Authors: Paul Theroux
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Copyright Â© 1969 by Paul Theroux
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Originally published in 1969 in Great Britain by Alan Ross
Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West
A decent interval after his father died, about a month or so, Herbie Gneiss bought the
Mount Holly Chickadee,
studied the classified ads and said, “Hee-hee-hee.”
Late the same evening he picked up the newspaper again, ripped out a little section and laughed again. His laughter came in bursts, like a tire-pump being plunged very quickly.
The next day he stood in a phone booth and dialed a number. Although he frowned several times while he was speaking on the phone, he smiled when he left the booth.
Mr. Gibbon squinted at the grey specks moving toward him. Soon he made out the distinctive shape of a Patton tank leading a convoy of supply trucks. Jeeps loaded with troops followed the trucks. Far behind were the soldiers, thousands of troops wearing field packs, carrying the wounded, staggering, pushing toward Mr. Gibbon who stood at attention in his starched uniform. Far to the rear were the guided missiles on flat-cars, the big bombers overhead, crates and crates of ammo stenciled with the familiar battalion insignia (a jackdaw with a worm in its beak; the motto
Pro Futuro Aedificamus
). Mr. Gibbon's heart skipped slightly as he raised his hand and waved the convoy past him. He saluted the big brass in the jeeps, the old man himself, tough, steely, sitting there with a bottle of bourbon clenched between his knees. He nodded to the foot soldiers.
Everything was okay.
“Roger,” said Mr. Gibbon. He licked his pencil and made a notation on a clipboard.
In the cloakroom of the Mount Holly Kindergarten Miss Ball counted coins from a jam jar into a dark hand. When she had counted all the coins she gestured for them to be put back into the jar. The counting started again.
The coins had been counted four times when Miss Ball turned the jam jar over and tapped on the bottom. Then she shook it. There was no sound.
The dark hand closed on the coins.
“Mucho, mucho,” Miss Ball said. Then she said, “Better hurry off pronto.”
Herbie had no choice. He had to get a job, for his mother's sake anyway. They weren't dirt-poor and chewing their nails, but his father's death insurance did not cover everything. At his mother's request he had to quit college and come home. His mother now thought she would starve. Herbie would have to work to support his mother; she was a very fat lady.
“I eat like a bird, but everything I eat turns to fat,” was Mrs. Gneiss's explanation as she stared wide-eyed at her enormous knees.
Herbie imagined everything she ate adhering to the inside of her skin, inflating her. Nothing ever left his mother's body. Everything stuck.
“I've raised you good,” she would say in her suety voice, her lips never touching. “And I think it's high time you made things a little easier for me. I haven't got long and I want it to be sweet.”
Herbie had entered college happily. He had been told dozens of times that he was not, as they say, “college material,” but from what he could gather neither were any of the other 30,000 students. And if they were, and if the cross notes from the professors had any truth in them, then (
) it either took a long time to find the slobs, separate the wheat from the chaff or (
) any college worth its salt could tolerate a few ignoramuses or, as Herbie pictured himself, late-bloomers. He had planned on staying.
Once when he went homeâit was Easterâhe noticed that his father's processes seemed to be slowing down. A visit home after being away for more than a month made it clear to him that his father was slowly dying. Things were stopping in him, like lights being switched off in different parts of a city as you watch from a hill.
When Herbie got the news that it was all over he stomped his new wastebasket flat. Then he went home, rented a black suit, went to his father's funeral, was consoled by some people he didn't know, and before he knew it was back at college.
Almost as soon as he got off the bus after returning to college Herbie had trouble calling up the image of his father's face. He wished that his father had had a craggy face, an awful grin or a bald head, if only to remember him by. But Herbie could not remember what his father looked like. His father had no evidence of his having passed through and on, no evidence except some unpaid bills in the bottom bureau drawer and a bowling ball in the closet with undersized finger holes. It was his father's pride and joy. He had it specially made for his small hands. Mrs. Gneiss discovered to her horror that, because of the holes, it was nearly unpawnable.
Fearing the worst, death by starvation, Mrs. Gneiss ate everything there was to eat in the house the evening Mr. Gneiss died. For a month this went on. She ran up bills and stocked the house with food, bought more and ran up more bills. Any hour of the day Mrs. Gneiss could be seen in front of the television set licking her fingers.
