Friday, October 30, 2009

The Paperboy, 5 (Jobs v. Life)

It's strange: looking back on it, my memories of the paper route end, in my mind, with Jim killing himself, even though I'm sure that the two endings did not coincide. I'm positive that they didn't coincide because I worked on the paper route until I got my second job, and I didn't get a second job until after I was 16 and my dad ruled that I could no longer do the paper route because I was now 16 and could work.

But in my mind, the two ended at the same time: Jim's life and my paper route.

We went over to Jim's house that night, my Mom and I and maybe my Dad. Dad might have been included, but I can't remember and I'm divided on whether he would have gone or not. On the side of "Dad went with us," is the idea that this was a big deal in our neighborhood, and a big deal for me, but memories of growing up in Hartland are always mixed in with not only thoughts of what it meant for me, but also what it meant for us and the neighbors and what people would think. My parents were obsessed with what people would think. When I fought with my brothers, or yelled at my parents, or got in trouble with the law, my parents would ask what would people think? They were friends or at least acquaintances with almost everyone on our block: we had dinner at times with the Sommerfeldts and talked with the Barquists next door, until they divorced and the Riedis moved into their house and put a turtle pen in the backyard and took down Mr. Barquist's giant radio antenna. My sister Katie played with the girl across the street and the Meyers, whose son Marty was the greatest athlete of our generation (in our suburb, at least), lived in the cul de sac just around the corner. We knew the Wizners and their jobs: She, a prison guard or cop or something, he a blind man, that being all we needed to know. We disapproved, for some reason, of the Hug's lifestyle, two doors down, talking about Jim being allowed to eat pizza for breakfast.

Whenever anything happened, from a fight among brothers to a story in the Lake Country Reporter, the twice-weekly local paper, a major question (if it was about us) was what will people think? A major question (if it was about others) was what do we think?

I don't really care, anymore, what my neighbors think. Not much, anyway. I don't even know many of my neighbors. I've lived on my street for 7 years now, and I know the names of exactly three people around us: Sally, our next-door neighbor, whose last name I don't know, and Karl and Terry on the other side, who I constantly refer to by using the first name of their son, who's best friends with The Boy. Otherwise, I have nicknames for the remaining few I recognize: The Professor. Mrs. Professor. (Neither The Professor nor his son, who lives on the same block and who I call Professor, Jr., are actually professors.) Beyond that, I don't know my neighbors and I don't want to know my neighbors.

At the last place we lived, we had a neighbor named Frank who had a little boy about The Boy's age. I would come home and want to sit in the backyard and have a cup of coffee, maybe read the paper. Frank would see me, and would come over and talk, thereby interrupting my paper reading and forcing me to make small talk with him, until I could find an excuse to go inside. Because I knew my neighbor, Frank, there were dozens of beautiful summer nights that I spend sitting inside at our kitchen table, looking longingly at.

It's fine with me if I don't know my neighbors, because then I can't get roped into conversations with them when I go out to get the paper, now, the paper that comes at 4:30 in the morning and sits there in its plastic wrap on my driveway among the leaves I only rake once a year, in the spring, doing so because I don't care what people think, I only care that I don't want to spend my weekends raking. I don't have to worry about my neighbors seeing Oldest's name in the local paper's police reports section for speeding, or, once, for underage drinking, because I don't know if they know my name or what I do, and I don't know that they'd associate Oldest with me and Sweetie. It makes life easier.

Dad might have gone with us to Jim's house -- the house that was no longer Jim's - -because it was a big event about which neighbors would think, but he might not have gone because there would still have been Matt and Katie at home, and Katie would have been a toddler. My parents almost certainly would not have brought a toddler to a crime scene, or to the closest thing to a crime scene Hartridge would see for decades. (Jim's suicide would not make news, so far as I knew back then. Hartridge, our subdivision in Hartland, did not make it into the biggest paper anyone read back then, the Milwaukee Journal that I delivered every day, all that often. Two notable occasions that Hartridge did make the Milwaukee Journal were when former Green Bay Packer Mark Chmura, who lived in Hartridge long after I did not, was accused of sexual assault, and when I had a going away party for my friend Bob and over forty people got arrested by the police for underage drinking and taken down to the police station.)

(And, during the many lectures and punishments stemming from that, I was frequently asked what the neighbors would think. But we didn't plan on it being that big, and we didn't plan on it making the papers, certainly, and we didn't plan on having the party the same day as the Milwaukee Journal ran a story on underage drinking in the suburbs and how it was out-of-control, making the news of the busted party very timely.)

Dad also didn't go to things, when I was a kid. Dads, as a rule, didn't go to things. They coached teams, and they lectured and did yardwork, but they didn't go to parent-teacher conferences or help with your college application or meet with your friend's parents or any of the things that I do nowadays. Dads back then worked, and showed up at school-related functions like the annual Christmas concert for 5th graders, wearing slacks and a shirt and tie that you saw them wear only on special occasions, like the Christmas concert, and Christmas. Moms were the ones that were involved, who did back-to-school shopping and made sure projects got done and reminded you about Cub Scout meetings (and then who yelled at you when you forgot to tell everyone the Cub Scout meeting was cancelled, and Danny came home with you on the bus and Mom had to drive him home, but Danny's mom wouldn't be home for a while, so Danny had to hang out with us while Mom tried to boil dinner.)

