You needed thirty customers to have a paper route. Below that Mr. Buck divided your route among the other guys. He brought the papers every afternoon at three. Came in an old red Ford pickup and dropped two bales of one hundred papers each, plus some extras, on the garage floor at my house. We had to deliver everything by five when people came home from work.
Eddie Mann had forty-eight. My brother Tom got a job at Food Mart so I inherited his route of thirty-four. Ricky Soliday had forty-one. Johnny Anders had thirty-six. Todd Kelly had thirty-nine. Kenny Heyman and Roger Viet had routes in the forties.
The idea was to fold the papers tight enough so they’d hold when you threw them, but on Wednesday afternoon with all the ads and Sunday morning with extra ads plus the supplements everyone had to use rubber bands. The papers were too thick too fold.
You had to throw them close to the front door. Mr. Buck said, “You miss, you get off your bike and do it by hand.” He was a bald black man with greyish chapped cheeks, mournful brown eyes, and forearms like the barrel of a baseball bat. “I done worked all night at the mill, so don’t make trouble. Otherwise I’ll pitch ‘em all out of my truck.”
We got a penny a paper. Once a month we would collect. The first Monday of the month is when we gave Mr. Buck his share and we kept ours. Even thirty-four papers represented a lot of money, but my brother Tom was making more on the loading dock at Food Mart. That’s how I got a route before I really could handle it. I was eleven.
On Wednesdays and Sundays I couldn’t ride my bike up Brookside Road. I’d weave, the basket would yank me off balance, and I’d fall. Then things were a mess. I would be scraped, some of the papers would need new rubber bands, time would be passing. So I’d walk the bike up Brookside, throw some of my papers on Penn Street and then coast down to Meadowlark. Every paper I got rid of made it easier. I had a 24″ single-gear Schwin with fat tires, and I needed new inner tubes, which cost a dollar a piece. Until I could buy them, I had to be careful–no hitting curbs or potholes– or end up prying the tires off, getting out the patch kit and scraping the inner tube so the glue would stick and then cutting the patch and affixing it and then waiting, sitting there on the curb, doing nothing, just waiting.
There must have been four hundred identical houses in our subdivision which was built on an old farm off Germantown Pike. The original farmhouse still stood in the middle, surrounded by a white board fence and overhung with beautiful fir trees. No one knew who lived in that house. We just rode past. We rode everywhere, but first we had to get the papers delivered.
Mondays, when there was no advertising, were a snap. Twenty pages. Wednesday could be eighty pages. Sunday morning could be over a hundred, and it had to be done before breakfast. My father already would have driven my mother to the hospital for her day shift and would come back and say, “Skip, time to get those papers moving. The other kids are in the garage.” He called me Skip, Tiger, lots of things. Whatever you’re called doesn’t matter as much as who’s saying it.
His idea in the early 1960s was that whatever I had to do wasn’t as hard as what he had to do in the 1920s, riding behind a horse on a milk wagon with his father, running the bottles up and down the steep stairways of Raponikon. They started at four in the morning. People had to have their fresh milk for breakfast and of course he had to be in school by 8:30. He didn’t have a tough-guy attitude about this. For him life was fun. Get out there and live it.
You couldn’t ride your bike when it had snowed, you had to carry the bag on your shoulder, but sometimes when it snowed bad enough, Mr. Buck couldn’t get you the papers, either. Then the phone rang, even though it was obvious why people didn’t get their papers.
I had had jobs before. I restocked shoes in the stripmall shoe store; I folded cardboard boxes in the back room of the pizzeria on Germantown Pike; I sold waffle-woven dish clothes that had stripes around the edges, also Christmas cards and orange tins of Slicker, a black as tar goop that eased your muscles and joints and let you poop easier if you could swallow a spoonful every day. Mr. Buck once said, “Guys, here’s a special chance. If you can sell your customers this life insurance, all they have to do is sign–copy for us, copy for them–and pay a dollar a month. You get ten cents of that. Just ask them if they have burial plots. And if they have burial plots, what about coffins?”
