The Lower River

Fiction: An excerpt from the new novel by Paul Theroux

In the past eight or ten years he’d asked the likelier ones, women mostly, “Do we have your email address on file?” As a result he found himself in occasional touch, clarifying, offering suggestions for a new purchase, describing sale items, often adding a personal note, a line or two, mildly flirtatious. They had bought clothes for trips; he asked about those trips. This was his early-morning activity, on his office computer, when he was alone, feeling small in his solitude, to lift his spirits, so he could face the banality of the day. The harmless whispers soothed him, eased some hunger in his heart, not sex but an obscure yearning. Many women responded in the same spirit: a cheerful word was welcome to them.

Over the past few years these email messages had come to represent a constant in his life, a narrative of friendships, glowing in warmth, inspiring confidences, private allusions, requests for help or advice. But since he met the women only when they came into the store, which was rare, these were safe, no more than inconclusive whispers in the dark, though compared to the monotony of his storekeeper’s day, they were like the breath of rapture. There were about twenty or thirty such women whom he’d befriended this way, various ages, near and far, and these included old friends, his high school sweetheart and senior prom date. Still living in the town where he’d been born, he was saturated with the place. He’d been away for only those four years in Africa, as a young teacher in the district of the Lower River.

When Deena showed him the full year of his email he was more shocked by its density than by the warmth of his confidences—though he was taken aback by glimpses of what he’d written. Writing was a way of forgetting, yet now it was all returned to him and he was reminded of everything he’d said. He did not know that a phone, even a high-tech computer-like device like that, could access so many messages, ones that he’d sent and received, twelve months of them, including ones that he’d deleted (which was most of them), that he’d believed, having dragged them to the trash-basket icon, were gone forever.

But they reappeared, arriving in a long unsorted list, a chronicle of his unerasable past, much of which he’d forgotten. And so the interrogation began, Deena saying, “I want to know everything”—another movie line? She held his entire memory in her hand, his secret history of the past year, and so, “Who is Rosie?” and “Tell me about Vickie.”

He was mute with embarrassment and anger. Ashamed, appalled, he could not account for the number of messages or explain his tone of flirtatious encouragement, his intimacies to strangers, all the irrelevant detail. He talked to them about his day, about their travel, about books, about his childhood; and they did the same, relating their own stories.

“What is your problem, Ellis!”

He didn’t know. He bowed his head, more to protect himself from her hitting him than in atonement. From the moment he got home from work, for a month or more, he and Deena argued. Her last words to him in bed at night were hisses of recrimination. And when he woke, yawning, slipping from a precarious farcical dream, but before he could recall the email crisis, she began again, clanging at him, her tongue like the clapper of a bell, her finger in his face, shrieking that she’d been betrayed. Some mornings, after a night of furious arguing, the back-and-forth of pleading and abuse, he woke half demented, his head hurting as though with an acute alcoholic hangover, and couldn’t work.

Deena demanded detail, but the few scraps he offered only angered her more; and she was unforgiving, so what was the point? It all seemed useless, a howl of pain. She was a yelling policeman who’d caught him red-handed in a crime, not yelling for the truth—she knew it all—but because she was in the right, wishing only to hurt and humiliate him, to see him squirm, to make him suffer.

He did suffer, and he saw that she was suffering too, in greater pain than he was, because she was the injured party. But he knew what was at the end of it. It really was like theater; she needed to inhabit every aspect of her role, to weary herself and him with the sorting of this trash heap of teasing confidences, and when he was sufficiently punished, the ending was inevitable.

They began sessions with a marriage counselor, who called himself Doctor Bob, a pleasant middle-aged man with a psychology degree, a professorial manner, and conventional college clothes—tweed jacket, button-down shirt, khaki pants, and loafers, probably bought at one of the mall outlets, Ellis thought. What bothered Ellis and Deena as much as the actual sessions were the chance encounters with one or another of Doctor Bob’s clients, someone troubled—drugs? alcohol?—leaving the office as they arrived, or someone similarly anguished, head bowed, on the couch in the waiting room as they left.

Doctor Bob listened carefully in the first session and said that such a discovery of compromising emails was not unusual. “I’m seeing three other couples in your position. In each case, the man is the collector.” He didn’t assign blame, he was sympathetic to both Ellis and Deena, and at one point near the end of the first hour, as Deena sat tearful with her hands on her lap and Ellis wondered why he had sent so many emails, Doctor Bob could be heard puzzling, saying softly, “How does it go? That old song, ‘strumming my pain with his fingers’—something about being flushed with fever, something-something by the crowd,” then raising his voice, but still in a confiding, lounge-singer croon, ” ‘I felt he found my letters, and read each one out loud . . .’ “

“Please,” Deena said, “this isn’t funny.”

