Benny had forgotten about signing up for a job to deliver newspapers. It’d been two years, but that was evidently how long a kid had to wait to get a paper route. It was one of the few jobs reserved for kids. The routes didn’t pay much more than $15 a week, which was too low for grown-ups but high enough that every kid on Point Cadet wanted one. So, he’d gone to see Mr. Chris who was in charge of home delivery of “The Daily Press,” Biloxi’s week-day newspaper, and asked that his name be placed on the waiting list. Mr. Chris told Benny it might be a while before he could get a route. He didn’t tell him it might be a two-year while.
In any event, two years elapsed, and Calvin, the kid whose route he’d be taking, stopped by Benny’s house and informed him his name had finally come up and Mr. Chris wanted to see him.
“He said if he don’t see you by Friday, he’ll give the route to someone else.”
“Why you quittin’, Calvin?”
“Be in high school in September. Going out for football.”
“What route you got?”
“Back Bay. It’s a good route. All the houses close together, and there ain’t many deadbeats.”
“Yeah, people who don’t pay you on Saturday when you go to collect.”
“I gotta collect?”
“You don’t collect, you don’t get paid.”
“How many on the route?”
“How many don’t pay?”
“About ten or so, and there’s always some that claim you didn’t deliver to them a coupla days.”
“What’d you do then?”
He shrugged. “Tough shit. It comes outta your pocket.”
“How much you make a week?”
“About $17. It ain’t hard. The papers are small, and you can roll ‘em up where you can throw ‘em good. Once you get the route memorized, you can deliver all your papers in three hours. If it’s raining, you got a problem. You gotta make sure they get up on the porch where they don’t get wet. Saturday’s a bitch, though. You gotta stop at every house and collect. If you collect fifty cents, you get a dime.”
“Tell Mr. Chris I’ll see him tomorrow.”
“You gotta ride with me on my last week so you can learn the route.”
“I get paid?”
“They ain’t gonna pay you, and I sure as hell ain’t.”
Calvin rode off.
Benny sure needed the money. His daddy periodically split on him and his momma, and she had to work five days a week at Woolworths to make $25. They lived on Point Cadet, which was the white-trash section of Biloxi, and the people there were as poor as the blacks who lived across the tracks. The rent on their house was $40 a month, water and electricity another $10. They left them $50 a month for food and repairs. Their landlord wouldn’t repair shit. If it was broke, they either lived with it or paid to have it fixed. They were scraping by, thanks to his momma, who was never late or missed a day’s work. The only time things got bad was when his daddy showed up again. He’d just move himself in, eat up all the food, and wait for Benny’s momma to come home on payday. Then he’d take all her money and beat her if he thought she was holding out. He was careful not to hit her in the face. They wouldn’t let her work if she had marks on her face. Mostly, he used a belt.
Benny was only twelve, but he’d gallantly step in to stop the beatings, only to have his daddy turn on him with his fists. Benny didn’t have a job at Woolworths, and his daddy couldn’t care less how his son’s face looked. His daddy was a handsome man and had a way with women. Sometimes he’d run into an especially dumb one who’d let him live with her for a while. She’d wise up eventually, though, and boot him out. He’d come back then to what he called his home.
“This here’s my house, boy. You don’t like it you can move the hell out.”
“Be glad to if you tell me where I could go.”
That would earn him a punch or two, but Benny was getting bigger and his daddy was slowly drinking his health away. Benny hoped that in another year he could handle him. When that day came, it’d be his daddy who’d be moving out. His daddy was a big man, though, and Benny realized he might just be fantasizing. Maybe so, but the thought of it kept him going.
Meanwhile, he had another problem. He had a paper route, and he didn’t have a bicycle. Benny was a street kid and no angel. He didn’t have the money to buy a bike, even a used one. His only recourse was to go to the west end of town, where the sparse middle class lived, and steal one. It had to be a good bike, one that could stand up to miles of pedaling every week. It couldn’t be so conspicuous that it would stand out. The local cops were dumb, but they’d know in a minute he was riding a stolen bike if they saw him delivering papers on a shiny new Schwinn. A kid from the Point on a Schwinn? Not hardly.
First things first, though. He took a bath and put on clean clothes. He brushed his teeth and combed his hair and walked over to the “Daily Press” to tell Mr. Chris he still wanted the job.
Benny’s crisp appearance didn’t go unnoticed. The “Press” had a reputation to uphold, Mr. Chris maintained, and he didn’t want it diminished by ragamuffins shuttling its newspapers all over Back Bay, which, while not the West End, was several steps up from the Point. So, Benny passed the appearance part of the interview.