I sold one such life insurance policy, actually two, to the Werkings. Mr. Werking wore overalls all the time and drove a battered pickup worse than Mr. Buck’s. He had two sons, Raymie and Ralph. The Werkings bought one policy for the mother and father and one for the two boys. Mr. Werking, a big sandy haired galoot, said, “We’ve got plots, but no coffin money. That’s a good idea.”
Mr. Buck said it didn’t work that way. You couldn’t split one policy to cover two people. He gave me an angry, exasperated look. “What am I supposed to tell the people downtown who writes these policies? This way you should be selling them four policies, not two.”
I told my father what had happened. By that time he sold life insurance and knew the people at the local life insurance company. Somehow he worked things out. The Werkings were the poorest people in the subdivision, and he didn’t mind helping them.
None of us liked collecting because lots of times no one was home, so you had to return, and you couldn’t do it while you were delivering papers, you had to do it separately.
My father had been a salesman all his life. “Make sure they pay” was one of his mottoes.
My mother said, “Vic, why do you say such things? Of course they have to pay. Who doesn’t?”
My father said my mother would be surprised who didn’t pay. My mother said apparently she would, otherwise we’d have been rich long ago. We weren’t rich. One of my private humiliations was that my father was letting the house rot right on top of us. The siding was rotting; the ice in winter had started coming inside the windows and rotting the sills in our bedrooms; and we had the rottenest-looking driveway in the neighborhood. He said it was because he hated the house. “This is temporary; we’re getting the hell out of here.” A few years earlier his car business went bust. Up in the attic there were several cardboard boxes full of bankruptcy papers. He was pretty old, in his forties, to learn something as complicated as life insurance, but he sat in his chair in the living room pinching his eyebrows together, studying the ins and outs, and one thing he could do like crazy was math. If you asked him a math question, he gave you the answer. Except he couldn’t tell you how. “I just know it,” he’d say and laugh that laugh of his that drove my mother crazy.
In the summer we’d sit on the cool cement garage floor and smell the fresh newspaper ink and my dog, T-Bone, would nuzzle my neck and ear and roll over for me to scratch his belly. Eddie Mann had pimples already and sometimes brought nudie magazines and flashed them at us as we folded the papers. You’d be talking about the Phillies and he’d slip a fold-out of a woman with her tits and twat right in front of you. Then he’d pull it away and snicker. “That’s for the big boys. Wait ‘til you get some hair on your balls.”
I have been in business–selling all kinds of insurance like my father–for a long time and now can see how many years I wasted focusing only on sales and not on life’s more appealing aspects. Back then I was more alert. There was a girl in my class who waited for me to arrive with the paper and waved at me from the front door wearing only her panties. Wendy Gross. She didn’t have boobs yet, but still. There was Jacker and Jimmer’s mother who walked around the house in her underpants and bra in the summer. Some eyefull. On a winter evening, racing against the dark, you could see in one window after another, almost like TV screens. It wasn’t snooping. You were just gliding, the basket almost empty, easy to make a good throw. No one knew you were there. There weren’t as many cars back then. A bus might pass–out in the suburbs!–and there would be a handful of tired people in hats and coats, their heads dropped like thirsty flowers, not seeing you…but you seeing them.
I had a problem with a family that didn’t pay. It didn’t even look as though anyone lived in the house anymore, but the paper would be gone from the day before, so I’d throw another one. Then on my collecting rounds, I’d knock, and no answer. I thought they were ducking me, but I didn’t want to lose a customer and get near thirty. I’d been buying inner tubes, baseballs, candy, baseball cards, comics, and some of those magazines Eddie Mann was willing to part with. (It was amazing how long it took me to figure out exactly what you were supposed to do with the feelings that came from studying those naked women. I mean I really studied them.)
“What house is it?” my father asked.
I told him the address.
The issue in our family was that my mother said my father thought he knew everything. She looked at him expecting him to give one of his answers.
“That’s because no one lives there,” he said.
“But the paper’s gone every day. So is the mail.”
My father raised his eyebrows. He knew something. My mother and I could both see he did. Exactly what burned my mother.
