Kate Leary


Kate Leary’s work has appeared in Word Riot, Harpur Palate, and Night Train, and she was a fiction editor of Sonora Review. She received her BA in Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins and her MFA from the University of Arizona. She was a fellow at I-Park Artists’ Enclave. She lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

Delivery Boy

Rain bangs against the only window in my living room. By six o’clock, the phones at the Pizza Palace will be ringing off the hook. Janelle’s head dropped onto my shoulder during Jeopardy but now it’s over. I stand and she tips but catches herself.

“What?” she says, half-asleep. Then she registers me standing above her and rubs her eyes. “Jesus, Nate. What’s your problem?”

“I have to go to work. You were lying all over me.” I say it as if maybe I’ll tell Marcus, and oh boy, will she ever be in trouble. Of course, Marcus wouldn’t care if he found us screwing on the couch.

Janelle pulls her giant sweatshirt over her knees so only her feet with their red toenails stick out. She grabs the afghan my mother crocheted and uses it to cover them. “Your breath is disgusting,” she says. She sinks back into the couch, takes the elastic out of her hair and puts it in her mouth and her long dark curls spill over her shoulders. Then she pulls her hair back and wraps the elastic tight. I touch my shirt and it’s damp at the shoulder from her drool.

“You can leave anytime,” I say. “Looks like Marcus blew you off again.”

I head for my bedroom. I don’t need to look to know that her face has fallen. She’s a freshman at BU, and she believes that my roommate is her boyfriend. Marcus seems to like her well enough to have been with her a bunch of times over the course of an entire month, which is longer than these things usually last for him. And there is something about her, I admit. She has these long arms and legs and an eagerness to please that makes it easy to imagine them wrapped around you. Marcus even tolerates the fact that she shows up at our place and waits for him. But I’m the one who’s always here answering the door, having to tell her he’s not home and I don’t know where he is. Then I have to feel bad for her and let her in so she can pass the time in this dump.

I take off my shirt and throw it on my bed, grab another one from the floor, smell it, and drop it. The floor creaks behind me and I turn to see Janelle lurking in the doorway, a smirk on her face. I assume she’s thinking of how scrawny I am compared to Marcus.

“What do you want, Janelle?” I grab the shirt I threw on the bed and pull it back on. Even with her drool, it’s still the cleanest thing I have.

“Is his phone really broken? Because it doesn’t say out of service or anything. Can’t he at least check his messages from a different phone?”

I tug my hooded sweatshirt out from under my bed. “I guess not.”

Marcus instructed me to lie to her about his phone because he likes to keep his options open. He wouldn’t last five minutes without his iPhone. He’s constantly updating the world on his whereabouts, but I guess Janelle hasn’t infiltrated his digital circle yet. He makes fun of me for having my mom’s old flip phone, but I can’t afford a data plan.

Janelle looks thoughtful and pulls a small, flat bottle of Jack Daniels from her kangaroo pocket, unscrews the top, and takes a swallow. She holds the bottle out to me, and I put my hand on her back and steer her out of my room, then I have a swig to be friendly. The warmth hits me immediately.

“Have more,” she says, and I do. She sits down on the arm of the couch and looks up at me. Her big brown eyes are ringed with thick eyeliner.

My mom calls and I’m so glad of the distraction I pick up. She asks how I am, calls me sweetheart. I turn away from Janelle and I tell her I’m fine, just headed out to work.

“How’s Dad?” I ask, because you have to ask.

She sighs. “He’s having a bad night.” This is her way of saying he’s crying again. Three years ago, my dad had a stroke and now he’s in a wheelchair. His speech is slow, but it’s getting more understandable. What makes it unbearable is that something in his brain went haywire, and he goes off on crying jags that the neurologist says don’t mean anything.

“Sorry, Mom,” I say, going back into my room. I take another slug of the whiskey. “Try not to take it personally.”

“Love you,” my mom tells me.

