That summer she lived at the Creekway, a horseshoe-shaped motel by the university, with dark green carpet and nature scenes crudely painted on the bathroom walls. Each morning, as if for good luck, she tapped the disfigured deer: its crocodile snout with shark’s teeth, its alien eyes and asymmetric antlers. She’d left Derek after he hurled a bottle from a friend’s passenger window, in plain view of Saturday traffic. A bicyclist had swerved, hit a curb, flown over the handlebars and come up clutching her wrist. That night Derek’s friend, Tot, showed up at their apartment with the police. Three days later, back at work, following his boss’s reprimanded, Derek toppled a tire display in the customer lobby and was let go by lunch.
A woman at the Creekway landed Pauline a gig cleaning dormitories at the university. She’d been fired from the Print Shack, where Tot was manager. Derek will have my ass, Tot said after she’d moved to the motel, so you’d better clear out, Pauline. The dorms were no Print Shack, but she received her own kit cart, could listen to headphones, chatted with students as they rushed dough-faced and groggy to breakfast. Sometimes, in exchange for vodka or beer, they invited her into their little bathrooms, to smoke marijuana. Their brazen, infantile hygiene—bloodied pads in the trash, eel-like turds in the toilet, rooms strewn with underwear, tissues, bread crust—never failed to steal her breath away, yet Pauline, for the first time in months, felt happy. During breaks she sat on a bench overlooking the river, watched Canada geese, vultures, muskrats. Deer tiptoed from the woods, eyed her, bowed to drink. She imagined Derek living with the ratty-haired men whose encampment hid among the trees. Several women at the Creekway worked the campus cafeteria, and soon Pauline was leaving leftovers outside their tents. She met two men who speared fish from the river, roasted them over fire. Is it good? she asked. They had wind-chapped faces and slurred speech. But, meat between their teeth, they smiled and spoke fondly about the turns their lives had taken.
Just once Derek dropped by the Creekway. I can’t bear to go home, he bawled, I’m sleeping at Tot’s! She was sitting outside with a woman named Yanda; the parking lot steamed with recent rain. When Pauline rose Yanda grabbed her wrist and said, Leave my friend alone. Derek punted the cigarette bucket. Across the lot Tot honked his horn. Cunt, Derek spat, and Pauline shouted his name. We’ll see, he hissed, nodding fiercely. We’ll see, Pauline—how long ‘til you’re in that shitter again? Once he was gone she and Yanda laughed. Husband? Yanda asked. Maybe, Pauline replied, we were never sure the papers got signed right. She shrugged and added, Maybe one day I’ll go back. When she told Yanda about the trouble with the bicyclist, Yanda mentioned a show on Channel Nine, women who’d offed their husbands but were acquitted by sympathetic juries.
Across the river stood the botanical gardens and the city’s little zoo. An elaborate structure, a jungle gym of sorts, rose above the trees: towering, angled poles, platforms, tire swings, a network of ropes. Around the structure circled a half dozen tramcars. For the past month it sat unused, skeletal, but one warm June afternoon Pauline made a marvelous discovery: a lanky, furred figure scaled one of the poles, a russety ape, an orangutan. Up it scooted, grasping rope, tugging itself onto a platform high in the air. There it lounged, bared its breast, reached for the sky. Pauline thought she saw a stream of urine sparkle in the sun. The ape rolled over, wiggled its legs. Pauline, clapping her hands, felt overcome with emotion. From then on she lunched while watching the orangutan clown atop its platform. One afternoon, as a tramcar stocked with passengers swung past, the ape defecated and flung feces at the window. Pauline told Yanda at the Creekway, wiping tears from her eyes. Yanda dashed from the room, returned with a newspaper, tapped the second page: a feature on the zoo’s newest addition, purchased from another city, where her infant died and the grief-stricken ape almost starved itself to death. Lulu was her name. Pauline asked if she could keep the newspaper. For another beer, said Yanda, and once she was gone Pauline taped the article to her splotched bathroom mirror. She noticed, for the first time, several misshapen monkeys hidden amidst the forest painted on the wall.
On move-out day the students ignored her, didn’t introduce their parents as promised. A few smiled when they passed; others pretended to be deep in conversation. She went outside, waited until the building emptied, went back in, began to clean. No reason to panic, she told herself as she vacuumed: she had Lulu, her bench along the river, the women at the Creekway. In the days that followed, when she didn’t want to drink, she visited the milk-and-cookies bar in the student union: a chrome and fluorescent heaven, cool and clean, intoxicating aromas of cinnamon and buttercream. Three ninety-nine for two cookies and milk: such spending felt reckless, though better than allowing that first sip of beer. Soon the young man who ran the place was giving her extra cookies, refilling milk free of charge, winking and pressing a finger to his lips. Stay strong, Miss Pauline, he’d call. Through the massive union windows she watched dark clouds threaten to burst. Dashing across campus, she made it to her bench in time to watch Lulu the orangutan, who loved those humid evenings: swinging, stomping, flinging joyous fistfuls of shit.