“You growed, Benny.”
“Where’s your bike?”
“Calvin explained to me how much pedaling I gotta do, so I’m doing a little work on it. Got the tires off now. Putting in some new inner tubes.”
Mr. Chris’ approving smile showed that answer passed muster. “Calvin explain everything to you? He tell you that you gotta ride the route with him a week to learn it ‘fore you can take it over?”
“Yes, sir. And he already told me that I don’t get no pay for that week.”
Mr. Chris sensed disenchantment. “If that ain’t all right with you, Benny, we got about twenty other kids ready and willin’ to take your place.”
“Beggars ain’t choosers, Mr. Chris. I ain’t complaining.”
Another bullseye answer. Mr. Chris nodded his approval. “Okay, Benny, be here on Monday, the twenty-third, right after you get out of school. Calvin will show you the ropes. The route’s officially yours the next Monday after that.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
“Your momma taught you some manners, boy.”
Benny nodded as if he appreciated the compliment. The only thing his momma ever taught him was how to put pails under a leaking roof and remember to empty them every hour or so. Well, that, and how to roll up into a ball when his Daddy got out the belt. Nonetheless, Benny conceded those were two valuable lessons.
He had two weeks to steal a bike.
Benny had a good friend named James Wallace. James’ daddy had run off and left him, too, although it was more than likely James’ momma was holding the door open for him when he made his exodus. She was a nurse, and she and James lived on the West End. Mrs. Wallace was the nicest lady Benny had ever met, and all of her had rubbed off on her son. Benny and James had met in grammar school and for some reason had just hit it off. They had absolutely zip in common. James was always a little gentleman, and Benny a loudmouth looking for attention. James invariably laughed at what Benny did, which made Benny like him, because that got him the attention he wanted.
Although Benny was not a great student, he did like subjects like Geography and History. His favorite historical character was Christopher Columbus, who, to Benny’s mind, had more or less invented Geography. Benny just couldn’t get over how Columbus had the balls to set out for America at a time when everyone thought the damned world was flat and how he kept on going even when his sailors were screaming for him to turn around and get them the hell back to Spain. Yet Columbus hung in there, and, although he wound up in the Americas rather than India, it was still a hell of an achievement.
Benny’s admiration of Columbus reached the ears of Mrs. Wallace, and she learned that a movie about Columbus was playing in Gulfport, a town twelve miles away. She invited Benny to join James and her to see it. She’d drive, and the treat was on her. The treat had to be on her, Benny grimly noted, or he couldn’t go. But it was, and he scrubbed himself clean, as if he were going for a Mr. Chris interview, and accompanied them.
It was the first technicolor movie he’d ever seen, and he literally sat on the edge of his seat as he watched his hero overcome obstacle after obstacle to achieve his goal. And then in the end, they damned near hanged him because they thought he was some kind of traitor. That part Benny just couldn’t get.
He told Mrs. Wallace that when she asked him how he’d liked the movie.
“Sometimes, Benny, people just don’t like to be shown how stupid they are,” she explained.
He thought about her answer and decided she’d nailed it. She was one smart lady.
They were riding back to Biloxi in her car, a four-door Dodge with rear doors that opened to the front, or suicide doors as they were often called. James and Benny were sitting in the rear. James realized that he hadn’t shut his door all the way, and, without thinking it through, opened the door to slam it shut. Mrs. Wallace was doing about forty miles an hour, and the wind caught James’ door as he opened it and jerked him through the open door. James’ head was inches from the street when Benny grabbed him by the waist and dragged him back into the car. Mrs. Wallace slammed on the brakes and pulled over. James rarely had the riot act read to him, but he did that night.
James, ever the gentleman, listened attentively. “I’m sorry, Mom. I should have asked you to pull over. Thank goodness Benny was there to grab me. I’d been a goner for sure.”
Which was the truth, and Mrs. Wallace knew it and appreciated it very much. She wasn’t a snob, but she’d never really approved of the relationship between her son and Benny. She was apprehensive that Benny might drag her son down. Her conscience told her this was wrong and grossly unfair. Benny was a victim of circumstances beyond his making.
It was dark when she dropped Benny off at his miserable rental shack. She’d invited him to join them for a banana split at the local creamery, but he’d declined, insisting his mother was holding his dinner for him. Mrs. Wallace seriously doubted that, but realized that while he was poor, he was proud. That she understood.
She turned around to him as he was exiting the car and handed him a half dollar. “I want you to take this, Benny, and go have a banana split tomorrow. Promise?’
