The Lower River

Fiction: An excerpt from the new novel by Paul Theroux

06.05.12 | 9:36 AM ET

Ellis hock’s wife gave him a new phone for his birthday. A smart phone, she said. “And guess what?” She had a coy, ham actress way of offering presents, often pausing with a needy wink to get his full attention. “It’s going to change your life.” Hock smiled because he was turning sixty-two, not an age of life altering shocks but only of subtle diminishments. “It’s got a whole bunch of functions,” Deena said. It looked frivolous to him, like a costly fragile toy. “And it’ll be useful at the store”—Hock’s Menswear in Medford Square. His own phone was fine, he said. It was an efficient little fist, with a flip-up lid and one function. “You’re going to thank me.” He thanked her, but weighed his old phone in his hand, as a contradiction, showing her that his life wasn’t changing.

To make her point (her gift-giving could be hostile at times, and this seemed like one of them), Deena kept the new phone but registered it in his name, using his personal email account. After she was signed up, she received his entire year’s mail up to that day, all the messages that Hock had received and sent, thousands of them, even the ones he had thought he’d deleted, many of them from women, many of those affectionate, so complete a revelation of his private life that he felt he’d been scalped—worse than scalped, subjected to the dark magic of the sort of mganga he had known long ago in Africa, a witch doctor-diviner turning him inside out, the slippery spilled mess of his entrails stinking on the floor. Now he was a man with no secrets, or rather, all his secrets exposed to a woman he’d been married to for thirty-three years, for whom his secrets were painful news.

“Who are you?” Deena asked him, a ready-made question she must have heard somewhere—which movie? But it was she who seemed like a stranger, with mad gelatinous eyes, and furious clutching hands holding the new phone like a weapon, her bulgy features fixed on him in a purplish putty-like face of rage. “I’m hurt!” And she did look wounded. Her recklessness roused his pity and made him afraid, as though she’d been drinking.

Hock hesitated, the angry woman demanded to know everything, but really she already knew everything, his most intimate thoughts were all on that phone. She didn’t know why, but neither did he. She screamed for details and explanations. “Who is Tina? Who is Janey?” How could he deny what was plainly shown on the screen of his new phone, covert messages, sent and received, that she’d known nothing about? “You snake! You signed them ‘love’!”

He saw, first with relief, almost hilarity, then horror, and finally sadness, that nothing in his life was certain now except that his marriage was ending.

He put it down to solitude. He did not want to say loneliness. He owned a men’s clothing store, and business had been—you said slow, not bad—for years. The store was failing. The history of the store was the history of his family in Medford, their insertion in the town, their wish to belong. Ellis’s grandfather, an Italian immigrant, had been apprenticed to a tailor on his arrival in New York. His first paying job was with the man’s cousin, also a tailor, in rural Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he arrived on the train, knowing no English. He helped to make suits for the wealthy college students there. Though he was no older than they were, he knelt beside them, unspooling the tape against their bodies, and shyly spoke their measurements in Italian. Three years of this and then a job as a cutter in a tailor shop in Boston’s North End. On his marriage, striking out on his own, he borrowed money from his widowed mother-in-law (who was to live with them until she died) and rented space in Medford Square, opening his own tailor shop.

The move to Medford involved another move, more tidying: he became a new man, changing his name from Francesco Falcone to Frank Hock. He had asked a tailor in the North End to translate falcone, and the man had said “hawk,” in the local way, and the scarcely literate man had written it in tailor’s chalk on a remnant of cloth, spelling it as he heard it. This was announced on a sign: Hock’s Tailors. Frank became known as a master tailor, with bolts of fi ne-quality woolen cloth, and linen, and silk, and Egyptian cotton, stacked on his shelves. He smoked cigars as he sewed and, still only in his thirties, employed two assistants as cutters and for basting. His wife, Angelina, bore him three sons, the eldest baptized Andrea, called Andrew, whom he designated as his apprentice. Business was good, and Frank Hock so frugal he saved enough to buy his shop and eventually the whole building. He had income from the tenants on the upper floors and from the other shops, including a Chinese laundry, Yee’s, next door. Joe Yee pressed the finished suits and gave him a red box of dried lychees every Christmas.

When Andrew Hock returned from the Second World War, Medford Square began to modernize. Old Frank turned the business over to Andrew, who had worked alongside his father. But Andrew had no interest in the fussy drudgery of tailoring. Plagued with arthritis in his hands, the old man retired. Andrew sold the building and bought a premises in a newly built row of stores on Riverside Avenue—the Mystic River ran just behind it—and started Hock’s Menswear, as an improvement on Frank’s tailor shop on Salem Street.

