“Running on Empty” by Melissent Zumwalt

June 1999

Bzz…Bzz…Bzz… My alarm sounds off, 2:00 a.m. A rude but expected awakening.

Rolling onto my side, out of bed, I slump upright. From a pile of clothes stacked up the night before, I grab a sports bra and struggle into it. Throw on a sweatshirt, stagger into sweatpants and stumble out to the bathroom. After splashing water on my face and running a comb through my hair, my decision is to keep with the glasses, no contact lenses for this unseemly hour. Upon entering the family room, Dad already waits for me.

“Ready to go?” he asks.

“Let’s do it,” I reply.

In Dad’s economy-sized Geo Metro, we roll up to the storage facility that serves as the newspaper distribution site. Several others are here already, standing around makeshift tables scattered throughout an open storage unit, inserting circulars into newspapers under sparse fluorescent lighting. A woman in an oversized down jacket waves to Dad, but for the most part, nobody speaks. Heads down in concentration, hands busy. They are paid based on number of papers delivered. Paychecks look the same whether their route takes three hours to complete, or five, so everyone stays focused. Just get this the hell over with.

“Go grab that empty table,” Dad instructs, “and I’ll get the papers.”

My spring term ended at college last week and I’m back at my parents’ house for a few days. While here, I’m trying to help Dad out. The newspaper delivery goes faster with two people. I insert the advertisements and fliers while he rolls each completed paper into its own individual plastic sack. Once we start the route, I get the papers out and he can focus on driving, instead of stopping, leaning, reaching. It doesn’t save much time, but at two in the morning, only three hours after he finished his shift at the cannery, the sooner he can get back home to bed, the better.

Dad turned sixty last week. Over the years, he has not been a reliable provider for our family; but I still wouldn’t wish this on him. It is heartbreaking that now, at his age, he spends these predawn hours driving the country roads around our house, delivering newspapers, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

He picked up the route in the past year because our family is struggling, has always struggled. We all work long hours; Mom, Dad, me, plus there are my student loans. But my first-generation attendance at the state university is like a tidal wave pulling us under, we are gasping for air; the expense nearly crippling.

Every weekend when I call my mom from school, she informs me, “I don’t know how we can keep paying for this.” ‘This’ meaning my education.

From some anonymous marketing list, my parents receive frequent mailings about my eligibility for ROTC, and the promise of a government funded education. This conversation also comes up frequently.

“Have you thought about ROTC? They’ll pay for your schooling.” Mom or Dad will say, both equally insistent on the idea.

My standard response, “I just don’t think that’s really a good fit – for me. I don’t think it would work out.”

Dad is a military man, and so is my uncle, and my grandfather, as well as countless other cousins and various relatives. It’s hard to explain my point of view in this context. That I am too critical, too questioning, too anti-authoritarian. That I would not be able to follow the military’s strict hierarchical structure. That I do not possess loyalty that way, that I do not believe in anything that absolutely, that I would surely get thrown out for insubordination.

My desire to remain “true to myself” is too indulgent to be understood by my parents. It is an esoteric value in the face of concrete financial needs. Working class kids are not entitled to such feelings; it is not okay to want more than mere survival.

Having just completed my third year at school, the end should be near, except for the fact I’ve changed majors twice. And the interests I wish to explore keep expanding, necessitating extra coursework, which means it’s quite likely to take a fifth year to finish with everything. I want to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime-experience, but there’s no way we’re going to be able to afford it all. So, as of three months ago, I chose to enlist with ROTC, trading in one set of values to achieve another. In five days, I ship out for Cadet Summer Training at Fort Knox.

In preparation for training camp, I picked up my army-issued combat boots a few weeks back; having just enough time to run down to the ROTC office in between classes. That meant carrying them around with me for the rest of the day. The weight of the boots felt untenable, leaden, like an albatross slung over my shoulder. Causing me to wonder, how are those boots supposed to serve as my primary footwear day-in and day-out in the humidity of a Kentucky summer?

My anxieties around the upcoming physical requirements of the training are significant, not to mention the psychological demands. I haven’t reconciled with my decision yet, and until I do, none of my friends are aware of this new development. It’s been complicated finding ways to evade the question, What are you doing for the summer? But I am used to evading potentially shameful details about myself. My friends don’t know that my dad delivers newspapers at night, or that I read many of my textbooks in the bookstore, sitting on the floor in the back corner for hours to save money on the purchases, or that when I receive letters from my brother he has sent them from inside the county jail, or that I’ve sold my soul to the military for the price of an education. Many middle-class kids would not understand these things.

The fact I haven’t shared this news is also causing me nightmares. The specifics of the dreams vary, but the theme is recurrent. In some form or another, people I’ve known my whole life fail to recognize me; I am unidentifiable, moving through a Kafkaesque alternate reality.

But in my waking hours, my parents are more proud of me than they’ve ever been. I have made a mature decision, I am contributing to an esteemed family lineage, I have provided a relief valve to the pressure cooker of our family finances.


