The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless
written and narrated by Sherman Alexie

The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless

IN CHICAGO’S O’HARE AIRPORT, WALKING east on a moving sidewalk, Paul saw a beautiful woman walking west. She’d pulled her hair back into a messy ponytail, and her blue jeans were dark-rinsed boot-cut, and her white T-shirt was a size too small, and her pale arms were muscular. And—ah, she wore a pair of glorious red shoes. Pumas. Paul knew those shoes. He’d seen them in an ad in a fashion magazine, or maybe on an Internet site, and fallen in love with them. Allegedly an athletic shoe, the red Pumas were really a thing of beauty. On any woman, they’d be lovely; on this woman, they were glorious. Who knew that Paul would someday see those shoes on a woman’s feet and feel compelled to pursue her?

Paul wanted to shout out, I love your Pumas! He wanted to orate it with all the profundity and passion of a Shakespearean couplet, but that seemed too eccentric and desperate and—well, literate. He wanted the woman to know he was instantly but ordinarily attracted to her, so he smiled and waved instead. But bored with her beauty, or more likely bored with the men who noticed her beauty, she ignored Paul and rolled her baggage on toward the taxi or parking shuttle or town car.

“‘She’s gone, she’s gone.’” Paul sang the chorus of that Hall & Oates song. He sang without irony, for he was a twenty-first-century American who’d been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits.

There was a rule book: When a man is rebuffed by a beautiful stranger he must sing blue-eyed soul; when a man is drunk with the loneliness of being a frequent flyer he must sing Mississippi Delta blues; when a man wants revenge he must whistle the sound track of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. When a man’s father and mother die within three months of each other, he must sing Rodgers and Hammerstein: “Oklahoma! Oklahoma Okay!”

Despite all the talk of diversity and division—of red and blue states, of black and white and brown people, of rich and poor, gay and straight—Paul believed that Americans were shockingly similar. How can we be so different, thought Paul, if we all know the lyrics to the same one thousand songs? Paul knew the same lyrics as any random guy from Mobile, Alabama, or woman from Orono, Maine. Hell, Paul had memorized, without effort or ever purchasing or downloading one of their CDs—or even one of their songs—the complete works of Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond, and AC/DC. And if words and music can wind their way into and around our DNA strands—and Paul believed they could—wouldn’t American pop music be passed from generation to generation as easily as blue eyes or baldness? Hadn’t pop music created a new and invisible organ, a pituitary gland of the soul, in the American body? Or were these lies and exaggerations? Could one honestly say that Elvis is a more important figure in American history than Einstein? Could one posit that Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect” was more kinetic and relevant to American life than Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 speech that warned us about the dangers of a military-industrial complex? Could a reasonable person think that Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” was as integral and universal to everyday life as the fork or wheel? Paul believed all these heresies about pop music but would never say them aloud for fear of being viewed as a less-than-serious person.

Or wait, maybe Paul wasn’t a serious person. Maybe he was an utterly contemporary and callow human being. Maybe he was an American ironic. Maybe he was obsessed with pop music because it so perfectly reflected his current desires. And yet, Paul sold secondhand clothes for a living. He owned five vintage clothing stores in the Pacific Northwest and was currently wearing a gray tweed three-piece suit once owned by Gene Kelly. So Paul was certainly not addicted to the present day. On the contrary, Paul believed that the present, past, and future were all happening simultaneously, and that any era’s pop culture was his pop culture. And sure, pop culture could be crass and manipulative, and sometimes evil, but it could also be magical and redemptive.

Take Irving Berlin, for example. He was born Israel Baline in Russia in 1888, emigrated with his family in 1893 to the United States, and would eventually write dozens, if not hundreds, of classic tunes, including, most famously, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Yes, it was a Russian Jew who wrote the American love song that suggested we better hurry and meander at the same time. Can a person simultaneously hurry and meander? Yes, in the United States a romantic is, by definition, a person filled with those contradictions. And, the romantic American is in love with his contradictions. And the most romantic Americans (see Walt Whitman) want to have contradictory sex. Walt Whitman would have wanted to have sex with Irving Berlin. Paul loved Irving Berlin and Walt Whitman. He loved the thought of their sexual union. And most of all, Paul loved the fact that Irving Berlin had lived a long and glorious life and died in 1989, only sixteen years earlier.