“Are you going to tell us?” she asked him.
“Let me think about to handle this. It’s sensitive,” he said.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” my mother said.
My father just raised his eyebrows and gave one of his little hip swivels from the Big Band era.
The next collection day I didn’t get an answer from that house and came home and told my father.
He said, “Get in the car, and I’ll explain as we go.”
As I’ve said there were about four hundred houses in that subdivision. We went quite a way as he explained to me that some people could not bear to be among other people. You won’t go out. You’ll hide.
“There’s a word for it,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Some foreign word. It’s the mother who has it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I knew her before she got it, and she does piecework typing for me–professional papers and things, letters. That’s how I know where they went. You know the father and son, too. Herb Lechler and Herb Jr.”
“You mean Herb Jr. doesn’t live in his own house?”
“They still own it, but they bought another one, and that’s where they live.”
“No wonder we never see him around.”
There were things about my father, despite his business defeats and anger about living in the subdivision, that bound me to him. He had his math ability; he remembered everything; and if he didn’t know something, he’d find out–he was always finding things out. In fact, I would say that in comparison to him I am some kind of failure. I’ve made a lot more money, but I could have done more in life, especially in terms of his ability to penetrate things. He was like WD-40. Let’s say life is basically water, which we know. And the secret to WD-40 is that it displaces water and gets into what’s stuck and frees it up. My father woke up intending to sell something on a given day, but he wasn’t going to just sell and miss getting further into things. This was a mixture of character and sales technique. Of course, the more you knew about things, the more you could sell things. Today it’s called networking. Back then it was called prospects, client lists, sales opportunities, stuff like that. So I’ve sold tons more, but he knew tons more. He had a feeling for people that would trump selling them things. He’d get around to that, but what was the rush? I’d say the rush would be to fix the siding, the window sills and the driveway and then get out of that subdivision where all the houses were the same and that sameness was somehow hypnotizing and frightening. At least you want to do better than your old man, but then you find out that no life compares to any other life, your old man’s life or not. They’re all fascinating; they’re all different.
We drove to the far edge of the subdivision. There were nicer, real houses on the other side of Swede Street, but Herb Lechler couldn’t afford a second house in which to hide his wife on the other side of Swede Street. What he could afford–in fact what Mrs. Lechler, Bessie Lechler, actually wanted–was another house in the subdivision where she and Herb and Herb Jr. could exist as though there were only Herb and Herb Jr. inside.
Who even knew Herb Jr. had a mother?
Why didn’t they just sell the house where I delivered the paper?
There were all kinds of questions to be answered, none of which were easy for my father to explain in part because he’d be the last person who would expend any energy avoiding people.
We parked in front of the house but didn’t knock on the front door. We just walked around to the backyard, which was fenced six feet high, and my father called in, “Bessie, you there?”
Herb Jr. opened the gate. He and I looked at one another the way you do when you’re kids. You don’t say hi. Your eyes meet. That settles things as to whether you know each other or not, and yes, Herb Jr. and I knew each other. In Little League I pitched when he played third base, and I played third base when he pitched. I was a better pitcher, but he was a way better hitter. Sort of a miniature bull who couldn’t care less if you hit him. He’d stand in there and get his wicked swings no matter what. Back under a willow tree, I could see the legs of a picnic table and a woman’s fat legs, too, but not the fat woman herself.
“Bessie?” my father called.
“Herb Sr. home?”
“Out on errands. Do you have work for me?”
“No, there’s just been this mix up. Benjy’s been delivering papers to your other house and no one’s there when he comes to collect. I thought maybe we could take care of that.”
Bessie Lechler told Herb Jr. to get her purse from the kitchen and also bring some iced tea and glasses. I’d never seen this side of Herb Jr., almost a mama’s boy. He was tough. He could do a hundred sit-ups with no stopping. He had this trick where he would lie on his side in the playground and invite you to kick him in the stomach, which we all did. Herb Jr. didn’t wince. We kicked and kicked. None of us could hurt him. He was like a rock.
