An arrangement of fresh cut flowers—orange marigolds, pink geraniums, and yellow roses- white plastic crosses, and smiling granite angels greeted visitors entering the double gates of KapperLand. A sublime, melancholy sight. The last thing one would expect to find in a cemetery.
Pauline looked for Reggie behind the mound of red and pink peonies covering A. Tremont's grave, his new favorite place to play. Before this it had been in the F section of the cemetery, though under no specific name. It's the flowers that attract him, she guessed, although she wasn't sure why because Reggie never cared for them in the past.
"Reggie, where are you?" she called out in a high assertive voice once reserved for the mischievous antics of her four-year-old daughter Gaby. " We have to go. Stop fooling around."
A blond, sandy haired man, just shy of six feet, came slowly down the gravel lined path toward Pauline. His downcast blue eyes told her that something was wrong.
"I had an accident", he said. "I crap my pants."
Pauline saw the absurdity of the situation and wanted to laugh. A thirty-nine-year old man with the mental capacity of a seven-year-old boy, in a husky masculine voice, informs her that he's shitted in his pants. Her husband. Reggie and Pauline Dodson. Married eleven years. But she didn't laugh because it would upset him. Reggie was very sensitive about people making fun of him.
"I'll get you cleaned soon as we get home."
"I didn't mean to," said Reggie. "I couldn't hold it."
"I know," said Pauline. "Let's say goodbye to Gaby, then we can go home."
Pauline watched Reggie touch their daughter's headstone with a quick flourish, his left hand tracing the chiseled, granite letters:
Our Little Angel
Gabrielle Anna Dodson
"Bye, Gaby," said Reggie. "See you later."
"Let's go," said Pauline, taking his hand with little difficulty and walking out to the parking lot. She was glad he didn't catch the teary sadness in her voice.
The drive was quiet. Reggie leaned his elbow on the open car window, mesmerized by the random display of moving images passing in and out of his sight. He had that same taut, intense look reminiscent of his former self. Pauline glanced at him. A patch of light blond hair was growing back in the front, covering the visible scar from his last cranial operation, six months ago. What was he thinking about to cause that look? Was it Gaby? Or did he have his own private set of moving images racing through his head? Reggie's neurologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital had informed her about his damaged cerebrum. A result of the car accident that had killed their young daughter.
Pauline stopped the car. A familiar wave of nausea struck her in the back of her throat. She closed her eyes, leaned her head against the steering wheel, and waited for the feeling to pass. Carsickness. The last time Pauline was carsick, she was pregnant. But there was no chance of that being the cause.
"You sick?" said Reggie, after a while.
Pauline could feel his eyes on her. She lifted her head and gave him a big smile.
"I'm alright. I get a little queasy every once in a while. Let's get you home and out of those pants." The foul smell was drifting over to her side of the car. She started the car and turned on the air conditioner in one quick smooth motion. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. A pair of tired, green eyes stared back at her, with cranberry lipstick bleeding onto her teeth, and a dry limp mass of auburn hair. No wonder Reggie couldn't take his eyes off her.
"Hungry? I could go for a big juicy hamburger," she said, trying to divert his attention elsewhere. "What about you? Let me guess, a hamburger and fries smothered in globs of ketchup."
It failed. Reggie's look intensified, but he said nothing.
Pauline concluded his brain was malfunctioning again.
The night Pauline chose to leave Reggie, she had packed an overnight bag, bundled up a crying Gaby, and drove to a motel. But their stay was short-lived. Reggie found them, threatening to "break down the goddamn door if I have to!" Fearing the worse, she opened the door.
"Leave me and you lose Gaby," said Reggie.
"She belongs with me," screamed Pauline "I'm her mother."
"Are you going to come home with us or kiss Gaby goodbye? I'm waiting."
Pauline attacked him, her sharp pointed nails drawn like talons eager to rip into her prey's flesh. But Reggie was quick, and slapped her a few times before throwing her across the bed. Gaby's hysterical crying echoed in her ears.
