Icy Skies and the Blaise House

For one of my classes, I decided to write a “mentor text” that could demonstrate some of the elements of narrative writing, including the use of time phrases, sensory description, dialogue, and reflection.

At first, it felt like a chore I had to accomplish, but as I got deeper into the writing process, I realized I was reliving and bringing new life to a long-ago forgotten memory of a family I lived with during half of my third grade year.

Below is the draft I just wrote under the pen name, Albert S. Twirr.

 The Blaise House and the Paper Route

                                                      By Albert S. Twirr

            When I was ten years old in the summer of 1980, my Dad and I wound up living in Saco, Maine on an old farm that no longer operated as a farm but as just as a simple living space in a large, three-floor, faded white, run-down, patched up, pointed-roof home that still functioned with electricity, gas and running water for a working-class family of five. It was a family of five that had fallen on hard times for reasons that my young had no interest in learning about, as my only interests at the time involved improving my kickball kicking and catching techniques, waiting in joyful anticipation for the new NBC Saturday morning Godzilla cartoon that was about to air for the first time on my birthday (which happened to fall on a Saturday in September of 1980), and the mustard and egg sandwiches that Billy Blaise made for me and the other kids nearly every morning throughout the summer.

Who was Billy Blaise?

She was the matriarch of the house, the wife of her husband, Jerry, and the mother of their two little girls, Karen and Heidi, and their teenaged son, who everyone affectionately called Bobby. Billy is someone I will always remember. She was a loud, outgoing, beach ball of a woman with gigantic shoulders, a brown and grey bushy lock of hair, which she kept in a pony tail, thick large glasses, and an assortment of stretchy sweat pants that she wore just about every day. She was friendly, but strict. As many strict working-class parents did at the time, Billy insisted that her kids -and that included me now- play outside when there wasn’t school, whether it was summer, fall, winter or spring.

When it was warm outside, her daughters, Karen and Heidi would show me all these cool places in the woods out behind the back of the rackety, paint-peeling barn. These places included a no-longer-used junkyard for old Volkswagens, tons of massive holes that had been dug by rodents, long, endless fields of cattails, spurs, dried up dandelions, mica, and paper birch trees, and ponds that were filled with polliwogs in all their yellowish, dingy, fish-smelling glory. The best part of our playing together was when we played vampire tag. Once you were tagged, you became a vampire, and then you were joining what eventually became a club of all-against-one blood-sucking night crawlers.

These games were really fun for an eight-year-old kid like me, even though the girls were a couple of years older than me and couldn’t stop treating me like I was their own child. This was especially the case with Karen, who was thirteen at the time, and fancied herself as an adolescent -which she told me meant “becoming an adult” in Latin. Heidi, come to think of it, treated me less like her child and more like a doll, which didn’t really make sense because she was the one who was missing her two top front teeth, and as far as I was concerned, this made her look like she was five years old when she was actually ten years old. That means she was two years older than me!

But, as the weather grew colder, we began to lose interest in outside games, and, even though we had to spend some time outside -even if it was cold- we were able to come in after dark. In rural Maine, there isn’t much to worry about when it comes to crime, but there were plenty of coyotes out there, and it was also very, very dark outside with no streetlamps for at least a couple of miles in each direction, and a whole lot of holes and patches of hills that we could easily have fallen into or down from.

By the time Christmas season was upon us, Karen and Heidi were spending more of their time indoors, watching TV, listening to the radio, playing records, and doing girly things I wanted no part of. I was okay with this, though, because I was beginning to find Bobby more interesting, now that the frigid Maine weather was so cold that he found himself more and more home in the isolated attic bedroom he had created for himself ever since he turned 13 three years earlier.

I thought Bobby was the coolest kid around. He looked somewhat like Peter Tork, a member of the band, The Monkees, and he even had the exact same haircut. At 15, going on 16, Bobby was already taller than everyone else in the house, had a deep man-like voice, spoke like a commander when demanding his privacy in an argument with his sisters, and could be found at all times of the day playing air guitar to Black Sabbath, Areosmith, Bad Company, ELO, and Rush in a bedroom filled with smoke -the sweet, yet gamey pungent type of smoke that could only come from the drug he called weed.

For some reason, I thought Bobby was cool, even though I didn’t want to do the things that he did and even though I didn’t really like the music that he liked. It may have been the air of confidence that he carried with him as he stomped around the house, went about his business, did his laundry and chores, and talked to his friends on the phone. But, it took a long winter of going into business with Bobby for me to really get the full sense of his true greatness, or, as the late, great John Wayne would have put it, his “true grit”.

