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Where shall I go, then, if I wish to learn where it is that I went wrong, what I could have done differently? I will say ab initio, from the outset, that I have no answer, or none that I can find. My father is long dead, my mother now so alienated that I doubt she would be a resource of any value. And I don't believe in God.
* * *
In another room, the next room, Nok sleeps. Or then again, perhaps she does not. Perhaps my bedroom, that chamber of disappointments, is empty. Perhaps there is no one in it, no one at all. In the next room Nok, out of her element, my captive, Buber's little secret, sleeps. One would think, looking down at her smooth little body, her silk hair spread about the pillow, her flimsy linen shirt, that she would meet a raft of needs. But then again, to watch her walk around this great house of the Buber's is, can be, almost comical. She appears to have no interest in anything, no sense of curiosity, to be completely devoid of awe. Her habits too are completely alien, so ... vulgar. She squats when she reads, and that with difficulty.
And what else should I have expected? A person reaps what he sows, does he not? I have created obscenity in a child scratching for a living, invited shame, and now shame engulfs me. In short, can there be any doubt that I have made a cock-up of things? Even so I am not one to scrounge about in the past for tidbits of memory that might explain it away, mitigate the damage. I mean, one only has to watch television for several minutes to see middle-aged men sniveling about the past as if it had some great, sustaining significance. I do not worship at the altar of psychotherapy, I am afraid to say. I am not, I am afraid, wired for it, even if that is my loss.
The "I" in this, the man at the helm, looks puzzled as a flash of memory intrudes. The memory is this: My mother, happening on me in a state of arousal, begins to giggle. "You don't say," she murmurs. "Even you." Later, at dinner, she ventures to my father: "You and Alfred should have a little chat sometime," and then she begins to giggle again, this time uncontrollably, must leave the room with her hand at her mouth.
Yes, even me. Freakish. Extraordinary. Incomprehensible.
* * *
Shall I describe my house instead of continuing in this vein? I would prefer to. In fact I would be pleased to. It has been at the center of so much.
When I was a young man—and that means years ago, when I was a struggling immigrant in this austere city—I passed through this town once, down this very lane, and decided that this was where I would one day live. There was something about the place that marked it as my resting place, the place in America I would claim as my own when all else had taken shape. I became quite single-minded, after that, in my planning.
This is something I do not share often, but I slept on a cot in a rooming house for four years to scrape together the money I needed to acquire this fantasy. I spent nothing in those days, did not own a car or a television, or even a telephone, but even so I had no use for flawed hand-me-downs or makeshift possessions and so I surrounded myself with ... nothing. I was making a fairly good living too, and I know that my father's cousin, Nigel, the only relative I have in this country, thought my behavior, the urgency I felt to buy an empty plot of land in a town with which I had no connection, eccentric, at a minimum. Nigel is, after all, a creature of habit, a rational man, an academic whose view of things is unshakably rooted in good judgment. Each time he asked about my living arrangements in those rooming house days and I gave the kind of oblique answers I did, he would look at me askance and a vaguely troubled expression would cross his face.
"You're a hard-working young man," he used to say, his fork poised at his mouth, his Pritiken grains carefully balanced on the tines. "I imagine a great deal is expected of you at your law firm. How can you look your best when you keep your clothes in a box and be sufficiently rested when you sleep on a stretcher?"
"The arrangements are temporary," I would insist.
"Perhaps," he would say without conceding anything. "They seem immoderate nevertheless."
Once I had bought the land I would come out here from my rooming house by train each weekend. It is a long walk from the station to my little sanctuary, and I would trudge to my destination along the narrow lanes like some Dickensian vagabond.
"May I help you?" the occupant of a rare passing car might stop to ask.
"No thank you," I would say. "I'm all set."
They'd move on, slowly, and I'd see eyes fixed on me in rearview mirrors. Later, as I idled away the time under a tree, I'd see them again, curious, wondering what was afoot, what the stocky bald-headed man in white thought he was doing.
I didn't only daydream, of course, though in the end my efforts were largely undone by bulldozers and backhoes. I moved rocks out of what I knew would someday be a courtyard, tended the sprouts of the elm trees that now line the driveway, used a shovel to level the ground where I planned to place my gazebo. I had yet to lay one brick in place but I had it all staked out, used to stand within the stakes and imagine that my house was already finished, exactly as I had planned it, solid, immovable, like a fortress of marble and glass or a chapel up on a hill. All I thought of then was beauty, the symmetries and contrasts, how the eye would move across a sloping lawn and come to rest on a perfect line of trees.
On several occasions during my Henshaw & Potter days I agreed to host the firm's annual picnic, and believe me I made my impact. I selected the best wines from my cellar, unlocked my most valuable cutlery, placed fresh flowers in every room, and during the course of the day I would steal glimpses at the young clerks as they drifted about the halls, boys clutching the hands of their companions, girls with timid boys in tow, their attention fixed on the art, the sculpture, the views from each towering window.
