May 2, 2014
I drove a panel truck for the then Alton Evening Telegraph, in the late 60s. My job was to deliver bundles of newspapers to Fidelity, Shipman, Gillespie and Greenfield, as well as throw individual papers onto farm driveways at eighty miles an hour. I learned how to high speed bounce the papers off the highway and onto the target. Some farms had dogs that waited for me, collies mostly, picking up the papers in their mouths, and farmers near Macoupin Creek, during spring flooding, might canoe out to the road. I got to know the delivery people in the larger towns, mostly girls around my age, and there might be lemonade or iced tea waiting.
My newspaper career ended when I totaled my van, slamming into a hillside near Piasa. This was before mandatory seatbelts, but I was saved by the wall of newspapers behind me. There were two other incidents which have never left me, which haunt me when I drive Route 67 or 16 and see me, the boy. On that same Piasa stretch of Route 16, I was driving east, like a madman, when a redtail hawk swooped down and into the windshield. I remember braking and running back to the creature and crying, its wings snapped and the head and beak hanging loosely by gristle. I felt I had sinned, and I spent hours at Main Street Methodist Church, praying for the soul of the bird. And there was another death, and a life lesson, a truth as kept from the young as the cruel lies about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny: birthdays lead to deathdays.
The small hamlet of Shipman was my favorite stop. The delivery girl who waited for me always offered snacks and she was flat out beautiful, if “old,” at twenty-one, and she never wore a bra and always her breasts fought against her shirt, shot nipples through the fabric of her shirt, and she sat cross legged in loose shorts and she favored pink panties and my boy buzz was jazzed, and more than once I had to cover my lap with my hands..
One day, she flashed a modest engagement ring at me, deflating me, my fantasies, and from then on I learned all about her fiancée, a marine who was due home from Vietnam, at Christmas. She read me a few letters that she always carried with her in a tin box, along with movie ticket stubs, a prom program, and a photo of her and her guy as Valentine’s Day King and Queen, at their church. I knew then I was her brother, but lord, I loved my “sister.”
One rainy Thursday afternoon, I arrived in Shipman, climbed in the back of the truck and dropped two bundles of newspapers to the ground. My goddess came running from her car and greeted me as usual with, “what’s the news?” I sliced the twine off one of the bundles and handed her a paper, and she looked at the front page, and she fainted. She collapsed into the mud, quickly came to and screamed. I held her, mud smearing my tee shirt, those soft breasts pressed against me, and her tears soaked me. She said her fiancée’s name over and over. I glanced at the front page, and there was a black and white photo of a marine in dress uniform, and the headline read, “Local Man killed near Saigon.” It was her boyfriend. I found out later, his mother disapproved of the kids’ relationship and she had not called the girlfriend; I was the messenger.
My friend, my goddess, my sister wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. For two weeks, a young boy met me and took the bundles. I asked about the girl, but he just shrugged.
Then came a Monday when she was back. I was relieved, and callow youth that I was, I probably hoped that things were back to normal. She was pale, and her eyes had dark circles, and there were long scratch wounds on her bandaged arms. She wore a bra, under a short sleeved granny dress. There would be no more snacks, no more lemonade. She never again spoke to me. I tried to hug her and she slapped my face. She had died, in all but name.
And back I went to Main Street Methodist Church and prayed for girl and hawk, for love and breasts, but there was no answer. Pastor Henderson tried to console me with scripture. It did not work.
“I used to love women in crowded slums/Where each day a few new creatures were born/Iron was their blood and flame their brain/I loved I loved the clever tribe of machines/Luxury and beauty are their only spume/That woman was so beautiful/She frightened me.”
This was the great poet Apollinaire, consoling me.