The Paper Route

Yeah, yeah, I know I told you last month that I was leaving, and I am leaving, but remember, I said August was my last issue. So I'm going to go ahead and tell you one more story, or I won't be worth my salt.

When I was nine years old, I took my first paid job delivering unwanted, unread newsprint shoppers to all of the houses in Meadowlark Hills, the charmless new subdivision of particle-board-and-plastic houses nestled in the tumbleweed prairie at the at the base of the foothills of Casper Mountain. Ours was a small, mustard-yellow house with an attached garage and a leaky basement, and once a week, an anonymous adult driver stopped by and unloaded a pile of papers for me to roll, secure with a thin, red rubber band, and deliver.

I earned about five dollars for my trouble, which in the beginning consisted of rolling and binding about fifty, maybe sixty flimsy, inky shoppers, then loading them into a heavy cotton sack and canvassing the subdivision, depositing a shopper on every doorstep. At first the money was worth the horrible, nerve-wracking feeling of ink on my dry fingers as they rubbed against the chalky paper. For me this was, and still is, the sensory equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. The money was also worth the weight of the large sack on my scrawny shoulders, worth the way the strap dug painfully into the flesh on my collarbone as I trudged along the smooth asphalt streets of the "neighborhood." But barely worth the money, for a terribly shy preadolescent girl, was the horror of having to be out in public with that huge sack of paper, having to approach strangers who happened to be out on their postage-stamp lawns firing up grills or scooping up stray dog-doo, and having to make small talk, heaven forbid. Or worst of all, having to face other children who might be unfriendly or even downright mean.

I struggled a bit with the job from the start. But as the subdivision grew, with new houses getting slapped up literally every day, my job grew, too. The smeary task of rolling and binding took longer and longer as the pile of papers dropped off grew bigger and bigger, and the time it took to walk the route crept upward with each two-week interval. A job that at first took an hour or so soon took an hour and a half, and then two hours and more. The newer streets sported larger, more complex houses, and these rivers of fresh, black pavement wound around in a mercilessly inefficient maze of curves and cul-de-sacs that seemed to snake nearly all the way to Casper Mountain itself. Over the course of several months, so many houses got built and so many new streets got paved that I wasn't even sure I knew my way around anymore.

It didn't help that at the same time Meadowlark Hills was sprawling limitlessly, summer was giving way to fall and fall to winter. I walked my route in the afternoon, and on the day of one of my last deliveries, I found myself wandering in the near-dark streets without a sure sense of where I was or how exactly to find my way back home. The colder weather made my job even more miserable as my fingers stiffened and my body shivered against the howling Wyoming wind. My stringy hair whipped around my face and into my eyes, and I could see my breath in the half-light of the early winter dusk, puffing out in little streamlets as I counted houses until I lost track. Meanwhile, though the job had tripled and quadrupled, I was still earning that same five dollars per delivery. My motivation was slipping fast.

Finally, the day came. I got off the school bus and walked up the hill, past the Suzuki shop, past the little Meadowlark Hills office building where salesmen for the development chased off kids, like me and my sister, who fought boredom by sneaking into the model homes, sauntering up boldly to unsuspecting young couples with grubby-fisted toddlers who smeared dust and grime onto the thin interior walls, and warning them all forthrightly about the flooding basements and the kitchen tile that bubbled up after you moved in and the carpet that didn't come clean.

I walked briskly past the office and the model homes and down Meadowlark Lane to our mustard-yellow house, where, waiting for me, lay a great, towering stack of shoppers enveloped in a black plastic trash bag. My heart felt leaden in my chest.

I dragged the plastic sack up the three concrete steps, through the front door, and into the middle of the living-room floor. I collapsed in a rust-and-brown plaid chair and stared into space, feeling my fingers begin to tingle and regain warmth after the long walk from the bus stop through biting wind. I didn't move, I didn't turn on the TV. I just sat with my shoppers, staring them down, both of us refusing to budge. For a long while, I pretended I was simply procrastinating. But all along I knew full well the truth: I wouldn't be making my deliveries that day. All of the men and women of Meadowlark Hills were going to have to do without their two-for-ones and special rebates this time, because I quit.

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