Greg stuffed his canvas sack to near bursting with all sixty-two newspapers.
"You going Greg?" his mother called from the kitchen.
"Yeah, back by dinner," he said and pulled on his Yankees cap. He walked out the door and grabbed the handlebars of his Phantom. He swiped the kickstand with his sneaker and threw his leg over the worn leather seat. The bike rolled down the driveway. He banked to the left and pumped the pedals to pick up gliding speed.
He spotted the first house on Ludlow Street, dug his hand into the sack and hurled the paper at the O'Dell's porch. He imagined he was his favorite Yanks pitcher Whitey Ford. The paper landed with a thwap and an ump yelled 'Stee-rike!' The crowd was on its feet going wild, another Brooklyn Dodger was out.
He almost didn't see the young woman waving to him from the last house on Ludlow. When he realized she was flagging him down, he drove his heel into the pedal and the Phantom screeched to a halt.
"Hi, I'd like to get the paper," she said.
"Ma'am, if you want delivery you need to call the route supervisor. I have his number…" he said, pulling a receipt book from his back pocket.
She bit her fingernail. "Can I just pay you for the papers?"
Greg started to say something, but he got a better look at her and slid the receipt book back into his pocket. "It's twenty-five cents a week, including Saturday."
"I could get it for you now, can you wait?"
"Sure." As she walked away, he watched the bow of her white apron and the curve hugging skirt beneath it retreat into the house. He slid back onto the Phantom's seat and his breath whistled slightly between his teeth. He splayed his legs on each side of the bike to balance the counter-weight of papers resting against his thigh.
She pattered back out of the house in her black pumps holding an alligator skin change purse in one hand and a cookie in the other. She handed him a warm sugar cookie and snapped the purse open to count a dime and three nickels into his hand. Her lilac perfume mingled with the scent of the cookie.
He bit into the cookie and the sugar and butter dissolved on his tongue. "I've got your address but I need your name. The people at the newspaper will want it."
"It's Emma Windsor. But please, call me Emma."
"Okay, Emma," he said. He adjusted his cap then pushed the Phantom into a rolling start. "See you later."
Lying in bed that night he thought about her. He could smell the flowers of her perfume mixed with the cookies as he drifted off. In his dream, they held hands and walked in the park. They stopped under a lilac tree heavy with blossoms where he kissed her. A sweetness filled his mouth when he woke.
The weeks went by and he'd decided to mow lawns for the summer to make some extra money. He wanted to save up for a leather jacket like the one Marlon Brando wore in the Wild One. He imagined how, when he got to college in September with that jacket, women might look at him differently. He asked everybody on the route and a lot of his regulars said yes, including Mr. O'Dell, Mrs. Scarpetti and Emma.
While he worked on her lawn Emma came out with a cola. The gold band on her finger clinked against the bottle as she came down the porch steps. He stopped and sat on the cool concrete. As she sat beside him her knee briefly made contact with his leg.
"Excuse me," she said and slid over.
"Thanks," he said, twisting off the bottle cap.
She smoothed her dress over her lap and looked out at the immaculate lawn. "You did a nice job Greg. I'm lucky if my husband mows it twice a month."
"It's no sweat," he mumbled, "I'm glad you like it." He took another mouthful of cola and noticed the red polish peeking out the front of her sandals. He imagined what it might be like to cradle her foot in his hand and trace his finger along the tips of her toes. He felt an urge to unbuckle the straps of her sandals.
"He's in sales. He's traveled a lot lately for work so I don't see him often. It's hard being alone so much." She sighed.
He drained the bottle and handed her the empty. "I'd better finish this up," he said.
She disappeared into the house and he put the lawn mower back in her garage, picked up his shears and dumped a bag of grass clippings in her garbage bin. He didn't wait to say goodbye; he just tucked the slip in her mailbox and took off.
That night he couldn't stop thinking about her. He imagined her walking out her front door. As she drew closer, the smell of her lilacs clung to him. She handed him a cola, and her fingertips brushed against his hand. She gazed at him while he put the bottle to his lips and drank deeply. He replayed this image of her but it didn't help. A feeling remained that confused him. He didn't think it was love, but he had never been in love.
Two weeks before the end of summer, the chain broke on the Phantom. He took it to the bike shop to be fixed and in the meantime he delivered the papers on foot. Being August, it was damn hot. It was a hundred degrees and muggy in the shade. Without a breeze from the bike the deliveries were unbearable. He grabbed his Yanks cap and pulled it down to shield his eyes.
When he opened the door a swirl of heat circled him and pressed against his skin. His forehead was beaded in sweat by the time he threw six papers. He grabbed the bottom of his tee shirt and swabbed his face. Mrs. Scarpetti was outside in her shapeless sack of a house dress watering a brown splotch on her lawn when he walked up and handed her the paper.
She tucked it under her arm. "You must be thirsty, poor boy. Just look at you, you're drenched. Take a drink." He cupped his hands beneath the hose and took a mouthful of the cool but metallic tasting water.
