Short Story / Writers / Writing

Paperless People by Michael C. Keith

I know of no substitute whatever
–– Henry James

For more than 42 years, Martha and Chuck Stacey’s morning ritual centered on their daily newspaper. A pot of coffee accompanied their reading, which typically lasted until late morning now that they were both retired. When The Observer wasn’t delivered promptly, the start of their day was delayed until it arrived. In retaliation for late papers, they would withhold a tip from their delivery person, hoping that might underline their unhappiness. It flustered and perplexed the Staceys that the delivery person expected a gratuity regularly, despite periods of poor service.

When the newspaper didn’t show up at all, they called the paper’s customer service line. To their growing chagrin, however, they found their complaints had little positive impact. Still, the Staceys’ singular dependence on their newspaper kept them from cancelling their service––although Chuck would threaten to do so each time they had a delivery problem.

“And can you imagine the audacity of asking for a tip when you don’t even do your job!” he would rant, the veins in his temples bulging.

While Martha was equally unhappy with late or missing papers, she would contain her dissatisfaction. Given Chuck’s high blood pressure, she feared joining his feverish lament might heighten his aggravation enough to cause him a stroke or heart attack.

“Well, we get it on time 95 percent of the time, honey.”

Chuck’s anger would quickly dissipate with his wife’s commonsense words.

“Ever the voice of reason. You’re right, Martha. Guess it’s pretty reliable when you come right down to it. Just gets to me when it arrives way after it should. Seven A.M. is as late as it should come, you know. That’s what the lady at the paper said when I called.”

“Well, things happen sometimes. Maybe the delivery guy’s car wouldn’t start or his alarm didn’t go off.”

“We sure rely on our morning read, don’t we, sweetie?”

“Yeah, it gets our day going on the right track . . . that’s for sure,” agreed Martha.

*          *          *

Chuck was usually the first up, so it was his task to fetch the paper from the end of their driveway. Often it had been tossed onto the damp lawn, causing the first few pages to stick together. On one such occasion, Chuck had caught the attention of the delivery person before he vanished.

“Appreciate it if you’d get the paper on the driveway so it doesn’t get wet,” he’d yelled at the moving car.

“Morning!” shouted the deliverer, as if returning a greeting.

“The paper . . . Can you keep it in the driveway?” Chuck repeated, as the dented and old model vehicle headed down the street. “Dammit!”

When Chuck returned inside with The Observer, he would separate the sections. His habit was to read the sports page first and then peruse the front section for the latest news. The middle section of the broadsheet combined “Business and Lifestyle,” and that he saved for last. It featured stories about area commerce, as well as op-ed pieces, listings of cultural and entertainment activities, advice and DIY columns, classifieds, and the usual obituaries.

Martha usually appeared about a half hour after Chuck began reading at the kitchen table. By then he typically was ready to delve into the paper’s middle section. Although he would never admit it, stories and gossip about pop culture figures––in all their various and mysterious incarnations––were of most interest to him.

Martha, on the other hand, was a dedicated hard news consumer and spent most of her time with the paper’s front section. During their long mornings at the breakfast table, they would disrupt one another’s concentration with what most caught their attention in The Observer. While they both found the interruptions distracting and often shushed one another, they continued––almost unconsciously––to make these unwanted intrusions into the silence.

“Can you believe they discovered a toenail of a wooly mammoth out near the reservoir? Look at this.”

“I’m reading, honey,” complained Martha, but then adding something about the story she was reading.

When they’d both finished the newspaper, as much time was spent discussing in detail what they’d both read. It was nearly noon when they rose from the kitchen table for the rest of their day. It was inconceivable to them that this highly valued practice would ever change. On the whole, they were very content with their existence. But technology was about to throw a wrench into their morning lifestyle.

*          *          *

Only after The Observer failed to appear for two days in a row did the Staceys discovered that paper had stopped its presses.

“What do you mean it shut down? We weren’t informed about this, and nothing was announced in the paper,” blurted Chuck to the individual at the now defunct daily.

“Well, it came as a shock to everyone here, too. Corporate just pulled the plug without any advance warning. So everyone is out of a job at the end of the week.”

“Is there any hope you’ll be back in business? You know, that leaves this town without a local newspaper. That’s just not right.”

“I agree, but people aren’t reading papers like they used to. They get the news from the computer.”

“How the heck can you read a newspaper on a computer? That’s ridiculous!”

“You could subscribe to one of those national papers, like The New York Times or Wall Street Journal. There’s USA Today, too. They’re still around, and they deliver.”

“But what about local news and community information?”

“Sorry. Guess we’ll all have to rely on TV or radio news.”

“Don’t have a TV, and the radio is mostly that awful music for kids.”

“Public radio is pretty good. I mean they’re surely better than nothing.”

“Well, this is just a terrible situation. Thank you, ma’am.”

After Chuck hung up he broke the news to his wife.

“I feel like the world is coming to an end,” moaned Martha. “What’ll we do?”

“Get a New York paper, I guess.

*          *          *

For a year the Staceys received The New York Times and then it pulled the plug on its hardcopy edition, as did the Wall Street Journal. Both were now only available through the Internet.

“Well, we’re down to USA Today,” observed Chuck.

“Let’s get it. We have to have something to read in the morning. I’d rather have it than nothing.”

“Yeah, I can’t imagine the day starting without the printed page.”

The Staceys quickly found their post-paper conversation was significantly shortened, due to the lack of detailed stories in what had been long touted as “The Nation’s Newspaper.”

“You’d think they’d offer more depth considering they’re the only newspaper left. It’s actually gotten thinner,” lamented Martha, with an expression bordering on despair.

When that paper announced it, too, was ending its paper deliveries, the Staceys were at a loss as to how to fill their mornings. They tried reading old magazines and books at the kitchen table, but they proved poor substitutes. Things had fundamentally changed and not for the better, as far as they were concerned. A huge void opened in their morning lives in the absence of any paper. They felt as if they’d lost something integral to their existence.

“We could get up a little later, have our coffee, and go to the library. They have stacks of periodicals,” suggested Chuck.

“Not the same. Besides, they’ve cut back their hours. They’re only open from 3 to 6 PM now, because hardly anybody goes there any more.”

“My God, where are people getting their information?” grumbled Chuck.

“The Internet,” responded Martha.

“Damn, is that what life has come to? So, I guess then we’ve got to get a computer,” said Chuck, defeated.

“You think? But we don’t know how to use one, and besides, we’d need two so we could read what we prefer.”

*          *          *

Following a lengthy discussion and extensive soul-searching, the Staceys purchased two Dell PCs at a nearby Best Buy. They took lessons from the Geek Squad, which set up their computers on their kitchen table. Chuck and Martha quickly subscribed to the newspapers of their choice––Martha opted for the New York Times and Chuck signed up for the Wall Street Journal. Over the next few months, a myriad of other sites had caught their attention.

Ultimately, the time they spent in front of their twin computers expanded to fill their whole day, while their usual discussions about what they’d read began to dwindle in terms of time and substance.

“Did you see the cat doing Karaoke to ‘La Traviata?’” asked Martha.

“Yeah, wasn’t that hysterical?” replied Chuck.

“There’s this site that has over 100 recipes for Spam. You’d be amazed . . . ”

“Well, you’d get a kick out of Check it out,” suggested Chuck.

Soon they were barely communicating with one another, so immersed were they in their respective cyber worlds.

“Why didn’t we go online sooner?” asked Martha, still at the kitchen table as the hour approached midnight.

“Shush!” responded Chuck, looking up from his computer screen for a moment and giggling. “Can you believe the Kardashians?”


Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes fiction.


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