Pauline caught up to Reggie's sleek grey Jaguar on the open stretch road. The roaming countryside-bushes, trees, stray animals-metamorphosed into one long indistinguishable blur. In the passenger seat, Gaby's arms were flailing, tears running down her chubby red face. It's useless trying to outrun a car that was designed to go very fast. Best thing to do is to get ahead of him and block his way. She accelerated her Range Rover to maximum.
Reggie did something unexpected: he made a ninety-degree turn onto a grassy field, causing the car to flip over twice before coming to a complete stop.
There was no movement or sound coming from the vehicle.
Pauline pulled into the driveway, ushered Reggie out of the car and helped him into the bathroom with the directive, "Leave your clothes and underpants on the floor, and clean yourself with a wet, soapy washcloth," knowing Reggie would prefer it this way, with respect to his privacy. She went into the bedroom directly across from hers for some clean clothes for Reggie. A lump rose in her throat whenever she entered Gaby's old room, and her eyes automatically shifted to the corner wall where streaks of pink paint seeped through the blue, transforming the edges into a weird Picassoesque homage of pink and blue. Gaby and Reggie.
There was no question about them having separate bedrooms, and since the only other room happened to be Pauline's workroom, she had no choice but to use this bedroom.
"Boys don't have pink rooms," he had said at the time.
"What color do you want?" Pauline said.
Now it was Reggie's bedroom and clothes were scattered everywhere: his unmade bed, desk and chair, and on the floor. She checked his bureau for a pair of underwear, got a pair of black jeans and blue shirt, and left the room.
Pauline wanted to eat her hamburger in peace. But Reggie was making it difficult. He had already finished his hamburger.
"Am I going to die like that girl?"
Pauline understood why he would ask that question, but it didn't lessen the pain hearing Gaby being referred to as "that girl"
"No, you're going to be alright."
"How do you know?"
"The doctors told me your prognosis is good," she said "The operation took care of the headaches and seizures you were experiencing."
"They don't know everything," said Reggie.
Pauline rose from the table, having lost her appetite, and threw the remaining half of her hamburger into the kitchen garbage can.
"How about I make us a root beer float for dessert?"
No answer. An intense look clouded Reggie's face, his eyes turning a deep, richer shade of blue, furrowed brows, compressed lips forming a thin, straight line, and an unflinching scrutiny that scared Pauline.
"How did that girl die?" he said, "Did you kill her?"
Pauline flinched at the hostility of his words.
"It was a horrible accident." She met his gaze with a soft compassionate look, knowing it was better than backing down or getting into a confrontation with him. Sometimes it was difficult to know how to respond when Reggie behaved like his former self. What was going on inside his head?
"I'm having a root beer float," she said, removing a can of root beer and pint of vanilla ice cream from the freezer. She lingered in the cold air, allowing it to drift over her heated face.
"I don't care."
"Suit yourself." Pauline placed them near her moody man-child husband and waited.
She ate slowly, savoring the frothy blend of sweet cream swimming in a tall cold glass of tangy carbonated root beer, silently counting backwards from thirty, twenty-eight, twenty-five, twenty-one, eighteen. Reggie slid the ice cream closer to his side and scooped a huge spoonful up to his eagerly, awaiting open mouth.
Pauline stopped counting. A small victory.
Reggie was her high school sweetheart. Junior and senior prom. Lost virginity. Break up. There was no talk of continuing their relationship after high school. Pauline was headed to Wellesley and Reggie would be going to Penn State on a football scholarship to play under Coach Joe Paterno. Reggie had natural ability and speed. But he wasn't a jock, in the ordinary sense that guys who were into sports. He liked football.
After college they were reunited at a business seminar sponsored by the Learning Annex , held in midtown Manhattan. Both were among a panel of guest speakers discussing topics relating to entrepreneurship: sales and marketing, networking, partnerships, copyrights and trademarks.
"Looks like I wasn't the only sucker recruited for this," said Reggie, sitting in the vacant seat beside Pauline.
"Nice speech," she said "Very informative. I didn't realize copyright laws were so simple."
"They're not. I gave them the Copyright and Trademark Laws for Dummies version."
Pauline leaned closer to him. "Good career choice. Talking down to people was your specialty in high school."
