All The Best, Your Paperboy

by Eric Elmer

"Lloyd! Will you get the paper?"

Lloyd went to get the newspaper for Ma. Ma wasn't getting around so well today. She sat in the maroon easy chair with her swollen feet up on pillows. Lately her thing was to inhale the steam from her tea, as she was now doing, eyes closed, nostrils flaring wide.

Lloyd put his shoes on. The paper, if it hadn't been thrown into dog shit, would be on the far side of the lawn. It hadn't landed anywhere near the porch in years. Sure enough, today was no exception. The damn thing was so far from the house that Lloyd had to check to make sure it wasn't Mr. Stanley's.

"Lloyd!"

Even from the street he could hear her. Every day it sounded more and more like she was barking at him, like a damn animal. She was somehow able to whine and sound angry in the same syllable.

"Lloyd!"

He pushed the door open before she could bark again. "Geez, Ma, what is it?"

"Bring me more tea with that paper!"

"How about "Please bring me more tea, Lloyd?""

She said nothing. She normally chose not to hear his commentary.

He got the tea pot and carried it into the dingy living room. Pictures of himself as a child and pictures of his father covered the walls, something he swore he would never get used to. Since the old man had died Lloyd had been forced to see more of him than ever. If it wasn't for the "Wizard of Oz" collector plates, Lloyd figured the house would look like an exclusive shrine to the dead old drunk.

Ma looked up from her steam. Her gray hair was whipped into a frenzied fluff that bothered Lloyd at the same time it made him laugh. She looked like a helpless clown.

"Thank you, Lloyd."

They opened the paper and spread it out on the beaten coffee table. Ma swooped in and pulled the pieces she wanted away before Lloyd could even unfold the sports section. He never read much but the box scores, but the way she fought for her favorites like Lloyd was going to take them and piss on them or something irritated him.

"Here's the Classifieds, Lloyd."

"Don't start with it Ma, I've got a job."

"That's no kind of a job. It's no kind of money, either."

Lloyd tended bar on Saturday and Sunday nights for a friend who owned the place. With good tips, he cleared two hundred a week. By Friday, he was invariably broke. It wasn't the asking Ma for money that bothered him as much as the way she seemed to smile when as she passed him a ten or a twenty. Like she'd heard a good joke earlier in the day and was just remembering the punchline.

"It lets me spend my weeks with you, Ma. We get by."

Sometimes she bought that, sometimes she didn't.

"You hardly spend any time with me, Lloyd. After we read the paper together you're out of here."

Lloyd said nothing. She was in one of those moods.

"Really, Lloyd. Do you have to go out to Venice today?"

Lloyd hung out with a guy who lived in Venice Beach and sold marijuana. Besides the free samples, the other customers were to Lloyd the height of entertainment. He watched "COPS" on television a lot, too, but hanging out at the beach was almost better than that.

"I gotta go, Ma. I'm helping Larry move."

"He just moved last month! On Halloween!"

"Well, one of his neighbors set their apartment on fire. Smoke damage, you know? He has to move again. Try and have a little compassion for the guy, huh?"

"I just wish you would find another job."

"That has nothing to do with Larry, Ma."

Ma poured more tea into her Wheel of Fortune coffee cup.

Lloyd read the paper for a few minutes and then got up to get his jacket. He knew from ten years of experience living alone with Ma that keeping his mouth shut was the best way to avoid a scene. Since the old man had died, three days after Lloyd's high school graduation, Ma just needed to hear herself tell someone what to do.

"Lloyd!"

He peeked around the corner from the coat closet. "What now?!"

Ma leaned forward and held something out to him. "Look at what we got!"

Lloyd wearily crossed the room and took the paper from her hand. It was a Christmas card. Printed on Xerox paper, black and white, more crumpled than folded. It read, "All the Best Wishes for a Happy Holiday Season, From Your Paperboy." He laughed.

"Isn't that nice?" said Ma.

"What a joke."

Ma frowned. "What do you mean?"

Lloyd didn't answer. He crumpled the card and tossed it into the empty fireplace.

"Lloyd! Why did you do that?"

"That prick has the nerve to send that! Now I've seen it all. Gotta go, Ma."

Ma settled back into her chair. She crossed her arms into the folds of her pink housedress. "Don't use crude language around me, Lloyd."

"Okay, Ma," He turned towards the door.

"And pick up some envelopes for me! While you're out!" Ma barked.

"What for?"

"I'm gonna leave the paperboy a little something next week. For Christmas."

"What?!" said Lloyd.

"He took the time to send a card. That's rare."

She was smiling sweetly.

Lloyd could feel himself getting angry. He remembered when his father would get angry. He would start slow and build up. Apparently it was genetic. "You are out of your mind."

"Lloyd! Who do you think you're talking to?" She glared at him.

He let it out.

"He took the time to send a card? That's what you're gonna reward him for? What about all the days he throws the paper into a bush or into Stanley's yard? Or doesn't even bother to give us a paper?!?"

She narrowed her eyes and lips. He got angrier. Like Dad.

"You think this 'paperboy' is a kid? He's got, like, a bike and he gets up early to work real hard? I've seen him! He's a fat old lump in a dirty station wagon! Probably still up from drinking the night before! You think he goes to school and studies after delivering your paper? He probably goes home, takes a dump, and falls into bed! Really, Ma! You are so dumb sometimes!"

Lloyd's mouth hung open. Ma would not look away, no matter how angry he got. That, too, was as it was with Dad.

"It's a hard job," she said, quietly. "He gets it here in bad weather."

"This is California, for God's sake! What kind of bad weather are you talking about?"

She continued to stare at him, right into his face.

"You're gonna give this unpredictable, unreliable asshole some money? How about giving it to me? I'm the one who really gets you your paper!"

Lloyd was breathing hard. He stood in the middle of the room and stared at his mother for some hint of understanding.

She kept looking at him for a while. Neither of them spoke.

Finally, Ma picked up her tea and sipped it, still trained on him.

"So, what you're saying, Lloyd, is that I shouldn't give him any money."

"Yes! That's exactly what the hell I'm saying!"

"That he's a loser and can't do anything right."

Lloyd closed his mouth. She continued.

"That I'm an idiot to do anything for him. That he deserves whatever he gets."

Lloyd turned to leave.

"Bye, Lloyd. Have fun at Larry's."

He stepped outside and began walking up the street to the bus stop. Mr. Stanley, retrieving his paper, waved at him but Lloyd pretended not to see.

EEE-1997