Authors: Paul Theroux
Copyright Â© 2014 by Paul Theroux
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has catalogd the print edition as follows:
[Short stories. Selections]
Mr. Bones : twenty stories / Paul Theroux.
I. Theroux, Paul. Minor watt. II. Title.
Mr. Bones,” “The Furies,” and “I'm the Meat, You're the Knife” first appeared in
“Incident in the Oriente,” “Our Raccoon Year,” and “Long Story Short” (under the title “Twenty-two Stories,” which won a 2009 PEN/O. Henry Prize) in
“Neighbor Islands” in the
(London); “The First World” in
“Siamese Nights” and “Voices of Love” in the
“Another Necklace” in
“Minor Watt” appeared in the
Virginia Quarterly Review
and in 2011 received a National Magazine Award for Best Story.
I feel very shy and blushing at being let in for that thing at my venerable age.
âJOSEPH CONRAD AT FIFTY-THREE,
in a letter to a friend, on finding out that his wife, Jessie, was pregnant
INOR WATT, THE
real estate developer and art collector, was seated at the Jacobean dining table with the fat baluster legs that served as his desk, waiting for his wifeâsoon to be ex-wifeâto arrive. He had been thinking of himself, but the graceful Chinese vase with a tall flared neck, resting on the antique table, made him reflect that, as with so many things he ownedâperhaps all of themâhe was able to discern its inner meaning in its subtle underglaze, the circumstances of his acquiring it, its price of course, its provenance, all the hands that had touched it and yet left it undamaged, its relation to his own life, its secret history, its human dimension, almost as though this pale porcelain with the tracery of a red peony scroll was human flesh. And then after this flicker of distraction he thought of himself again.
How people said, “You're the calmest man in the world.”
He always replied, “As I made more money my jokes got funnier.” And when they laughed, he added, “And I got better-looking.”
“You're amazing,” they said, and with a glance at his collectionâthe Noland painting
on the wall behind him, the objects glinting on side tables and shelves and in the glass cabinet. Was that a human skull?
“And my collection got more valuable.”
“One of a kind,” they said.
The only gift anyone can make to a much wealthier person is an extravagant compliment, often in the circumstances the opposite of what the poorer person feels, yet inevitably with a grain of truth and a stammer of ambiguity. The visible fact of his wealth, Minor Watt knewâhis collection like a set of trophiesâmade these people at times incoherent and yet obvious. Instead of “He has this great thing,” they thought, “I don't have this great thing.”
He lifted his gaze to the works arrayed in his office, a sampling of his areas of collecting: the Noland, a Khmer head of Vishnu in stone, a Chola bronze Shiva Nataraj, an old Dan mask with red everted lips, and a squat Luba fetish figure bristling with rusty nails; a greenish celadon salver propped on a stand, a massive Marquesan
club with small skull-shaped bas-reliefs for eyes, and beside it, like an echo, an Asmat skull. More human skulls were ranged on a backlit shelf. Among collectors of tribal art, skulls constituted a silent trade, and they were an early and lasting passion with Minor Watt: New Guinea ancestor skulls with cowries lodged in the eye sockets and others overmodeled with clay and painted like masks, some of them shiny from use as headrests, like large chestnuts, the same rich color; Kenyah skulls from Sarawak scratched with scrimshaw lizards on the cranial dome; smoke-dark Ifugao enemy skulls sitting side by side on a smoky plank; Tibetan skulls and skull cups, chased in silver; and more, all of them saturated with mana.
No one said “One of a kind” with surprise. Minor Watt had grown prosperous in the roofing business in New York, city of flat roofs. “A flat roof is designed to leak,” he said, and his familiarity with the bones of these buildings led him to speculate successfully in real estate. From the age of thirty or so, Minor Watt had had everything he'd ever wanted, every dollar, every woman, every serious business deal, every artifactâhis eye fell upon a standing bodhisattva, a mustached Maitreya from Gandhara carved in schist, second century, Kushan period, clutching a plump vial that contained the elixir of immortality. A duplex on Park Avenue, a house by the sea in Connecticut, with a set of buildings that served as his personal museum. A loving wifeâwhere was she?
His artworks were not for warehousing but for displayâshowing them was his incentive to collecting. He'd loved taking his wife to the opera, Inca gold glittering at her throat. Even more than the joy that drove his collecting passion was the knowledge that in buying a rare object he had prevented someone else from owning it. Another pleasure in his collection was his certainty that, even as he was examining a piece, its value was rising, no matter what the stock market was doing. He had bought a small Bacon in Londonâa head of George Dyer. Over the years its value had increased two hundredâfold. Those human skulls: if similar ones could be found, which was doubtful, they'd cost twenty times what he'd paid.
