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Authors: John Updike

Museums and Women (9 page)

The Witnesses

, I was told yesterday, is dead—dead, as I imagine it, of cigarettes, confusion, and conscience, though none of these was the
my informant named. He died on the West Coast, thousands of miles from both his ex-wives and all his sad expensive children. I pictured him lying in a highly clean hospital bed, smothering in debt, interlaced with tubular machinery, overlooking a sprawling colorless spireless landscape worlds removed from the green and pointed East that had formed him. Though we had come from the same town (New Haven) and the same schools (Hotchkiss, Yale) and the same background (our grandfathers had been ministers and our fathers lawyers), Fred and I never were very close. We belonged to a generation that expressed affection through shades of reserve. The war, perhaps, had made us conservative and cautious; our task had been to bring a society across a chasm and set it down safely on the other side, unchanged. That it changed later was not our affair. After the war Fred had gone into advertising, and I into securities. For a decade, we shared
Manhattan and intermittent meals. The last time I had him in my home, there had been a strangeness and, worse, a tactlessness for which I suppose I never quite forgave him. It was the high noon of the Eisenhower era, just before Fred’s first divorce. He called me at work and invited himself to our apartment for a drink, and asked, surprisingly, if he might bring a friend.

Jeanne and I had the West Thirteenth Street place then. Of our many apartments, I remember it most fondly. The front windows looked across the street into an elementary school, and the back windows, across some untended yards crammed with trees of heaven, into a mysterious factory. Whatever the factory made, the process entailed great shimmering ribbons and spinning reels of color being manipulated like giant harps by Negro men and Puerto Rican women. Rising in the morning, we could see them at work, and, eating breakfast in the front room, we looked into windows where children were snipping and pasting up, in season, Easter eggs and pumpkins, Christmas trees and hearts, hatchets and cherries. Almost always a breeze flowed through our two large rooms, now from bedroom to living room, from factory to school, and now the other way, bringing with it the sounds of street traffic, which included the drunks on the pavement outside the Original Mario’s. Ours was the third floor—the lowest we have ever lived.

Fred came promptly at seven. As he climbed the stairs, I thought the woman behind him was his wife. Indeed, she resembled his wife—an inch taller, perhaps, and a bit more adventurously dressed, but the same physical type, heavy and rounded below the waist, slender above. The two women had the same kind of ears, cupped and protruding, which compelled the same cover-up hairdo and understated earrings.
Fred introduced her to us as Priscilla Evans. Jeanne had not known Marjorie Prouty well, yet to ask her to meet and entertain this other woman on no basis beyond the flat implication of her being Fred’s mistress was, as perhaps Fred in his infatuation imperfectly understood, a
. Jeanne reached forward stiffly to take the girl’s hand.

A “girl” more by status than by age. Priscilla was, though unmarried and a year or two younger, one of us—I never knew where Fred met her, but it could have been at work or a party or a crew race, if he still went to them. She had the social grace to be tense and quiet, and I wondered how Fred had persuaded her to come. He must have told her I was a very close friend, which perhaps, in his mind, I was. I was New Haven to him, distant and safe; touchingly, his heart had never left that middling town. I would like to reward the loyalty of a ghost by remembering that evening—hour, really, for we did not invite them for dinner—as other than dull. But, in part because Jeanne and I felt constrained from asking them any direct questions, in part because Priscilla put on a shy manner, and in part because Fred seemed sheepishly bewildered by this party he had arranged, our conversation was stilted. We discussed what was current in those departed days: McCarthy’s fall, Kefauver’s candidacy, Dulles’s tactlessness. Dulles had recently called Goa a “Portuguese province,” offending India, and given his “brinkmanship” interview, offending everyone. Priscilla said she thought Dulles deserved credit for at least his honesty, for saying out loud what everybody knew anyway. It is the one remark of hers that I remember, and it made me look at her again.

She was like Marjorie but with a difference. There was something twisted and wry about her face, some arresting trace of pain endured and wisdom reluctantly acquired. Her life, I felt, had been cracked and mended, and in this her form differed from that of Fred’s wife or, for that matter, of my own.
My attention, then, for an instant snagged on the irregularity where Fred’s spirit had caught, taken root, and hastily flourished. I try to remember them sitting beside each other—he slumped in the canvas sling chair, she upright on the half of the Sheraton settee nearer him. He had reddish hair receding on a brow where the freckles advanced. His nose was thin and straight, his eyes pale blue and slightly bulged behind the silver-frame spectacles that, through some eccentricity of the nose pads, perched too far out from his face. Fred’s mouth was one of those sharply cut sets of lips, virtually pretty, that frown down from portraits on bank walls. An atavistic farmerishness made his hands heavy; when he clasped his knee, the knuckles were squeezed white. In the awkward sling chair, he clasped his knee; his neck seemed red above the fresh white collar; he was anxious for her. He quickly, gently disagreed with her praise of Dulles, knowing we were liberals. She sat demure, yet with a certain gaudy and provocative tone to her clothes, and there was—I imagine or remember—a static energy imposed on the space between her body and Fred’s, as in that visual fooler which now seems two black profiles and now a single white vase, so that the arm of the settee, the mahogany end table inlaid with satinwood, the unlit lamp with the base of beaten copper, the ceramic ashtray full of unfiltered butts shaped like commas, the very shadows and blurs of refraction were charged with a mysterious content, the “relationship” of these two nervous and unwelcome visitors.

I want to believe that Jeanne, however half-heartedly, invited them to dine with us; of course Fred refused, saying they must go, suddenly rising, apologetic, his big hands dangling, his lady looking up at him for leadership. They left before eight, and my embarrassed deafness lifts. I can hear Jeanne complaining distinctly, “Well, that was strange!”

