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Andrew Dugas

COLLECTION DAY

On collection day, my favorite stop is always the Delasariosí. Theirs is the last house on my paper route, a short-cut runs from their side yard through a strip of woods to my street, and those same woods offer a great spot for smoking an end-of-route joint.

But the best reason is that Lisa Delasario is hot, and she always answers the door because Mrs. Delasario is never home.

When Danny and I talk about the girls we'd like to nail, Lisa Delasario tops the list every time. Not that a high-school girl would have anything to do with a couple of seventh-graders. Rumor is that sheís got a rich boyfriend who goes to Fairleigh Dickinson or Rutgers. We donít care and we donít feel bad about spying from the woods when she and her friends sunbathe on the Delasariosí back deck.

I ring the bell and there she is, black hair feathered and blow-dried like an Italian Farrah Fawcett-Majors, big boobs filling her tight softball jersey, round ass squeezed into painted-on Jordache jeans. Her brown eyes inspect me and a womanly fragrance hits my nose and travels down my spine.

"What is it, dweeb?"

"Collection day. Is your Mom home?"

"Is she ever home? How much is it?"

"Two-forty for the week." I hold up the metal ring with their collection card on top. She looks down at it, her hair touching my arm like a hundred little live wires.

"Wait here." She slips inside, door left ajar like an unanswered question. In my private fantasies, she invites me inside for a soda because itís such a hot day and nobody else is home.

A moment later, Lisaís back, shoving three crumpled singles at me.

"Let me get your change," I say. The door slams before I can finish.

I hesitate, hoping she reappears and invites me inside. I pretend to organize my subscriber cards, but Iím dreaming if I think that doorís going to open again.

I tell myself that itís okay. Iím happy about the tip, and the day is done. Supperís not for a couple more hours.

Time to smoke that joint.

I cut around the side of the house and take the path into the woods. The trees are fat with summer leaves and the shaded air cool.

A side path leads to a pile of granite boulders with a big opening in the middle. When my neighborhood pals and I were little, the boulders played many roles in our games. Fortress, lifeboat, the USS Enterprise, Mount Everest, German POW camp.

I sit down on a low slab and fish the joint and matches out of my sock. One last look around at the houses on either side of the woodsóthe coast is clearóand I light the thing, taking a good long hit. The smokeís harsh and makes me cough like I have dry gravel in my throat. I use every muscle in my being to fight the cough and even press my canvas newspaper bag over my mouth.

The rush comes on and my body relaxes. I lean back onto the slab, stare up into the green branches, and sigh. Right away I wish I had something to drink, which makes me think about Lisa and how nice it would be to sit together in her kitchen or maybe on the couch, sipping a cold soda and breathing in her mysterious fragrance. If I close my eyes and try hard, I can almost smell it again.

Then I hear a noise, the metallic bang of a screen door. I peek over the boulders, and goddammit, Coach Clausen is in his backyard. He must have heard me coughing. I slip the joint and matches into a crack between two rocks.

What the hell is he doing home? The last thing I need is to get busted by a prick like him. Last year, he benched me and Danny in town league baseball because he smelled cigarettes on us.

When we protested, he said, "Oh yeah? Maybe you want to explain to your parents the reason? Maybe you want me to do it for you?"

A prick, like I said. Danny and I still laugh about how once, before an important game, he rallied the team by producing a baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio. He wouldn't let anyone touch it, of course. Never even took the ball out of its protective plastic cube. He just stood there, a slightly older version of the Six Million Dollar Man, plastic cube held aloft like a trophy.

"You guys want your name on a baseball someday? Do ya?! You want a bunch of kids looking up to you like Joltin' Joe?"

"You mean that old man on the Mr. Coffee commercials?" Danny cracked.

Coach Clausen ignored him and went on with the same old speechógot to hustle, eye on the ball, practice practice practiceóbut we could tell he was pissed.

That was right before we quit. We had better things to do anyway. Once upon a time we mightíve thought he was cool, but he was just another ass wipe on a power trip. Fuck him and fuck his special baseball. Maybe if it had been signed by Hank Aaron.

Coach Clausen walks back and forth on his patio, like heís thinking hard about something, then abruptly turns and comes into the woods.

I duck back down and hold my breath, expecting him to any second loom over me and pluck me up like a mouse. But nothing happens. I peer over the boulders and there he is, not even near me, but going out the other side, into the Delasariosí yard. He strides up the steps to their back deck, right to the kitchen door, like he owns the place. He doesn't even knock, just turns the knob and slips inside.

My mind goes blank. A hollowness expands in my gut, half hunger, half tummy ache.

A moment later, Lisa appears in the small picture window. Coach Clausen comes up behind her and bites her neck. She laughs like it tickles. A second later, the Venetian blinds drop and flip closed.

My belly contracts to a jagged coal. Not Lisa. It canít be. Motherfucking son of a bitch. I want to kill Coach Clausen, I want to shove that baseball down his throat.

I stand up, thinking I should march in and bust them. Point my finger at Coach Clausen and tell him to eat shit and die.

But when I get to the path, I chicken out and turn right instead. My planís to cut through the Clausen's yard and come out their driveway, but a strange current takes hold of me. Once my scout troop went whitewater canoeing in the Catskills and it felt like this, like being picked up and carried away by an irresistible force.

The current carries me across the Clausen's yard and patio, and up to their house. The sliding glass door opens with a shush. Through the living room and up the stairs, two at a time. Their house has the same floor plan as Danny's, and I get the feeling Iíve been here before, that I know exactly where Iím going.

The third bedroom is Coach Clausen's sports den. Trophies on the shelves. University baseball and tennis. Lots of ribbons. A portrait of Coach Clausen as a Marine, another together with his wife someplace tropical. Palm trees and blue water. Maybe their honeymoon.

I spot the plastic cube on the shelf and pop out the baseball. I heft it and align my fingers along the red stitching, like a pitcher. Just an old baseball. I shove it into my canvas newspaper bag.

Then Iím back outside, sliding the door shut. A strange exhilaration, a feeling that Iím walking on air.

I head for the driveway but the current carries me back into the woods instead. Up the path, all the way to the Delasario's yard. I look up at the window; the blinds are still drawn. My hand comes out of my bag with the ball, fingers finding the right alignment on the stitching.

This is going to be easy. The windowís way bigger than a strike zone.

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