Working at Liberty Cash Grocery Number 23 was more challenging than I'd expected. The store occupied the corner of Exchange and Lauderdale, across the street from the same project and the same corner where Martha and I grew up. Two stock-boys worked in the store, and three delivery boys worked outside on the clunky old utility bikes.
On my first day at work in early July I was assigned to young, dark- haired Anthony, a distant cousin who lived with his widowed mother in the project. He could shuck a bushel of corn and trim lettuce so quickly that his hand movements seemed a mere blur. During the first couple of days I almost managed to compete with him, as well as learning how to stock canned and boxed goods in the aisles and shelves as neatly as did George, the oldest stock boy.
But after I learned the basic layout and operation of the store by the end of that week, I was assigned to a delivery bike. That job confronted me with my physical limitations. Though I was not small for my going-on-fourteen years, I was neither hefty nor strong. A customer's grocery order contained from one to several stuffed bags in addition to an occasional case of canned goods or beer. The bikes themselves were ancient chain-driven units with gigantic wire baskets over the front and rear wheels. They had fat metal seats, no center bar, a chest-high bare metal handlebar, undersized wheels designed for heavy loads and rough streets, and a low-ratio single gear for hauling rather than speed. They were slow, rusty, noisy machines. But when loaded with several heavy grocery bags that would be pedaled over a pitted street or along a gravel driveway, they were stronger and more manageable than a recreational bike.
One of the older boys, a chesty, tough-looking but friendly blond, crew-cut kid named Charlie, took charge for the first few days and showed me the ropes. He saw to it that I started out with one-bag or two-bag loads for customers who lived no more than three blocks away. I was slow at first; although I had once lived in the area, the building numbering system in the project and on some of the more obscure side streets were unfamiliar. This brief training reduced the number of daily deliveries I was able to make. The job paid ten cents per order. At that stage I averaged seven to ten orders daily.
By the end of the second week I was getting the hang of things. That Saturday was particularly busy. Under the additional pressure of a blistering noon sun, Charlie and another kid and I were on the sidewalk in front of the store loading bags onto our bikes, along with a fourth boy who had been drafted for the day from the part-time pool. Charlie helped load the first two bikes and sent them on their way. He had already loaded three orders onto his own bike.
He pointed to the last group of several bags. "They been here over an hour. We better get caught up." He surveyed the bags. "We got one for 236 Exchange, I can add that to my load. But all the other nine bags is Miz Gaston's order. You'll have to make two trips outta this, maybe three. You up to it, Speedy?"
"Sure," I said. "Load me."
Charlie helped me load the first four large paper bags onto my bike. "That looks steady enough," he told me, checking the bike for sway and balance. Then he climbed on his fully-loaded machine and steadied himself with one foot on the ground. Pointing at the one-bag order still sitting in the corner, he told me, "Gimme me that order."
I gaped at him. "You gonna carry that with five bags already on your bike?"
"Hell, give it to me. C'mon."
I handed him the bag, which was no lightweight, and he held it pressed to his side with one hand grasping the bottom. Wobbling slightly on the bike, he settled onto his seat, grabbed the handlebar with his free hand, shoved off with one long push of his feet, and started pedaling rough-and-ready down the street in the hot sun, gritting his teeth and looking in all directions for the traffic.
I watched with admiration as he drifted slowly up Exchange Street, steering one-handed and hefting a full sack under his free arm.
Climbing onto my own bike, I was surprised as the stubborn weight caught me off-guard and almost felled me. Grunting, I forced the bike upright and made sure of my balance. I proceeded slowly, knowing I'd have to be careful with this monstrous load.
But before I could get moving, my stepdad rushed out of the front door and pointed at the remaining bags on the ground. "Wait up! Wait! Ain't all this part of the Gaston order?"
I told him it was all one order and that I'd make it in two trips.
He yelled impatiently about the order having been delayed too long and demanded that I load it all at once and get moving. I was not that good at loading up yet, so Tony grumbled and shoved me aside. Hastily, he began stuffing the bags into the large carry baskets, shifting and shoving until the bike was so heavily loaded it seemed to sag. The tires were slightly but visibly pressed flat where they touched the sidewalk.
I eyed the load fearfully and mumbled something about not being sure I could handle that much weight.
"Hell you can't!" Tony retorted, "Get on that damn bike and move this order outta here! Go on, get movin!" He chomped on his unlit cigar and strode back into the store, glaring back at me hotly.
At first it was all I could do to disengage the kickstand and simply hold up the bike. The cargo's weight was considerably more than my own and the slightest tilt of the machine required serious effort to keep the bike balanced. I carefully walked the bike to the curb and slowly let the front wheel off the sidewalk and into the street, then the rear wheel. At that point the shifting weight almost pulled the bike ground-ward. Desperately, using both arms and heaving my back and legs into it, I kept the bike upright while I haltingly moved onto the seat, checked my balance, hopped up onto the big metal pedals, and shoved my legs forward.
The bike seemed to move in slow motion. Before I made it across narrow Exchange Street my ankles were sore with the effort. Checking the traffic in both directions, I let the bike roll lethargically toward the six-lane breadth of Lauderdale Street. Then I tried pedaling to gain the speed I needed to cross the boulevard. But the weight I was pedaling seemed to mock my efforts. I could not gain speed. Seeing traffic approach, I knew I had to head back toward the curb to avoid being overrun.
Helplessly, as if in a bad dream, I felt the bike tilt sideways as I turned; then I felt the overwhelming weight shift the undersized wheels with a sharp scraping sound; the front wheel began slipping underneath the bike, and the bike started tumbling. I jumped off the seat and with my arms, back, legs, and any other leverage I could muster, I vainly tried to keep the load from forcing the bike on its side in the middle of the roadway. But the weight shoved the wheels over the surface of the pavement and pulled both me and the bike toward the curb. With a loud crash the bike fell on its side, half on top of me, and several bags tumbled into the street. Groceries went everywhere. The traffic caught up with me and one of the speeding automobiles, swerving away from me, smashed a cabbage into shards. Other cars crushed oranges and a cannister of bug spray. A can of creamed corn exploded sticky yellow grit into the air, and several other items were smashed and smeared in the roadway.
Across the street, Tony ran out the door and screamed "God DAMN!" Pitching his cigar aside he dashed across the roadway toward me, with Anthony following. Anthony himself rushed to me in concern and alarm and helped pull me from under the bike. But my stepdad Tony flew into a rage. Kicking a couple of smashed cans out of the street and into the gutter, he flared angrily at me and screamed, "How fuckin' stupid!"
Anthony uprighted the bike. Just as he wheeled it onto the sidewalk, Tony stomped over to me and yelled, "Cain't you hold up a damn bike?" He slapped me across my face so hard that my head jerked and I found my startled eyeballs suddenly staring down the street in the opposite direction. I turned back to him, my neck aching from the blow, and saw his reddened face glowering into mine.
"Get this shit outta the street and get that bike loaded again! Now we're gonna have to rebuild this whole damn order! And whatever's missin' comes outta your pay, goddamit!" He spit on the street and pointed to the trash around us. "Anthony! Help this idiot clean up and get 'im back on the road!" Tony turned and stomped off, toward the store.
"Right, Tony," Anthony murmured after him, looking almost as startled as I must have looked. Shaking his head and eyeing me sympathetically, he said, "That Tony's a tough customer, Speedy."
Enraged and humiliated, I avoided his eyes and began fetching the litter out of the street while Anthony walked the bike with its bent baskets to the storefront. Five minutes later I trekked wordlessly into and through the store, into the rear stock room. Storming into the restroom, I slammed the door shut behind me and threw the bolt lock into place, then untied and removed my garbage-stained, shin-length cotton work apron and, wadding it up tightly, slammed it into the wall and screamed "Son of a bitch!" into the little room.
Covered with sweat, I bent to the sink and splashed my head and neck with cold water to cool me down both physically and emotionally. I held my dripping head over the sink and massaged my sore neck, muttering "Son of a bitch" again, and then paused and took several deep breaths.
"All right," I muttered aloud, hearing my voice sound grim and wobbly with hate. "All right, dammit."
