H E R M E N E U T I C C H A O S J O U R N A L
K A R E N C R A I G O
Karen Craigo teaches English in Springfield, Missouri. A poet and essayist, she is the author of a forthcoming collection, No More Milk (Sundress Publications, 2016), as well as two chapbooks, most recently Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City, 2013). She is the nonfiction editor of Mid-American Review, and she also serves as an associate editor of Gingko Tree Review.
D E L I V E R I N G T H E C O U R I E R
Ralph has taught me one thing. I don’t need a weatherman.
If you can see the stars, no bag. If the stars are hidden, bag. It’s better to waste a plastic bag, Ralph says, than to piss off the customers who want their Louisville Courier-Journal delivered dry.
I have his route memorized, although I’m iffy on the actual names of roads. I’ve been with him fifty times. He starts in town, turning up and down the residential streets the way your eyes follow columns on a page. Then he goes to campus, where a handful of subscribers are students in the dorms. He finishes out in the country, on the winding, tree-lined roads where he likes to take the curves fast, jump the dips.
I study the sky. There are stars, but not as many as there should be. That means a fine layer of clouds, probably cirrus. Nothing that will develop into rain by morning. Ralph wouldn’t chance it. He’d go with bags. But I’m not wasting bags on a remote possibility of a thimbleful of rain. The hell with that.
Ralph is drunk. I tried to wake him, but not hard. He would want to take my car—my mom’s car, I should say—and because he’s drunk, he would want me to go with him. So I’d end up on the passenger side, rolling and tossing the papers, missing the porches and hitting the bushes and roofs. I would either have too much arm or not enough, and Ralph would tell me which. It used to be fun. My aim improved, at least as much as it ever would, and Ralph would high-five me, call me John Elway, toss me a beer.
Janet is sleeping beside Ralph. I woke her by mistake, and she tried to get him up, too. She lay there, her eyes clamped tight, her arm over her face and ending in a fist, and she shouted, “Ralph, get your ass up and go do your paper route.” You could tell she meant business, which is how I knew Ralph wasn’t getting up.
Once, a few weeks back, we tried harder to wake him. Janet jumped on the bed, and I tugged his arm, and we shouted his name, Ralph, Ralph, and even offered to make him an omelet. Ralph said some things back—a string of words that didn’t make sense—but he didn’t rise. But then something set him off, and he was up, and he was Ralph, the high school linebacker turned drunk, but he wasn’t Ralph. He grabbed Janet and tossed her to the bed, and she looked surprised, but kept on laughing. And then he clutched my arms and threw me down beside her, and I could see where his thumb made a cave in her biceps. When I tried to stop him, he whirled and made like he was going to hit me. And he threw us down again, and walked out of the room, all the while grinding out gibberish and obscenities.
We found him sleeping on the couch. That was the first night I did the paper route alone.
Ralph’s boss, a guy who generally says “God love ya” at the end of every sentence, has laid down the law. If Ralph doesn’t start delivering the paper every night, like he’s paid to do, that’s it—he’ll find another carrier. He won’t follow through with his threat, Ralph says, because frankly, no one wants to deliver the Louisville Courier-Journal in Morehead, Kentucky. The route is too spread out, with too few customers occupying too much territory. Everyone here reads the Lexington Herald-Leader, even though it’s not as good. Ralph’s boss knows it would be a pain in the ass to find another carrier, and he knows about me, so he knows he’s got a good deal.
Everyone knows about me. I’m not Janet, but I’m something else to Ralph. Ralph’s little bit on the side, his mechanic friends call me. We’re just friends, I say. I don’t sound convincing, although the statement is true, or true enough.
Janet is getting fed up with Ralph. I can tell by the way she acted tonight. She’s not amused anymore, because to tell you the truth, Ralph isn’t funny anymore. It scared us, the way Ralph threw us around in his sleep that night. It scared us that he couldn’t tell me from Janet—that he didn’t know either of us at all. Tonight when he wouldn’t wake up, and Janet just lay there with her fist beside her head, I said, “Well, I guess I could do the route again.” I had made a few mistakes the first time, and I had skipped the dorms on purpose, since the students never complain. But Janet just said, “I wouldn’t,” and rolled toward the wall.
Of course Janet wouldn’t. That’s the difference between Janet and me.
I wish Ralph could see my aim tonight. The newspapers whiz toward the porches with a spin a quarterback would be proud of, and most of them land where I want them to. I don’t usually drive and throw at the same time, and I never do either sober, but tonight it’s all coming together.
The halfway point is the curve where I always tell Ralph he’s going to die. It’s a hairpin curve from a hillside road to a state route, and the visibility is awful. Ralph takes it fast, says he would see headlights if anyone were coming. He shouts when he makes the turn—“Yeeee-haaaw,” he hollers, and sounds like what people think of when they think of hillbillies. Ralph is from Louisville, and I’m from Ohio, but we assimilate, and we yee-haw our way down the pike.
I feel like a dork saying it alone, but I do anyway. “Yee-haw,” I say, matter-of-factly, barely raising my voice, not drawing out the “yee” or the “haw.” I don’t see any lights, so like Ralph, I don’t stop at the sign, but keep rounding the curve instead. Of course I’m fine. It’s just a damn paper route. It’s not neurosurgery.
I didn’t roll the papers before I left. Instead I have fifty or so rubber bands on my arm, and I grab a paper off the seat, fold it over twice, and then slide the rubber band over my hand. Three folds will give you a tighter bundle and a better toss, but twice is fast, and my aim is fairly good tonight. Ralph doesn’t even use a rubber band if the papers are in a bag. He just puts them in and ties the open end. I can’t throw those floppy bundles for shit. Rubber bands are better. That’s another thing I’ve learned.
Truth is, I used to like doing the paper route with Ralph. Sometimes we would joke around or sing whatever songs we both knew. Sometimes we would just talk about things. Sometimes we did neither, and we were happy, really happy, just to sit there in silence. The paper route is good thinking time. You leave while it’s dark and you get home when the sun first starts to come up, and you feel like that correlates with what happens inside of you. Nothing was really clear when Ralph and I would take off together, but when we were done, everything would make sense. And maybe he would buy me a coffee, or I might lie against his shoulder and fall asleep.
Fall asleep. That’s something it would be easy to do on the paper route, even when it’s cold, even when the windows are wide open and your aim is true. That’s another reason I go with Ralph. I want to keep him awake, help him to see around the bad curve, take over if he’s had too much beer. He doesn’t need my help or advice, though, and he lets me know. “Your dick’s loose,” he says, if I say he ought to have let me drive. It’s a saying I’ve picked up along the way, but I wouldn’t say it to women, like Ralph does. It takes on another layer of meaning that way. When Ralph says it, it’s like he’s trying to tell me he’s the man, he’s the one who ought to be making decisions. But if he said it like that—“I’m the man, I ought to be making the decisions”—I wouldn’t like it one bit. “Your dick’s loose”—that I can take. That makes me laugh.
Sliding the last newspaper in the last paper box feels pretty good. If I were Ralph, I would stop and buy an instant lottery ticket to try my luck. But if I rush home, I can sleep for an hour before class. Ralph can drive. He’ll want to anyhow.
The lights are on at Ralph’s house. I can see Janet moving in the kitchen, and I’m betting Ralph is up, too. Ralph will be happy. He hates the paper route. I notice as I pull into the driveway that the morning light is gray instead of yellow. That probably means the clouds are thicker now than they were when I started out.
When Ralph asks me if I used the bags, I’ll lie and say I did.
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