It was still dark when Chelsea rattled my arm, waking me up. “Get up,” she said. She said it was time for me to earn my worth. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but I was about to find out. I didn’t know then what time it was (four in the morning), but this would soon be my daily ritual. I would help Chelsea deliver The Breeze. The old Mexican man would sleep on the couch until Chelsea roused him. He would drape a towel over his head and hide from the world. I couldn’t blame him.
The entire truck was filled with newspapers. Chelsea handed me a mealy apple–I ate half of it and spit the rest into the sand. It was so different than what Gaga fed me. Chelsea was behind the wheel and she drove fast. She showed me what to do the first few times. In a gigantic coffee can, Chelsea kept cracked pink rubber bands. The color reminded me of the walls in my Aunt Penny’s winter house. She wrapped several newspapers in rubber bands and slowed down to fifty miles an hour to toss the newspapers into the dark. I couldn’t even see a house through the dark, but she did. Chelsea could drive the route in her sleep. I wondered what had happened to the jackrabbits.
“That’s all you do,” she said. “I’ll drive. You band ‘em and chuck ‘em out the window. I’ll tell you when.”
That was all there was to it, but the problem was Chelsea drove so fast in the dark, I didn’t know when I should throw the newspaper. I could tell if she slowed down to twenty miles an hour, but at fifty it was difficult to know if she was just hugging a curve or if I should throw the newspaper. I couldn’t see a thing aside from the triangle of her headlights. The distance between houses was so great it was often difficult to anticipate when the next one was coming around the bend.
“Throw!” she’d bellow. Then she’d slam on her brakes. “What are you waiting for? Throw, dimwit!” I would hesitate to see if I could see where I was throwing the newspaper. Aunt Chelsea didn’t care, as long as the newspaper landed in the vicinity of the house. “You’d better get it together, kid,” she said. “Chuck the thing!”
So this is what I did: I just began to throw the newspaper into the void. I would watch the white tube whirling out of the truck window, and sometimes I could even hear a distant scuffing sound as the newspaper careened across pavement or asphalt or gravel or pebbles. The newspapers landed with a hard scraping sound: no grass, no lawns. I imagined scores of scuffed rolls of newsprint.
The job became easier around 6:00, when the light began to creep into the sky and dribble down onto the road. But by 6:30, we were just about finished. Chelsea drove the entire county, and just about every inhabitant in the area got The Breeze. Chelsea said the job helped pay the bills.
“Since you’re eating for free, there’s a price. The newspapers are the damn price,” she said. By the end of the route she was in a better mood. She began smoking her cigar when the light appeared. I asked her why the newspaper was called The Breeze.
“Are you kidding me?” I wasn’t sure what that meant.
When we returned to her shack I always wanted to fall asleep. But this was when Chelsea put me to work doing other things around the house. She had me dust the antler lamps. She had me dust and shake the many coyote skins. She had me wash the Adirondack chairs. She had me clean the chair made of antelope bones. She had me dust the saws that hung on the wall. Chelsea thought it was especially important for me to sweep. She had me sweep the house for an hour every day, even if there was nothing to sweep. “That way, you don’t get beetles chewing on you,” she said. Chelsea would watch me work. Sometimes she would tell me start all over again. Oddly, Chelsea never had me work with food. Food was not important to Chelsea. Staying with her, I felt lucky to eat at all.
Often she pointed to the red door that led to the basement. “That’s the place where you can’t go. Understand? I don’t want you opening the door. I don’t even want you thinking of opening the door.” She said that if she found me in the basement it would be the end of my stay with her. Chelsea said she didn’t need to watch a kid who couldn’t listen to his elders, who didn’t show respect. Sometimes I thought Aunt Chelsea didn’t trust anyone, not even herself.
On that first full day living with Aunt Chelsea, I asked her where I would be going to school. She said I wouldn’t be.
“You’re going to be schooled right here. Got all the paperwork myself. I’m going to be your teacher.” Chelsea cracked another beer open and downed it.
This was the worst news I had heard since I arrived. It was one thing to work and to sleep on the floor–I had done these things before. But I had always gone to school. I didn’t understand how I could stay home and learn anything at all.
“Come ‘ere,” she said. She pointed to a nicked bureau in her room and said that was where she kept books. She told me to go ahead and open it up, see what I found inside. “Go get yourself a book to read from there. This is the way it’s gonna be.”
I did as she said. Inside the bureau was a small stack of dusty, yellowed books. Some of the books didn’t have covers. Some of the books were missing pages. I picked up one book with a dusty black cover. I didn’t know where to start, so I took that one out and closed the rest of them back up in the bureau. Chelsea said I would only need an hour or two every day to do my schoolwork. Her house smelled of dead animals. I wasn’t sure if that was from the coyote and fox rugs, the antler lamps, or what. Sometimes the smell seemed to come from the ground itself.
“School’s not that important in the scheme of things,” she said. “Life is work, doing things.”
When I wanted to do school work, Chelsea said she needed me to go out and sweep the driveway. I wasn’t sure how to sweep dirt from gravel, but I just went ahead and gave it my best shot. Other times, Chelsea would have me clean the brush. I wasn’t sure what to do, and Chelsea didn’t give me directions. Chelsea was as demanding as my grandmother. But unlike Gaga, Chelsea’s jobs didn’t seem urgent. It seemed as if she just came up with the chores to keep me busy. It seemed as if she just threw in the towel, as if she’d rather just keep me busy until she could figure out what to do with me. When Chelsea was home she was always on the phone, smoking cigarettes and talking to men. I could hear deep voices radiate from the receiver of her phone. The deep timbre sounded menacing to me.