The Ballad of Paulson Tanger – Chapter 2
Paulson glided down the stairs of his apartment complex on a cloud, imagining all the possible permutations his adventure could take. Visions of racing down streets of some imagined city, wearing something dark and mysterious did an ephemeral glide through his inner vision. While passing through the heavy doors of the lobby, he imagined what other doors he might see that day, what could lie on the other side of those doors for someone such as himself-Someone with nothing to lose, willing to risk all, which wasn’t much, if he was honest with himself. But it was the willingness to act that was important, wasn’t it? Waiting at the bus stop, he briefly entertained thoughts of sexual encounters with lovely and dangerous women. The bus’ s screeching brakes and cloud of exhaust fumes woke him from his idle dreaming, and as he stepped up to pay his toll, Paulson felt a smile transform his face for the first time in years. Turning to sit down, Paulson began examining his options. Both sides of the bus were almost full. The only seats left were at the front of the bus, where, no matter how old you were, you knew you were uncool if you sat there. True to form, the bus jolted forward with no warning to its harried passengers, spilling drinks and papers alike for all unsuspecting riders. The sudden motion catapulted him into the first seat on his left, and with relief, Paulson thanked the Universe for making the decision for him.
As the bus ambled down the street in the general direction of the western edge of town, Paulson attempted to gather himself without appearing completely unhinged. He patted his pockets. All of his necessary items were still in their proper places-His cell phone was in his right pocket, his silver business card case was in his left inside jacket pocket, over his heart. His key still jingled tinnily against its keychain in his trouser pocket. The patting process progressed to his hair, sifting through the strands lightly, assuring himself his scalp was still attached, and finally, at long last, he felt comfortable. And then he looked to his right.
Sitting there, quietly observing his neuroses, was the Woman in Red. Of course, she wasn’t wearing red today, that was just that one day that Paulson happened to see her. Today, she was wearing a dark blue skirt, with a green sweater. Her dark hair was twisted artfully atop her well-shaped head, accentuating inquisitive brown eyes. Paulson blinked. She blinked back.
Her long fingers twisted a stray wisp of hair away from her bottom lip.
“Hi there. Having some trouble, are we?” She arched an inquisitive eyebrow.
“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I don’t know yet, whether or not I will be having troubles later, still, or if they will be gone after today.”
“Um. Well. I was just referring to your dance of neuroses that you were just having. But please feel free to explain the troubles you may, or may not be, having.” A slight smile accentuated her full lips, and Paulson resisted the urge to reach out and touch the top one.
“It’s kind of hard to explain, really. I’m just-”
“On a journey of discovery and adventure? I love both of those! Please tell me. I’ll tell you a secret if you tell me yours.” She tilted her head, looking at him like statues carved by master artists do, with a mixture of ineffability and patience.
“I am on my way to a meeting that will change my life. I have no idea who I’m meeting, or what they will tell me, but they supposedly know how to fix the life that I’m leading so that it isn’t quite so…Boring, I guess is the word. Or rather, monotonous.”
“Can I come with?”
This brought Paulson to a full stop. He hadn’t expected this, didn’t know what to say.
“Yay!” she threw her arms in the air, touchdown style. “I mean, that’s great.” She leaned back in the seat, attempting nonchalance and failing miserably.
Paulson took a closer look at the woman standing next to him. He realized her eyes sparkled and jigged with a slight mania, and that her breath was laden with the smell of cigarettes and whiskey. It was just after 4 P.M.
“What is your name?” Paulson asked.
“My name is Vera Winters. I’m crazy. Do you have any gum?”
Paulson produced some gum.
“May I ask what kind of crazy you happen to be?”
“Oh, the regular kind, I suppose. Sometimes things don’t always look so good, and then sometimes they look great. Recently things haven’t looked very good at all. I just happen to think I’m lucky to see all that I do, because some people just don’t see anything, even when it’s in front of their faces. The doctors don’t agree, which is why I stopped seeing them a few years ago. Thanks for the gum, I had a whiskey and a cigarette to calm my nerves, after that doozy of a vision back there.”
Vera’s hands folded themselves into a neat package over her purse. Her jaw methodically chewed Paulson’s minty offering, and Paulson again had to resist the urge to touch her, this time on her cheek, in order to feel the muscle moving as it worked away at the sliver of freshness in her mouth. Without realizing it, their heads bent at a conspiratorial angle. Paulson had never met such a beautiful, interesting crazy person in all his life. The part of him that resisted change was terrified of the possibilities, but the side of him newly awakened, that looked at the world with fiery eyes and hands clenched in determination, slapped the other side into submission and quietly continued to wait for what came next, anticipating the newest twist in what was starting to become a rather complicated day.
The rest of the ride was completed in silence. The bus made its numerous stops, and the passengers filtered by on their way to other things. Vera and Paulson stared out the window, at the other people in their own worlds, and at the timeworn advertisements hanging limply above their heads. Never at each other. Both were worried that looking too long at the other person might break the spell of Chance Meeting of Two People. As the bus neared the end of its route at the very edge of town, Paulson finally looked over at her, and his glance let Vera know that they were almost there.
“Are you sure you want to come with me? I don’t know what I’m getting myself into here.”
“Of course I’m sure. There isn’t much else to do on a Tuesday evening, is there? I just quit my job, at this insufferable little media company, where all I did was decide whether or not I liked marketing materials or not. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s called Trace Marketing. Why, are you having second thoughts?” She laughed, expecting him to shrug the idea off as ludicrous.
Paulson’s senses started to tingle. She worked at Trace Marketing too? The possibility was present, but the odds were ludicrous. Why didn’t he see her there, in that room with all the others? Why didn’t she get off at the same stop as him every morning? How could years pass, and two people who worked for the same company, doing the same thing, never see or meet one another?
“Maybe you shouldn’t come with me after all. I-I think I might need to do this on my own. I mean, not that I don’t think you would make an awesome sideki-”
“Wait. So now, after you find out I worked for Trace, you don’t want me around? What the fuck, Paulson? Do you hate marketing slaves or something?”
“No, it’s ju-
“No no. No need to tell me. That’s fine. That’s just. Fine.”
“Oh. Well, mayb-
“No! No maybes, Paulson. Vera doesn’t go where she isn’t wanted. I get it. You don’t want crazy ol’ Vera fucking things up for you. Well that’s just great. Grand. Have yourself your fine adventure, and forget I ever asked.”
And with a timing only women ending a conversation in their favor possess, the bus stopped, and she neatly exited through the sliding door, sauntering away. Paulson got up to stop her progress, but tripped over his own feet. By the time Paulson gained his feet once more, she was a small figure on the broken sidewalk, growing steadily smaller. As she headed back in the direction of town, she spit out her gum into the street, spitting the chewed wad into the street with a mighty expulsion of breath. Somehow, she made it look both classy and crude at the same time.
“That’s littering you know!” He shouted. She flipped him off and kept going. Already feeling stupid, Paulson sat back down with a sigh and a curse. As he looked up, he noticed the driver, the only person left on the bus, was eyeing him steadily.
“Well? Are you going to go after her?
Paulson looked down at his hands, curled like the faint hearted things they were, around one another.
“No. Drive on, please.”
“In my experience, when a woman leaves like that, it’s never a good thing. Name’s Hal, by the by.”
“What are you, a bus-driving therapist? Drive. Please.” As Paulson said it, he knew that Hal was right, but couldn’t think of a single way to get Vera back on the bus. He turned in his seat to look for her, and she was a speck on the horizon, almost gone over the closest hill.
Hal shook his head, shrugged once, and put the bus in drive.