‘Sure.’ He stopped the car, gesturing for me to open the passenger door. When I did, he said, ‘It’s a rite of passage. My first job was delivering the Colby Coupon Clipper on my bike.’
‘I’ve had jobs,’ I told him.
‘Yeah? What were they?’
‘I worked for a professor in the English department one summer, helping with a bibliography for his book,’ I said, as I slid inside. ‘Then I worked for my mom’s accountant as an office assistant. And all last year I did test prep at Huntsinger.’
Personally, I’d always thought this was a pretty impressive résumé. Eli, however, just gave me a flat look. ‘You,’ he said, hitting the gas, ‘definitely need a paper route. At least for one night.’
And so it was that, after hitting the Washroom, and Park Mart for a few incidentals, we pulled into a neighborhood just past the pier, driving slowly with a stack of papers between us, and a list of subscriber addresses in his hand. It was just after two A.M.
‘Eleven hundred,’ Eli said, nodding at a split-level off to the right. ‘That’s all you.’
I picked up a paper, getting a good grip, then tossed it toward the driveway. It hit the curb, then bounced into a pile of lawn clippings, disappearing entirely. ‘Whoops,’ I said. He pulled to a stop and I jumped out, retrieving it and throwing it again, this time doing a bit better, hitting the far right of the driveway. ‘It’s harder than it looks,’ I told him when I finally got back in the car.
‘Most things are,’ Eli said. Then, of course, he grabbed a paper, launching it at a house across the street in a perfect arc. It landed right on the front stoop, the delivery version of a perfect ten. When I just looked at him, speechless, he shrugged. ‘Colby Coupon Clipper, I told you. Two years.’
‘Still,’ I said. My next shot was a bit better, but too wide. It hit the lawn, and again I had to get out to move it to a safer, less wet spot. ‘God, I suck at this.’
‘It’s your second one,’ he said before launching another perfect shot at a bungalow with a plastic flamingo in the front yard.
‘Still,’ I said again.
I could feel him watching me as I threw another one, concentrating hard. It hit the steps (good) but then banked into the nearby bushes (not so good). When I came back from retrieving it, some brambles in my hair, my frustration must have been obvious.
‘You know,’ Eli said, tossing another paper and hitting another front stoop – thwack! – ‘it’s okay not to be good at everything.’
‘This is delivering papers.’
‘So,’ I said as he did another perfect throw, Jesus, ‘I’m all right if I suck at, say, quantum physics. Or Mandarin Chinese. Because those things are hard, and take work.’
He watched, silent, as I missed yet another driveway. By about a mile. When I returned he said, ‘And clearly, this doesn’t.’
‘It’s different,’ I told him. ‘Look, achievement is my thing, okay? It’s what I do. It’s all I’ve ever been good at.’
‘You’re good at doing well,’ he said, clarifying.
‘I’m good,’ I said, throwing another paper and doing marginally better, ‘at learning. Because I never had to involve anyone else in that. It was just me, and the subject matter.’
‘Indoors, working away,’ he added.
I shot him a look, but, as usual, he did not seem deterred. Or bothered in the least. He just handed me another paper, which I launched at the next house. It hit the driveway, a bit too much to the left, but he drove on anyway.
‘Life is full of screwups,’ he said, chucking another paper at a split-level before taking the corner. ‘You’re supposed to fail sometimes. It’s a required part of the human existence.’
‘I’ve failed,’ I told him.
‘Yeah? At what?’
I blanked for a moment, not exactly good for my argument. ‘I told you,’ I said, ‘I was a social failure.’
He took another turn, tossing a couple more papers as we cruised down a dark street. ‘You didn’t try to be homecoming queen and lose, though.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I never wanted to be homecoming queen. Or any of that stuff.’
‘Then you didn’t fail. You just opted out. There’s a difference.’
I considered this as we cruised down another street. He wasn’t even handing me papers anymore, just throwing them all himself. ‘What about you, then?’ I asked. ‘What did you fail at?’
‘The better question,’ he said, slowing for a stop sign, ‘is what didn’t I fail at.’
He nodded, then held up a hand and began to count off, finger by finger. ‘Algebra. Football. Lacey McIntyre. Skate-boarding on a half-pipe…’
‘Eighth grade. Spent months working up to asking her to a dance, and she shot me down cold. In full view of the entire lunchroom.’
‘Tell me about it.’ He turned again, going down a narrow street with only a few houses on it. Thwack. Thwack. ‘Winning over Belissa’s dad, who still hates me. Convincing my little brother not to be such a chump. Learning to fix my own car.’
‘Wow. This is a long list.’
‘I told you. I’m very good at being bad at things.’
I glanced over at him again as we came to another stop sign. ‘So you never get discouraged.’
‘Of course I do,’ he said. ‘Failing sucks. But it’s better than the alternative.’
‘Not even trying.’ Now he did look at me, straight on. ‘Life’s short, you know?’
I’d never met Abe. Or even heard much about him, aside from the few things Maggie and Leah had said. But suddenly, in that moment, it was like I could feel him. Sitting in the very seat where I was, riding along with us. Maybe he’d been there the whole time.
Eli took another turn, and I realized we were in my dad’s neighborhood, the surroundings suddenly familiar. His house was quickly approaching, and on my side to boot. It had to be a sign. I reached over, picking up a paper from the stack between us. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘This one’s mine.’
I drew back my hand, trying to use my elbow for leverage the way I’d seen him do, and this time aimed not for the driveway but the porch. It came closer, closer, and at the exact right minute, I let it fly, watching as it arced high over the lawn… before landing with a slap on the windshield of Heidi’s Prius.