The Early Stories, 1953-1975

( 5 )

Overview

"He is a religious writer; he is a comic realist; he knows what everything feels like, how everything works. He is putting together a body of work which in substantial intelligent creation will eventually be seen as second to none in our time."
—William H. Pritchard, The Hudson Review, reviewing Museums and Women (1972)


A harvest and not a ...
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Early Stories, 1953-1975

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Overview

"He is a religious writer; he is a comic realist; he knows what everything feels like, how everything works. He is putting together a body of work which in substantial intelligent creation will eventually be seen as second to none in our time."
—William H. Pritchard, The Hudson Review, reviewing Museums and Women (1972)


A harvest and not a winnowing, The Early Stories preserves almost all of the short fiction John Updike published between 1954 and 1975.

The stories are arranged in eight sections, of which the first, "Olinger Stories," already appeared as a paperback in 1964; in its introduction, Updike described Olinger, Pennsylvania, as "a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets to deviate from the grid pattern." These eleven tales, whose heroes age from ten to over thirty but remain at heart Olinger boys, are followed by groupings titled "Out in the World," "Married Life," and "Family Life," tracing a common American trajectory. Family life is disrupted by the advent of "The Two Iseults," a bifurcation originating in another small town, Tarbox, Massachusetts, where the Puritan heritage co-exists with post-Christian morals. "Tarbox Tales" are followed by "Far Out," a group of more or less experimental fictions on the edge of domestic space, and "The Single Life," whose protagonists are unmarried and unmoored.

Of these one hundred three stories, eighty first appeared in The New Yorker, and the other twenty-three in journals from the enduring Atlantic Monthly and Harper's to the defunct Big Table and Transatlantic Review. Allshow Mr. Updike's wit and verbal felicity, his reverence for ordinary life, and his love of the transient world.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
The America of these early stories may be the mostly untrammeled land we remember; but language in all its fecundity is Updike's native country, and he is its patriot. — Cynthia Ozick
Library Journal
All of Updike's retrospective collections are huge, as if nothing could be discarded, and this one is no exception. The title is somewhat misleading. "Early stories" suggests juvenilia or apprentice work, but Updike's famously elegant and evocative prose style apparently emerged full blown with his first New Yorker publication. A more accurate title would be Classic Updike. Most of Updike's best-known stories are here, including "Pigeon Feathers," "The Family Meadow," "Separating," and "The Witnesses." The book opens with the Pennsylvania-based Olinger stories, moves through the anguished Maples saga of marital dysfunction in suburban Tarbox, and concludes with studies of the single life, including "The Bulgarian Poetess," featuring Updike's alter ego, Henry Bech. Stories that originally aimed at slice-of-life immediacy now appear as exquisite genre paintings of a lost America, thanks in part to Updike's strong visual sense. This wonderful collection is arguably the best single-volume introduction to Updike's work available. Highly recommended for all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/03.]-Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Classic gems . . . These stories, like Mr. Updike’s finest novels . . . preserve a time and a place through the sorcery of words.”—The New York Times
 
“[Updike is] akin to Coleridge and Shelley, only with an American twist. One story at a time, he [reminds] Americans that in spite of life’s largesse, things fail; one sentence at a time, he reveals that through the small details, it can be sublime.”—The Denver Post
 
“Updike’s artistry—normally glimpsed in sections, like a person through window slats—is wholly and deeply seen. . . . One reads through the plenitude with delight, expectation, and at all times gratitude.”—The Atlantic Monthly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345463364
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 864
  • Sales rank: 388,900
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.49 (d)

Meet the Author

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker, and since 1957 has lived in Massachusetts. He is the author of fifty-odd previous books, including twenty novels and numerous collections of short stories, poems, and criticism. His fiction has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal.

