The Ballad of Paulson Tanger – Chapter 1
Paulson Tanger was cursed with an adventurous name. While his name was out visiting exotic locales around the globe, saving busty women from dire situations, rescuing whole governments, entire businesses, and restoring the faith of the people, he…didn’t. Paulson’s physical presence sat on his couch wearing boxers that lacked the elasticity of its newer counterparts, eating leftover Chinese food from the rattling fridge occupying an ignoble corner of his lamentable apartment, its tired walls heaving silent sighs over the humdrum life of its occupant. At the DMV, the tired, angry employee behind the counter telling him his paperwork was wrong and that he needed that form, not this form, and that the line he needed was over there, always spared his driver’s license a skeptical glance, looking from his name to his face with lizard-like movements of the eye, as if they didn’t believe such a slight, unassuming man could have the name Paulson Tanger, full of such promise and mystery. Though he often considered changing his name, in the end he always decided to keep it. Because even though he hated his name, he admitted to himself that the name saved him from a rather stunning level of monotony. He felt it in every day that passed: He was completely and utterly normal. Standing naked in front of a full-length mirror, his unsmiling face and pale limbs reflected back at him, Paulson struggled to find something that shone beyond his inescapable brownness. Nondescript, light brown hair that fell negligently over his brow, average brown eyes. Brown freckles and moles dusting pale skin.
Shit spatter, he thought. I have nothing more physically memorable than freckles and moles that look like shit spatter. There’s probably nothing memorable between my ears, either. School days had passed with little fanfare-Paulson was a student of low ambition, and the overcrowded classrooms of his youth made it easy for him to slip past elementary and high school without anyone so much as noting in passing his quiet, inquiring mind. So Paulson Tanger kept his name, and continued to search for something he couldn’t define, the unnameable something that refused to step into the light, remaining ever in the shadows of existence.
Every morning, Paulson’s routine ground to steady life. The shrill alarm at an eardrum-shattering volume would sound at 6:43 AM, causing him to bolt upright in bed. This rude awakening could not be avoided, due to his propensity for sleeping through a kinder sound and volume, in part caused by a childhood lived close to a set of particularly busy train tracks. Loud, constant noise lulled his brain further in REM sleep, rather than interrupting its low-frequency rhythms. He always pushed the snooze button twice, twice more inducing the agony of his alarm on his aural organs. Doctors had warned him that this continued abuse would result in early-onset hearing loss, but having a deep distrust of anyone who wore mint green or a lab coat, Paulson studiously ignored their advice in favor of arriving in a timely manner. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he would rub his eyes three times, searching with steadily cooling toes for his slippers. He allowed himself six minutes to complete the act of showering, an economical use of both water and lather, four minutes to don clothing which included an impressive collection of tweed and cotton-poly blends, and seven minutes to arrive at the train station. Every day at said train station at exactly 7 AM, Paulson bought the newspaper from the same old man at the kiosk, who favored his customers with glares and demanded to be paid only in change, and at times produced a rare comment on the weather (It’s cold, if you hadn’t noticed, hurry it up, willya?). After handing over the newspaper, the man would laboriously double count said change, refusing to let patrons leave his sight before doing so. As a result, his profits were few, and those who decided to buy the paper from him in the first place, when considering buying from one of the other, more friendly kiosks, would glare at the perceived betrayers menacingly until they returned to his caustic side. Arriving early allowed for the five-minute, labor intensive counting procedure that the old man went through with every customer, with a few spare minutes to peruse the newspaper while not being jostled by the heaving masses.
The train arrived at exactly 8:30AM with a similar eardrum-shattering shriek as his alarm, grinding to a slow halt before its tired, pinched passengers-to-be. Riding to his stop, he saw the same people seated in the same positions, absorbed in their own microcosm of iPods, newspapers, books, and telephones, the rocking of the train a lulling, hypnotic motion creating a connection through bodies moving in tandem. Though he tried to do the same, tried to experience the lulling motion as a soothing narcotic, Paulson always found himself, newspaper at half mast, staring inquiringly at the people around him, wondering what they were all doing, why they seemed so singularly focused on glowing screens or blocks of text. Though once, while riding the train to work one blustery winter morning, he saw a newspaper that was trembling suspiciously, its’ pages a nervous susurration in the hands of who appeared to be a slight woman wearing a long red skirt. As he passed her on his way off the train, the other passengers clearly unaware of the newspaper’s quiet whisper of desperation, it became evident that she was silently weeping behind the newspaper, reading nothing at all about the gallery opening of a famous artist. Confused and a bit scared, he said nothing, shuffling past while doing his own rendition of the lizard-eye, flicking his gaze toward her, and just as quickly away. Once, their eyes almost slid into a mutual gaze. But Paulson hurried away before this could be possible, shuffling off the train with an expediency reserved only for those desperately late or desperate for the restrooms. He didn’t even know what to do with himself when he was crying, much less a striking, anonymous woman. This was two years ago now, and though he saw the woman frequently, sitting in the same seat and reading the same paper sporting the day’s news, he never asked her name, or about the news not found in the headlines causing her such pain.
