This week’s Tuesday Tale:
Peter rolled out of bed and rubbed his eyes. He didn’t know it yet as he smoothed out his cowlicked hair, but today was a day he would remember for the rest of his life. He rushed downstairs and grabbed the slice of toast with jam his mother put out for him. When she told him to remember his manners, he muffled out a “thank you” between chews. She shook her head in disapproval, but was satisfied by his attempt. She could not be displeased with him, her ambitious nine year old rushing out the door for work as a newsboy. He was proud of his job and took it more seriously than she thought a boy of his age could, but Peter was always surprising her. His brothers weren’t half as mature as Peter, her middle child. He was ambitious, but quiet. She never doubted his ability, she just wished he would sit and finish his glass of milk before charging head first into the day.
Peter ran down the sidewalk. He was a fast runner and the chilled morning air that sucked through his nostrils awakened his senses like no other stimulant. Some boys had bikes, but Peter didn’t —not yet anyway. He was saving up for one. He had it all picked out at the store. It was a shiny blue bike with a little bell on the handle bars. He was halfway to putting down his money on it. Everyday between school letting out and his evening paper run he would stop by the store and eye it for a while. It would soon be his.
He got his stack of morning papers and launched his nimble legs down the path to his route. Most of the folks he delivered to were still asleep or just waking when he tossed the paper on their porch. Peter had good aim. Some boys would toss the paper and were satisfied if it landed in the correct yard, but Peter liked to make it land on the walkway or the porch. The porch was tricky because you didn’t want to bust a window or knock over a garden pot. Peter had only broken one pot in his career and since then he was especially careful. He had a good arm. It would get him into the big leagues one day though he hadn’t yet developed his passion for the sport.
He made it down the first street of houses in good time. If he finished early he could stop for a bottle of pop at the grocery store before school. That was his favorite way to begin his school day. The trick was to get pass Mr. Rufford’s house without wasting time. The old widow would sit on his porch with his morning coffee waiting patiently for Peter to come down the lane. Some days the man was content to sip his coffee in peace while other days demanded a brief chat to cover the how-do-you-do’s and how’s-your-family. Peter was versed in manners though it pained him to be delayed. Sure enough Peter could see Mr. Rufford sitting on his porch with his hot brew.
“How are you, Peter?”
Peter trotted up the walkway and handed the paper to him.
“I’m well, sir, and so is the family.”
Mr. Rufford smiled and nodded.
He unfolded the paper as Peter backed away, hoping to avoid any further questions.
“One moment, Peter.”
Peter frowned and stopped halfway back to the main sidewalk. He might not have time to get his bottle of pop now.
Mr. Rufford held up the newspaper. His knitted brow made him look serious and upset.
“Did you read the headline?”
“Peter, why don’t you sit on the porch with me for a minute.”
Peter looked down the sidewalk and shifted the heavy bundle of newspapers that were still in his sack. He didn’t want to accept the invitation, but he knew better than to disrespect his elders. Mr. Rufford was a friend of the family, a Sunday school teacher. Peter dropped his bag on the steps and sat down next to Mr. Rufford.
“Peter, you’re a good reader. Take a look at the paper.”
Peter obeyed. He read slowly so he wouldn’t miss the lesson Mr. Rufford found so important that it would interrupt his run. The words he read caused his mouth to go dry.
“What does it mean, Mr. Rufford?”
Mr. Rufford studied the paper for a moment. He looked grim.
“Well, son, it looks like you are delivering the news of the century this morning. The folks down at the printing press didn’t say anything to you when you picked up the papers this morning?”
Peter shook his head.
“What’s the stock market?”
Mr. Rufford’s lips spread over his face in a sort of smile, but Peter could tell the smile was sympathetic. Peter stretched over and looked again at the headlines. He wanted to know what he had missed.
“It means hard times ahead, son. Hard times. There’s a lot of rich boys who’ll lose their heads over this, lose all they think they’re worth. You can count on that.”
“Mr. Rufford, are you one of the rich boys?”
Mr. Rufford smiled and shook his head slowly.
“I’m not one of the rich ones and I’m not going to lose my head, Peter, but money’s going get real scarce mighty quick. The rich boys are in the big cities, they’re the ones that control things.”
“Looks like they didn’t do a good job of it.”
