“Island Papergirl” By Karen Bowers

         Every day of the week.

         Every week of the month.

         Every month of the year.

         There isn’t any job comparable to daily newspaper home delivery. Even post office couriers swiftly completing their appointed rounds through snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night get time off. Holidays too.

         For three years I tossed newspapers, folded and restrained in knotted plastic bag raincoats. For thirty-six months I honed a sidearm pitch out the driver’s side window, polished the flip through the open sunroof. Dispensed headlines for over a thousand nights in the vicinity of customers’ yards, driveways, and sidewalks.

         I staggered the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep on a fragmented schedule. Said goodnight at nine, slept ’til one, muddled through the convoluted beat ’til six, wove home, fell into bed, and resurrected at ten. The forty winks deficit surpassed bleary eyes and cavernous yawns. I dozed at the wheel and stopped short from driving into canals. My emotions skewed. My body chemistry changed. My brain fried.

         The tire tread, grated by abrasive coral rock side streets, wore down to bristly threads every six months. I could change flats in less than twenty minutes, thirty when it was raining. Geico’s 1-800 roadside service number programmed on direct dial was one tap away for loosening rusty lug nuts and system breakdowns exceeding my capabilities.

         The constant veering and three-point turns ruined the rack part of the rack-and-pinion steering. The telltale grinding when cornering signaled it was time to pull over, pop the hood, dump power steering fluid into the reservoir, and call the repairman. I was the Cudjoe Key mechanic’s most consistent customer. Read every greasy magazine in Do-It-Again-Dave’s greasy office.

         The side job was profitable when gasoline exceeded $4 a gallon, attributable to Cherryette, my 10-year-old scarlet five-speed manual transmission Honda Civic, averaging thirty-eight miles to a gallon. And a twenty-six-thousand-mile tax deduction on the IRS Schedule C Business Profit and Loss statement.

         In some ways, the seventy-two-mile, four-hour daily stint back and forth and side to side on the ten square mile island was the coolest gig on my Renaissance Woman resume. A regular freewheeling liberal arts program. Worldwide events recapped on NPR and BBC. Literature-on-CD borrowed from the Big Pine Key library. Stargazing astronomy, navel-gazing philosophy, and middle of the night guidance counseling for friends with insomnia. I stretched my vocal cords, uninhibited, to musical selections from extensive iPod Nano playlists — Blues, Classical, Mirrorball Magic (“I Will Survive” disco era), Garrison Keillor’s Songs of the Cat, Shakin’ and Stirred (jazzy cigar and martini lounge crooning), and More Cowbell (Rock-n-Roll).

         The first time I called “The Man Inside Your Radio” Rich Davis, WLRN’s live on-air host spinning Caribbean music from one to five am Wednesday through Sunday, I sounded like a nervous chipmunk. He dedicated shout-outs to late night workers and because I contacted him, he added Key West Citizen to his list of newspaper delivery people. Without exception, I woohoo-ed every time he broadcast directly to me and became a semi-frequent, less anxious caller. It was Rich who christened me in his silken Jamaican cadence, “Yer de Island Papergirl.”

         I owned the streets from two till six. Motorists who dared congest my roadway were despicable, including all forms of law enforcement. Sworn officers from Homeland Security, Florida Fish and Wildlife, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), ATF, FBI, DEA, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, State Highway Patrol, Monroe County Sheriff Deputies, and Key West Police — out of their jurisdiction — all had the authority to ruin my night.

         Recent Sheriff Department recruits were not briefed about the red Honda winding through Big Pine neighborhoods. Rookies were left to find out what I was up to for themselves. One new kid on the beat tailed me from a bar where I hotfooted up the u- shaped drive and without stopping dropped a paper at the carry-out door, sped down the incline, and cut across the highway to the Circle K gas station. Backlit by flashing red and blue lights, he hitched up his pants and sauntered toward the pumps.

         I asked the officer, “What’s up?” as I squeegeed the windshield. “You have a license plate light out.”

         “A what?”

         “The light on your license plate is out.” “There’s lights on license plates?”

         “Uh. Yeah.”

         “Huh. I never knew that. Show me.”