"Buber," they were doubtless murmuring. "Buber lives here?"
They could not have known it, of course, but it was for just such a reaction that they were invited. Buber may have had his deficits, may in some circles have been a subject of derision, but each evening he would retake possession of his museum-like rooms, move about his collection of treasures at will, be in his element.
Surely that counted for something. Surely.
* * *
There was from the outset, of course, a woman in this phantom landscape, a singular woman, bonded to me, endlessly understanding, completely intelligent. She was tall and willowy, as I saw her, her face animated, the fabric of her clothing ruffling in the breeze as she leaned back in her chair. I once really did believe that my house would come to hold a family, be a home to children too, the children of this phantom woman and me, be a repository of a host of happy memories. What happened instead, perhaps predictably, was quite different. When all was said and done, when the keys were finally handed over and the last workman had left, there was nobody here to celebrate except me, me in a silk cravat, the bottoms of my trousers rolled, me sipping a congratulatory sherry in a silk-covered chair.
Sometimes I yearn for that other vision, the one I once held for myself, for this house, for everything, with an intensity it would be difficult to describe.
"It was your choice it didn't happen that way," Nigel would say.
"Not entirely," I would have to respond.
As I sat back that first evening and attempted to savor what I had long anticipated as a perfect moment, at that moment, it was early evening, the sky was sheathed in pink, a bird descended and sat on the railing, squawking, littering, its baubles glistening in the light. (I am rich, you see, in metaphor and allusion. Perverse and secretive men like myself often are even as we dance around what it is we feel we must say, vamping, mocking ourselves, making fun.) As I saw the young people going respectfully through my rooms I did not need to be reminded that there is sometimes a thin line separating elegance from farce.
* * *
I remember the day I drove my first Mercedes-Benz home from the dealership, the sense of wonder I felt as I watched the little star ahead of me glide through the air. I had dreamed of owning such a machine for a long time and it felt, as I left the lot, that a landmark of sorts had been passed and that the moment signaled, in a most personal way, the end of an epoch.
But as I turned into the traffic something within me spoke up, reminded me that the years immediately past had been complicated but purposive, and that I may yet someday look back on them with more than a modicum of wistfulness.
* * *
"Alfie," Nok has said, "I not understand something."
Her accent is quite charming, actually, something breathless in it, something half lost in the consonants.
"What is that?" I ask.
"Everything in house not touch," she responds. "So much things. No one come. Nothing use."
She believes, Nok, that I am endlessly wealthy, and that is no surprise. Everyone does, did so even before and when quite the opposite held true. They have always considered me rich, my new countrymen, picture me I suspect against a backdrop of white-turbaned servants and gold mines and men lounging in wood-paneled rooms. They impose on me a caricature of colonial life, I have always thought, see me as an emissary of the Brittle Empire, have constantly in mind visions derived from English courses and snippets of Masterpiece Theatre. I, Buber, a relic of Empire! And to be honest I have, when it has suited me, fed the illusion. When Rhodesia was falling apart and I was asked about it, I would say things that suggested it was my view that an idyllic way of life was indeed coming to an end, that we had something unique in Southern Rhodesia, something unspeakably genteel, something almost perfect in its balance. I adhered, in short, to a vision of a world that did not exist and presented it to others as if it could be reclaimed in an instant.
To my colleagues this flat, fruity, Englishy accent of mine masks a multitude of sins. They think me cultured, steeped in something stronger than I am, and I take it, accept it, and it has made me a stranger. I am hemmed in by the tea and the tweed of it, have sunk into a manner more mannered even than the illusion I myself created. I have become, in short, a perfect English gentleman.
The irony is rich. I am so much less than I project myself to be, bear no resemblance to the man I have insisted people see me as.
This particular feature of Buber is a closed book to Nok.
* * *
How does one say this, put on the table once and for all, and at the outset, that niggling, tedious matter that seems to be an overriding motif of my life? Genetics have decreed, I suppose one could start, that some people will experience their passage on earth one way, and others will experience it another. I have been blessed, one could say, with some measure of ability, some measure of temperament which stands me in good stead in my chosen profession, the law, some measure of financial acumen too. It is all though, I would say, tempered by this: I stand five-foot and six inches high, a portly little chap, balding at twenty, hairless at thirty, my face marked by a nose so large and round and eyes so beady that even at this age, at forty, my reflection startles me. My fingers are short. My legs are hairless. Over the years, the women as they count their money have become more and more businesslike. They count in silence, without smiling. It is a chore, their slouch says, this counting, that other thing, all the same.
