Out of all of my brother’s wives, his sixth wife Paula was my favorite. I remember watching the two of them walk down the aisle, Paula stepping in and out of the beams of light that fell through the church windows. Most people wouldn’t bother with the church by the second or third time, let alone the sixth, but not my brother Dale.
“George, I believe in the sanctity of marriage,” he said.
This was while we were outside of Ag-Tech Foods, where we both picked various things out of processed potatoes before they got packaged and shipped out as tater tots. Frozen mice, beer caps, shoe laces. Small things that no one noticed, unless they ended up in a bag of tots.
“I believe in the sanctity of not getting my ass handed to me every few years by some woman,” I said.
At lunch we would go out to the white paneled food truck and get hot beef sandwiches, which, like everything that came off the truck, tasted like plastic.
Dale met Paula LaBattat in a square dance class he took at the College of Southern Idaho, and six months after that I stood in the aisle of the New Lutheran Church, watching my brother get married. Again. We weren’t Lutherans, but it didn’t matter.
One Sunday in the August of their first year of marriage the three of us decided to drive to Helena, Montana, for no particular reason at all. We could have driven the other direction and nearly got to Portland and the ocean, had we wanted to, but I guess we weren’t those kind of people. You know, Ocean People.
We took Paula’s old spray-painted Mustang that shook like an old man when you took her over sixty. Paula was a rounder woman, with dyed blonde hair that flashed green in the sun and a chest that stuck so far out you could rest a tray of margaritas on it.
That Mustang shook and rattled through the cracked mountain two lanes that led to Helena. Paula and Dale sat in the cramped back seat, kissing like a couple of high school kids in heat, not the sixty-year-olds they were. I watched Dale’s gold-ringed finger slide up and down her back. Watching his fingers move up and down her sweater gave me a taste in my mouth like sucking on a penny.
We spent three days in Helena. We got drunk and pretended we had nowhere else to be. We didn’t have enough money to get separate rooms. Late at night I would lie awake and listen to the sound of skin sliding between sheets and the sound of pop cans and ice clunking around in the machines outside our door.
On the Sundays when we weren’t taking road trips I would go over to their place to watch football, drink Olympia beer, and generally shoot the shit we hadn’t yet shot the other six days of the week. Paula would look me up and down, my shirt tighter against my belly than it had ever been, and say “We need to get you a girl, George.”
I would answer that I liked my space, but it wasn’t my space that I necessarily liked. I liked not depending on someone else. Our parents were married for fifty-nine years and four months. They spent the last thirty of those years in separate bedrooms, cooking breakfast at different times and generally treating each other like wallpaper. The day our dad died my mom kneeled on the shiny hardwood floor next to his body and cried so hard she hyperventilated and passed out.
It didn’t make any sense to me.
Things were real good until the doc informed Paula that she had a cancerous lump in her left breast. The doctors sent her to Boise and blasted her with radiation like a little tropical island in the 40’s. The day she found out I heard her telling Dale that she felt empty, like things were being taken away from her.
I didn’t hear Dale say anything.
In fairness to him I didn’t say anything either.
Dale took a leave from work. I stayed in their house, taking care of the cat until I could get a chance to drive up to Boise and see how things were going. I would lie in my brother’s bed, smelling faded perfume and hearing the lonely sound of a house without the right people in it.
A week or two after she started her treatment I drove up to Boise. She was staying in Level 2, Room 6, Bed 11, and Dale was staying in the Motorcourt Inn, which had a busted neon sign out front that said FREE TV. I stayed at the Motorcourt with Dale. The first night after a few beers and talk of how things at the plant were going, I asked him the question neither of us wanted to ask.
“So, how is she?”
“She’s shrunk. Her hair’s going. She complains about the hospital food, and I can’t say I blame her. I tried to get her some tater tots, but it would have been easier getting a file into a prisoner. The nurse took the tots out of my coat pocket and dumped them in the trash, like I hadn’t just spent a buck. I’d have eaten them myself. By then it was too late. She’s sunk into her bed. Every day I think that damn bed eats part of her.”
“I’m going to see her tomorrow.”