“I’m trying to put your situation into context,” Doctor Bob said. “There are other precedents. After his wife poked into his private letters, Tolstoy ran away from home. And died in a railway station. He was eighty-two.”

In the next session Doctor Bob asked blunt questions and acted, it seemed to Ellis, like a referee. He did not sing again. They returned for more sessions.

But instead of repairing the marriage or calming Deena, the counseling made matters worse by offering an occasion to air old grievances, conflicts that, before starting the sessions, Ellis had decided to live with. But why not mention them, the disappointments, the lapses, the rough patches that had remained unresolved? Long-buried resentments were disinterred and argued over. With a referee, a witness, they could be blunt.
Doctor Bob nodded and smiled gently, like the friendly old fashioned priest at Saint Ray’s, Father Furty—reformed drinker, always sympathetic. He let Deena talk, then Ellis, both of them pleading with him to see their point of view, the validity of their claim, as though deciding “whose ball?” in a significant fumble. He said, “What I’m hearing is . . .”

Letdowns they’d never mentioned were now mentioned, and the sessions became acrimonious: Deena’s friends, her absences; Ellis’s coldness, his absences.

“You’ve been leading separate lives . . .”

Ellis thought, Yes, maybe that’s why my life has been bearable. It was not a pleasure but a relief to go to work in the morning. Monotony was a harmless friend. He dreaded Sundays at home; most of all he hated vacations. Ellis had never met anyone who hated vacations, so he kept this feeling to himself. Though Deena had that one issue on her mind—the business about the numerous and over fond emails—this dispute stirred Ellis into defending himself with memories of other disputes. “I want to know why you were emailing those women,” Deena said.

Doctor Bob smiled at Ellis, who said, “I’d like to know that myself.”

“My name is nowhere in those emails. You never mention you’re married. I don’t exist. Why?”

Ellis said in a wondering tone that he didn’t know. Pleading with Doctor Bob, Deena said, “He tells them what he’s reading! He tells them what he has for lunch!” By then, about a month into counseling (and the store suffered by his absences), all contact with the women in the emails had been broken off. Deena still had possession of the phone, monitoring it every day. She clutched it in disgust, as though it was Ellis himself she was holding, her hatred apparent; and Ellis hated the sight of the thing too.

Ellis, at Deena’s insistence, got a new email address, and used it only for business. Without his contact with those women, he was numb, mute, friendless, but still could not explain the emails he’d sent, his befriending the many women, the strange amorous inquiring tone. To one he had said, “You are the sort of woman I’d take into the African bush,” and squirmed at the memory.

“I guess I was interested in their lives,” he said. “I was curious. There was a story line to the way they lived, an unfolding narrative. I’ve always liked hearing people’s stories.”

With a pocket-stuffing gesture, Doctor Bob asked, “But were you keeping them in your back pocket for later, something to act on?”

Ellis said no, but he was not sure. The solitude of the store, the uncertainty of the business, had set him dreaming. He did not know how to say that to his wife—no longer grief-stricken but enraged—and the nodding counselor. Doctor Bob would have said, “Dreaming of what?” And Ellis had no answer.

“Is there something you want to tell your wife?” Doctor Bob said.

Ellis fixed his eyes on Deena’s furious face. He said, “You’re overplaying your hand.”

Shushing her—Deena had begun to object—Doctor Bob spoke to Ellis. “I see you as untethered,” and he explained what he meant.

Ellis nodded. The word was perfect for how he felt, unattached, not belonging, drifting in a job he’d taken as a dying wish of his father’s, maintaining the family business. But his heart wasn’t in it—had never been in it.
When, Doctor Bob asked, had he been happy?

Ellis said, “I used to live in Africa.”

“Oh, God,” Deena said.

“I meant in your marriage,” Doctor Bob said. Hands together under his chin, prayer-like, Ellis became thoughtful, and tried to recall a distinct time, an event, something joyous, a little glowing tableau of pride and pleasure. But nothing came. It was thirty-three years of ups and downs, too much time to summarize. They were married: years to share, to endure, to negotiate, to overcome. Yes, plenty of happiness—he just could not think of anything specific. Marriage was a journey without an arrival.

Seeing Deena slumped in her chair, waiting out his silence, Ellis grew sad again. Just the way they were sitting apart, burdened by a kind of grief, with the doctor between them, made him miserable. It was as though they were in the presence of a terminal patient, their marriage dying, and it seemed that these last few weeks had been like that, either a deathwatch—this gloom—or a danse macabre, the hysteria at the prospect of the thing ending.

Nor could they hold any kind of coherent conversation without Doctor Bob being present. Ellis saw himself at sixty-two, Deena at sixty, as two old people who’d now, with the death of their marriage, be going their separate ways, pitiable figures bent against a headwind, or worse, with ghastly jollity, talking about “new challenges” and starting again, joining support groups, taking up yoga, gardening, volunteering, charity work, or worse, golf.

