am only a boy in a city full of trees, but every night I journey. While the other
children of the city lie asleep and dreaming, I travel through the blue moonlight
or the hushed, severe dark if there is no moon. In the moonlight, our city looks
like it was infused with a luminous powder from another world. Without the moon
it is just a shabby darkness of houses and trees under the permanent haze of sky.
There are no people and no cars in the night, but sometimes there is one car that
slows down as it passes me by, as if checking me out.
the name of our city is River City, for many years the river was hidden away.
You never saw it. It is still difficult to get there even though it flows now
right through the middle of the town. You must travel down into the bad part of
town behind some warehouses and barely utilized malls where there is a parking
lot full of old school buses. Then there is a maze of gravel roads and abandoned
industrial equipment and finally there are so many trees. You have to hike some
distance through the trees, but I have been there. I do not remember it exactly,
but I have been there.
paperboy, Johnny G., has disappeared from our city and nobody knows where to find
him. I am just a boy and so it is not clear to me what all the possibilities are.
The most probable solutions to this mystery are not discussed explicitly in the
newspapers I deliver.
spring the river rises and seeps into the earth and into the walls of our basement
and into our home and soaks the pile of trash that we keep there. Our basement
full of trash is a mystery. It is my parents trash and they love it, I believe,
in some new way, but this is not my concern. I deliver my papers every night and
someday I will buy a moped.
the attic, my parents keep a massive book. They lift it together and carry it
into my bedroom, where every night they read me stories of people whove
been tortured, burned, or placed inside a red-hot brazen ox. Every night, a tall,
thin man refuses to be a soldier and personal bodyguard for the King of Prussia,
because of his religious convictions. Soldiers pinch and thumbscrew this tall,
thin man. They hang him from a cord by his left thumb and his great right toe.
My parents show me the pictures; they kiss me good night and hoist the book back
up to the attic.
sleep. Deep in the night my alarm goes off. I lie there for a moment in the quiet
of my room.
the papers and then I sleep some more.
believe that our house is sinking ever so slowly into the earth. The ceiling of
the kitchen is rotten and the furniture is rotten and the trash in the basement
is rotten and so I believe that "to love" means "to allow something
to rot". I am just a boy and am not yet capable of discriminating between
the dreams that people turn into places and what is real. I look around me and
I think: this is real, this is all the real, this is all that is real.
do not know why the river was hidden for so many years or why it is still so hard
to find. Everything else is discussed here in the full light of day -- the disappearance
of the paperboy Johnny G. and the dirty habits of the people who live in the bad
part of town -- although these things are discussed carelessly, as one might discuss
the curly hairdos of our women, their shapeless baggy sweaters, the weather with
its painful heat and its painful cold -- talking, talking, talking, without ever
getting to some root.
the old people know about the sources of our pleasures, the ground of our suffering,
for they are always dreaming. The blinds are closed, but when I ring the doorbells
they rise, sleepwalking, and let me in; they give me crumpled bills for the newspapers
I deliver and they tell me things before groping blindly for their sofas to lie
down and dream some more. They smell like baby powder; somebody is muttering on
their radios, too quiet to be understood. There is no music. It is the old ones
who call our River City Des Moines, which is French for "The Innards"
or "The Mazes" or "The Mounds".
am an excellent student.
Language Arts teacher is a stern man, not without a certain appeal. If we spell
all of our list correctly, he encourages us to develop our creativity. We are
to tell a story or stories using each spelling word at least once. Once, another
boy -- a handsome boy with a crushed, sullen look -- asked if instead of a story
he could write a song.
you spell your words correctly, the teacher said, we can do whatever youd
This week the
words are: powder, ceiling, disappearance, mutter, clutter, letter, canoe, utterly,
feature, whisper, wander, litter, pulp, quivering, weights, cruel, desire, murmur,
bereaved, and celebrity.
never miss a spelling word, but am rigorously developing a bad attitude. If I
get my name written on the board for talking out of turn or giggling behind my
hand or wiggling my little white ass around on its hard chair in a loud, irritating
way and if I get two checkmarks beside my name for these same behaviors, then
Ill have to stay after school. After school it is just me and the teacher.
He sits at his desk staring at me and I cant imagine what he is thinking.
