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Jamie Gabriel wakes at 5:44, as the clock radio's volume bursts from the silence. He rolls and hits the sleep bar, clipping off the words to an annoying pop song by some boy-band graduate who wears the same clothes and does the same moves as his backup dancers. The worst. Kids at school say they like him. Some do; the rest are just following along. Jamie listens to Green Day and Linkin Park. It's three-quarters dark outside. He clicks off the alarm and puts his feet on the floor. Waking up is easy.
In the master bedroom sleep Mom and Dad. Carol and Paul. The carpet is wall-to-wall, light blue. New. The liver-colored stuff that came with the house when they bought it is gone. The blue goes better with the oak bedroom set, Mom says.
It was a good move for the Gabriels, to the split ranch-style on Richards Avenue, Wayne Township. Trees line most all of the blocks here. The houses have yards.
Jamie walks past his school photo, which hangs in the hall on the way to the bathroom. He hates the picture. His wheat-colored hair lay wrong that day. He takes a pee. That's it. He'll brush his teeth when he gets back, after breakfast, before school.
He moves through the kitchen—Pop-Tart? Nah—and goes out the utility door into the connected garage. Mom and Dad love it, the garage on the house, the workbench, and space for the white minivan and the blue Buick.
He hoists the garage door halfway up; it sticks on its track. A streak of black fur darts in and hits him low in the legs.
"Where you been, Tater?"
The gray-whiskered Lab's tail thumps against the boy's leg for a moment. After a night of prowling, Tater likes the way the boy ruffles his fur. The boy pushes him aside and crawl-walks under the garage door.
A stack of the morning Star waits there, acrid ink smell, still warm from the press. Jamie drags the papers inside and sets to work, folding them into thirds, throwing style.
He loads white canvas sacks and crosses them, one over each shoulder, then straddles his bike. The Mongoose is his. Paid for with six months' delivery money after the move to Richards Avenue. Jamie ducks low and pushes the bike out underneath the garage door, when Tater rubs up against his leg again. The old dog begins to whine. He shimmies and bawls in a way that he never does.
Jamie puts his feet on the pedals and cranks off on his route. Tater groans and mewls. Dogs know.
"Should've gone to McDonald's, you fat fuck," Garth "Rooster" Mintz said to Tad Ford as he reached across him for a French Toast dipper. Tad's face squeezed in hurt, then relaxed. The smell of gasoline, the fast-food breakfast, and Tad's Old Spice filled the battleship-gray '81 Lincoln.
"You're eating same as me," Tad said back. "You're just lucky it doesn't stick to you."
Rooster said nothing, just started chewing a dipper.
Tad was unsatisfied with the lack of reaction, but that was all he was going to say. Rooster was seventy-five pounds smaller than him, but he was hard. The guy was wiry. Tad could see his sinew. He'd once watched Rooster, piss drunk, tear a guy's nostril open in a bar scrap. The whole left side of the dude's nose was blown out, and just flapped around on his face with each breath after the fight was broken up and Rooster was pulled off.
Tad had plenty of targets of opportunity with Roosterthe small man stank much of the time. He didn't shower most days. He left his chin-up, push-up, and sit-up sweat in place, only bothering to wipe down his tattoos. His red-blond hair hung limp and greasy as well. Then there were the scars. Nasty raised red ones that ran up and down his forearms like someone had gone at him with a boning knife. When Tad finally screwed up the nerve to ask where he'd gotten them, Rooster merely replied, "Around." Tad left it there.
"You're just lucky it doesn't stick to you," Tad repeated, chewing on his own French toast.
"Yeah, I'm lucky," Rooster said, turned, and looked down the street, still dark beneath all the goddamn trees. "Should've gone to McDonald's."
Jamie Gabriel, rider, pedals. He flows by silent houses, houses dark on the inside. He tosses papers into yards and onto porches. He works on his arc and velocity with each throw. An automatic sprinkler quietly sweeps one lawn, still blue in the bruised morning light. Jamie slings for the front door of that house so the paper stays dry. He works his pedals. A line of streetlight goes dark with a hiss as morning comes. Dad thinks it's great that they moved to a neighborhood that supports tradition: newspaper routes. Mom's not so sureher boy needs his rest. Few people know the streets like Jamie does. Dark and empty, they're his streets. Jamie wasn't so sure either, at first, when he was still getting used to the work and slogging through the route on his old Huffy. But then he earned the new bike. He read an old story of a mailman who became an Olympic biker. Why not him, too? He has a picture. The black man's thighs bulge and ripple. He looks like he's set to tear his bike apart more than ride it. Jamie checks his watch. His time is looking good.
