It was during a fundraiser for publicradio KMXT 100.1 FM two Saturdays ago. I was covering the early morning phone shift when Drew's stylish pea-coat whisked into the newsroom. I had just finished buffing the stainless sink and chrome fixtures.Radio folk are wonderfully slovenly.
"Terry Haines" he said "You are just the man to help me with a problem."
"Anything I can do, Professor."
"I have had a tune stuck in my head that I simply cannot identify." He hummed a fragment.
“I believe that is Mendelssohn's Fifth in D Flat Major, and you can certainly bet De Major was flat after he finished Mendelssohn's fifth...”
“Ah of course. I knew I could rely on you.”
Drew is a local writer of many talents (he recently aced the listener quiz on “Performance Today”.) I discovered he was, among his capacities, a Paperboy . I was intrigued. I get fidgety between fishing seasons.
“Paperboy, huh? That sounds like fun. How do you get that?”
“It is simple enough. Just go into the office and inquire with Janet.” I resolved to do just that.
Two days later I was the proud Paperboy of two routes: Three Sisters and Bell's Flats. My wife was incredulous.
“So you took the two worst paper routes in the northern hemisphere, they are thirty miles apart and it's the dead of winter?”
“I'm just trying to help out.”
“You could help me out. What about the list on the refrigerator?”
“I plan to do that stuff between 3 and 5 AM while I listen to the BBC.”
She shook her head and walked away as I prepped the Jeep for arctic travel. My routes were the coldest this side of Iceland: down the precipitous curving iceways of Three Sisters, and in the wide dark valley known locally as “The Flats.”
Three Sisters is five miles or so north of Kodiak City. It is comprised of a handful of forking dirt roads, paved with ice at this time of year, that wind down a patch of the woody rocky coastline above Monashka Bay seeking out the nooks and cornices where tight little cabins are sometimes built side by side with wide windowed Alaska mansions. It is not a walking route. Ice covers the long sloping driveways like poured glass. I delivered 17 wafer thin newspapers, skillfully engine braking, dodging around dogs and goats and between spruce trees.
It is only after I headed out to the Flats--- through town and up to Dead Man's Corner, past the airport and the Coast Guard Base and around Woman's Bay,( the ruts in the ice holding the Jeep on the road through forty mile gusts of northwest wind,) that it occured to me: there is no way to make a cent on these routes—its just too much gas.
At nearly four bucks a gallon I am delivering forty two 50cent newspapers at a fuel cost of ten dollars per day.
The math was not lost on my wife.
“So they are paying you 120 dollars a month, and it will cost you two hundred in gas to deliver them.”
“I think I could break even in Three Sisters if I double the readership. I have big plans to go door to door...”
“Fine. But you can't drive out to the Flats everyday on your own dime.”
So the next day I told Janet I would like to keep the Three Sisters route but explained that I couldn't drive out to the Flats anymore, for reasons of domestic tranquility.
“But” she said “you signed The Contract.”
“I know” I said, smirking slightly, “and I certainly would not want to default on my paperboy contract but I just can't go out to the Flats anymore. I have big plans to expand readership at Three Sis...”
“But” she said “you signed The Contract.”
A chill raised the hairs on the back of my neck and I wondered if I should have read The Contract before signing it. It did have remarkable heft for a document designed for fourteen year olds, and perhaps the cracked leather binding and the fact that I was required to ink my name in blood should have been red flags as well.
“Well” I said, after an awkward pause, “I was talking to a friend of a friend about taking over the Flats. I'll talk to her again. Oh and I can't deliver papers on Thursday and Friday. I have to go to Anchorage to yell at the federal Fisheries Management Council and be on TV.”
Janet just raised a bemused eyebrow, but I seemed to hear demon voices keening low from somewhere down the long hallway. Chuckling nervously I grabbed my bundle and jumped into the Jeep. I delivered all of them even the Bell's Flats route, telling myself I would do the right thing and find a replacement on Monday.”