I fetched a new white apron and got back to work. I'd kept track of Mrs. Gaston's sales receipt. I repacked the entire order, noted what was missing, and retrieved new items from the shelves. When the order was complete I got Mrs. Gaston's telephone number from the delivery listing and gave her a call, explaining that her order had been damaged but that it was fixed and ready to go. She was very gracious and said she knew that Saturday was always a busy day and she wasn't annoyed.
This time I packed the bags myself, making certain that the load in each bag was evenly distributed and that each bag weighed nearly the same. I managed to reduce the original nine bags to seven. As I began carrying them outside and loading them on the bike, Anthony paused in his work to speak to me briefly.
"Don't take it too hard," he said. "You're his son and he expects you to do better work than the rest of us."
"I have my own expectations about how good my work'll be," I replied angrily.
Outside, I loaded and unloaded the grocery order onto the bike sev- eral times, until I was certain the cargo was perfectly balanced.
"What the hell 're you doin'?" said a burly young voice behind me. I turned to see Charlie, his hands on his hips and a wry grin on his face.
"I'm takin' this order," I said flatly, grabbing up the last bag.
"I heard about what happened, " Charlie said, his tough-kid's voice slightly taunting. "I know he shouldn'a done that to you, and I know it was too big a load for that bike, but you ain't gonna tell me with a straight face that you intend to deliver all this in one trip."
"That's exactly what I intend to do!" I said, jamming the last bag into the rear basket.
"Hell, man, I weigh twenty pounds over you and my legs are longer, but I wouldn't carry that in one load. You trynna get yourself fucked up again?"
"Not this time," I vowed. I held the bike straight and level, dis- engaged the kickstand, and then let go of the bike altogether. For a brief moment it stood still and upright until I grabbed the handlebar again.
"Not bad, tiger," Charlie said, nudging his lips in approval. He grinned and threw me a salute. "But this time, if you fall, try t' land on yer butt instead of yer head."
I turned the bike toward Mrs. Gaston's and walked it off the curb. The bike landed on the street surface and remained level, with no bounce. Mounting, I tested the sway range of the weight piled around me. I found that managing the weight from the front was the key tactic, rather than trying to manipulate everything at once. I engaged the pedals and began pumping my legs with all my might. Soon I was rolling fast enough to make a rapid shift to the right. I glided almost gracefully across Lauderdale Street.
My initial optimism was short-lived. As I slowly progressed down the street the load seemed to get heavier by the yard. Mrs. Gaston's address was three blocks into the project. The last leg of the trip was a segment of rising driveway that led to her building; unable to pedal uphill, I dismounted and walked the bike to her building. It was touch and go all the way, with several close calls as the weight persistently forced the bike toward or away from me. Finally, covered with salty sweat and grime, I arrived at the front of her building. For some reason the cargo was now too heavy for the kickstand, so I leaned the bike against her building. There was no elevator, so one by one I began hefting the bags up the steep, narrow stairwell to Mrs. Gaston's third-floor apartment.
She was a tiny, elderly woman in a dark flowery dress who expressed alarm at the sight of my sweat-soaked face and clothes. She gave me a glass of ice water, smiled and thanked me, and gave me a ten-cent tip.
Later, leaning in the shade at the side of her building, I cooled off and caught my breath. I looked down at the shiny dime in my hand.
I told myself: you made it, dammit. And with a dime to spare. An extra dime for New York. One step closer to the big city.
Mounting my bike I grabbed the handlebar, shoved off with both feet, and went into a long glide down the driveway toward the street, the cool wind now flapping my apron around my shins. I pumped the pedals swiftly and pushed the bike through the breeze that mounted with my speed. I spotted Charlie under the front awning of the store two blocks ahead. He glanced in my direction and grinned and gave me the "OK" sign with his raised hand.
For the rest of the afternoon the orders proliferated. Charlie and I and the two other boys kept loading and shoving off with one delivery after another. Charlie kept his eyes on me, sending me on the lighter, nearer orders. Finally I told him I expected to be treated the same way the others were and that I should carry the same loads as they.
"Take yer time," Charlie told me as we loaded up yet another group of bags. "You're smaller than the others, and your legs are shorter." He paused to reach into his shirt pocket for his cigarette lighter. He retrieved a cigarette from the pack he kept in the folds of his rolled-up shirt sleeve. He took a quick puff and extended the pack toward me. "Smoke?"
"Thanks," I said, even though I didn't know how to smoke.
He gave the pack a quick, short jerk and the tips of several ciga- rettes protruded from the pack. I grabbed one and put it in my mouth, instantly feeling the mild burn of tobacco on my inner lips. I resolved that whatever could be done by Charlie, who was robust and taller and three years my senior, I could do as well.
He flipped open his Zippo lighter and lit my cigarette. I puffed. I coughed several times.
"Shit," he said, grinning with his cigarette dangling from his mouth. "C'mon, man, take it one thing at a time. That ain't no way to smoke, you got tobacco all over your damn lip. Maybe you oughtta start out with filters instead of straights."
"I'll start with straights," I said, embarrassed but grinning back stubbornly. "There's a four-bagger over there. Come on and load me up."
He took another puff and sighed. "Man, what a glutton for punish- ment."
For the rest of the afternoon I watched Charlie closely, chiding him when I saw him pass up a large order and assign me to a much smaller one. He smirked and warned me, "Don't pass up all the small orders," he cautioned. "They're short and quick. And they pay the same ten cents as the big ones that take longer."
As dusk neared and the flow of business waned for the day, I loaded one more four-bagger onto my bike and was just getting ready to shove off when my stepdad came out of the front door and stood near my bike. I averted my eyes from his and pretended to be engrossed in straightening a bag in my front basket.
He spoke evenly and calmly. "All right, I have to apologize for losin' my temper today. You cleaned it all up, and you got the order to the customer all by yourself. The customer called up and said nothin' was missin', and nothin' was damaged. So you did a good job. And forget about anything comin' out of your pay this week. I'm sorry I got so angry about it." Without another word, he walked away.
His apology changed nothing. At that moment I deeply resented him -- not for his anger, but for the humiliation I felt at being struck. Even before he disappeared into the store, I had turned my bike around and was on my way with the next order.
Soon I was cruising in the cool late afternoon breeze with a four- bag order, my sore thighs arduously pumping at the pedals that pushed my squeaky, straining bike down Lauderdale Street. Earlier, when no one in the store was watching, I made Anthony sell me a pack of Chesterfield unfiltered cigarettes. As I turned into the project driveway and slipped out of sight of those in the store, I reached into my shirt pocket under my stained work apron, pulled out the pack of cigarettes, jerked the pack in the manner I had learned from Charlie, and pulled out a cigarette by holding the tip with only the dry, outer portion of my lips. Using another technique I learned from watching Charlie, I struck a match on my bluejean leg and lit up. The smoke was bitter and hot. I vowed I'd learn to inhale the way older kids did, and the thought that my stepdad would be incensed at my smoking merely firmed my resolve to smoke as much as I wanted, to carry my own load, to ignore him and be free of him. I told myself that it was what my real father, Steven Senior, would have done.
In my pants pocket I had the tips I'd earned and that I didn't let Tony know about: two quarters, two dimes, and some pennies. That day I had already broken my previous record by carrying thirteen deliveries, and the store would not be closing for almost three hours.
I knew I had considerable growing and building-up to do. Charlie and the others outclassed me in every way. But I had a goal ahead of me, a goal far beyond the grocery store, beyond Memphis.
By mid-September I was running thirty orders a day, and over fifty on Saturdays. The savings account that Tony managed for me slowly grew. Slowly. But as soon as it looked as if I might be getting somewhere financially, I had to register for my last year of grammar school. This meant that I could earn money only on Saturday deliveries and on Sundays when I typed menus at the Tremont.
I began looking for more work and more money.
One morning in early October, soon after starting my 8th-grade school year, I approached Tony at breakfast and told him I needed to draw from my savings. At first he didn't want to hear about it; the account had only recently begun to show real progress.
I told him I needed to buy a new bike and a front basket for it. When he discovered that I needed the bike because I had signed up to be a morning news carrier for the Commercial Appeal, his eyes lit up. It was the first time I'd seen him express enthusiasm for anything I'd said or done.