He frightens me. I am a splotch.
man, he says. You squirm around a lot and wiggle your ass on your seat. Is there
something on your mind?
chew on my thumbnail. There are so many things on my mind, unfathomable things,
an entire cluttered universe of inexpressible longings. I cant follow all
the trajectories, Im becoming less and less accessible. The process of change
itself is becoming the definition of who I am. Im a moody boy.
is nothing on my mind, I say.
folds his hands, purses his lips. He is far too good-looking to be a Language
Arts teacher in our sad little city.
he says. You are then already completely enlightened. Your mind has merged with
the sky-like nature of universal Mind. I would have nothing to teach such a boy.
is silent but for the ticking of the clock. The clocks in our school only occasionally
function, but the bells always do.
you making fun of me? I ask.
smirks. I imagine he would know exactly what to do to me to clarify my thinking.
I am just a blur. The image I have of myself is several years out of date already.
I think Im about to cry, but I still have enough self-control not to humiliate
am a paperboy, I tell him.
twirls his pencil in a clockwise direction and stares at the ceiling.
he says. Like Johnny G.
looks at me and smiles.
you arent getting enough sleep, my teacher says. That would explain the
dark circles under your pretty little eyes. And that dazed look you have all the
time, as if you are wandering through a dream.
not sure if he really said "pretty" or if he said "dirty."
He twirls his pencil now in a counterclockwise direction.
take guitar lessons in a crumbling old house in the bad part of town. An orphan
there is my best friend in all the world. He is wiry, elongated, and overwrought
-- as if an angel had been stretched out on a rack. He is built like that tall,
thin man who refused to be a soldier and personal bodyguard for the king of Prussia
and got thumb-screwed as a result. The orphan lives on a farm outside of town
where he is raised by various people he may be distantly related to; he isnt
sure. He never eats anything except chocolate milk and apples. We see each other
every Wednesday night at band practice in the crumbling old house where we play
"When the Saints Go Marching In" on our guitars, but still he writes
me letters every week and I write him back.
still have the first letter he wrote me:
know what to write. Anyway Im fine, my name is R. and I am eight. I went
swimming too, theres this retarted kid there every day. So once when they made
us clean the pool he laid by the pool and drank the water with his tungue. This
letter is really boring isnt it? I caught a seventeen and a 1/2 inch fish.
And in the car we almost hit two cows.
Do you want to write back and forth for a long time like this?
When are you going to come?
is all that I could think of so good-by.
letters are safely stored under my bed with my guitar and my class picture. I
keep the class picture for only one reason, a girl named Beth I love absolutely.
I often describe her in my letters to the orphan. I have left enough gaps in my
descriptions for R. to fill them with his own image of what a beautiful girl is,
an ethereal girl with long pale hair to the waist. Her hair is the color of light
itself. When I have saved up enough money to buy a moped I will ride out to my
friends farm with my guitar. The roads will be straight and dusty leading
on as if they will never end between rows of corn taller than my self and I will
leave trails of dust in my wake. The sun will beat down on me and brown me like
a tart. If I cant buy a moped because of some change in the licensing requirements
I will buy a canoe and late at night I will drag it down into the bad part of
town behind the warehouses and barely utilized malls past the parking lot full
of old school buses. I will traverse the maze of gravel roads and abandoned industrial
equipment and I will disappear back among the trees. I will slip the canoe into
the river and I will slip into the river with it and move like liquid down the
river with the stars overhead toward the farm where my friend will be waiting.
The night will be utterly black and once the river has taken me out of the city
and into the countryside, the stars will be bright overhead and theyll be
reflected in the river, rippling there as if the universe itself was a warping
mask I was both surrounded by and a part of. The sky will be everywhere. The land
itself will be hidden behind tall reeds in the muck by the rivers edge.
The stars will be so perfectly reflected in the calm surface of the river that
nowhere will I see anything but blackness and stars; as if I am gliding through
the universe itself.
am not like Johnny G. Johnny G. disappeared; he failed to deliver his papers.
I may be an amorphous boy, but there is one duty I perform without fail, the crystalline
center of my being: I am a paperboy.
sky in our city is a permanent grey haze. It is not unattractive or bleak, it
is the color of a brain.
sits in front of me in Language Arts. My teacher is lecturing about personal pronouns,
but I read the latest letter from my friend:
I am an
orphan and I am so tired of the sixth grade. I hate this farm and all the rough
country boys who live around here. They are always baring their chests and their
buttocks, swimming in ponds, injuring themselves with their rough games, and bleeding
under the hot summer sun. Sometimes I am in the car, and they are driving recklessly.
