Andrew Bockhold | Longreads | August 2017 | 13 minutes (3,182 words)
Pulling out of the gas station, the van jerked to a stop. The jolt sent me toppling off the two stacks of Sunday editions I was using as a seat. Panicked, I fell forward and spread my arms to hold back the stacked papers from dumping their folded contents all over the stained yellow carpet. Stopping and reassembling the comics section did not sound fun to me no matter what situation Marmaduke was into now. I kept them upright as my dad threw the van into park and hopped out to see what was wrong. I was behind in my job of wrapping the papers, which would be flung out the window into driveways.
I was almost 13, and there were moments on these Sunday mornings when I thought I’d never make it. With my dad out of the van I clenched my jaw until I heard my teeth squeak. I punched a stack of front pages. But then remembering this would be one of the last Sundays I’d be doing this put me at ease.
It was 3:30 a.m. on a January Sunday in 1993, and I was sitting in the back of the beat-up Econoline van we used to haul and toss the Sunday edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer. Six days a week my dad was alone in a station wagon at this hour, wrapping and throwing as he wove his way through neighborhoods and parked cars. But on Sunday the paper was too big for him to handle alone, and there were too many sections that needed to be assembled that morning. So I would sit in the back of the van and stuff all the pieces together into an orange bag. I’d then throw the paper up to the empty passenger seat, and, if I was lucky, I could outpace my dad’s driving by building up a little reserve.
On this particular day I had to rush because the front page had arrived late. I never had time to read the headlines, but pictures of soldiers standing near an open pit must have caused the delay. Over the course of the morning as the sun slowly rose, I would make out a few words under the photo: “Bosnia,” “Russian soldiers,” “mass,” and “grave.”
Our whole paper assembling process started on Saturday afternoons when the comics were delivered to our house along with ads and a few sections that could be printed early like Lifestyles or Tempo. We formed an assembly line in the basement and put those sections together in stacks to be loaded into the van, ready for the early morning headlines that are hot off the press — literally warm to the touch. This warmth was appreciated in the winter months.
It was 3:30 a.m. on a January Sunday in 1993, and I was sitting in the back of the beat-up Econoline van we used to haul and toss the Sunday edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Our last stop before heading into the quiet neighborhoods was a dry cleaner’s parking lot where we’d await the front page. I always took two stacks to make a seat and knew that once those stacks got down to fifty papers each I was almost done with the morning’s work of stuffing nearly a thousand papers. The last hundred I did on my knees while trying to balance myself around the tight curves my dad took at high speeds. People paid him for delivery, and if they wanted their paper by 6:00 a.m. we needed to haul ass to get it there. My only solace was knowing that maybe one of the ruder customers would be reading a front page with the imprint of my butt.
Laughing then, my dad leaned into the van to report to me what had caused the jerk.
“Uh, looks like I looped the air hose around the tailpipe,” he said. “I think I bent the whole thing in.” He had been filling the ancient tires while I was in the bathroom at Super America. He continued his embarrassed chuckle and hopped back into the driver’s seat.
I started to wrap more papers and toss them up when the smell hit my nose. The van was so old and rickety that the carpet was the only thing between me and the road. Patches of the metal floor had rusted away, and the bent exhaust pipe was pouring its black soot into the van as we drove along. With each pothole or swift turn I cursed my dad for his clumsiness, and punched more front pages. I was stuck in the back with windows that didn’t open, a rotted floor, and hundreds of papers left to be folded while my dad drove up front with his arm out the window. The cold breeze created an unholy confluence of newsprint fumes and van exhaust. Thank God I only had to do this for a few more Sundays, I thought.
In the early days of this weekly ritual the van wasn’t so beat up. When my dad lost his job as a lawn mower salesman six years before, a way for him to make money to support our family was to be in the position I would later assume, for a lady named Janet who had owned this route for decades. She paid him by the hour to wrap the papers and toss them up to her and then he gradually started taking over driving and throwing alone on the weekdays. In stages, he bought percentages of the route from her and with it came the van to use on Sundays. Until then, the van was kept in a dry garage and sheltered from the elements. That was where we first learned to put the papers together and load them. Once the route was securely in my family’s name, Janet wanted us to use our own place to stuff the comics and load them up.
It was a relief when we started putting the papers together at our house instead. Janet and her friend Mary lived together in a house across town, and the long drive to their house on a Saturday afternoon was a thirty minute reminder of what lay ahead. Their house was odd too. Whenever you had to use the bathroom inside you felt like some invader on their privacy. And it always smelled like cooked cabbage as you passed through their kitchen. But it was warm inside during the winter. There was a gas heater outside, but nothing like their yellow-lighted warm kitchen with something on the stove. Even if it smelled bad it was a break from wrapping the papers.