"What about your Saturday job at the store?" he asked.
"I'm keepin' that one, too," I said firmly.
He smiled broadly at my Mom. "Damn, this kid's gettin' to be a real worker!"
Under those circumstances, he agreed that I could get an inexpensive three-speed bike that wouldn't consume my savings but would be good enough to haul a load of morning newspapers.
Of course I didn't tell him that the money from the paper route would be used to get me to New York. He was so pleased about my willingness to work myself to death, I didn't want to spoil the only basis for the slim rapport that had been established between us.
At my first morning on the carrier job, it soon became apparent that I'd again taken on a bigger chunk that I'd bargained for. My Mom woke me at four o'clock in the morning and had hot oatmeal waiting for me when I was dressed. As I wolfed breakfast she stumbled back into bed, grumbling that she'd be glad when I would be able to wake myself up and get an early breakfast without disturbing her.
That first October morning was chilly and dark. I rode my new red three-speed Schwinn to the loading station several blocks away. The route manager, a short and muscular middle-aged man with a harried look and baggy eyes, delivered my initial instructions and showed me how to check and sign for my newspapers. I learned that my route consisted of 136 customers on seven short suburban streets. I then discovered that there was no way my three-speed Schwinn could transport 136 newspapers in a single trip without another backbreaking effort on my part.
The solution was to pile as many papers as I could into the bike's front basket. This amounted to a little less than one-third of the papers required. I was given three large canvas shoulder bags with the official Commercial Appeal logo imprinted on them in dull red. I stuffed the remaining papers into the three canvas bags. Then I strapped the bags around my shoulders by their long canvas straps. Thus weighted, I slowly waddled like a two-ton duck out of the dimly lighted loading station and toward my bicycle. Outside, the crowd of other newscarriers hustled to load their motorcycles and automobiles. I knew none of them and spoke to no one -- I was too busy trying to figure out how to keep the weight of the packed bags from pulling me down and flattening me like a pancake.
Lurching fitfully, I struggled to mount my Schwinn. The next step was to see if I could possibly move my legs up and down to work the pedals. I couldn't. The huge canvas bags hanging from my shoulders were in the way.
The route manager in his leather bomber jacket passed me on his way to his station wagon. "Hey," he shouted, "you gonna make it anywhere like that?"
"Sure," I said, forcing a smile. I was far from sure of it myself.
After twisting and shuffling the load on my shoulders so that one bag hung over my back and the other two were suspended slightly behind my hips, I was able to move my legs. I started pumping arduously at the pedals of my Schwinn, which I locked in its lowest gear.
By the time I devised this clumsy method, almost all the other kids had left the loading station. I lumbered into the roadway and headed toward Given Avenue, one long block away. Looking ahead, I was horrified to find that, despite all the level streets and flat expanses of land in my neighborhood, I had been given a route that had to be accessed from the loading station by climbing the only hill in sight. And it was a steep climb, rising quickly to a least a two-story height in the course of that one long block of roadway.
As I grunted and puffed my way up the hill at a slug's pace, the last two newsboys passed me, one on his motorcycle with its sidecar loaded with newspapers, and the other in a baby blue 1952 Mercury whose broken muffler roared and spewed a thin gray cloud of oily smoke as he passed me and disappeared over the hill.
The sun was just rising. The jet black sky had lightened vaguely with the first gray intimations of daybreak. There was no traffic on the streets, no sound in the predawn stillness -- just myself, groaning and huffing under the onus of the fully loaded front basket and the three bulging canvas bags whose combined size was almost three times my own.
Halfway up the hill, the burning in my thighs told me I had no choice but to dismount and walk the load to the crest of the upgrade. Cursing under my hot breath, I stopped my bike. Now I had to find a way to dismount without hurting myself. I could not get both my feet to touch the ground in order to balance the Schwinn. Before I knew it, I felt the bag around my back begin to shift to my side as I leaned to get off the bike and onto one foot. Suddenly the strap of the bag was choking me. I reached back to stop the bag's movement, but its weight and that of the one next to it dragged themselves and me toward the ground. I was yanked to my left; then the bag at my right hip followed suit with the others, swinging behind and then beyond me, and all three bags hauled me down.
I fell, face up, my Schwinn toppling away from me. Two of the bags landed beneath me, their wide straps yanking roughly and garotting me from behind as they pulled me down. Flat on my back, choking and gagging, I panicked and struggled to raise my head. This only dug the rough straps into my neck. Finally, I had the good sense to roll onto my side and off the bags. The straps fell away from my neck. I could breathe again.
Coughing and gasping, I pulled the other straps away and stood to survey the damage. The handlebar of my Schwinn had somehow been twisted starboard, out of line with the center bar. I raised the bike and held it between my knees while I strained to center the handlebar.
Rasping loudly and still choking a little, I looked around. Not a car or a person in sight. At least I'd been spared the embarrassment of having my stupidity and clumsiness witnessed by others. Checking my wrist watch, I saw that it was nearly six A.M.
Breathlessly I muttered aloud to myself, "You'll have to do better than this, stupid." My body was still reacting to the sensation of being strangled by the straps of my own newsbags. Rubbing my neck, I found that the flesh around my Adam's apple had been burned and scraped; it stung painfully when I touched it.
Enraged, I hurriedly began strapping up again. Arranging the bags more methodically, I reloaded the papers that had fallen out of my Schwinn's basket and began laboriously walking the bike uphill.
Finally at the top, I took a right turn and surveyed the street that lay before me and that led to the beginning of my route five blocks away. Whereas the steep grade that led from the paper station to the top of the hill was sudden and sharp, the street before me was a long sweeping down-grade as far as I could see.
"Good!" I said aloud, knowing that I could simply coast downhill all the way to my route. Carefully I mounted my Schwinn. After ensuring that all was balanced and under control, I shoved off with my feet and sat with the hard nose of the bicycle seat nudging painfully into my coccyx under the weight of the carrier bags. But soon I was rolling swiftly, the bicycle tires hissing loudly along the asphalt street. In the quiet air I heard the wind whistle faintly past my ears as I picked up speed. Thus loaded, strapped, upright, and rolling almost merrily along, I imagined myself as looking absurdly like a giant papier-mache cauliflower on wheels. About halfway down the hill it suddenly occurred to me that I had no way whatever of braking quickly under the momentum of the weight that both surrounded and propelled me. Stoically, I concluded that in a collision the formless paper hulk would at least cushion the blow.
Fortunately, sudden stops weren't needed. But as I approached the far end of Given Avenue, where the first house on my route nestled upon its own little mound of grassy lot, I noticed for the first time that this part of Given sloped toward another upgrade. Thankfully it was not the virtual mountain that lay behind me; but my rolling began to slow, and soon I was straining and pedaling again in low gear.
Out of breath and grunting fiercely under the three canvas bags, I finally rolled to a stop at the curb in front of the first house. Too tired to resist, I allowed myself and my bike to lean, and then to slide into a slow fall, toward my right. All of me and my load settled with a soft lurch into the grass that lined the curb.
I lay there for several minutes on my back, gazing at the brightening, dull overcast above. Gradually I gained my breath, though for a minute or so I seemed to have fallen into a shallow doze. Opening my eyes, I extracted myself from the long shoulder straps and sat up, feeling the chilly October air on my face and hands. I craned my aching neck to my left and looked at the sweep of roadway which I had just traveled. There stood the hill at the top of Given Avenue, where I'd fallen and nearly choked. I knew there was no way to get from the paper station to my route without fighting that hill. I'd have to battle that hill every morning, seven days a week, for as long as I kept the paper route. And this was only a Monday -- the Sunday edition would be three times the size and weight of the dailies. Well, I thought, I'd worry about that when Sunday arrived.
Standing creakily, I stretched and found that my shoulders ached and had also been burned by the iron grip of one of the straps. My neck ached, my back ached, my thighs and shins burned and throbbed.
