Luke Rolfes

Fable Number 1: Des Moines, Iowa

A paperboy disappeared from the streets of Des Moines, Iowa when I was a baby. News of his absence rang through the state for years. If you see a kid slinging a massive tote filled with cellophane-wrapped shoppers and registers, you know his mom and dad had with him the talk about vanishing paperboys. All of us sat through “the talk.” Don’t look at the old man who offers you corn muffins and the warmth of a kerosene heater. Don’t let the woman who sleeps underneath the band shell in Lyons Park touch your face, even though she says it will heal her. Hold out your hand to dogs, fingers down, especially the ones without collars and ears that pull flat alongside their thick necks. Above all else: Don’t, under any circumstance, disappear.

Every day—sometime between night and dawn—I completed my route. I never broke any of the rules in my time as a paperboy, though I did see once a naked man and woman pressed against their living room windows. The couple had their limbs spread like one of those suction-cup-Garfield-cats you used to see on car windows—or like the man in the woman were specimens caught between microscope slides and cover slips. Dark hair grew across the man’s pale skin, thickest in the patches between his nipples and hips. Flattened against the window, the woman’s heavy breasts and abdomen were covered in purple stretch marks that I thought at the time were scratches and welts. The naked couple stared at me as I stepped across the walkway and set their paper on the front porch. When I looked back the man had moved behind the woman, and they seemed to be just standing there, hugging each other as the sun rose across the neighborhood.

And then there was the other time when that young girl with the ratted hair came out of the woods holding a giant bull snake. The fat, checkered snake, five or six feet long, had its tail wrapped around her right arm. She had the back of its head gripped with her left, and the snake extended its slender snout in slow circles, trying to find a place to land its teeth.

“Pick a house,” the girl said. She was barefoot with socks of dirt. It took me a moment to realize she was talking to me.

“Pick a house, paperboy,” she said again. “The whole city is unlocked.”

I shifted my tote on my shoulder and pointed to a split foyer across the cul-de-sac. The people who lived in that house never paid their bill.

The girl walked toward the property I had fingered, stroking the snake whose bottom half was now circling her neck. When she reached the edge of the streetlights, I lost track of her in the darkness. I wasn’t sure what was next, so I continued to trek down my route, tossing cellophane packages on stoops or slipping them into the creak of mail slots.

I had a thought at the end of the street that has stuck with me to this day. From where I stood, in the middle of Iowa, fast moving rivers surrounded me. Rivers on both sides of the state, and a river splitting the city to the north and south. The snakes, the naked couple, the disappeared paperboys. We all lived somewhere in between these rivers, cut off in every direction.

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Luke Rolfes is the author of Flyover Country, winner of the Georgetown Review Press Book Prize. His fiction also received the Iron Horse Discovered Voices and Robert C. Wright writing awards. He teaches creative writing at Northwest Missouri State University, serves as co-editor for The Laurel Review, and mentors in the AWP Writer to Writer program.