Yes, Irving Berlin was still alive in 1989. It’s quite possible that Irving Berlin voted for Michael Dukakis for United States president. How can you not love a country and a culture where that kind of beautiful insanity can flourish? But wait—did any of this really matter anyway? Was it just the musical trivia of a trivial man in a trivial country? And beyond all that, why was Paul compelled to defend his obsessions? Why was he forced to define and self-define? After all, one doesn’t choose his culture nearly as much as one trips and falls into it.

Splat! Paul was a forty-year-old man from Seattle, Washington, who lived only ten minutes from the house where Kurt Cobain shotgunned himself, and only fifteen minutes from the stretch of Jackson Street where Ray Charles and Quincy Jones began their careers in bygone jazz clubs. Splat! Paul’s office, and the headquarters of his small used-clothes empire, was down the street from a life-size statue of Jimi Hendrix ripping an all-weather solo. Splat! Paul bought his morning coffee at the same independent joint where a dozen of Courtney Love’s bounced checks decorated the walls.

Paul believed American greatness and the ghosts of that greatness surrounded him. But who could publicly express such a belief and not be ridiculed as a patriotic fool? Paul believed in his fellow Americans, in their extraordinary decency, in their awesome ability to transcend religion, race, and class, but what leftist could state such things and ever hope to get laid by any other lefty? And yet Paul was the perfect example of American possibility: He made a great living (nearly $325,000 the previous tax year) by selling secondhand clothes.

For God’s sake, Paul was flying to Durham, North Carolina, for a denim auction. A Baptist minister had found one hundred pairs of vintage Levi’s (including one pair dating back to the nineteenth century that was likely to fetch $25,000 or more!) in his father’s attic, and was selling them to help raise money for the construction of a new church. Blue jeans for God! Blue jeans for Jesus! Blue Jeans for the Holy Ghost!

Used clothes for sale! Used clothes for sale! That was Paul’s capitalistic war cry. That was his mating song.

Thus unhinged and aroused, Paul turned around and ran against the moving sidewalk. He chased after the beautiful woman—in her gorgeous red Pumas—who had rebuffed him. He wanted to tell her everything that he believed about his country. No, he just wanted to tell her that music—pop music—was the most important thing in the world. He would show her the top twenty-five songs played on his iPod, and she’d have sex with him in the taxi or parking shuttle or town car.

And there she was, on the escalator above him, with her perfect jeans and powerful yoga thighs. Paul could hear her denim singing friction ballads across her skin. Paul couldn’t remember the last time he’d had sex with a woman who wore red shoes. Paul dreamed of taking them off and taking a deep whiff. Ha! He’d instantly developed a foot fetish. He wanted to smell this woman’s feet. Yes, that was the crazy desire in his brain and his crotch when he ran off the escalator and caught the woman outside of the security exit.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry, hello,” Paul said.

She stared at him. She studied his face, wondering if she knew him, or if he was a gypsy cab driver, or if he was a creep.

“I saw you back there on the moving sidewalk,” Paul said.

Wow, that was a stupid thing to say. That meant nothing. No, that meant Paul had noticed the lovely shapes of her green eyes, breasts, and ass—their mystical geometry—and that made him as ordinary, if slightly more mathematical, as any other man in the airport. He needed to say something extraordinary, something poetic, in order to make her see that he was capable of creating, well, extraordinary poetry. Could he talk about her shoes? Was that a convincing way to begin this relationship? Or maybe he could tell her that Irving Berlin’s real name was Israel.

“I mean,” Paul said, “well, I wanted to—well, the thing is, I saw you—no, I mean—well, I did see you, but it wasn’t sight that made me chase after you, you know? I mean—it wasn’t really any of my five senses that did it. It was something beyond that. You exist beyond the senses; I just know that without really knowing it, you know?”

She smiled. The teeth were a little crowded. The lines around her eyes were new. She was short, a little over five feet tall, and, ah, she wore those spectacular red shoes. If this didn’t work out, Paul was going to run home and buy the DVD version of that movie about the ballerina’s red dance slippers. Or was he thinking of the movie about the kid who lost his red balloon? Somewhere there must be a movie about a ballerina who ties her dance shoes to a balloon and watches them float away. Jesus, Paul said to himself. Focus, focus.