I'll go ahead and say that Dad didn't go with us to Jim's. I don't know why we went to Jim's house. I didn't get anything out of it. I didn't want to see his house, and didn't want anything to form concrete memories in my mind of that day, or that night, but I went because it was decided that we should go over there, it being the "right thing to do" or something the neighbors would think was good, or something. I don't know who ever decided that it's important, when someone dies, to get over there and talk to the people left behind as fast as possible. After Jim, I haven't yet had anyone superclose to me die yet -- just grandparents or more distant-- so I'm not an expert on it, but when bad things happen to me, the last thing I want is a bunch of people hanging around and talking to me. Then again, that's always the last thing I want, regardless of whether it's bad things, or good things, or no things, that are happening to me, so I may not be the ideal test subject for this.

When I see people on the news, though, who have had something bad happen, and when I hear of others who have had someone close to them die, I only have my own experiences and my own thoughts to gauge them against, and that night when we went to Jim's, I didn't want to see anyone or talk to anyone, especially not immediately after I'd heard it happened. I wanted time to think it through, to process it, to try to fit this new and strange and alarming occurrence into my life: People can die, I'd known, abstractly and once, concretely, as my grandma had died by then. People close to me can die, I'd now discovered, and they can die hours after you last saw them. When you'd blown them off. And they can do it themselves. That's the kind of information that needs to be mulled over, sorted out. The new hole in your life that is there but which you don't really realize is there, the hole created by a person's absence, needs to be assessed and contemplated, and that can't happen until you realize that the person is not with you anymore. The hole created by Jim was there already as we drove over to his house, but I hadn't realized it yet because that night wasn't a night that I'd expected to be talking to or about Jim.

My ordinary life was being jostled around and there were cracks and fissures in it, gaps in my existence that needed to be filled in or patched over, and we ended up at Jim's house before I could even know all that. What I knew then was I don't want to go over there, but I had to, because my Mom made me. What I know now is that it would have been better to not go, to not have any actual memories installed of that night, to just have speculation and imagination and second-hand information, so that eventually the memories would fade away and in their place would be something else, something about flag football in the 8th grade or a girl I liked sophomore year or more memories of Washington.

Imagination and ideas and second-hand news are easily tossed out by the mind. Over the course of any given day, I can have a million different ideas, for a song or story or an invention like the Toy Scoop, the Steam Shovel-Shaped Toy Box with the bottom that opens up to let you scoop up the toys, then close the bottom and they're in the box, cleaned up easier than ever. No more bending over to pick up all those blocks, no more chasing balls around on your hands and knees. With the Toy Scoop's molded plastic and easy leverage action, you'll just Open, Scoop, and Store! The Toy Scoop (TM): Makes clean up easy for parents and fun for kids. I can have all those thoughts flit through my head and they're transient and gone. If I don't make an effort to store them by writing them down or photographing them or telling Sweetie or putting them on a blog, they may disappear for weeks, months, years, or forever, even: I might have had phenomenal ideas when I was 16 that I can't even remember now.

Memories are different. Nobody can control what experiences get stored in their mind. I sit every morning and try to remember three good things that happened to me the day before, and each morning I'm amazed at what pops into my head from the previous 24 hours. If pizza was involved in the prior day, it's always the first thing. Sometimes, I can only think of how terrible the traffic was, and I have to work at remembering what I had for dinner. Sometimes, I sit there and think what was it that was so funny last night that I wanted to remember for today, something so funny that as I was sitting through it I thought: I've got to remember this for the blog tomorrow?

And I can't remember the Funny Thing, but I can remember that in the middle of the night, it was exactly 2:17 when I got up and had to console Mr F, who had woken up crying, and I can remember that the DVD I almost stepped on in doing that was the first season of Fraggle Rock, episodes 1-3.

But some things you know will stick in your memory, and I knew as I stood outside Jim's house and saw the police lights flashing, red on the light-blue one story house with the white garage door, that I would not forget how that looked, police lights on a house I'd played Dungeons & Dragons in, police cars parked in that driveway not because someone got a speeding ticket but because someone was dead.

We went inside, and I saw Jim's mom, a large woman with long black hair. I think she was crying, but I can't remember that. I remember looking around the living room and seeing the floor where we'd spread out the games and dice and character sheets, and seeing the nice couch that we never sat on (every house, back then, had a room that nobody used except for special occasions. That's another thing I've done away with: the room that's never used. We just go ahead and use all the rooms we've got, and all the furniture we've got.) I remember Jim's little sister, Merry, most of all. She was sitting and watching TV. Merry was younger than Jim, maybe 5 or 10 years, I'm not sure. Younger enough that we never included her in anything we did and she was generally a source of irritation to us.

As my Mom talked with Jim's mom and the police did whatever police do, as I tried not to imagine what Jim's room, where he'd done it, looked like -- something I did, successfully, wiping that image from my brain so well that I can't remember any details about Jim's room now, or about his house, beyond the sights I saw that night -- I tried not to focus on Merry but I couldn't help it. I got more and more upset with her because she was watching TV and laughing, looking around at others in the room and laughing about something on TV.

I realize, now, that probably nobody had told her what had happened, that she was too young to really know what was going on and that it wasn't in any way her fault that she was not reacting the way I wanted her to, but that's the thing about memories: You can't control how they get fixed and what gets fixed. So I remember, about Jim and his house, above everything else, the way the police lights looked on the outside of the house, the way the living room looked with no Jim in it but with my Mom and Jim's mom and me, and the way Merry looked, in the other room, watching TV and laughing, and I remember thinking how wrong it all was.

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