Paul’s Version
    Ilana R Simons
Paul woke up one morning and knew he was sick. He wanted to make a commission for helping people who were sick, or on the margins. He’d thought more about it the night before.

His sister knocked on his door.

Yes, he would have breakfast.

But he took it to go, with nothing else but his camera. She must have known he wasn’t going to work. He wasn’t dressed for work. He went out the door and heard her ask if he was OK.

He answered yes and raced for the park. He was going to build a commission for recognizing life on the margins. He didn’t know how, or even what exactly. It was a too large a thought--enormous.

He could have cried. What was the thought? Too big? Or not big enough? He watched a man get into a fight with someone he loved on his cell phone. The man slammed shut his phone, and Paul snuck around and snapped a photo. He held the camera at chest level.


His camera fell around his neck as he collapsed on a bench. What would he do with a photo? It was worse than that: ‘a commission for the sick’? Who was Paul to think he knew what other people thought on the margins?

His boss’s wife was terminally ill. He would go there.

Paul went to the boss’s house. The boss was just feeding the wife, as he did every morning. Paul waited outside the back door, and when the boss made his way out, he entered. He stood at the doorway to the bedroom. It was just as his boss had described before. The wife became drowsy after her morning medicine. Her head bobbed until it fell to her chest and entered her tortured breathing.

Paul watched. Books and pills lay on the bedside table. Too many pills. The husband had also left his wife health bars. What would he say if she woke up? Then her eyes flew open like they had never been resting in the first place. She stared at Paul in a daze. He knew she sometimes hallucinated. He watched some more.

Then Paul was alone, running away from the house on familiar grass, arms swinging. Ashamed of his silence. If he was going to form a committee for recognizing life on the margins, he should have been brave enough to say it. He should have stood there at the doorway and said, “I want to ask about being sick and [X]. I’m interested in [Y].”

But now he was running past a lamppost, and he let himself be a kid again; he put out his hand and slapped the lamppost as he ran, finally slowing to a walk. He almost swung himself around the lamppost like Gene Kelly. He should go easy, reward himself. He’d started something big today and had already done a lot along the line of the unusual, and he shouldn’t beat himself up if he hadn’t been able to be straightforward with his boss’s wife. He would eventually be more forward. He would eventually have a more explicit plan of what he was doing, and he would say it straight. He wasn’t there yet. Everything was in formation. Be kind, he thought. He had dared.

He walked, and then he saw his sister ahead of him with her boyfriend. They were going to their morning café outside their office.

Paul followed in the shadows, and then there he was, sitting under the breakfast table, squatting among the cigarette butts and the breadcrumbs. He was torn in two with self-torture. Was this all something meaningful or was he just narcissistic? Was life on the margins something real? A tension tore him in two. He grabbed his hair on either side of his head and sat there in silence.

His sister laughed and explained to her boyfriend that her brother was really dramatic. “Paul!” she hollered, pulling on his shoulder. “Get up off the floor.”

She tugged. “Get up.”

Her eagerness gave him a way to turn the tables on her. Now he was the blasé one: “Give me a break,” he drawled from the sitting position, swiping just the surface of concrete with his fingertips, “Everyone deserves a day off.”

“Yes,” she said. “OK. But they should do it sitting in a chair like a normal person.”

Paul agreed and stood up but did not sit. He took a glass of water. He put a hand on his hip and drank.

He took in her boyfriend. Paul wouldn’t even try to discuss his ideas with the boyfriend, who was distracting himself by trying to stare with non-surprise at the scenery. The boyfriend was kind but had no feelings for life outside the ordinary.

Paul’s sister went on about her day and apologized again for her crazy brother. Soon the sister and her boyfriend left for work. Paul wasn’t going just yet, he said.

He sat at the table as they left. He sat with the crusts of their toasts and their coffees. He finished his sister’s coffee. He pulled his feet onto the chair.

The waiter was obvious in his disrespect for Paul. He cleared things away. He took the tip. Paul wanted to laugh: Sit with me!

The waiter kept working.

