A Meditation on Work, Loneliness and Stumbling Toward Grace.
When I was nine years old I took my first paid job delivering unwanted, unread newsprint shoppers to all of the houses in Meadowlark Hills. It was a charmless new subdivision of particle-board-and-plastic houses nestled in the tumbleweed prairie at the at the base of the foothills of Casper Mountain. Ours was a small, mustard-yellow house with an attached garage and a leaky basement. Once a week, an anonymous adult driver stopped by and unloaded a pile of papers for me to roll, secure with a thin red rubber band and deliver.
I earned about five dollars for my trouble, which in the beginning consisted of rolling and binding about 50, maybe 60 flimsy, inky shoppers, then loading them into a heavy cotton sack and canvassing the subdivision, depositing a shopper on every doorstep.
At first the money was worth the horrible, nerve-wracking feeling of ink on my dry fingers as they rubbed against the chalky paper. This was my sensory equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. The money was also worth the weight of the large sack on my scrawny shoulder, worth the way the strap dug painfully into the flesh on my collarbone as I trudged along the smooth asphalt streets of the “neighborhood.”
But barely worth the money, for a terribly shy preadolescent girl, was the horror of having to be out in public with that huge sack of paper, having to approach strangers who happened to be out on their postage-stamp lawns firing up grills or scooping up stray dog doo, and having to make small talk, heaven forbid. Or worst of all, having to face other children who might be unfriendly or even downright mean.
I struggled a bit with the job from the start. But as the subdivision grew, with new houses getting slapped up literally every day, my job grew, too. The smeary task of rolling and binding took longer and longer as the pile of papers dropped off grew bigger and bigger, and the time it took to walk the route crept upward with each two-week interval. A job that at first took an hour or so soon took an hour and a half, and then two hours and more. The newer streets sported larger, more complex houses, and these rivers of fresh, black pavement wound around in a mercilessly inefficient maze of curves and cul-de-sacs that seemed to snake nearly all the way to Casper Mountain itself. Over the course of several months, so many houses got built and so many new streets got paved that I wasn’t even sure I knew my way around anymore.
It didn’t help that at the same time Meadowlark Hills was sprawling limitlessly, summer was giving way to fall, and fall to winter. I walked my route in the afternoon, and on the day of one of my last deliveries, I found myself wandering in the near-dark streets without a sure sense of where I was or how exactly to find my way back home. The colder weather made my job even more miserable as my fingers stiffened and my body shivered against the howling Wyoming wind. My stringy hair whipped around my face and into my eyes, and I could see my breath in the half-light of the early winter dusk, puffing out in little streamlets as I counted houses until I lost track.
Meanwhile, though the job had tripled and quadrupled, I was still earning that same five dollars per delivery. My motivation was slipping fast.
Finally, the day came. I got off the school bus and walked up the hill, past the Suzuki shop, past the little Meadowlark Hills office building where salesmen for the development chased off kids like me and my sister, who fought boredom by sneaking into the model homes, sauntering up boldly to unsuspecting young couples with grubby-fisted toddlers who smeared dust and grime onto the thin interior walls, and warning them all forthrightly about the flooding basements and the kitchen tile that bubbled up after you moved in and the carpet that didn’t come clean.
I walked briskly past the office and the model homes and down Meadowlark Lane to our mustard-yellow house, where, waiting for me, lay a great, towering stack of shoppers enveloped in a black plastic trash bag. My heart was leaden in my chest.
I dragged the plastic sack up the three concrete steps, through the front door, and into the middle of the living-room floor. I collapsed in a rust-and-brown plaid chair and stared into space, feeling my fingers begin to tingle and regain warmth after the long walk from the bus stop through biting wind. I didn’t move, I didn’t turn on the TV. I just sat with my shoppers, staring them down, both of us refusing to budge. For a long while, I pretended I was simply procrastinating. But all along I knew full well the truth: I wouldn’t be making my deliveries that day.
All of the men and women of Meadowlark Hills were going to have to do without their two-for-ones and special rebates this time, because I quit.
Just thinking the words “I quit” made me feel better. The ominous black plastic monster on the carpet turned back into a Hefty bag full of shoppers, powerless sheets of newsprint that couldn’t harm a fly. But still, something had to be done about them. On the one hand, no one at home was paying particular attention to my employment with the shopper company—I had been doing the weekly route in latch-key hours. Even lately, if I got started on the route right after school, I’d circle back not long after my mom got home from work. But on the other hand, if my older sister or my mom took note of a large black sack of undelivered shoppers on a Wednesday evening, someone was going to find herself with not only a lot of rolling, binding, and delivering on her hands, but a heap of explaining to do, too.
So I did what any number of nine-year-olds might have done in my shoes. I hid the evidence. And where we lived on the outskirts of Casper, in a wind-ravaged stretch of land better suited to sage and snakes and jackrabbits than people, I didn’t have to look far for a hiding place—just a six-foot-tall, inch-thick wall of cedar past my own backyard.
Almost all of us in Meadowlark Hills, especially those of us whose backyards faced the desolate weed and wildflower wasteland that separated our development from the mountains in the near distance, built cedar privacy fences to stave off vulnerable feelings born of living with your back exposed to so much emptiness.
And I of all people knew just how empty it was back behind that cedar fence. I had spent many long hours under the hot sun and high blue sky exploring the nooks and crannies of that prairie. I loved the idea of the prairie, of being out there by myself, wandering in the smell of sage and loneliness, searching for secret places that would be mine and mine alone. And I had stumbled across quite an impressive canyon the summer before—bursting with the promise and possibility of solitude and magic, and carpeted two layers deep with brightly colored wildflowers nodding their heads in the sheltered breeze of the canyon floor. Unfortunately, my canyon was also, during the seasons of my discovery, bursting with bees, billions of them, buzzing relentlessly around my head and face until I gave up and fled. This land was like that: full of mirages and concealed disappointments. What better place for the sack of shoppers?
I dragged it out several yards past the back fence, the rocks and tumbleweeds leaving long gouges in the tough plastic. At the first steep dip in the land, I let go of my burden and headed back home to watch TV and think about what I had done. I thought about it all winter, as the snow buried my secret in a clean, absolving layer of white, and into the spring, when the snow melted to reveal the same old sack of sin, papers inside now soggy and dense as cement. Over the next summer, the black plastic faded in the harsh sun, and grew more ragged and torn.
When I one day noticed with relief that the ink on the shoppers was nearly illegible, I finally let go of the fear of reprisal, and sometime later, I even forgave myself.
Though I can’t recall it, I must have called the driver man and told him of my change of heart soon after dumping that first load of shoppers, because I know with certainty that there are not rows and rows of black Hefty bags full of decaying shoppers blighting the land at the base of the foothills of Casper Mountain. There aren’t even that many more houses blighting it either, from what I hear. The recession of the early ’80s wasn’t good for the oil-based economy of Casper, and the building boom came to an abrupt halt not long after my family left Meadowlark Hills.
It’s safe to say the only trace of my former paper route’s unseemly end is in my own memory, a decades-old composted image of myself and my own weakness. If I am better than I might have been at understanding how painful it can be to be a child, at recognizing the point of no return before it arrives, and at taking leave gracefully, it may be because of what I learned from my paper route.
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Assistant Ed: Wendy Keslick
Ed: Brianna Bemel