Ellis was born the year after Hock’s Menswear opened, and later he, too, worked in the store throughout high school most afternoons, tramping the foot pedal and bringing down the lid of the pressing machine in the basement tailor shop, with the tailor Jack Azanow, a Russian immigrant. Ellis also buffed shoes and folded shirts and rearranged the jackets after customers fingered them, milking the sleeves—his father’s expression. Now and then he made a sale. Christmases were busy, and festive with the frantic pleasure of people looking for presents, spending more money than usual, asking for the item to be gift-wrapped, another of Ellis’s jobs. The activity of the store at this season, and Easter, and Father’s Day—the vitality of it, the obvious profit—almost convinced him that he might make a career of the business. But the certainty of it alarmed him like a life sentence. He hated the notion of confinement in the store, but what was the alternative?

On graduation from Boston University, a biology major, facing the draft—Vietnam—he applied to join the Peace Corps and was accepted. He was sent to a country he’d never heard of, Nyasaland, soon to be the independent Republic of Malawi, and became a teacher at a bush school in a district known as the Lower River. There was something mystical in the name, as though it was an underworld tributary of the River Styx—distant and dark. But “lower” meant only south, and the river was obscured by two great swamps, one called the Elephant Marsh, the other one the Dinde.

He was happy in the Lower River, utterly disconnected from home, and even from the country’s capital, on this unknown and unregarded riverbank, where he lived in the village of Malabo on his own as a schoolteacher, the only foreigner; supremely happy.

After two years, he re-upped for another two years, and one afternoon toward the end of his fourth year, a message was delivered to him by a consular driver in a Land Rover, a telegram that had been received by the U.S. consulate: For Ellis Hock at Malabo. Dad very ill. Please call. There was no phone in the village, and the trunk line at the boma, the district’s headquarters, was not working. Hock rode back to Blantyre in the Land Rover, and there, on the consul’s own phone, he spoke to his tearful mother.

He had been so content he had never grappled with the detail of leaving the Lower River, and yet, two days after receiving the message he was on a plane to Rhodesia, and by separate laborious legs, to Nairobi, London, New York, and Boston. Finally back in Medford, he was seated at his father’s hospital bedside.

His father beamed with surprise when he saw him, as though Ellis’s return was a coincidence, nothing to do with his failing health. They kissed, they held hands, and less than two weeks later, struggling to breathe, Ellis hugging the old man’s limp body, his father died. It was three in the morning; his mother had gone home to sleep.

“Are you all right?” the night nurse asked, after she confirmed that his father had drawn his last breath.

“Yes,” Ellis said, and mocked himself for the lie. But he was too fearful of telling the truth, because he was himself dying from misery.

He went home, and when she woke at seven he told his mother, who wailed. He could not stop weeping. An old friend, Roy Junkins, hearing that he was home from Africa, called the next day. Ellis sobbed as he spoke to him, unable to control himself, but finding no more shame in his tears than if he had been bleeding. And something about that moment—the phone call, the tears—made a greater bond between the two men.

After the funeral, the reading of the will: Hock’s Menswear was his. His mother was apportioned a sum of money and the family house.

“Papa wanted you to have the store.”

He’d left Africa suddenly—so suddenly it was as if he’d abandoned an irretrievable part of himself there. He’d actually left a whole household: his cook and all his belongings, clothes, binoculars, shortwave radio, his pet snakes in baskets and cages. What he’d brought home was what had fitted in one suitcase.

He was now, aged twenty-six, the sole owner of Hock’s Menswear. He had employees—salesmen, the tailor Azanow, a woman who kept the books—and loyal customers. Within a few years he married Deena, and not much more than a year later Deena gave birth to a daughter, Claudia, whom they called Chicky.

The life sentence he had once feared, he was now serving: the family business, his wife, his child, his house in the Lawrence Estates, inherited from his mother after she died. Every day except Sunday he drove to the store at eight, parked behind it, facing the Mystic River, checked the inventory and deliveries with Les Armstrong and Mike Corbett, and opened at nine. At noon, a sandwich at Savage’s, the deli across Riverside Avenue; after lunch, the store. Sometimes Les or Mike reminisced about their years in the army, in dreamy voices, but they were always talking about war. Ellis knew how they felt, but didn’t mention Africa except to his friend Roy, who sometimes dropped in. At five-thirty, when Les and the others left, he locked the front door and went home to dinner.

It was the life that many people led, and luckier than most. Having a men’s store in Medford Square made his work also social, and selling expensive clothes meant he dressed well.

Over thirty years of this. He rarely took a vacation, though Deena rented a cottage at the Cape in the summer. He drove down on Saturday evenings to spend Sunday with her and Chicky. And after her parents moved to Florida, Deena spent weeks with them. Chicky grew up, graduated from Emerson College, got married, and bought a condo in Belmont.

