To backtrack—what Pauline once viewed as pitched, pleased-for love now appeared hot grease poured down the sink, bound to gummy up the works.
How Tom was good to her. She thought she owed him review of his fine points. Which were?
He cut up grapefruit so it sat in a bowl in the fridge, waiting for her sleepy mouth, her lolling tongue. That was sweet. But grapefruit season in Euphoria was so abbreviated as to hardly count.
Two, his endearments. Pauline babe, he called her. But then everybody called her babe. It might as well be her middle name.
"Scooch on over to my side, Pauline babe," he'd say in bed. "My wild side," he'd say, all Lou Reed-ish. When she reconnected with him post- high school, he wore black eye liner like Lou—a pose that passed quick. Not in calendar time, but relationship time. If he dressed in a suit, you might take Tom for a banker, but he was no white collar worker. His closet sheltered denim, flannel, leather, and used up cotton. He'd been the one taught Pauline the good of Goodwill. There, Point Three in his favor.
"You can get a decent suit at Goodwill," she told him. He avoided formal wear.
Thing is, every notch on his side of the column could also be inked beside Jared. Jared shopped Goodwill—hell, he acted like he invented the idea of re-use. Pennies for a tee shirt, dollars for a coat. Thrifty or cheap, didn't matter; the guy aimed for quality. He said, "That's why I'm pursuing you, Pauline."
Pauline and Tom had been hitched a year, their sticking with the marriage as much a surprise to them as to anyone. She had no business drawing sides, or dividing her love. She should have put on blinders to focus purely on Tom, whom she knew from growing up in the same neighborhood. They rode bikes with the same group of kids in sixth or seventh grade, nothing diary worthy. One beat up September afternoon during this youthful time, Tom invited her into his house for a slug of Gatorade.
"You big dummy," Tom's dad said. "Left the goddamn fridge door open." He railed on right in front of Pauline, who could have been a girlfriend. She wasn't, but she could have been. Clueless old man, putting Tom down in front of a thirsty, wind-whipped stranger.
Tom's little sister, Fiona, stood in the hallway, about seven years old and sucking an orange popsicle, taking in her brother's faults and the man who named them, probably swearing when she grew up she'd never let Daddy call her dummy in front of her boyfriends. Fee blew out the day she turned sixteen, tromped like Pauline in similar uneven roaming, stepped in the prints Pauline had pressed in mud with clunker Frye boots. Fiona fell in with her band, hooked up with her guitar man, seduced him right out from under Pauline.
Years later, when Tom and Pauline wed, the old man and Tom's step-mom, Maudy, said, "Finally our Tommy's got a girl he can keep."
Thing is Pauline wasn't a woman for keeping, for keeps, or to be kept.
She traveled first for ten years with an almost-made-it band before running into Tom at Eli's Lounge, a bit of higher ground in the middle of Euphoria.
With the band sound-checking amid shadows, the lead singer parted his hair in front of a cracked mirror as Tom and Pauline spied each other all grown up and ordering drinks. She raised an eyebrow and he lifted his, added a wry "I think I know you" smile. When she saw he wore eye liner she almost laughed out loud, but then she remembered how he smelled all weedy following a hot afternoon of biking the hills, and the eyeliner didn't squash the scent she was surprised to discover lodged in her memory bank. She could imagine his shirt bunched into a roll of soft fabric where he'd tucked it in, the way he did as a boy. She nearly set her palm on his low back to verify. They stayed beside their full glasses, and one another, at the bar.
"Fridge still open?" she said.
Tom said, "What?"
"Oh, never mind. It was a dumb cast-back to the past."
He had perfect teeth, which he showed her. "You don't look a day over twenty, Pauline."
She barked outrageous private glee, then covered her mouth with her hand to stop stupid stuff from escaping but stupid escaped anyway.
"I've had plenty of unrequited."
"Ha. This I sincerely doubt, girl. Name one."
Tom's eyes lit up.
She added: "For the stage he shortened it to Bone."
"You and Neal Bone?" He cut his attention to the stage, front man still absent, and then riveted back to her.
Pauline nodded. She had a story prepared, a true story.
"Those crocked audience members calling out, give us a Bone, and hey Boner, holding aloft their cell phones, all eerie glowing. Him perched on a stool like a troubadour, laughing drunk right along with. He called them the masses, and I couldn't help but think back to church the Catholics did while me and my friends scuffed into Sunday School in the Methodist Annex."