He reluctantly took the half dollar. “I promise. Thank you, ma’am.”
“Thank you for pulling me back in the car, Benny,” James said. “I’m always doing dumb things like that.”
Benny laughed. “No, you’re not, James. You the smartest kid I know.”
“Well, he won’t do that again, will you, James?”
“And thank you, Benny. That was fast thinking on your part.”
He climbed out of the car and shut the door firmly. He said good night and waved as the car with the suicide doors pulled away. After it had disappeared down the crushed-oyster-shell street, he walked inside. His momma was slumped at the kitchen table. Although he couldn’t see any marks, he could tell by her look that his daddy had been beating on her again.
“He take all your money, Momma?”
“I hid $20 under a rock out front ‘fore I came in. He searched me top to bottom but could only find the $5 that I had left.”
“Where’s he now?”
“I don’t know. He don’t never say where he’s going.”
“Probably sucking on a wine bottle somewhere.”
“He’s your daddy, Benny. You shouldn’t talk about him that way.”
He shook his head at his mother’s naivete. “If you say so, Momma,” he said sadly, as he handed her the half dollar.
“Where’d you get that, Benny?”
“Found it layin’ out in the middle of the street. Some rich fella must’ve dropped it.”
There were two junkyards in town. One was owned by Mickey and the other by Sonny. They were brothers who hadn’t spoken to each other in twenty years. No one knew for sure what the falling out had been over, but Benny reckoned it had something to do with money. Their lack of communication meant that neither knew what the other was doing, or buying or selling, or what was in their respective inventories. They locked the gates when it got dark and went home. The only security in the junkyards, other than the six-foot fences and the locked gates, were two of the town’s meanest dogs. Mickey and Sonny beat them regularly to keep them mean. Mean, that is, to everyone in town but Benny.
For years Benny had been stealing from Mickey and selling to Sonny, then turning around and stealing from Sonny and selling to Mickey. He, as did nearly everyone, knew about their feud, but he was the only one devious enough to take advantage of their failure to communicate. The dogs would’ve been a challenge to a less clever young man. Benny would occasionally find old tires or hubcaps and sell them to either Mickey or Sonny, and he used those opportunities to make friends with the two watchdogs.
There was no such thing as table scraps in his household, but he could always find a crust of bread or even a bone or two if he checked neighborhood garbage cans. People who saw him doing it didn’t protest; they assumed he was just scrounging for food for himself. So, while Mickey or Sonny walked back to their offices to get him a quarter or half dollar for whatever he had proffered them, he’d rush over to whichever dog it was and give him a treat. At first, they’d nearly snap his hand off when he held up something for them to eat, but gradually they came to recognize him as a bearer of gifts and would even wag their tails when they saw him. He’d never disappoint. They would’ve eaten a carburetor if he offered it to them.
He was a little nervous when he first tried it at midnight, and it took a lot of guts on his part to calmly stand there when the dogs came rushing up to him after he’d scaled the fence. But he’d just whisper to them and call them by their names, Duke and Devil, and hold out the treat. After he’d perfected it, they’d actually follow him around as he did his shopping.
He never stole a lot, and he had a knack for knowing what the other brother would buy. He’d never seen a whole bicycle in either of the brothers’ junkyards, but he’d seen bicycle parts. Plenty of handlebars and seats and fenders and even a set of pedals, but never a frame, per se. He reasoned that a frame with a working socket and chain was the last thing anyone in a poor section of town like the Point would ever donate to a junkyard.
His game plan was simple. He had to steal a good bike and then disguise it by stealing parts from the two brothers. So, he began to haunt the West End. He and James were still friends, although Mrs. Wallace had yanked James from the public-school system and placed him in the local Catholic junior high. He’d stop by to see James during his scouting expeditions, and Mrs. Wallace always made him stay for dinner. He only had a week left until he had to show up at the “Press” and do a ride-along with Calvin. He was beginning to get desperate, and worse yet, he was beginning to hate himself for even thinking about doing what he was thinking about doing.
Mrs. Wallace had given James a brand-new red Schwinn bicycle when he graduated grammar school. It was the most beautiful bike Benny had ever seen. He’d seen it in the window of the local Western Auto, and every kid in town was having wet dreams about it. Only someone in the West End, someone like Mrs. Wallace, could afford to buy it. God knows, Benny told himself, James deserved it. Nothing but A’s through all of grammar school, perfect attendance, respectful of his teachers, president of his class every year, most popular, and, if they’d had such a thing in grammar school, even best looking. He deserved a damned Cadillac in Benny’s opinion.