Biography

With an uncommonly varied oeuvre that includes poetry, criticism, essays, short stories, and novels, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike helped to change the face of late-20th-century American literature.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Updike graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954. Following a year of study in England, he joined the staff of The New Yorker, establishing a relationship with the magazine that continued until his death in January, 2009. For more than 50 years, he lived in two small towns in Massachusetts that inspired the settings for several of his stories.

In 1958, Updike's first collection of poetry was published. A year later, he made his fiction debut with The Poorhouse Fair. But it was his second novel, 1960's Rabbit, Run, that forged his reputation and introduced one of the most memorable characters in American fiction. Former small-town basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom struck a responsive chord with readers and critics alike and catapulted Updike into the literary stratosphere.

Updike would revisit Angstrom in 1971, 1981, and 1990, chronicling his hapless protagonist's jittery journey into undistinguished middle age in three melancholy bestsellers: Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. A concluding novella, "Rabbit Remembered," appeared in the 2001 story collection Licks of Love.

Although autobiographical elements appear in the Rabbit books, Updike's true literary alter ego was not Harry Angstrom but Harry Bech, a famously unproductive Jewish-American writer who starred in his own story cycle. In between -- indeed, far beyond -- his successful series, Updike went on to produce an astonishingly diverse string of novels. In addition, his criticism and short fiction became popular staples of distinguished literary publications.

Good To Know

Updike first became entranced by reading when he was a young boy growing up on an isolated farm in Pennsylvania. Afflicted with psoriasis and a stammer, he escaped his self-consciousness by immersing himself in drawing, writing, and reading.

An accomplished artist, Updike accepted a one-year fellowship to study painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University. He decided to attend Harvard University because he was a big fan of the school's humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon.

One of the most respected authors of the 20th century, Updike won every major literary prize in America, including the Guggenheim Fellow, the Rosenthal Award, the National Book Award in Fiction, the O. Henry Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, and the National Medal of the Arts.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Hoyer Updike (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 18, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Shillington, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Death:
      January 27, 2009
    2. Place of Death:
      Beverly Farms, MA

Read an Excerpt

You’ll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You

Carnival! In the vacant lot behind the old ice plant! Trucks have been unloading all afternoon; the WhirloGig has been unfolded like a giant umbrella, they assembled the baby Ferris wheel with an Erector Set. Twice the trucks got stuck in the mud. Straw has been strewn everywhere. They put up a stage and strung lights. Now, now, gather your pennies; supper is over and an hour of light is left in the long summer day. See, Sammy Hunnenhauser is running; Gloria Gring and her gang have been there all afternoon, they never go home, oh hurry, let me go; how awful it is to have parents that are poor, and slow, and sad!

Fifty cents. The most Ben could beg. A nickel for every year of his life. It feels like plenty. Over the roof of crazy Mrs. Moffert’s house, the Ferris wheel tints the air with pink, and the rim of this pink mixes in his excitement with the great notched rim of the coin sweating in his hand. This house, then this house, and past the ice plant, and he will be there. Already the rest of the world is there, he is the last, hurrying, hurrying, the balloon is about to take off, the Ferris wheel is lifting; only he will be left behind, on empty darkening streets.

