The alarm rang at three A.M. I sat up and grabbed it.
Decision Day. Should I leave?
Biggy usually swooned into bed, and then lapsed into a coma. Once asleep, he was hard to wake. This morning, though, he rolled over. “S’up?”
I stood and made up my bed. “Paper routes.”
Maybe he heard something in my voice, even through the inertia between sleeping and awakening. “Wha’ time is it?”
“Four,” I lied.
I twisted the winder once, twice, three times, and dialed the alarm hand ahead to seven A.M. to wake Biggy for school. It would take two hours to bike to TG&Y, roll one hundred papers, and deliver two routes. I could be out of town before the sun came up.
The contents of Vin’s shaving bag littered the bathroom. Mother, when will you learn?
How long will it take to hitchhike to California? Days? Weeks? Hopefully not a month. After all, how long can twenty-five dollars last?
A floorboard creaked in our room; Biggy’s eyes popped open again.
His look cursed the messenger; however, his eyes closed and he rolled over. I dressed quietly, but Biggy rolled back again. This time, I couldn’t see his eyes. If he’s watching, he’ll see me reach for the typewriter case. He’ll know something’s up. Gotta take the chance. I picked up the typewriter case, but no matter how softly I walked, I couldn’t keep my Wellingtons from clomping down the hall.
It felt dishonorable to quit without notice; Mr. Presley would have to deliver my papers until he found a replacement. And I couldn’t let everybody just wonder if I’d gotten kidnapped. I’d have to write a note. “Mom, I’ve gone to California to find Daddy. Please call Mr. Presley.” I laid it on the kitchen table.
That’s when I spotted the chocolate chip cookies and blackberry cobbler. Our back door was always unlocked; Nan must have left them after we’d gone to bed. The cookies, still warm, nestled in her yellowed Tupperware bowl. I bit off a third of one. A chip threaded liquid chocolate across my lower lip. I finished the first one wrapped two more in last night’s classifieds, which contained my motorcycle ad. Her cookies contained so much sugar and butter and chocolate, they’d knock your socks off and your penny loafers too.
The cobbler was in her iron baking pan, which was dying the death of a thousand steel Chore Boy nicks. Melted butter congealed on the crust. We thought Nan was such a good cook because she overloaded everything: red earth cake with chocolate frosting, Christmas red Jell-O with whipped cream and pecans, upside-down cake with crushed pineapple inside and pineapple rings outside.
I would’ve felt like a thief in the night if I’d snitched one of Mother’s Tupperware set, so I reached under the countertop for a waxed cottage cheese carton. Cardboard was more reliable than Kaiser foil anyway. With a pie server, I chopped a six-inch serving from the side of the pan, and scraped more indigo berry juice into the carton. I folded the lid, rubber banded it, and turned it upside down. No leaks. As an afterthought, I stuffed a can of Campbell’s vegetable beef in my typewriter case. I chose a spoon with U.S.M.C. engraved on the handle, obviously to keep Marines from stealing.
To buy more time, I moved Nan’s Tupperware onto my note. Mother would move the cobbler into the fridge, but the bowl would stay there until the cookies were gone.
It would kill Mother when she found I had left. It always killed me when she cried, especially when she cried about me. I opened the back door, turned, and said goodbye to the house. Mother, I’m not leaving you, I’m leaving my brother. Biggy will crush my soul if I stay, and it’s up to me to save my own life. Besides, he’ll finally have your attention all to himself. That’s what he wants. He’s the real mama’s boy.
O’Murphy’s house was on the way. I waved at the dark windows, but I had wanted to tell her that she was my North Star, that I’d need her to find my way back. Maybe I’d see her again when I deserved her.
I stashed my typewriter case behind the dumpsters at Nabours’ Grocery and biked another two miles to the shopping center. Two bundles of papers–one for each route–waited inside TG&Y’s front-door alcove. Every morning. Every Thanksgiving. Every Christmas. Sundays were the biggest because of all the inserted flyers. I sat on the first route’s bundle and folded the papers, then stuffed the canvas bag and sat on it while I rubber-banded the second route.
If it had rained, my sense of duty would’ve dictated riding up the driveways of a hundred customers, tossing a dry paper onto each porch, then slogging across the lawn to the next house. But driveway delivery would do today, so I was done in fifty-five minutes. By the time Mother sicced the cops on me, I’d be in Texas. Or wherever was beyond there.
I rode two miles back to Nabours for my typewriter case. The unlocked fence behind the store–where I had once gotten caught stealing beer. I recovered my typewriter case. No way my bike would be here when I got back, but the other option was to ride it home, and then Mother or Biggy would suspect I hadn’t gone to school. I rolled the bike inside the gate and pushed it over so anyone would assume it had been there awhile.
Nabours’ night clerk was an old-timey beauty contestant, Miss Whomever 1941, or some other way-back year. Mr. Nabours had introduced us when I’d stocked groceries there two years ago.
“Still throwing papers, Cutie?” Irma was tall, even for an Indian, maybe five feet eleven, and she had one of those funky, two-story hairdos that looked like a beehive had committed suicide on her head. Dyed hair looks dyed because it has no highlights; Irma’s was Krylon black, which must have dripped an angry inch and inked her forehead African violet purple.
Irma glanced at the twenty-five dollar check and handed me a blue pen. “It’s not made out to anybody, Cutie. Write ‘Cash’ on the ‘Payee’ line, then endorse it on the back.” And she cashed it, right there on the spot.
I stuck five dollars in my jeans pocket and folded the twenty into my billfold. If I got robbed, they’d grab my wallet first, but hiding cash in my suitcase didn’t sound smarter.
A plastic bucket of Double Bubble sat beside the cash register. Thumb-sized chewing gum plugs cost a penny. If I’m on the road for a week, maybe they’ll keep me from starving. I counted to twenty-five and stuffed twelve pieces into each shirt pocket.
“Twenty-five cents, plus a penny for the governor,” Irma said.
I untwisted the blue-and-yellow waxed paper on one side and popped in a chaw. If pink had a flavor, it would taste like Double Bubble: sugary, syrupy, cloying. Like beef jerky, a bubblegum cud is impossible to chew until it’s softened with spit. Even wet and mashed, it’s a mouthful. But it’s sugar, so I wouldn’t tremble when I couldn’t afford food. I spotted a yellow pad. Maybe it was too late, maybe my life had already happened, but I wanted to journal this trip.
“Something else, Cutie?”
“Yeah, I’ll take the legal pad. And a BIC Stick.”
And so I started for California at five-thirty. Peaceable River cleaves Hell Creek, a long, narrow town. Of the fifteen thousand inmates, 14,998 were still asleep. I was two blocks west of Nabours’ when headlights moved behind me. Uh oh. An unmarked unit? I conjured a verifiable half-truth: I’m a paperboy. Something’s wrong with my bike so I ditched it at Nabours’, and now I’m walking to school. But what if they ran me in for questioning? Sometimes on Dragnet, the cops would just stop a guy and quiz him. If he looked nervous, they’d run his fingerprints, and that’s how they’d know he was an ax murderer. The white Bel Air continued by me.
I walked five more blocks to U.S. 81 and crossed Peaceable River bridge. I faced west, raised my thumb before my eyes, and said aloud, “The world itself.” California was on the other side. Oklahoma is flat and dusty. Would the world be flat and dusty too?
I thought for a second about the Q Document, about how Satan had tempted Jesus. I might wander the desert for forty days and forty nights too. I wondered, what price would Satan ask to help me find Daddy? And to make O’Murphy my girlfriend? Just two minor favors.