Friday, December 9, 2011

Character Sketches with Paul

Paul publishes a monthly newsletter railing against successful business. He distributes these colorful works of rage to his friends. In it, he accuses CEOs of every conceivable ill – from the plight of our fragile environment to the homeless on our streets. According to Paul, it’s not media or society or government, but rather evil greedy men like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who are entirely to blame for the decline of Western Civilization. Rather than single out indiscretions or scandals, Paul’s newsletter paints a broad brush that essentially indicts every capitalist ever to walk the earth. As far as Paul is concerned (at least according to his newsletter), these evil business tycoons are going to Hell.

Unlike his other friends, I was introduced to his newsletter first. So my impressions were shaped entirely by his prose, not his handshake or his eyes.

All his articles are in upper case, the literary form of shouting, and every sentence is punctuated by at least six exclamation points. One can almost see the spittle as he stabs at his keyboard, and I quote: “LAST YEAR ALONE THIS JACKASS MADE $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$…”  An additional 29 dollar signs and 14 exclamation points follow.

Apparently, Paul’s literary indignation is simply too great to contain, and I’m a little nervous about meeting him. Friends assure me that he is nothing like his newsletter in person, but I still expect a mean, angry debater. No lively discussion on capitalism versus liberalism, polyester versus cotton blend. Au contraire! I expect Paul to be packing.

Yet when I finally meet Paul, I feel as if I’m meeting the broken version of Paul – the Paul whose printer has been beaten with a baseball bat by an angry republican. No more newsletter. Paul approaches us with his head down, his chin on his chest, pale and frail and with a handshake as limp as a dead frog. He slouches at about five feet tall and looks as if he has just received news that his copy of The Communist Manifesto was stolen. The most timid man I’ve ever met. It takes me 20 minutes from the point we’re introduced to accept the fact that this calm, quiet person is the author of so much hen pecking fury.

His wife Doris, a short and plump blob of a woman, suffers from schizophrenia and paranoia. Over the years, her refusal to take her medication has forced Paul to call her psychiatrist. This in turn inevitably leads to State imposed sleepovers at a local psychiatric ward. Their relationship, while tragic from my vantage point, makes for high jinx in public settings those few times he brings her out of hiding.

“Don’t call me crazy, Paul,” his wife warns. “I’m not crazy!”

“Honey, no one’s calling you crazy.” Paul reaches for her hand and bumps the restaurant menu with his forearm. “Just tell the waitress what you want.”

“Tell her to stop staring at me first! Look at her! She’s staring at me and I want her to stop.” Doris clenches her fists. “Look! Quit staring at me.”

The thought that his wife might really be the author of the newsletter, rather than Paul, crosses my mind. She certainly seems capable of the rage. Her face is a scowl. The waitress takes a step back, her eyes bugging. Paul sighs heavily, rises from his chair like a defeated man, and tells us all he and his wife have to leave.

I’m never quite sure whether I’m cursed or blessed to share the company of freaks. On the one hand, these are not the sort I can confide in or learn from. However, their amusing, dysfunctional nature makes for exquisite writing material. The only challenge is stifling my laughter so that I don’t hurt their feelings.

Paul generally doesn’t bring his wife along to social get-togethers. On poker nights, especially, and I can only imagine she staying home staring out her windows with her fingers poised over her cell to dial 911. The image of an acorn dropping from a tree and striking her rain gutter, causing her to leap in fright, knocking over their coffee table and upsetting the Cheshire, makes me grin.

However, I could be wrong. Maybe when she isn’t curled up pensively starting at her toes in a rubber room, she’s at home watching Oprah or Real Desperate Housewives, shelling almonds and petting the cat.

After pizza, cards, and a game on TV, Paul says his goodbyes and drives home.

He returns ten minutes later, slouching in the doorway with those puppy eyes.

“What’s up, Paul? Everything okay?”

Paul’s mouth curls to one side, the equivalent of a shrug. “Yeah, just wondered if I could hang out for a while.”

“Sure, Paul. Anything wrong?”

“Nah,” he assures us. “It’s just Doris. She locked herself in the house again.”

That’s when we laugh. “No one locks herself in a house, Paul. She’s locked you out. Did you guys fight before you came over here this afternoon?”

Paul promises us that, no, she just ‘gets this way’ sometimes. I can’t help but think that while he’d been playing cards with us, she’d stumbled on his newsletter, and after counting the 267 exclamation points, she’d decided to lock the windows and dead bolt the doors.

I don’t know him well enough to ask. Gratefully, someone else asks him for me. “Why do you put up with her, Paul?”

Paul doesn’t hesitate. “I don’t wanna be alone. Don’t wanna live alone.”

I’m not qualified to say whether waking up in the morning with someone else in my bed – even if she’s crazy – is better than waking up alone. But I think I prefer solitude and sanity over matrimony and madness. In fairness, John is the proverbial kettle whistling on the stove, though I prefer to think the whistle emanates from a train barreling down the tracks. To offset his pent-up frustrations with being married to crazy, John composes his newsletter. In a sense it’s his cry for help. At the very least, it’s his punching bag. In short, John just needs to get laid.

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