One day Herbie got the letter he had been expecting:
I think it's finally coming. Death, I mean. But that's okay. You go on with your studies and you study hard like you always meant to and someday you'll know what it's like to be a parent who is dying and has only a few moments to live (I wonder if I'll even have time to sign this letter?????). You be an awfully good boy and “brace up” and remember to send your kids to college like I worked and slaved to. Teach them never to be “ungrateful” and “smart-alecky” and not to smoke in bed. I better stop now because my eyes are all sandy and tearing from crying and I need more light. Guess this is it. Oops, another pain. In the chest this time. Hope you're getting all “A's” in all your subjects. Guess this is “Goodbye” like they say. If you need anything just ask for it. I'll be glad to do anything you want for you. You only have to ask, I'm always here.
So long from,
Your Sick “Mom”
He left the next day. When he arrived home his mother met him on the porch. She greeted him with a heavy and prolonged belch. She thumped her chest and reminded Herbie that that's where the pains were. Right (urp) there.
“I'm dying, Herbie.”
“This time it's for real.”
“I got your letter.”
Mrs. Gneiss returned to where she had been sitting. A bowl of ice cream, half-full, rested on the coffee table. Nearby there was a bag of potato chips. Mrs. Gneiss cradled the bowl in her lap and picked up the potato chip bag and placed it next to her on the sofa. Then she dunked a potato chip into the ice cream, scooped up some ice cream and tossed the whole mess into her mouth. She licked and chewed and waited for Herbie to speak.
Herbie couldn't think of anything to say.
“A mother's got rights,” Mrs. Gneiss said thickly. Her next potato chip scoop broke under the strain of so much ice cream. “What ever happened to those man-sized chips?” she asked, glancing around the room.
“What do you want me to do?”
“You see any?”
“Man-sized chips for the ice-cream dip.”
Herbie stood up and went to the far corner of the room. Then, at a safe distance, he shouted: “Look, I don't mind getting your lousy letters and I don't mind coming back to this stinking house, but I do mind leaving college for good, moving out of the dorm, selling my bike . . .”
“Your gorgeous bike,” Herbie's mother mocked.
“. . . I said to myself, What's a semester? I said to myself . . .”
“You're going to give your mother a semester to die in?”
“. . . I thought you were lonely. I thought you needed someone around the house. I thought you were in trouble, sick or something . . .”
“You don't look sick to me.”
“The sickest people in the world don't look sick. I'm sick at heart. Heart-sick, that's what I am. And afraid.”
“You said you were
in the letter.”
“Of course I'm dying. What do you expect? You think I'm going to live forever?”
“I mean now. You said you were dying now.”
“You mean this semester?” Mrs. Gneiss chewed.
“I don't know what I mean. I only thought that it was urgent. Now I get here and it doesn't look so urgent.”
Mrs. Gneiss continued mumbling: “I wouldn't have gotten you away from your precious books if I didn't think it was urgent,” she finished quickly. “Now I'm sick and that's all there is to it.”
Herbie started to say something.
“I know what you're going to say.
You don't look sick
. [She mimicked him perfectly.] Well, for your information, I
sick. Seriously ill, as they say. I say I'm sick, and if I say I'm sick that should be good enough for you. If it's not . . .” Mrs. Gneiss thought a moment. “If it's not, well, tough taffy, you're home and you're staying home until I drop. You've got to like it or lump it. You've got to
to like itâas we used to say back at
!” This sent Mrs. Gneiss into torrents of creamy laughter.
With only his mother's death on his mind, Herbie said, “Okay.”
“It won't be so bad.”
“Of course, you might have to get a job, and all that.”
? The word had almost no meaning for Herbie. He was one of those people who had escaped the tedium of paper routes and had dodged what other more enterprising adolescents had got: selling glow-in-the-dark Krismiss Kards, foot balm, tins of greasy unguentâall in return for B-B guns and autographed catchers' mitts. Herbie had never worked a day in his life. There was simply no need to work. He liked to read and had started smoking at an early age. So why should he have had to work (of all things) to kill time? There were thousands of ways to kill time without working. And besides, his father was always there,
at least. A very little man, very generous, very hard to remember; one of those faces that no one can describeâprobably a perfect criminal's face. Herbie had gotten money out of him. Now Herbie missed him, for the first time in his life.
