Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Paperboy, 4: Life is like a canyon. (Jobs vs. Life, 4)

Life is what happens when you're not working... and this is part 4 of my ongoing attempt to explain my life by the work I've done. Click here for the Table of Contents.

Looking back from the perspective of nearly three decades, I know one thing for sure: I didn't make Jim kill himself. And looking back from that same perspective, I'm less certain, now, that my dad didn't negotiate away cul de sacs from our route because of jealousy.

There were two little courts that were offshoots from Penbrook Way, and one of those courts didn't really have to be negotiated away. The first one, Canterbury Circle, was a beast of a hill, the second-highest hill in Hartridge, steep and short and with only about ten houses on it, making it not worth our while (I supposed) to have to deliver up and down that street; in exchange for a couple bucks a week, we'd be walking, biking, or driving up and down that hill, and in the winter it would be terrible.

That court, which my dad opted out of my paper route when I was a kid, would become important later on in my teen years, though, when I would briefly date a girl named Lara. Lara lived with her mother in Canterbury Circle, and when I dated her, for a few months, I'd walk, or bike, or drive, up that circle, and each time I did, I'd think about how just a few years earlier I'd blithely ridden my bike past that hill each day, never having to worry about making it up that steep incline. I would only go into Canterbury Circle, as it turns out, about 5 times. The first was on Superbowl Sunday, when I remember watching the game with Lara at her house. The game was the Bengals-vs-49ers football game, and afterwards we watched a show I'd never heard of before, called The Simpsons. I wasn't a fan. I also wasn't a big fan of football, but I was a big fan of having a girlfriend, and wanted to hang out with her.

The last time I went up Canterbury Circle was not long afterwards, when I found out that Lara had cheated on me at a party, and we broke up. I went to drop off some stuff of hers that she'd given me. I don't recall what I dropped off, although I for some reason think that there was a poster in there. I do recall Lara being tearful and telling me she was sorry and that she wanted to talk. But I didn't want to talk and left the stuff and left her house and never went up Canterbury Circle again.

The paper route, and those courts, were maybe inextricably intertwined with lost love and sadness and heartbreak, because I later found out that the other court, Windsor Circle, was home to a family that had a couple of connections to our family. The first connection was that their son, Jimmy, was friends with my brother, Matt, for at least a little while. Jimmy was a funny-looking kid, too short and with a too-big head and weird hair: It was too bushy and too thick and too-bowl-cut, even for the seventies. His hair looked like what the result would be if Nicholas from "Eight Is Enough" had fed his hair steroids and died it black.

Jimmy and Matt were friends for only a short time, but Jimmy's parents were never friends, or not good friends, with our parents, and I only much later found out why: Jimmy's dad, Jack, had been briefly (?) engaged to my mom before my mom was engaged to my dad.

I don't know much about my mom and dad's lives before I came into them, and I don't really know much about their lives after I came into them, either, except for the parts that involved me, which I paid attention to because I was in them. But I never figured that my mom and dad had lives outside of their lives with each other. My understanding, such as it is, of how they came together was that my dad worked in the same place as my mom worked, a bakery, probably, and they got to know each other and then got engaged and then had kids. That was all I needed to know.

Then I learned that Mom had been engaged to someone else before Dad, and that was a strange thing to think of, that our family almost wasn't, that Mom knew someone well enough to have promised to marry him, and that the someone-Mom-promised-to-marry wasn't Dad. And, that Mom would promise to marry someone and then not marry him.

That was as far as the story got. That was all I ever found out about it, and I've never gone back and asked. The reasons I never went back and asked are pretty simple, and most of them boil down to It wasn't my life and so I didn' t really care about it. It's not like finding out that Mom was engaged sent me into a Wonder-Years like reverie about how people are never who you really think they are or had a cosmic impact on me. I'm suspicious of people who have cosmic-impacting moments, anyway, especially when the cosmic-impact moments are so obvious. It's obvious, isn't it, that finding out something like that should have a cosmic impact on you? Finding out your Mom had a whole life before she knew your dad and that she was actually engaged to someone else, that you might have had a different dad if things had worked out differently, that instead of being a fat kid with a lazy eye running a paper route, you might have been a short kid with a big head who was no good at Little League... that kind of thing should have a cosmic impact and send you reeling and alter your perceptions of life and more.

But that kind of thing, I think, happens only in movies and to overly-dramatic people. People who want to have cosmic-impact moments will look at moments like that and mine them for their significance and lean on them their whole lives: "I was happy, doctor, before I found out that Mom used to be engaged to someone else. From then on, I couldn't escape the idea that perhaps I had been fated to have a different life."

I don't do that, and I didn't do that. The knowledge that Mom used to be engaged to someone else was a momentary surprise that I then put aside and didn't worry about anymore, especially after Matt stopped being friends with Jimmy and it never really came up anymore. I never thought much about it at all, other than periodically to drive by that street (once I was no longer doing the paper route) and wonder if Jimmy's parents still lived there, and then, three decades later, to sit down and start thinking about the paper route and how it afffected my outlook on life and suddenly realize that maybe Dad had decided he didn't want us to deliver papers to that street because he didn't want us delivering papers to Mom's former fiance.

I don't like to think that about my Dad, who I have a great deal of respect for, but over time we get to view our parents in a different light, when we stop paying so much attention to our own lives and start paying, instead, attention to how other people affected our own lives, and then we have a chance to re-assess things, from that different viewpoint. Like looking at the Grand Canyon from the north side, or from halfway down the path, or from the bottom, the same vast expanse can seem different and present different challenges and ideas depending on where you are in life.

That different view point -- me standing on the north side, now, or having climbed out of the Grand Canyon, maybe -- also tells me that I wasn't actually responsible for my friend, Jim, killing himself.

