Read Museums and Women Online

Authors: John Updike

Museums and Women (5 page)

Entering the shack, I shouted out to Linda, “It’s just me,” thinking she would be afraid of rapists. I went into her room and looked in the shoebox. The eye was lustreless and the whiskers had stopped moving, even infinitesimally.

“I think the bunny’s had it,” I said.

“Don’t make me look,” she said, propped up in the lower bunk, keeping her eyes deep in a paperback titled
A Stitch in Time Kills Nine
. The cover showed a dressmaker’s dummy pierced by a stiletto, and bleeding. “I couldn’t
stand it
,” she said.

“What should I do?” I asked her.

“Bury it.” She might have been reading from the book. Her profile, I noticed, was becoming a cameo, with a lovely gentle bulge to the forehead, high like Margaret’s. I hoped being intelligent wouldn’t cramp her life.

“Deirdre will want to see it,” I argued. “It’s her baby.”

“It will only make her
sad
,” Linda said. “And dis
gust
me. Already it must be
full
of
ver
min.”

Nothing goads me to courage like some woman’s taking a high tone. Afraid to touch the rabbit’s body while life was haunting it, I touched it now, and found it tepid, and lifted it from the box. The body, far from stiff, felt unhinged; its back or neck must have been broken since the moment the cat pounced. Blood had dried in the ear—an intricate tunnel leading brainwards, velvety at the tip, oddly muscular at the root. The eye not of isinglass was an opaque black bead. Linda was right: there was no need for Deirdre to see. I took the rabbit out beyond the prickly yard, into the field, and laid it under the least stunted swamp oak, where any child who wanted to be sure that I hadn’t buried it alive could come and find it. I put a marsh marigold by its nose, in case it was resurrected and needed to eat, and paused above the composition—fur, flower, the arty shape of fallen oak leaves—with a self-congratulatory sensation that must have carried on my face back to the shack, for Margaret, in the kitchen loading the refrigerator, looked up at me and said, “Say. I don’t mind your being partners with Jenny, but you don’t have to toss the balls to her in that cute, confiding way.”

“The poor bitch can’t catch them otherwise. You saw that.”

“I saw more than I wanted to. I nearly threw up.”

“That second set,” I said, “your backhand was terrific. The Maggie-O of old.”

Deirdre came down the hall from the bedrooms. Her eyes seemed enormous; I went to her and knelt to hold her around the waist, and began, “Sweetie, I have some sad news.”

“Linda told me,” she said, and walked by me into the kitchen. “Mommy, can I make the cocoa?”

“You did everything you could,” I called after her. “You
were a wonderful nurse and made the bunny’s last day very happy.”

“I know,” she called in answer. “Mommy, I
promise
I won’t let the milk boil over this time.”

Of the children, only Henrietta and Godfrey let me lead them to where the rabbit rested. Henrietta skittishly hung back, and never came closer than ten yards. God marched close, gazed down sternly, and said, “Get up.” Nothing happened, except the ordinary motions of the day: the gulls and stately geese beating home above the pond, the traffic roaring invisible along the highway. He squatted down, and I prevented him from picking up the rabbit, before I saw it was the flower he was after.

Jimmy, then, was the only one who cried. He came home a half-hour after we had meant to set out rowing across the pond to the beach picnic, and rushed into the field toward the tree with the tallest silhouette and came back carrying on his cheeks stains he tried to hide by thumping God. “If
you
hadn’t dropped him,” he said. “You
ba
by.”

“It was nobody’s fault,” Margaret told him, impatiently cradling her basket of hot dogs and raw hamburger.

“I’m going to kill that cat,” Jimmy said. He added, cleverly, an old grievance: “Other kids my age have BB guns.”

“Oh, our big man,” Cora said. He flew at her in a flurry of fists and sobs, and ran away and hid. At the dock I let Linda and Cora take the kayak, and the rest of us waited a good ten minutes with the rowboat before Jimmy ran down the path in the dusk, himself a silhouette, like the stunted trees and the dark bar of dunes between the sunset and its reflection in the pond. Ever notice how sunsets upside down look like stairs?

