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Fiction #282
(published June 15, 2006)
Paper Boy
by Larry Gaffney
He liked mornings, Paper Boy did, with white plumes of industrial smoke frozen in the dawn sky, and higher up the crisscross of salmon-colored contrails left over from night-flying jets. Before going on, though, let us be clear on one point: Paper Boy was no boy, but a man of mature years—mid-forties, by the looks of him. His real name was Earl. Friends had given him the nickname because of his funny, dead-end job.

"A paper boy?" said his older brother Mike, when Earl told him about the new job. "You got a sack? You gonna ride a bike up and down the streets throwing papers at screen doors like Beaver Cleaver?"

"I work out of my car," said Earl, and he did. Regardless, Mike continued to hold Earl's job in low esteem. As a cable TV technician Mike also worked out of a vehicle, but he made a decent wage and enjoyed a little status. Professional types might look down their noses at Mike's GED, but if they needed a cable hookup they would be very polite—even after waiting and waiting all morning—because you didn't want to piss off the cable guy.

This family, consisting of Mike, Earl, and another brother, Travis, had turned out not so great. A glance at their combined dossiers would reveal a handful of DUIs, one pot bust, two divorces and the contretempts thereof, notoriety as public defecators (unfair—this had been perpetrated only once, by Travis, during a bacchanalian afternoon at a state park), undistinguished serial employment, five children, including two out of wedlock, one stripper girlfriend, a landfill-sized mountain of beer cans, liquor bottles, cigarette packs, and skin mags, dogs and cats of various sizes, colors, and temperaments, the cracked linoleum of apartment kitchens and bathrooms, dollar-store purchases in the thousands, NASCAR-emblazoned apparel, pre-owned cars that coughed and wobbled through their paces en route to the junkyard, one ex-wife who appeared on Judge Judy in connection with an assault at a KOA campground, too many aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews to keep track of, one deceased mother, known for her passionate devotion to the Lottery, and one deceased father, given to lifelong peregrinations.

As older brothers went, Mike was a good guy. He was the steady one, the one who looked out for the other two. He wanted better for Earl, hence his truculent comments about the paper route. He had seen Travis waste his life in California, following their dad around in a series of hopeless entrepreneurial ventures, the last one a traveling show a la Jerry Springer, in which locals disgorged family secrets on stage for the titillation of a live audience. It was el cheapo all the way, with bleak rented halls and Travis wielding the videocam, and none of the independent networks interested in buying the tapes. It all came apart in Petaluma, when an elderly man in the obvious grip of dementia sat blinking and open-mouthed while a phalanx of braying shrews reviled him for decades of alleged sexual impropriety. They had, in fact, been run out of town, and a couple of weeks later Dad stroked out in the booth of a Denny's, and it was left to Travis to make funeral arrangements and dispose of his personal effects, consisting of little more than some clothes, a worn shaving kit, a milk crate of yellowing paperbacks, a black and white TV given to irritating sonic malfunctions, an incomplete collection of old pennies, each one in a slot in the blue cardboard folder, the whole thing worth little more than the face value of the pennies, and, worst of all, an alcoholic chimpanzee. This chimp, bequeathed to Dad by an army buddy who died of cirrhosis, had been a royal pain in the ass, and it was a great relief when Travis, after much calling around, discovered a preserve that took in unwanted exotic pets.

No, Mike didn't want to see Earl go down that kind of road. "You can't make a living at this," he said. "You'll end up doing something shady."

"You don't understand," said Earl. "For the first time in my life I'm happy. I make just enough to keep me in cable and canned spaghetti. I don't want to travel. I don't need any furniture. My clothes probably won't wear out for another five or six years, except of course socks and underwear, but those I can afford. And most of all I don't want a woman in my life. I'm happy."

They were leaning against Earl's car as they talked, facing the house in which Earl rented a small apartment. Mike was quiet now, as his thoughts drifted to his corpulent wife, who had called Mike at work to remind him to get home right away so they could drive over to her friend Ginny's house and rescue her things that were being held hostage by Ginny's abusive husband. Mike was supposed to be the muscle in case anything happened, but how in God's name had these insane women come up with such an idea? Mike was well into his fifties, soft in the belly, tired most of the time. All he wanted to do after work was sit in his chair and eat pork chops and mashed potatoes from a lap tray while watching ESPN.

"Well, okay," said Mike. He eased himself off Earl's car and headed for his car, parked right in back of Earl's. "See you," he said.

"See you," said Earl.

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