         The county mounty shepherded me to the rear of Cherryette. I was apprised of the bulb’s location.

         “Well, I’ll be. How the heck do you change those things? Lucky for me you saw the defect and took the time to point out this accident waiting to happen.”

         Thrown off balance and reassured that I wasn’t drunk, only a smart-ass, he left for bigger and better busts. I started the car, yanked the parking brake lever, tromped to the alleged infraction, and documented the fully illuminated license plate with my phone’s camera. Just in case.

         The final straw, a four-cop car blockade in a subscriber’s semi-circle driveway, broke my stamina. Two cruisers in front and two behind barricaded the exit until they determined I wasn’t a recalcitrant criminal or felonious thug. I gave the trainees and their supervisor a complimentary newspaper and before returning home, hightailed it to the nearest Sheriff’s Substation, and posted a palatable note on the bulletin board. In so many sweeter words, it said, “Leave the papergirl the fuck alone.”

         Officers are habituated to nothing but crime happening after midnight. Not true. Goodness, innocent high-jinks, and squeaky-clean sights only seen in the dark of night were plentiful. Subscribers left shares of their bounty from bumper crops of key limes, mangoes, and bananas, some baked into scrumptious cakes. Croaking concerts followed lavish monsoon thunderstorms. Puddles and rain-soaked groves hosted froggy glee clubs, a thousand voices strong and louder than a tabernacle gospel choir.

         The moon eclipsed, waned from full, to a sliver, to gone, and revived to round and auspicious. There were private shows of spectacular celestial pyrotechnics. The strobe flash of inaudible heat lightning haloed looming banks of storm clouds. Unearthly green phosphorescent ball lightning flared above the ground and vanished. I never ran short of heart’s desires for the wealth of falling stars streaking through the night in a fiery blaze.

         Silly without condemnation, I yelled, “WHALE BOX!” at the mailbox fabricated to look like Moby Dick. Hung my head out the window like a wind sniffin’ beagle and inhaled the deep woods earthy essence as I rounded the cul-de-sac girded with a wreath of tall pines. I parked at the end of Long Beach Road and skipped to the beat of an iPod song a half a mile back to the last three houses on the route. Key deer, the only witnesses, peered from scrappy underbrush and watched me dance like a spazz in the center of the empty street.

         Deer, raccoons, ’possums, and someone’s pet bunny were perpetual members of the midnight zoo. Once, at o’dark thirty, there was a mound in the middle of the street. I downshifted and coasted closer for a look-see. What I misidentified as a black garbage bag stretched up on four legs and lumbered to the roadside, sweeping a long broad tail in an opposing rhythm. The Hefty Bag was an apathetic alligator.

         Tropical flower aromas were richest at night, as was the seaweed stench rotting on the leeward side of the island during summer’s dog days. In chillier winter months, when nighttime temperatures dipped into the sixties and clashed with the warm water surrounding the islands, low-lying fog lazed ten feet off the ground, vaporizing before subscribers scuffed, half asleep, to fetch their newspapers. Excessive moisture saturating nocturnal air exaggerated the orangish-yellow tint from sodium vapor streetlights. The sky filled with a radiance that looked like a glow from a raging forest fire. Mingled with the wispy, smoky fog, I misread the mirage as a fiery tempest and a judicious rationale to call 911. Oops. I’m sure the dispatcher had worse nights.

~ ~ ~ ~

         I wasn’t waiting until retirement to live in the Florida Keys. Judging from past, present, and presumed future, I’d never amass enough capital to unshackle from the employment ball and chain.

         In 2003, my endless summer’s fate was at a do-it-or-ditch-it crossroad. There were twice as many commercial photographers in my Ohio hometown and half as much work from when I opened a studio business in 1991. Furthermore, the industry was deadlocked. Go digital or go home. Rather than pour a conversion investment into a choked market, I shuttered the photography studio and picked up odd jobs to eke forward. Substitute teaching. Marketing and development mentor for non-profits. Hawking beer and bait at a Lake Erie marina convenience store. The timing for selling real estate was on the bell curve’s skyward swing, a tad prior to the wild rush. The house, titled to me before the marriage and retitled after the divorce, sold in a flash.