Benny actually cried when he decided he had no recourse but to proceed with the dastardly deed of stealing his good friend’s beautiful red Schwinn. Like father, like son, Benny sadly concluded. It was in his blood. He was a bastard just like his daddy.
When James finished riding his bike for the day, he’d pull it up onto the front porch of their house. He lived on West Beach Boulevard, and it was only a mile down the road to the Catholic junior high. it was convenient for James to leave it there every night.
It would be easy to steal. The only risk was that someone might see Benny riding it from the West End to the Point. There were lots of back roads, though, and he knew them all. It would have to be done late, like at one or two a.m., and he’d have to be mindful of cops. Seeing a twelve-year-old Point kid out on a to-die-for bike that late at night would raise a lot of suspicion. But it could be done. The crucial thing thereafter was to have sufficient replacement parts and paint ready to make the beautiful red Schwinn bike unrecognizable to its previous owners.
Benny made his decision. He went to the two brothers and did his shopping for replacement parts. He found a beaten-up bike seat and some rusty handlebars at Sonny’s and some pedals and a dented luggage carrier at Mickey’s. He helped himself to them.
It was only one a.m. when he finished his shopping, and he decided to steal James’ bike the same night. The lights were off at the Wallace house, and the bedrooms were in the back. He eased the beautiful red Schwinn bike out of its docking space and carried it into the yard before he set it down. It was heavier than he expected, but manageable. He eased the kickstand up, climbed aboard, and glided silently down the driveway. He took the back roads and saw no one, and, more importantly, no one saw him. He had a lot of woods behind his house, and he hid the Schwinn deep in them. He covered it with an old tarp.
He was too disgusted with himself to sleep, and he actually thought about returning the bike to James. But then he thought about his daddy and being hungry most of the time and rationalized his guilt away. He needed the job, and he had to have a bike to do it. Plain as that.
He rose early the next day to ugly-up the Schwinn. The most beautiful bike he’d ever seen, and he had to make it an eyesore. He knew it would have a serial number on it, and he’d helped himself to some wrenches, a hammer, and a file at the two brothers’ shopping center.
First, he found the serial number and filed it down. Then he removed the bright chrome kickstand and the fancy chain guard, which had a Schwinn logo on it. He pried off the Schwinn emblem on the front of the frame and took off the square-shaped handlebars, which were unique to Schwinn in those days, and replaced them with the rusty round-shaped handlebars he’d stolen from Sonny. He worked for hours sanding away as much of the red paint as possible and proceeded to dent the frame and front fender to give them a well-worn look. He removed and threw away the back fender and replaced it with Mickey’s luggage carrier, which would be of use if he had to carry extra papers. He marred the shiny new rims and the frame and even bent a spoke or two to give the wheels the well-used look. Then he hand-painted the frame and front fender with the green paint he’d stolen from Mickey weeks ago in anticipation of the need to disguise. Finally, he replaced the new pedals with the worn ones also donated by Mickey.
He left the bike out in the sun to dry while he went home to forage food. He found some stale bread and peanut butter his daddy hadn’t eaten yet and wolfed it down. Then back to the woods for a second coat of the ugly green paint. He put a third coat of paint on the next day and roughed up the whole bike with sandpaper and dirt and installed Sonny’s worn seat. Time then for a test drive.
Despite its looks, it still rode like a brand-new Schwinn. He realized he’d get flats from time to time, but he knew how to patch innertubes. He’d steal a hand pump from one of the brothers and be able to fix a flat if one occurred while working his route. Despite the heavy burden his conscience bore, the dark side of him had to admit he’d evoked almost the perfect disguise. The temptation when stealing a beautiful bike was to simply repaint it and keep it looking beautiful. But a Point kid showing up with a beautiful bike? He might as well go and confess to the cops. But a Point kid with a rusty hand-painted, well-worn bike was believable.
Mr. Chris bought into it when Benny showed up to accompany Calvin to learn the route and the customers and their idiosyncrasies.
“Just the kind of bike you want, Benny,” he gushed. “A damned workhorse. And they’ll sure see you coming with that green paint. That luggage rack will come in handy. Get yourself a basket to wire onto it. You can put some of your papers in it and just reach into the back and grab one to throw instead of having to dig down into the bag hanging between the handlebars.”
“Didn’t even know you had a bike,” Calvin commented when he showed up. “Where’d you steal that green piece of shit?”
“At the stealin’ place, and I wouldn’t trade it for two of yours.”
“Ain’t even got a chain guard.”
“On my shoppin’ list.”