“Me too.” I hang up. They must be about to sit down to dinner, and I can see my mom eating with one hand, a napkin at the ready in her other hand to wipe away the food that always falls out of one side of my dad’s mouth. She doesn’t even look at him while she does it anymore, but he watches her the whole time.

Janelle is still sitting on the arm of the couch. “What’s wrong with your dad?”


“You mind if I stick around?” she asks sweetly. “I don’t feel like going home in the rain.”

I want to tell her to get the hell out of here, that she’s pathetic and should find a hobby besides stalking Marcus—that having her around only reminds me that I’m pathetic, too. But I know that will only make her cry and then I’ll have to hang around dealing with the fallout.

I hand the bottle back to her. “Suit yourself.” I shut myself in the bathroom and brush my teeth. When I’m done, I reach for the high-tech raincoat my mom got me for my twenty-first birthday last month and slide it on. I pat my pocket for my keys and look back at Janelle. She’s snuggled under the afghan, flipping through channels so fast she can’t possibly tell what’s on.

“Just lock the door if you leave.” Of course she won’t. She’ll want to have the option of coming back in.


My first delivery is just outside Harvard Square, on a quiet, tree-lined street. The woman who opens the door is thirtyish, short, blonde, with beautiful round tits swelling underneath her T-shirt.

“Peppers and mushrooms,” I say. I think of how it might be if Janelle weren’t such a train wreck, and if instead of sitting in my apartment right now, getting drunk by herself and waiting for Marcus, she was there doing her homework and waiting for me. Or napping in my bed, wearing nothing but panties and one of my old cross-country T-shirts.

The woman gives me a solid tip and I run through the rain with my hood pulled low. The night is filled with the smell of dead, wet leaves. Hardly any are left on the branches, and the rain is so cold it reminds me of snow. It won’t be long until I have to drive through snow and sleet, until the air hurts my nostrils, it’s dark before five, and I can’t get warm between deliveries. I’m not sure I can do this job through another winter.

Marcus calls, which is weird because he usually texts. I answer in the warmth of my car, thinking maybe something’s wrong.

“There’s this insane party happening tonight. I’m spinning.”

“I work until at least two.”

“Come by after. This thing won’t end till dawn. We have a warehouse in Everett. You really gotta come, Nate. You need to get out more.”

He says he’ll send me the address but describes where it is, down by the Mystic, kind of hard to find. I can picture exactly where it is because that’s the way my brain works and I have a lot of practice finding places, but I know I’ll never show up. I’ve gone a few times to watch him DJ, but I always feel out of place.

“Okay?” he says.

All I have to do is say okay and he’ll hang up. If he’s making this effort he must be worried about me. But instead I say: “Your girlfriend came by again.”

“Again?” He laughs. I try not to think about Janelle, sitting on our couch, watching cable and swigging Jack Daniels.

“I’m getting kind of sick of her. She’s kind of crazy,” I say.

“Why don’t you make a move on her, all the time you two spend together?”

“Fuck off,” I say, because he’s not even joking. He truly doesn’t care about her at all. “I’m just sick of babysitting.”

“I know,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”

There’s another pause, during which I’m supposed to forget what a dick he is. All I can say to explain why we’re still friends is that we met in kindergarten and when I didn’t know what to do, Marcus helped me. My dad had the stroke at the end of my senior year of high school. My mom had to take a leave, and they suddenly needed all kinds of money for things that weren’t covered by health insurance, like making the house wheelchair accessible and buying a van and all the co-payments. My financial aid at UMass was a mess from the changes, so I figured I’d stay home for a year, get a job, help with money, help with Dad. But I could barely touch him, especially with all the crying. Just when I thought I’d lose my shit if I had to spend another day in that house, Marcus asked if I wanted to move into the Allston place with him. He said I’d figure something out.

“We’re sending a van to pick up BU girls, so who knows.”