Paulson’s work consisted mainly of two things-The Red Button and The Black Button. The Red Button was for rejection, and The Black Button was for acceptance. As a marketing test subject, his only job was to decide whether or not the advertisement in whatever form it came in, was pleasing to him. Sitting in a room full of people who were nothing like him, Paulson often wondered why they had asked him to be a test subject in the first place. The notification for hire had come by e-mail, sitting sterile and impersonal in his inbox. No signature other than the marketing group’s name, Trace Marketing. No interview (and no application, when he thought about it), simply an invitation to begin work at a certain time and place. Accepting this oddity as commonplace, Paulson had also accepted his first file and his place at a computer screen three years ago, when he was just twenty two.
Peering over his computer screen, he saw men and women wearing trendy clothing, sharp haircuts, tapping on large-screened, powerful phones, and making plans for weekends that didn’t involve a rootling search for Fanta in the back of the fridge. He longed to ask someone, but the intimidating men and women, always in black, always scowling their stress into the atmosphere surrounding their pinched yet placid faces, who gave him the day’s work at a running pace and never seemed to stop moving, also never seemed open to questions of any kind. And so Paulson accepted his meager checks gratefully, and wondered and dreamed.
On the eve of his fourth year working for Trace Marketing, Paulson returned home from work that day with a renewed sense of purpose and energy. He decided that he was done. Done waiting for something to happen to him. Done listening to the incessant jingles his mind retained from his job, deciding what other people should see. Done imagining the men and women in the slick, plastic ads as his friends and confidants. Done observing the world as an outsider. Just done. Even the apartment walls appeared to perk up in the face of Paulson’s vigor. Sitting at the almost unused kitchen table, scarred only by its anonymous previous owners, sipping his last orange Fanta, Paulson Tanger began a plan, and that plan started with the Yellow Pages. After poring over several different sections, including Self-Help, he shrugged his shoulders and chose one under the Miscellaneous section, Phenomenal Response Inc. Its byline read “Extraordinary options for ordinary problems!!” His bowels trembled with a physical anticipation of his mental leap from the norm.
He reached for his beige rotary telephone, the handset a dirty smear in the middle from years of use. As he dialed he looked around, the echoing ring in his ear drilling away in his damaged eardrums. He thought about a check-up with his ear nose and throat doctor, and the opposite end picked up.
“PR Incorporated, how may I help you?” Paulson paused. He hadn’t expected a female voice.
“Y-yes. I’d like to make an appointment please?” He cursed the tremble in his voice. There was a series of clicks and whirrs, that he assumed was the receptionist checking a computer for open times. He almost dropped the phone when a deep voice boomed out,
“YES! HELLO! DO YOU WANT TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE?!” Paulson needed no other provocation, jingles sounding a rumba of revenge in his mind’s eye.
Paulson cleared his throat. “YES! I DO!”
“THAT’S THE SPIRIT! Tomorrow. Eight ‘o clock.”
The speaker hung up. At the sound of the dial tone, Paulson panicked. Fingers shaking madly, he twirled the rotary dial of his telephone viciously with an impatient digit. At the fifth ring, Irving a step away from a full meltdown, someone picked up the other end.
“Smart boy. P.M Be early. Or late. Just don’t be on time.” Paulson thought he heard a chuckle, but couldn’t be sure. He thoughtfully replaced the receiver, wrote down the address under the phone number he had just dialed, and went to sit in his beige recliner.
The next day seemed to pass slowly enough to frustrate even persons of great leisure. At this juncture Paulson railed at the routine he had formed for his day off, cursing its unhurried pace. Nothing could retain his fractured attention, not even his most favorite books and magazines. Part of his day was spent idly flipping channels on the television, his finger emoting his steadily growing impatience. Unable to find something to distract himself, Paulson finally gave up went back to the sanctuary of his bed, cursing the slow ticking of time’s clock. The sunlight spilling across the bedspread slowly drained away, and at finally, at long last, it was time. Rising, he strode to his front door, picked up his prearranged keys and slipped on his prearranged shoes, and said a mental goodbye to his life as it was.