Reggie laughed. "Nice to see you're still pointing out the obvious. I missed that. How have you been?"
"Good" she said "My handbag line is showing a profit, which I hope will double within a year."
"Voted number fifteen in Business Week's Top Selling Businesses—Pauline Noll Handbags."
"It sounds more impressive than it really is," she said. "I still bite my nails worrying about whether I'll sell enough bags to pay my mortgage and car insurance."
"Still impressive," he said, smiling.
Three months later, they exchanged vows in a small ceremony at City Hall.
Pauline stitched together the last remaining pieces of her Calico bag: swatches of white soft leather, mint green textured crocodile skin, burnt orange suede, and long magenta leather straps. An eight hundred dollar handbag. Perfect for her spring collection.
"Don't play with the sewing machine, Reggie. It's not a toy."
"You're going to break it."
"I don't care." Reggie sat in the far right corner surrounded by a multitude of discarded fabric and her mother's old Singer sewing machine.
Pauline focused on her work. She was two months behind and couldn't afford to waste anymore time dealing with Reggie's childish behavior. The Calico bags were scheduled to be delivered to the manufacturer in a few weeks.
Pauline fumbled her needled, sending the sharp tip through the top layer of her finger, and drawing drops of blood. It hurt. She sucked her finger. The bleeding stopped. She looked at Reggie. He was laughing. She got up and walked over to him and said what was so funny about her pricking her finger. He laughed harder. She slapped his face. Hard.
"Nothing funny about that," said Pauline.
Reggie sat stunned. His eyes staring at Pauline through a haze of bewilderment. It didn't last long.
"I hate you," he screamed. "You make me sick!"
"Then go to you room." She had to suppress her own laughter at ordering a grown man to his room.
"I hate you!" Reggie repeated and slammed the door.
Pauline resumed her hand stitching.
Pauline arranged her new Calico handbags on the sturdy plastic display stands at Amelia's . She disliked the garish purple banner announcing Pauline Noll Calico Handbags, but decided not to make a big deal about it, out of loyalty to her friend.
A stylishly dressed petite woman in a tailored blue striped pantsuit and white silk blouse approached Pauline.
"Exquisite," said Amelie, in a lyrical Belgian accent. "You've outdone yourself, Pauly."
"I hope we have a good turnout."
"Are you kidding?" Amelie looked surprised. "I've been inundated with phone calls inquiring when we're going to have your Calico handbags. I hope you bought enough for my clientele, including phone orders."
Pauline did a quick mental count of the number of handbags that were delivered from the manufacturer's warehouse.
"Three hundred," she said.
"You're an absolute angel," said Amelie. Her brown eyes sparkled, igniting her heart shaped face into an all-over glow, as though she had held a lit candle to her face.
"For lunch, I want to take you to this divine Japanese restaurant near Rockefeller Center. My treat."
Pauline hated breaking their longstanding tradition of getting together as former college roommates once their business was concluded.
"Sorry, I have to get back to Reggie," she said.
Amelie's face lost half its glow. "Is he still having those dreadful seizures?" she said in a lowered voice, even though they were alone. The boutique was closed.
"Reggie's fine. He didn't want to come."
"Perhaps you should give him a call to see if he's alright. Use my phone in the office."
The thought had crossed Pauline's mind, but she had a job to do. She wasn't going to turn her entire life upside down for him.
"It's better I finish this before you open those doors and an army of crazed, well dressed women come marching through."
Amelie wasn't convinced. "Are you sure?"
"Absolute," said Pauline, using a word from her friend's lexicon.
Pauline placed her last handbag on the display. Two minutes to spare. The empty boxes were cleared, she gave the thumbs up sign to Amelie, and the doors were opened. Pauline was wrong. The women didn't come marching through the doors like a band of invading storm troopers. They walked, single-file, through the aisle, their eyes taking in the cashmere and silk scarves, buckled leather gloves, rhinestone studded hair clips, before feasting on the object of their desire. An impenetrable circle formed around the display, each woman staking her claim on a Pauline Noll Calico handbag.
Pauline took her time leaving the boutique, wanting to savor this elated moment a little while longer.