I was almost 13, and there were moments on these Sunday mornings when I thought I’d never make it. But remembering this would be one of the last Sundays I’d be doing this put me at ease.
Janet and Mary were usually gone for the summers. If we had to pee while they were away and their house was locked, we went behind their shed — dad and I did at least. My two older sisters, Jess and Hattie, would get in the car and drive to a convenience store for a bathroom, and as an apology for the long break they usually brought back snacks.
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Packed into a small garage, with the van and all the papers waiting to be assembled, my dad, the girls and I stood at large counters walking back and forth grabbing glossy ads for Macy’s, sliding them into the comics that held yet more ads, then opening up the preprinted sections dedicated to homes and gardens and sliding them in to make thick stacks of no more than five. We then grabbed these stacks and lined the van’s empty back end. Once we were finished, the sun would be setting. We did this every Saturday for six years.
It wasn’t fun for me when my parents bought the entire route. It meant I was forced to stay home on Saturday afternoons, stuck in the basement stuffing papers. By then Jess, my oldest sister, had moved out, and Hattie, my middle sister, worked a real job to pay for college. That left me and my dad to put the papers together and throw the route the next morning. Just us two, and the van.
On the side of our house, next to the riding lawn mower, on the broken concrete driveway, the van sat, six days a week. The paint was not merely rusting or chipping after a season in the cold, wet area under a pine tree, but it now dusted off on your hands and coat. We didn’t have a garage, only an old root cellar with steps leading down from a slanted and misshapen door. From that basement and those steps, we carried down the bound comics stuffed with glossy ads and carried back the assembled sections waiting for a front page. Meanwhile, the carefully preserved van was exposed to the elements, along with the riding lawn mower that never worked.
The van did have a radio. For years we would listen to oldies. I would suffer through ghostly, static- infused versions of the songs of my dad’s youth, as he would quiz me on which Moody Blues song was playing, or which Beatles album “Love Me Do,” was on. The early morning darkness and the haunting croon of Roy Orbison or the Beach Boys made my own tween mind think of what a creepy time my dad had grown up in. Everything about his younger years seemed old and haunted. Only years later would I realize everyone’s memories, even my own, were like old front pages yellowing with age. I thought about the street of his childhood home, just down from the high school where he met my mom, and not unlike the streets where we threw papers. While looking through their old yearbooks I would hum the songs I’d heard on Sundays. The faded pictures made everything look so old, and sometimes sad.
When my dad lost his job as a lawn mower salesman six years before, a way for him to support our family was to be in the position I would later assume, for woman who had owned this route for decades.
Over time the static overpowered the songs and my dad’s answer to the radio going out was to slam his palm on the dashboard; he had a Midas touch with electronics. The only thing worse was his driving, and now the bent exhaust pipe. With each slap the radio would clear for a few minutes, just in time for the last chords of “I Get Around,” or “Yesterday” ring out. Over time, the clearing of static got shorter and shorter until a final palm-smack stopped the radio from working completely. We never got it fixed, but instead played trivia with the songs and musicians that came to mind during the course of our morning deliveries.
“Who sang, “See You in September?” my dad would bait me. “Guess! You’ll never guess.”
“Uh, the Platters?”
“No man, it was The Happenings. What’s Happ-en-ing!” He continued to chuckle as he hummed the song to himself.
“Okay, I got one, who sang “Sealed with a Kiss?” I had no clue about the answer, but I knew he would.
“That’s easy, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, or wait, Bobby Vinton?”
“They both sang it. Uh, The Playboys did it first though.”
We’d made up for some lost time and with the stacks of papers dwindling in the back, I could almost see the rear windows of the van — a sign we were close to the end. I looked to see if I had any Coke left from Super America and finished off the last lukewarm swig. This small pause relaxed me, and I could feel my full bladder pang in revolt. I normally held it to keep the pace until we returned home. Stopping for bathroom breaks only prolonged the agony. But with at least an hour left to go I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold it this time, so I yelled up front.
“I gotta pee.”
“Alright.” My dad hollered back. Up ahead there was a dead end with some trees and cover. Even in the dead of winter it was as private as you could hope for in terms of a place to do your business. We pulled up and he shut the lights off, and I ducked into the small forest. To my surprise there was a turquoise port-a-let near the tree line. The earth around it was ground up in piles. The area just beyond looked like a war zone.
Amidst the rubble of churned up ground there was a solid looking street that ran the length of the cleared area. There were pipes sticking up with blue and yellow caps on the ends and in the far distance I could see a house foundation settling in. I decided not to use the port-a-let and peed on the side of it instead, spelling my name as I looked out across the new subdivision. My heart sank as I realized that this would mean even more papers to wrap, and then the bittersweet realization that we wouldn’t have the route by the time these houses were finished and lived in.
