folded papers delivered before it really started to come down, but then I had all of the flat ones to deal with—which meant trudging up to every house and finding a covered place to keep them dry.
As I came to the next place, I could see a guy waiting for me behind his front screen. He was an old bugger—bald, with grey streaks on the sides of his head, red flannel pajama bottoms, and a brown housecoat. He opened the screen door. “About time, you little shit,” he said, and grabbed the paper from me. He slammed the door in my face.
I hadn’t actually had a stranger talk to me like that, and I just stood there, mouth open. I felt my face grow warm.
Holy crap, I thought. Am I going to cry?
Then anger flared in me. “Yah, well screw you,” I yelled, and stomped back to my bike, which didn’t produce the desired effect given that the grass was soaking wet.
Another one of Jack’s idiotic sayings is: “if you’re going to do a job, do it right.”
Yah, well, fuck that. I was done with this bullshit. Done. I never wanted a stupid, god-damned paper route in the first place. I stood in the rain, soaked and shivering, looking for a place to throw my extras—the most obvious place being that asshole’s front lawn. But then I thought: where was I going to go? I couldn’t go home and face an entire summer of “disappointed” Jack.
I had to do something. I thought about taking the rest of the papers back to the Shack and dropping them off for Wenker. I’d have to come up with a good story on the way—maybe something about being chased by massive dogs.
I had just picked up my bike when I heard a car honk behind me. A dark blue station wagon with brown panels splashed through the puddles and pulled up to the curb. Jack was driving. The power window came down on the passenger’s side. “Hey Dennis, need some help?” He opened his door and got out. He was wearing a raincoat and a hat, and he had my jacket in his hands. “Here, put this on.”
I pulled on the jacket and drew the hood over my head. Jack lifted my bike into the back. I grabbed my bag and climbed into the passenger’s seat. “What are you doing here?” was all I could think of to say.
“Mr. Smith called and said that the Times was getting complaints from customers. He told me your route location, and I came to find you. How many do you have left?”
I stared at Jack for a few seconds. Then I looked down at the map. “Around twenty.”
“Okay, you read out the numbers. Where to next?”
I was sure that Jack would start into one of his lectures about “staying on task,” but he didn’t say much at all—and he even folded some papers for me. He showed me that if you added a crimp before tucking it in, the paper would hold together better when thrown. I asked him how he learned about folding. He told me that he had a route when he was a kid. I said that I didn’t know they had newspapers in prehistoric times. He thought that was funny—I guess he liked anything to do with history.
We were on the last street. The heater fan whirred, and the wipers moved back and forth over the misted windshield; they dipped below the hood and squeaked as they stuttered back across.
The rain had stopped.
“Are you okay?” Jack said.
I shrugged and crossed my arms. What the hell did he think? I was sitting in a car at fricking 8 a.m. on the first Saturday of summer vacation.
“Dennis, I know that the last thing you want is a lecture.”
Which meant I was going to get a lecture.
“I just wanted to say that we shouldn’t have forced you into a job without talking to you about it first.”
I said nothing.
“Your mother and I have been worried about you. Your grades really slipped this year, and you’re a bright kid. We’ve been concerned.”
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Sure,” said Jack. “We know that you are smart and capable. It’s just that…” He went quiet for a few seconds. Then he said: “Dennis, do you know what a rite of passage is?”
“Having a summer job is part of growing up, and it’s important. It’s these kind of experiences that help us learn to take responsibility.” He paused. “But your mother and I agree that we should have involved you in the decision-making. Parents aren’t perfect, and we’re learning too.”
I looked out my window. Some woman in a short nightie and a pink robe was standing on her porch. She had messy hair and held a cigarette in her hand. She looked cold.
“We also thought that a summer job would provide a good opportunity for you to learn about earning money.” He paused again and glanced over at me. “So, we do want you to work this summer, but if you would like to try a different job, it’s fine with us.”
I was too tired to get into a heavy discussion. I leaned back in the seat and replayed the morning in my brain: the ride up Crescent Hill; the inky, damp smell of the Shack; papers exploding; dogs barking; misty rain; that jerk in the bathrobe. All I knew was that it was over. I was finished. And Clement, Wenker, and even Drew for that matter, could all kiss my ass. There’s no way those chickenshits had the balls to take on 9-13.
I said the first thing that came into my mind. “I guess it’s not that bad.”
Graeme Tolson lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife, kids, dogs, and cat. He is originally from Victoria, British Columbia where he studied marine sciences. He currently works as a physician, and in his spare time he reads, writes, plays guitar, programs computers, and competes in triathlon events.
© 2018, Graeme Tolson