The counseling sessions continued, more rancorous, provoking new grievances, driving them further apart. But along with that melancholy vision of separation Ellis saw relief, too, the peacefulness of being alone. He guessed that Deena was feeling the same, because one day after a session, driving home, she seemed to come awake and said, “I want the house. I’m not giving up that house. My kitchen, my closets.”
“I could get a condo,” Ellis said. “But the business is mine.”

“I’ll need some money,” Deena said, and noticing that Ellis did not react, she added, “A lot of it.”

And like that, snatching, each staked a claim. At the suggestion of Doctor Bob they saw a lawyer and divided their assets. Hearing of this, Chicky said, “What about me?”

“You’ll be all right,” Ellis said.

“But what if you guys remarry?”

Deena looked at Ellis and laughed, and he responded, laughing too, the first time in months they had shared such a moment of mirth. They stopped, not because they were saddened by the outburst but because the love in their laughter shamed them, reminding them that in their marriage they had known many happy moments like this.

Chicky, bewildered, and made stern by her bewilderment, said, “Dougie’s probably going to get laid off. We could use the money. I want my cut now.”

” ‘Cut,’ ” Ellis said, echoing her word, “of what?”

“Your will,” Chicky said.

“I am alive,” Ellis said, wide-eyed in indignation.

“But what about when you pass? If you remarry, your new family will get it and I won’t get diddly. If I don’t get it now, I’ll never see it. And look at Ma. She got hers.”

Had this conversation not taken place in a sushi bar in Medford Square—another example of the changes in the town—Ellis would have screamed at his daughter and hammered the table with his fist. Later, he was glad that he had remained calm and had only shaken his head at the sullen young woman chewing disgustedly at him. He replayed the conversation that night, at first bitterly, then in a mood of resignation. Let it all end, he thought; let a great whirlwind drive it all away. Then he offered Chicky a lump sum. She asked for more, as he guessed she would, and he gave her the amount he had already decided upon.

Chicky’s husband was with her when he handed over the check. Dougie was merely a spectator to the family negotiation—Chicky had always been annoyed that Ellis, refusing to hire him at the store, had said, “What is he good at?”

“I doubt that I’ll be seeing much of you from now on,” Ellis said, with the solemn resignation of his new role. “I don’t think I want to.”

“Okay by me,” Chicky said.

With her share of the will in her hand, and her back turned, he felt that he was already dead. He was sorry to think that she did not see the pity in this.

Although he moved into a condo on Forest Street—the old high school—he and Deena still saw each other. Formally, sometimes shyly, they went on dates. They were not quite ready to see other people, and even the sessions with Doctor Bob had not affected their fundamental liking for each other. The dates ended with a chaste and usually fumbled kiss, and Ellis was always sad afterward, lonely in his car. He knew that he had caused Deena pain, destroyed her love for him, made her untrusting—perhaps untrusting of all other men. In the secrecy and confidences of his messages, he had betrayed her. He could be kind to her now, but there was no way to amend the past. On some of their dates she sat numb and silent, suffering like a wounded, bewildered animal. He could not think of himself, because he knew the hurt he’d inflicted on her would never heal.

Ellis dreaded the day when Deena would say to him, “I’m seeing someone.” He told her how bad business was, and she tried to console him, urging him to sell the building, that the real estate was worth something, that it was an ideal location.

On one of these dates, she gave him the phone—the instrument of their undoing, which now seemed to him like something diabolical. Or had it been a great purifying instrument? Anyway, it had uncovered his entire private life, shown him as sentimental, flirtatious, dreamy, romantic, unfulfilled, yearning. But for what? What did all those emails mean? What in all this emotion was the thing he wanted?

He did not know. He might never know. He was too old to hope for anything more. No momentous thing would ever happen to him. No passion, no great love, no new landscape, no more children, no risk, no drama. The rest of his life would be a withdrawal, a growing smaller, until finally he would be forgotten. The name on his store would be replaced by another. His marriage was over, his daughter was gone. He could not remember much of the marriage, and yet he missed the eventlessness of it, his old routines, the monotony that had seemed like a friend. There was a certainty in routine; the torpor it induced in him was a comfort.

The day after Hock got the phone back he went to the store, keeping the thing in his pocket the whole day. After he locked up for the night (he observed himself doing this, as if in a ritual), he walked to the edge of the parking lot, where beyond a fence the Mystic River brimmed, and flung the phone and watched it plop and sink and drown in the water that was moody under the dark sky.

Excerpted from THE LOWER RIVER: A novel by Paul Theroux. Copyright (c) 2012 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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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