the paper route

by dm gillis

Vancouver, summer of ‘69

We were the poor kids, black and white and spooky on flat Kodak paper. Our bodies fixed and angled; our eyes engines of impulse, the juvenile algorithms of our prejudiced neighbourhood. Why any of us should have had to apologise for what happened that summer remains a mystery. We weren’t good kids; we were little bastards. But we weren’t accessories to murder.

The act of murder was still a thing beyond our grasp, the actions of our favourite Hollywood gangsters not withstanding. But there we stood, in the Vancouver Sun paper shack, behind the Trocadero Pizza Parlour, in the east end of the city, standing before a jury of parents, police and Vancouver Sun management, challenged to explain the incomprehensible.

“What do you do when you see something bad happen?” said Missus McCurdy, with her dopey Calvinist passion, to all of us paperboys standing there. “You report it to an adult, don’t you?”

And each of us, upon hearing her declaration, knew, without being able to say it, that adults to whom one could confess anything in confidence were scarcer than hen’s teeth. So, we stared blankly at the stoutish Missus McCurdy while she, with hands on her hips, pursed her lips and shook her head.

“It’s a sham, this,” my father had said earlier in the day, in anticipation of that evening’s emergency meeting. “Attacking the paperboys en masse, like we were gonna burn ‘em like a pile of books.”

Taller than most in the crowd, my father was now, by some unknowable rule of mob democracy, relegated to the back of the room, where he looked over everybody else’s heads and shoulders. I looked up at him, and he smiled back. He seemed to understand the dark current that drove our unflinching dedication to boyhood silence in all things, and our confidence that, if given the chance, an adult will always do the wrong thing.

“I’m taking my boy home now,” my father said, giving me a wink. And then addressing the adults present more directly, he said, “You all have had your fun.”

“But it’s your boy that’s responsible for all of this,” Missus McCurdy said. She had a sloppy way of talking, the result of fatly formed lips.

“And he’s genuinely sorry for it,” said my father, “having told me as much himself.”

“He’s a hellion,” Missus McCurdy said. “He’ll burn in hell if he doesn’t find Jesus soon.”

“Jesus is a big man, Missus McCurdy,” my father said. “He’s capable of finding little boys without them having to fear for finding for Him.”

My father stepped forward and took my hand. It was a tender thing for a man to do with his eleven year old son, eleven years old being considered, in my hard, inflexible neighbourhood, to be far too old for a son to hold his father’s hand. But hold it I did as we exited the paper shack. And I felt proud doing it.

“You’ve sown a bad seed, Mr Brody,” Missus McCurdy said, as we passed her on our way out the door. “We all look at that boy and see the result.”

And on hearing those outrageous words, as my father and I walked away through the Trocadero Pizza Parlour parking lot, my father held aloft the middle finger of his right hand for Missus McCurdy to sit upon and rotate, if she so chose.

* * * * *

a week earlier 

For a single day, on July 21st, 1969, the Vancouver Sun had become the Vancouver Moon. Apollo 11 had landed and men were walking on the lunar surface. Under the headline that day, MAN WALKS ON MOON, was a fuzzy photograph of a space suited figure descending the lunar lander ladder.

“Golly!” one of the us said, staring at his stack.

I counted out my papers and stuffed my bags, ignoring the banter of my fellow paperboys.

“Astronauts wear diapers, you know?” said Matthew Pollock, the Paper Shack Manager. He was older and tougher than the rest of us. “Just like you, Johnny boy.”

Johnny was Johnny Smith, a smallish and frequently bullied boy. He ignored the comment and kept counting and stuffing his paper bags.

“They do not,” said Terry Went, who thought astronauts heroes. “They use the can.”

“There ain’t no can in space, dimwit,” Matthew said. “There’s no gravity, like your brain.”

There was quiet laughter at that.

Then Matthew hollered, “Brody, you dumb son of a bitch. You missed the Carpenter house yesterday. They called and complained.”

“They haven’t paid in two months,” I said.

“Then collect what they owe and deliver their papers.”

“They peek out through the curtains and don’t answer the door.”

“Don’t whine, you little bitch,” Matthew said. “Just do what I tell yous. I don’t need Rikki, the prick, comin’ down on me because of you.”

“Rikki was Mr Rikki, the area manager, who’d once been a paperboy himself, and had risen in the ranks to become exalted and all powerful.

I shrugged. Rikki wanted balances up to date. Delivering to delinquent accounts was forbidden.

“You listening to me, Brody?” Matthew continued.

I ignored him, and stuffed my bags.

“Can’t take it, eh?” he said. “You fucking little girl. Want to run to mommy when the job gets hard, eh?”

The paper shack went silent. I looked over my shoulder at him.