“You have a beautiful smile,” Paul said to the stranger. “And if your name is Sara, I’m going to lose my mind.”

“My name isn’t Sara,” she said. “Why would you think my name is Sara?”

“You know, great smile, name is Sara. ‘Sara Smile’? The song by Hall and Oates.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a good one.”

“You’ve made me think of two Hall and Oates songs in, like, five minutes. I think that’s a sign. Of what, I don’t know, but a sign nonetheless.”

“I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard a man say nonetheless in normal conversation.”

Was she mocking him? Yes, she was. Was that a positive step in their relationship? Did it imply a certain familiarity or the desire for a certain familiarity? And, by the way, when exactly had he become the kind of man who uses nonetheless in everyday conversation?

“Listen,” Paul said to the beautiful stranger. “I don’t know you. And you don’t know me. But I want to talk to you—and listen to you; that’s even more important—I want to talk and listen to you for a few hours. I want to share stories. That’s it. That’s it exactly. I think you have important stories to tell. Stories I need to hear.”

She laughed and shook her head. Did he amuse her? Or bemuse her? There was an important difference: Women sometimes slept with bemusing men, but they usually married amusing men.

“So, listen,” Paul said. “I am perfectly willing to miss my flight and have coffee with you right here in the airport—and if that makes you feel vulnerable, just remember there are dozens of heavily armed security guards all around us—so, please, if you’re inclined to spend some time with a complete but devastatingly handsome stranger, I would love your company.”

“Well,” she said. “You are cute. And I like your suit.”

“It used to belong to Gene Kelly. He wore it in one of his movies.”

“Singin’ in the Rain?”

“No, one of the bad ones. When people talk about the golden age of Hollywood musicals, they don’t realize that almost all of them were bad.”

“Are you a musician?”

“Uh, no, I sell used clothes. Vintage clothes. But only the beautiful stuff, you know?”

“Like your suit.”

“Yes, like my suit.”

“Sounds like a cool job.”

“It is a cool job. I have, like, one of the coolest lives ever. You should know that.”

“I’m sure you are a very cool individual. But I’m married, and my husband is waiting for me at baggage claim.”

“I don’t want this to be a comment on the institution of marriage itself, which I believe in, but I want you to know that your marriage, while great for your husband and you, is an absolute tragedy for me. I’m talking Greek tragedy. I’m talking mothers-killing-their-children level of tragedy. If you listened to my heart, you’d hear that it just keeps beating Medea, Medea, Medea. And yes, I know the rhythm is off on that. Makes me sound like I have a heart murmur.”

She laughed. He’d made her laugh three or four times since they’d met. He’d turned the avenging and murderous Medea into a sexy punch line. How many men could do that?

“Hey,” she said. “Thank you for the—uh—attention. You’ve made my day. Really. But I must go. I’ll see you in the next life.”

She turned to leave, but then she paused—O, che sarà!—leaned in close to Paul, and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. Then she laughed again and walked away. No, it wasn’t just a walk. It was a magical act of transportation. Delirious, Paul watched her leave. He marveled at the gifts of strangers, at the way in which a five-minute relationship can be as gratifying and complete (and sexless!) as a thirteen-year marriage. Then he made his way back through security and to his gate, caught his flight to North Carolina, and bought a pair of 1962 Levi’s for $1,250.

Of course, Paul was a liar, a cheater, and a thief. He’d pursued the beautiful airport stranger without giving much thought to his own marriage. And sure, he was separated, and his wife and three teenage daughters were living in the family home while Paul lived in a one-bedroom on Capitol Hill, but he was still married and wanted to remain married. He loved his wife, didn’t he? Well, of course he did. She was lovely (was more than that, really) and smart and funny and all those things an attractive human being is supposed to be, and she in turn thought Paul was a lovely, smart, funny, and attractive human being. They had built a marriage based on their shared love of sixties soul music on vinyl—and vintage clothes, of course. Or perhaps Paul had built this life and his wife had followed along. In any case, they were happy, extraordinarily happy, right? Jesus, it was easy to stay happy in a first-world democracy. What kind of madman would stay that long in an unhappy marriage, especially in an age when people divorced so easily? Yes, Paul loved his wife; he was in love with her. He was sure he could pass a lie-detector test on that one. And he loved his three daughters. He was more sure about that.