“I’ll be pretty beat,” I say, lamely. I always feel stupid around those girls when they find out I’m not in school. They seem to pity me, and I hate them for it. Marcus says I should just lie.


I ring the doorbell for the third time and squint up through the rain at the dark triple-decker. It’s in a lousy neighborhood near a huge tow lot, and it’s almost midnight. Ripe garbage bags are piled up on the stoop next to me. The paint is peeling off in strips. Fifteen miles away, in the suburb where I grew up, the neighbors have stopped asking my mom what they can do to help and started hinting that the house could use a paint job, the grass is too long, the hedges overgrown. What I should do is call her right now and tell her I’ll be out in the morning to rake leaves. I talk to her almost every day, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to visit in probably three months. That’s how big of an asshole I am. Soon my mom will be asking about Thanksgiving. It’s hard to think of anything more miserable than Thanksgiving at my house, my dad weeping over the turkey he can no longer carve. I’d rather deliver pizzas, but even my miserable boss Jimbo has someplace to go. He’s closing up.

I hear a thud behind me and twist around, but there’s nothing. I haven’t been robbed on this job yet, but I know it’s only a matter of time.

A tall guy with bloodshot eyes finally opens the door, and my heart pounds. I know before he opens his mouth that he’ll tell me I’m late, which I am—about ten minutes. He does.

“We’re running a little behind schedule tonight,” I tell him. “With the rain. I apologize.”

“This should be free,” he says, reaching for the red bag. I yank it back. People have been killed over less than a pizza, and all I want to do is drop the thing and run.

“Half price,” he slurs.

“I can’t do that, sir.”

He rolls his head back and his neck pops. “We got a problem,” he yells up the stairs.

“Ten bucks?” I’m shaking, looking up the stairs to see who’s coming after me.

The guy sneers, but he pulls a ten out of his wallet and hands it to me. I shove the pizza at him and get the hell out of there. It was The Works, and goes for fifteen bucks, but ten is better than nothing.

Jimbo calls to say that if I hurry back, he’ll give me the nurses. Once a week, the night shift over at Mt. Auburn orders eight pizzas. They always give a ten-dollar tip. I tell him I’ll be there in five, even though that’s impossible. If someone else gets in before me and sees the boxes, Jimbo won’t hold the order. I tear down the road, stop for a second at a red, and then blow it. If I get stopped, I’m screwed — hundred dollar minimum ticket. But I could really use the ten bucks.


Marcus calls again.

“I’m still working,” I say.

On the other end, there’s sobbing. It sounds like a girl.


All I hear is breathing.


“I stole his phone,” she says. “Right out of his bag. It works fine.” She laughs, but it gives way to another wet sob.

The car behind me honks. The light has turned green, and I slam my foot on the gas. She’s making me late for the nurses.

“What do you want?”

“I found him,” she says, gulping for breath. “He had this girl against the wall. He was just fucking her against the wall.” This sets her off again. All this sobbing is making something build up in my chest, too.

“I’m sorry, Janelle,” I say. “It’s just how he is.” I want to say one last sympathetic thing to get rid of her. “Try not to take it personally.” I’m at the last light, and I need to be ready to jump out of the car. “I have to go.”

“Wait!” she says. “Nate, please. I need help.” The light turns green, and I swerve around the corner and into the Palace’s tiny lot. “I’m stuck here in the middle of Everett.”

“Call a cab,” I say.

“I’ve called two. They won’t come out here. I’m standing outside in the rain in the middle of nowhere. I think I’ll just start walking.” She’s talking fast, like she’s on something.

“Why? Wait inside. Someone will take you home eventually. Isn’t there a van or something?” But I know as soon as I say it that the van will take the college girls there, but how they get home is their own problem. Jimbo is glaring out the window.