Her new lavatory rounds included the aquatic center: an incredibly blue rectangle of water ringed with bleachers. She’d once, drunk, dived into the fetid pool at their old apartment, slammed headfirst against the bottom. Dizzy, blood pinking the water, she surfaced to find Derek passed out in a chair. At the Creekway Pauline babbled to Yanda about the serenity of the pool—the ‘AC’ it was called, Pauline using the term over and over—and the swimmers undulating like seals. Yanda suddenly leaned in to kiss Pauline’s cheek, then her forehead, the other cheek, her chin, finally her mouth. With each kiss Yanda made soft humming sounds, like a daydreaming child. Then, abruptly, she sat back and glanced around, befuddled. Are you okay? Pauline asked. Yanda replied that she’d met a man, an assistant manager at the Elks Club. She was moving out. When she leaned in again Pauline said, Stop. Then: But why leave? I’ll visit, Yanda said, every Friday after work. He’s a good man with excellent taste. None of his kids are monsters. Yanda, eyes closed, leaned in one last time but Pauline, woozy from beer and marijuana, got up and went inside. In the morning she threw up, several times, before visiting the motel office for breakfast. She wore her flower-print dress, hoping to make a good impression with Mister Pirzada. When he greeted her, complimenting her dress, tears began rolling down her face. There, there, Pauline, Mister Pirzada whispered, we must take better care of ourselves. My friend’s leaving, she cried. There, there, he said again, then reached beneath the counter. Wiggling his eyebrows, he handed her a second shrink-wrapped cinnamon roll.
Then, Mid-July, two days after Yanda’s departure, she met Jetters, groundskeeper of the university community garden. She’d been sniffing roses after work when she lost her balance and fell, crushing two pepper plants. Jetters dropped his rake, tromped over. For a second, Pauline feared he’d shout. But he saw her half-finished bottle of rosé wine in its paper sack and offered a massive hand. His coveralls framed a large and blocklike body, though his head was small, with pudgy cheeks and wild blue eyes—he looked, she thought, like a child stuck inside a big bag of cement. While they talked the sunflowers bobbed in the breeze. She whiffed the bitter scent of tomatoes. A working woman, Jetters said, nodding, drinking. That’s good. They finished the wine and Jetters wiped his brow, offered a tour if she returned the next day. When she did he listed off plants: English cucumber, muskmelon, Korean zucchini. Then bee boxes maintained by a professor. The rubbery bulbs, the dense shrubbery, the stink of garden mulch, the water pearled on leaves—Pauline felt transported to another world. She had her bench along the river, the Aquatic Center, the Creekway parking lot at night, the milk-and-cookies bar—and now the garden. The next afternoon Jetters approached her bench and, whistling, produced two cans of something called Slurp. The purple, glittery aluminum featured cartoon grapes with mohawks and bulging eyes. The hobos drink it, Jetters said, pointing to the woods. Something in it gets you all woozy, makes the homeless guys sick. After turning the can in her hand, Pauline shrugged and cracked the tab. Slurp tasted like grape soda laced with molasses, reminded her of the cough syrup Derek drank when he couldn’t afford rum. Jetters finished his in several gulps so she did the same. Soon the breeze-ruffled field beside the river slowed and sped up. The grass quivered, ancient trees muttering like beasts. She looked up to see a little toy plane inching across the sky, wings teetering, vapor unfurling like snow. The surface of the river changed shape, a great snake of water sucking slowly towards Wheybourne Bridge. Across the river, Pauline saw, the orangutan had paused its journey across the ropes, hung by its arms, staring at the aliens in their tramcars. She turned to Jetters and smiled. I like this stuff, she said, it makes me feel at home. Home? Jetters asked. Pauline indicated the river, the campus, the trees. Everything, she replied, home. Jetters blinked, said, Oh. I see.
