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Stephen Beachy

I 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.

Although 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.

Another 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.

Every 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.

In 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 who’ve 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.

I sleep. Deep in the night my alarm goes off. I lie there for a moment in the quiet of my room.

I deliver the papers and then I sleep some more.

I 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.

I 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.

Only 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".

I am an excellent student.

My 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.

If you spell your words correctly, the teacher said, we can do whatever you’d like.

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.

I 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 I’ll have to stay after school. After school it is just me and the teacher. He sits at his desk staring at me and I can’t imagine what he is thinking. He frightens me. I am a splotch.

Young man, he says. You squirm around a lot and wiggle your ass on your seat. Is there something on your mind?

I chew on my thumbnail. There are so many things on my mind, unfathomable things, an entire cluttered universe of inexpressible longings. I can’t follow all the trajectories, I’m becoming less and less accessible. The process of change itself is becoming the definition of who I am. I’m a moody boy.

There is nothing on my mind, I say.

He folds his hands, purses his lips. He is far too good-looking to be a Language Arts teacher in our sad little city.

Ah, 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.

It is silent but for the ticking of the clock. The clocks in our school only occasionally function, but the bells always do.

Are you making fun of me? I ask.

He 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 I’m about to cry, but I still have enough self-control not to humiliate myself completely.

I am a paperboy, I tell him.

He twirls his pencil in a clockwise direction and stares at the ceiling.

Ah, he says. Like Johnny G.

He looks at me and smiles.

Perhaps you aren’t 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.

I’m not sure if he really said "pretty" or if he said "dirty." He twirls his pencil now in a counterclockwise direction.

I 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 isn’t 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.

I still have the first letter he wrote me:

Hi J.,

I didn’t know what to write. Anyway I’m 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 isn’t it? I caught a seventeen and a 1/2 inch fish. And in the car we almost hit two cows.

questions to answer:

1. Do you want to write back and forth for a long time like this?

2. When are you going to come?

This is all that I could think of so good-by.

His 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 friend’s 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 can’t 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 they’ll 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 river’s 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.

I 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.

The sky in our city is a permanent grey haze. It is not unattractive or bleak, it is the color of a brain.

Beth sits in front of me in Language Arts. My teacher is lecturing about personal pronouns, but I read the latest letter from my friend:

Dear J.

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 dump.

Anyway, 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?

The 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; it’s Beth he’s 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 isn’t the point. The point is, we all know what is necessary to produce children, even if we aren’t yet clear on the details. It isn’t 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 quiz:

Complete the following sentences with one of these ten words.

immobile sinister liberate optional
writhe manacles reminisce

1. J. suspected that the teacher had a ___________ plan to imprison him.

2. "No one is forcing you to come," the teacher told him. "Your attendance is entirely _____________."

3. Before he knew it, he was locked up with ____________ on his wrists.

4. J. ___________ his body around on the floor, trying to free himself.

5. The ropes were so tight he couldn’t move; he was completely ___________.

6. After several hours, his teacher finally came to ___________ him.

7. In the future they will ____________ about the good times they had together.

PART 2: Definitions
Choose the word that is best defined by the following expressions.

8. To cut apart or analyze with great care.

a. bondage
b. dissect
c. throbbing
d. firm

9. To shrink back or hide as if in fear.

a. intimidate
b. relinquish
c. cringe
d. spread eagle

10. Reasonable, making use of good sense.

a. ropes
b. ski-masks
c. subordinate
d. logical

11. Likely to change or changeable.

a. caress
b. variable
c. spanking
d. rooster

12. Somebody who owns you, your spiritual teacher, the source of all your pleasure and your pain.

a. penetration
b. innovation
c. master
d. insomniac

Part 3: Choosing the Right Word
Circle the answer that best completes the sentence.

13. J. felt as if he was on the (fatality, verge) of a new and more exciting life.

I score 100% on the quiz, as does Beth, and then I wait for my teacher after school next to his red car.

Back 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.

I have Beth locked up in the room with the red door, he says.

She put no restrictions on me whatsoever, he adds.

I shrug. He has a manly way about him.

If I’m not home for dinner my parents will call the police, I say.

I already took care of that, he says. They think you’re on a field trip.

For 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. I’m afraid.

I have to deliver my papers, I say.

He laughs.

What do you think Johnny G.’s customers did the night he disappeared? he asks.

I feel that there is something wrong with me. I shrug.

I guess they got their precious fucking news from the television, he says.

I 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.

After 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 he’s in the mood. He’ll "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 I’ve ever been in my life. I’m completely drained. I can feel no more desire, but he keeps coming back. I’m 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.

And me, I am not a paperboy. I am emptiness itself.

During 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 mustn’t use the key to open the room with the red door. Then he drives away.

I go to the door.

Beth? I say. Beth, are you in there?

It 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.

I 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.

My bundle of papers is waiting for me on the corner.

I 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.

Beth 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.

Tomorrow 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.

Late 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 they’ll 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.

A 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.

The 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.

We will escape from this place and fly into the Milky Way.

My teacher is taking a leave of absence for "family business." Maybe he’s actually contracted an embarrassing disease. Maybe he’s spending time in prison or taking a journey with a kidnapped boy. In any case, he’s left us with an entire month’s worth of spelling words: cemetery, glitter, institution, intestine, inmate, insane, indistinct, torment, esoteric, swelling, hermaphrodite, heretic, hemisphere, scabious, regenerate, dormant, etc. Scabious, there’s a new one. I’ll have to look it up.

In 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.

But she is a bereaved mother, a celebrity. And I am only a paperboy.




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