Calvin showed Benny how to roll the newspaper into a missile, then sat and watched as Benny rolled 180 newspapers and stuffed them into the canvas bag Mr. Chris had strung between the handlebars of his green bike.
“Make sure you count the papers when they bring ‘em out to you,” Calvin cautioned. “They been known to shortchange you.”
“Hard for me to believe Mr. Chris would do that.”
“It ain’t Mr. Chris. Ronnie and Harold bring the papers out. If they can cheat you out of two or three, they’ll go stand on the corner and sell ‘em for ten cents each.”
“Any other tips?”
“Don’t ever leave your bike when you got it loaded. People will help themselves.”
Benny quickly learned the route. Some blocks were easy. Everyone subscribed to the paper. There was always the odd one or two who had opted out but would gladly take the paper if it landed an inch inside their yard. But collecting on Saturdays was a bitch.
The lies people would tell to avoid paying fifty cents. “I didn’t get the paper on Tuesday or Wednesday.” “My husband ain’t had a chance to cash his paycheck yet.” And Benny’s personal favorite, “I paid you in advance last week.”
“Never let ‘em pay in advance,” Calvin lectured. “Tell ‘em it ain’t allowed, so they must’ve made a mistake. If they don’t pay, say you ain’t allowed to deliver to them until they do. There ain’t much you can do if they screw you out of a paper or two. If they keep doing it, I cut ‘em off. They generally run me down and pay up after a while.”
Welcome to the wide world of business.
Given his upbringing, Benny was belligerent by nature, and he didn’t have any problem telling someone they took money out of his pocket when they didn’t pay him. If they made threats about calling his boss, he’d memorized Mr. Chris’ phone number and happily recited it to them. He’d alert Mr. Chris, of course, about a possible complaint, and Mr. Chris always had his back.
“Don’t you worry none, Benny. I’ll let ‘em know we ain’t in the charity business.”
He took Mr. Chris’ advice and helped himself to a basket at Sonny’s. He also found a hand pump to carry along in case of flats. He’d never forget the first Saturday he returned with nearly $90 in cash and settled up with Mr. Chris. It’d taken him the entire day to collect all the money, and he’d run into all the lies and excuses Calvin had forewarned him about, but he’d hung in there and made almost every customer pay up.
Mr. Chris smiled and handed him $17.50. “Good as Calvin ever done,” he complimented.
Benny couldn’t believe he had that kind of money. He’d be able to pay the rent and the utilities on their crummy rental now. He couldn’t tell his daddy about being a small businessman, else he’d demand his share of the take, which would be 100%. Benny’d tell his momma later. All she’d have to worry about then was food.
He kept the green bike hidden in the woods with the tarp over it. If his daddy ever found it, he’d sell it to the first person with a bottle of Thunderbird wine. He knew the day was nearing when he’d have to take his daddy on, and he had to win. He mentioned his dilemma to an older kid at school who was known to be good with his fists.
“Don’t get just the first punch in,” the kid counseled. “Get the first three or four.”
That was some sound advice, but Benny wished someone would tell him what to do about James and Mrs. Wallace. They were the nicest people he knew, and he’d stolen from them. He couldn’t care less about stealing from Sonny and Mickey. He was doing them a favor by getting rid of some of their junk so they could bring in some more.
He hadn’t stopped by to see James and Mrs. Wallace lately, and he realized that absence, at least in his case, didn’t make the heart grow fonder, but the mind more suspicious. And if he showed up with the green bike and let them know he’d acquired it for his paper route, which had coincidently started about the time James’ bike had been stolen, it might arouse some suspicion, especially with a smart lady like Mrs. Wallace. What could he tell her she’d believe?
One of the older kids at his school was always getting into trouble, and he never ceased to amaze Benny how he could lie his way out of his dilemma. He asked the kid what his secret was, and the kid said the key was to include as much truth as possible in the lie so your chances of getting tripped up later were less if you had to repeat the lie a few more times. Benny took no pride in lying, but it was a good thing to carry around in your back pocket. More sound advice.
Sunday was the only time he could visit James and Mrs. Wallace. He decided to bite the bullet and visit them that Sunday. Time to face the music.
Mrs. Wallace and James had just returned from church when Benny came pedaling up on the ugliest green bike she’d ever seen. Either he, or someone he’d borrowed the bike from, had a paper route, as the next thing she noticed after the horrendous color was the high handlebars and the “Daily Press” canvas bag hanging on them. To make the bike look even worse, it had a dented basket attached to an equally dented luggage rack. It looked like something out of The Grapes of Wrath. Was Benny’s last name Joad?
