"I didn't get my paper this morning. Just checking that things were okay," the old man said into my voicemail.
This is the third Sunday this man has called my phone. Not in a row, some Sundays he must get his paper and everything is okay. I suspect that the paper was late on the days he called, but I cannot know for sure.
From February 5th to September 3rd, 2018, I delivered newspapers to supplement my income. Every night from two o'clock in the morning to around six, seven on Sundays, I drove the same route, stopped at the same houses, and grew more steadily unstable. Over the summer it got so bad I often forgot what day it was and only knew because the date was on the papers.
The old man and I had this in common. I came to realize this a month or so in, that older people with noone in their lives depended on the newspaper to tell them the date. They depended on the paper coming every morning bright and early to mark the passage of time. Otherwise each day seemed the same, each sunrise much like the last.
Newspaper delivery had no days off, no reprieve. As an independent contractor, I was responsible for getting the papers on the porches each day. The one day I was very sick, not able to sit for longer than twenty minutes due to a stomach virus, my contacts at the paper took over half my route so I would not infect the older customers. They were dropping fast enough due to cost and did not need my sickness. Nobody else knew my route well enough to take it over.
Some nights sped by. Headphone in one ear with a podcast or audiobook playing, I did my routes with a mechanical luster and made it home well before sunrise. Those days I mark with pictures of wildlife crossing my path. Groups of deer grazing on a lawn. A mink running across a parking lot. A fox walking down the middle of the street, guiding me toward the next house and looking back when I stopped as if to wonder what was taking me so long. People, too, strange night walkers out for a stroll or customers who left tips and presents.
Most nights slipped by in that grey middle routine work brings. They blur in my mind, one after another, street after street, parking lot after parking lot. The papers hit the doors in my mind, two hundred or so a night, and fade from existence.
The worst nights I noticed the monotony. I felt every stop at every house and doorstep, counted each one in my mind, and hated them. More than once a deep dread filled me driving to the printing office to pick up the papers. Would they be on time tonight? Could I go home in time to beat the sunrise and sleep?
My joints ached. At first from getting in and out of the car, my hips not used to the spin and pivot, my muscles not used to the constant up and down, the motions of throwing. Even now, the ball and socket of my left shoulder aches when I repeat the throwing motion after thousands of repeated swings of the arm with such a lightweight to toss. I carry those papers and they bring back the ache of being alone and cold and tired.
One night I had company. It helped. Someone to talk to, someone there to see what it was like. It did not last. Offers came for more nights, but something always came up. I understood and understand still. Driving haphazard through parking lots and back and forth in zigzags on streets empty and dark pales to a good night's sleep in a warm bed. I am thankful for that one night of company despite it not being repeated.
A month and a half over, and I still get calls from that old man. Every Sunday the paper is late or missing, I am reminded of the heartbreak of the job. The loneliness and empty nights waiting for sunrise. The displaced longing of sleepless pain.
I call the old man back. Tell him I'm no longer the newspaper man for the fourth time. Apologize and give him the paper's number and wish him a good day. Then he asks me what day it is and for a moment I forget.