She took to the road with Neal, did the band's cooking. "Yes," she said, "like arranging catering and the before-gig buffet. More like jiggling a pan over a campfire. The Neal Bone Band never elbowed out of the low tier gigs."
"Honest, sometimes night was sleeping bag in the back of the van," she said.
For the boys she stewed dandelion greens and brewed dandelion wine. The band loved her, they kissed her bare shoulder, but only Neal did she allow to lift the strap of the undershirt she wore, and kiss that sheltered strip of skin, too. The others loved her like a sister. Neal loved her blind.
She told Tom, "I sued him when he left."
Tom said, "You two have papers filed at the courthouse?"
"Lord, no." That touched her, a man even caring about messing in another guy's marriage.
"Nothing so much as. Just unpaid income, earned fair and square, that my wallet never saw."
Tom nodded. "Sure, a girl needs her funds."
"Funds, I said."
She hit his forearm, resting on the bar between them. "I know. I'm joshing." She sighed and drank the rest of her beer, felt all hands and feet and useless yammer.
Tom signaled to the bartender, bring another round.
"Yup," she said. "Band got paid, roadies got paid. But Neal tended to think, I guess, loving was good enough for all I gave." She stared into the far-off. "What I gave." Paused, all dreamy and morose, then said, "Fuck that."
Tom said, "I hear ya."
They clinked beer mugs and drank big.
She nodded away the rest of the narration, the boring part, the decline every good thing brings with it.
When Boner took the stage, they both turned their bar stools to face the band. She hadn't seen him in almost a year; he still looked willowy, still made her veins rise close to her skin. When the music crashed around the room, Pauline endured the familiarity—a big hum of angry bees. She closed her eyes and leaned into Tom, and hoped Neal saw, but she knew he got so inside his head when he sang he might as well be on another planet. She felt stung.
Tom spoke over-loud into her ear: "I'm not blowing smoke, babe."
Drowsy, and half-drunk, she pitched a little more into him. It was an easy slide from there.
Tom's folded knees, as they later lay in bed together, formed a shelf for Pauline to sit on, horizontally. She snuggled in, keepsake on his shelf, and felt change about to rumble through. She held a mouthful of evolution. She thought she was tasting organic matter, and believed organic was good, but it was sick coming up over her teeth. Her and Tom in the bathroom then, street ghosts at the bubble glass window. He reached for the wall switch and she hit him in the thigh, as she knelt and he stood. "No." Moaned so you'd think a little light would kill her.
Wintertime, still he slid open the window.
"Here," he said, passing her a towel for her mouth, and a glass of water she dared not drink. She swished around a gulp-ful and spat into the toilet, collapsed on her heels with her arms draping the cold tub edge.
Tom set an open sweater at the back of her neck to cover part of her nakedness, patted her shoulder. How many guys owned a cardigan? All the good dads on TV wore sweaters—Mr. Douglas, Ward, Bill-Cosby-Huxtable. Alongside woozy in her head she also had this thought: She'd been tenuous, and rootless. By sleeping with Fiona, Neal had cauterized the tendrils Pauline had allowed herself to place in him. Neal would call then hooks. Well, fuck Neal. Now Tom filled her whole blurry vision. He couldn't help it if he was Fiona's brother.
Tom knelt with her next to the toilet, and when he lifted her chin, Pauline jerked aside.
"My breath smells like death," she said.
He laughed. "How do you know?"
"Tastes like it."
He closed in on her, wrestling, laughing, angling for kissing but she clamped shut her lips. Then more sick erupted on the tiny tiled floor. With paper towels he wiped the mess, dumped it in the kitchen trash.
On his return she said, "I don't always lose my shit like this."
Tom stepped naked in front of her into the tub and tugged her up by her hand. He said, "I liked you pretty, Pauline, and I'm liking you un-pretty."
His sweater fell off her. She used him for balance under the shower as they washed away the sick smell and made themselves sober.
She thought of a line from one of Neal's songs: Smoke, smolder, rest and run. She guessed she and Tom had reached the end of that word string. She wasn't one to sit still with acceptance; she could admit this.
Keepsake means acquired, she later described to Tom's dad.
She visited the old man where Tom didn't bother. Tom, who was growing out of everything like a teenager in his second growth spurt—out of his dad, out of his jeans, out of his wife, Pauline.
"Out of complacency," he would say if she dogged him about it.
"See? I didn't bail first," she whispered. It was balm to her soul, and mostly a lie, but how can you look in the mirror at a cheating woman when that two timer wears your face?
