The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless
written and narrated by Sherman Alexie

 

Paul wanted to ask her why she doubted her father’s love. Well, of course, Paul knew why she doubted it, but why couldn’t her father have been telling the truth? Despite all the adultery and lies, all the shame and anger, perhaps her father had deeply and honestly loved her mother. If his last act on earth was a declaration of love, didn’t that make him a loving man? Could an adulterous man also be a good man? But Paul couldn’t say any of this, couldn’t ask these questions. He knew it would only sound like the moral relativism of a liar, a cheater, and a thief.

“Listen to me,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m saying this stuff to you. I don’t say this stuff to anybody, and here I am, talking to you like we’re friends.”

Paul figured silence was the best possible response to her candor.

“Okay, then,” she said, “I guess that’s it. I don’t want to miss my flight. It was really nice to see you again. I’m not sure why. But it was.”

She walked away. He watched her. He knew he should let her go. What attraction could he have for her now? He was the cheating husband of a cheated wife and the lying father of deceived daughters. But he couldn’t let her go. Not yet. So he chased after her again.

“Hey,” he said, and touched her shoulder.

“Just let me go,” she said. A flash of anger. Her first flash of anger at him.

“Listen,” he said. “I was going to let you go. But I couldn’t. I mean, don’t you think it’s amazing that we’ve run into each other twice in two different airports?”

“It’s just a coincidence.”

“It’s more than that. You know it’s more than that. We’ve got some connection. I can feel it. And I think you can feel it, too.”

“I have a nice ass. And a great smile. And you have pretty eyes and good hair. And you wear movie stars’ clothes. That’s why we noticed each other. But I have news for us, buddy, there’s about two hundred women in this airport who are better-looking than me, and about two hundred and one men who are better-looking than you.”

“But we’ve seen each other twice. And you remembered me.”

“We saw each other twice because we are traveling salespeople in a capitalistic country. If we paid attention, I bet you we would notice the same twelve people over and over again.”

Okay, so she was belittling him and their magical connection. And insulting his beloved country, too. But she was still talking to him. She’d tried to walk away, but he’d caught her, and she was engaged in a somewhat real conversation with him. He suddenly realized that he knew nothing of substance about this woman. He only knew her opinions of his character.

“Okay,” he said. “We’re making progress. I sell clothes. But you already knew that. What do you sell?”

“You don’t want to know,” she said.

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Tell me.”

“It will kill your dreams,” she said.

That hyperbole made Paul laugh.

“Come on, it can’t be that bad.”

“I work for a bank,” she said.

“So, wow, you’re a banker,” Paul said, and tried to hide his disappointment. She could have said that she did live-animal testing—smeared mascara directly into the eyes of chimpanzees—and Paul would have felt better about her career choice.

“But I’m not the kind of banker you’re thinking about,” she said.

“What kind of banker are you?” Paul asked, and studied her casual, if stylish, clothing. What kind of banker wore blue jeans? Perhaps a trustworthy banker? Perhaps the morality of any banker was inversely proportional to the quality of his or her clothing?

“Have you ever heard of microlending?” she asked.

“Yeah, that’s where you get regular people to loan money to poor people in other countries. To start small businesses and stuff, right?”

“Basically, yes, but my company focuses on microlending to unique entrepreneurs in the United States.”

“Ah, so what’s your bank called?”

“We’re in the start-up phase, so I don’t want to get into that quite yet.”

He was a little insulted, but then he realized that he was a stranger, after all, so her secrecy was understandable.

“You’re just starting out then?” Paul asked. “That’s why you’re traveling so much?”

“Yes. We have initial funding from one source,” she said, “and I’m meeting with other potential funders around the country.”

“Sounds exciting,” Paul said. He lied. Paul didn’t trust the concept of using money to make more money. He believed it was all imaginary. He preferred his job—the selling of tangible goods. Paul trusted his merchandise. He knew a pair of blue jeans would never betray him.

“It’s good work, but it’s not exciting,” she said. “Fund-raising is fucking humiliating. You know what I really do? You know what I’m good at? I’m good at making millionaires cry. And crying millionaires are generous with their money.”

“I’m a millionaire,” Paul said, “and you haven’t made me cry yet.”

“I haven’t tried to,” she said. She patted Paul on the cheek—let the hounds of condescension loose!—and walked out of the bookstore.

After she left, Paul bought the book she’d been browsing—the list of the greatest movies of all time—and read it on the flight back to Seattle. It was a book composed entirely of information taken from other sources. But Paul set it on his nightstand, then set his alarm clock on the book, and thought about the beautiful microbanker whenever he glanced at the time.

On a Tuesday, a year and a half into their separation, while sitting in their marriage counselor’s office, Paul turned to his wife and tried to tell the truth.

