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Third place winner of The Art of Reflection Competition 2022
King of the Hill, Mike Judge’s animated TV series from the late 1990s and early 2000s, was set in a town loosely based upon my hometown, and though I knew a few fathers not terribly unlike Hank Hill and Dale Gribble, it was nowhere as entertaining as Judge’s Arlen was, despite Willie Nelson having recorded Red Headed Stranger there in 1975, the year before my parents put a down payment on a brand-new Fox & Jacobs ranch house and moved us in. Ten years after Willie stepped through the door of Autumn Sound Studios (an inconspicuous building in the middle of an indistinct industrial park off of Jupiter Road), I stepped out of the boys’ locker room of my high school for the last time, having just quit basketball. My spectacularly unimpressive season as a sophomore on the JV team had just ended, and it was time to face the truth—my modest dream of at least sitting at the end of the varsity team’s bench had been effectively dashed, and there was no way I could face the humiliation of playing JV as a junior. I so badly wanted to continue being considered an athlete by my classmates, even if only a lousy one who had always been too skinny for football, the sport that counted the most. But those days were over. The weight of this new truth compressed my chest like an overloaded barbell.
With my afternoons now free, it was time to get a job. While my three best friends—a linebacker, a wide receiver, and a fullback—lifted weights at the field house as part of their mandatory off-season training for varsity football, I started working for the Circulation Department of the Daily News after school. My duties mostly involved taking calls from subscribers who had missed a delivery. At the time, about 17,000 people subscribed to the newspaper, and most of them, or at least the ones I heard from the most, were old, and they remembered the town in the days before Dallas’s tentacles had pulled it in. For many of them, the evening paper seemed to be the day’s highlight, so if they didn’t have it in their hands at 6:01 in the evening, one minute after the carriers (not because “paperboys” and “papergirls”) had to deliver their routes, I heard from them, and I had to continue to hear from them until 9:00, which was when I could finally shut it down.
Now, in this antiquated time before computers and smartphones, here’s what I had to do with each and every one of these calls:
- Log them in, pen on paper: name, address, phone number, and details of the complaint;
- Fill out, with a pen, a triplicate form for each call—one for the office (white), one for the district manager (yellow), and one for the carrier (pink)—with the same information on the log plus the correct route number for the address, which I would have to look up in a three-ringed binder;
- Call the carriers, whose numbers I had to look up in a Rolodex each time, to tell them who hadn’t gotten a paper and needed one immediately.
Whether I wanted to or not (and I definitely didn’t), I got to know the most zealous callers quite well. “This is Ernest B,” Mr. B would say. “I live at 315 Nash Street, and I didn’t get my paper tonight.”
“My paperboy missed me again,” Mrs. D would say. “2727 South Third. Marilyn D. This is becoming quite a habit.”
Mr. S: “You tell that lazy little bastard that if he doesn’t get me my paper within an hour that I’m not paying him the next time he comes around to collect. I’m sick of his shit. You know who this is. And you know my address, too, I’ve called enough.”
With different names and addresses, this routine repeated itself dozens of times each Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evening. There was no paper on Mondays. At nine o’clock, after a walk-through of the empty advertising and editorial departments, I would shut off all the lights and lock up the building—tired after a long day of school and work, yes, but also flushed with pride at this grown-up responsibility granted to me despite my zits, my Judas Priest concert shirt (the Metal Conqueror tour, 1984), and my glorious mullet, of which I was im- mensely proud.
In addition to locking up for the night, I had also earned the privilege of being the one to unlock the building on Saturday and Sunday mornings. At 6:00. Yes, 6:00. Upon being offered the position, I clearly hadn’t paid close enough attention to my required duties, but I understood them well enough when my alarm woke me for the first time ever on a Saturday, in what seemed like the middle of the night—and then when it did it again the following morning. Anvil-lidded, I drove half-asleep in the dark, rumbling over the same railroad tracks on Glenbrook Avenue that I would later nearly die on when I failed to hear the train’s whistle over the roar of the bitchin’ stereo system I would install in the 1979 Pontiac Sunbird that I would buy a year later with my paychecks.
Somehow I eventually got used to these sadistic early mornings. Since I was the only person in the building for these four hours, I started dragging the couch out of the women’s restroom (discovered on a bored prowl through the entirety of the office, lap drawers of all the unlocked desks included) and sleeping on it until the complaining rings began unless a call from a district manager woke me up (they called a different number, and it was their calls that required me to be there so early), and on the nights that I stayed out especially late, I sometimes drove straight to the couch rather than home for only a couple of hours.
Something else I eventually started doing late on Fridays and Saturdays, no matter whether I went home first or straight to work: I started calling a few folks during the darkest, quietest, stillest hours of the suburban night. These calls were made to a list of people I kept tucked inside my Velcro-secured wallet (right behind the sad cliché of my desiccated Trojan): subscribers who had been unnecessarily and habitually rude to me when they’d called to complain about not getting their precious copy of the newspaper. Though I view this activity now as petty and cruel, at the time I saw it as justified payback.
