A Paper Round Before The World Wakes Up

The sun is just beginning to rise in pale orange and lavender streaks over the river mist. Two small dogs of indeterminate breed, possibly part harbor rat, yap at us from the upstairs balcony of a peeling duplex.

A squad car cruises by, and a weary officer barely lifts his palm from the steering wheel. It's an acknowledgment, but you couldn't quite call it a wave.

My son, Nick, and I don't talk much. I'm musing, and he's concentrating on who wants their paper delivered to what door, slot, or mailbox.

''Any messages on your route slip?'' I ask.

''One start. The Rowens are back.''

Until my son became one, I never thought about paper carriers unless my paper was wet or late, or the holidays came along and it was time to tip. I never realized how much there is to the job, and how much about life and work one can learn from such a simple task.

I started going with my son for his early Saturday--morning deliveries because the streets are deserted, and I was concerned for his safety.

Now, I think I'd go with him anyway. It's nice to be alone with this, my intense middle child. My husband and I live a family-centered life, perhaps too much so, but it is still surprisingly rare for me to spend time with just one of our three children.

When Nick and I get up before dawn and walk the quiet, hilly street of our old mixed business-residential neighborhood, we enter a world that disappears when the sun is fully up and people start going about the business of the day. The air smells good. It's quiet and just eerie enough to be a bit exciting.

Vintage 1920s two-story houses with bedrooms suitable for writing a letter or having a good cry sit close together on tiny lawns. The streets are narrow here, and parked cars line both sides, so that driving between them is like threading a needle. There are few driveways and fewer garages.

A lonesome whistle sounds, and we try to decide if it's a barge or a train. A nurse comes home from a night shift at the nearby hospital, and I wonder if she will be able to go to bed, or will need to stay up to take care of kids who are just wandering downstairs, still warm and heavy-limbed from sleep, wanting cereal and cartoons.

Nick delivers to the ramshackle apartment house where a man has requested that his paper be put in a hidden spot so it won't get stolen; to the trio of thrifty pensioners who rotate the paper; to the tidy, duck-and-heart-bedecked house where the owner has taken one too many spins through a country accents store.

One of my favorite stops is Jack's Chicken Palace, a takeout restaurant with a huge, menacing hen perched on the roof. At this time of the new day, there is only a faint echo of the mouth-watering smell that will blast out later, weakening my resolve to succumb to fewer fast-food dinners and to plan more home-cooked meals.

When we moved to this neighborhood several years ago, my younger son was terrified of ''the mean rooster'' and closed his eyes tightly when we drove by Jack's.

Nick and I laugh about that. Funny what scares little kids. With Nick, it was fog.

My other favorite stops are the convent and the rectory, which to people of our strong Protestant tradition, carry a slight but delicious air of mystery.

Besides learning how to balance a checkbook, collect money, pay his bill, and save and spend what he earns, my son is learning about human nature. He knows who pays promptly and who doesn't. He knows the lonely folks who watch for him because the delivery of the paper or collection for it is a major event of the day.

He knows who smiles, who scowls, who doesn't see him at all except as part of the landscape, a generic kid.

I, too, notice things I would never see in the car: the places where the pavement buckles, the homes where someone is ''house proud,'' and those where the homeowner must be more engaged by other things.

As we walk along in companionable quiet, my writer's mind toys with fictional possibilities: A paper boy on his daily route sees ominous things that no one else sees. They begin to add up to a crime, and no one believes him. ''Rear Window'' from a younger, ambulatory point of view. Then, mentally, I write the first sentence of what I decide will be a small jewel of a short story.

I don't discuss these possibilities with my son. Quick, sensitive, and a good listener, he would probably give me good ideas, but I have learned that each story comes with one urge to tell it. If I talk it, I will never write it.

But perhaps it is as well. My stories are always exquisite, until I write them.

No doubt the novelty of doing a paper route will wear off. Within several months of Saturdays, Nick will have a driver's license, a girlfriend, and a more lucrative job that allows him to sleep in.

Before long, getting up early to go with him will begin to seem like one more chore to me. But for now, as the sun rises over the river and I walk beside this silent, beloved stranger who is suddenly taller than I am, Saturday mornings are wonderful.

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