A Polygamist Speaks

Author of many books, articles, and broadcasts, J. B. BOOTHROYD is a member of Punch’s staff. This is his first appearance in the Atlantic.


I SEE from a Lagos news item that a man died in the French Cameroons and left two hundred and eighty widows. This is bereavement on a grand scale, and I can never hope to compete with it. All the same, it makes a polygamist think.

When friends ask me how I came to take up polygamy I can only grin foolishly. I simply don’t know. It wasn’t a planned thing.

Wife A was a tall, shapely blonde with a rapt air and a melting disposition. She was a honey. Often, when I caught a glimpse of her dreamily scraping away at a piece of toast incinerated by the energetic but erratic Wife B, I puzzled afresh over how I came to let the rest of them over my threshold at all (you only carry the first one). Yes, A was a girl, all right. And, incidentally, I don’t know why I’m pushing her into the past tense like this. She was in the kitchen not an hour ago, chipping away at one of B’s burned baking pans.

B is the worker of the organization; a hit-and-run, bull-at-a-gate worker, but the only one we have. She has nothing of A’s starry-eyed detachment — nothing of A at all, In fact, beyond a fleeting physical resemblance, blurred by cigarette smoke, dust, a floor-mop hairdo, and the camouflaging properties of a ragged housecoat with a marsupial pocket full of old cleaning rags. B for beaver. I’ve seen old B, when the rest of the gang hasn’t laid finger to broom for a week, bore into the work like a mole, and leave the same neat little heaps behind her. Then she goes and shuts herself away somewhere, and doesn’t show up again until the backlog of darning forces open a closet door.

Where does she go? Search me. They all do it. During the whole course of my married life I’ve never seen two of my wives together. They keep out of each other’s way as well, I guess. After all, if each one didn’t kid herself she was the one and only, they could never carry on.

Look at C and D. With their conflicting temperaments they couldn’t share the California Desert. C is the business brain, policy-shaper and gogetter, ever watchful that I make the best of myself, come out top in any fight with house painters, cops, doorto-door encyclopedia salesmen. It’s C who insists that I’m worth two of my boss and ought to tell him so, otherwise she’ll tell him herself. “Hit back,” she says. “Be a man. Think what Lincoln would have done.”She clenches her fists and snaps her eyes and makes the end of her nose sharp . . . though when she isn’t doing this she has something of A’s looks, oddly enough.

D, on the other hand, is the voice of moderation, the brake on my fits of headlong recklessness. When I rashly confide my decision to sell out and move, or chop down the tree in front of the house, or switch to bow ties, it is D’s icy intervention that freezes the notion in embryo. It’s to her credit, holding the views she does, that she never blames my callow impulsiveness on C. They have a sort of loyalty, I suppose. Even when, hard-pressed in controversy with D, I have weakly hinted that my current eccentricity originated with a suggestion from C, D has remained true. “You must have misunderstood, dear,” she has said coldly. “Half the time you don’t listen.”I plead guilty. Half the time I don’t, especially to E.

E is our hostess. I only see her when we entertain. Even then she doesn’t show up until the first guest is sighted coming through the gate. E’s voice is pitched a major fourth higher than the others, and has the rounded, carrying quality heard when an English county family is bawling small talk across the waste of a baronial hall. She has an imagination to go with it, moreover, and the pair of them play clarion music, with her house, garden, and husband as main themes. Sometimes, as I sit smirking damply under the assault of E’s wellintentioned grandiloquence, hearing our back-yard apple tree orchestrated into an orchard and our meager payroll swallowed at a gulp by a chimerical Cadillac, I wish A would take over the hostessing. A would only have to sit there, dreamy, demure, desirable, and dumb, for guests to take it for granted that her husband had the blood of princes in his veins.

However, it’s E’s special field. She knows her place. Often she’ll wave good-by from the porch, with a parting cadenza about a cousin called to (or descended from) Washington, and never even re-enter the house. When I call her in out of the cold, D will appear instead, and ask me what I meant by talking all that bird-brained rubbish about writing a textbook on mechanized accountancy — one of old C’s notions, in all probability.

Do I recommend polygamy? It’s a tough one to answer. It has its drawbacks. One of these is the snag of never knowing, when you put your key in ihe latch, which gal will be waiting. Prepared with a caress for A, you find old B sitting there, peering wispily over a mound of underpants. Full of a plan to secure promotion t lirough a course of persona I it y-building, and longing to confide in (', you collide in the hallway with I) —who, as you recall, is slill furious over your breakfast-time threat to part your hair in the middle.

But there’s a worse thing.

I can best describe it as a sense of haunting. I’ve only suspected it lately, but the conviction grows; somewhere in the organization, more husbands are concealed. It sounds screwy, I know, but it could be. The wives manage to steer clear of each other, why shouldn’t the husbands? The girls treat me, more and more, as if I were not the man they had around yesterday; they hint, if only by an eyebrow, that they have consorted recently with a playboy, a poltroon, a lover, a crazy dreamer, or just an honest-to-God breadwinner. How do I know these characters aren’t skulking around right now— in the woodshed, the garden, the spare bedrooms?

It’s got me worried. I shall have to lay plans. All I’ve decided at the moment is that, when the time comes for me to pursue the man from the French Cameroons into the Great Beyond, I’ll stop at nothing to take the impostors with me.