My father led me across the yard and parted the willow branches and there was Bessie, a good 300 pounds of her, sitting behind a manual typewriter, the big kind you’d use in an office. Naturally her head seemed small in comparison to her body, but she had so little visible neck that the distinction between body and head wasn’t great. She had to catch her breath when she leaned back, but she acted the way anyone would when my father introduced her to me and Herb Jr. came back with the pocketbook and the iced tea.
“I wish I could get out to see you two play sometime,” she said. “I’m just so busy. Vic, when the devil are you going to learn how to type?”
My father knew how to type. He’d volunteered to learn in World War II. Another one of his mottoes was “volunteer for everything,” completely the opposite of everyone else. So he’d been giving Bessie his business out of pity, or sympathy, I’m not sure which, nor am I sure who he pitied more, Bessie or Herb Sr., who showed up a few minutes later and joined us.
I knew Herb Sr. because he came to all our ball games and sat with my father and was the most decent of men. He had wonderful black hair he kept in order with Vitalis, a handsome cleft in his chin, and he gave no one the business, as my father did, constantly. By the same token, Herb Jr. could hit two home runs, and Herb Sr. wouldn’t crow. They were two quiet guys who apparently lived in total torment because of Bessie’s agoraphobia. I have a daughter who is a psychiatrist; when I told her this story, she gave me that term for Bessie’s mental illness. What is mentally ill? you ask. I’ll tell you what: I think we’re all mentally ill. It’s just that some of us have better control of it than others. The psychiatrists who say most people are fine are just engaged in triage. Mental illness is normal. “If you don’t think you’re crazy,” my father liked to say, “you’re nuts.”
For example, you would have thought that we’d gone to the Lechler’s secret house the way we always did. Not so, of course. This was a big deal, me being there. But my father was inside Bessie Lechler’s anxiety zone and that gave me rights and privileges, too. I got my collection money and a decent tip on top of it. Henceforth I’d deliver the paper to the old house but go to the secret one to collect. Meanwhile Herb Sr, or sometimes Herb Jr., would get the paper and mail from the old house every day as usual. It was part of the ruse. Someone must be in there behind the old house’s drawn curtains because the mail and papers didn’t pile up. Nothing strange about it.
Driving home, in fact, I had the sensation that the subdivision’s monotonous houses really did underscore a vast spiritual unity in the world. If bizarre things could occur here, they could occur anywhere. These weren’t streets. They were the aisles and passageways of some kind of refuge hidden in plain view, perhaps you could even call it a church.
My father said,”Now I’m going to tell you some things I don’t want you to tell your mother. This is just between you and me, okay?” My father had only said that sort of thing to me once before–when he bought me an outrageously expensive baseball glove.
“The real reason they don’t sell the other house is that Herb Sr. never knows when he might need it.”
“Why would he need it?”
“I’m not sure he really knows. There could be divorce, or there could be a day when Bessie says she’s ready to go back, or Herb Jr. might get older and have to take it for himself. That empty house is hard on him, Ben. Keep that in mind.”
“We thought Herb Jr.’s mother was dead. He never says anything. He comes to practice, then he’s gone. Did Tom know about about this?”
“Their move to the other place more or less happened when Tom went to Food Mart and you took over the route, or maybe it was a little before then. Sometimes I told him Herb Sr. had bumped into me and given me the collection money.”
“So you didn’t want him to know.”
“It’s not me. It’s Bessie. I just know Herb Sr. has been wishing something like this would happen for a long time–you and me visiting, someone getting in there without her having an attack.”
“What kind of attack?”
“She gets upset. She can’t breathe. Sometimes she passes out.”
“How long has Mr. Lechler wanted this to happen?”
“Probably longer than he’d want to admit. This can’t be the beginning of whatever it is. It’s got to have roots.”
You wouldn’t tell stories if there weren’t endings, and there can’t be endings unless certain things happen that emerge from what happened before and give you a sense that they all were fated to collide into a final event or emotion or something you can lay hands on and say, “Aha, so that’s what that was all about.”