“I can’t go back in there,” she practically screams. “I made a scene, and he’s with her, and I’m like crawling out of my skin.” Now her sobs are low and dry. “I don’t know what I might do,” she says, softly so I almost miss it. It gives me the chills, and I kind of believe she might do something to hurt herself. And then I’m mad, because the threat she’s made is manipulative, and I don’t want any part of her garbage.

“Don’t you have a friend you could call?” I say.

“You’re the only one I could think of.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” I say, and I hang up.


“What were you doing out there,” Jimbo says as soon as I open the door. “Putting on your makeup?”

I nod and smile right in his meaty face, like he got me.

It’s hot in the kitchen, and the windows are steamed up. The greasy stink of pepperoni is overpowering. The kitchen guys don’t look up. They don’t speak much English so it’s not like we’re all buddies or something.

The phone rings, and Jimbo grabs it and punches an order into the computer.

I give him the cash I’ve collected, and he totals up the receipts and gives back everything that’s over: fifty-five cents. That’s all I have to show beyond minimum wage for the last hour of driving around.

“The guy who ordered The Works only gave me ten,” I say.

“You can’t give discounts for being late,” he says.

“I didn’t.”

Jimbo scratches his head theatrically and I feel my phone buzz once in my pocket.

I slide the boxes into bags. “Thanks for this, man,” I say to Jimbo on my way out, because you have to thank him when he does something decent, even if he just punched you in the gut at the same time.

The text is from Janelle. One word: “Please.”


The nurse at the front desk looks at me with pity when I bring her the pizzas. “Poor thing,” she says, “You’re soaked.” But it’s not true. Underneath my jacket I’m perfectly dry. My mom went over all the features when she gave it to me. Taped pockets and cords to cinch the hood tight around my face. It’s the most useful gift I’ve ever received.

In the car, I unfold the money. They’ve tipped me five extra—I guess because of the rain. I crank up the heat and watch the steam rise from my legs for a while. Maybe I’ll call her, just to make sure she’s okay.

The phone rings four times, and I start to think she’s ditched it, or someone stole it, or she’s lying passed out in front of the warehouse, not hearing anything. I feel sick because I could have done something to help and instead I left her alone. But on the fifth ring, she answers. She says my name, and it feels like a reprieve. Maybe I really am the only person who can help her tonight.

“I’m coming,” I say. “Just stay where you are.”

“You’re not messing with me?”

“Stay near the place. You’ll be safer,” though I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know if someone like Janelle can ever be safe.


The road Marcus told me to take is lined with chain link fences topped with razor wire. It’s badly lit, and the rain is worsening. I pass huge gas storage tanks. Across the railroad tracks, the road narrows and it’s just warehouses and distribution centers, then a yard filled with tractor-trailers, and I feel as if I’m going farther and farther away from civilization. But then I round a bend, and there, across the Mystic River, are the lights of downtown Boston, the Prudential’s beacon red for rain. There’s a marina in an inlet to my left, the masts of covered sailboats bobbing. I hear the bass.

The party is at the dead end and the lot next to the warehouse is full. Colored lights flash inside the building, but there aren’t any streetlights. I scan the long front of the building for Janelle. I see her, finally, when the lights flash on, a bent figure against the bricks, far from the entrance. I roll right up to her but she doesn’t notice.

She’s wet all the way through and staring at the skyline. She’s not wearing a coat, and the sweatshirt is gone. Between her sequined shirt and her tight jeans, her stomach is white and exposed. The throbbing music makes everything seem unreal. I think of Marcus inside, urging the party on.

I get out of the car and say her name. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so relieved. It makes me feel good to have put that expression on her face, and I place my arm around her shoulders and guide her into the car. Once I’m settled in, I take off my jacket, pull off my dry sweatshirt, and hand it to her. She’s shivering violently, and she slips it on fast while I get the car started and turn the heat on high.