I looked again toward the hill, which stood silent and mocking five or six blocks away. "I'll beat you," I said aloud. "I'll beat you yet, dammit." I straightened my jacket and my twisted shirt, and then dragged my load of papers onto the customer's lawn. Sitting in the dew-damp grass, I spent several minutes resting while folding and tucking each newspaper into a hard, flat, four-cornered package that would be easy to pitch onto the 136 front porches that lay ahead.
A few minutes later the route manager, Mr. Williams, cruised by in his brown station wagon and rolled to a stop near me. "Hey," he scolded from the car window, "you better get movin'. It's almost six-thirty."
"I'm folding all the papers first," I called back, without getting up. "It'll go faster that way."
"It's your route, you handle it the way you like. But if you don't finish by seven o'clock when people wake up, I start getting calls from folks who climb the walls because they don't have their mornin' paper."
"Don't worry," I said wearily. "Just running a little slow on my first day."
Mr. Williams frowned and lit a cigarette. "Don't let this get to be a habit," he cautioned sternly. He stepped on the gas and drove off in a hurry.
"Up yours," I muttered as he roared away.
It was impractical to walk my entire route carrying all three bags loaded with folded newspapers. I decided that I could leave two bags in the shrubs of the first house, and use the third bag to service the first part of my route, which circled back to where I started. The second bag could handle the next two streets, and I could circle back again to pick up the last bag and finish the route.
By the end of the week I was showing up at a quarter to five in the morning, walking my papers up that first hill, and completing the route just after six. Then I'd cruise home on my Schwinn and catch an hour's nap before showering and boarding the bus to St. Michael's School. When school let out that afternoon, I was so tired that I fell asleep on the school bus; the driver knew my stop and woke me up every day. But I knew I couldn't depend on his wakeup forever. I had to shape up.
Managing my first Sunday edition was a nightmare. The Sunday sub- scriber list was larger than the daily, totaling 165 papers instead of 136. The bulk was not my estimated three times that of the dailies, but four or five times the weekday load. Although I'd learned a lot about handling the carrier bags and my Schwinn, I was discouraged to find that I had to make three trips back and forth before I could transport the entire load to my route. By the time I finally slipped thick rubber bands around each paper, a heavy and sloppy rainfall began. Many papers got soaked before I could move them into shelter on a nearby front porch.
That morning, I didn't complete the route until after seven-thirty. When I finally stumbled into my parents' home I found that five customers had already called in their complaints.
My step-dad was awake and sipping his coffee as he dressed for Mass. "Why are you so late?" he grumbled. "Didn't you go to your route this morning? Your manager called and said he had five complaints."
I collapsed onto our sofa and wearily explained that the Sunday papers were so heavy that it took over an hour to get them to my route, and then the rain made me even later.
"Hmp. Cain't be THAT many papers on Sunday," he grumbled.
"It's not the number," I said, "it's the size."
"The other boys get their papers up there, don't they? Why can't you?"
Holding back a fit of anger, I answered patiently, "The other boys have cars or motorcycles."
"You have to be sixteen to drive a car," he retorted.
I retorted back, "They have cars. That's all I know."
He thought about it for a minute. "Well, we have to wake up early to get to Sunday Mass anyway, so...I'll get up with you on Sundays, and we can load your papers in the car."
I was relieved by the idea. Relieved, surprised, and disappointed all at once. Surprised that he would offer help, much less that he'd even considered that my situation might require it. Relieved, that the worst of the Sunday nightmare would be alleviated, although that big hill on Given Avenue would still be there the other six days of the week. And disappointed: not only did I feel old enough and intelligent enough to drive our Ford each morning, but I also could complete my work long before it was time for my stepdad to drive to work. I was envious of many of the other boys, most of whom were not yet sixteen but who nevertheless appeared to have dads who let them use a car for work.
But I was not willing to tempt fate by complaining about the offer. I thanked him, though I did so in such a subdued manner that I wondered if he believed I was truly grateful. I did not trust Tony enough to communicate with him frankly. I seldom shared words with him, much less my thoughts and feelings. Anyway, this little package of help did not satisfy my need for someone whom I felt could be the father I wanted or needed.
The other barb was that I wanted to be able to do everything on my own. I did not trust people or like them enough to be able to ask for help, which I accepted only when I saw no other choice.
So I accepted his ride. Each Sunday, the two of us traded brief, dull, impersonal shreds of conversation during the predawn half-hour or so as we rode to the paper station, loaded the papers, and then unloaded them onto a front porch where I could keep out of the weather. Tony would drive off, leaving me to rubber-band the big Sunday editions or slide them into plastic covers when it rained or snowed.
It's possible that this Sunday routine might have aided in bringing me closer to Mr. Tony Lobianco, and through him perhaps to my Mom. After the first few weeks I had faint hopes that this might happen.
Those hopes were dashed a few days before Thanksgiving when my mother came into my bedroom one night and caught me masturbating. Apparently she had been on her way to the bathroom in our dark house and must have seen my hand movements under the bed covers. She rushed into the room and pulled back the blankets to reveal my erection, as I tried in vain to pull my pajamas back up.
"Speedy!" she shrieked. "How disgusting!" She threw the covers back over me and I saw her flinch and grimace with revulsion. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" She left the room, muttering, "I hope you tell the priest about this in confession! That's just...awful!"
For a while I lay silent and shaky with the suddenness of it all, humiliated at being caught, mortified by her reaction. After many minutes of darkness and quiet, I was simply angry. I waited almost an hour before renewing my vision of a girl my age, a girl very much like Martha Jane, arching her hips to receive me, and finished as stealthily as I could.
The next morning at breakfast, Tony waited until my Mom left the breakfast table for a moment before saying in a subdued but reproving voice, "You'll be goin' to confession when you're in school today... Right?"
"Yessir," I replied, appearing suitably ashamed and penitent.
Of course, I didn't confess. The incident succeeded in making me feel ashamed, but it also resulted in my being angrily rebellious rather than penitent. I adopted a strict policy of never revealing my sexual self to anyone, not even to other boys.
That night and that morning had been the most personal and intimate moment I had ever experienced with either of them. Any hopes I had about bridging gaps between myself and my parents bit the dust. I never again trusted them with any aspect of my inner life.
Easter Sunday, 1956.
I knew the paper that day would be no larger than a regular daily. I told my stepdad I could handle the load with my Schwinn.
In fact, the Easter edition was so slim that the entire load fit into my front basket, and I pedaled up the big hill on Given Avenue at a brisk pace with nominal effort.
As I rounded the hill and turned to roll into the long downgrade that led to my route, a thin snow flurry began. Spare, tiny flakes floated lazily down to white-frosted lawns and rooftops. I felt rather heroic. I had become attached to the hill I'd conquered over the past six months and to the bloated carrier bags that I now slung around my back and shoulders with routine nonchalance. I had not grown taller, but from the way I was climbing that hill every day and the way I handled multiple deliveries on the big hill at the top of Exchange Street on Saturdays, I had grown in strength and endurance. I felt I had learned the message behind Pogo's little joke, which I had seen not long ago in the Sunday comics: "We have met the enemy, and he is us!" My physical limitations were my major enemy. I felt that if I could not overcome them, then I must develop effective workarounds.
Adults were, if not inimical, untrustworthy at best. My peers and those who were slightly older had gone Brando, all in upturned collars or black motorcycle jackets and t-shirts. Boys my own age, nearly fourteen, began outracing me physically; I watched them grow taller, while I stayed where I was. I had been tall at twelve or thirteen; but I could see that at fourteen I would be below average in size. Even in the winter cold I would sweat bullets when delivering the heavy orders on Saturdays in the project, while bullnecked Charlie performed the same feat without even breathing hard.
As the Easter flurry advanced slowly into light snowfall, I sat on a customer's front porch away from the chilly wind and rubber-banded my goods. After a long winter, mornings were breaking earlier. In the early hush, the sky slowly brightened into a warm greyish glow. The Easter edition would be an easy throw; people would be waking later than usual. I could afford, for once, to relax. Unrushed, I lapsed into one of my most dangerous habits: thinking. I recalled the day a few weeks earlier when Tony mentioned that I'd saved up enough to buy a small motorcycle, for which I could legally obtain a license on my fourteenth birthday. But I preferred for some reason to stay with my Schwinn. Besides, the money saved by not buying a motorbike would be more useful when I could finally visit New York.