“It won't be for long,” said Herbie's mother. Then she added, “Although the longer the better, if you can see this from my point of view.”
Herbie looked at his mother. She was still eating away happily, shoveling in the ice cream on potato chips. One thing about his mother: she wasn't a show off. She didn't try to pretend she was thin. She knew she was fat. She looked fat. She had no time for girdles; she never used make-up, had never had her face lifted. Her one extravagance had been painting her toenails, but this was now virtually impossible. She would have had to learn to be a contortionist, and she knew there were no fat contortionists. Her wish now was to sit, to be left alone with a lot of food, and to spread in all directions under her kimono. There are two ways to die, Herbie thought: one, you don't eat enough and you starve to death; two, you stuff yourself and collapse with a belch. No, he didn't hate her. But if she had to go it might as well happen along the starchy street she had been traveling all along. It was her wish.
“When do I start?”
“All right, I'll just unpack . . .”
“Don't bother,” said Herbie's mother.
“Don't bother? I thought you said you wanted me around?”
“I do,” she said, shushing him. “I want you around here so bad I could yell, but there are no jobs hereabouts, so you'll have to live near where you work . . .”
Herbie's mother summed up the job situation. There were too many Puerto Ricans from God knows where working for a song. They took all the jobs there were to take. It was the way of these Puerto Rican people. They really didn't want the jobs. What they really wanted was a lot of bananas. But their senses told them: move in and take the jobs. They didn't know what to do with the jobs once they got them, but there were a lot of Puerto Ricans and only a few good honest hardworking kids like Herbie in Holly Heights.
Holly Heights was a suburb of Holly. There were also Lower Holly, Mount Holly, Holly-on-the-Ivy (a creek), East, West, North and South Holly, Holly Junction, Holly Falls, Holly Rapids, Hollyville, Hollypool, Hollyminster, Holly Springs and a dozen others, including, yes, Hollywood. This covered an area of about two hundred square miles.
If Herbie moved into Holly proper, or in the adjoining burg of Mount Holly, he would have a better chance. There were lots of jobs going begging.
“I've never begged in my life,” said Herbie.
“Oh, tons of jobs,” Herbie's mother said. “Just remember, there are bills to pay. Medicine, your father's medicine. It seems a downright shame to have to pay for medicine now that he's dead. It seems crazy. I mean, why did we buy the medicine in the first place? And the embalmer's fees, the flowers and the headstone. Well, that's a breakâyou won't have to get another headstone for me, although you'll have to have my name chiseled on the stone. Extra with the initial. And there's always my food. Food is just like medicine to me.” Mrs. Gneiss stopped talking as soon as she remembered what she had said about her dead husband's medicine.
“When we get some cash you'll be free and clear. So will I. I'll be able to rest easy.”
Mrs. Gneiss thought; that's a slip of the tongue. “Just try not to think about it,” she went on. “Do your work and send home some cash every week. I'll send you fried chicken in the mail, and letters too. Like always.” Then, for no reason at all, she said, “It'll be like old times.”
“I was doing pretty good at college, you know.”
“You'll be able to go back,” said Herbie's mother. “After.”
“Do this for me, Herbie. Just this once.”
Herbie promised that he would. His mother really wasn't so bad. Just fat was all. He would go to Mount Holly and make good. There were lots of jobs there; lots of factories were crying to get people.
“Kant-Brake,” said Herbie's mother. “They need people real bad.”
“Well, maybe I'll look them up.”
“Yes, I've written a letter to the owner. Used to know your father,” said Mrs. Gneiss, handing her son the letter. “You've just got to look neat as a pin and they'll hire you. And give them the letter.”
“What the hell,” Herbie said. “Might as well be there as any other place. What did you say they made there?”
“Toys. You know, toys? Those little . . .”
Mrs. Gneiss was through with her explanation. She turned back to the TV. She champed her ice cream sullenly. After a few moments a fearful burp trembled through her body, crinkling her kimono and making her shake her head. It sent Herbie out of the room and into bed.