“Somehow,” Margaret said to me, as we waited, “you’ve deliberately dramatized this.” But nothing could fleck the happiness widening within me, to capture the dying light.

The Pingrees had brought swordfish and another, older couple—the man was perhaps an advertising client. Though he was tanned like a tobacco leaf and wore the smartest summer playclothes, a pleading uncertainty in his manner seemed to crave the support of advertisement. His wife had once been beautiful and held herself lightly, lithely at attention—a soldier in the war of self-preservation. With them came two teen-age boys clad in jeans and buttonless vests and hair so long their summer complexions had remained sallow. One was their son, the other his friend. We all collected driftwood—a wandering, lonely, prehistoric task that frightens me. Darkness descended too soon, as it does in the tropics, where the warmth leads us to expect an endless June evening from childhood. We made a game of popping champagne corks, the kids trying to catch them on the fly. Startling, how high they soared, in the open air. The two boys gathered around Linda, and I protectively eavesdropped, and was shamed by the innocence and long childish pauses of what I overheard: “Philadelphia … just been in the airport, on our way to my uncle’s, he lives in Virginia … wonderful horses, super … it’s not actually blue, just bluey-green, blue only I guess by comparison … was in France once, and went to the races … never been … I want to go.” Margaret and Jenny, kneeling in the sand to cook, setting out paper plates on tables that were merely wide pieces of driftwood, seemed sisters. The woman of the strange couple tried to flirt with me, talking of foreign places: “Paris is so dead, suddenly … the girls fly over to London to buy their clothes, and then their mothers won’t let them wear them … Malta … Istanbul … life … sincerity … the
people …
the poor Greeks … a friend absolutely assures me, the CIA engineered … apparently used the NATO contingency plan.” Another champagne cork sailed in the air, hesitated, and drifted down, Jimmy diving but
missing, having misjudged. A remote light, a lightship, or the promontory of an unmapped continent hidden in daylight, materialized on the horizon, beyond the shushing of the surf. Margaret and Jenny served us. Hamburgers and swordfish full of woodsmoke. Celery and sand. God, sticky with things he had spilled upon himself, sucked his thumb and rubbed against Margaret’s legs. Jimmy came to me, furious because the big boys wouldn’t Indian-wrestle with him, only with Linda and Cora: “Showing off for their boyfriends … whacked me for no reason … just because I said ‘sex bomb.’ ”

We sat in a ring around the fire, the heart of a collapsing star, fed anew by paper plates. The man of the older couple, in whose breath the champagne had undergone an acrid chemical transformation, told me about his money—how as a youth just out of business school, in the depths of the Depression, he had made a million dollars in some deal involving Stalin and surplus wheat. He had liked Stalin, and Stalin had liked him. “The thing we must realize about your Communist is that he’s just another kind of businessman.” Across the fire I watched his wife, spurned by me, ardently gesturing with the teen-age boy who was not her son, and wondered how I would take their picture. Tri-X, wide open, at
1
/
60
; but the shadows would be lost, the subtle events within them, and the highlights would be vapid blobs. There is no adjustment, no darkroom trickery, equal to the elastic tolerance of our eyes as they scan.

As my new friend murmured on and on about his money, and the champagne warming in my hand released carbon dioxide to the air, exposures flickered in and out around the fire: glances, inklings, angels. Margaret gazing, the nick of a frown erect between her brows. Henrietta’s face vertically compressing above an ear of corn she was devouring. The well-preserved
woman’s face a mask of bronze with cunningly welded seams, but her hand an exclamatory flash as it touched her son’s friend’s arm in some conversational urgency lost in the crackle of driftwood. The halo of hair around Ian’s knees, innocent as babies’ pates. Jenny’s hair an elongated flurry as she turned to speak to the older couple’s son; his bearded face was a blur in the shadows, melancholy, the eyes seeming closed, like the Jesus on a faded, drooping veronica. I heard Jenny say, “… 
must
destroy the system! We’ve forgotten how to
love!
” Deirdre’s glasses, catching the light, leaped like moth wings toward the fire, escaping perspective. Beside me, the old man’s face went silent, and suffered a deflation wherein nothing held firm but the reflected glitter of firelight on a tooth his grimace had absent-mindedly left exposed. Beyond him, on the edge of the light, Cora and Linda were revealed sitting together, their legs stretched out long before them, warming, their faces in darkness, sexless and solemn, as if attentive to the sensations of the revolution of the earth beneath them. Godfrey was asleep, his head pillowed on Margaret’s thigh, his body suddenly wrenched by a dream sob, and a heavy succeeding sigh.