From then on their after-shift hours consisted of Slurp beside the river before a stroll through the ghost-town campus. When other employees caught them wandering, staring at trees, laughing, jabbering away, they wondered what was going on between the groundskeeper and custodian. Two cans apiece at first; by August three, even four. The first time they drank four Pauline jerked awake to realize night had fallen, Jetters snoring on the ground beside her bench. She collected the scattered cans, had to kick him twice, mortified to think pedestrians or police or—worse—coworkers might have seen them. A few nights later, to escape the rain, she led him to the AC. In the bleachers, passing Slurp, they watched swimmers turn lap after lap: a woman in a one-piece suit; a student with an ugly, choppy stroke; a cannonball-shaped man, skin like glazed ham, the fastest of the three. He looks angry, Jetters said, to which Pauline replied, I could watch him all day. One of the lifeguards, a girl named Jordy, saw Pauline and waved. Jordy often answered questions about the pool, about swimmers’ techniques. If she’d had a daughter of her own, Pauline thought, she’d be like Jordy. It felt strange sneaking sips of Slurp in the bleachers, so close to the girl, but the narcotic pulse soon kicked in and Pauline’s worries vanished. Afterwards, at the milk-and-cookies bar in the union, the boy behind the counter leapt up and cried, Miss Pauline, where you been? Shaky from Slurp, from the florescent light and full-blast air conditioning, she held up a hand before turning and exiting.
The Creekway women left one at a time, shacking up with men who worked construction, the seasonal county fair. The racetrack opened and the motel filled with wiry, grease-haired creatures. One played a shrieking electric guitar on his stoop. Mister Pirzada stayed behind his plastic partition now, and Pauline in her room, door bolted. On Friday nights, after saying goodnight to Jetters, she double-backed to the cash-and-carry for a fifth or sixth can of Slurp. Yanda dropped by with her strange new man, who gobbled pretzel sticks and couldn’t stop coughing. Yanda tried Slurp but made a face; the pretzel-gobbler said he’d seen what it did to people, at the Elks Lodge. She’d wake in the night to strange programs on TV: one clown sawing another in half, a woman scorching puppets with a blow torch, a roomful of people crumbling to ash. If she drank four she woke with headache and nausea, sweating it out during the first hour of work. If five the effects were more crippling, though the heat zapped her awake. Only on Fridays did she allow herself six; sick from syrup she heaved into the toilet, mortified she’d failed Mister Pirzada. In bed she ran calculations in her head: the motel cost $210 a week; she made $550 every other week; she knew apartments that rented for $325 a month; she might even spend an extra fifty bucks for basic furnishings. Once the summer ended, once the sun’s strength waned, she’d stop spending so much at the cash-and-carry. Wouldn’t it be time, then, to find a place of her own?
For her fortieth birthday Jetters surprised Pauline with a trip to the zoo. First they visited the cash-and-carry, stuffed a paper sack with Slurp, drank two cans apiece inside the nocturnal creature house: those dimly lit dreamscapes, somebody’s nightmare, strange woods filled with cannibals. She could smell Jetters in the dark, the stink of someone who worked outdoors, masked by musky deodorant. They downed another can and exploded into daylight, Pauline hurrying towards the orangutans. Jetters found a bench, laid back, closed his eyes. She slipped his wallet from his coveralls, withdrew money for the tram. Happy birthday, she hummed as she stole into line. On the way up the speaker rattled facts. In the distance, halfway around the track, Lulu sat atop her perch. Pauline went breathless: that strange, ancient woman, fur-matted body, rubbery breasts and face—I’ve watched you all summer, she wanted to shout, I love you like a mother! She pressed a hand against the window, thinking of all she’d gained in just two-and-a-half months, before the tramcar turned and headed back to earth.
Jetters said she owed him—in exchange for the ride—dinner at his place. They grilled steaks on his efficiency’s balcony, Jetters in shorts and billowing t-shirt—the first time she’d seen him out of uniform. At some point the neighbors, a husband and wife, came outside. Who’s this? called the wife, and Jetters called back, My sweet baby angel. Soon they were tossing a bottle of tequila from balcony to balcony, Jetters’ massive laugh shaking the joists. Before long it was dark and the bottle slipped from Pauline’s fingers, shattering on the pavement below. I’m sorry, she cried, but everyone laughed. Jetters said, That’s how you know it’s time to quit. He insisted she stay the night; inside, she collapsed on the sofa and the room began to spin. Each time she turned, the sofa springs creaked. Eventually, from somewhere in the dark, Jetters called out, I’ve got this big old bed, Pauline. As she climbed aboard he whispered, It’s okay, I won’t bite. Then, keeping his distance: Just like our bench by the river. She drifted to sleep and woke sometime later, found him watching her and smiling. I liked it, she heard herself whisper, way up high, me and the ape, nobody else. Thank you, Jetters, she said. Soon they were kissing, his thick hands stroking her face. The only mouth she’d felt since Derek’s was Yanda’s, her thin, dry, smoker’s lips. Jetters’s were big and wet, and though he smelled of liquor they weren’t unpleasant. Just as she was warming to the idea, Jetters, sounding very drunk, asked if she ever let men fuck her in the ass. Pauline froze. She pushed away, wriggled across the bed. Mumbling to himself, touching her hair, he began to snore. The room reeled when she stood, but she found her shoes and slipped out the door.
