Soon after deciding I’d had enough of writing about other people’s lives, a man representing a certain sheikh offered me an advance to start a book of his boss’s memoirs.
“His Highness is revered in his country, but he wishes to become immortal also in places like London and Las Vegas,” he said.
We were having lunch in a busy place, and he didn’t care that people stared when he flaunted a stack of cash in my face.
I told him I’d been a mobster, an actress or two, the wife of a dictator, a fashion icon, a black tycoon and, most of the time, a liar without regret, so I’d have no problem being the leader of an Arab nation. Unfortunately, though, I had decided to start living my own life.
The man plopped another stack of money on top of the first one.
“They say you’re the best,” he said, “and His Highness won’t accept anyone else.”
I knew he was far from giving up. Naturally, it made me think: what’s one more book? I can get it done in three months and retire richer than I’d ever imagined. To make it even more enticing, the deal included my own quarters in the palace while working on the book, servants at my disposal twenty-four hours a day, and beautiful courtesans to keep me company if I so desired.
I told him I was honored by the offer, but that I’d saved enough for a comfortable retirement, that I probably didn’t have enough years and health left to enjoy the extra money, and no one to leave it to. I also mentioned that living in a palace should be wonderful but, at that point in my life, there was nowhere else in the world I’d rather be than home. Regarding the courtesans, well, I wished he had come thirty years earlier.
In other words, I wanted to be my own ghost writer before becoming a ghost.
Anticipating that the pile of money – and the temptation – would grow bigger, I stood up and walked away.
I heard him slapping the money on the table and saying something in Arabic that I didn’t understand, but sounded rather nasty.
I was sticking to my plan, and that made me feel like a hero. I spent the rest of the afternoon in the park, allowing my mind the luxury of roaming free in futility and other once forbidden lands.
After a six-month sabbatical from reading and writing, and thinking only the minimum necessary to exist, I had become lazy even by my cat’s standards; he, at least, pursued the occasional mouse. Too much drinking, eating, and sleeping left little time for anything else. My fingers had swollen with fat, then rusted, and my mind was dragging itself around on all fours.
I had started my memoir at least a dozen times, and found no motivation to go beyond a phrase or two. Compared to the lives I had impersonated, mine seemed hopelessly boring.
Little did I know that my mail carrier and longtime friend Luther would be the agent of change: one day, after letting me know of his presence – he always did it with a musical whistle – Luther put in my hands a large envelope with no return address. Inside, there was a skinny book manuscript and a cover letter from some M.W. Hubble:
“Dear Sir,” it said, “I can imagine how annoying it must be to receive unsolicited manuscripts, and I apologize for sending you mine. Unfortunately, there was no other option that I could think of.
“I have been trying to find a publisher for it since it was written, many years ago, but because the book reveals secrets of powerful people, solves mysteries that had been in the dark for ages, and provides evidence of miracles that will shock the world, no publisher in this country has been brave enough to take it. Aversion to risk, rather than literary value, seems to be the criteria by which publishers judge manuscripts these days. You don’t find Art and balls in the same place at the same time anymore.
“This is my first and last book. If the doctors are right, I have just a few more months to live. I don’t fear my own death, but am terrified that my work is in danger of meeting the same destiny as its writer. I believe it deserves better than that.
“Being familiar with your oeuvre, and aware of your reputation as a portrayer of celebrities, I took the liberty of sending you the only copy of what I consider a document of historic importance. It is my hope that you will complete what I wasn’t able to, add substance to the story, bestow upon it your great talent and experience, edit it as you see fit, and, ultimately, use your influence to get it published.
“One last thing you should be aware of: M.W. Hubble is not my real name. I hope you understand that my identity cannot be made public, since I used to work for the family whom the book is about. I was their trusted servant for thirty-four years, and even after leaving their household I continued to observe the fascinating life of the clan’s only living member and heir, William Anderson Brittle, Billy for short. This I did for pure historical interest, without having in mind any material profit.
“Please feel free to add your name and even remove my pseudonym from the book’s credits, if it seems appropriate to you; at this point in my life, fame is the last thing I’m looking for. All I want is for the truth to be known.”
Lifting the letter, I found the title page:
A SHALLOW GREATNESS
A Shallow Greatness was carelessly written and, worse of all, malevolent; it was obvious that the author held a grudge against his or her former boss, though any direct mention of it was cautiously omitted. Dragging a family’s name through the mud seemed to be the only intention behind Hubble’s desperate ambition to get his work published. Having my own name involved for credibility also seemed part of a machiavellian plan.
On the other hand, the whole thing could have been simply a prank from my fellow writers, on the occasion of my retirement.