This is because in the small rural town of Saco Maine, in the harsh, deadly winter of 1980, long before the era of cell phones, and the greatly expanded population of new residents, the carving out of a large number of new roads and streets, the instalments of streetlamps, and the welcome explosion of warm, heated 24-hour chain variety stores that lit up the winter skies with their bright neon signs, Bobby was a paper boy. From Monday through Saturday in both the mornings and the early evenings, Bobby walked a seven-mile paper route that spanned from the far-apart farmlands of Southwest Saco to the woodsy, well-populated closely-settled neighborhoods of Northeast Saco. I had known about Bobby’s job for a while since I arrived in June of that year, just a few months after my Dad and I arrived at the Blaise house. But, I later learned that Bobby would often take the opportunity to hang out with his buddies and smoke week along that paper route and to chuck down some “Buds” before returning home with some cash in his pocket (neighbors would leave cash in an envelope, which he was to mail into the newspaper companies at the end of each week).

One night, not long after the animated Christmas specials began to air on TV, just a few days after Thanksgiving, Bobby asked me to join him on his paper route. Though, I later learned that his friends didn’t like to go with him during the winter months, he told me at the time that they had homework to do, which is why they couldn’t join him.

We were in his bedroom, which was also my bedroom for the time being, though his territory was clearly marked with his blacklight velvet AC/DC posters, dirty socks, opened record sleeves, and smell of weed. I was sitting Indian-legged on the floor, thumbing through the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs when Bobby stepped up to me with his arms folded like a superhero and put the idea out there. “Listen,” he added after his initial offer, “I’ll give you two dollars each night and one dollar each morning that you work with me on the route, okay?” At that moment, I felt honored and lucky. I felt as though I was being invited into a world of business dealing, money-making, and the coolness of being an older boy who got to get out there into the world to make it on his very own.  I can hear it now, the wind scraping up against the window and tapping onto the rooftop alongside the crinkly sounds of the dried, crusty leaves that made their way across the rooftop, as Bobby sold me on the idea of being his wingman. His number two. His sidekick. His co-pilot. His right hand man.

The very next afternoon, around 3:30, we headed out and made our way to the end of the long wide road we lived on. We passed by only one house, and we didn’t stop, so I assumed that Bobby didn’t deliver the Portland Daily Item there. Luckily, it wasn’t really that cold out when we started out, though we both knew that the temperature was going to drop at least fifteen degrees by the time 4:30 came about, as this part of Maine was far up North enough and close enough to the coast to bring in the kind of icy cold that only Mainers could possibly know how to prepare for.

As expected, we both were sweating, as we were slightly overdressed for the occasion -the occasion being the first hour of our two-and-a-half hour trip. The itchiness of my purple and green plaid, knit-yarn scarf annoyed me as much as its strangling over-warmth did during that first hour as we made our way from one house to another. It didn’t help matters that the houses were far apart, which means we didn’t get that kind of accomplishment feeling we were looking for, when hurling a folded-up newspaper onto a front porch or placing it gently on top of the hooks underneath the black tin mailboxes.

Another aggravating part of the first half of our route was the pain I felt on my left shoulder, having slung the canvas bag strap up over my neck, so that it clung to my right hip. Obviously, as we went further down our journey, both of our bags grew lighter as we got rid of the cargo one small newspaper at a time. This process of unloading became all the more exciting once we hit the Northeast section of Saco, where the rich folks lived with their big houses, two cars, dogs and cats, and pretty Christmas lights and plastic reindeer displays on their rooftops and front lawns. The thing is, these people’s houses were closer together, so we were unloading the Portland Daily Item at breakneck speed -which was kind of an awesome feeling. It got especially awesome once Bobby collected the envelopes with cash. A few times, he would take the cash, and chuck the envelope into his canvas bag and stretch the dollar bills out to me and wriggle his eyebrows.

“Some of these will be yours by the end of the week”, he chortled with a kind of braggartly pride that I remembered seeing on Captain Kirk from those Star Trek shows I watched on Fridays.

All in all, the first part of our trip was pretty cool, as we talked about a bunch of stuff to whittle the time away, like pretty girls on that Dance Fever show, the acid blood from the movie “Alien” and Bobby’s plans to join the Marines when he hits 18, even if he didn’t hit high school. But, the second part of the trip -most of which involved our trek back- was not nearly as fun. From around quarter to 5 all the way to just after 6, when we finally made it home, the temperature dropped nearly seventeen degrees. What made this so painful for us was that we didn’t wear gloves. Bobby demanded that we leave our gloves and mittens behind so that we took less time grabbing the slippery plastic-covered newspapers from our bags and delivering them. The faster and earlier the delivery, the sooner we get home before the air dropped into an almost arctic freeze. Plus, dinner was always ready at 6:30, and Billy Blaise -her friends, including my Dad always called her by her fall name- refused to serve anyone who was late for dinner, refusing to be “a man’s slave”, as she often put it.