Now she visited the old man and his wife. Woman was in the Alzheimer's wing, hadn't a clue. Pauline saved up her charms for men. She was simply wired that way. Hollis would not remember what she said to him, was well on his way to joining wispy-haired Maudy in the Forgetful Unit. He could remind Pauline how he cussed at Tom over tires rotated wrong in 1986, but he wouldn't remember her confidences.
She told Hollis, "Maybe sounds like I loved Neal more than I ever loved Tom."
But Pauline did not compare lovers. Each one was a new knife in a drawer, different blades for different kinds of cutting. And man, but they sliced her up good, to ribbons, to lovely silken ribbons. An explanation Tom would not understand if she even took the time to parse it.
Jared arrived at meaning sometimes before she did. She and he were a team, a working pair, the long accurate throw from short stop to first. They had their gloves on and the scoreboard had them up after seven innings.
A dream she had begun and then abandoned: children. At thirty a woman begins considering what's out of her grasp—things she'd always believed would be part of her. The babies she might have had, she thought of them as round balls of clay. They could grow to be anything—firemen, acrobats, gas station attendants, teachers, mommies and daddies, or they could run away with the circus. All the pretty hopes she had for them. But first they had to be. She wasn't about to plead them down from heaven into their little car seats. Already she begged too much for what she never seemed to get. Neither Neal nor Tom seemed to know what she craved, which was she wanted their topmost love, to be first considered.
And had she laid out for tally purposes the story about the dog? Pendleton, a gorgeous shepherd-lab mix, with some goddamn red in him even. Beautiful coat she brushed and brushed, the dog leaning back into her legs like a lover, smiling his doggy grin, eyes closed in ecstasy.
"Will you quit with that fucking dog?" Tom yelled out the front door. She had to brush Pen in the grass because Tom complained of shedding.
"Short hairs do not shed," she said. "And whatever he's got in him, they're both short."
Tom flipped his hand in the air, the way he did the time Jared tried stepping forward to protect her on the porch.
She'd led Pendleton by his collar onto the lawn. She loved him there, cared for him there. They were a twosome more than she and Tom were a twosome.
Tom maybe had a bad incident as a boy with a large dog. He never let up once she brought that dog home from the rescue. Pendleton was the bone Tom kept gnawing; he left it alone and then returned to set in more teeth marks. Tom had terrific teeth. He bleached to make them pearlier. For a guy, he managed to fuss over a few personal details, which suggested to Pauline he was stepping out, too, but covering better.
He took Pen to get fixed and Pauline thought they'd turned a corner. But then he complained to her from the vet's when presented with the bill. "Didn't want him knocking up some bitch's bitch. We'd be having your ass sued."
Tom worried about lawsuits. Made you wonder over what guilt plagued him, and why.
Along the lot that fronted New Bethany Penecostal set some spanking new concrete. Pauline approached this new grey in the ground and the mystery of it.
Tom called it the sidewalk to nowhere, a quarter mile the paver had set from the gravel drive leading back to the church. Where it dropped into a gully of sticks and gravel and shredded cellophane stood a man wearing a scuffed suede jacket, with inches-long stitching across the back as if the coat had been in a knife fight. Too warm a day, especially for suede. The coat observation settled weird in Pauline's belly, made her consider the guy might not be all there upstairs and un-phased by weather; or a vagrant with everything he had draping his shoulders. They met where the sidewalk stopped and the rutted ground took over. She tried to detour, but he prevented her pass-thru. Her hands were empty; she didn't even carry a purse.
"I've been waiting for you," he said. "I'm Jared."
She had a buzzing in her ears and sweat in her hair. Next he'd reach out and grab her to keep her from running and he did and that was good because she would have run. Right then she would have run.
"What do you want with me?"
"What do you want?" he said.
The way his eyes watched her she felt he could open up her head and look inside, tinker around, rewire her, sew her shut, and when he left she'd be a soul-less robot with some kind of absolute current keeping her running. She wrestled out of his grasp and shook remembrance of him from her skin. Her arms suddenly chilled the way women sometimes feel when they're froze out from their own selves. Jared shed his coat and made her wear it. Above them the sun was blazing.
"Come home with me," he said.
"No," she said, but she kept walking with him along unpaved ground.
They said other things while they walked, like where was home and who the fuck are you, and have you been stalking me, and what does this mean.
And then she recalled having seen him at the Goodwill.
"This is my stop," she said. They stood in front of New Bethany.
"You were on your way to church?"