Then there, what to buy? There are not so many people here. Grownups carrying babies mosey glassily on the straw walks. All the booth people, not really Gypsies, stare at him, and beckon weakly. It hurts him to ignore the man with the three old softballs, and the old cripple at the merry-go-round, and the fat lady with her plaster Marys, and the skeleton suspended behind a fountain of popcorn. He feels his walking past them as pain. He wishes there were more people here; he feels a fool. All of this machinery assembled to extract from him his pathetic fifty cents. He watches at a distance a thickset man in earnestly rolled-up shirtsleeves twirl a great tinselled wheel with a rubber tongue that patters slower and slower on a circle of nails until it stops between two, and the number there wins. Only a sailor and two boys in yellow silk high-school athletic jackets play. None win. The thick tattooed arm below the rolled-up shirtsleeve carefully sweeps their nickels from a long board divided and numbered as if for hopscotch. The high-school boys, with sideburns and spotty whiskers on their bright-pink jaws, put down nickels again leadenly, and this time the man spinning the wheel shouts when it stops, seems more joyful than they, and reaches into his deep apron pocket and pours before them, without counting, a perfect little slipping stack of nickels. Their gums showing as if at a dirty joke, the two boys turn—the shimmer on their backs darts and shifts in cool z’s—and walk away, while the man is shouting, “Hey, uh winneh. Hey, uh winneh, evvybody wins.” His board is bare, and as his mouth continues to form the loud words his eyes lock Ben into a stare of heartbreaking brown blankness that seems to elucidate with paralyzing clarity Ben’s state: his dungarees, his fifty cents, his ten years, his position in space, and above the particulars the immense tinted pity, the waste, of being at one little place instead of everywhere, at any time. Then the man looks away, and twirls the wheel for his own amusement.

The fifty-cent piece feels huge to Ben’s fingers, a wide oppressive rigidity that must be broken, shattered into twinkling fragments, to merge in the tinsel and splinters of strewn straw. He buys, at the first stand he strikes, a cone of cotton candy, and receives, with the furry pink pasty uncoiling thing, a quarter, a dime, and a nickel: three coins, tripling his wealth.

Now people multiply, crowd in from the houses of the town, which stand beyond the lot on all sides in black forbidding silhouettes like the teeth of a saw. The lights go on; the faces of the houses flee. There is nothing in the lot but light, and at its core, on the stage, three girls wearing white cowboy hats and white spangled skirts and white boots appear, and a man also in white and bearing a white guitar strung with gold. The legs around Ben crush him toward the stage; the smell of mud mingles with the bright sight there. One of the girls coughs into the microphone and twists its neck, so a sharp whine pierces from the loudspeakers and cuts a great crescent through the crowd, leaving silence as harvest. The girls sing, toe-tapping gingerly: “The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms.” The spangles on their swishing skirts spring prickles like tears in Ben’s eyes. The three voices sob, catch, twang, distend his heart like a rubber band at the highest pitch of their plaint. “—I was mistaken, and I hung my head, a-and cried.” And then the unbearable rising sugar of the chorus that makes his scalp so tight he fears his head will burst from sweet fullness.

The girls go on to sing other songs, less good, and then they give way to a thin old man in suspenders and huge pants he keeps snapping and looking down and whooping into. He tells horrible jokes that make the nice fat ladies standing around Ben—nice fat factory and dust-mop women that make him feel protected—shake with laughter. He fears their quaking, feels threatened from beneath, as if there is a treacherous stratum under this mud and straw. He wanders away, to let the words of “You Are My Sunshine” revolve in his head. “Please don’t take my sunshine away.” Only the money in his pocket weighs him; get rid of it, and he will sail away like a dandelion seed.

He goes to the booth where the wheel is turning, and puts his nickel on the board in a square marked 7, and loses it.

He puts the dime there, and it too is taken away.

Squeezed, almost hidden, between the crusty trousered haunches of two adults, he puts down his quarter, as they do, on the inner edge, to be changed. The tattooed man comes along, picking up the quarters and pouring, with his wonderfully automatic fingers, the little slipping stacks of five nickels; Ben holds his breath, and to his horror feels his low face catch in the corner of the man’s absent-minded eyes. The thick solemn body snags in its smooth progress, and Ben’s five nickels are raggedly spaced. Between the second and third there is a gap. A blush cakes Ben’s cheeks; his gray-knuckled fingers, as they push out a nickel, are trembling sideways at each other. But the man goes back, and spins the wheel, and Ben loses three nickels one after another. The twittering wheel is a moon-faced god; but Ben feels humanity clouding the space between him and it, which should be unobstructed. When the tattooed arm—a blue fish, an anchor, the queer word peace—comes to sweep in his nickels, he feels the stippled skin breathing thought, and lowers his head against the expected fall of words. Nothing is said, the man moves on, returns to the wheel; but Ben feels puzzled pressure radiating from him, and the pointed eyes of a man in a suit with chalk stripes who has come to stand at the far side of the stand intersect this expanding circle, and Ben, hurrying to pour his money down a narrowing crack, puts down his last two nickels, still on 7.

