“Son,” Daddy smiled ,”the Good Book says ‘if a man won’t work, he hadn’t ought to eat.’ Your Mama and I want you to eat, so we got you some work — carrying the Charlotte Observer.”
And that was the end of the discussion. Daddy brought me a used Schwinn Hornet, maroon, with a shock-absorbing spring on the front fork. I never liked the bike much because the front wheel always scraped when turned left.
But the Schwinn took me straight to the Depot steps at 6:30 every morning to pick up my 40 newspapers, dropped from the Observer truck while it was still pitch dark.
I biked through Polkton with those papers seven days a week. I biked through there without them about 10 o’clock every Saturday, hoping to collect money to pay the Observer and still have $15 left over to pay me. The Observer’s income was constant; my own varied according to my customers’ faithfulness in paying two dimes and a quarter per week.
A few of my customers did not pay well — some not at home when I came to collect, others sprinting away as my Schwinn came into view. But two others became the best-paying customers a Jimmy Brown could want. One of them was Mr. Duncan.
When we were small, my sisters and I walked to Mr. Duncan’s house to buy milk. If the weather was nice, we found the wise old gentleman sitting at a table on his front porch, sharpening the teeth on a sawmill saw.
“Hey young’uns,” he’d say. “Y’all go on in. Mama’s in the house.”
So we would go in, give Mrs. Nance the old bottle and a 50-cent piece, then take the fresh gallon of milk she brought from the ice box. She always made change from her apron.
“Thank you,” she would smile, handing me the coins. “Now …” she said, reaching back into her apron to take out three small rectangles of candy, wrapped in yellow paper, and banded with red cellophane. “Here’s y’all a Ma’y Jane.”
“Thank you Ma’am,” we said as we took her gift. We opened our Mary Janes, waved to Mr. Duncan as we left, then licked the peanut-butter candy all the way home. There, as soon as I handed the milk bottle to Mama, we viewed the world through strips of red cellophane.
Carrying my first paper toward his house, I saw Mr. Duncan get up from his sharpening and walk to the steps to meet me. On top of the brick porch column was a concrete cap with a tapered wooden box centered over it. The tapered white box held up the roof.
On the strip of concrete I saw three pieces of rusting metal.
Mr. Duncan lifted the top piece, revealing two crescents making a circle, just large enough to hold a quarter and two dimes.
“Under this saw bit,” Mr. Duncan smiled, holding up the metal crescent, “is where I’ll hide your money.” He paused. “Won’t matter if I’m playing checkers,” he continued, “or if I’m sitting in the swing, or filing on a saw bit, you just pick up your money. It will be here.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, handing him his paper, then taking a closer look at the hiding place.
Mr. Nance was a man of his word. He may not have given me a Mary Jane, but every time I came to collect, he gave me 45 cents inside three saw bits. Except once. That day I came to Mr. Duncan’s early, and beat him to the saw-bits by three steps.
My other really good customer was a young woman I’ll call Ree. She was 10 years older than me, a willowy blonde who wore business suits to work.
Like Mr. Duncan, she left her payment on the column of her porch, but on the side facing the house, where no one would see it. And she did so faithfully for the first 12 months I carried her paper. Then one Saturday, I walked around the column and looked to find no coins in the secret spot. I checked the other three sides of the column, then behind the screen door. No money anywhere.
I went back several times that day, but did not find her home. After that, when I left her paper, I checked the secret spot but still found nothing. Convinced that there was some reason she did not pay me, I kept on delivering the paper. She was a friend, after all. Daddy and I had done carpenter work in her home, which had leather furniture and an inside bathroom. She wouldn’t hold my money back on purpose.
But after three weeks with no pay, I decided I had to find a way to get my money. I never thought of calling her, because a phone-less kid just doesn’t think of such things. What could I do to get her attention? Maybe I could write her a letter. But what would I say? I wanted action, not words. The only thing I could do that might spur her into action was to hold back her copy of the Observer. So next Sunday, I did not stop at Ree’s house.
The next morning, I got a phone call at school.
“Leon?” the voice said.
“This is Ree.”
“I didn’t get a paper today,” she said.
“No.” She paused. “How soon can you bring me one?”
“I can’t leave school right now.”
“Well, when can you bring it?”
“You can’t?” she paused. “Just what do you mean, you can’t?”
“I’m sorry, Ree. I just can’t.”
“Why on earth not?”
“Ree, I’ve brought you papers for three weeks. And I haven’t gotten a penny for it.”
“I’ll pay you next week.”
“No,” I said. “I can’t do that. I can’t bring you another paper, until you pay me.”
“I have never heard such impertinence in my life,” she said, then took a deep breath. “Leon Smith, I’m going to speak to your father.”
“He’s not home now.”
“When will he be home?”
“Tonight. Probably about 7.”
“You tell him I’m coming to see him, tonight. At 7.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. When I hung up the phone, I laughed, but wasn’t sure why.
That night, after supper, I told Daddy I stopped Ree’s paper and she called me at school.
“You didn’t sass her, did you son?”
“No, sir,” I answered. “I told her I stopped the paper because I hadn’t been paid.”
“You didn’t do anything that would make me ashamed of you,” Daddy said.
“Daddy, I didn’t.”
“I’ll see what she’s got to say.”
I walked back to the front room to wait for Ree to come. She would go to the back door, which opened into the kitchen. I was glad, because I didn’t want to face her.
But just before the mantel clock struck 7, I heard a knock at the door.
I opened it. It was Ree.
“You’ll regret this day,” she said as she breezed past me, then looked back. “Where is your father?”
“In the kitchen,” I said, then watched until she entered the kitchen and closed the door behind her.
I would like to have heard what was said, but with three doors standing between me and the kitchen, I couldn’t even make out the tone of their voices.
I sat down and drummed on the arm of the plastic couch. Just a few minutes later, I heard high heels clicking, and Ree breezed by me again, but said nothing. Her face was red and I noticed she was not stepping as high as when she passed me the first time. I opened the door for her. She did not say “goodbye.”
Then I walked back to the kitchen. “What happened, Daddy ?” I asked.
“We just talked a little bit,” he smiled.
“Well,” he said. “ Not that she liked it,” he said. “ But she left you something.” He pointed to three quarters and six dimes stacked neatly, by size, on the kitchen table.
I started Ree’s paper back the next day. She remained cool for a couple of weeks, but long before I stopped carrying the news we became friends again.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.