Rooster glanced at the clock inside the Lincoln. Goddamn Lincoln now smelled of an old fuel leak and Tad's farts over the sickly sweet of the aftershave. But the car was clean. Riggi bought it in a cash deal and dropped it off with fixed-up tags. Rooster hated these goddamned pickups. He flexed his forearm, felt the corded muscle move underneath his wounded and roughly healed skin and light red arm hair. His forearm was thick for his stature. He was ripped. He was disciplined with working out, but he was a lazy bastard, he suspected, when it came to certain parts of the job. Yeah, he hated the fucking snatches. Anybody could do 'em. It wasn't like the house work. That was rarefied air, sir.
"Start the car," Rooster said low, glancing sideways at the clock again. He scanned out the windshield of the Lincoln. The goddamn thing was like the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
"Oh, shit," Tad said, his last bite of hash-brown cake sticking in his gullet. The car turned over, coarse and throaty.
They saw movement at the corner.
Jamie puts his head down and digs his pedals. He's got a shot at his record. He's got a shot at the world record. He throws and then dips his right shoulder as he makes the corner of Tibbs. The canvas sack on his left has begun to lighten and unbalance him. He straightens the Mongoose and glances up. Car. Dang. Jamie wheels around the corner right into the rusty grill and locks them up.
Tires bite asphalt and squeal. Smoke and rubber-stink roil. Brakes strain hard and hold. The vehicles come to a stop. Inches separate them.
With a blown-out breath of relief, Jamie shakes his head and starts pushing toward the curb, bending down to pick up a few papers that have lurched free.
Car doors open. Feet hit the pavement. Jamie looks up at the sound. Two men rise out of the car. They move toward him. He squeezes the hand brake hard as they approach.
Carol Gabriel pushes a strand of dirty blond hair back behind her ear and sips her coffee, Folgers beans, freshly ground, a mellow roast. Her friends like Starbucks, but she finds it bitter and knows they drink it for the name.
She stands in the kitchen and looks out over the sink through the small square window. She's found herself smiling here most days since the move. Especially since fall hit three weeks back with a burst of color on the trees. There's no smile today, even though the day's a bright, shiny thing. Her second cup of coffee has begun to curdle in her belly, as Jamie usually wheels into the driveway before she's done with her first.
Paul walks into the kitchen, a blue rep tie hanging unknotted around his neck. Because he's got his nose in a pamphlet, he bumps into a kitchen chair. The chair groans across the terra-cotta tile floor and sends a painful report through his knee and up his thigh. Carol looks over at the noise.
Split annuities. Tax-advantaged cash flow and principal protection. How to sell the concept hasn't really stuck yet for Paul, but he's got to get into new products now. He sits, reaches for toast that's gone cold. Variable whole life; yearly contributions to a policy that pays a death benefit but turns into an IRA-type retirement instrument at age sixty-five, is what got him into this neighborhood. He broadened his base, reached a new level of clientele. He made a solid conservative play and bought a house that he could carry the monthly nut on during his worst month, by virtue of his commissions on those policies alone. Now the plan was to have no worst months.
Paul chews toast. Feeding himself right-handed, he presses his gut with his left. It yields. Thirty-five years' worth. It was a cut slab through age thirty-one, but for the last four years he's let it slide. At six-one, he'd been lean, a runner, for most of his life. Then he got a bone spur on his heel. Doctors recommended he get it cut out, but the surgery meant a long recovery, so he decided to run through it. They said it wouldn't work, that the thorny spur would continue to aggravate the plantar fascia, that it couldn't be done, but he'd gotten the idea it could. Mile after grueling mile he kept on, until something changed and yielded, and the thing wore away to nothing. Then his job did what pain could not and stopped him in his tracks. He started coming home tired in a different way from any manual labor he'd done in his youth. A few scotches a week became a few per night, so he could sleep. That, he suspected, added the first girth layer. He switched to vodka, which helped, but he was out of shape and he knew it.
"Paul, I'm worried." Carol stands over him. He looks up. A shadow lies across her face. "Did you see Jamie outside?"
"He's not home and I didn't hear him come in from his route."