(I must temper this image, not the women, the counting, but the other thing, the grotesque little Micawber I have just created of myself. How one sees oneself can be notoriously unreliable, can it not? In the end events must speak for themselves since I may have become too unreliable to add any observation of value. One does not need mirrors, in the end, to know how one believes one looks. I was once called beautiful, as you will see, though that is another matter entirely. I can say this, categorically: The obvious is obvious. I have the full complement of organs, no discernible deformities. I do have about me, as I have said, a certain European melancholy, a spongy civility that is my own invention. For the rest of it, who knows? I stroll over to the mirror to examine once again and it casts back a blank, nothing, a shining plate of nothing.)
As a boy in Salisbury, of course, such things were of marginal importance. For one thing I was among my own, or so it seems in retrospect; and even if it were true that my defect had already manifested in some form, it did not seem to foreshadow the future if the little girls teased others coyly and let me be. I was the class clown, or at least the teachers characterized it as such, and that brought a measure of popularity, a certain notoriety as we moved through the senior grades; but it is simply a fact that I do not know the feeling of being looked at admiringly by the opposite sex. Those who take such things for granted cannot appreciate how one might react once one has come to terms with this. One no longer dresses with an eye to winning admiration but rather works to create an alternative image, whether this be well-tailored, impeccably groomed, or something quite other. In my case it is to be self-contained. What I mean by this is that I pack myself into my clothing so as to appear to be wholly complete, to lack nothing, to be beyond need. Such an edifice is flawed. Of course it is flawed.
I approach women warily, regard them as somewhat adverse to me in interest, on the verge of mockery.
* * *
I omit one thing. Once, it is true, just once, there was someone who seemed genuinely drawn to me. When I was in primary school in Salisbury a new girl joined the class, a stranger looking creature than we had ever seen to be perfectly honest, the product of a Rhodesian mother and a Japanese father. I don't know how her parents came to be together, what the circumstances of it were, but either way one day dark, muscular Rosalind showed up and was given the desk next to mine. I wonder if the boys with whom I went to school, none of whom, so I understand, remain in Rhodesia, would own up to it, but I distinctly remember words such as half-caste and mongrel being bandied about behind the cricket field scoreboard. The girls too, as I recall it, avoided Rosalind when first she came.
I picture her as she stood beside her desk on that first day, her matte brown hair, her dusky skin, her clay-colored eyes. I remember her teeth, her lips, her thick braid. We may have been twelve. Because she was given the desk next to mine the teachers assumed that I would be of assistance in acclimating her, and I was. I remember her handwriting, painstakingly neat, the scent of her, of her hair as I leaned over to show her how to complete an assignment. I was a popular enough boy then, I would remind you, still completely at ease among my own.
"Ask your girlfriend if her thing goes sideways too, Alfie," I remember being teased.
My girlfriend, what a concept, and in a way over time she became, if not that, something not far removed from that. I remember thinking it worth the taunts to play marbles with her on the edge of the playing field, appreciated how she would crouch, a knee peeping from under her dark green uniform, to shoot at the targets we set ourselves. I remember feeling the warmth of her as we stood beside our respective desks each sun-filled morning to greet the teacher. I remember how the sun would hit the top of her head and turn her hair almost gold, make it almost translucent.
Excerpted from THE DOUBLE LIFE OF ALFRED BUBER by David Schmahmann Copyright © 2011 by David Schmahmann. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 17, 2011
I found myself completely absorbed by this novel, from the first sentence "These are chronicles of the starship Buber," until the last: "A life has weight by virtue of it having been lived. Or at least that is what I must believe." It's a rollicking, erudite, funny fake memoir of a man who can't find himself, pretends to be what he isn't, and is bitterly lonely living a life that just doesn't feel like his own. He finds solace in an odd, sexualized search for companionship, but that's not the point at all, and I don't agree with the idea that he's motivated by sex or that he's particular interested in young girls. Buber as a character is much more complex, and vastly more interesting, than that. This is a wonderful book and beautifully written. In fact, it's scarcely about sex at all.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 17, 2011
THE DOUBLE LIFE OF ALFRED BUBER by David Schmahmann an fictional "memoir".It is an intense,complex,emotional poignant story of an illicit affair between a middle-aged man and a teenage Asian girl. Alfred is self described as old fashioned,formal,a little prissy,has a dry sense of wit,has a fetish for Asian girls,and enjoys sex with very young prostitutes. For the young prostitutes he travels to Asia,Europe,Boston, and Bangkok.This fetish leads him to a double life. He eventually falls in in love with one of his young teenage prostitutes,Nok,who is beautiful,young,and may or may not care for him. As he travels to Boston,Europe, and Bangkok for his fetish,he soon learns that while he is trying to sort out his life,his life is coming unraveled and he must face the consequence of his fetish.This is an emotional story of teenage prostitutes,a middle aged man,fetishes,leading a double life,as he does not want people to know about his other life. If you enjoy very complex stories with a different theme.Alfred a pillar of the community having an illegitimate romance with a teenager and a man who is flawed in so many ways than you will enjoy this one.This book was received for the purpose of review from RMS Public Relations and details can be found at The Permanent Press and My Book Addiction and More.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.