         I moved nine times in the next ten years. The housing situation in the Keys was atrocious before getting obscene. Cheap rent typically meant leasing from cheapskates who regarded renters as disposable slum. As house values in the Keys increased thirty to thirty-five percent annually and flipped faster than pancakes at an IHOP, luck finding a replacement home within my budget was running out. My housing got pricier and buggier with each change of residence.

         I lucked into a shimmering pot o’gold where I didn’t have to split space and expenses with degenerate leprechauns. I hated communal residency. I was cantankerous with college roommates when I was twenty-one. Marriage wasn’t much better when I was thirty-three. In my late forties and early fifties, when it came to having people around who drank my beer, ate my ice cream, doubled up on dishes and dirt, it was beyond the pale. The low-cost caretaker cottage was a double rainbow, impregnable from anyone’s questionable ethics, negligence, unreliability, and flakiness. Boom or bankruptcy was up to me, alone.

         Swinging solo housing expenses on the proceeds from my primary job was tight. A steadier cash flow from a supplemental revenue stream would loosen the pinch as long as it didn’t interfere with the demands of my seasonal event director duties. A second job had to be part-time and disposable because my dad was dying. A furlough to jet to my parents’ home within a moment’s notice was a non-negotiable condition. A $9 flight club membership for the airline industry’s dingiest dog furnished cut-rate trips to Michigan. Since Dad’s cancer diagnosis, I finagled the no-frills flight three times. There wasn’t any job worth missing the chance to say goodbye while he was still breathing.

         The ideal employment opportunity magically appeared, perhaps manifested by Jungian synchronicity from my daydream. A la Celestine Prophecy’s there’s-no-such- thing-as-coincidence coincidence, the source of extra income, exactly what I ordered, landed in my lap. I negotiated a spur-of-the-moment departure clause into the contract and signed on as a freelance regional news dispatcher for Big Pine Key.

         At the start of the second year on the job, I subcontracted half of the route. We each drove two hours which meant two extra hours to sleep. I covered the far side of Big Pine. He, a sous chef by day, faithfully handled the in-town deliveries up to the night after the Fourth of July pub crawl in Key West. In a reversal of fortune and circumstance, my employee showed up on the Monroe County Sheriff’s mugshot Webpage — the go-to reference for new hires and in this case, a sad end to the dynamic duo of Island Papergirl and Newsboy.

         From the instability in my life, I was learning to practice gratitude. It started with minimal appreciation, noticing the smallest blessings. The cat threw up on the tile and missed the rug. The antiquated JohnRude outboard on my pontoon party barge started on the first try. Hurricanes blinked by the Keys. I added, “able to pay the rent” and “a roof over my head” to the list in my journal and then put the list-making out to pasture when I came up against being grateful for sturdy moving boxes. Subsequently, I’ve kept acknowledgments generalized to ward off any specific jinxes. I take great care in what I pray for, otherwise there might be opportunities granted to practice patience, humility, and graciousness. My thanksgiving has restyled to an earnest, “Thank you for this day and for the blessings of yesterday, today, and those that are on their way.”

         Blessings like when the rut-crazed doe was flushed out from behind a parked van by the paper I tossed and smashed Cherryette’s right front fender before skipping off into the woods. After the $500 deductible, the insurance company issued a check for $159.20. The vet bill for the cat suffering from a stressed-induced bladder infection during a recent move amounted to $158, leaving a surplus of $1.20. I pocketed the profit and put big Band-Aids on Cherryette’s dent.

         My bumpy life has always worked out fine. As Rich Davis advised, “If you choose to make it so, your biggest problem can become your most valuable and promising opportunity. If you choose to make it so.”

When photography converted from film to digital, Karen Bowers retired as a commercial photographer and moved to the Florida Keys where she reinvented herself as a destination marketer. She promoted and directed a successful southernmost beach launch dragon boat race until relocating to Arizona. She currently writes from her 1914 hermitage and works as a pro tem librarian in rural Arizona, substituting whenever and wherever needed throughout Yavapai County. She has completed a memoir titled Pushed off the High Dive. Island Papergirl is a mash-upped excerpt from the manuscript. 

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