As he approached Emma's house, he saw her draped on a lounge chair taking in the sun. Her sandals sat in the grass nearby. She had on sunglasses and a blue and white pinstripe sundress that didn't make him think of the Yankees.
"Hi Greg, I was just going to get a cola, would you like one?"
She got up and walked across the lawn, then turned to him, "Do you want to come in and get out of the heat for a few minutes?"
His blood pounded a drumbeat in his temples. "Are you sure?"
"Don't be silly, it's too hot out here." She held the screen door open for him. "Come on."
As he went through the door he took off his cap and followed her into the kitchen. He slipped the sack of papers off his shoulder; they slumped onto the linoleum floor and he set the cap on top. He folded his arms and leaned forward on the laminated kitchen tabletop. It was soothing. He watched her pull the big chrome handle on the refrigerator door and imagined what it might be like to live in this house with her.
Emma took two bottles of cola out and popped the scalloped tin caps off. She sat down next to him and handed him one. She began to sip from the other, then held the bottle up to her forehead and sighed. "Did you ever notice, just when life should be easy, you struggle the most?"
"I never thought about it," he said, and brushed off droplets of moisture forming on his bottle. "But I know it's easy to be around you." He felt his cheeks burn.
She smiled at him in a girlish way; she wasn't more than a half a dozen years older than him. "You're sweet Greg, I like your company. I bet you have a lot of girls at school after you."
He shook his head. "I'm not interested in them." He scuffed his sneaker against the leg of the table. He couldn't look at her.
She reached out and rested her hand on his arm. "Why?"
The touch of her hand set off a reaction in him. Before he realized what he was doing, he grabbed her from her chair and pulled her to him. He shook with adrenaline. He felt every rimple in her seersucker sundress as his hand slid across her back. He kissed her hard, just as he did in his dream.
Her body went limp in his grasp and her hands hung slack at her sides. She didn't stop kissing him, but she wasn't responding in the way he imagined. When he pulled back and looked at her face he could see she was stunned.
"I'm sorry, I don't know what I…" he said, helping her back into the kitchen chair. He knelt by her bare feet and looked up at her, waiting for her to say something. He wanted her to tell him it was all right, that she wanted this as much as he did.
She sat unmoving and stared at the wall. Eventually she smoothed her dress over her lap and absently patted her hair. Her hand trembled slightly. She smoothed her dress again.
"Emma, are you alright?"
"Greg, I think you should go."
"Please, just tell me you're okay. I didn't mean to…"
"We can't do this Greg."
He grabbed the sack of papers and walked out. He jogged back to his house and bolted up the stairs to his room. He collapsed onto his pillow and put his hands over his eyes. As his hand nestled against his hair he realized he forgot his Yanks cap. The thought of the cap sitting on Emma's kitchen floor horrified him. It was evidence of the terrible thing he'd done. How could he have been so stupid?
There was a knock at his bedroom door.
"Greg, you're home already? Are you alright?" his mother said and opened the door.
"Mom, I just need to rest a minute. The heat got to me."
"You look pale, go wash up."
He got up and walked into the hallway. "I've got to finish my route."
She nudged him towards the bathroom. "You push yourself too hard. You have to listen to what your body is telling you." She went downstairs.
He walked into the bathroom to splash his face and then went back to his room and fell into an exhausted sleep. When he woke he took the remaining papers and headed back outside.
The sky was slate blue and the first star of the night was visible. The street lights winked on as he made his way along the empty sidewalk to the last houses. All the children playing stick-ball and hopscotch in the street a few hours before were shepherded inside by their mothers. The muffled sound of a telephone rang in a distant kitchen. Lightening bugs flashed their iridescent amber signals and looked for mates among the manicured suburban shrubbery.
He walked along Ludlow to Emma's and sat on the curb across from her house. There was a Buick convertible parked in the driveway. He could see the intermittent glow of a television behind the sheer curtains in the living room. The porch light was off but even in the dark he could see the perfect square edge of her lawn. He stared at the brick colonial with its white shutters neatly aligned.
The street light near him attracted a few moths. They circled around the lamp, flew out of range and then he heard the plink of their bodies smacking into the thick glass. He looked up, but it wasn't the moths that held his attention.
In the second floor window he saw something sitting on the window's sill. He focused until he could see the window frame more clearly and his eyes traced the arc of his Yankees cap.
In September Greg abandoned his idea of buying a leather jacket. Instead he spent his earnings on a cardigan, polo shirt and brown loafers. He went off to college and immersed himself in poetry, history, and biology.
Each night, he would sit in a chair near his dormitory window and read by the light of the street lamp outside. It was an old fashioned thing, maybe originally lit with gas, a relic from a forgotten age. Sometimes moths would circle around it, drawn to the light. And when he heard the plink of their bodies hurled against the glass, a pang of longing welled up in him, unfathomable and immense.
BIO: Carol Deminski's stories appear or are forthcoming in Word Riot, PANK, Metazen, Dogzplot, Foundling Review, Prick of the Spindle and elsewhere. Her blog is http://cdeminski.wordpress.com. She lives and writes in Jersey City, NJ, just not always in that order.