“Oh, but you ain’t got no mommy, do you,” he said.

It was true; I didn’t.

“Took too many pills, drank too much booze.” Matthews tone was mock-mournful.

“Leave him alone,” said Willard Jakes, the oldest of us after Matthew, and considered most likely to commit a violent crime some time in his near future.

Matthew relented, and went out for a smoke.

My mother had, indeed, checked out six months earlier, on a mortal railcar of cheap rye and ninety doctor-prescribed Valium. She’d written her goodbye note on the kitchen floor in two shades of lipstick, the first lipstick, Avon Sunset Red, having run out halfway through. The second shade had been Maybelline Mediterranean Sunset Pink. I’d read it in an early morning fog when I got up that morning, looking for her and breakfast. It was 6:00 a.m. My father was out, finishing a graveyard shift.

Dear whomever, 

Tell the cops I did this, and no one else. Tell the priest and the nuns to fuck themselves.

Pierre (that was me), my dear sweet son, I love you, though this might make it seem that I do not. I’ll be watching from somewhere. Call out if you need me, and I’ll come.

Ramone Brody (that was my father), you’re a bastard but I loved you once. Your sad eyes have become sad beyond beauty. That’s why I’m doing this. It never occurred to me when we married that we’d have to watch one another grow old, and hurt so badly doing it. 

Beatrix Brody

I found her in the basement in a floral flannel nightie, curled up in ball, next to the washer, surrounded by the boxed relics of our family’s past. Her mouth and eyes were open, as though she was about to speak. Her cheek lay in a puddle of vomit.

I crouched down next to her, still in my pyjamas, and touched her auburn hair. It was still soft and shone in the dim yellow light.

Much later in the day, after she’d been removed and her final words had been washed from the linoleum, I cried on my bed until my body hurt. My father came into my room then and lay beside me, holding me in his arms.

“There is no wisdom,” he whispered. And nothing more was ever said.

And so, I came to compare the death of anyone with that of my mother by suicide. I was young, of course, and surprised, once I was made so aware of it, at the abundance of death around me. All we were was death, in waiting – relatives and friends who died easily of disease or mishap, politicians and celebrities who died just as easily of assassination. How could their deaths compare to my mother’s? She who had bravely faced the darkened room and had flagrantly stepped across its threshold without invitation.  Call out if you need me, and I’ll come: In death, she had become my champion.

That’s how it was on the day men walked on the moon, after Matthew had said his unsayable words, and I had left the paper shack to deliver my papers.

My route ran along East 7th Avenue, from Nanaimo Street to Victoria Drive. It was a working man’s street of old, well kept houses, each with its porch and stairs and screen door. I never threw a paper; I delivered it by walking to the door and dropping it there, made confident by the absence of the previous day’s paper that my deliveries were welcome and well read.

Miss Elizabeth Durning lived in the house at 2103 East 7th Avenue, where the avenue intersected Lakewood Drive. The house was a hundred years old and sat on a corner double lot, hidden from the street by multiple old oaks and maples. It was grander than the other houses around it, and it had always been draped in a disconcerting solitude. It was a shrewd, deliberate thing, breathing in its shade. Elizabeth Durning had always seemed in its orbit, to me – like a moon that had been caught in the house’s gravity, and would pull away if it could. She’d confided in me that she was thirty-seven, and that she wished I’d stay a boy forever, because all men were all stinkers.

When I arrived with her paper that day, a large black and chrome car was driving away, spinning its wheels on the gravel shoulder. The man at wheel looked at me as I crossed the street with Miss Durning’s paper. He wore sunglasses, a hat, white shirt and a red striped tie. He looked like the men on Commercial Drive, I eventually told the police. They weren’t pleased with my description.

As walked up the garden path from the street and climbed the stairs to drop her paper on the porch, I noticed the screen door hanging askew on a single hinge, and that the front door was wide open with a broken latch. I stood for a moment at the top of the stairs with the paper in my hand, peering into the front room of the house. A coffee table had been overturned and a vase broken on the hardwood floor, with its flowers strewn round it.

“Miss Durning?” I said into empty space. I heard a television from somewhere in the house, a news program on NASA’s moon landing. Then, I said, “Miss Durning?” again, only louder.

There was no reply.

With her newspaper still in hand, I stepped into the house. The front room was bright and modern. There were paintings on the walls and framed theatrical posters. The television was in a corner, framed by a wall of tightly packed bookshelves. I saw a pair of broken eyeglasses on the floor next to a single red high heel shoe. I knew the eyeglasses belonged to Miss Durning.

“Are you here, Miss Durning?”

No reply. Only the sound of news from the moon. I dropped the paper and exited the house.