She’d been born in the large house she and James lived in, and, in her entire thirty-five years, nothing had ever been stolen from her house or her yard. She had neighbors who didn’t even bother to lock their doors when they went out. Sure, James’ bike had been beautiful, and she’d cautioned him to put it away for the night on the back porch, which could be locked. But the back steps were narrow and hard to get a bike up and down, and the front steps were cement and wide and much easier to navigate. So, given the thirty-five years of no-theft history, she decided not to worry about it. Then less than a month after she’d bought the brand-new Schwinn for her son, it disappeared. She hated to think of Benny as the culprit, especially after he’d saved her son’s life, but he was the only person she could think of even remotely deserving inclusion on her list of usual suspects. She’d seen the way Benny had looked at James’ bike so longingly and felt sorry that she couldn’t have bought him one, too.
She reported the theft to the police and gave them a picture of the bike with James sitting astride it. When they asked her if she had any suspects, she reluctantly gave them Benny’s name and approximate address, which she’d remembered from the night she’d driven him home from the movie.
“That’s a beautiful bike, ma’am. Be easy to spot. We’ll drive by his way and see if we can catch him on it,” said one of the cops.
“If he ain’t sold it already,” the second cop commented.
Her conscience bothered her when she’d mentioned Benny’s name. “I’m sure he didn’t do it,” she said quickly, “but he’s the only person I can think of not from this neighborhood who’s been around lately.”
“Those kids on the Point’ll steal anything that ain’t nailed down,” the first cop added. “We’ll keep an eye out for the bike and let you know if we find out anything.”
That had been about a month ago, the cops hadn’t found anything, and now here came Benny on a Tom Joad bike.
She told James Benny was outside. James had just finished changing into his play clothes. He ran excitedly out to see his friend.
“Where you been, Benny?” James asked. “Been weeks since you came to see us.”
Benny smiled and proudly slapped the “Daily Press” newspaper bag. “I got a job now delivering newspapers. Got almost 180 people on my route. I don’t get home till six, and I gotta work all day Saturday collecting from my customers. I made $17.50 last week.”
“Wow!” James said admiringly. “You’re going to get rich, Benny.”
Mrs. Wallace came out. “What’s all this, Benny? You a working man now?”
Benny gave her a pleasant and decidedly not-guilty look. “Yes, ma’am.”
She studied the green bike closely. “Looks like a nice sturdy bike. Perfect for delivering newspapers, although I can’t say I like the color very much.”
“I didn’t even know you had a bike, Benny.”
“Well, it ain’t nowhere as nice as yours, James.”
His friend’s face turned sad. “I don’t have a bike anymore, Benny. Someone stole it.”
“Stole it? When?”
“About a month ago.”
“I’m really sorry, James. I know how you loved that bike.”
“Yeah, I really miss it. But Mom said she’ll buy me another one if I make all A’s this year.”
“That’s gonna cost you some money, Mrs. Wallace. As smart as James is, I know he’s gonna make all A’s. May as well give the bike to him now.”
“No, a deal’s a deal, Benny. We’ll wait for the final report card. How long you had this green bike, Benny?”
“Depends? Depends on what?”
“On when a bike becomes a bike.”
She smiled sweetly. “You’re going to have to explain that one to me, Benny.”
There was no kickstand, so he laid the bike down on the ground. He kicked the handlebars. I had these for a year. Then he kicked the frame. I found this on the side of the road a month or two later. Then… I’m sure thirsty, Mrs. Wallace. You reckon I could have a glass of water?”
“Of course, Benny. James, you run in and get that pitcher of ice-cold lemonade and some glasses, and we’ll all have a glass on the front porch. Use that serving tray I have in the dining room.”
“Yes, ma’am,” her son responded and was away in a flash.
She led Benny towards the front porch. “Go on, Benny. You were explaining how to measure time.”
“I’m lying, ma’am,” he abruptly announced. “I stole every piece of that bike from the two junkyards near my house. You’ve got to sign up to deliver the "Press" like two years in advance. It’s the only good job a kid can get around here. So, I signed up and figured I had a lot of time to scrape a bike together. Two brothers own the junkyards, and they don’t speak to one another. They both lock up the gates at dark and let their dogs chase away anyone who tries to steal something from them. They actually beat the dogs to make ‘em mean. They’ll bite your hand off in a minute if you come into the junkyards at dark.”
For a brief moment she thought he’d been going to confess to stealing James’ bike. Now, he was confessing to another crime, in fact, a series of crimes. But he’d aroused her interest. “How on earth did you get past the dogs?”