"Maybe he left for school early…"
Her face radiates a dozen questions back at him, the most pleasant being: What kid goes to school early?
How can a grown man be so damned dumb? It leaps to the front of her mind. She feels guilty for it immediately and pushes it away. But it had been there.
"No, you're right," he says. He gulps coffee, pushes together a pile of insurance pamphlets, and stands. "Maybe his bike broke down." Carol looks at him with doubt, not hope. "I'm already late, but I'll drive his route and look for him on the way to the office. Call me if he shows up. I want to know why"
"Call as soon as you see him. Call as soon as you can. I'll try the Daughertys'. Maybe he's over there."
"Yeah. That's probably it." Paul gives her a peck and heads for the door. It's like kissing a mannequin.
Paul's blue Buick LeSabre traverses the neighborhood. Streets that had been empty quiet an hour ago now hum. Minivans tote children to school. Older children pedal in packs. Kids, older still, drive four to a car to the high school. Joggers and dog walkers dot the sidewalks.
Paul coasts up in front of a miniature stop sign held by an aging woman with white hair and an orange sash across her torso. She waves a group of eight-year-olds across the front of the Buick as Paul lowers the window.
"Do you know Jamie Gabriel? Have you seen him?"
"Not by name," she says, years of cigarettes on her voice. "I know the faces."
"Have you seen a paperboy?" Paul asks, wishing he had a picture with him. "His bike might have broken down."
"Sure haven't, just kids on the way to school."
Unsatisfied, Paul nods and drives on. He makes a right on Tibbs. An oil-stained street. Jamie's not there and nothing's out of the ordinary. Not sure what to do next, he drives the rest of the route and then continues to the office.
Rooster sits and sips his morning beer. Overdriven guitar sounds thunder in his head. He'd been playing Mudvayne all morning. He turned it off a minute ago, but can still hear it. He can do that. It is one of many things he can do that others cannot. He's special. He knows he is. But he's not happy. Having gifts is not the same thing as happiness. His mind roils in simulated guitar fuzz—he doesn't want to think about in there—until he hears the van drive up outside.
Tad lumbers out of the panel van clutching a sixer of Blue Ribbon and the reload, the day's second round of food. This time it is McDonald's as directed. He approaches the house, the eyesore of the neighborhood. The paint is falling off in flakes and long curls, and only the windows on the side and those of the room down the hall are freshly painted. Black. It is what they'll call their "music studio" if anyone asks. But no one does. This is the house the neighbors wish would just go away so property values could rise.
Tad enters, pulling off dark sunglasses and sliding them into the chest pocket of his flannel shirt. The living room is dingy. Carpet that is lentil in color and texture, and secondhand green and orange sofas that have gone decades without a re-covering fill the room.
Fast-food sandwich boxes and wrappers litter a dinette area. Rooster sits on a spindly chair across from a dormant twenty-year-old color television with tinfoil bunny-ears antennae that rests on a milk crate. His eyes are on the dead screen and he rocks slightly in rhythm to music that seems to fill his head from an unknown source. He is shirtless.
"You are one lazy bastard."
Rooster's eyes don't leave the television as he gives Tad the finger.
"You got no work ethic at all."
"You speak to Riggi?" Rooster asks as if Tad has just entered the room and the previous comments had never occurred.
"Shiftless. Look at you."
"I've already been in there two times since you been gone," Rooster says. Flat. His eyes, also flat, turn to Tad, stopping him up. "You speak to Riggi?"
"Two times? Bullshit, two times…" Tad gets his breath back. "Yeah, I spoke to him."
"What'd he say?"
Tad puts the beer down among the rubble on the dinette table. He opens one for himself and chucks one over to Rooster.
"Mr. Riggi said he needs it for Thursday."
Rooster opens the new beer and takes a delicate, probing sip. "Thursday. Shit."
"Yeah," Tad begins, enjoying his partner's discomfort, "he's got it arranged for Thursday, so you better get cracking."
"Yeah? I should get cracking? Whyn't you take a turn?" This silences Tad for a moment.
"No thanks. You're the pro."
Rooster nods slightly, pleased, then kicks a pill into the back of his mouth, drains off a few ounces of his beer, and wearily stands. Vicodin. When you're in physical pain, it takes away the pain. When you're not in pain, it takes away other things. He gathers himself and walks purposefully down the hall toward the back bedroom door.
Tad occupies the chair in front of the television, leans forward, and turns on cartoons.