Mr. Rufford looked down at Peter and studied him for a moment.
“No, I guess they didn’t.”
“It doesn’t feel real, but you make it sound so bad.”
Mr. Rufford rested his hand on Peter’s shoulder.
“You run along, son. I’ve kept you here too long and you might be late for school.”
Peter jumped up, remembering the sack of undelivered papers. He ran down the sidewalk. His legs were agile and his arm accurate as he tossed paper after paper to Mr. Rufford’s neighbors. He stopped at the end of the street to look back at Mr. Rufford’s house. The man stood on the porch and held up his hand in a goodbye. Peter turned the corner to finish his route. He could not shake the haunting image of the widow watching him.
Peter pulled another paper from his bag and paused to read the headline again. The black, bold ink seemed to scream at him off the page. He shuttered and tossed the paper into the yard. It missed the walkway and the porch, but Peter didn’t care. An urgent need swept over him to rid his bag as quickly as possible of the ominous news. He knew little of the severity of this event, but Mr. Rufford was scared.
He hoped he would be distracted at school, but every child had learned the news from their parents, who learned it from the very newspapers that Peter delivered. He felt responsible for spreading the plague of gloom. Even the teachers were affected by it and their lessons that day were less about the book work and more about the nation’s economy.
These new, big words expanded like hot air balloons in his head. Words like “national economy” and “stock market” held dark and dangerous meanings. The papers that followed in the days and weeks only solidified the seriousness of it. He didn’t race to deliver the newspapers anymore and he always stopped to speak with Mr. Rufford.
Mr. Rufford explained why the rich boys in the city were jumping out of building windows.
Peter said one morning. He had exchanged his before-school bottle of pop at the grocery store for a cup of coffee on Mr. Rufford’s porch. The old man told him not to tell his mother he was drinking coffee, but said he figured Peter was old enough to handle the stuff.
“Last night Pa told me I couldn’t by the bicycle. I’ve been saving for it and I finally have enough money. Why won’t he let me buy it?”
Mr. Rufford frowned in his customary way.
“Your dad is a smart man, Peter. There’s harder times ahead. You keep saving your money, you’ll need it for more important things than a bicycle, I imagine. No matter how low they price that bicycle, you keep your money in your pocket, you hear?”
Peter nodded. He remembered and regretted that promise the next week when the bicycle was marked down half of its original price. But he was glad he listened to Mr. Rufford the following year.
Then one morning in that next year Mr. Rufford was not waiting for him and the morning paper. Peter bound the steps and rapped on the door. There wasn’t a sound from inside and then Peter heard something and waited until the door finally opened. Mr. Rufford looked pale and shallow. Despite his wrinkles and despair a faint smile forced his lips up.
“Good morning, Peter. I must have lost track of time. Come in.”
It was winter now and Peter was glad for a moment’s reprieve from the hard northern wind. He stepped gladly inside with anticipation of a hot brew of coffee. He was twelve now and quite old enough to drink the black beverage without secrecy.
“Mr. Rufford, it’s freezing in here!”
The old man frowned.
“I suppose the heat went out last night.”
Peter was wiser now and understood meanings behind people’s words. His voice dropped to a sober and respectful tone.
“Did they turn it off, sir?”
The old man nodded without apology. Honest men in hard times do not lie about their misfortune.
Peter dug in his pocket.
“Here, get it turned back on.”
Mr. Rufford stared at the wad of cash. He shook his head.
“Mr. Rufford, I kept saving the money like you told me. I kept it safe and close, just like you said. I never told you, but I almost bought that bicycle. I probably would have if I didn’t know that you’d see me riding it everyday. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have extra to give. I help my parents pay for their bills and I got enough to help you. The newspaper seems to be the only place where a fellow can keep a job.”
Peter stuffed the bills in Mr. Rufford’s front pocket.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Rufford.”
The old widow stood on the porch with his hand held up in a goodbye as Peter rushed off to school.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to follow the blog to receive these short stories in your inbox. Novel Jamie Morgan to come out in June! Stay tuned for updates on cover art and design! You won’t want to miss the release of this book. If you would like to a part of my advisory counsel, please message me. I am looking for a core group of people (15 people) ready to offer their opinions, insight and reviews on the book BEFORE it’s released!