by Matthew Hummer
I. Bow and Arrow
I had just dropped off my oldest son at an indoor archery range. He practiced both recurve and compound bow. On my way out, I saw a killdeer playing hurt in the stone parking lot. Dragging her wing like a downed kite.
I drove down the road, got a paper and coffee at the Turkey Hill mini-market, and parked at the Smoketown Airport. I remembered my dad saying he knew someone that brought drugs in from Central America to this Amish country strip. A few miles away for here, we had done a cleanout and painting job for a C.I.A. widow. I got paid in cash. He got paid a Tommy gun and an Uzi.
In seventh grade, two of us had paper routes. My friend had an afternoon route. The afternoon paper was conservative. Andrew’s dad was a Republican lawyer. His father used to make fun of lawyers who advertised on the back of the phonebook. Now he does it. The morning was liberal, but I didn’t know that. I thought I was a Democrat. My dad was a trashman who once voted for Mickey Mouse and burned leeches off his skin with cigarette butts in Vietnam. I wore his jungle hat around the yard. Andrew’s dad had joined the Coast Guard, I think to avoid the draft. When I asked my dad recently if, knowing what he knows now about Vietnam, would he join again. He said, “Yeah. I’d come back rich this time. I’d steal from the paymaster.”
At the airport, the wind snapped the American flag. The sun stretched across the parking lot. The newspaper rattled, but my coffee cup pinned it to the weathered boards of the picnic table. Each time I took a sip, though, the column on page three covered page one.
The print was stale like the coffee. Headlines from websites. But the gray paper became luminous when the wind flipped the page. Like a relic from the Reformation. Corroded but fresh. A mash of ink and pulp that created modern democracy. Pamphlet and book that melted the ice-clogged Delaware. Now screens pan gold in an electrical river, Oceanus circling the planet. Billionaire technocrats want machines to read our minds and print our thoughts. To save time on typing.
I hope a solar flare crackles the grid—the saving apocalypse. Satellite and wire, the binary mind of the soulless network, reduced. Back to pen and paper. Slow writing. A monk uttering ora et labora as he traces the script, lines and curves—each page a work of art. It’s happened before.
When I first started delivering papers on a one speed, steel bicycle, the print smudged my fingers. Articles dove into fact without scene or character. I read it on the porch in the afternoon. The intro hooked—straight bait. Now the opening paragraph skips facts. Our local paper, the consolidated remnant of the Intelligencer Journal and the Lancaster New Era, is wet pulp. Right and Left no longer contend in separate editions, morning and evening.
Every morning at five-thirty a.m. the papers, bound in plastic sheeting with a yellow strap, waited for me under the street light at the corner of A and Broad. The white paper birch made spotty shadows on the cellophane. My sling bag had a front and a back pouch; the bike a handle-bar basket. For the first half-mile it was hard to steer.
Most people liked the paper near the door. One yellow porch had to have the paper on the kitchen doormat. A man’s shadow with a mug behind pulled curtains that glowed in the golden light. He’d complained once when the paper had skidded off the porch. From then on, I parked the bike, kickstand thick as a milkshake straw. Wet sneakers squeaked across the painted floorboards, dew-slicked. I dropped it and tiptoed off before the shadow could move from the table.
By six a.m., I was cranking up the hill on Main St. for the three houses on the other side. The sky was violet. I tried to beat the sun to the last house. The world could not start without printed words.
Sixty dollars a month for getting up at five-thirty a.m. each morning at age twelve. Most people mailed payments in. The paper sent me a check. But some people made me collect. Some hid, not even turning the TV off. I knew which houses were not going to answer. I paced the sidewalk not wanting to approach the door. I was embarrassed to ask for the money they owed.
Now Google et alia do the collecting. Three days after reading the paper on that windy day at a rickety picnic table near the Smoketown airport, an advertisement for Pilatus personal airplanes popped up in the corner of an online ad while I was at work. I had never used the phone to connect to the internet, except by accident. I had had it off that day at the airport. But the collector lurks at the door.
I asked my students the next day if I was paranoid to think that companies could track my location with a powered-down cell. To try and sell me, a high school Latin teacher, a personal airplane. A girl said, “No, they can do that. You have to take the battery out.”
A quiet hour waiting for a landing. A scrolling star crosses the violet sky. It trains an eye back at me. Trying to sell me a plane named for the Roman procurator, whose soldiers played dice while the sky turned purple.
Matthew Hummer teaches Latin and English. He has published in Zymbol, Stoneboat, Still Point Arts Quarterly et alia. His art and writing can be viewed at Scribens, Writing