“Suit yourself. You won’t like it. Everything in that place smells like toilet cleaner and sweat. I come home and shower every day, sometimes twice.”
The next day I sat outside the hospital in my rusty Chevy truck with my head against the steering wheel. I wanted to sit next to her in the bed and rub her bald scalp and tell her how, when this all ended, the three of us were going to drive to Mexico and sit on the beach and eat fish tacos till we got old and died.
I’d even started to save a little money.
I sat in my truck until the early evening, long after all the day staff had left and it was just the skeleton crew. I finally drove off, hoping she hadn’t been sitting next to her window looking down at me.
They nuked and nuked her until there wasn’t much left, but the chemotherapy didn’t take. The doctors decided it would be best to remove her left breast. Dale had long since returned home. We both stayed at his house, keeping ourselves awake deep into the night with bad TV shows, lots of Olympia — and as little talk as we could get by with. Usually we’d fall asleep with me on the couch and Dale in the recliner. Dale, always married, had never learned to cook for himself, so I usually made dinner.
While I stood over a pot of boiling green beans Dale would stare at himself in the bathroom mirror, putting layers and layers of Vaseline in his hair till it held tight together like hardened concrete. He would follow that by looking real closely at himself for wrinkles. There were never any — he looked twenty years younger than me, even though he was three years older.
By the end of every night the whole place would smell like bacon, Vaseline, and half-full (or half-empty, depending on how you see the world) cans of beer.
During the day we would sit at our posts in the plant, not two feet apart, not saying a word about anything other than an occasional comment about what we hoped to find in the food, like a blank check, instead of what we did find in the food: a whole thumbnail, ripped clean off like a sheet of paper.
On the weekends Dale would drive up and visit Paula, and four days after her surgery he drove her home. I’d cooked a ham and made some mashed potatoes and deviled eggs. I saw the headlights of my truck swing into the driveway. Dale’s radiator on his old brown Ford exploded, and he had to borrow mine. I always told him he was foolish to buy anything but a Chevy, but he always does things his own way.
I heard the engine kill and the clopping of one set of feet and the dragging of another. They came through the front door. I’ve never seen anything like it. This world is filled with a lot of heartache and brokenness, but nothing was quite as broken as my sister-in-law the night she came home from the hospital. Her hair had started to grow back, but it was little more than peach fuzz, and the skin on her face was slack and waxy. She was no longer the full-bodied woman I knew.
The three of us stood there, looking around at the couch and TV and ham on the table, hoping someone would break the ice.
Finally, Paula said, “What the fuck are you looking at?”
At that moment I was looking at three separate versions of Paula. My eyes had gone teary, and I was filled with sadness and the smell of ham. Paula walked over, slow and lopsided, and buried her skinny face in my chest. I put my arms around her, careful not to squeeze too hard, and looked down at her scalp. I could see the thousand tiny holes that her hair sprouted from and the way the skin looked raw and abused.
Dale and I went to work at the plant the next day. I thought he would be happy about Paula and the way she had beat cancer, even at the cost of her womanhood, or whatever you want to call it. It seemed to me to be a small price to pay. I would take a boobless Paula over just about anyone. I would rather run my fingers over a sweater with a damaged Paula in it than have a thousand babies with Cindy Crawford.
When the lunch truck pulled up we clocked out and went out to the hot pavement. I bought a turkey and cheese sandwich and Dale got a hamburger. We sat on the ground in the sun, eating our food in silence, until Dale said, “I’m leaving her.”
“It’s not why you think,” he said, looking at me the way the way he looked at a woman he courting and lying to — all hard blue eyes and smooth face, a boy who never completely learned how to look old.
I knew that he thought that I thought it was about Paula being down a breast.
But I knew we really talking about cowards, not boobs.
That Sunday I went to Dale’s place. I walked through the front door without knocking, like I always did. Dale was gone, and Paula sat slumped into the faded flower-print couch, watching a baseball game with the sound off. Sunlight came in through the window and reflected off her shiny scalp.
She looked up at me and asked if I wanted to go get ice cream. She could have asked for a kidney and I would have given it to her.
“Yeah, let me run down to the store.”