Keeping busy, making my own breakfast seven days a week, spending Sundays at the Tremont and several evenings each month making door-to-door subscription collections on my route -- all of it left me more isolated from my parents and sister, and from acquaintances. I was only dimly aware of Mom's next pregnancy, which produced a baby half-brother they called Tony Number 2 a few weeks before Easter. Naturally, every-one's attention shifted to him.
Keeping two jobs had cost my participation in plays at school. It was physically impossible for me to do it all, considering how much harder my relatively small frame had to work to accomplish the same thing that others seemed to manage with less effort. But if I kept working and building myself up, I thought, then a later day might find me doing plays again as well as everything else.
The fact that I was now wearing eyeglasses had been a major setback, leading me to believe I was somehow defective. An eye test at St. Michael's in February revealed that my vision was far from perfect. A few weeks later, Mom took me to an optometrist.
The following week, we returned from his office with my new eye- glasses.
"How long will I have to wear these things?" I asked Mom petulantly as we were riding home with the plastic-framed monstrosity on my face.
"If you're like most men on your side of the family," my Mom replied, unaffected, "you'll probably have to wear them the rest of your life. At least when you read, anyway."
This depressing thought sent a chill up my spine. For days I would stop at every reflecting surface I passed and adjust and readjust the frames, to no avail. They hurt my nose. They burned behind my ears. They never seemed to sit neatly on my face. My mother's lack of concern didn't help. Nor did the kids at school, who started calling me "four- eyes" and "spec". Kids who wore glasses on tv and in movies were always portrayed as anemic, brainy misfits. The glasses made me feel ugly and deformed. I hated them.
That Easter morning I carried, safely hidden in a zippered pocket inside my quilted carcoat, the latest of three letters from Martha. I kept her mail in a folder with my schoolbooks, not because they contained intimate material, but because I never wanted them to be considered part of the garbage my parents would force me to discard. Sitting on a cus- tomer's front porch after preparing my papers, I leaned back against the stuffed bag and gently opened the white envelope from New York. She used plain unlined paper. I marveled at the way she wrote in almost perfectly straight lines.
Martha. She had an address in Manhattan on East 87th Street. "It's the East Side," she wrote, "but definitely not a ritzy block. The building is a hundred years old. It's a walkup, which to you tourists means no elevator. It's an old building with very small apartments. Over the years the newer buildings just grew up around this block. It's so old, the shower is a stall in the kitchen, because the building was here before indoor plumbing was common. Has hot water, though--at least it's not a coldwater flat, like the building next door to mine. The apartment even has nicks in the walls that hold the old-fashioned oil burning lamps that were in here before electricity was installed. It has a small living room, and a really tiny fireplace that actually works.
"I have been teaching kids your age who are just about the most brilliant boys and girls I ever met. Of course, you're just as smart as most of them. What many of them lack, though, is your sensitivity, and your creativity. Some of them are not bright at all, but just problem children whom it seems I can't help much. I hope I can learn to work with them, they've led such hard, often cruel lives. Some conditions in the neighborhoods where these children live can be described only as real-life nightmares.
"Which reminds me: I hope you are not having that same old dream. I wish I knew what it meant. If it happens again, please try to describe exactly what it is that happens in your dream, how you feel and what you're thinking. But I hope the dream hasn't come back. I hope you are well, and happy, and growing, and learning. Please don't wear yourself out with all that work; your school is the most important thing, and your well-being."
Although I had read the letter a thousand times, I could read no further that morning. I wiped my eyes dry, replaced and aligned my specs, and hid the letter inside my coat. Standing, I slung the heavy bag over my shoulder and started on my way.
I had written her several times. I had not told her much about myself, except for the jobs. I hadn't told her that the reason I was working so hard was because I wanted to come to New York and see her, and I wanted to do so more than once. I didn't tell her about my dream, my parents, my loneliness, or anything else about my inner life. I didn't want her to worry. Above all, I didn't want her to see my failings. Therefore, I didn't tell her about the glasses. I didn't tell her that I had not grown taller.
Someday, soon, I knew I'd have to ask her if I could see her in New York. I wondered if she would refuse. She was in a truly different world now. Had she fallen in love with someone? Surely, with her looks and her charm, she must have met someone in a big place like New York City. Each time I read her letters, I wondered how much she didn't reveal. I wondered, as I walked through the waxing snowfall that Easter, if, when I asked her about going to see her, she would then be forced to tell me that she had someone and that it wouldn't be a good idea for me to show up. Or if she had met someone and I did visit, what would I do when she introduced her boyfriend? And if she indeed had a boyfriend, why was I breaking my back for the money to visit her? What would be the point?
Martha, I thought as I walked along with my carrier bag slapping my hip. Snowflakes smashed silently into my new lenses. Martha Jane.
Just after Easter I woke up one morning with a burning pain in my side and tummy, and a heavy twinge of nausea. Luckily the paper load was light that day and the weather mild, but as I finished and was on my way home I still sensed a creepy nausea. Except for a bout with the 'flu, I had never been so sick.
When Mom saw that I was still in bed at breakfast time she asked what was wrong. I told her I didn't feel I could handle the ride on the school bus without throwing up. She shoved a thermometer in my mouth and read my temperature.
Tony stopped in my doorway and asked, "What's goin' on?"
Mom sighed. "Well, he doesn't have much of a temperature. It's just under one hundred."
Tony grunted, "C'mon, Speedy, you're not that sick. Get up and get ready for school. You'll feel better when you start movin' around."
Mom, in her bathrobe and slippers, followed him into the living room as he donned his carcoat and got ready for work. "Well," she said, "he does have a little fever, not much. Do you think it might get worse?"
"Damn. People go to work and school all the time when they're a little sick. I go to work when I feel like shit, myself. Hell, he ain't sick. Get him dressed and get him to school."
My brief nap did leave me feeling improved, and I supposed Tony was right. Besides, I didn't want to admit that anything could floor me that easily, and I did have to keep up with my work. So I dressed and boarded the bus as usual. But during the long ride to school the pain and nausea increased. I began perspiring. Repressing the desire to throw up was becoming an effort.
As usual, I arrived at school and got into the line of 8th graders. Sister Immaculata led us into the church for our daily eight o'clock Mass. Halfway through the service, I feared I could no longer hold back my urges. At one point some bitter stomach fluid jumped into the back of my throat; trembling, I knew an eruption was looming.
Climbing over the other students in my pew, I crept softly to Sister Immaculata, who sat in the aisle seat in the back pew looking prim and fresh in her starched white Dominican collar and pristine black robes.
"What's wrong, child?" she asked, a little irritably.
"Sister...I feel sick. I think I should go to the restroom."
"Now, just be patient. Mass will be over soon, and you can go."
"But, Sister, I don't need to...'go'. I feel sick. And my stomach hurts."
"Oh. Well...patience, child. The service will end soon and we can take a look at you."
Sister Immaculata did not have more time to protest or to talk me into thinking I felt better. A split second later, to my own surprise as well as hers, I noisily and violently threw up a huge serving of redolent vomit directly into the lap of her long brown robes. She rose instantly as the pale yellow stuff spilled down her clothing and onto the floor. Grabbing my arm, she rushed me through the nearby rear door and into the vestibule. Despite my best efforts, I deposited another raging load that drenched her entire right side and clung to every shiny bead of the heavy rosary and the large silver crucifix that hung from her hips.
When we were safely in the boy's restroom at the rear of the church I began to cry. "I'm sorry, Sister," I sobbed, almost hysterical with embarrassment. "I'm so sorry, I tried to hold it back!"
"It's all right, dear. You couldn't help it. I didn't realize you were so ill. Poor child, I should have listened to you. It's all right."
I was kept in seclusion in a small office in the rear of the church, with Sister Immaculata sitting beside me and holding my hand until another nun and the assistant pastor showed up to relieve her. Thankfully, the other students couldn't see me there. I feared I could never face them again; so many of them had both heard and seen me throw up on Sister Immaculata.