But if he was so happy, if he was so in love with his wife and daughters, why was he separated from them? Sadly, it was all about sex—or, rather, the lack of sex. Simply and crudely stated, Paul had lost the desire to fuck his wife. How had that happened? Paul didn’t know, exactly. And he couldn’t talk to anybody about it. How could he tell his friends, his circle of men, that he had no interest in sleeping with the sexiest woman any of them had ever met? She was so beautiful that she intimidated many of his friends. His best friend, Jacob, had once drunkenly confessed that he still couldn’t look her directly in the eyes.

“I’ve known her, what, almost twenty years?” Jacob had said. “And I still have to look at her out of the corner of my eye. I’m the godfather to your daughters, and I have to talk to their mother with my sideways vision. You remember the time we all got drunk and naked in my hot tub? She was so amazing, so perfect, that I had to run around the corner and throw up. Your wife was so beautiful she made me sick. I hope you know how lucky you are, you lucky bastard.”

Yes, Paul knew he was lucky: He had a great job, great daughters, and a great wife that he didn’t want to fuck. And so he, the lucky bastard, had sex with every other possible partner. During his marriage, Paul had had sex with eight other women: two employees, three ex-girlfriends, two of his friends’ wives, and a woman with one of the largest used-clothing stores on eBay.

After that last affair, a clumsy and incomplete coupling in a San Francisco apartment crowded with vintage sundresses and UPS boxes, Paul had confessed to his wife. Oh, no, he didn’t confess to all his infidelities. That would have been too much. It would have been cruel. Instead, he only admitted to the one but carefully inserted details of the other seven, so that his confession would be at least fractionally honest. His wife had listened silently, packed him a bag, and kicked him out of the house. What was the last thing she’d said? “I can’t believe you fucked somebody from eBay.”

And so, for a year now, Paul had lived apart from his family. And had been working hard to win back their love. He’d been chaste while recourting his wife. But he was quite sure that she doubted his newly found fidelity—he traveled too damn much ever to be thought of as a good candidate for stability—and he’d heard from his daughters that a couple of men, handsome strangers, had come calling on his wife. He couldn’t sleep some nights when he thought about other men’s hands and cocks and mouths touching his wife. How strange, Paul thought, to be jealous of other men’s lust for the woman who had only wanted, and had lost, her husband’s lust. And stranger and more contradictory, Paul vanquished his jealousy by furiously masturbating while fantasizing about his dream wife fucking dream men. Feeling like a fool, but hard anyway, Paul stroked as other men—nightmares—pushed into his wife. And when those vision men came hard, Paul also came hard. Everybody was arched and twisted. And oh, Paul was afraid—terrified—of how good it felt. What oath, what marital vow, did he break by imagining his wife’s infidelity? None, he supposed, but he felt primitive, like the first ape that fell from the high trees and, upon landing, decided to live upright, use tools, and evolve. Dear wife, Paul wanted to say, I’m quite sure that you will despise me for these thoughts, and I respect your need to keep our lives private, to relock the doors of our home, but I, primal and vain, still need to boast about my fears and sins. Inside my cave, I build fires to scare away the ghosts and keep the local predators at bay, or perhaps I build fires to attract hungry carnivores. Could I be that dumb? Dear wife, watch me celebrate what I lack. I am as opposable as my thumbs. Ah, Paul thought, who cares about the color of a man’s skin when his true identity is much deeper—subterranean—and far more diverse and disturbing than the ethnicity of his mother and father? And yet, nobody had ever argued for the civil rights of contradictory masturbators. “Chances are,” Paul often sang to himself while thinking of his marriage. “Chances are.” And he was singing that song in a Los Angeles International Airport bookstore—on his way home from the largest flea market in Southern California—when he saw the beautiful stranger who had rebuffed him three months earlier at O’Hare.

“Hey,” he said. “It’s Sara Smile.”

She looked up from the book she was skimming—some best-selling and clever book about the one hundred greatest movies ever made—and stared at Paul. She was puzzled at first, but then she remembered him.

“Hey,” she said. “It’s Nonetheless.”

Paul was quite sure this was the first time in the history of English that the word nonetheless had caused a massive erection. He fought mightily against the desire to kiss the stranger hard on the mouth.