The Cincinnati Enquirer had decided to do away with carriers as subcontractors and distribute the news on their own. In my selfish young mind, I didn’t understand that we were losing a business. All I could think about was that I no longer had to give up Saturday afternoons or get up at 3:00 in the morning on Sundays.
I got back in the van and looked out the windows as the sky was beginning to brighten. I was coming to the end of the piles and the start of a fitful nap atop the plastic folds of wrapped papers as my dad drove on quietly toward home. Once I tossed my last paper up to the front of the van I collapsed on the pile, having fallen asleep in mid fall.
I dreamt then of Christmas Day on the route. All five of us, dad, mom, my two sisters, and I huddled into the van to deliver the holiday edition. It was a bloated issue with ads for after Christmas sales and special sections highlighting the year’s events. We were all slap happy from lack of sleep, singing carols, and changing lyrics like they were Mad Libs or laughing at the gaudy decorations on houses that attempted to spread the cheer with one strand of lights around a huge tree. There was only room enough for one person to wrap papers so we took turns. We didn’t all need to be there, but it was a reason to be together on the holiday morning. Once we were finished, we would go home to make breakfast and open presents. From there it was on to church and various open houses of friends and family. Once the route was gone we would start sleeping in, popping donuts as we rushed to get ready to leave the house.
The Cincinnati Enquirer decided to do away with carriers as subcontractors. I didn’t understand that we were losing a business. All I could think was that I no longer had to give up Saturday afternoons or get up at 3 a.m. on Sundays.
Near the end of the route my dad would wake me up and I’d have to toss up the rest of the papers that made up my small bed on the floor of the van. I would finally sit up in the front and collapse into the sagging vinyl passenger seat. Sometimes we would continue to joke around as he took turns at fifty miles an hour, but other times I would look back into the belly of the van and sigh with relief that this week’s work was done. Nothing ever felt so good as to sleep in that chair bundled up and drift off into another bouncy nap.
Sunday after the route was one of dad’s few times off during the week; he still worked a full time job, too. Until the route started to make money as a business he continued to work as a warehouse manager from nine to five during the week. My family lost the route before he was ever able to leave the warehouse job. When I was eight he’d spent almost a full year out of work and for years afterward, money was always tight, so my parents were steadily trying to dig themselves out of a hole. It would take years for me to completely understand all the details of their finances, but even as a 12-year-old I could sense the pressure, so I knew not to ask for extra things at the grocery store, or pizza parties with friends. And once I was old enough, my Saturdays were taken up by the papers anyway.
I tried to get out of this work any chance I got. My parents and I would get into spectacular fights when I learned to question why other people were paid to help with the papers on weekends I was sick. Why wasn’t I given any money for the work I did? It was selfish, and I knew it, but I felt entitled for every morning I sat chafing my butt on two stacks of the front page. It was a bittersweet moment when my parents relented and agreed to pay me $25 each Sunday; I was happy to have some spending money, but was ashamed to take it away from my parents. I was 12 when that started, and to compensate, soon after I started paying for myself whenever I could.
Many years after our last Sunday delivering the paper I would begin to actually miss those mornings and the simple job of wrapping papers and talking to my dad in-between the thuds on concrete driveways. I’d miss our rituals, like pulling through a drive-thru to get breakfast every other weekend, then going home to eat and read the paper we had just sent out into the world, and from there, going back to bed and sleeping until the afternoon. I would also realize what my dad had lost as I sat back and thanked God on that very last Sunday. It was a small route, but it was his, and he’d had a plan to one day only work his route and not his second job during the day.
Many years after our last Sunday delivering the paper I would begin to actually miss those mornings and the simple job of wrapping papers and talking to my dad in-between the thuds on concrete driveways.
My father and the other carriers did sue as they were unceremoniously dumped by the paper they had thrown for years, decades in some cases. The end result was a settlement of about a year’s worth of route business for each carrier, minus the lawyer’s fees and taxes. My parents never tried to start another business, and soon I was working at a Jiffy Mart for my first real job. My longest shift was on Sundays. I would come home late when the house was quiet and both my parents were asleep. It reminded me of the early morning darkness before we left the house to throw the papers. I would sit at the kitchen table with only the stove light on and remember coming home from the route.
Covered in grit and newsprint, my father and I would quietly sneak into the house so as not to wake my mother and sisters. My face would be covered in black smudges from where I wiped my nose or cleared the sweat from my forehead. The most important part of coming home was to wash our hands of the dark ink that rubbed off from handling the papers. We both would lather up our hands and watch the black water drain down the sink, but even after several minutes of scrubbing there were still dark newsprint stains on our fingertips.
* * *
Andrew Bockhold is an Ohio-based writer and English teacher. His writing has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Streetlight Literary Magazine, Xenith and other publications.
Editor: Sari Botton