“I love you,” he said. “You’re my best friend. I can’t imagine a life without you as my wife. But, the thing is, I’ve lost my desire—my sexual desire—for you.”

Could there be a more painful thing to say to her? To say to anyone? You are not desirable. That was a treasonous, even murderous, statement inside of a marriage. What kind of person could say that to his wife? To the person who’d most often allowed herself to be naked and vulnerable in front of him? Paul supposed he was being honest, but fuck honesty completely, fuck honesty all the way to the spine, and fuck the honest man who tells the truth on his way out the door.

“How can you say this shit to me?” she asked. “We’ve been separated for almost two years. You keep telling me you don’t want a divorce. You keep begging me for another chance. For months, you have begged me. So here we are, Paul, this is your chance. And all you can say is that you don’t desire me? What are you talking about?”

“I remember when we used to have sex all day and night,” he said. “I remember we used to count your orgasms.”

It was true. On a cool Saturday in early April, in the first year of their marriage, Paul had orgasmed six times while his wife had come eleven times. What had happened to those Olympian days?

“Is that the only way you can think about a marriage?” she asked. “Jesus, Paul, we were young. Our marriage was young. Everything is easier when you’re young.”

Paul didn’t think that was true. His life had steadily improved over the years and, even in the middle of a marital blowup, Paul was still pleased with his progress and place in the world.

“I don’t know why I feel the way I do,” Paul said. “I just feel that way. I feel like we have gone cold to each other.”

“I haven’t gone cold,” she said. “I’m burning, okay? You know how long it’s been since I’ve had sex? It’s been almost four years. Four years! And you know what? I’m ashamed to say that aloud. Listen to me. I’m ashamed that I’m still married to the man who has not fucked me in four years.”

Paul looked to the marriage counselor for help. He felt lost in the ocean of his wife’s rage and needed a friggin’ lifeguard. But the counselor sat in silence. In learned silence, the bastard.

“Don’t you have anything to say?” she asked Paul. “I’m your wife. I’m the mother of your children. I deserve some respect. No, I demand it. I demand your respect.”

He wanted to tell her the truth. He wanted to tell himself the truth, really. But was he capable of such a thing? Could he tell her what he suspected? Could he share his theory about the loss of desire? If he sang to her, would that make it easier? Is honesty easier in four/four time?

“Are you just going to sit there?” she asked. “Is this what it comes down to, you sitting there?”

My love, he wanted to say to her, I began to lose my desire for you during the birth of our first child, and it was gone by the birth of our third. Something happened to me in those delivery rooms. I saw too much. I saw your body do things—I saw it change—and I have not been able to look at you, to see you naked, without remembering all the blood and pain and fear. All the changes. I was terrified. I thought you were dying. I felt like I was in the triage room of a wartime hospital, and there was nothing I could do. I felt so powerless. I felt like I was failing you. I know it’s irrational. Jesus, I know it’s immature and ignorant and completely irrational. I know it’s wrong. I should have told you that I didn’t want to be in the delivery room for the first birth. And I should have never been in the delivery room during the second and third. Maybe my desire would have survived, would have recovered, if I had not seen the second and third births. Maybe I wouldn’t feel like such a failure. But how was I supposed to admit to these things? In the twenty-first-century United States, what kind of father and husband chooses not to be in the delivery room?

My love, Paul wanted to say, I am a small and lonely man made smaller and lonelier by my unspoken fears.

“Paul!” his wife screamed. “Talk to me!”

“I don’t know,” Paul said. “I don’t know why I feel this way. I just do.”

“Paul.” The counselor finally spoke, finally had an opinion. “Have you considered that your lack of desire might be a physical issue? Have you consulted a doctor about this? There are—”

“He has no problem fucking other women,” she said. “He’s fucked plenty of other women. He just has a problem fucking me.”

She was right. Even now, as they fought to save their marriage, Paul was thinking of the woman in the airport. He was thinking about all other women and not the woman in his life.

That night, on eBay, Paul bid on a suit once worn by Sean Connery during the publicity tour for Thunderball. It would be too big for Paul; Connery is a big man. But Paul still wanted it. Maybe he’d frame it and put it on the wall of his apartment. Maybe he’d drink martinis and stare at it. Maybe he’d imagine that a crisp white pocket square made all the difference in the world. But he lost track of the auction and lost the suit to somebody whose screen name was Shaken, Not Stirred.

Jesus, Paul thought, I’m wasting my life.

