his paper route. People used to invite us into their homes, offer us sandwiches. They paid Dave with thin envelopes and offers of Pepsi or milk.
Here and there, he’d throw me a few bucks for helping out. But the real
perk came with the trust of Dave’s customers.
Once, while he was in another room with this old woman, I flipped
through her hallway desk. I hadn’t intended to take anything, but there
was an impossibly tiny porcelain baby’s head. It was the size of a marble
and colorful, and I put it in my pocket. I’d started doing this at all the
houses. I’d steal ballpoint pens or coins left on the counter or candy-dish
Werther’s and Tootsie Rolls. I think Dave knew I was doing it, but he
never asked, and I never told. We traveled his routes. He collected debts.
I stole. And when we finished, he took his money home, checked in with
his parents, and I went with him.
I was happy at Dave’s.
I used to think his family was rich. Not in the size of their house
but in the things they had: two cars, a van, a fully packed refrigerator,
snacks in the cabinets; a computer, two La-Z-Boy recliners, televisions
in four different rooms; and unlike ours, their walls were decorated with
family and school pictures. Anything we’d had hanging on our walls
had burned up when the first house burned down. We didn’t have stuff
stored in spare rooms, boxes filled with memories. We had a television,
a radio; we had a glass-door chest where my mother carefully placed
plastic plates; she called it the “china cabinet.”
Stuff, no matter how random, equaled class. I wouldn’t have said that
then, or even thought it, but I must’ve felt it—that invisible connection
between things and a better life, one with consistency, even happiness.
That powerful feeling of claiming, This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.
I remember Dave’s dad had this penny jar at the top of their steps. It
was a giant five-gallon jug spilling pennies from the mouth. The thing
drove me crazy. I imagined them finding out that I was a coin collector
and giving it to me.
“Well, T-bone,” they’d smile, “you’re a collector now. It’s time for you
to take this jug and call it your own.”
When that didn’t happen, I imagined taking it. Sneaking into their
house when no one was home. Spilling it like gold over my bedroom
floor and sifting for hours until I found every year I needed to fill my
book. But they were too good to take from.
So at dark, after I’d waited as long as I could before I had to leave,
I’d walk home alone, flipping the day’s earnings in my pocket, rolling