Instead of the bench she took her lunches at the AC, with Jordy the lifeguard. My daddy never taught me, Pauline said, he thought there were perverts at the pool. There aren’t perverts here, Pauline, Jordy said. But I don’t even have a suit, Pauline replied. There’s plenty in the lost and found, Jordy said. I won’t let anything happen to you, Pauline. Pauline, afraid she might cry, looked at her watch, made an excuse, hurried off. That afternoon she learned she wouldn’t be reassigned to dorms in the fall, was stuck with hallways and lavatories. A matter of seniority, said the supervisor, shrugging. Pauline began to shake. Before she knew it she was standing outside the community garden fence, watching Jetters stroke his tomatoes like the face of a lover. Well, well, well, he said when she called his name. I see a ghost. That evening she stopped at the cash-and-carry to inspect the glowing refrigerators, to smell the musty cardboard. The pimple-faced clerk approached so she darted outside. The next night, after five cans of Slurp, Jetters led Pauline to the river. The woods felt alive, trees trembling. He introduced his hobo friend, Flake. Flake’s tent was enormous, multiple rooms, a compound covered in tarps, big as her room at the Creekway. They sat on rocks beside the river, drank Slurp, smoked strange-tasting joints. Suddenly she rose and announced she would get a job at the zoo. And no more motel! The men bellowed and clapped. Blasted by moonlight, the river began flowing backwards. Pauline shuddered at the unbearable sound required for such a thing, the massive mechanics, and before long the night went black.
She snapped awake in the chilly whiteness of morning, crumpled on the floor of Flake’s tent. Flake was beside her, snoring, fouling the air with a rotten, meatlike stench. She sat up, whispered Jetters’s name, saw he was gone. Slowly she unzipped the tent, crawled out. She heard Flake groan, felt his hand upon her ankle. When she struggled he tightened his grip, hissed horrible names. She kicked twice, hard. Flake howled. Then she was crashing through trees, branches lashing her face and neck. She stumbled but caught herself, burst from the woods to young people picking trash along the trail. They stiffened like deer, eyes wide. Among them, she feared, were her friends from the dormitory. I’m sorry, she cried, then turned and fled. Instead of heading home she made it to the cash-and-carry as the clerk unlocked the door. Slurp tasted good, calmed her heartbeat, caused her stomach to shudder. Feeling weightless, toting a sack of cans, she crossed campus, hid behind a tree. Breathe, she told herself, breathe. She finished a second can, turned, saw the Aquatic Center rising above the trees.
At first she thought it was the Slurp, or the AC’s air filtration unit big as a house. But atop the steps, tucking the sack beneath her sweatshirt, she understood it was the roar of a crowd. Inside, the bleachers packed, she found swimmers assaulting the water, summersaulting, thundering back. Hordes of teenagers lined the deck, jumping and screaming, as the crowd beat inflatable sticks. Pauline found a seat at the end of a row amidst the shrieking spectators. Angular teens plunged into, furiously struck the water, leapt out with crimson chests. Soon Pauline was shouting too. A girl passed a pair of noisemakers and Pauline smacked and smacked. During recess the girl explained the rules. The races commenced, everyone up and screaming. Pauline retreated to the restroom, drank a can of Slurp inside a stall, the roar sounding like an extraterrestrial army. She cracked another can, drank. When she returned everyone, or so it seemed, patted her back. The horn bleated and swimmers crashed into water. Pauline tried to shout, felt a shudder in her throat. She made it to the restroom just in time, retched into a toilet that, she realized, she’d kept clean all summer. She heaved and heaved, emptying her insides. Then she rinsed her face and mouth and rejoined the screaming crowd. A bunch of boys lurched forth in strange, violent strokes. The lead boy, long as a shark, surged ahead as the crowd went wild. There were more races, more applause, Pauline’s voice going raw. Finally, legs heavy, throat burning, she sat. Everything okay? someone asked. Pauline smiled and raised her arms. It was the most perfect place in the world, those bleachers, surrounded by others. She lingered long after the crowd had filed out; was still there, watching the motionless water, listening to the building’s drone, when Jordy the lifeguard came to say it was time to go home.
Jeff Frawley’s fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Portland Review, Crab Creek Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Bridge Eight, Pif, Storm Cellar and Gravel. After receiving an M.F.A. from New Mexico State University, he served as a Fulbright scholar in Budapest, Hungary, performing research for a novel. He now lives in southern New Mexico.