After the divorce, Paul’s daughters spent every other weekend with him. It was not enough time. It would never be enough. And he rarely saw them during his weekends anyway because they were teenagers. Everywhere he looked, he saw happy men—good and present fathers—and he was not one of them. A wealthy man, an educated man, a privileged man, he had failed his family—his children—as easily and brutally as the poorest, most illiterate, and helpless man in the country. And didn’t that prove the greatness of the United States? All of us wealthy and imperial Americans are the children of bad fathers! Ha! thought Paul. Each of us—rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white—we are fragile and finite. We all go through this glorious life without guarantees, without promise of rescue or redemption. We have freedom of speech and religion, and the absolute freedom to leave behind our loved ones, to force them to unhappily pursue us. How can I possibly protect my daughters from their nightmares, from their waking fears, Paul thought, if I am not sleeping in the room next door? Oh, God, he missed them! Pure and simple, he ached. But who has sympathy for the failed father? Who sings honor songs for the monster?

And what could he do for his daughters? He could outfit them in gorgeous vintage clothing. So he gave them dresses and shoes and pants that were worn by Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn.

“Who is Audrey Hepburn?” his youngest daughter had asked.

“She was perfect,” Paul said.

“But who is she?”

“An actress. A movie star.”

“What movies has she been in?”

“I don’t think you’ve seen any of them.”

“If I don’t know who she is, why did you buy me her dress?”

It was a good question. Paul didn’t have an answer. He just looked at this young woman in front of him—his daughter—and felt powerless.

“I thought maybe if you wore different clothes at school,” Paul said, “maybe you could start a trend. You’d be original.”

“Oh, my God,” she said. “It’s high school, Dad. People get beat up for being original.”

Jesus, Paul had thought he was giving her social capital. He thought he could be a microlender of art—the art of the pop song. So he gave music to his daughters. Yes, he’d once romanced their mother with mix tapes, dozens of mix tapes, so he’d romance his daughters—in an entirely different way—with iPods. So Paul bought three iPods and loaded them with a thousand songs each. Three iPods, three thousand songs. Instead of just a few songs on a CD or a cassette tape, Paul had made epic mixes. Paul had given each daughter a third of his musical history. And, oh, they were delighted—were ecstatic—when they opened their gifts and saw new iPods, but, oh, how disappointed—how disgusted—they were when they discovered that their new iPods were already filled with songs, songs chosen by their father. By their sad and desperate father.

“Daddy,” his eldest daughter said. “Why did you put all your music on here?”

“I chose all those songs for you,” he said. “They’re specifically for you.”

“But all these songs are your songs,” she said. “They’re not mine.”

“But if you listen to them,” he said, “if you learn them, then maybe they can become our songs.”

“We don’t have to love the same things,” she said.

“But I want you to love what I love.”

Did I say that? Paul asked himself. Did I just sound that love starved and socially inept? Am I intimidated by my own daughter? In place of romantic love for my wife, am I trying to feel romantic love for my daughters? No, no, no, no, Paul thought. But he wasn’t sure. How could he be sure? He was surrounded by women he did not understand.

“It’s okay, Daddy,” she said. “I can just load my music over your music. Thank you for the iPod.”

She shook her head—a dismissive gesture she’d learned from her mother—kissed her incompetent father on the cheek, and left the room.

Three years after his divorce had finalized, after two of his daughters had gone off to college, one to Brown and the other to Oberlin, and his third daughter had disowned him, Paul saw Sara Smile again in the Detroit Airport. They saw each other at the same time, both walking toward a coffee kiosk.

“Sara Smile,” he said.

“Excuse me?” the woman said.

“It’s me,” he said. “Paul Nonetheless.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Do I know you?”

He realized this woman only looked like his Sara Smile. It would have been too much to ask for a third chance meeting. If he’d run into Sara Smile again, they would have had to make their way over to the airport hotel—the Hyatt or Hilton or whatever it was—and get a room. He could imagine them barely making it inside the door before their hands were down each other’s pants. God, he’d drop to his knees, unbutton her pants, pull them down to her ankles, and kiss her thighs. He’d pull aside her panties and push his mouth against her crotch and she’d want it for a few moments—she’d moan her approvals—and then she’d remember her husband and her life—substantial—and she’d push Paul away. She’d pull up her pants and apologize and rush out of the room. And Paul would be there, alone again, on his knees again, in a room where thousands of people had slept, eaten, fucked, and made lonely phone calls home. And who would Paul call? Who was waiting for his voice on the line? But wait, none of this had happened. It wasn’t real. Paul was still standing in the Detroit Airport next to a woman—a stranger—who only strongly resembled Sara Smile.

“Are you going to call this coincidental now?” he asked this stranger.

“You have me confused with somebody else,” she said. She was smiling. She was enjoying this odd and humorous interaction with the eccentric man in his old-fashioned suit.

“Can I buy you a coffee?” he asked. He knew she was the wrong woman. But he wasn’t going to let that become an impediment.

“Sir,” she said. “I’m not who you think I am.”

She wasn’t smiling now. She realized that something was wrong with this man. Yes, she was in an airport, surrounded by people—by security—but she was still a little afraid.

“How’s your marriage?” he asked.

“Sir, please,” she said. “Stop bothering me.”