He smiled his disarming smile. “Them poor dogs wasn’t mean, ma’am. They was just mistreated. I raided garbage cans and gave ‘em food. Pretty soon, they’d see me climbing the fence, and they’d run up to me wagging their tails. I was the only friend they had. It seemed almost like sometimes they knew what part of my bike I needed, and they’d lead me right to it. I got my last two parts about a month ago. It don’t have a kickstand or a chain guard, but I can still ride it and deliver newspapers. I was just telling James when you came out that I made $17.50 my first week delivering papers. If I can do that every week, I’ll have enough to pay for our rent and utilities. Then, with what Momma makes working at Woolworths, we’ll have enough for food, provided my daddy don’t beat her up and steal her money.”
“You daddy beats your momma?”
“When she won’t give him money. If I try to stop him, he beats me. He’s a wino, and all he cares about is his next bottle of T-Bird. He even eats up all the food Momma buys. There’s hardly enough left for us. I gotta hide my bike, beat-up as it is, at night or he’d grab it and sell it to someone for more wine. He just don’t care. Sometimes he finds another woman and moves in with her. Times is good for us then, but he always comes back.”
Mrs. Wallace studied him carefully. He had the prettiest brown eyes. Tears were flowing in buckets from them now. The theft of her son’s bicycle became unimportant.
“Y’all come on,” James called from the front porch. “The lemonade’s ready.”
She placed her hand on Benny’s bony shoulder. “No more stealing from those junkyards, Benny. You’ve got to promise me. If you need anything, you come and ask me.”
“What’ve y’all been talking about?” James inquired, as they joined him on the porch.
She smiled at her son, of whom she was so proud. “Benny was just telling me how he assembled his green bike from parts he found in the junkyard. Isn’t that clever, James?”
“Sure is, Mom,” he said admiringly and handed Benny a glass of lemonade.
She cooked them dinner. She suspected Benny wouldn’t stay for dinner if she asked him, so she put it more in the form of an order. It was the first good food Benny had eaten since the last time he dined there. It was a typical southern Sunday dinner, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and fresh-baked cornbread.
“I don’t want any excuses, Benny,” Mrs. Wallace told him as he was leaving. “I want you to come over every Sunday and have dinner with us. That’s your day off, and a working man deserves a good Sunday dinner. Isn’t that right, James?”
“Sure is, Mom.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Benny replied. “I’ll sure be looking forward to that.”
Instead of feeling pleased his ruse had worked, Benny was once again disgusted with himself. He couldn’t forgive himself, no matter his dire circumstances, for having stolen James’ beautiful red Schwinn. He vowed then and there to put aside anything he made over $15 a week towards buying James a new bike. He dropped by Western Auto to see what they charged for a bike like he’d stolen. They had a blue one just like it in the show window, and a sign hanging on it said it cost $40.
He couldn’t hide his money around his house. His daddy would find it for sure. He went down to the bank and opened a savings account. He deposited his entire $17.50 and continued to do the same every week. He told his momma about his job and promised he’d take money out of the bank each month and pay the rent and utilities. She just had to make every effort to buy enough food for the three of them. It wasn’t that easy for her. She couldn’t accumulate too much food, as his daddy would take it and sell to someone for T-Bird. He still beat on her every week, as he knew she was holding out on him. He’d somehow found out about Benny having a newspaper route, and although he didn’t know how the hell Benny managed it without a bike, he began to slap him around to discover where he hid his money.
All his daddy ever got out of him was, “My money’s in a place where you can’t touch it. You can hit me all you want. You ain’t never gonna get your hands on it.”
Benny still wasn’t able to take him on, so he always had to beat a hasty retreat. He swore to himself, though, that the day was coming when he’d get the first three or four punches in and maybe be able to throw his daddy out of their house.
Over four months had gone by since he’d begun his paper route. He’d spent nearly every Sunday with Mrs. Wallace and James, the exceptions being when the hospital called her in for an emergency. Even then she left sandwiches for James and him. Benny had nearly $50 in his bank account, the money he had left after he’d paid for rent and utilities each month.
His next step was decided for him when he happened to pass by Western Auto one day. The blue bike was long gone. In its stead was a red bike exactly like the one he’d stolen from James. No more lies or procrastination. He went to the bank and withdrew $40. The man at Western Auto almost fainted when a scruffy kid like Benny showed up and plunked cash money on the counter for the beautiful red Schwinn. The man didn’t stay in shock long, though. He practically ran to the show window to take the bike out and turn it over to Benny. Benny rode it home and hid it in the woods by his green bike. Later that night he crawled out of bed and rode it through the back streets to James’ house. Once again there were no lights on, and everyone was asleep. He eased the bike into the exact same spot its predecessor had occupied.
