Authors: Paul Theroux
Tags: #Travel, #Contemporary
A Mariner Book
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
To Jonathan Raban
by Paul Theroux
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
My other life / Paul Theroux.
88 1996 96-1624;
Printed in the United States of America
Book design by Robert Overholtzer
10 9 8 7
This is the story of a life I could have lived had things been differentâan imaginary memoir. The fact that there are limits to serious travesty and that memory matters means that even an imagined life resembles one that was lived; yet in this I was entirely driven by my alter ego's murmur of "what if?"
These characters do not exist outside this intentionally tall story, the cities are pretty lofty too, and the action of the narrative is vagrant in every sense. There are some names you knowâAnthony Burgess, Nathan Leopold, Queen Elizabeth II, and moreâbut they too are alter egos, other hes and shes. As for the other I, the Paul Theroux who looks like me, he is just a fellow wearing a mask. It is the writer's privilege to keep some faÃ§ades intact and use his own face in the masquerade. It was the only area in which I took no liberties. The man is fiction, but the mask is real.
I do not know which of us has written this page.
âJorge Luis Borges, "Borges and I
HEN PEOPLE SAY
of someone, "You'll either love him or hate him," I always have the feeling I'll hate him. Then I remember my Uncle Hal and I know better.
Uncle Hal seldom spoke to us except to tease or criticize, but once he told me that his motherâGrandmaâhad never picked him up when he cried in his crib. She simply let him lie there and screamâdidn't touch him, didn't talk to him, didn't feed him until a specific minute on the clock. He must have been forty-something when he confided this, and he looked at me and added, "Imagine what that can do to a person, Paulie."
He was unshaven and his whiskers were grayer than they should have been. He was always clawing his hair. I never saw him sit down at his table to eat a meal. He stood up, looking out of the kitchen window, forking tuna fish out of an open can. Then he threw the can away and wiped his hands on his shirt. He drank out of bottlesâeven milk bottles, even milk cartons that had spouts that missed his lips. He put his mouth under the faucet. He hated the way that other people ateâsitting down, taking their time. Just a small amount of sitting down made him jump up and rage. "We're wasting time! I've got so much to do! I've been sitting down all day!"
His house needed painting, he said; his grass had to be cut. He needed something at the hardware storeâand it might be a hinge that he would fasten by banging screws through the holes as though they were nails, he was so impatient to get the thing hung. And the way he used a hammer made you think of a murderer.
"I'm going off-Cape," he would say, whether his destination was Boston to the dentist's or Mexico, where he claimed he hunted giant lizards.
One winter day I went a hundred and forty miles with him in his old Ford. He owned a pony then, and his blue jeans were stiff with pony shit. The car windows were shut tight and his heater was on. "I never got carsick when I was your age," he said as I held my face miserably in my hands.
"It's his fault that I'm late," he said to the salesman when we got to the shop, which was outside Bridgeport. He scrubbed at my scalp with his knuckles and said, "He's on medication. It's given him an unbelievable case of the squitters. We've stopped at every filling station between here and the Cape."
It was an astonishing three-part lie, but the man accepted it, smiling pityingly at me.
This place looked like another hardware store or junk shop, but Uncle Hal came out with a book. He let me glance at it: gold-stamped leather and tissuey pages. He put it into a brown paper bag and I never saw it again. He kept such treasures in a trunk in his attic, or in drawers. If he opened a drawer and you looked in, you would see glints of gold, daggers, chains, dented goblets, silver plates, carvings; and then he shut it and complained. "I have nothing," he said. "No wife, no money, no children, nothing."
His closets were full of fine clothes, but the clothes he wore were always torn. He wore everything until it was in tatters and then he threw it awayâwore his shoes until they were cracked and broken, wore his sweaters until they were frayed and pilled. And I have already mentioned his pony-shit trousers.
I never saw him in clean clothes, and while from a distance in these torn things he looked like a carefree boy, up close he looked like an old tramp, and he smelled.
"You're wasting water, Paulie!" he screamed at me one time when I was letting the water run from his faucet. Was that it? That he felt that by not washing he was saving water and money too? Certainly he was frugal. He ate alone, he slept alone in a narrow bed, and if you asked him whether he had seen a particular movie, he would say, "Two bucks! I'm not paying two bucks to see their movie. I wouldn't give them the satisfaction."
"They" and "them" were words he frequently used. "You know what they're doing to the interstate? They're widening it!" "They always say 'Happy Holidays' and never 'Merry Christmas' at this time of year. I hate it when they do that." "They're building another supermarket!" "They're the kind of people who, if you ain't talking about them, ain't listening."
Uncle Hal was the sort of person who, if you didn't see him for a while, you might think had killed himself, or gone to Alaska, and then, when you saw him again, you realized that he would probably never die, not in the normal way, nor would he go anywhere at all. When he did go outside the house strange things happened. People drove more slowly and always in front of his car, and he yelled at them, his spit flecking his windshield; and lights turned red suddenly and made him stop and curse some more; and the sky grew cloudier. The sun dimmed, dusk came, it rained, the wind sprang up, leaves were beaten from the trees, and Uncle Hal would say, "I could have told you this would happen. I left my windows open!"
When Uncle Hal went out the world stopped being simple. It filled with obstacles, accidents happened, and my uncle tripped or banged his head or caught his finger in the slamming door or spilled his coffeeâand he raged. Just being with him could make you very tired.
