Birdie Burdock used mailing tape to fasten oven mitts to the ends of her sleeves, to cover her bony wrists, to seal herself up. She did this every morning before sunup. Mailing tape didn’t hold like duct tape, but the adhesive that makes duct tape, duct tape, messed with Birdie’s system. It unleashed unruly chemicals into her orbit and the unruliest leapt deep inside her, tripping switches, confusing her metabolic enzymes; chaos broke out in her bowel, killer headaches started lining up, her mouth went bone dry for days. Not worth it.
Sealed up Birdie drove through the still heat of the still dark August morning to Fairview Industrial Park. The back roads echoed inside her stripped bare minivan: no carpet, no rubber, no foam; loud and tinny, fume free, safe for Birdie. She parked then rolled a homemade wagon down two wide boards that she kept in the back of her van, the wagon followed obediently behind her tiny frame. A dim bulb over a warehouse door guided them out of the darkness. Birdie pulled a kerchief over her nose, an imperfect shield against the benzene vapors that hung inside the warehouse, lingering and coagulating over a vast field of freshly printed Daily Star Registers.
Birdie loaded her wagon with 237 newspapers and a roll of plastic bags. The others stopped commenting on her ragamuffin protective gear a while ago. Most, like Birdie, would rather not have paper routes at their age but like Birdie they couldn’t find work, or keep work, or couldn’t do the kind of work they could find, for all kinds of reasons, none of which could be judged with any kind of accuracy by anyone who was not like them: underemployed, working odd jobs, under the table, under doctor’s orders, under duress. So they let her be and she kept her distance. To Birdie people were potential health hazards, walking wicks, absorbing and releasing caustic compounds. She bagged her papers away from them, away from their noxious clouds of Bounce, Pantene, and Right Guard. The oven mitts diminished her dexterity but not her speed. She used barbecue tongs to grab the papers one at a time, then rolled each into a tight tube and slipped it in a bag.
Birdie drove to the subdivision off Hinkley Road where she started her route every day. It had been unusually hot and buggy all summer and it wasn’t letting up. She flung a few papers from the van then noticed an orange city truck up ahead, it moved slowly leaving a pale mist in its wake. She figured the mist to be malathion or resmethrin as both killed mosquitoes without noticeably killing anything else. She was prepared, her Belgian civilian gas mask had new NATO approved filters. As she put her mask on she saw a fat man in an ill-fitting robe staring at her from his driveway. He was accompanying a discreet schnauzer that was excreting between two hostas. She watched the man watch her. He looked agitated. She tightened a strap. He mumbled something into his cellphone, snatched up his schnauzer, then ran into his house and slammed the door.
A few minutes later a squad car arrived. An officer with a small notepad asked Birdie a few questions. As he put his notebook into his chest pocket, Birdie admitted that she had been warned; the guy at the military surplus store was not an optimist.