His plan was to deny everything if Mrs. Wallace confronted him, but he’d have to wait until Sunday to know her reaction. She’d probably suspect it’d been him who’d stolen the beautiful red Schwinn in the first place, and, if she wanted confirmation, all she had to do was ask the man at the Western Auto who had bought the replacement bike. “It was a kid that bought it,” he’d reply. “He was skinny. Looked like he needed a good meal. Probably from the Point. But he had cash money.” Benny would learn her reaction for sure on Sunday, and he expected the worst. How could she ever trust a thief and a liar like him again?
It was a Saturday night, and he’d just finished collecting from his subscribers. He’d had a good pay day, collecting over $90 again. He hid his bike in the woods under the tarp and walked back to his house. He could hear the screaming as he drew close. He knew his daddy was beating his momma again. He wasn’t ready yet, but he had to try.
He burst through the door just as his daddy punched his mother in the head. Something she’d said or done must’ve made him really lose it, and he’d resorted to fists. She fell to the floor and struck her head on one of the hardwood chairs in the kitchen. His daddy saw him and turned on him in a rage.
“I told the bitch I’d had it with her. I know she’s got some money hid ‘round here, but she wouldn’t give it up. So, I guess I’ll take yours instead. Where’s it at, boy? You better tell me, or I’ll kick your skinny ass just like I done her.”
Benny flew into him like a buzz saw. He got the first three or four punches in, and they were good ones. He even broke his daddy’s nose with one. He thought for a moment that’d done it, that his daddy, being the drunk and wife beater he was, would turn now and run out of the house. His daddy had been a street fighter of some repute in his day, though, and he realized he was no longer pushing around a skinny boy but a determined near adult. He wiped the blood from his face and advanced towards Benny in fighter mode. Undeterred, Benny kept punching. Some of his punches were landing, but his daddy was blocking many of them, and, worse yet, he was starting to hit Benny hard, as if he were fighting a grown man. The blows hurt Benny, but he kept coming and kept punching. They stood literally toe to toe for several minutes exchanging punches, but his daddy’s height and weight advantage began to take its toll. Benny slowly began to sink to his knees. His daddy drew back and hit him with a hard right. Benny collapsed to the floor.
His daddy sat atop Benny’s stomach and pinned Benny’s thin arms with his knees and began to rain punches down on his son’s unprotected face. After punch two or three, Benny lost consciousness. The last thing he remembered seeing was his momma hitting his daddy in the back of the head with one of the hardwood chairs.
Benny was in a coma for several days. He woke up with a terrible headache. Both his hands were bandaged, but he could still reach up and feel the ice packs around his head. He groaned, and suddenly Mrs. Wallace was standing in front of him. She smiled down at him and placed her warm fingers on his cold forehead. She stroked him affectionately.
“You’ve got to stay still, Benny,” she cautioned. “You’ve got a concussion. Your brain’s swollen, and we have to keep it from hitting the sides of your head. Otherwise you’ll lose consciousness again.”
“How’s my momma?”
“She’s a little bruised up, but she’s fine. She and James just went down to the cafeteria to get something to eat. They’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Although he didn’t really care, curiosity compelled him to ask. “And my daddy?”
“He’s in jail. And, from what the police tell me, he’s going to be there for a good long time.”
“Aggravated assault and battery of you and your momma. It’s a felony.”
“How long do I have to stay here?”
“At least another week. You’ve been hurt pretty bad.”
“I can’t stay here. I got my paper route.”
“Don’t worry about that. Mr. Chris got another boy to take it over for you temporarily.”
“No, James insisted on handling it for you. Calvin showed him the route, and he’s been delivering papers for you on the brand-new bike I bought for him for getting all ‘A’s’.”
“James? James is handling my route?”
“And you bought him a new bike?”
“I did, and it’s red just like the one he had before.”
Even with his swollen brain, Benny saw through that one. She had chosen to say she bought the bike for James, even though she knew Benny had simply replaced what he’d stolen. James would never know, and it would be an unspoken secret between the two of them.
“And I hope I have what will be some good news for you, Benny.”
“What’s that, ma’am?”
“You and your momma are coming to live with James and me. I got her a job as a nurse’s aide, and she’ll be working here at the hospital alongside me. And you’ll be going to the Catholic junior high school along with James. Your momma and James and I talked it over, and we all agreed. It’s a done deal, so don’t you go spoiling it all by saying you don’t agree.”
It hurt his battered face, but he smiled broadly. “I’ll sure be looking forward to that, ma’am.”