Over that arduous hour of return, when we dropped off our newspapers to the other sides of the streets we had already visited, the wind picked up speed and added a whistle sound that made it scarier than the darkness that eeked into our experience… that kind of eerie, pitch black darkness that even a black crayon couldn’t capture. It was the kind of black sky that reminded me of the burnt oil that Billy Blaise’s frying pans collected after the fourth or fifth mustard and egg sandwich has been made. Though the sky was nearly all black, it wasn’t totally dark because of the stars. The stars were so luminous and clear that I could see the world around me, though not in the greatest detail. For example, I couldn’t actually see the colors of my hands -which I knew were bright red from the cold! – but I could see that they were clearly there.

So, during that hour of return, I was very, very cold. The sweat that had gathered on my scarf that annoyed me earlier with its itchiness was now icing over and rubbing up against my neck. This gave me the shivers in exactly the same way that pouring water down the front of my shirt would in the summer, only this was bitingly painful. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t want to do that in front of Bobby. For some reason, when I looked up to my right, he always seemed to be walking with a no-big-deal attitude, breathing steadily, huffing a little bit, but still breathing steadily and not all seeming like he was in pain or like he wanted to get this ordeal over with. Though I couldn’t see the expression on the face of this darkly silhouetted older boy I looked up to, I imagined that he didn’t have any emotion on his face at all. Looking back now, I guess I could almost say that Bobby had a harsh, Spartan way about him. His ability to withstand pain without complaint was something I admired. And, it’s something I was not able to do at that age, or at any age since, to be honest.

It was during the last twenty minutes or so that I began to feel the cold in my toes. By then, my hands and fingers were throbbing almost angrily, and I had grown used to it, though it still was painful. Only now, my toes were so cold that they began to feel like they were burning hot. This was the moment when I did that thing that only annoying little boys do… that thing that I quietly promised myself I wouldn’t do?

“Are we there yet?” I desperately asked, secretly imagining myself getting a smack upside the head for being such a little tag-along wimp. And to my wonder, my delight, I utter surprise, relief, and sense of rightness in the world, Bobby responded.

“I fucking hope so, little dude. I’m so fucking cold, I swear I wanna cry!” He then slapped me on the upper back in a kind-hearted older brotherly type of way and yelped, “Let’s get our asses moving!”

We then sprinted home at breakneck speed, as the wind punched up against our glassy red faces. I couldn’t see that they were red, of course, but I just knew that they were red. This was some angry, loud whistling wind smacking up against us under the icy sky and there was no way that we weren’t turning red from that! As we hobbled through the crinkly dry leaves of the now-forgotten autumn, I could almost smell the fresh mint of snowfall that was on its way in the days to come, and, though I didn’t like the agony of my hot toes and the pain of my shoulders, I was really looking forward to doing the paper route in the snow. Everyone knows that it can’t snow if it’s as cold as it was on this night. And as the Blaise house came into view, we cranked up the speed so fast, that our nearly empty canvas newspaper bags whapped against our hips and sounded like two people were frantically knocking at a neighbor’s door.

When we arrived home, Billy Blaise was making American Chop Suey in the kitchen. I could smell the ground beef and green peppers more than anything else, and as we both kicked off our shoes, the hot pain of my frozen toes began to thaw into an even more painful tingle that felt even colder than it had before it felt hotter. Bobby then tossed aside his boots and rubbed his hands together.

“Hey, do this,” he gently commanded with a mentor’s smile. “It will warm you up and take your attention away from the rest of the coldness.

“Let’s go,” Billy Blaise squawked, ushering us to the table. Karen and Heidi were already seated, eating from their slices of Wonder bread and Land O’ Lakes margarine. Jerry wasn’t there, and neither was my Dad. They both worked as bouncers at Ricky’s Tavern in downtown Saco after their long day in the shop.

I sat down at the end of the table and put my hands around the orange plastic bowl of American Chop Suey, feeling its warmth in the palms of my hands, and barely hearing Karen and Heidi talking about this or that. And when I looked up, I noticed that Bobby was giving me a “thumbs up”. Though he didn’t say anything in particular, it was clear to me that he was saying “you did good, kid.”

I thought to myself, I like Bobby, Billy Blaise and this whole place.

And I slept well that night.


*Albert S. Twirr is the pen name of Steven Lawrence