She walked away, but Paul followed her. He couldn’t stop himself. He needed her. He walked a few feet behind her.

“Me asking about your marriage is just a way of talking about my marriage,” he said. “But you knew that, right? Anyway, I’m divorced now.”

“Sir, if you don’t leave me alone, I am going to find a cop.”

She stopped and put her hands up as if to ward off a punch.

“My wife left me,” Paul said. “Or I left her. We left each other. It’s hard to say who left first.”

Paul shrugged his shoulders. And then he sang the first few bars of “She’s Gone.” But he couldn’t quite hit Daryl Hall’s falsetto notes.

“I can’t hit those high notes,” Paul said. “But it’s not about the notes, is it? It’s about the heat behind the notes.”

“What’s wrong with you?” the woman asked.

Two hours later, Paul sat in a simple room at a simple table while two men in suits leaned against the far wall and studied him.

“I’m not a terrorist,” Paul said. “If that’s what you’re thinking.”

The men didn’t speak. Maybe they couldn’t speak. Maybe there were rules against speaking. Maybe this was some advanced interrogation technique. Maybe they were silent because they knew Paul would want to fill the room with his voice.

“Come on, guys,” he said. “I got a little carried away. I knew it wasn’t her. I knew it wasn’t Sara. I just needed to pretend for a while. Just a few moments. If she’d let me buy her some coffee or something. If she’d talked to me, everything would have been okay.”

The men whispered to each other.

Paul decided it might be best if he stopped talking, if he stopped trying to explain himself.

Instead he would sing. Yes, he would find the perfect song for this situation and he would sing it. And these men—police officers, federal agents, mysterious suits—would recognize the song. They certainly wouldn’t (or couldn’t) sing along, but they’d smile and nod their heads in recognition. They’d share a moment with Paul. They’d have a common history, maybe even a common destiny. Rock music had that kind of power. But what song? What song would do?

And Paul knew—understood with a bracing clarity—that he must sing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” And so he began to hum at first, finding the tune, before he sang the first few lyrics—mumbled them, really, because he couldn’t quite remember them—but when he came to the chorus, Paul belted it out. He sang loudly, and his imperfect, ragged vocals echoed in that small and simple room.

What’s going on?

What’s going on?

What’s going on?

And, yes, Paul recognized that his singing—his spontaneous talent show—could easily be seen as troublesome. It could even be seen as crazy. Paul knew he wasn’t crazy. He was just sad, very sad. And he was trying to sing his way out of the sadness.

What’s going on?

What’s going on?

What’s going on?

The men kept staring at Paul. They wouldn’t smile. They wouldn’t even acknowledge the song. Why not? But then Paul remembered what had happened to Marvin Gaye. Broken, depressed, alcoholic, drug-addicted, Marvin had ended up living back home with his parents. Even as his last hit, “Sexual Healing,” was selling millions of copies, Marvin was sleeping in his parents’ house.

And, oh, how Marvin fought with his father. Day after day, Marvin Gaye Sr. and Marvin Gaye Jr. screamed at each other.

“What happened to you?”

“It’s all your fault.”

“You had it all and you lost it.”

“You’re wasting your life.”

“Where’s my money?”

“You have stolen from me.”

“You owe me.”

“I don’t owe you shit.”

Had any father and son ever disappointed each other so completely? But Paul couldn’t stop singing. Even as he remembered that Marvin Gaye Sr. had shot and killed his son—killed his song.

What’s going on?

What’s going on?

What’s going on?

And then it was over. Paul stopped singing. This was the wrong song. Yes, it was the worst possible song to be singing at this moment. There had to be a better one, but Paul couldn’t think of it, couldn’t even think of another inappropriate song. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I remember? Paul laughed at himself as he sat in the airport interrogation room. How had he come to this? Wasn’t Paul a great man who lived in a great country? Hadn’t he succeeded? Jesus, he was good at everything he had ever attempted. Well, he had failed at marriage, but couldn’t he be good at grief? Couldn’t he be an all-star griever? Couldn’t he, through his own fierce tears, tell his captors that he wasn’t going to die? Couldn’t he survive? Couldn’t he pause now and rest his voice—rest his soul—and then start singing again when he felt strong enough? Could he do that? Was he ever going to be that strong?

“Officers,” Paul said, “I’m very tired. Can I please have some time? The thing is, I’m sorry for everything. And I know this is no excuse, but I think—I realize now that I want to remember everything—every song, every article of clothing—because I’m afraid they will be forgotten.”

One of the men shook his head; the other turned his back and spoke into a cell phone.

Paul bowed his head with shame.

And then he spoke so softly that he wasn’t sure the men heard him. Paul thought of his wife and his daughters, of Sara Smile, and he said, “I don’t want to be forgotten. I don’t want to be forgotten. Don’t forget me. Don’t forget me. Don’t forget me. Don’t forget me.”

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