In Anchorage I instruct the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council on ways they can fix their errant policies. I feel confident they will listen this time. I was also very happily cranky as part of a panel segment of “Moore Up North” with that Alaska treasure Shannyn Moore.
Monday back in Kodiak saw me less than thrilled about my new paper route.
“I'm tired from all the mental engagement.” I told my wife.
“Not from the fact finding missions at Humpy's and Darwin's Theory?”
“And the Taproot. That place is great. Alright”. I struggled off the couch and to the Jeep. But I obviously needed to earn some gas money. I called Seamus. They had a couple of skates that need stripping and sticking. Sweet. I figured I would go down to the boat harbor tomorrow and knock out a couple before my route.
At the newspaper office I miss Janet who is out delivering another route. This pattern would continue. Each day I would come in with Janet out, tell them I couldn't deliver to the Flats anymore. And take the papers anyway. I only realized later that I was doing the Dread Pirate Robert's technique: “Well goodnight Wesley, most likely kill you in the morning.”
Then on Wednesday two things happened: My friend offered me a fishing job and I met The Publisher.
I was down on Seamus' boat working on my skate (I only ended up finishing one, but engaged in some great conversations regarding human nature and the function of faith). The wind was gusting pretty hard so I decided to check the lines of a friend's boat before lunch. On the way down the float I ran into a cod job.
Now there is a little man in my head who sits on a stool in front of a big red button listening for my ears to hear the words “Do you want to go fishing?” His only job is to lean forward and slam that button when he hears that magic question.
“Yes I do.” My mouth says automatically.
Ah Ha! Heavens be praised! A real job, with water underfoot and the shoreline a safe distance away! But what about The Contract? What fell fate awaited me if I broke it?
Nervous eyeballs regarded me at the newspaper office as I gave my daily renunciation of the Flats route. “I can't keep sneaking out to the Flats this way.” I joked. “My wife thinks I'm having an affair. “
I sensed there was something different. A presence. Then a figure glided out of the shadows like Fu Manchu from a forties film noir.
“I am Richard.” he said, “the Publisher.”
“Terry the Paperboy” I shook his hand. It crackled with static power.
“What would it take to induce you to keep taking papers to the Flats known commonly as Bell's?”
“Well,” I said “it seems to me that if you are already sending a truck out there to deliver to the store you could just give your carrier gas money and have him do it. That way you don't have to send it separately and the carrier wouldn't have to worry about gas wiping out his meager profits.” Now I realize this was a bit disingenuous of me, knowing I would have to go cod fishing next week anyway. But I thought this would work better for the next carrier anyway, and be more efficient for the paper.
I'm helping out.
The Publisher pounded the keys on a steam powered calculator and announced a fairly reasonable number. Great. I would call my friend's friend and tell her to come to the news office and grab the Flat's route- she wouldn't have my gas worries, making it a much better job.
Friday saw me doing my last deliveries in the Flats. It was five o'clock: rather late-- I had taken my herd of corgis for a walk to the top of pillar Mountain first. I felt good. The cold sunset was shining through the ice fog and the Flats were glowing in a surreal light. Now all I had to do was find a substitute for the Three Sisters route. I was still exited about expanding the...
My cell phone rang. It was Janet. She sounded tired. I realized that I had been little more than a headachy question mark for her. The good news was my friend's friend would start Monday. But I did not need to worry about Three Sisters anymore either. I had broken The Contract.
“You mean I'm fired from my paperboy job?”
I flipped the phone shut and thought “Oh thank God.” I had one more stop- a lady who hadn't received her paper for a couple of days even though I was sure I had delivered it. I knocked on her door and she answered in her bathrobe. Darn it. I hate answering my door in my robe. She seemed irritated. I tell her I'm sorry she hasn't got her paper and ask if I'd left it in the right place. It seems I did. I don't get it.
“Well I'm very sorry Ma'am. Here are those papers, and today's”
“That's OK”. She says, her face softening “Merry Christmas.”
“Thanks. Merry Christmas to you, too.” I smiled. That was the best tip I got.
Copyright—Terry Haines 2010