It was unseasonably warm for November, and the last of the Santa Ana winds had died down. Workers had cleared all the trees and big branches off the streets. A man driving slowly in an old but shiny Cadillac called out, “Hey, young man, would you like to make some money on a paper route?”
Bradley skidded his bike to a stop as the big car pulled to the curb. The rule to stay away from strangers was trumped by the promise of money, and he responded without delay, "Yeah, when can I start?”
"How old are you?" said the man, who introduced himself with a long name that sounded like Constantinople without the C. “But everyone calls me Mr. O.” He smiled and winked, which made Bradley notice the deep wrinkles in his face. A slight man in a loose grey suit complete with a hat tilted to one side, he looked like he belonged in an old gangster movie.
“I just turned ten today." You had to be ten to get a paper route, everybody knew that. He wouldn’t be ten until later that month, but he wanted to help his family so it was okay to lie about something stupid, like his age.
“Happy birthday, young man. I will need you to come and fill out a paper and have your parents sign it for permission. Call me tomorrow.” He handed the boy a business card, which Bradley promptly deposited in his jacket pocket. Then the man took another look at his new paperboy, looked him up and down, and smiled again. His mouth opened to say something but no words came out. Instead, he just tipped his hat and drove off.
Bradley didn’t know why, but he trusted Mr. O. Maybe it was his big shiny car or the way his eyes twinkled. Maybe it was his polite manner and his business card. The boy had no reason to suspect the newspaper distributor; an adult would surely have caught on to his pedophile fantasies from the way he had looked Bradley over.
Rather than be wary of Mr. O., Bradley wondered what his life would be like if the man were his father. He was naïve in that way. Pedaling home, he imagined how his earnings would help with rent. Thanks to him, they would never get evicted again, which gave him a warm feeling all over. He pedaled faster and faster, picturing himself handing the money over to Mom, right in the nick of time, when she had come up short.
Natalie had just made a coconut cake, Mo’s favorite. He was fresh out of L.A. County jail, where he had been on his birthday, and she wanted to celebrate. But when Bradley told her that he was getting a paper route and would help pay the bills, she cut him the first piece of cake and served it with a single candle sticking out of it. “Happy birthday, my little angel!” she crooned, and set it down on the kitchen table as if it were a gift from heaven.
“My birthday is in two weeks,” he said. Correcting his mother made him curl his toes inside his shoes.
“I know!" she said, “I'll never forget that special day ten years ago! I wanted you more than anything…nobody was going to take my baby away. But Dad is home and I want to take care of him too.” There were empty beer cans on the table, and he could hear Mo talking to the TV in the other room.
It was hard to believe his birth was that special when she couldn’t even get the day right. But he stayed excited. Forgetting that his earnings were already earmarked for rent, he figured that the fifty dollars a month he would make would buy some clothes and that Jeffrey would have lunch money at school and not get hassled by the rich kids for using their free tickets. With anything left over, Bradley would open a bank account and the principle of compounding interest would make him wealthy by the time he finished high school. Then he could take care of the whole family, even their drunk Dad. Yeah, there was no stopping him now.
Natalie cut a bigger piece of coconut cake for Mo and grabbed another beer, which she delivered to him where he sat like a chieftain in his tattered armchair hollering at the fights on TV.
“Hit ’em! Break that sucker’s jaw,” he bellowed. “C’mon, punk, make me some money, dammit.” Mo knew all about boxing; he was a fighter himself. He was also a dedicated gambler and was sure he was going to collect on this one. “Thank you, baby!” he said, grabbing the beer to let Natalie set the cake down on a rickety TV tray. The sound of him playfully spanking her rear and the crack of a beer can opening was music to Bradley’s ears. They were happy.
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