Dad calls out to me in the brisk predawn air, “Let’s load ‘em up.”

He carries the overstuffed box of plastic-swaddled papers to the car and shoves it into the crammed back seat. The route should take about two hours.

As we snake through the circuitous drive of a mobile home park, Dad stops in front of an off-white modular unit, circa the 1980s.

Digging a paper out of the backseat, he says, “Here, take this one and put it up on the porch there. She tips me an extra $5 if I leave it on her porch instead of throwing it on the grass.”

At 3:30 a.m., it’s hard to step lively, but trudging up to the trailer doesn’t save Dad time. So, after depositing the paper, I move through the stillness with as much pep as I can muster. Then, THWAP!

Sprawled on my back on the dewy grass, cool dampness seeping into my elbows and backside, I feel like a cartoon character with a ring of stars encircling my head. As I sit up and try to place what happened, it becomes apparent. My adversary is a metal wire supporting the awning over the front porch, a slim line of silver nearly invisible in the dark night sky.

Returning to the car a bit dazed, I ask, “Did you see that?”

“Yeah, what happened there?” Dad chuckles.

Much of the morning we ride in silence, conserving energy and creating a rhythm to our workflow. When Dad slows the car, I reach into the back for a paper, hand it over to him, and he lobs it out with his left arm from the ever-open driver’s side window. Then we pick up speed again until we come to the next house.

As the morning closes in on 4:30 a.m., we’re almost finished. Only one large apartment complex remains. Dad stops the car and hands me four plastic covered papers. “Why don’t you get out and deliver these and I’ll drive over and do the ones on the other side? These go to this first unit, the next one down, and the two on the end.” As I get out, he speeds off around the corner, out of sight.

Plodding up to the first door, the newspaper drops! onto the pavement. Then on to the second, third, fourth. I turn to head back to the complex’s entry. As my feet shuffle along, Mom’s voice sounds in my head, When I go with your dad, I jog between the houses to get some extra exercise. With my imminent departure for training camp, I can certainly stand to burn a few more calories. So, I pick up the pace and begin jogging.

But fatigue has nestled itself deep within my bones. My body is clumsy in a way that is unfamiliar to me, limbs disjoined from body, like a thumb push puppet folding in on itself. For the second time tonight, I fall, slipping off the curb mid-stride.

But this time, when I try to pick myself up, an unseen force field holds me down.

The dinged-up Geo Metro appears from around the corner, the window still rolled down, Dad’s forearm resting on its ledge.

“Dad!” I yell for his attention. “Dad!” waving my arms so he can see me on the ground.

He pulls up and stares at me quizzically, sitting there on the asphalt in the glimmer of early morning light.

“I fell again, but I need help getting up.”

He exits the car and stoops over me, wrapping an arm under my shoulder blades, lifting me up onto my right foot, which can still hold weight.

Thankfully, the route is complete. The ride home takes an agonizing twenty minutes. My breath becomes increasingly labored; the pain emanating from my left lower extremity making me nauseous.

“Does it hurt this bad, to sprain an ankle?” An ankle sprain being the only possible injury I can conceive of from such a ridiculous fall.

“Sure, it can,” he says.

“How long does it take to heal? A week? Less?” The fingers on my right hand tabulate the number of days remaining until I ship out.

“Just depends,” is Dad’s non-comforting reply.

Once home, hopping on one foot, sweating in agony, Dad helps me into the house and onto a reclining chair. Mom is startled to see us enter this way.

“What happened?” She rushes over from the kitchen where she is making coffee, doing dishes, preparing her lunch for the workday.

While I grimace in discomfort, she kneels down and removes my left shoe with some effort, then the sock, and we gasp. The swelling has painted my foot a deep shade of indigo, bordering on black; the side of my foot juts out at a grotesque right angle, making it look as though half of it dislodged from its rightful position.

“It’s broken,” Mom declares matter-of-factly, “Let’s get to the hospital.”

It does not take long for the X-rays to confirm her hypothesis. The doctor informs me it is my fifth metatarsal. My foot will be in a cast for eight to twelve weeks which means no ROTC, no money for school, and no way to make it up. I cover my face with my hands and cry.

Returning to the house, I head to my bedroom and pass out with exhaustion, sleeping straight through to the afternoon. After which, a warm breath of sunlight dances in through my open window, kissing my face, bringing me back to a semi-waking state of half-consciousness. I’m unsure of my physical location in space, the time of day or season, and there is, as yet, no recollection of the morning’s events. What I do notice is the lightness in my chest, an inexplicable sense of joy, and in this moment, how everything feels right with the world.

Melissent Zumwalt is an artist, advocate and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has appeared in the Whisk(e)y Tit Journal, Full Grown People, Oregon Humanities’ Beyond the Margins and the Oregon Quarterly. She learned the art of storytelling from her mother, a woman who has an uncanny ability to recount the most ridiculous and tragic moments of life with beauty and humor.

Photo by brotiN biswaS from Pexels

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