Six a.m. comes early in Duluth, Minnesota, when February, the coldest month of a cold winter, begins.
It was the first and it was a Saturday morning. I lived in a four story home built by some important person many years earlier. There’d been enough time since then for the once elegant palatial place to fall into disrepair enough so that my Dad, an enlisted man in the Coast Guard, could rent it. Dad worked at the small Coast Guard station down near the largest vertical rising bridge in the world. Crossing the bridge took you out to the Point, where newly powerful and rich people had their homes. Our family never went to the point unless it was to visit the station right near the bridge because the people who lived out there didn’t like regular people with regular cars driving on their single long road.
Our house had a big coal furnace in the basement that had to be fed every few hours. My brother and I were the feeders. Mike didn’t mind the three a.m. feeding for some reason but I hated getting up every day of my life, or so it seemed at the time, to do the six in the morning work. Saturday was the best of the feeding days though because I had to get up anyway to help my friend Joe Berini deliver newspapers. Joe gave me a penny a paper per week to help him and there were forty-four doors to deliver to. Forty-four cents, combined with my weekly allowance of twenty-five, meant that I was a bit short of making a dollar a week, which was pretty big money back then. For a kid. The money meant one Ace Double science fiction paperback, four Double Bubble sodas at school lunch, and then change left over to save for my own bike, which after buying, I could apply for my own paper route. I was in the seventh grade at Sacred Heart. Joe went to the public school and constantly made fun of the sister’s strange habits and the long hours I had to attend school compared to him.
Joe would have grown up to be a dental technician like his Dad, he said, except for his hand. His left hand had come out wrong. It looked fine but it was useless except for looking fine. Joe could not use it even to tie his shoes, which he didn’t need it for because he could tie them faster with one hand than I could with my two. He wasn’t a cripple, he constantly told me, because nobody could tell he had a bad hand. If people could not tell you were a cripple, he said, then you weren’t. I agreed with him because I treasured my one cent a copy for folding and throwing the papers. We rode double on his bike. It was a big Schwinn with a front spring shock absorber. I didn’t have a bike yet because we didn’t have money in the family for kids to be getting bikes. We rode Joe’s bike in perfectly awful weather. I rode on top of the flat rack just behind Joe, with the cloth Herald sack over one shoulder. The stack of papers was delivered to Joe’s front door. I folded them quickly and neatly, as I’d been taught by the Herald truck driver. The Herald could only be folded one way the driver had said or it wasn’t a Herald. The ink got on my fingers some but came off pretty easily at home thanks to my mom’s mix of Ajax cleaner and Lava soap.
Joe said I was a lousy folder, which I was not. He also said that I was too big to ride on the back of his bike and he was looking for someone smaller. I was the smallest guy in my class so I knew he was lying about that part. I knew he didn’t want to pay me either because he always paid in pennies, which he counted out very slowly, sliding each one over across the surface of his father’s big desk. Getting paid was the only time I was ever allowed in the house because Joe’s Dad thought I was Jewish. My name sounded Jewish but my parents assured me I was German and a bit Irish. I asked the three Jewish kids we had in the eighth grade if my name was Jewish because I wasn’t entirely sure. They had laughed and said if I was Jewish my Dad wouldn’t be poor and working as an enlisted man in the Coast Guard. I believed them about the Jewish thing but not about being poor. Our family had most of everything it needed. Our car was old, true, and we kids wore mostly used clothing but it was good clothing. We had a huge house, even if it was falling down a bit and we were never short of coal, like some families at school.
Joe had me along to fold and also to throw. I was very accurate in making the toss from his moving bike, even when he steered it or pedaled faster secretly trying to make me miss. The paper had to hit the door and then fall right onto the middle of the platform in front of it. I was deadly accurate and on to Joe’s tricks. My final talent was in knowing the few people we had to stop and deliver to by hand. I really liked that part, especially when delivering to old people. The old people on the route all loved kids and I was a kid. Six of our clients had to be personally be met at the door, or have the door opened and the paper dropped inside. I did all those while Joe waited. Although those six people were Joe’s biggest Christmas tippers Joe and I both knew it wasn’t because of the special personal service we offered. They could have gotten that by calling the office of the Herald at no charge. No, it was because I was friends with them and they really liked the way I listened and talked back to them. Joe never rushed me. It took as much time to deliver to the six as it did to throw the rest of the route. I never found out how much any of them tipped because Joe would not talk about the subject much less tell me the amounts. It was okay though; I was happy with my forty-four cents a week.
We only had one delivery where there was a pet. Back then, regular people didn’t have a lot of pets, at least not in the part of Duluth we delivered in. Mrs. Mosby had a cat. The street she lived on was Morrissey and the cat’s name was Hieronymus. Hero, as I called him on the rare occasions I saw him, was a big brown thing who did not go out in the winter. He would come to see what I was doing, look at me and then settle down on his haunches in an erect laying position, as if to let me know he was paying close attention to Mrs. Mosby and my short conversation. The nice old lady and I always talked about my schooling. She never talked about herself and I never saw anyone else in her downstairs apartment.
The morning of the incident was a particularly cold one. They didn’t have wind chill back then but it would have registered under twenty below zero if they’d had it. The wind was brutal on the short part of the route where Joe had to peddle against it. My face was wrapped fully in a wool scarf, like Joes, although I could tuck in behind him to avoid the worst. We both wore full mittens over gloves, and it was the clumsy mittens that caused the problem. Joe’s mittens had little clips and string to keep them from falling to the ground if he had to take one off. I didn’t have those strings or clips on mine.