"It's possible." She longed to wreck the disbelieving smile right off his face. She needed to step inside or she feared taking more from him than his coat. And if she stole from him, then he'd expect more coming his way, and she had no extra. All her goods were locked up with Tom.
She gestured at the building. "This is my end."
"Nah. It's your beginning."
She laughed at this just-met Jared supposing, like Tom, that he knew her. They did not know, none of them knew. She sat on a bench in New Bethany, thankful for hard furniture and solitude, and yes, even for God, though God wouldn't show his face. She had to guess at it. When she stepped out later Jared was gone, so she wore his coat home, giving Tom more evidence and argument.
She volunteered to bring the church's collected donations to the Goodwill Store, carried them in piecemeal to increase her trips and her chances of running into Jared, which she did, each and every time. They'd walk next door to Burger King for a Coke, and then stroll around outside until their straws stirred only sweet crushed ice. A month of this made Pauline crazy in the way craziness rules supreme.
"The last time I loved, " Jared said, "I promised I'd never get so deep again." He paused and waited and she waited with him. "Leave and you'll kill me," he said.
She ignored his warnings because they stood on a visible street corner, waiting for a walk light, because they hardly knew each other and men always exaggerated their misgivings to Pauline. She brought it out in them.
"Thinking of you sealing yourself off that way, it just breaks my heart," she said.
"Standing still is worse."
"You think I've settled?"
"You don't know me.'"
"I'd work to change that."
In some ways he sounded like a hired hand in a job interview, desperate for some around-the-house chore, any reason to draw near, any cause to catch a good meal. But then he brought her to his place and fed her and she saw he had more food than he needed, that he was aching to give it away.
He said what he said when they first met: "I've been waiting for you."
He ran his hand up the back of her neck, dug his fingers in her hair until he held her skull. He brought her forehead to his forehead, and she thought nothing could override this moment but water. It'd have to be a goddamn sunami to change their course. They rubbed brow on brow, ground the bones there until it pained and then they did more. When she sensed the secrets about to fall out of him, she opened her mouth.
They carried on this way all summer, whenever Tom's rig was assigned a cross country route.
"How convenient, all this transcontinental travel," Pauline said. She said it like a complaint, while inside her vital organs lifted over where she'd go next, to whom, and how soon.
"Hey, I got to fucking work," Tom said.
That stung, because Pauline did not.
"Hey, I own this land and the house that sits on it, the house you call home, mister." That was her bargaining chip, her big gun. Tom wouldn't leave—he had a warm bed, and a woman in it, and a place to park his wheels until the phone gave him an address to fly to. She'd have to kick him out if she ever wanted to bring Jared here. She didn't have the first idea of how to go about even bending her knee. She quit dreaming. She almost quit sleeping. But she did not quit Jared; with him she increased. Details might have got sloppy, which made her remember that first night at Tom's when he held her shoulders tightly in the shower, his fingers rubbery on her as he told her, "I want to show you how I can love you." His intensity then was a drug, drug and remedy.
Pauline popped out of Jared's bed.
"My god," she said, "he'll shoot the damned dog just to get at me."
Using Pendleton, Tom would carve out her center and lay it bare like a peeled banana in the sun, render her mushy, until she blended into the ground and would be something he'd scrape from his shoes before he got in the car.
No rational thing Jared said would stop her.
She pulled into her clothes, and cussed through the speedy drive, past Goodwill, up her own hilltop she bought with the money from the split with Neal, fearing Pendleton's belly sucked at a bullet. Tom would have maybe planted two there to seal the case.
Fucking two timer, Tom had called her, and he did speak truth about that. Still, he wanted her, but she couldn't figure why. Something about to have and have not.
Pendleton padded across the porch with his dry dish in his mouth, dragging it so it scraped the boards. Christ, she forgot to water the dog. That's how loose at the ends Tom had her.
She petted and crooned, "Aw, c'mere, Pen, pretty Pen, my beauty-boy, Pen, my love."
She let her heart calm and thought on what Jared said when she left: "Everything doesn't have anger at the source."
Bending down to kiss Pendleton, she'd swear she heard a waterfall, though no stream crossed her land. Maybe Tom had turned the faucet in the kitchen. No, her truck showed off her tilted, lonely park job in the driveway; Tom wasn't even here. Was it thunder then? She leaned into Pendleton, listening to the air while sun hazed up the sky. It took shutting out her own heartbeat to identify the bees—simple, foraging bees, tuning up a dead log, doing what-next for survival, abandoning the once-sweet hive, manufacturing their new home from what their bodies made.