They were young and she was dreamy and so they figured, a hub; she said “New York, because my favorite movie The Sting is set there,” and he said… nothing. He just followed. Paul was a follower by faith, skilled at picking battles and winning the ones he picked with the most infuriating kind of silence. He had lumberjack quality and Confederate facial hair and hands a different writer might call ‘meaty.’ He was most recently employed as chief landscaper to this year’s crop of entrepreneurial ninth grade boys. Weekend nights, he bar-backed at a grimy dive by a truck-stop called ‘Miss Gelly’s.’
In his apartment, Paul kept posters for all these death metal bands that would never see the inside of a frame, and a saxophone his aunt Carol referred to as “this sad little family’s only heirloom.” He could play that saxophone, too. Medium-good.
Betty was nosy and big and loud. Puzzling to lady peers, irritant to teachers, ballsy to a select – SELECT – few. In fact, but Paul. He liked playing silent partner. They dug each other from the get-go, yinning and yanging their way through nine blundering years at Brubaker Prep. She carried around their ‘how we met’ story and trotted it out at friendly parties sometimes (there was something about a playground, a little boy’s wounded knee…) but Paul deliberately didn’t remember details like this. To him it seemed that Betty had just always been around – a fact. A sister. Better yet, an Erkle, a presence that couldn’t be questioned or ever asked to leave.
In high school the pair of them had been slightly teased but mostly ignored, like “all the other interesting people,” she liked to say. Though Betty’d always had her cultivated eccentricities – she picked daffy things to wear and liked to carry around her mother’s heavy fiction to look wise in the fifth grade (How Stella Got Her Groove Back, the Nora Roberts canon…) – heroine finally came into her own the few years following that rainy graduation day. She was even Elizabeth Brownstein until falling in brief, violent love with a roller derby team that dissipated after losing its first tournament. Still, much of that affect stuck – Betty Bromine managed a secondhand clothing store after that, where she got her kicks telling little girls not to buy unflattering cuts and ordering their dragalong boyfriends to turn on to The Beatles. So twenty-two, Betty Bromine, meet rockabilly fashion and the dulcimer, become a dotty local character. Move into an apartment downtown with Paul, divide this space in half with a shower curtain, the kind with a map of the world on it. Host a bingo night, you two, go to movie. Take occasional hikes. Play your instruments so the neighbors can hear. And all of this might have been enough. It might have.
If not for Cousin Omar.
Omar was not really anyone’s cousin, but some offensive kid had taken to calling him family while he was the only black student in his class at Brubaker Prep. Omar had played a sport but kept a low profile while in the clink – low enough a profile that no one knew where he was or what he was up to a few months after graduation. It turned out, big things: Betty ran into Omar a few years on at the big yearly summer music festival; his band had been playing a secondary stage there. And the white hot jealousy that came descending while she watched this kid rock it out was eclipsing, and it reduced Betty Bromine to tears. She was shocked, confronted by the possibility of a life altogether outside of Hometown. A life that might yet make Hometown anecdote. She didn’t stay to see Cousin Omar’s interview with a queuing press corps on the second day of the festival, but she knew if she had she would have waited to hear some mention of Brubaker – some trace of recognition on his face while he signed her CD – and there would have been none.
High school English, a thing retained: some are born great, some achieve greatness, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. That same night, in her dungarees, Betty burst through her front door in that theatrical way and summoned Paul forth with all the might in her lungs. “I hate it here,” she said. “We’re skipping town.”
Paul walked out of the bathroom wiping his hands with a cheesecloth, the kind he used to clean his saxophone. “What’s wrong with town?”
“It’s not big enough.”
“It’s something like fifteen miles across.”
“You’re being dense.”
Here the cat-eyed cuckoo-clock made sound, letting the whole miserable building know it was nine o’clock.
“What will we do?”
“Live by our wits. Live by my wits.”
“And why would we do that?”
To this, Betty clammed up. She pulled a big patterned carry-all off the top of the refrigerator instead and mustered up her most meaningful look. She tossed it between them, empty, a gauntlet, and yup, the next day they were flying and had told no one goodbye.