His silences were worse than his shouts. Sometimes he stared and said nothing, and you wanted to run. When he was silent his face was darker, his movements much slower, his clothes dirtier and more rumpled. He would not lingerâhe fell silent and a moment later he was gone. He would stay away for months or more. One entire year we did not see him, though we saw his car flash past. He reappeared and when we told him we had seen him, he said, "That wasn't me. I was making an assault on Kanchenjungaârushing the summit. Without oxygen."
And a moment later he was complaining about the price of paperâso many dollars for a ream. After he told me what a ream was, I wondered why he needed all that paper. He made no mention of what he had done in the year that he had vanished. And then his real reason for showing up after all that time came out. "Listen, Paulie, I need a hand moving a ladder. If you don't want to do it, just say so."
Though Uncle Hal was famous for saying no, no one ever said no to Uncle Hal.
It was a big ladder, splashed with paint, and carrying it through his cellar I saw a number of shadowy objects. Some I could not make out, but others I clearly recognized: a spinning wheel, a cider press, a musket, a brass telescope, a copper basin, a thunder jug, an ornate spittoon, a samovar, a marble-topped table, a pair of deer antlers, a walking stick with a bird's beak for a handle, a toothy pair of fish jaws, a Chinese lantern, and something that looked very much like a human skull, the color of old meerschaum. Just as he kept treasuresâdaggers, chains, silver coinsâin trunks and drawers, he kept larger objects here in his cellar. It was all hidden here, but why?
"That looks like part of a skeleton," I said, because I was too timid to admit that I saw a human skull resting on top of a wind-up Victrola.
Instead of replying he began to rant. "Everyone's got a big American flag flapping in front of his store or gas station or whatever," he said. "Ever notice that? I've got a theory that they're meant to attract attention. It's not patriotismâit's a kind of advertising."
But I was glancing back at the spittoon and the skull and the musket, and I lost control of the ladder.
"Why don't you drop it? Why don't you hit something with it, like the door frame? Chip some paint off. Why not?"
I had just done that very thing.
"Why not make it hard for me? I like that! I want to spend the rest of the afternoon fixing the door you just scratchedâ"
He stopped when he saw that I was crying, but after we put the ladder against the house he simply climbed it and slung a bucket on a hook and started working some white paint into the eaves with a stiff brush. I knew that it was time for me to go and that I would not see him for a long time.
Perhaps he went away. If he was planning to travel a long distance, he rose at four in the morning in order to beat the traffic, and he set off in the dark. "They're always crowding the roads and they can't drive for beans." But he was an early riser. That meant that he was tired by early evening. He was usually in bed by eight or so, which was why he never went to dinners or to parties. "I'm tired!" he shouted if you called him at six-thirty or seven. But he also said that he never slept through the night, and sometimes at odd hours the blue light of the television upstairs would flicker through the darkness of his big house.
He yelled at the television, too.
We were watching a program once, and an elderly man came on, smiling and talking about politics.
Uncle Hal laughed out loud and said, "That's Walter Cronkite. He hates me."
He was sitting in a battered chair, wearing a thrift shop T-shirt and torn jeans and mud-caked shoes. His baseball hat was on backwards, the fits-all-sizes adjustable band clamped against his forehead. There were green stains on his jeans, the smears of a whole day's grass cutting, and small green clippings clung to his face and arms. And this Walter Cronkite, looking like a college professor, was smiling in a television studio almost two thousand miles away in another time zone, in Chicago. What was the connection?
"I wrote him a letter," Uncle Hal said. "I set him straight." He chuckled to himself. It gave him pleasure to see this man on television, as though the man were looking through the window of the TV screen and recognized Uncle Hal in his baseball cap.
"I reminded him that
in German means 'sickness.'"
Eventually he told me everything, because he was proud of what he had done. He had written letters to the Governor (about the condition of the roads), the Pope (because of his stand on birth control in India), the Prime Minister of Canada (acid rain), and not the President of the United States but his wife, the First Lady, because of something she said, a careless remark about someone in the British royal familyâtheir eating habits, I think. And there were more lettersâto movie actors and famous sportsmen and millionairesâespecially millionaires. He had, he said, sent detailed letters of advice to football coaches and city planners. He scolded celebrities.
You have all the qualities of Hitler except his vegetarianism,
went one of his letters, so he said.
He was proud of them, and proudest of all when he got a reply, no matter how baffled or hurt it was. A nasty reply excited him into writing another stinging letter, and he would keep it up until he had the last word. His letters all said, more or less,
I'm watching you.
When he was sitting in front of a television he imagined that these people were looking back at himâspecifically him: they knew he was watching them.
But that mention of letter writing had given me pause, because I had always assumed that Uncle Hal was a handyman as well as being the blackest of the family sheep. And it can be rather alarming when someone you consider to be eccentric says he has written something. It is a reckless confession that an act of writing has been committed, and it quickly converts an odd person into a lunatic. I guessed that it was another example of something Uncle Hal said to shock people. It was not the end. Many times after that, when we were together someone's name would come up, someone in the newsâFidel Castro, Joe DiMaggio, the Emperor of Japanâand, "I wrote him a letter," Uncle Hal would say. I was always startled, which I think was Uncle Hal's intention.
'"I think my private parts are beautiful,'" he said once. '"I have black, tarry bowel movements. Answer true or false.' Those are two of the questions I was asked in an exam once at graduate school."
I had not realized he had ever been to graduate school, and if so, what had he studied?
"I originally wanted to go to West Point," Uncle Hal said. "Did you know that in 1957 you could be refused entry to West Point for"âand here he made a horrible faceâ'"excessive ugliness'?"
He could get angry in seconds if you said the wrong word.