For my entire stay in the office, which lasted almost an hour until yet another priest showed up to drive me to St. Joseph's hospital in the official black pastoral Chevrolet, I apologized again and again for drenching Sister Immaculata. Secretly, in my impish self that I never let anyone know about, I was telling myself that this was what stupid adults had coming to them for not listening to me. There was, indeed, an almost satanic satisfaction in being able to say secretly, "There! Now they'll believe me."
At St. Joseph's I was examined quickly by a tall doctor who smiled indulgently when he was finished and had me lie down on a hard-cushioned cot until my stepdad arrived. Both of them stood in the doorway of the antiseptic room and joked and chatted. I had appendicitis. They would have to operate. I would be in surgery that afternoon.
"Operate?" I repeated fearfully from the cot.
They both laughed. "Mr. Lobianco," the doctor chuckled, "I think the word 'operate' made your son turn white as a ghost."
They were amused at my stunned reaction, but I wasn't. How could I have allowed myself to get so sick? It was a sign of weakness and power- lessness that I found totally unacceptable.
But there wasn't much I could do about it: within the hour I was dressed in a thin cotton hospital gown and wheeled into surgery. Lying face-up on the surgical wagon in the middle of a small operating room, I looked up to find myself surrounded by white-masked faces. Firm hands placed a cool damp white cloth over my eyes, and then I felt the ether mask covering my mouth and noise.
"Just relax," a nurse crooned. "Relax, now, and breathe slowly through your nose. Don't open your mouth, dear. Breathe only through your nose. Understand? Breathe deeply, now. Thaaaat's right."
I could not relax and trust them. I felt overcome by all those faces and then I saw only the unfocussed white of the cloth over my eyes. Suddenly the acrid odor of ether burned the lining of my nose. Then my throat burned. I felt as if I were being suffocated. I became aware of the low buzz of the bright neon operating lamp that I knew was suspended just over my face. I made a brief moaning sound to let the others know that the gas was burning my nose and that I couldn't breathe. Sensing no reaction from them, I groaned more loudly. But they ignored me. Then I panicked: I could not breathe, I was choking. The lining of my nose burned so painfully that I felt my sinuses would burst. Someone held me down with a ruthless pressure on my chest. I was afraid to open my mouth and scream, fearing that to do so would cause the ether to burn my mouth and throat. I began thrashing about and moaning, then moaned louder and louder. Unable to scream through my mouth, I screamed through my moan and felt my throat scalded by the force of the sounds I was making. I heard someone shout, "Grab his arms!" I struggled violently, grasping and scratching into space. But I couldn't move! The buzz of the operating lamp grew into the deafening, terrifying buzz that I'd heard in my dreams. The white cloth over my eyes began to swim and circle in my sight, even though I knew my eyes were closed. I could feel myself drifting, then sinking back into nothing. I was shrinking, dying, and the white universe expanded swiftly. My moans and the wild buzz merged into a single strange sound that rose to a blaring hum and then slowly, slowly, slowly decreased in frequency and then in volume, until it became a low helpless drone in the drowning murk. I surrendered to the white death, and to the blackening veil and the silence that fell quickly and softly over everything...
I was unconscious into the evening. When I awoke I lay partly on my right side in a huge, soft hospital bed. I blinked. I was actually alive. I had a pounding headache.
"There you are," said the sugar-sweet voice of a very pretty nurse. Her gorgeous face was the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes. "Feel all right now?"
"It stings," I moaned, referring to my stitched and tightly bandaged tummy.
"Well, don't you worry, that'll go away. Say, mister, what happened to you in there? It took four people to hold you down. You're really strong, you know that? You're just about the strongest young man we've ever seen around here. You feel better now?"
I never had the chance to answer the lovely nurse's question. She was so beautiful, all I really wanted to say was that she had made me instantly horny and that I wanted to screw her brains out. But the pain of the stitches in my side became my overriding concern. That, and the pesky injections three times a day that left my right arm cramped for several hours; and the unfilling diet of jello and Cream of Wheat; and, during the next three days, the parade of relatives that passed through my room.
As with my first hospital stay, years ago following the fight in the project, everyone in the Ricci clan showed up or called or sent a card. But now the Lobianco family and a vast array of their kin cruised in and out of view. My stepdad had fifteen brothers and sisters, and it seems most of them showed up. Almost all of them lived in the Little Flower parish, in the same part of town as the hospital. I met for the first time the enchanting, smoky-eyed Aunt Theresa Lobianco who would be a major figure in my sexual fantasies for many years. And Josephine Louise, who worked nearby, stopped in on her lunch hour each day to grin and joke around and then exit, leaving me with a horrendous erection.
And then there was the phone call from Martha.
She spoke first with my Mom, who filled her in on all the medical details and then handed the phone to me.
"What are you doing in the hospital again, cowboy? Can't you stay out of trouble?"
With my heart pounding, my mind swirling, and everyone in the room listening, I had to carefully consider every word I spoke and every expression on my face. After beating around the bush for a few sentences I asked, "So, are you married yet?"
"Married!?" Martha laughed hysterically. "God, I don't have *time* to get married!"
Mightily relieved, I didn't even hear the rest of our conversation. Martha couldn't say when or if she would be back for a visit. She wanted me to hurry and get well.
I wanted to hurry and get well, too. I was already growing bored and giddy with impatience, knowing that I was under strict orders not to work at delivery or on the paper route for at least three weeks. That would be three weeks without money for New York. I still didn't tell Martha about my plans. The conversation got sidetracked onto my upcoming fourteenth birthday and, due a few weeks later, my graduation from grammar school.
When the phone call ended I spent the rest of that day in a nearly morbid silence. I pretended to be irresistibly sleepy. Most of the visitors left the room as the nurse tucked me in for my final evening at St. Joseph's. I closed my eyes and allowed the others to think I was sound asleep. Meanwhile, I kept listening to the sound of Martha's telephone voice, which clung to my brain like syrup. She was not married. I wondered how long she would remain so, and how I could make up for three lost weeks.
I would go home the next day and spend my birthday on the living room sofa, doing makeup homework to keep up with my classes. And all day long for three weeks I would simply think: Martha. Martha.
Near the end of the summer of 1956, just before I started classes at Christian Brothers High School, I wrote Martha Jane and told her that the main reason I worked all summer was to earn money for a one-week visit to New York. I had saved enough for train fare, and if she didn't have room for me in her apartment I had money for a hotel.
Three weeks passed. I'd hoped for a quick reply. I wanted to get to New York before the summer ended. But as the days passed I started losing hope. August ended. I made new plans: perhaps I'd hear from her soon and could at least spend the Labor Day holiday with her.
Then Labor Day passed. And I thought: all right, then, Thanksgiving. And if not Thanksgiving, Christmas....
A letter arrived the week after Labor Day. Mom handed it to me when I came home from Christian Brothers. I pretended it was unimportant and told Mom I would read it when I got to it. I disappeared in my room for a while, then hid the letter under my shirt and rode my bike to Gaisman Park. I sat under one of the skinny, almost leafless saplings and hastily opened the envelope.
"Dear Steven: Please, please please don't spend so much money so soon on a trip up here. I don't want you to go broke and spend every- thing on me. Wait a little longer."
Disheartened, I read on. She had taken in a roommate, a struggling fabric designer named Veronica, whom she called Ronnie, to make ends meet. Martha's deal with Columbia didn't include summers, so she tutored privately and had other jobs on the side. And the apartment was far too small for two people, much less for three; and she and Ronnie had to lay low anyway because her lease included only one tenant; if Ronnie were found out the rent would go up.
She wrote, "You really haven't saved enough money for a week in a decent hotel in New York. There is no way I'd have you stay in a dump. You'd get mugged or even killed in that kind of neighborhood. New York isn't like Memphis. It's very dangerous here."
I read on. She wanted me to bury myself in work at Christian Bro- thers. She wanted me to give up the paper route and return to drama and to writing. I had sent her some short poems I'd written; she was so impressed that she wanted me to contact someone at school who would look at more of my work. She thought my stepdad's decision to send me to Christian Brothers was wise and that the Brothers were singular teach- ers. And if I were going to spend my money, I should wait until I had more on hand so that I wouldn't be totally broke, because I would need decent clothes of my own. And I should buy a new typewriter for school and for developing my writing instead of struggling with the Black Beauty (I had not yet told her the story of the Black Beauty's sorry fate). And I didn't belong on a paper route anyway; I belonged in the theater and on the student newspaper.