Something to remember: this was the mid-eighties, near the end of the halcyon days of prank calling. Last-call return (*69, as we called it) and Caller ID had yet to be invented—or at least they hadn’t made their way through the telephone wires to my hometown. Also remember this: I was sixteen, and nothing has ever been more aggrieved on this planet than an aggrieved sixteen-year-old, especially one who was already mad at the world for not giving him even a tenth of the talent possessed by his friend the varsity wide-receiver, who was good enough to play varsity basketball but not interested in doing so. I, on the other hand, wanted only to play basketball and had spent all my time trying to get better. And for what? He also played varsity baseball.
Cloaked in fearless anonymity, I dialed all who had made my shit list, and then I waited for each to answer. If you’re old enough, take yourself back to that ancient analog era of Ronald Reagan and remind your ears how every phone used to sound when it rang in your house. Recall how jarring it could be, especially when it wrenched you from sleep like a grappling hook trawling a river. Rarely did the recipients of my calls ever pick up before four rings. Lacking all empathy in the way that only a teenager is capable, I enjoyed imagining how long it must take for their dreamy old brains to identify the sound, and to remember where—and maybe even who—they were. I pictured them in the blackness of their bedrooms, raising their heads from musty pillows with hearts convulsing. When they were finally able to bring the receiver properly to their mouths, their voices were always so different from how they sounded when they’d bark and spit their complaints at me. Now they were so tentative and quivering that I nearly had to bite myself to keep from laughing.
“Hello? . . . Hello? . . . Who is this? . . . Hello?”
I never said anything, and I vowed never to hang up first. After their initial confusion, some grew angry, cursed at their mystery caller for waking them, and slammed down the phone. Others were surprisingly polite before disconnecting the line: “You must have the wrong number.” Only occasionally would someone try to outlast me, and so, together, we would silently play an aural version of chicken. Only one time did I swerve first.
After a long silence had stretched heavy between me and the old man on the other end, he did something unexpected; he said, “Jeff? Is that you? . . . If this is Jeff, please come home. We love you. Please say something, Jeff.”
The silence then returned, unsettled only by the old man’s ragged breathing. I managed to hang on for a few more seconds, but I knew that not even I, so certain of the virtue of my late-night calls, could bear to hear him cry out to Jeff in that pathetic voice again, so I hung up. This particular caller lived on Mars Drive, which, only a few years earlier, I had regularly pedaled my bike down on my way to middle school. He called in every time it rained, because his carrier refused to bag his rolled-up newspapers in plastic when rain was in the forecast (and the district manager refused to fire the boy because then he’d have to throw the route himself until he found a new carrier). Jeff, who must have been the old man’s son, had apparently forsaken both him and his wife.
After such an uncomfortable call, you might think that I would’ve crossed his name off and never called him again, but because I was determined to find this funny rather than tragic, I continued to call him every time it was late enough to pull out the list, and every time as I waited for him to pick up, I wondered if maybe Jeff had come home since the last time I’d called, but the old man on Mars always eventually asked again if I was Jeff, and then begged him to come home, and I’d always just sit there, saying nothing, callously wondering what my calls were doing to him.
As I accumulated more responsibilities at the Daily News, eventually including (shockingly, as I was now only seventeen) the task of determining the exact print run needed for each day’s edition, I grew more valuable to the head of the circulation department—first, the gruff and slightly buck-toothed Mike, followed by the good-timing and melon-headed Bill—while growing more indifferent about fulfilling my primary duties. Once I was alone in the building for the night, I answered the phone but didn’t always bother recording complaints, much less calling the appropriate carriers. Sometimes I cancelled—or started—subscriptions, usually for the parents of people I didn’t like in school, and sometimes I threatened to fire carriers, even though I had no authority to do so. Meanwhile, I meandered through my junior and senior years, cocksure and confident on the outside but frequently dour and depressed underneath. By this point, I had abandoned Judas Priest for the Smiths, replaced my concert shirts with droopy acrylic and nylon sweaters from Chess King, and transformed my mullet into a top-heavy quiff meant to mirror Morrissey’s, whose lyrics I stared into like a mirror. I became president of my school’s chapter of National Honors Society, but I also nearly got expelled for drinking beer and Jack Daniels while painting a teacher’s house as part of a school-sponsored fundraiser. (When I later learned that I’d also painted the snout of the teacher’s dog, I blamed the whole mess on the girl whose evangelical parents had made her break up with me because I was an atheist.) I was voted Most Witty by my classmates, but I also regularly burned stripes onto my chest with the edge of an iron because that’s what I felt I deserved (and when I heard the terms “cutting” and “self-harm” for the first time many years later, long after my diagnosis and subsequent medication, I felt seen and embarrassed). In other words, like many teenagers, I was a throbbing mess of incongruities, and I felt entirely alone in my predicament.