“Your seatbelt.” I flip on the light so she can find it, and she looks at me blankly. Mascara is smeared all around her eyes. I wonder if there’s something really wrong, if she’s having a bad drug reaction or something, but then she takes a deep breath and wails, and doubles over and starts crying again. I don’t know what to do. She didn’t pull her hair out of the sweatshirt after she put it on, so water is bleeding through. I want to pull it out, to keep the sweatshirt dry for her. I put my hand on the top of her head and smooth her hair down, and she quiets, so I do it again.

She leans into me and I raise my arm so she can fit. She’s still crying and her teeth are chattering, but after a while it lets up and she’s just breathing her whiskey breath against my neck, and my arm tightens. The heat pours out of the vents.

“Thanks for coming,” she says. I fix my eyes on the crumbling brick front of the warehouse, at the people going in and out. Her breath is warm against my skin. “You're a nice guy,” she murmurs.

She shifts her head up a little more on my shoulder, and I know suddenly that if I looked at her, she’d move some more and we’d wind up kissing. I feel her wanting me to move. She’d probably have sex with me right here in the car, and I let myself think it’s because she wants me, because I’m not bad looking and I am a nice guy and she’s realized from all the time we’ve spent watching Jeopardy together that she likes me. It’s been a while. I move my hand from her shoulder up to her face and stroke her damp cheek. She makes a breathy girl noise and by now I want her pretty bad, but I remind myself that she saw Marcus fucking some girl against a wall and she wants revenge. And she wants to thank me for helping her, and this is a way for her to do both. And I’m angry with her for being so pathetic again, for pulling me into her fucked-up world. I can’t believe I came here. She would have been fine without me.

“Get off me, Janelle,” I say, and jerk my arm away.

My voice sounds harsh even to me, and she ducks out immediately. Looking injured is practically her job, so I don’t even glance at her. I hear her slump against the door.

I slam into drive and go.

It was 12:20 when I left the Pizza Palace. I should have been back by 12:40. Now it’s 1:15 and I’m a good twenty minutes away. I let Jimbo go to voicemail twice on my way over here so I could attend to Janelle’s non-emergency.

“Where the hell are you?” Jimbo says when I call him back.

“Car wouldn’t start. I had to call for a jump, and they just finally came.”

“I’ll expect you in five minutes.”

“I’ll try,” I say, but he’s already hung up.

“Did I get you in trouble?” Janelle asks, sniffling.

I floor it. It’s a straight shot on Route 16 and I have a hard-on with no hope of relief. We’re going sixty, then seventy, passing big box stores and gas stations and fast food joints, and the hatchback rattles on the lousy streets. She’s gripping the handle on the door. I blow through a red without checking to see if anyone’s coming. I want to reach out and shake her for her total failure to understand anything, like the fact that I need my job to make rent, like the fact that Marcus was obviously going to screw her over, like the fact that she’s just another sad person I can’t help.

She has her elbows on her legs and her head in her hands. I don’t need her barfing in my car so I ease off the gas. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

I expect this will set her off again, but instead she sits up straight. “I don’t know,” she says, and then adds, as a sort of afterthought: “I’m probably going to flunk out of school.”

“That was fast,” I say, trying for sarcasm. If I’d started school when I was supposed to I’d be a senior by now. I’d have a major. Maybe even a plan.

Janelle smiles sadly. Her feet tap on the floor and she keeps rubbing her hands together. She probably took something speedy, which seems to be wearing off.

“A girl from my dorm got handed a flyer and I saw Marcus was spinning. I knew I shouldn’t, but I came.” She laughs, but it’s nothing like what laughing should be. “I always do stuff like that. I can’t stop myself.” She presses her face to the window and I sort of want to put my arm around her again.

Do I have a crush on Janelle? It’s more like she’s the only girl I know.


I walk into the Pizza Palace at 1:30 and Jimbo looks up at the clock. I hand him the money. He points at a box. The address on the slip is outside our delivery area, too far away to be worth it.