Crashing into the cows seems more likely every day. I would run away to your city,
but it is just as bad, frankly. That city makes me physically ill. It makes me
nauseous in a way I am incapable of understanding. I refuse to eat. I am so repulsed
by everything that I eat nothing at all but one glass of chocolate milk every
day and half of an apple, cored and peeled. When I imagine growing up in this
horrible place I imagine bloating, with veined puffy skin full of toxins. I prefer
living out my life as a skeleton, as a brooding shell of a man, than as a toxic
tell me about that girl you love so much, Beth, with her long hair and her slim
hips. All the girls on the farm are hideously ugly. Does this Beth girl have a
friend or a twin sister you could set me up with?
Language Arts teacher approaches and I quickly shove the letter into my desk with
all the crumpled up spelling tests and lists of irregular verbs. I imagine my
mortification if he were to read it out loud to the class. But he passes by; its
Beth hes after. He catches her chewing gum and grabs her by the luminous
hair and makes her spit the gum in the garbage and then he writes her name on
the board. I wish my name could be up there next to it. I write her name out on
pieces of notebook paper in manuscript and in cursive and I write out her many
wonderful attributes and I play games with these folded sheets of paper where
the pleasure is imagining myself married to Beth with various cars in various
cities with some number of children. The children have various special attributes,
powers, and features, but that isnt the point. The point is, we all know
what is necessary to produce children, even if we arent yet clear on the
details. It isnt a pregnant Beth which is conjured by this game, it is the
word "sex". I try to imagine some bad behavior I might act out in order
to have my name written next to hers in the firm hand of the Language Arts teacher
-- whispering loudly to Rae Ann Shipley, zipping and unzipping my pants, mispronouncing
"harass" to get a cheap laugh -- but then he gives us this vocabulary
1: SENTENCE COMPLETIONS
Complete the following sentences with one of these
J. suspected that the teacher had a ___________ plan to imprison him.
"No one is forcing you to come," the teacher told him. "Your attendance
is entirely _____________."
Before he knew it, he was locked up with ____________ on his wrists.
J. ___________ his body around on the floor, trying to free himself.
The ropes were so tight he couldnt move; he was completely ___________.
6. After several hours,
his teacher finally came to ___________ him.
In the future they will ____________ about the good times they had together.
Choose the word that is best defined by the following expressions.
To cut apart or analyze with great care.
To shrink back or hide as if in fear.
d. spread eagle
Reasonable, making use of good sense.
Likely to change or changeable.
Somebody who owns you, your spiritual teacher, the source of all your pleasure
and your pain.
3: Choosing the Right Word
Circle the answer that best completes the sentence.
J. felt as if he was on the (fatality, verge) of a new and more exciting life.
score 100% on the quiz, as does Beth, and then I wait for my teacher after school
next to his red car.
at his estate, I tell him that he can do whatever he wants with me only up to
a certain point, for I am in love with Beth.
have Beth locked up in the room with the red door, he says.
put no restrictions on me whatsoever, he adds.
shrug. He has a manly way about him.
Im not home for dinner my parents will call the police, I say.
already took care of that, he says. They think youre on a field trip.
a moment, this confuses me. Did they sign a permission slip? Am I in some other
city, wandering through the Museum of Natural History, bored by the dinosaur bones
and stuffed gazelles? Perhaps I am already traveling across vast distances, deserts,
oceans, endless plains -- all of it littered with fabulous garbage. My irrelevance
is exhilarating. Im afraid.
have to deliver my papers, I say.
you think Johnny G.s customers did the night he disappeared? he asks.
feel that there is something wrong with me. I shrug.
guess they got their precious fucking news from the television, he says.
imagine my bundle of newspapers sitting on the corner, wrapped in plastic in case
of rain. What happens to a bundle of newspapers if nobody comes to deliver them?
They either get rained on until they are one soggy lump of black and white pulp
or they dry up, begin to disintegrate, blow away in the wind.
my teacher "takes care of" my ass, he ties me up with so much rope that
only my quivering lips, my soft cheeks, my intelligent eyes, and my firm boyish
buttocks remain visible. Over the next several days he uses me whenever hes
in the mood. Hell "shove it in that ass" for a while and then
leave me there immobilized while he lifts weights in his underwear. His muscles
move in and out of my vision. Sometimes he puts on a gas mask and I have to imagine
his cruel, handsome face while he is pushing my legs up in the air and doing it
from the front. During the interludes I become more bored than Ive ever
been in my life. Im completely drained. I can feel no more desire, but he
keeps coming back. Im so bored that all activity loses its meaning. I remember
the regular patterns I walked every night, the geometrical shapes which made up
my "route". I think of the regularly spaced print on my papers which
came out every single day, the "news". These words are there to tell
us how we dream, what life is, what time consists of, but these words had been
exposed to me now as what they really are: a mask, hiding the fact that it is
all obliterated, it is all nothing.
