Sharlene, the bookstore clerk, was a recovering alcoholic who had been the most popular girl in her high school in Gruene, Texas. After an unhappy affair with the star of the football team, she bore a daughter out of wedlock at age 19. She wouldn't put the girl up for adoption but once her drinking became really serious, she couldn't take care of her either. Her daughter Jewel now lived with her parents. Sharlene had lived alone and worked in the airport bookstore in Houston for five years. The store was owned by an older man, also a recovering alcoholic, whom Sharlene had met through AA.
Samantha Lazare had once shopped in Sharlene's bookstore, on her way home after visiting Deirdre Tanaka. She was interested by Sharlene's sad beauty, and tried to write something about her on the plane. She had only exchanged a few perfunctory words with Sharlene while purchasing a copy of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, so she had to invent a life for her. Samantha thought the piece was a failure--she was a successful nonfiction writer but her attempts at fiction were usually too didactic. "Stirring with lecture lumps," one editor had written. However, the piece she wrote was successful at least in the sense that she imagined a life for Sharlene that bore some striking resemblances to the actual.
Sharlene had not had sex in two years, because every time she went with anyone she also drank and she associated sex with alcohol. She couldn't stop thinking about it, though, and her body often reminded her of the highly strung, quivering horses she had ridden at her grandfather's ranch near Gruene.
In Gruene, Sharlene had sometimes felt like an immense but insubstantial cloud about to dissipate in the wind. Her ambition in Houston was to become a small, hard pebble. She told herself that she wouldn't mind being really tiny, even microscopic, if she could only be hard.
She was terribly upset by Paul Banner when he came into the bookstore. She thought he was beautiful and elevated-looking, the kind of man she was drawn to but who was more likely to marry a lawyer, businesswoman or editor than a high school beauty queen from Gruene. Paul never looked at her and after he left the store, Sharlene experienced the premonitory shaky feeling that harbingered the screaming desire for a drink. Like everyone in AA, she knew where and when every meeting in her city took place, and her employer had given her standing permission to close the store early if she ever needed to. She pulled the iron grille down and caught the tram over to the B terminal, where there was an AA meeting scheduled in 20 minutes at the nondenominational chapel.