Mrs. Mosby was the fortieth delivery that morning and the last four after her were places just down the street. Morrissey Street was lit with old tall street lights that gave off a big yellow glow but little else. Only the old layers of white snow reflecting what light there was allowed Joe and I to see where we were going every morning.
Joe pulled up outside Mrs. Mosby’s place and I got off, leaving my bag draped over the back fender of the bike. I took a folded Herald in my right hand, walked the shoveled sidewalk to the door and knocked three times. I didn’t wait for Mrs. Mosby to answer. I knew she had heard and was on her way so I opened the main door and went inside.
I waited in the hall with the paper in my right gloved hand, and thinking that my left hand held the right’s covering mitten. The door was spring-loaded so it closed behind me, or so I thought.
Mrs. Mosby came into the hall, as she always did, a big smile lighting up her ancient face. I smiled back and we began to talk. After only a couple of minutes I realized that the cat was not where it usually was, hunkering down by her side to analyze my presence.
“How’s Hero?” I interrupted.
“He’s right here,” Mrs. Mosby said, looking down to her right where the cat could always be found. He was not there. Mrs. Mosby looked up at the door I’d come through and her expression changed.
I twisted around and saw what she’d seen. My mitten was stuck half way inside at the bottom corner of the door. The door gaped open a good four inches.
“Oh no,” Mrs. Mosby said, bringing her left hand up to her throat. “Oh please no. He’ll freeze out there in minutes.”
I flipped around and was at the door in one second, grabbing my mitten from the floor and heading out to look for the cat.
“I’ll get him,” I said over my shoulder, rushing out, leaving the door ajar. I knew Mrs. Mosby was going to stand at the door and wait, or even come out. I ran to where Joe waited and breathlessly told him about Hieronymus getting away. I asked him if he’d seen him, although with the relative darkness and the distance I knew it was unlikely unless the cat had run right by him.
“No cat,” Joe replied in a controlled voice. “Steady,” he said, Dump the last four papers while I start looking around and then run back here so we can cover a much bigger area. I’ll ask the old lady if she has a flashlight. Maybe he’s still in the house. If he’s gone it’s your fault.”
I grabbed the four remaining papers out of my bag and ran down the street. Joe was making more sense than I was. Everything he’d said made sense, including the part about me being responsible. I felt terrible. The cat could not survive out in the winter weather very long, I knew, if he was out there.
I finished delivering and ran back, out of breath. Joe stood at the door alone.
“Well?” I asked in great fear and trepidation.
“No cat. She’s looking inside and getting two flashlights.
Mrs. Mosby came back and handed the flashlights to us. We turned both on and went hunting. We looked up and down the street and through the neighbor’s yards but with no luck. We met back at Mrs. Mosby’s door.
“What can we do?” Mrs. Mosby asked, near tears. “Call the police?”
“They won’t come in time,” Joe replied. “No, we’ve got to pedal home and get our families to come search. We’ll tear the neighborhood apart.”
I could think of nothing else to do.
“You search the house again until we get back,” Joe instructed Mrs. Mosby. “C’mon,” he said to me.
We walked quickly to his bike. When we got there he got on and I bent to move the canvas delivery bag.
“Cat’s toast,” Joe said over his shoulder. “We’ll never find it in time. It’s twenty below out here and getting colder. Too bad about what you did.”
A burning sensation ran up and down my spine. This could not be happening. Not because I didn’t have any of those stupid clips and strings for my mittens. I picked up the bag to get on the back of the bike. It didn’t pick up. I pulled harder. The bag gave way and I fell backward into the snow, a big brown cat jumping on my chest and running toward Mrs. Mosby’s door.
I got to my feet and raced after the cat. When I got through the opening Mrs. Mosby was bending over to pet the big cat, who lay on the floor like he’d been there all the time.
I felt like passing out with relief. I leaned against one of the walls, suddenly weak in the knees.
“I’ll be right back,” Mrs. Mosby said to me, standing straight before she turned to walk down the hall.
I remained with Hieronymus. We stared at one another.
“How’d you get the name?” I asked him in a whisper. He didn’t answer or indicate he’d heard me. “I’ll bet the name has something to do with scaring boys to death.”
Mrs. Mosby came back, moving at her usual slow but determined pace. “Here, you deserve it. It’s all I’ve got. I love Hieronymus and you and your friend saved him. I’d never have made it without him back.” She handed be a folded up twenty-dollar bill. A bill so large that I had never owned one of my own before.
“That’s too much,” I said, holding the folded bill in my hand like it was made of gold.
“You can get change and share it with Joe later on,” she replied, letting me know that my time was up. She picked up the paper from where I’d dropped it on the floor and turned to go back down the hall. Hieronymus got up and went with her.
I went outside, making sure I had the twenty tucked into my right front pocket down deep, and that my mittens were both on. I walked up to Joe, sitting on the bike waiting for me.
“Bet she gave you a piece of her mind, huh?” he said, laughing. “You sure as hell deserved it, you idiot.”
We rode home with the dawn just beginning to break. My Dad got transferred before the summer came so I never bought the bike. We moved to Chicago where I lived next to the school and didn’t need a bike. I never found out how Hero got into my bag or when. I remain sure to this day that Joe didn’t know the cat was there any more than I. I have always regretted not sharing any of the twenty dollars with Joe. I told myself at the time that it was his last derisive comment that did it, but I don’t know for sure. Lots of time has gone by. I found Joe on the Internet a few years ago and called him. Amazingly, he didn’t remember me ever delivering his paper route with him, or so he said. Joe ended up becoming senior editor of the Herald before finally retiring.
Today, all these years later, I deliver the Geneva Shore Report every Wednesday morning to forty-four businesses. I finally got my paper route.