So that was it. I could not refute her. In every way, she was correct. But I was not content with it.
Two days later, on a Saturday when I knew long-distance rates were low, I asked Mom if I could make a call to New York and pay for it with my own money. Mom said yes. I dialed Martha's number. No answer. Two hours later I dialed again, late in the afternoon.
It was Ronnie who answered, with a youngish voice and a noticeable New York City accent. "Who's this?" she asked. When I told her she replied excitedly, "Oh, Steeeeven! Oh, I've heard so much about you from Martha! So you're really a person? The way she talks about you, I didn't think you were real! Hold on, I'll get her."
Martha was surprised and happy at my call.
I asked, "What happened to your Memphis accent?"
"Oh, hon, that's gone months ago. I call Mother and she can't understand a word I say."
We had a long talk. It took a while for me to get accustomed to the changes in her voice. She talked faster, and she sounded older, worldlier and more businesslike. She apologized for not letting me visit her right away. She said I really and truly needed more money, and she refused to let me stay in a hotel. "I want you to come up here on an airplane, not a crummy train. I want you to be patient so you can be comfortable and treat yourself like a mensch. You know what a mensch is?"
"A mensch is a PERSON, hon! I don't want you coming up here with your stuff in a paper bag and looking like a street urchin. And I want to make plans for it, and have time to spend together. Don't you think that's better than being so rushed and desperate? Life in New York is desperate enough without all that."
I didn't want to agree; but she was right, all the way down the line. She pleaded with me to buy a good typewriter, a nice one that I'd be happy with and that I would use to write and study instead of wasting my time and energy with notebook paper.
I refused. I did so nicely, but I refused to spend money on a type- writer, which in those days was a fairly expensive and exotic item for a high school kid in Memphis. And I insisted that I'd rather save the money for New York. Martha yielded on that point but insisted that I travel to New York when the timing was better.
She said, "I'm glad you called, Steven. Really. But talking about saving money, do you know we've been on the phone for over an hour?"
Apparently she heard reluctance and disappointment in my voice. "Steven. Sweetheart. I miss you, and I know you'd love New York. Will you understand? For me? And treat yourself better, and be patient?"
"Don't say okay if you don't mean okay."
I laughed. "Okay."
"And buy yourself a typewriter?"
"Oh...stubborn! Hon, please write me. And please take it easy."
Halloween passed. Thanksgiving. Three more letters and then Christmas cards passed between us. Then Christmas. 1957 began. Then Ronnie found a better job and moved into a vacancy in the same building. Then Martha found another teaching job on the side to supplement her scholarship. Easter passed. She sent an oversized Easter card that she said was designed by Ronnie. But no other word. April passed, and still no letter.
One hot Friday afternoon in late spring, Charlie and I spent a harried day working one huge delivery after another. I was sullen and was taking my anger out on the orders, asking for the biggest ones and for the most distant customers. Finally, by late afternoon, the two of us cleared the backlog and the flow of customers thinned for a while. Soaked with sweat, I took a break in the restroom and soaked my head with cold water.
As I returned to the front of the store, Charlie called to me from the front door. "Hey, Speedy!" He motioned toward the outside with his head. "C'mon out here, let's take a break. C'mon."
"I just had one," I said crankily.
"What the hell, c'mon."
I met him out front and he mounted his bike. "Get on your bike," he said. "Let's take a ride." He lit a cigarette and handed me one. I took it and lit up.
"Where to?" I asked.
"Let's take a little ride up on High Street while it cools down. Get the hell away from this store for a spell."
Wordlessly, I followed him on my squeaky bike and we rode up a short rise for several blocks. We took a right onto High Street, a narrow avenue of dilapidated tenements that had changed little since the turn of the century. A few of the buildings were abandoned; one of them had a condemnation notice on the front door. Abruptly, Charlie turned into a narrow driveway overgrown with weeds beside a four-story building of old, oily, dull red brick.
"What's up?" I asked, crushing out my cigarette.
"C'mon and meet a coupla girls I know," he said laconically. He shoved down the kickstand and flipped his cigarette toward the street.
"Girls," I said apprehensively. Quickly, I removed my glasses.
Charlie smirked. "Hell, Chrissie and Karen don't care 'bout that."
"I do," I said.
The wooden front stairs and porch creaked loudly under our feet. Charlie pounded on the screen door and hummed and waited. Presently two teenaged girls opened the heavy front door. Charlie introduced them with a few lines of friendly banter. Chrissie, the busty one with curly blonde hair and a mischievous smile, said hi. Karen was the slim, quiet one with long black hair and an expressionless face.
"What's up?" Charlie asked.
"C'mon," Chrissie said to him playfully, "I'll show ya. Karen, you and Steven...talk." She giggled.
Charlie and Chrissie disappeared into the massive dark hallway beyond the door. Karen leaned in the doorway and looked me over shyly, still with no expression on her face, her hands folded behind her. She was attractive in a lazy, slutty way, with a pale narrow face and a thin, wide mouth, black hair that draped around her small shoulders, and dark, ambiguous eyes.
"Charlie says you're a real hard worker," she said, her voice soft and hesitant and dripping with a heavy drawl that I recognized as belong- ing to northern Mississippi sharecroppers.
"I do my share," I said. Unaccustomed to talking with girls my age, I said lamely, "So you're Karen."
"Yeah. I'm Karen. Uh, Chrissie and me been friends for a long time."
It had been so long since I'd stood face to face with a girl, I had no idea what to do next. I looked around to see if Charlie and Chrissie were doing anything that might give me a clue as to what was going on, but they had disappeared inside the building.
Karen eyed me with an inscrutable stare. A clumsy silence passed. Then she motioned with her eyes to her right, toward the hallway. I wondered if she meant what I thought she meant.
She hesitated, and moved lazily into the hallway, where she stopped with one foot on the stairway and a hand on the dusty wooden bannister. She turned toward me momentarily, her face still dull and unchanged, her dark eyes questioning. I stepped inside the screen door and let it close softly behind me. She headed slowly up the stairs, quickly glancing at me about halfway up. I waited at the door. Then at the top step her gaze again met mine, directly but very briefly, as she turned and started up the second level.
I told myself: hey, idiot, she wants you to follow her. I moved to the stairway. It was all too unexpected and unfamiliar. There had been girls who told me they thought I was cute, but none who made or accepted my advances. What the hell -- it had been almost two years for me. Martha was in no hurry to see me. Probably New York would never happen. But was Karen serious?
Halfway up the first flight I paused and listened. The floor above creaked softly. I continued. When I reached the second floor all I saw were dusty shafts of sunlight, warped and faded walls, and several half-open doorways. Then, behind the second door on my right, I heard what sounded like the squeak of an old metal bed. I moved forward and stood in the doorway; the odor of grease and rotted plaster bled from the room.
Karen sat on a half-made metal bed, holding a single deflated pil- low to her chest, her long legs folded under her dark blue dress. Her eyes looked at me from her dull face. "What took y' so long?" she joked. A slight smile creased her thin lips; the smile disappeared instantly as I moved into the room and looked around. The space consisted of four walls, a cracked ceiling, a closed closet, an undraped open window, the bed, and her.
I stood in the middle of the room, hands on my aproned hips. "What's up?" I wondered if, at any moment, an axe murderer might dash from the closet, empty my pockets of the tips I'd earned that day, and kill me.
She seemed confused. Then hesitantly she raised a slender, long-fingered hand to her dress and touched the top button. "Wont me t' take this off?"
I don't know how many seconds she waited for me as her words slowly sank into my brain. Soon she began undoing her buttons.
"It's okay to do it in here. Ain't nobody else home today, they all went downtown." As she spoke she allowed her dress to fall open and reveal one breast and its flat, cocoa-brown nipple. "Won't nobody come in." She motioned toward the window. "Cain't see nothin' through the winder, either, they tore down the buildin's back there."