“Wow,” she said. “This is surprising, huh?”

“I can’t believe you remember me,” Paul said.

“I can’t believe it either,” she said. Then she quickly set down the book she’d been browsing. “These airport books, you know? They’re entertaining crap.”

Her embarrassment was lovely.

“I don’t underestimate the power of popular entertainment,” Paul said.

“Oh, okay, I guess,” she said. “Wait, no. Let me amend that. I actually have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I guess I don’t either,” Paul said. “I was trying to impress you with some faux philosophy.”

She smiled. Paul wanted to lick her teeth. Once again, she was wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt. Why is it that some women can turn that simple outfit into royal garb? God, he wanted her. Want, want, want. Can you buy and sell want on eBay?

“Are you still married?” he asked.

She laughed.

“Damn,” she said. “You’re as obvious as a thirteen-year-old. When are you going to start pawing at my breasts?”

“It’s okay that you’re married,” he said. “I’m married, too.”

“Oh, well, now, you didn’t mention that the last time we met.”

She was teasing him again. Mocking. Insulting. But she was not walking away. She had remembered him, had remembered a brief encounter from months earlier, and she was interested in him, in his possibilities. Wasn’t she?

“No, I didn’t mention my marriage,” he said. “But I didn’t mention it because I’m not sure how to define it. Technically speaking, I’m separated.”

“Are you separated because you like to hit on strangers in airports?” she asked.

Wow. How exactly was he supposed to respond to that? He supposed his answer was going to forever change his life. Or at least decide if this woman was going to have sex with him. But he was not afraid of rejection, so why not tell the truth?

“Strictly speaking,” he said, “I am not separated because I hit on strangers in airports. In fact, I can’t recall another time when I hit on anybody in an airport. I am separated because I cheated on my wife.”

Paul couldn’t read her expression. Was she impressed or disgusted by his honesty?

“Do you have kids?” she asked.

“Three daughters. Eighteen, sixteen, and fifteen. I am surrounded by women.”

“So you cheated on your daughters, not just your wife?”

Yes, it was true. Paul hated to think of it that way. But he knew his betrayal of his wife was, in some primal way, the lesser crime. What kind of message was he sending to the world when he betrayed the young women—his offspring—who would carry his name—his DNA—into the future?

“Yes,” Paul said. “I cheated on my daughters. And that’s pathetic. It’s like I’ve put a letter in a bottle, and I’ve dropped it in the ocean, and it will someday wash up onshore, and somebody will find it, open it, and read it, and it will say, Hello, People of the Future, my name is Paul Nonetheless, and I was a small and lonely man.”

“You have a wife and three daughters and you still feel lonely?”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s true. Sad and true.”

“Do you think you’re as lonely, let’s say, as a Russian orphan sleeping with thirty other orphans in a communal crib in the basement of a hospital in Tragikistan or somewhere?”

“No,” Paul said. “I am not that lonely.”

“Last week, outside of Spokane, a man and his kids got into a car wreck. He was critically injured, paralyzed from the neck down, and all five of his kids were killed. They were driving to pick up the mother at the train station. So tell me, do you think you are as lonely as that woman is right now?”

Wow, this woman had a gift for shaming!

“No,” Paul said. “I am not that lonely. Not even close.”

“Okay, good. You do realize that, grading on a curve, your loneliness is completely average.”

“Yes, I realize that. Compared to all the lonely in the world, mine is pretty boring.”

“Good,” she said. “You might be an adulterous bastard, but at least you’re a self-aware adulterous bastard.”

She waited for his response, but he had nothing to say. He couldn’t dispute the accuracy of her judgment of his questionable morals, nor could he offer her compelling evidence of his goodness. He was as she thought he was.

“My father cheated on us, too,” she said. “We all knew it. My mother knew it. But he never admitted to it. He kept cheating and my mother kept ignoring it. They were married for fifty-two years and he cheated during all of them. Had to go on the damn Viagra so he could cheat well into his golden years. I think Viagra was invented so that extramarital assholes could have extra years to be assholes.

“But you know the worst thing?” she asked. “At the end, my father got cancer and he was dying and you’d think that would be the time to confess all, to get right with God, you know? But nope, on his deathbed, my father pledged his eternal and undying love to my mother. And you know what?”

“What?”

“She believed him.”

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