me, I am not a paperboy. I am emptiness itself.
the most boring interludes, however, I hear a strange music. It seems that this
music pre-existed me, but that it has been waiting for me to find it. This music
is mine alone, but I believe that others have heard variations, that there is
a continuum of potential vibrations. When my teacher finally unties me, he leaves
me a key and says that whatever I do I mustnt use the key to open the room
with the red door. Then he drives away.
go to the door.
I say. Beth, are you in there?
is silent. I know that he has tricked me and that Beth was never here at all.
She is far too clever and uninterested to fall for a sleazy man like our Language
Arts teacher. Probably it is just the bloody remains of Johnny G. in that room.
I leave the key in his mailbox and hike through the trees. It is night.
wake one warm night back among the trees. The trees of our city are fragrant and
murmuring, and it is then, I believe, that I go "down by the river",
although I do not remember it exactly. There is a deep scratch on my forehead
which will surely scar; I believe that I have been marked by an enchanted prince
who was turned into one of these murmuring trees. This scar will give my face
the impression of a furrowed brow; it will make me appear more intelligent and
curious than I actually am.
bundle of papers is waiting for me on the corner.
deliver the news. My affair with the teacher was ultimately a disappointment,
but I have no regrets. Although I know that the comfort of my routine, the geometrical
shapes I travel, and the soothing, meaningless words I deliver are all a lie,
I accept them. If I allow myself to believe again in these things, it means that
I can once again enjoy the pleasure of obliterating that belief. It is only the
interplay between belief and obliteration that is interesting. Neither existence
nor nothingness is enough on its own.
is fast asleep in her frilly bed and dreaming. I love the thought of her and I
love the thought of her dreams and I love her so much that I think one day we
will be together.
I will write my skinny friend on the farm. I think about those rough country boys
he mentioned in his letter and I calculate the number of papers I will have to
deliver before I will have saved up enough money for a moped or a canoe.
at night I will drag the canoe down into the bad part of town behind the warehouses
and barely utilized malls past the parking lot full of old school buses. I will
traverse the maze of gravel roads and abandoned industrial equipment and I will
disappear back among the trees. I will slip the canoe into the river and I will
slip into the river with it and into the canoe and move like liquid down the river
with the stars overhead. The night will be utterly black and once the river has
taken me out of the city and into the countryside the stars will be bright overhead
and theyll be reflected in the river, rippling there as if the universe
itself might waver and go out into utter blackness. The land will be so flat and
the horizon so low that the sky will be everywhere. The reflection of the stars
as I move through them will form pathways and constellations like a map through
a limitless maze.
farm is a scary place. The docility of the animals seems like such a trick, a
strategy, deep cover, a camouflage of millennia. They are waiting. They are waiting
to devour something. They are waiting, waiting. A cow is sleeping and chewing
and waiting and full of blood under the sun. A chicken, a pig. God help us. Farm
animals are unbearable in the daylight, but at night they seem serene.
sound of an electric guitar in the cold is like a monstrous ejaculation of spirit.
My friend and I will plug our guitars into extension cords under a cold starry
sky and we will imagine that we are rock and roll stars and we will feel like
we can never die and electricity will pour forth from inside us and tear the fabric
of the universe itself until it bleeds stars upon our damaged little heads.
will escape from this place and fly into the Milky Way.
teacher is taking a leave of absence for "family business." Maybe hes
actually contracted an embarrassing disease. Maybe hes spending time in
prison or taking a journey with a kidnapped boy. In any case, hes left us
with an entire months worth of spelling words: cemetery, glitter, institution,
intestine, inmate, insane, indistinct, torment, esoteric, swelling, hermaphrodite,
heretic, hemisphere, scabious, regenerate, dormant, etc. Scabious, theres
a new one. Ill have to look it up.
the newspaper it says that Johnny G.s mother has not yet given up hope.
If I could tell that mother one thing, I would tell her that she came many years
ago to River City for one reason: to give up hope. Give up hope! I would say.
Relinquish it completely. Open your eyes wide and wander through life as in a
dream, with no hopes or expectations.
she is a bereaved mother, a celebrity. And I am only a paperboy.