I don’t know when, exactly, but at some point before I quit my job at the newspaper after graduation, I took my late-night call list from my wallet and threw it away. Was it because I’d grown paranoid about somehow getting identified as the prankster, or was it because I’d finally realized how much of a prick I was being? Maybe it was the former, but I prefer to think it was the latter. In fact, I have always preferred to think that I know what happened right before I tossed it in the trash. It was something that happened one Sunday morning. I was by myself as always, answering the phone in my usual desultory way while waiting for the clock to free me from my cell at 10:00, when I heard faint, faraway knocking. From where I sat, the glass door at the front of the building that opened onto Editorial’s lobby was a good two-hundred feet away. I saw a shadow doing its best to peer inside, but I knew I was too far away to be seen as anything more than an unidentifiable shape. All I had to do was stay still until the shadow gave up and left, but the shadow refused to do so. It kept knocking and trying the door and peering through its hands cupped against the glass like a stereoscope, so eventually I had no choice but to make my slow way down the long aisle, wondering with each step what the hell was so goddamned important that this shadow refused to accept that an obviously closed and empty office was truly closed and empty.
This shadow, I made out as I grew closer, was an old man. And, no, it was not Jeff’s father, though that would undoubtedly make for a better story (to read, that is, not necessarily to recount).
“We’re closed,” I shouted once I was within shouting distance, making sure to be loud enough for an old man to hear me through glass. “We’re closed tomorrow, too. You’ll have to come back on Tuesday, okay?”
“Please, all I need is a copy of yesterday’s paper,” he shouted back thinly. “I didn’t get mine.”
“Tuesday. You can get it on Tuesday. I can’t even open this door.” I pulled the handle to rattle the locked door.
“Oh, please.” He pressed the palms of both hands against the glass, and I realized he was now suddenly begging. “I know you’re closed, but please. It’s important. I’ll pay you ten dollars. To you—he pointed at me—not the newspaper.”
It was clear that there would be no getting rid of him. From my pocket, I took the key that unlocked the double-cylinder deadbolt. I immediately made myself a liar by doing so, but I didn’t care. I just wanted him gone, and this was the quickest way to make that happen. “I’m not supposed to be doing this.”
I never liked hearing this said to me by anyone; the presumptuousness of it always made me angry—plus, it reminded me too much of my ex-girlfriend’s pious father, who also happened to be the assistant principal at my school (which had made my painting-under-the-influence debacle even more thorny). I wanted to tell him to keep his silly beliefs to himself, but instead I pointed at the receptionist’s chair because I didn’t want him following me to where I needed to go to get a copy of Saturday’s paper. “Have a seat.”
“Thank you so much.” In stages, he eased himself down into the chair.
I made the long walk back to Circulation, grabbed a handful of Saturday’s papers from a bundle (because what did it matter? there were plenty, and they were now even more worthless than they’d been on Saturday), and then made the long walk back to the front. The only sound was the slap of my Sperry Top-Siders on the inked-stained white linoleum and the ringing of the phone, which I ignored. When I reached him, I held them out to him flat and smooth, and he blessed me again—and again I wanted to tell him to keep that crap to himself. He slowly and carefully rose to his feet, took the top copy, and then I watched him open it and turn its pages delicately, as if it were a valuable historical manuscript. I wanted to tell him to wait to look for whatever it was that was so important once he was back on the other side of the locked door, but I couldn’t get myself to. He’d still be gone soon, I told myself.
I could tell when he finally found what he was looking for; his already pale skin paled even further, and all the muscles in his face relaxed. His mouth sagged open slightly. He was suddenly oblivious of me. As he read, I watched his eyes twitch back and forth. They were rheumy, though I didn’t know this word at the time.
Something else that I didn’t know—something that an older and more experienced person probably would’ve had no trouble figuring out on his own by this point—was that he had obviously come for what so many of the Daily News’s most zealous readers probably relied on whether they wanted to or not: the obituary section. But in this instance, there was only one obituary of interest. Eventually, he told me this, and that it was his wife’s, and then, with absolutely no self-consciousness or shame, he broke down. I had never seen a man really cry like this before. In a sort of desperation that I couldn’t even really comprehend, he took hold of my shirt with both hands and pulled me toward him. He needed someone to hold onto, someone to steady him. And as I did so, as I felt his thin body spasming against me, I seemed to step through a door of some sort, though I didn’t realize I was doing so at the time. Rather than trying to shrink away from him in disgust as my masculinity-obsessed teenaged self would have normally done, I held him back—I held him with both of my arms—and I told him how very sorry I was. And I meant it, though I didn’t know at the time how, exactly, or why.
After he recovered, after he wiped his face dry with a handkerchief, he told me about her. He told me her name, where they had met, and how long they’d been married. While I could hear the phone still ringing for me in far-off Circulation, he told me about their children, and he told me about the disease that had taken her from him. He proudly showed me her picture in the paper—it was an old one, when she was young—and he told me about her funeral at Restland, how beautiful it had been and how happy it would’ve made her to see all the folks who came to say their goodbyes, and then he left, but not before he held out money to pay me for the newspapers. The bills, a five and five ones, trembled in his hand. I told him to put them away. He hesitated, but then he returned the money to his wallet and left, but not before he blessed me one last time, and for the first time I didn’t mind it.