Sit with me! Now Paul, being alone, felt strong. He could push this one: “Take a day off,” he mocked the hard-working waiter. “Sit.”

The waiter cleared the glasses and Paul played when the waiter came back. He demanded that the waiter sit.

The waiter stared and pulled out a chair. He dramatically took a seat. He extended two open palms up in a gesture as if to say this is easy. Then he got up, pushed the chair back in and went back to work.

Paul walked away from the café feeling as if the waiter didn’t think like him—as if the sister’s boyfriend didn’t think the same either. He did have a singular idea. He loved the margins; the margins existed. He would support them.

He ran. He’d get on a bus. He’d subject himself to the map of the city. He’d surrender himself. He got on a bus and it rattled as it rode.

He wouldn’t explain the margins just yet. He would live outside of them, exploring and supporting the living structure by enduring it. He would do something unusual and withstand the fear. He turned to the stranger next to him and opened his mouth. He would try to talk. He would enter that vulnerable position where you open up to a stranger and risk insult. He smiled, and stared, and didn’t say anything yet.

He felt a tear form on the lower lid of his eye. So his sister was right. He was very dramatic. But there were actual reasons to be dramatic. That was why we needed a contingency council, a council for life on the margins, because there were real subtle reasons for sentiment, and they all meant a lot. He made talk: “How are you? Huh?”

The stranger stared back, through a moustache. He smelled like smoke. He lifted his lip to say, “Fine.”

Paul turned back to his window. He wanted to laugh. He was proud. He was. He’d done more here than in that frightening bedroom with the boss’s wife. He’d used his voice, taken one step towards instituting a sentiment. It was a baby step, but there it was.

He turned back to the stranger. Various sentences came to him but he didn’t use them.

Then it was like a sign from God: the bus stopped before the government office for civic societies. Paul already knew (he remembered) there was recent legislation for funding for civic groups. He got off the bus. He didn’t know specifically what the funding was or required. But he knew he could formalize the group.

Walking up the marble steps to the government office, he felt supported. This was how a vague idea could suddenly find support in the world and turn from something vague into something he could explain. Standing on the steps, his ideas felt full.

He went in and directly asked for the papers for funding.

They sat him down with paperwork. He bent over and read, a new professional.

It was satisfying, but soon life flushed out of him and he looked around and thanked God for privacy where no one could read the stupidity inside a brain. The paperwork asked for specific things: what would the organizational structure of the committee look like? Give a detailed description of budget of some of the first projects.

He’d have to lie to answer. He’d have to say things were fixed that weren’t.

He sat still. He kept the pose of someone who wasn’t surprised, wasn’t perturbed—just needed to remember a couple things to fill in the sheet. He bit the end of his pencil. This pose, at least, made him one of them. He held this pose for a while.

But being a self-organized creative thinker, he didn’t need to sit still. He got up. “Can I take these with me?”

“Of course,” the young woman said from behind the desk. “You send them in to the address on the back.”

“And when would I hope to hear back?”

Like a year, she said.

He walked. He still held a pose of dignity outside, where he folded the paper work and put it in his pocket. He looked around. As he walked, he got tired. The office became a memory and he looked around: “What the hell was my plan then…a contingency council?”

He saw a woman he used to love pass by. He remembered: He used to follow her around. He thought it would be funny to follow her now, but then he reminded himself no. Now he was working on something new.

He did have a plan. Ask him what it was and he could tell you: He wanted to value life on the margins. Ask him more technical details, and he still couldn’t explain, but feelings are—they really are—something.

One day he would have people who got it. He’d had friendships like that in the past. He’d had a supervisor who’d wanted to show his most intimate details: his record collection, his photo albums. Paul loved him now. He wanted a bus, and filled with sympathy for the old friend and boss, he was greeted by the world again. Here was a bus…broken down. Good. On a day where he was thinking about breakdown, he ran into a broken bus.

He walked up to the bus, where there was a crowd. He gathered confidence. No one might know it, but he pretended to slip into a role of a mechanic. This didn’t mean much but holding the idea in his head that ‘I’m working on breakdown,’ putting his hand into his pocket, and sauntering up to the bus driver.