I started undressing. As I got down to my underwear and prepared to strip them off, I heard a noise from the hallway.
"Never mind them," she urged. "They're too busy doin' it to worry 'bout us." In one motion she slid under the sheet, pulled her dress over her head and off, and held a corner of the bedsheet aside for me, care- fully keeping herself covered below the waist.
"C'mon," she said. "Git in."
Nude, I slipped under the sheet. She covered us and turned to me. I turned to her, but hastily she pulled herself to me as if she didn't want me to see all of her, and curled her legs around mine. Against my right knee I felt her crotch and was amazed that she had become sopping wet so quickly. Like a sudden wind from under the sheet her girl's scent rose, stringent and sharp. It was disconcerting; heady because of its sheer lusty power, uninviting because it seemed so alien to her otherwise alluring, slim, white body.
Her face was uncommunicative, but her eyes were intent, waiting, deeply focussed into mine. Her arms went around me and she tried pulling herself closer to me, and me to her. I reached under the sheet and down, touching her dripping mound. Instantly, her hand shot down to hold mine away from her.
"No, don't. I don't usually like bein' touched there. It's embarrassin' sometimes."
Surprised and disappointed, I looked at her confusedly. Her eyes softened and gently she placed my hand on one of her pliant little breasts.
"I don't need much touchin' anyway," she said apologetically. "I'm ready. Can you tell? How 'bout you? You ready?" Her eyes on mine, her hand found my cock as if by radar, without searching. She gave me a quick, fleeting, sensuous grin -- another of her rare facial expressions that vanished almost as quickly as they appeared. "Yeah...it's gettin' there." Without removing her eyes from mine she reached under the edge of the mattress on her side and retrieved a rubber, quickly stripped open the wrapper, and reached under the sheet. Chewing her lip, she held my cock with one hand and with the other unrolled the cold rubber over my length. "There," she whispered, lying back. "C'mon. 'S been a long time. I need it in me."
Well, I thought, if that's the way she likes it...I covered her and then settled on her, and with one whispering slide of her trim torso she raised her knees and spread her thighs. Before I knew it she grabbed me again, her light touch and long fingers warm and tickly, stimulating me briefly until I realized she was maneuvering me into her while I was only mildly excited and barely at half-mast. Nevertheless, she was so wet and slippery that I slid inside; she had only to nudge her hips slightly upward, and I was fully sheathed.
Through the confining rubber I felt she was warm, almost steamy--but so soft and lubricous that I felt I were copulating into a small glass of warm water. I tried to raise on my arms and look down at her, but immediately she pulled me close and pulled herself up so that we were tightly joined with my face in her neck.
She wasted little time. Gasping, "Yeah. Feels good," she began squirming her sex against me with a nimble precision that belied her sluggish manner. I humped slowly but steadily, stretching a bit so that my nearly flaccid shaft could gain some feeling of her inner shape and texture. But to my disappointment I felt little, save for the pleasant tickle of her pubic hair bristling near the unrubbered part of my root. The sensation was paltry, and a great deal more of what I had been accustomed to was altogether absent, but it did generate a mild erotic twinge that helped stiffen me a little.
"Yeah," she panted. "Gettin' harder. Hmm. You move good."
Soon I knew I could not maintain this semi-erection. It wasn't just the lack of sensation or the sense of being rushed: we were clumsy and unsynchronized. There was nothing about us physically or emotionally or mentally that spoke in the same terms, much less in the same language. Not being able to touch her, not being stroked or primed myself, I became merely a cooperative observer. Staring ahead at a sight no more scintillating than a patch of pillow, her earlobes, and part of her tensing neck, I grew more and more distant.
The only thing keeping me involved was the surprisingly rapid ap- proach of her orgasm. "Don't cum yet!" she panted. "Keep dickin' me!" I pumped her steadily, keeping my shaft near what I thought was her clit and flexing my cock to make it seem stiffer. I wanted at least the pleasure of getting her there. The old bed jiggled. Soon she was gasping and groaned "Yeah..." and her head fell back. Her ankles slid around mine. Seconds later, she trembled and hissed "Yeah," and her head snapped stiffly forward. She whimpered a few times and her nails dug into my back while she rapidly ground her pubis against me for several seconds. Somewhere beyond the rubber I dimly felt her inner spasms. Then with a shudder and a sigh she sank back like a limp string.
I stopped. Propping on my elbows, I watched her: she lay open- mouthed, eyes shut, breathing deeply and exhaling in long tired sighs. Her arms relaxed and fell from me, one flopping to her side and the other draping itself around her head.
"Hey," she panted, "yer good...Y' know just how to do it."
"Glad you liked it."
"Yeah. Liked it a lot...I'm glad you waited. I ain't cum good 'n hard like that in a long time." She opened her yes. "You cum okay?"
"Sure," I lied.
"I couldn't tell. You must a cum when I did."
"Mm-hm." For a moment I held her and stroked her cheek, neck and dark nipples, planting little kisses on her throat and her slim, oddly touchable shoulders. Her flesh was soft and seemed to melt against my lips. It wasn't that I liked her so much; it was sympathy for a soft girl whose life was so barren that she could think of what we had just done as being great sex. And more: I needed someone to please, hold, and kiss.
Soon she squirmed nervously, her eyes filled with surprise and mild reproach. "Hey, you could make somebody fall in luv, doin' stuff like that. Holdin' an' kissin'...'n stuff."
I moved off her. Swinging my legs out of the bed, I sat up with my feet on the floor and my back to her. "Just felt like doin' it," I muttered, defeated, looking down and seeing the empty rubber on me. Out of her sight, I pulled it off and pitched it out the open window. I started dressing. I didn't want to be there anymore.
She rolled onto her stomach, still clasping the sheet about her. "Hey. You live 'round here?"
"Oh. Thought maybe I'd...see you around sometime."
She started to speak again, but stopped. Her face had changed; it had a look of quiet contentment and a girlish almost-smile. I was stooping to tie my shoes when she spoke again.
"Maybe I wouldn't be so shy, next time. 'Specially with you. I always been kinda shy."
"Why? There's nothing wrong with you. You're pretty."
"Yeah, well...but shy anyway...You look better'n I thought you would."
I walked to the door and looked out. There was no one in the hallway.
"How old 're you?' she taunted, rocking shyly on her hips. "Sev'nteen? Eighteen? I'm sev'nteen, come July."
I looked back at her. Should I tell her I was barely fifteen? I lied: "Eighteen." I noticed I was lying more often lately.
"You don't talk much," she said.
I smiled weakly. "I'm shy too."
"Yeah. You fuck real good, though." She blushed. "You ever hear that song, 'Sweet 'n' Gentle'?" She smiled devilishly. Her teeth were yellow, a couple of them chipped.
From downstairs I heard a door slam and then Charlie's heavy footsteps heading for the door. "Hey, Speedy! You up there? C'mon, we gotta go!"
"I have to get back to work," I told Karen, and I started downstairs.
Behind me I heard her call out, "You know where t' find me. Right?"
Charlie and I mounted our bikes. He lit a cigarette and started forward. "Damn," he said, "that was a LOAD off my MIND!"
We rolled down the street.
Charlie said, "You ain't said nothin'. How was Karen?"
I shrugged. "It was okay."
"Okay? Damn. Just a little quickie, wha'd you expect?"
"It was okay. Nice."
"Never done her myself. Chrissie always tells me Karen's real hot."
"Yeah," I said, trying to forget the whole thing, "she is."
Charlie wagged his head. "Damn, Speedy. I cain't figure you out."
That night I arrived home around ten o'clock, as usual for a Friday. Mom was asleep. I showered. Then I remembered Karen and showered again. It might have been possible for me to like her. She struck me as pretty, an oddly delicate but kinky combination. I wondered if she had any diseases.
Two days before my fifteenth birthday, I arrived home from school and found a large, brown-paper Parcel Post package on my bed. The return address was East 87th Street in New York. Quickly, I unwrapped and opened the heavy box.
It was a brand new Underwood typewriter.
Taped to the instruction manual was a birthday card. Martha had signed it. Under her name were three or four x's and a message:
"Call me 'Collect' on your birthday."