The rubber tongue leaps into pattering and as the wheel whirls the tattooed man leans backward to hear the one in chalk stripes talk; this one’s tongue patters silently but a tiny motion of his smooth hand, simultaneous with a sideways stab of his eyes, is toward Ben.

The rubber tongue slows, flops, stops at 7—no, 8. He lost, and can leave. The floor of his stomach lifts queerly. “Hey, kid.” The man with terrible spoiled arms comes over. Ben feels that no matter how fast he would run those arms would stretch and snare him.

“Huh?”

“How old are you, kid?”

“Ten.”

“Whatsamatta with ya, ya daddy rich?”

A titter moves stiffly among the immense adult heads all around. Ben understands the familiar role, that he has undergone a hundred times with teachers and older boys, of being a comic prop. He understands everything, and wants to explain that he knows his eyes are moist and his cheeks red but that it’s because of joy, freedom, not because of losing. But this would be too many words; even the one-word answer “No” sticks to the roof of his mouth and comes loose with a faint tearing noise.

“Here.” With his exciting expert touch, the tattooed man flicks Ben’s two coins back across the painted number. Then he digs into his pocket. He comes up with the usual little stack of five, drops four, but holds the fifth delicately between the tips of two fingers and a thumb, hesitates so that Ben can reread peace in blue above his wrist, and then flips the fifth nickel up into his palm and thence down with a plunge into his dirty sagging apron pouch.

“Now move away from the board, kid, move away. Don’t come back.”

Ben fumbles the coins into his hands and pushes away, his eyes screwed to the sharp edge of painted wood, and he shoulders blindly backward through the legs. Yet all the time, in the midst of the heat and water welling up from springs all over his body, he is figuring, and calculates he’s been gypped. Forty: he had the quarter and dime and nickel, and they gave him back only six nickels: thirty. The injustice. They pretend he’s too little to lose and then keep a dime. The waste. The lost dime seems a tiny hole through which everything in existence is draining. As he moves away, his wet knees jarring, trying to hide forever from every sailor and fat woman and high-schooler who witnessed his disgrace, the six nickels make a knobbed weight bumping his thigh through his pocket. The spangles, the splinters of straw and strings of light, the sawtooth peaks of houses showing behind the heads of grown-ups moving above the scent of grassy mud are hung like the needles of a Christmas tree with the transparent, tinted globes confusing his eyelashes.