Nothing would ever change, he felt. Yet changes came, first as whispers, then as facts. Business slackened, Medford Square changed, its texture fraying, a Vietnamese restaurant displacing Savage’s Deli, then the closing of Woolworth’s and Thom McAn. The shoe menders and the laundry and the TV repairers vanished, and the worst sign of all, some storefronts were empty, some windows broken. The old bakery that had sold fresh bread was now a donut shop, another chain. A new mall at Wellington Circle with large department stores and many smaller stores was now the place to shop. Hock’s Menswear was quieter, but still dignified, which made it seem sadder, like the relic the tailor shop had been—a men’s clothing store in a city center that was shrunken and obsolete.

But the building—the real estate—was his equity. Ellis saw a time, not far off, when he would sell the premises and live in retirement on the proceeds. In the meantime, he kept to his hours, eight to five-thirty. He waited on customers himself, as he had always done, to set an example, simply to talk, to listen, to hear about other people’s lives, their experiences in the world beyond the front door of Hock’s. With only one other salesman these days he did this more often, and liked it, in fact looked forward to talking with customers, whose experiences became his.

He knew the business was doomed, but talk kept it alive, as conversation with a bedridden invalid offers the illusion of hope. The malls and the big chain stores, blessed with space and inventory, prospered because they employed few clerks, or sales associates as they were now called. Hock’s was the sort of store where clerk and customer discussed the color of a tie, the style of a suit, the drape of a coat, the fit of a sweater. “It’s meant to be a bit roomy” and “This topcoat isn’t as dressy as that one.” Nor did the newer stores offer Hock’s quality—Scottish tweeds, English shirts, argyle socks, Irish knitwear, Italian leather goods, even Italian fedoras, and shoes from the last great shoemakers in the United States. Hock’s still sold vests, cravats, and Tyrolean hats in velour, with a twist of feathers in the hatband. Quality was suggested in the very words for the merchandise—the apparel, rather: hosiery, slacks, knitwear; a vest was a weskit.

Every transaction was a conversation, sometimes lengthy, about the finish of the fabric, the weather, the state of the world. This human touch, the talk, relieved the gloom of the empty store and took the curse off it. The customer was usually an older man in search of a tie or a good shirt or a sport coat. But often a woman was looking for a present for her husband, or her father or brother. Ellis detained them with his talk, explaining the possible choices. “These socks wear like iron” and “This shirt is Sea Island cotton—the best” and “This camel’s hair will actually get more comfortable with age, softer with each dry cleaning.”

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Paul Theroux is the author of many books, including The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas and the novel The Mosquito Coast. He was the subject of a 2008 World Hum interview.

9 Comments for The Lower River

Alice 06.05.12 | 2:24 PM ET

A moving reflection on modernity, loneliness, and marriage. Also a pretty apt description of how counseling can go wrong.

Travel Packages 06.09.12 | 5:28 AM ET

This sounds a very nice book. Hope to read it. Nice description of the whole event.

travel packages

Lisa 06.15.12 | 4:24 AM ET

Brilliant!  ” There was certainty in routine”.

Nichole L. Reber 06.17.12 | 10:59 PM ET

While I’m thankful that my three-year stint of living abroad hasn’t been severed like Ellis’s, I do wonder if I return home after my current contract will I kick myself. Will I think, “You’re too solitary, your wings too long to remain caged within one country?” Will it be monotonous or banal as Ellis’s days, or will I always carry a bit of my travels like an “unerasable past”? 

That past is the thing that makes so many frightened to really travel, to be more than a tourist. I don’t understand why people are so afraid to fly away. It pains me that people, such as Ellis, have these wishes or half-fulfilled desires and repress them their life long. Oh, yes, that’s it: stability.

The only thing stable in long-term travel is instability, from concepts of punctuality to employment rules to passport visa laws and on and on. That’s when you get something like this:

Here’s a stellar Paul Theroux quote to conclude: “The Peace Corps is a sort of Howard Johnson’s on the main drag into maturity.”
Cheers y saludos,

John 06.27.12 | 2:31 AM ET

The Peace Corps is a sort of Howard Johnson’s on the main drag into maturity.” Glasgow Web Design

vacation travel club 07.01.12 | 2:27 AM ET

Nice story.. Thanks for sharing!

Islands of Polynesia 07.05.12 | 11:35 PM ET

Seem like a good book to read, thanks for sharing.

migration expert 07.10.12 | 1:46 AM ET

a very interesting read. appreciate sharing teh story.

Rajasthan Tourism 07.30.12 | 7:44 AM ET

Nice but long story…

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