Jim was one of my best friends in grade school. He lived only a few blocks away -- if I took the direct route, through the baseball diamond and past the park, rather than taking the road -- and we shared a lot of the same interests in 8th grade, those interests being mostly Hitchhiker's Guide books and Dungeons & Dragons, and also of being kind of geeky, kind of uncool, kind-of-on-the-outside, kids.

I have a picture, somewhere, of Jim and one of my other friends, Tom, taken at Great America, on a trip we got to take for being "Students of the Quarter" at Hartland Elementary. "Students of the Quarter" got that award for perfect attendance. That was it. If we didn't miss a day of school in the quarter, we got an award, and if you got a couple of those awards you got to go on a year-end trip to Six Flags' Great America amusement park.

Nowadays, the kids just go there anyway, and call it a field trip. Last year, The Boy went with his science class, purportedly to do experiments, although I don't think The Boy even took a worksheet with him. My field trips were always for educational purposes, and almost always involved trips to the Octagon House (a house that was shaped like an octagon, and was built in the way olden days [before 2002] and which taught us the important life lesson that in the old days, pioneers didn't have zoning codes and deed restrictions) and the Milwaukee Public Museum, where we'd walk through "The Streets of Old Milwaukee" and then go see the Cowboys & Indians diorama where you could press a button and make the rattlesnake's rattles go, and then we'd all gather in the cafeteria and have the teachers get our bag lunches out of the coolers where we'd packed them.

The Great America Student of the Quarter trip wasn't like that. It wasn't meant to be educational at all; it was a reward for making it to school every day. (I think that they let us out of school for the day to go on the trip, which makes the whole thing very ironic.)

In the picture, Jim and Tom are standing next to Bugs Bunny, arms around him, smiling. Tom has a windbreaker and slacks on and brought a duffel bag with him. Jim is wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Bugs Bunny has a fancy red-white--and-blue shirt. The picture to me emphasizes just what dorks we all were: at a time when other kids were starting to mess around with girls and listen to Led Zeppelin and otherwise prepare for high school, we were at an amusement park, with duffel bags, taking pictures of each other with Bugs Bunny.

I'd say that we got the last laugh, and went on to great success, but that goes without saying. Everyone knows that the cool kids in high school ended up being the losers in life. Except for my brother Matt, who was a cool kid in high school and now has a very successful career and lives in Florida. And except for his friend Andy, who was a cool kid and who got all the girls and who is now a senior engineer of some sort and probably makes a zillion dollars and...

I'm not even going to go on. All the cool kids from my graduating class are losers, and you know who you are.

Jim and I would get together from time to time and play Dungeons and Dragons, and other games. He had a game I remember loving, "The Attack of the Awful Green Things From Outer Space," a board game that consisted mostly of paper cutouts and other cheap things, but which was incredibly awesome to play, and only Jim had it. We'd play D&D together, and sometimes go to movies, or take trips to Great America because we both had perfect attendance.

Jim was also on my team in football every day. We played football, at Hartland Elementary, every single day that we had outside recess. It was typically a three-on-three game. On one side were Mark and Glenn and a third guy I can never recall. On our side were me and Jim and Kevin, the kid with no thumb. We typically lost, because I was a fat kid with a lazy eye, Kevin was fast but little and had no thumb, and Jim was just an average kid. Mark, on the other hand was big and strong and Glenn was fast and strong and they beat us all the time. But we always divided up the teams that way.

EDIT: UPDATE: My old, and great, friend Fred Grabow pointed out to me that he was the sixth man. Look Fred up here, and thank him for serving his country on your behalf.

The last time I saw Jim on the day he killed himself is etched in my memory far more clearly than those football games. I ran into him on my paper route. I was turning the corner from Oxford onto Penbrook, about to walk up the hill and start on the final leg of my route. Jim was coming down Penbrook, having finished his paper route for the day and having a two-block walk back to his house.

"Hey," he said to me. I remember that he stood the way he always did, arms at his sides, kind of limp. Jim never seemed very energetic, and that day was no different.

"Hi," I said.

"What's going on?" he said.

"Nothing," I told him. I didn't ask him what was going on with him, but he told me anyway, after a second or two.

"My parents are getting divorced," he said.

I didn't know what to say about that. I didn't know any kids whose parents had divorced at that time. Most kids hadn't had their parents divorce. Some kids in my neighborhood had weird families. There was the other Jim, Jim Hug, just two doors down, who had just his mom and his grandfather in his house,. I didn't know what happened to his dad, but I did know that my parents thought Jim's grandfather had illegally mowed his yard further and further back into the field behind all our houses, effectively enlarging his yard all the way back to the Hickory Nut Tree that served as the boundary to The Canyon, the other boundary being The Pine Tree. Fred, our next door neighbor, had two parents but we never saw his dad because his dad was blind. Glenn, who lived not far from Jim, had his grandparents living in the other side of their duplex, and that was weird, too. But I didn't know anyone, at the time, whose parents were divorced (although mine had threatened it a couple of times.)

"Oh," I said.

We stood there a second longer.

Jim said "Want to come over later?"

I didn't feel like it, so I lied to him: "No. I can't," I told him, without specifying why I couldn't.

"Okay," he said.

"See you tomorrow," I said and he waved. I turned right and walked up the hill, he turned right and walked towards his house and I went on with my paper route.

That night, while I was sitting in our family room in the orange chair back away from the TV, reading comic books, my mom answered the phone and made those kinds of noises that parents make when the news they've got is shocking and disturbing.

I don't remember, now, how, exactly, they broke the news to me. I just know that somehow, somebody told me that Jim had gone home that night, put a shotgun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

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