“No, let’s go to the Tastee Freeze”
“You up to it?”
“Nope. But the hell with it. I want ice cream.”
She stood and grabbed me by the crook of my elbow. We stepped through the screen door and headed down the wavy cement path that led to the sidewalk. The Tastee Freeze was three blocks away. We walked, looking at houses with lawns that were either overgrown or over-cut. Mutt dogs slept on the grass, and cars with faded paint and expired registration sat in the driveways.
I tried not to look at her, and not because of the way she looked, missing part of her body and with a nearly bald head. I didn’t want to look at her because I thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world right then, and as of that moment she was still my brother’s wife.
The Freeze was mostly empty, other than two young girls sharing a milkshake, and a claw vending machine. I got a large vanilla cone. Paula bought a sundae with fat red strawberries dripping from the top.
The two of us sat and ate our ice cream. She asked me how the job was going.
“Work’s work,” I said.
“Dale doesn’t talk about it anymore. He’s quiet most of the time. He spends all night looking in that mirror, plastering his hair down. Our bed stinks like a petroleum factory.”
It was hot, and ice cream ran down Paula’s thin, pale arm into the pit of her elbow. I watched it run down, and I looked at her head and her sunken eyes. Watching her like that made feel like I was running.
“I don’t know what his deal is,” I said.
She took another bite, and looked hard and long, straight into me with those green eyes.
“You know what?”
“I might leave him.”
“Really?” Something inside my chest rolled over.
Paula looked out the window toward a parking lot filled with rusty farm trucks and crumbling Chevy Cavaliers.
“Right after I graduated high school, I borrowed my dad’s Impala and drove all the way to Maine,” she said.
“I’d never been there, and I wanted to eat a big buttery lobster and see an ocean and a place that I never knew.”
“I…I’ve never ate lobster.”
“Neither have I. My dad’s car broke down and I had to stop in South Dakota.”
“Did you see Mount Rushmore?”
“No. My dad came and picked me up. You want to see if we can win anything?’
She pointed at the Claw. Red lights lit up the border of the game. I knew we’d never win anything, but right then it seemed worth it to try. Paula sat up and I followed. We stood in front of the Claw and I could feel the eyes of the young people on my back, probably wondering why two old people were messing around with a game that everyone knows is rigged.
I put my quarter in, and the Claw came alive. I decided to go for a stuffed red pig. The claw dove into the mess of soft animals and cheap plastic jewelry. Against all odds, the claw got hold of the pig, and I felt Paula’s hand brush against my leg. I held my hand steady as I possibly could.
I’d never wanted anything as much as I wanted that pig.
Just as I got close to the drop, the pig came loose and bounced on the edge of the hard plastic that lined the hole. For a moment I thought it would go in, but it didn’t. All the air left me, and all I heard was the sound of a hamburger frying on a greasy griddle.
“Almost,” Paula said. I turned, and she looked at me with such a big sadness I could barely stand it.
We left the Freeze. It was dusk by then, and we didn’t talk on the way back. The stars were making their way out. In the houses that lined the street, light bulbs burned and people watched television sets. We got to the front of Paula’s walkway, and she turned and looked at me. Inside a light in the bathroom was on.
Dale was slicking his hair back and checking for wrinkles.
I wanted to put my ear on the blank space above her heart, but I didn’t.
She turned and walked into the house without saying anything. I watched her back move in the moonlight and saw how careful she was not to hurry. When she opened the door the house lights made her shine for a second, then she was gone.
I got in my truck, smelling all the air fresheners that hung from the rear-view mirror. I never threw any of them away. Instead I just got more, letting them stack one on top of the other. I stayed there in the dark, watching Paula pack up a suitcase and Dale slick back his hair. I watched the way they moved around and through one another. Paula set her suitcase on the floor and stared at it, like it was the suitcase’s job to lead her out the door.
I saw this all happen in the lit up window, and as far as I could tell they never said a word to each other. After a while I had to have something to do, so I started tearing up my old cassette tapes, letting the black ribbon fall to the bare metal floor.
The Byrds, Derek and the Dominoes—all the best ones from when I was young.