As I see it, the ending to this story unfolds in stages. Not long after meeting Bessie Lechler, I got sick. In hindsight it may have been mononucleosis or possibly some kind of pneumonia, known illnesses in the early sixties, and it could be that my parents and Doc McGinnis knew what it was without wanting to tell me. Or maybe not. Maybe I was beyond the edge of medical science, felled by an overdose of being alive and not old enough to handle it. Anyway, I was so run-down and listless Doc McGinnis put me in the hospital for a few days and my mother took time off from floor nursing to sit with me. She happened to be sick at the time, too. Had a bad cough. I remember lying there in a fever, listening to her cough, staring up at the high ceilings, and noticing how many of her friends came in to say hi on their breaks. Seven or eight nurses, all in white, with their white hats folded the way their particular school of nursing folded them. This was one of the most mysterious periods of my youth. I grew aware that my mother, too, had a secret life. What is it with women? People told her things, whispered this and that, and she kept whatever it was to herself, didn’t let you know the way my dad did. After he examined me every morning, Doc McGinnis talked to her in whispers, too. Likewise the lady with the food cart cooed at me but always turned away to catch my mother up on what was going on in the hospital. Hush-whisper-hush-laugh-whisper-whisper-whisper… My mother was a small woman but a pretty big institution seemed to wheel around her, spinning its private thoughts and fears into her ears, not willing for a boy, or anyone else, to hear what they were. Some other doctors came in. They called her Barbara, her first name. She called them Doctor This and Doctor That. Then like the nurses who visited my mother, the doctors would murmur stuff and my mother would raise her eyebrows and shake her head and cough and there would be a sense of judicious collusion, lives all over the hospital in the balance. But when my father came in, it would be at the end of the day, and my parents would sit looking at me, saying nothing, wondering, I suppose, just wondering. No one really had a whisper or a secret that would turn me around. I didn’t either.
At last the fever spiked. I didn’t feel like me. I felt like a hot bag of something. My mother got some of her friends in and they cooled me off with rubber bags full of ice cubes. Doc McGinnis hustled in and told them to turn me over and work on my back. Sometime in the middle of the night, the fever surged out of me like a wave and left me alone. God knows where that wave went, but I suppose that’s what horizons are for, to keep you focused on where you are, not where you might end up.
Still, my parents told me I could give up the paper route or give up sports. Doc McGinnis had said I was doing too much. What would it be?
I gave up the paper route.
Two years later, as one might imagine, Herb Lechler Sr, shot himself because he was having an affair with a normal woman, or what passes for normal, in that empty house. It turns out Herb Jr. was the one who found out. He was neither old enough to understand nor forgive, or at least that’s how Herb Sr. took it. My father told me this perhaps ten years after the fact. It wasn’t a heart attack that killed Herb Sr. as he’d lied at the time; it was suicide. And the only reason my father told me this was because Herb Jr. did the same thing. He’d gotten a baseball scholarship to college and broken his leg sliding into second base. Was never the same after that. The scouts gave up on him. Then Bessie Lechler, at that weight and with those losses, had to die the more normal way, and she did die, so they were all dead.
My mother never suggested that my father taking me to the Lechler’s had led to my mystery illness or any of the other twists and turns in my life, but I never forgot the chorus of observers who came in and out of that hospital room touching base with her any more than I forgot Mrs. Lechler sitting hidden with her typewriter under the willow tree.
I understand my father and how he was better than I understand my mother. I have a very distinct longing for his almost aesthetic interest in life–the way he liked to touch things, hug them, tousle their hair–whereas there was some kind of skeptical distance to my mother and the secretive cabal in which she lived wherein most stories don’t work out well. And I question that. We die, yes, we die. That’s one way to put it. But all stories will be over before they begin if that’s our attitude.
I think the point is to not get ahead of yourself, not clamp down on folly or illness, diagnose and dispose of it. An empty house, a kind of ruse, a kind of hope, a kind of refuge, a kind of desperation, so much involved in an empty house, in that empty house. Why give it a name? Why not meditate on the actual this and that of life? Don’t settle for selling things or prescribing pills, seek to sense them, feel them, tumble along with them, maybe even love them while you’ve still got the chance.