THE STRANGER

I could see someone standing under the streetlight. A dark figure. A man. He was standing amid the bundles of Sunday papers that had been tossed out onto the corner beside Mary's Confectionary. I slowed my pace; my heart began to thump. I was always the first paperboy there in the morning to gather up the papers for my route but this time a stranger was there standing in the predawn mist.

As I slowly approached, his features became clear. A large nose jutted over a sunken, toothless mouth. A crumpled felt hat sat cocked above a wrinkled face. Large hands dangled from the sleeves of a corduroy coat.

"Hi, pal," he said.

I couldn't help but smile. "Grandpap! What are you doing here?"

"I came to help ya deliver your papers. You said the Sunday papers were heavy, didn't ya?"

I was overjoyed. My father never did anything like that for me. It would never have even occurred to him. But my grandfather was there and that's all that mattered.

We sat on the sidewalk together under the dead sign of the corner grocery store. The two of us; the only two people awake in the whole city, stuffing the funnies and supplementals into each thick addition. Folding them into neat tossable rolls until our fingers were black with ink.

The Sunday additions were backbreakers and I was a scrawny eleven-year-old kid. Every Sunday I'd commandeer a baby stroller from under the porch of a nearby house and load it with papers. I'd push that thing all over town and have it back by daybreak before anyone ever knew it was missing. But this morning it would not be necessary.

My old gray paper sack looked like a giant Thanksgiving turkey as my grandfather hoisted it onto his shoulder. He was a big man and fairly fit for seventy-three years old. He always reminded me of Baloo the bear from the Jungle Book, a big gray lazy bum with nothing to do and all day to do it in. And I was the lucky boy who got to pal around with him.

He used to take me to the racetrack and tell me not to tell my mother or grandmother. It was so exciting to see the horses run. Hear the clang of the bell; the thunder of hooves as they kicked up the dirt; the tiny jockeys in colorful silks clinging to the backs of those huge animals. The observation deck littered in drifts of losing stubs, like the forgotten remnants of some raucous ticker tape parade.

My grandfather would introduce me to broken down old jockeys who were no taller than I was; their pants hiked clear up to their armpits. I got to meet real-life gangsters from the thirties who were now just musty old men, leftovers of a bygone era squandering the remnants of adventurous lives.

My grandfather's brother, Uncle Francis, worked at the track as a placing judge. He was a bent old man with bowed legs, who waddled like a penguin and puffed his cheeks out as he ambled along. He always chuckled when he saw me. Gave me a dollar and mussed my hair.

When my grandfather was younger, he and Uncle Francis owned several racehorses. Big winners with names like Wood Pigeon, Wee Miss Sue and My Pal Bill. My grandfather used some of his winnings to buy a farm across the river where he now boarded racehorses to make a few extra bucks to gamble.

He'd been around gambling and gangsters his whole life. In his youth, he played banjo in a Dixieland band. I remember seeing an old photograph of him standing with his band; a row of jaunty men sporting slicked hair, striped jackets and baggy knickers. They played on riverboats and in speakeasies all along the Ohio River. It was in places like these that my grandfather was first bitten by the gambling bug. He got so good at cheating that he gave up his career in music for a career in organized crime. He started out in the Ohio Valley and eventually went on to work for some of the biggest gangsters in the country. He fleeced gamblers in smoky clubs with marked cards and loaded dice. He was in The Club Diamond when three hoodlums with stockings over their heads robbed the casino at machine-gun point. He was on the Old Iron Sides in Los Angeles when the Feds measured the gambling boat's distance from the shore and raided it, shutting it down once and for all. He'd lived an amazing life. Won big money, loved fast women and stolen from dangerous men.

And now here we were, the two of us gallivanting through the sleepy neighborhoods, he shouldering the heavy paper sack, me shuttling the papers to the proper doorsteps and mailboxes.

My grandfather chattered like a schoolboy as we walked together through the cool morning air. He told me that when he was my age, he used to deliver the very same rout. How he had a dog named Teddy, who would go with him. A scruffy old border Collie that he loved and who was killed by a car one morning as my grandfather delivered his papers. He told me who used to live in what house and when and how they died. He showed me the home of his first love and the houses of his boyhood friends. All dead or moved away.

We traipsed across brick patios, sprawling lawns and toy-strewn yards. Braved barking St. Bernards and sidestepped steaming land mines in the grass bigger than pop cans. We crept onto creaking porches and climbed high brick terraces. We slogged up long wooden staircases to rows of houses hidden on tree shaded back roads.

The sky was growing light, gradually turning our dark world to gray and then to color. The first rays of the sun winked over the trees filling our eyes as I placed the last paper onto a doorstep. Soon the whole city would be alive with the peel of church bells and people all across town would go to their stoops and porches and patios and mailboxes to find the Sunday Intelligencer. The paper that somehow always mysteriously appeared to bring them the news of the city and the world.

My grandfather and I ambled down the hill together casting long thin shadows. He hung the empty paper sack around my neck and then rubbed my shoulder. I looked up at him, that wrinkled old man, wondering what possessed him to show up that morning. Maybe he knew his days were numbered and was thinking of the past, or maybe he loved me and was thinking of my future. It didn't matter, I was just glad that we were together.