Still, after reading the strange book I decided to take on the challenge proposed by Hubble, whoever that person was, if only to exercise my fingers and prevent my mind from becoming porridge. Also, I was intrigued that some passages seemed too fantastical to have come out of Hubble’s pragmatic mind, although all I knew about his thinking was in one letter, and that, too, could have been fabricated.
Later, though, I realized that my true interest in the book lied in its main character, Billy Brittle, spared of Hubble’s viciousness and described as “a decent soul, yet a victim of his shallow environment.”
Billy and I had something in common: both of us had lived several different identities, although in different ways. Who knows, perhaps my attraction to the project was that it would be easier and less painful to write my own memoir through someone else’s life.
It did go through my mind that Billy could have been only a metaphor, or even a case of multiple personalities, but for the purpose of research I assumed that he was a real person with an extraordinary life.
I started at the Cook County Cemetery in Dunning, a neighborhood of Chicago. A man by the name of Billy, found dead at the Cicero rail yards, was supposed to be buried there; according to Hubble’s book, the last person to see Billy was someone who gave him a ride from Dekalb to Cicero. The connection was flimsy, to say the least, but I had nowhere else to start.
It was a sticky afternoon in August, and I was lost; my map didn’t make any sense. I was trying to figure out how to get to Nashville Avenue from Belle Plaine. It was only one block west, but there was no short way to get there unless I crossed a park between the two streets. The park turned out to be the actual cemetery, its rows of graves hidden by overgrown vegetation. I stopped to read the inscription in one of them: Unknown White Male. No dates, just a long number at the bottom. As I walked through the park, I noticed that most graves were anonymous; it was a cemetery for the indigent. The total number of unknown people buried there, I found out later, was thirty-eight thousand. Nothing made them different from each other, except for their registration numbers.
It made me think of a question posed by Albert Einstein once: does the moon really exist if nobody’s looking at it?Had those thirty-eight thousand people lived at all if nobody ever noticed them, touched them, loved them?
Across the park, near the Nashville Avenue gate, I finally saw a grave with a name on it. It read: “Here lies Billy, living his last life.”
Below, there was a long paragraph etched in tiny letters filled with dirt; even after cleaning it as best as I could, it was illegible.
I looked for the caretaker, and found him in a small, stuffy office, reading a magazine under an oversized crucifix on the wall. Part of it was broken, exposing a styrofoam core. I asked the caretaker about Billy, and if he knew what his strange epitaph meant. He pulled a file from one of the cabinets, but even before reading it, he said:
“I remember, I was here. We were about to bury him as a pauper, when this man came, all flustered, and claimed his body. He ordered that inscription, and said a lot of crazy things.”
“What kinds of things?” I asked.
“He said the dead guy’s name was Billy, the richest man in the world, and that he was born one thing and then he was another, and still another, and something else again. I don’t know, crazy things. But he paid, so I did what he wanted.”
He handed me the file; it contained only a standard certificate with seals, stamps, and the ghost of a stylized signature in faded blue ink.
I borrowed from him a sheet of paper and a pencil, and returned to Billy’s grave to make a pencil rubbing of the small, unreadable text.
At home, with the aid of a magnifying glass, the words became clear but, nevertheless, enigmatic:
“A man again, drunk with the light of the starts. Falling down the well to meet his end. As he remembers, time slows down almost to a stop. Death has no appetite for live memories. Death will blow a windstorm from the bottom of the pit and make him float until all memories are gone. Only then, with an emptied mind in sight, Death will stop the wind and let him fall inside its big dark mouth. As long as there are memories, there is life.”
After the discovery of Billy’s resting place, it was only logical to start going backwards in time and try to close the gaps left open by Hubble, to go deep where he had only scratched the surface. For that, I heard from the few still alive who claimed to have known Billy in person, I scoured newspaper microfilm libraries, and I travelled to the places where Billy supposedly lived and worked. I searched public archives and police reports. I filled in the missing parts, like a restorer of Byzantine pottery, based on assumptions and adjacent events. I refrained from making judgement. I believed blindly in what seemed impossible, and was suspicious of the mundane for what it can hide. All along I was aware that the past, when seen from the future, can be washed with color, distorted and illuminated, and that on its path craters will be found where whole blocks of time disappeared. There will be mountains where deserts should be, and rain falling from immaculate blue skies. The past, sometimes, is put under a lens so strong it disintegrates, and sometimes it’s so distant, we see nothing but a dot.
So here it is, the future of his past, the truth told with the freedom of inaccuracy, with the inks of fantasy, with bricks of dreams filling the holes of reality.
Here’s what I found out and what I didn’t. Here are the lives of Billy.