“Very strange behavior, from Fred.”

“Was he showing her that he has respectable friends, or what?”

“Surely that’s a deduction she didn’t need to have proved.”

“She may have a mistrustful nature.”

“What did you make of her?”

“I’m afraid I must say she struck me as very ordinary.”

I said, “It’s hilarious, how much of a copy she is of his wife.”

“Yes, and not as finished as Marjorie. A poor copy.”

“How far,” I said, “people go out of their way to mess up their lives.” I was trying to agree with some unstated assertion of hers.

“Yes,” said Jeanne, straightening the bent cushions on the settee, “that was very dismal. Tell me. Are we going to have to see them again? Are we some sort of furniture so they can play house, or what?”

“No, I’m sure not. I’ll tell Fred not, if I must.”

“I don’t care what people do, but I don’t like being used.”

I felt she expected me, though innocent, to apologize. I said, “I can’t imagine what got into Fred. He’s usually nothing if not correct.”

For a moment, Jeanne may have considered letting me have the last word. Then she said firmly, “I found the whole thing extremely dreary.”

The next day, or the day after, Fred called me at the office, and thanked me. He said, with an off-putting trace of the stammering earnestness his clients must have found endearing, that it had meant more to him than I could know, and some day he would tell me why. I may have been incurious and cool. He did not call again. Then I heard he was divorced, and had left Madison Avenue for a public relations outfit starting up in Chicago. His new wife, I was told, came originally
from Indianapolis. I tried to remember if Priscilla Evans had had a Midwestern accent and could not.

Years later, but some time ago, when Kennedy Airport was still called Idlewild, Fred and I accidentally met in the main terminal—those acres of white floor where the islands of white waiting chairs cast no shadows. He was on his way back to Los Angeles. He was doing publicity work for one of the studios that can television series. Although he did not tell me, he was on the verge of his second divorce. He seemed heavier, and his hands were puffy. His hair was thinning now on the back of his skull; there were a few freckles in the bald spot. He was wearing horn-rimmed glasses, which did not make him look youthful. He kept taking them off, as if bothered by their fit, exposing, on the bridge of his nose, the red moccasin-shaped dents left by the pads of his old silver frames. He had somehow gone pasty, sheltered from the California sun, and I wondered if I looked equally tired and corrupt to him. Little in my life had changed. We had had one child, a daughter. We had moved uptown, to a bigger, higher, bleaker apartment. Kennedy’s bear market had given me a dull spring.

Fred and I sought shelter in the curtained bar a world removed from the sun-stricken airfield and the glinting planes whose rows of rivets and portholes seemed to be spelling a message in punched code. He told me about his life without complaint and let me guess that it was not going well. He had switched to filtered cigarettes but there was a new recklessness in his drinking. I watched his hands and suddenly remembered how those same hands looked squeezed around the handle of a lacrosse stick. He apologized for the night he had brought the girl to our apartment.

I said that I had almost forgotten, but that at the time it had seemed out of character.

“How did we look?” he asked.

I didn’t understand. “Worried,” I said. “She seemed to us much like Marjorie.”

He smiled and said, “That’s how it turned out. Just like Marjorie.” He had had three drinks and took off his glasses. His eyes were still a schoolboy’s, but his mouth no longer would have looked well on a bank wall; the prim cut of it had been boozed and blurred away, and a dragging cynicism had done something ineradicable to the corners. His lips groped for precision. “I wanted you to see us,” he said. “I wanted somebody to see us in love. I loved her so much,” he said, “I loved her so much it makes me sick to remember it. Whenever I come back to the city, whenever I pass any place we went together when it was beginning, I fall, I kind of drop an inch or so inside my skin. Herbie, do you know what I’m talking about, have you ever had the feeling?”

I did not think that I was expected to answer such questions. Perhaps my silence was construed as a rebuke.

Fred rubbed his forehead and closed his watery blue eyes and said, “I knew it was wrong. I knew it was going to end in a mess, it had nowhere else to go.” He opened his scared eyes and told me, “That’s why I brought her over that time. She hated it, she didn’t want to come. But I wanted it. I wanted somebody I knew to see us when it was good. No: I wanted somebody who knew me to see me happy.
you see?”

I nodded, lying, but he was hurrying on: “I had never known I could be that happy. God. I wanted you and Jeanne to see us together before it went bad. So it wouldn’t be totally lost.”


were asleep, and his wife had gone out to a meeting; she was like his father in caring about the community. He found the deck of cards in the back of a desk drawer and sat down at the low round table. He had reached a juncture in his life where there was nothing to do but play solitaire. It was the perfect, final retreat—beyond solitaire, he imagined, there was madness. Only solitaire utterly eased the mind; only solitaire created that blankness into which a saving decision might flow. Conviviality demanded other people, with their fretful emanations of desire; reading imposed the author’s company; and one emerged from the anesthetic of drunkenness to find that the operation had not been performed. But in the rise and collapse of the alternately colored ranks of cards, in the grateful transpositions and orderly revelations and unexpected redemptions, the circuits of the mind found an occupation exactly congruent with their own secret structure. The mind was filled without being strained. The week after he graduated from college—already married, his brain worn to the point where a page of newspaper seemed a
cruelly ramifying puzzle—he played solitaire night after night by the glow of a kerosene lamp on an old kitchen table in Vermont; and at the end of the week he had seen the way that his life must go in the appallingly wide world that had opened before him. He had drawn a straight line from that night to the night of his death, and began walking on it.

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