Saturday, March 15, 2008

Little Paul

Working at the lube place was pretty weird. It wasn't affiliated with Midas or Jiffy or any of them so we were always kind of having our last hurrah. Never knowing whether our next paycheck. The tedium of the work was astonishing. Clamp the filter and twist, clamp the filter and twist. Drain, drain, drain. If it was an old lady that was waiting in the waiting room for those guaranteed fifteen minutes or less, clutching a styrofoam cup of all-afternoon coffee cut with Splenda and Cremora in her wrinkled hand, well then tell her that her so-and-so's out and we can fix it for fifty bucks if she likes, while she waits, or she can wait until an officer of the law pulls her over for the offense at some vague point in the future. It's up to her.

The boss, Paul, had a son. Little Paul. At the outset he'd been expected to take over the whole operation but as he entered early adolescence it became clear that he was irretrievably stupid, a moron. And by moron I don't mean an asshole like his dad. I mean he was retarded in the head. Paul once tried to teach him to do the job but he'd leave his wrench on the toilet tank, pour the oil on the floor, lose the pan plug beneath the secretary's desk. Her name was Sis, on account of being Little Paul's sister, but because of who he was, it was almost like she was the sister of nobody, which made her name even more bizarre.

To be perfectly blunt Little Paul was unable to dress himself in the morning and Big Paul and Sis were reluctant to admit the degree of his incapacity. So they let him haunt the office and garage, getting a bit in everybody's way, always on the verge of breaking something or getting hurt. He was like a big, unwieldy dog.

Little Paul had a very strange and unnerving habit. He couldn't talk much but he would tell everyone he saw he loved them. "I love you," he told his dad and me and Sis and Hector and Robbie in the morning. I love you, I love you, I love you. I guess it was just one of those obsessive behaviors, shouldn't mean much to anyone. Like a parrot, I guess he'd heard it somewhere before. Some people need to wash their hands twenty-seven times a day, Little Paul had to tell each and every person he saw he loved them. Including the mailman and the Chinese food guys and the guys from Sharky's across the street where we'd all go to drink. (Some of whom, I should point out, were very, very, very unkind to him.) And every last little old lady spilling Cremora on the floor. No one needs to make much of it, you roll your eyes and go on home. It's a moron who can't stop saying I love you. But tell you the truth, it drove me damn near to tears listening to someone say something like that when it wasn't true. Every day, every day, every day. I love you, I love you, I love you. I love you Sis, I love you Dad, I love you Steve which is me. All in the same wide-eyed way, perfectly confident, emphatic. I've never told anyone I loved them with that much conviction.

So it stuck in my craw you might say, this habit of Little Paul's, and what it might imply for me and the rest of mankind. I'd get into weird little games with him where I'd stop him right before he told me he loved me, I'd say, "I know, Paulie, you don't have to say it," and I'd smile and nod and try to be gentle about it. Each time I did that he'd wait an awful moment, as though to let the sulphurous vapour of my antagonism fade, and fix me with his open gaze. "No, Steve! I love you!" He had to tell it to every person he saw, every day.

I played it all like a joke for a while, tried to be a good sport. But one night while I was not asleep, staring directly at the ceiling, when I was wondering whether I would have to quit my job or kill myself or both, it occurred to me: This is what love is. It's what you say when you have no idea what it means, no idea at all. Maybe you have no idea what meaning means. But you say it and mean it all the same.

Illustration by Louise Asherson