“I made an exception,” he says. I think about telling him I can’t do it. I consider rolling out the biggest excuse of all—the one I’ve been saving up for the right time. The way it goes is I say, stunned, as if I’ve just gotten the news: My Dad had a stroke. I have to go. And even Jimbo has to cut me some slack. Word gets around the Pizza Palace in no time, language barriers notwithstanding, and the next thing you know everyone feels bad for me. They tell me to take as much time as I need to figure things out.

Jimbo is staring at me, daring me to tell him I won’t do it. I look into his loser’s face and say, “I quit.”

I burst out into the rain and back into my car. I wrap my fingers around the steering wheel and watch them tremble.

Janelle is still slumped down in her seat, making a genuine effort not to get me in trouble for having a passenger. I left the car running with the heat on high, and now it’s uncomfortably hot. “Sit up,” I say. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

I think she should ask me why, but she only sits up straighter and keeps staring out the window. I want to make her look at me, to tell her I quit my job partly because of her and she should at least pretend to care. But Jimbo charges out of the Palace toward the car, and I’m not so much afraid that he’s going to bitch me out as I am afraid that he’ll make nice, offer me a raise, and I’m terrified I’ll take it and everything will stay exactly the same. So I peel out of the lot.

I ask Janelle where her dorm is and she tells me. She seems kind of scared of me now. When we pull up, there are students outside the dorm smoking, others stumbling along the sidewalk. The lounge just inside the entryway is bright with fluorescent lights. A group of kids is clustered around a pizza box, chowing down. They probably gave a shitty tip.

“Okay, Janelle,” I say. She doesn’t even have her hand on the door.

“I still have to give Marcus his phone back.”

“I’ll make sure he gets it,” I say. She’s about to cry, and I realize she’s going to try to hold onto his phone just to have one last excuse to see him.

“Just give me the phone,” I say. I try to be gentle. “Forget about Marcus.”

She pulls the phone out of her purse and flips it over in her hands a few times, almost caressing it. “I don’t want to go in there,” she says. It doesn’t sound like whining. Only a fact. She’s still wearing my sweatshirt.

I think of my mom, who can never sleep, and who is probably crocheting her millionth afghan right now, my dad snoring in the next room. I could go there, take Janelle with me, just for tonight. It won’t change anyone’s life but it might make tonight better.

Janelle touches my hand. “Nate?” Her face is close to mine. She looks awful. Underfed, with circles under her eyes, mascara everywhere, hair starting to frizz.

“I’m going home tonight,” I say. “To my parents’ house. You can come if you want. Stay in the spare room.”

“Oh.” There’s a catch in her voice that makes me realize she’s disappointed, that she’s probably been hoping I’ll bring her back to the apartment so she can wait for Marcus some more. I feel my jaw tighten in anger, but she recovers herself. “Are they nice?” she asks.

I think she might be joking, but her face is open, waiting. The answer to this question is simple—the trouble is that it won’t tell her anything. My dad acts embarrassingly grateful to my mom, and people say my mom is a saint, as if she had a choice. She’ll be so glad to see me she won’t even mind that I’ve brought her another person to take care of.

“They’re nice,” I say.

“That would be good then,” Janelle says, nodding. She hands me the phone.

I zip it into my pocket and ease away from the curb. I’ll have to explain about my dad before we get home. My mom will find us some old sweats to wear to bed, maybe make us some tea. In the morning I’ll let Janelle sleep in while I fill bag after bag with wet leaves.

This story began with me walking home on a raw, rainy night. A pizza delivery guy drove by and I thought he probably had a miserable shift ahead of him. In a nearby suburb, my dad was dying and my mom was taking care of him. Home had become a very sad place. I put those two things together and eventually got this story, the last one I finished before he died. I didn’t write much for a couple of years afterwards, but when I got back to it I wrote a novel about these characters. I’m revising it now. When I lose my way in the novel, this story reminds me of what I want it to be about. In a word: helping.