It was strange, after these fragmentary illuminations, to stumble through the unseen sand and grass, with our blankets and belongings, to the boats on the shore of the pond. Margaret and five children took the rowboat; I nominated Jimmy to come with me in the kayak. The night was starless. The pond, between the retreating campfire and the slowly nearing lights of our neighbors’ houses, was black. I could scarcely see his silhouette as it struggled for the rhythm of the stroke: left, a little turn with the wrists, right, the little turn reversed, left. Our paddles occasionally clashed, or snagged on the weeds that clog this pond. But the kayak sits lightly, and soon we put
the confused conversation of the rowers, and their wildly careening flashlight beam, behind. Silence widened around us. Steering the rudder with the foot pedals, I let Jimmy paddle alone, and stared upward until I had produced, in the hazed sky overhead, a single, unsteady star. It winked out. I returned to paddling and received an astonishing impression of phosphorescence: every stroke, right and left, called into visibility a rich arc of sparks, animalcula hailing our passage with bright shouts. The pond was more populous than China. My son and I were afloat on a firmament warmer than the heavens.

“Hey, Dad.”

His voice broke the silence carefully; my benevolence engulfed him, my fellow-wanderer, my leader, my gentle, secretive future. “What, Jimmy?”

“I think we’re about to hit something.”

We stopped paddling, and a mass, gray etched on gray, higher than a man, glided swiftly toward us and struck the prow of the kayak. With this bump, and my awakening laugh, the day of the dying rabbit ended. Exulting in homogenous glory, I had steered us into the bank. We pushed off, and by the lights of our neighbors’ houses navigated to the dock, and waited some minutes for the rowboat with its tangle of voices and picnic equipment to arrive. The days since have been merely happy days. This day was singular in its, let’s say,
tone
—its silver-bromide clarity. Between the cat’s generous intentions and my son’s lovingly calm warning, the dying rabbit sank like film in the developing pan, and preserved us all.

The Deacon

H
E PASSES THE PLATE
, and counts the money afterward—a large and dogged-looking man, wearing metal-framed glasses that seem tight across his face and that bite into the flesh around his eyes. He wears for Sunday morning a clean white shirt, but a glance downward, as you lay on your thin envelope and pass the golden plate back to him, discovers fallen socks and scuffed shoes. And as he with his fellow-deacons strides forward toward the altar, his suit is revealed as the pants of one suit (gray) and the coat of another (brown). He is too much at home here. During the sermon, he stares toward a corner of the nave ceiling, which needs repair, and slowly, reverently, yet unmistakably chews gum. He lingers in the vestibule, with his barking, possessive laugh, when the rest of the congregation has passed into the sunshine and the dry-mouthed minister is fidgeting to be out of his cassock and home to lunch. The deacon’s car, a dusty Dodge, is parked outside the parish hall most evenings. He himself wonders why he is here so often, how he slipped into this ceaseless
round of men’s suppers, of Christian Education Committee meetings, choir rehearsals, emergency sessions of the Board of Finance where hours churn by in irrelevant argument and prayerful silences that produce nothing. “Nothing,” he says to his wife on returning, waking her. “The old fool refuses to amortize the debt.” He means the treasurer. “His Eminence tells us donations to foreign missions can’t be applied to the oil bill even if we make it up in the summer at five-percent interest.” He means the minister. “It was on the tip of my tongue to ask whence he derives all his business expertise.”

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