I ran over the porch, down the stairs and along the garden path to the sidewalk. Only then did I look back to see if Miss Durning had emerged onto the porch to wave and wish me a good afternoon. But she hadn’t. Instead, the porch remained empty, the big house painted in phoney innocence. It was then that I noticed the broken lattice work at the side of the staircase.

The wooden lattice work covered the empty space beneath the stairs. Some of her neighbours used the space to store garden tools, but Miss Durning had wanted a trellis for her wisteria. It grew well for her, violet and green. But someone had broken it open and torn away the vines.

I walked the garden path once more, cautiously, toward the hole. Until then, I hadn’t noticed the heat or the birdsong from the small forest of oak and maple. A lazy but watchful cat observed me from behind the azaleas. Cars passed quietly by on 7th Avenue. I reached out and pull the wisteria away. It’d been clumsily replaced by whoever had torn it away, in an attempt to cover the hole. Behind it was the broken trellis, an opening wide enough for a crouching man to move through. There were large footprints all round me in the garden soil.

I stared into the hole, and my eyes adjusted to the dimness. And soon I saw Miss Durning, her eyes and mouth frozen open the way my mother’s had been the morning I discovered her. But Miss Durning’s head had been twisted at an unnatural angle, and her eyes looked directly at me. A spider walked across her cheek.

I jumped back and fell on my ass, blinking. Then I ran for my bicycle on the sidewalk and rode as fast as I could, not knowing where.

“You’re full of shit,” said Willard Jakes, as Johnny Smith stood by listening. We were talking in a private corner on the grounds of Laura Secord Elementary.

“No,” I said, “it’s real. I saw her there. She’ll still be there, unless he moved her.”

“He who?”

“I told you, the guy in the black car.”

“Call the police,” said Johnny Smith. “It’s the only thing you can do, unless this is all bullshit.”

“The man saw me,” I said. “Walking up to Miss Durning’s house with her paper. He’ll be looking for me. If I tell the cops and they find him, he’ll know it was me who talked. I’ve got to leave town.”

“You’re eleven years old,” Willard Jakes said. “Where you gonna go?”

In truth, I didn’t know. I was vaguely aware of family elsewhere, other than my father. Could I go to them? That would be dangerous. I would be hunted now, by a cold blooded murderer and his gang.

“Let’s go see her,” said Johnny Smith.

Willard Jakes and I looked at him, surprised. He was the last person we expected to make the suggestion.

“Why?” I said.

“Because,” said Willard Jakes, “it would be a lot easier trying to figure this out if we knew you weren’t full of shit.”

I looked at Johnny Smith. He was different now. No longer a bullied little boy, but an inquisitor sensing he was about to tear away a curtain revealing a criminal certainty.

“Fine,” I said. It was 7 p.m. The light was still good.

We rode our bicycles back to 2103 East 7th, and sat upon them looking up from the street. People were out on their porches, smoking cigarettes, sipping ice tea and reading novels and newspapers. There was a radio on nearby, more news of the moon.

“Well,” I said, “you wanted to see….”

Johnny Smith looked at Willard Jakes. My bringing them here was proof enough; I saw it in their eyes. Going any further was now a dare.

“Okay,” said Willard. We laid our bicycles down on the grass boulevard and walked up the garden path.

There were crickets now, but nothing else had changed. Even the birdsong was the same. Arriving first, I squatted next to the hole. I looked inside and could see the bottom of Miss Durning’s pale bare foot. She was still there.  I moved out of the way to let Willard Jakes and Johnny Smith look.

Their eyes took only seconds to become accustomed to the dark. Then Willard said, “Holy fuck!”

“Jesus,” said Johnny Smith. He vomited.

I could hear the television, still on, in Miss Durning’s front room. It was Walter Cronkite talking about Aldrin and Armstrong.

“This is sick,” Willard said. “Let’s get the fuck outta here.”

“But what do we do now?” Johnny Smith whined. “We gotta tell our parents.”

“No way,” Willard Jakes said. “The less said the better. Someone will notice her door’s open in the middle of the night. And then there’s the heat. People will notice her in this heat. We tell our parents, and we’ll be all over the news and end up face-down-dead in False Creek.”

We rode away in silence. And that was how we remained, silent. For three days, until Johnny Smith let go like a firecracker and spilled the whole thing to his mother, who naturally called the police.

Miss Durning’s body had been discovered and removed by then. But the story of her mysterious murder, the television remaining on, the damaged door remaining open, her broken eyeglasses and the single red high heel shoe, were pure gold, and their story made landing on the moon seem like a tired midway scam. A capital crime had taken place in the middle of the day on a quiet city street in Vancouver, of all places. It had taken place on one boy’s paper route. Three paperboys had known, and had, for as long as they could, kept it secret.

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