The bus driver was enjoying his own fantasy. He stood by his bus, one hand on his fat hip, excited to have the spotlight of everyone’s attention.

Paul didn’t use words. He just went up to the bus door then assertively walked around to the open hood. The bus driver followed. He stared at Paul, noted the camera dangling around Paul’s neck and suspiciously asked if he was the mechanic.

Paul felt a smile push through his cheeks to his lips. He didn’t say anything. He stared and felt the potential of lying. He was quiet…quiet…and nodded. He nodded then he couldn’t help it. His eyes went wet. He spit through his teeth. A laugh. “No. I’m sorry.”

The bus driver looked confused as if he thought Paul were sick.

Paul shook his head real fast as if to say, “Don’t let it worry you. I’m a little crazy but I don’t have a single bad intention in me.”

The bus driver asked, “You riding the bus?”

“Yes. I was going to be.”

“It’ll be a wait.”

“Maybe I’ll walk.”

“Depends where you’re going.”

Paul didn’t want talk like that. He was gone.

He snapped some photos of himself in a storefront window. He saw his sister again outside her work.

He talked to his sister. She asked him how his day was going, and he told her straight: “It’s really hard. This is really awkward. How do people enjoy a day off?” He feels like he’s wasting time. He can’t get rid of this ridiculous feeling that he’s wasting a lot and not acting right. Sometimes he feels like he is, but there’s incredible tension. He feels like he’s going to tear himself in two.

She laughed. “So go to work, you fool,” she said.

But that’s not what he wanted to do. He had an idea; it was just very hard to make peace with it. To tell her was hard. He went running off again.

He ran into a park on the corner, and there he saw a man that he swore was a guy who’d been hanging out around the broken bus.

Paul went up to him and casually asked, “Is the bus working yet?”

The guy stared quizzically as if Paul were dangerous. No, he shook his head, no.

Paul shook back sympathetically. “I have an idea.” He put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Can I ask you something?”

The man was stiff—probably headed for coffee or a cab or something to make up for wasted time.

“This is just….The bus is broken?” Paul said.

The man nodded.

“I don’t know,” Paul said. “What did I want to ask?”

The man waited standing still.

Paul patted the guy’s shoulder with friendly motion. A tear formed in his eye.

“OK?” the guy said. He stared. Paul swore a tear developed in his eye, too. They guy looked intently. “Are you OK?” That was all Paul remembered. He fell down.

He woke up in the hospital. His sister was sitting beside him, holding a bottle of water. She stared patronizingly. Now her hectic brother was defused. She had more than her usual control.

He sat up. His first thought was, I might lose my job. He wanted to punish himself. He’d wasted so much time.

“Let’s go home,” he said to his sister. “I’m so sorry.”

She laughed: Relax—you’re sick.

“I’m dramatic. Fuck. I’m sorry. Let’s go home.” He hoped he hadn’t been so dumb he’d lost his job.

Let yourself relax, she said.

Why do I get so fucking narcissistic?

She laughed. Relax.

She told him she’d found the paperwork in his pocket. What was the Council and what was he planning?

He nodded and closed his eyes. But then as it always did, this idea, which he sometimes hated and exiled from himself, came back with its promise. It always came back.

He tried to explain, and he added a caveat: “If I keep my job, I’ll do both things.”

Paul, look at me, she said. You are sick. OK? She held his hand. She stared. Allow yourself what you need.

He lay back and felt a little relieved at this. She gave him his paperwork. He folded it and folded it. He was having a hard time and it wasn’t a waste because it would constantly come back to haunt him, like air could never stand still, in an expansive city or a beach. He’d work until he was crazy, like Goethe or Nietzsche or any of those stars who went wild for a higher destiny. There was something higher, deeper and subtler. Damn the world. Damn the world if they didn’t acknowledge his search for this.

Ilana R Simons lives in New York, teaches English at NYU and paints portraits. She can be reached at


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