Paperboy Summers

by Daniel Johnson


I worked as a Norfolk County paperboy for the middle two of my four undergraduate summers. Seven nights a week, I reported to a warehouse our private courier service had leased from a scrapyard that stripped decommissioned Desert Storm tanks for their metal. There, I and about fifty other paperfolks waited for the box trucks to unload pallets of Milford Daily News bundles, reported to our allotted bagging stations, where we folded, rubber-banded, and stuffed. Women often brought their children, who’d sit on the powered-down tanks along the fenceline, take selfies, and pretend to blow each other to smithereens. They used their hands to play-act chunks of themselves exploding from their stomachs, raining all over the parking lot.

I delivered to cul de sacs, apartment complexes, trailer parks, neighborhoods of one-story ranchers, neighborhoods of mansions, a strip mall with a yoga studio. I smoked weed, drank Gatorade, and hallucinated—or didn’t—small hordes of skunks on suburban lawns while I drove and frisbeed Milfords onto driveways. At least some of the skunks were real. In the blue-blanched moonlight of summer, their white stripes shone a magnificent silver.

I was often the only one on those roads that time of night. For a while, I listened to the audiobook of Moneyball in the car. When I got home just after sunrise, I continued to read the hard copy until I fell asleep.

The man whose bagging station was across from mine always wore a dirty, gravy-stained Philadelphia Phillies shirt and listened to late-night Phillies talk radio on a portable AM/FM. I referred to this man as Philly Joe. His was a team that, according to pundits, wasn’t exploiting the market of undervalued players. They didn’t care for patient hitters. They wanted spark-plug, scrappy guys who swung at everything. They were the anti-Moneyball.

My goal in reading and rereading the book was to gripe with Philly Joe about how terribly his team handled the trade deadlines those years. But my working memory was so shot from fatigue that, when called upon, my ability to use Moneyball as framework for conversation short-circuited.

Philly Joe was a life-longer. I remain certain of this. He was a faster bagger than I. He was first in line for his bundles, first out the warehouse door. He worked three routes. He brought a shopping cart to transport all his papers, and placed his radio in the child seat as he rolled on out to his car. He was huge, and he was a wizard.

I didn’t see many friends. I was asleep when my family ate dinner. I spoke very little. Of anyone, I remember Philly Joe most from those two summers—the best of my life.

I miss so terribly those nights among the skunks. There’s something comforting to living in total circadian discord with the rest of your social circle, with justifiable reason enough to bail anytime you were overambitious enough to promise plans. You let yourself feel the high of cancelling without the comedown guilt. You’re tired, after all. You’re fucking nocturnal. You stalk around your county all gangly and mantid-like while everyone sleeps, lobbing newspapers onto doorsteps and car roofs. Then you zonk until long after sundown. What could anyone possibly want from you?

That part was the most exhilarating of it all: being so deliberately and somewhat manically lonesome during the late-adolescent peacetime of a summer break. I was itinerant. What did I want from me? Not much. Maybe: A Sunday off; a date with the girl who showed up to fold Milfords in her magenta pajamas (I guess I remember her too); better coffee with the early bird special at King Street (my dinner); to remember and regurgitate just a few sentences of Moneyball; to be left alone by the light of the cinderblock window in my basement, where I slept on an air mattress because there was too much daylight in my bedroom; for Philly Joe to ask me this very question—What is it you want, son?—just so I could tell him: I’m good. Instead, we’d just listen to his radio and shake our heads at the bewildering refusal of his team’s front office to grow up, move into the new age. It had been the patient hitter’s game for a while, after all.

Daniel Johnson is a graduate of The Mountainview MFA in Fiction and NonfictionHe is currently an Editorial Assistant at Bedford/St. Martin's Press.