One of the paradoxes of the people who praised these objects was that in most cases they had no idea what they were looking at. At first Minor Watt's pride made this almost a sorrow to him; and then, out of snobbery, such ignorant remarks delighted him. “I love this African stuff,” someone would say, smiling at a fierce-faced Timor house post. The Gandharan piece from the Swat Valley was taken to be Greek. “Byzantine,” an art historian said of an eighteenth-century Lalibela painting of the Ethiopian saint Gabbra Menfes Qeddus. His old cartoonish reverse-glass paintings done by itinerant Chinese in Gujarat baffled all viewers. “Indonesia? Bali?” A bulb-headed Fijian throwing club known as an
was assumed to be a Zulu knobkerrie, and no one ever noticed that the ivory inserts on its lobes were human molars, from its five victims.
And which of them would know that this Chinese vase was Ming? Minor Watt and his wife had bought it together after much discussion in Shanghai, after a Yangtze cruise in 1980, and had hand-carried it back to the States. The vase, treasured, as all these objects were, like members of their family, had accompanied them through six changes of address. As though demanding custody, she'd included it as part of the divorce settlement. Had she noticed it glowing in the display cabinet on her previous visit with her lawyer?
Thinking of the woman, he heard his intercom buzz, and then his secretary's voice: “Your wife is here.”
Already it was an odd word, since they'd agreed to the divorce months before and had now signed most of the papers. In mentally moving her out of his life he was reminded of his mood when he sent a piece to be auctioned, how he had no feeling for it; even though it still had monetary value, it was dumb and mummified, and, the thing having lost all meaning and hope, he smiled as he let it slip away.
He had wondered which woman would show upâthe angry woman, the sad woman, the wild-eyed woman, the oversensitive woman, the rejected one, the triumphant one, the sulker, the smirker, the old friend.
She was none of these when she entered the room. She looked thinnerâall the fury was gone, leaving her pinched, the anger wrung out of her. Such corrosive emotion was unsustainable over so many months: she looked cured of an illness, weaker, subdued, much paler. The fighting had ended, and now, like people who knew each other far too well, they were rueful with disillusionment, meeting merely to observe a few formalities, wishing they were strangers.
“Hello, Minor.” She spoke in the spongy voice of languor and abandonment, and her eyes were drawn to the vase.
She was here to pick up the valuable old keepsake and then to go. She had been reluctant to come. He had told her it was too fragile to risk mailing, but this was turning into a formal ritual of farewell. He would pass her this lovely vase and she'd carry it away in its cushioned boxâthe Chinese purpose-built cushioned coffin with the sliding lid and the rope-like handleâcarry it as they had done more than twenty years ago in what had been one of their many treasure hunts, but an important one: he'd also been an early investor in the Chinese economic miracle.
“Sunny.” Her name was Sonia.
She sat down in the antique Savonarola-style chair, in the same knees-together posture, as she had done many times, but this was perhaps the last timeânot perhaps. It was all at an end, a true breakup. No more wifehood for herâshe'd probably never remarry and forfeit the alimony. He smiled thinking of his rich pretense of complaining about money, knowing in his heart that money never mattered, because there was always money; but such a vase as this was, even as the philistines guessed, one of a kind. It was promised to Sonia, and yet he could not see beyond the finality of this handover to any future for himself.
She hadn't been a trophy wife: he had loved her, she had been part of his great luck and his achievement, and he had educated her in appreciating his vast art collection. Now she knew what a Scythian chariot finial was, and she knew why this Ming vase was precious for its copper-red underglaze, so fragile and yet unmarked. Knowing his collection this well, she was the only person who truly knew him.
“I can't stay long.”
Saying this, still looking at the vase, it seemed that she had moved on, and she had the unimpressed body-snatched look of a woman who was perhaps newly involved with another man.
“I understand. I've got things to do. I'm still in business, in spite of what's happening.” Not until he spoke did he realize he was resentful. He went on, “You expected to see me ruined?” She wasn't listening. So he said, “I hate these people who are complaining about the economy. They created the downturn. I did too. That's why I saw it coming. Only a fool thinks it's straight north forever. I'd love to find a way to show them how foolish they've been.” She didn't react. He leaned toward her. “It wasn't straight north with us. It's south now.”
Her eyes were dark and unperforated.
He said, “So here it is.”
“It's beautiful,” she said. “Thanks.”
She meant, Thanks for agreeing to give it to meâbecause she knew its value. It had symbolized that long-ago trip, the best phase of their marriage, as well as the taste that she had acquired from him and her insight into his personality.
But she didn't know that he had already surrendered it, that he was merely going through the motions. He didn't care about it anymore. He was surprised that she had agreed to this meeting, which was trouble for her, since she'd gotten the Connecticut house in the settlement, but had put it up for sale and now lived elsewhereâshe refused to give him her address. Yet the thought of her being inconvenienced gave him some satisfaction.
“I know just what I'm going to do with it. I have the perfect place for it.”
This annoyed him. It meant that she had a house or an apartment that she lovedâa shelf in that place, perhaps someone to admire it with her.
I found it in Shanghai when China was just opening up.
He resented her certainty, the way it seemed to represent a part of her future that she'd already begun to live without him. He was wrong about her seeming to be weakened after an illness; she was strengthened in her recovery.