Thus the world, like a jaded coquette, spurns our attempts to give ourselves to her wholly.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Foreword
You'll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You 3
The Alligators 7
Pigeon Feathers 13
Friends from Philadelphia 34
A Sense of Shelter 41
Flight 52
The Happiest I've Been 67
The Persistence of Desire 81
The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother's Thimble, and Fanning Island 91
Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car 102
In Football Season 122
The Lucid Eye in Silver Town 129
The Kid's Whistling 138
Ace in the Hole 144
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth 152
The Christian Roommates 161
Dentistry and Doubt 184
A Madman 190
Still Life 201
Home 214
Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow? 225
His Finest Hour 237
A Trillion Feet of Gas 248
Dear Alexandros 257
The Doctor's Wife 261
At a Bar in Charlotte Amalie 269
Toward Evening 283
Snowing in Greenwich Village 288
Sunday Teasing 296
Incest 303
A Gift from the City 315
Walter Briggs 334
The Crow in the Woods 340
Should Wizard Hit Mommy? 344
Wife-Wooing 350
Unstuck 354
Giving Blood 361
Twin Beds in Rome 372
Marching through Boston 380
Nakedness 389
The Family Meadow 397
The Day of the Dying Rabbit 401
How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time 411
The Music School 416
Man and Daughter in the Cold 421
The Rescue 428
Plumbing 436
The Orphaned Swimming Pool 442
When Everyone Was Pregnant 446
Eros Rampant 451
Sublimating 462
Nevada 470
The Gun Shop 480
Son 491
Daughter, Last Glimpses of 496
Solitaire 505
Leaves 510
The Stare 514
Museums and Women 520
Avec la Bebe-Sitter 530
Four Sides of One Story 537
The Morning 546
My Lover Has Dirty Fingernails 552
Harv Is Plowing Now 559
I Will Not Let Thee Go, Except Thou Bless Me 564
The Indian 573
The Hillies 579
The Tarbox Police 584
The Corner 589
A & P 596
Lifeguard 602
The Deacon 608
The Carol Sing 614
The Taste of Metal 618
Your Lover Just Called 623
Commercial 630
Minutes of the Last Meeting 636
Believers 640
Eclipse 645
Archangel 649
The Dark 651
The Astronomer 656
The Witnesses 661
A Constellation of Events 666
Ethiopia 675
Transaction 682
Augustine's Concubine 702
During the Jurassic 708
Under the Microscope 713
The Baluchitherium 716
The Invention of the Horse Collar 719
Jesus on Honshu 723
The Slump 727
The Sea's Green Sameness 730
The Bulgarian Poetess 737
The Hermit 751
I Am Dying, Egypt, Dying 765
Separating 788
Gesturing 799
Killing 810
Problems 820
The Man Who Loved Extinct Mammals 823
Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer 829
Index of Titles 835
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First Chapter

You'll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You

Carnival! In the vacant lot behind the old ice plant! Trucks have been unloading all afternoon; the WhirloGig has been unfolded like a giant umbrella, they assembled the baby Ferris wheel with an Erector Set. Twice the trucks got stuck in the mud. Straw has been strewn everywhere. They put up a stage and strung lights. Now, now, gather your pennies; supper is over and an hour of light is left in the long summer day. See, Sammy Hunnenhauser is running; Gloria Gring and her gang have been there all afternoon, they never go home, oh hurry, let me go; how awful it is to have parents that are poor, and slow, and sad!

Fifty cents. The most Ben could beg. A nickel for every year of his life. It feels like plenty. Over the roof of crazy Mrs. Moffert's house, the Ferris wheel tints the air with pink, and the rim of this pink mixes in his excitement with the great notched rim of the coin sweating in his hand. This house, then this house, and past the ice plant, and he will be there. Already the rest of the world is there, he is the last, hurrying, hurrying, the balloon is about to take off, the Ferris wheel is lifting; only he will be left behind, on empty darkening streets.

Then there, what to buy? There are not so many people here. Grownups carrying babies mosey glassily on the straw walks. All the booth people, not really Gypsies, stare at him, and beckon weakly. It hurts him to ignore the man with the three old softballs, and the old cripple at the merry-go-round, and the fat lady with her plaster Marys, and the skeleton suspended behind a fountain of popcorn. He feels his walking past them as pain. He wishes there were morepeople here; he feels a fool. All of this machinery assembled to extract from him his pathetic fifty cents. He watches at a distance a thickset man in earnestly rolled-up shirtsleeves twirl a great tinselled wheel with a rubber tongue that patters slower and slower on a circle of nails until it stops between two, and the number there wins. Only a sailor and two boys in yellow silk high-school athletic jackets play. None win. The thick tattooed arm below the rolled-up shirtsleeve carefully sweeps their nickels from a long board divided and numbered as if for hopscotch. The high-school boys, with sideburns and spotty whiskers on their bright-pink jaws, put down nickels again leadenly, and this time the man spinning the wheel shouts when it stops, seems more joyful than they, and reaches into his deep apron pocket and pours before them, without counting, a perfect little slipping stack of nickels. Their gums showing as if at a dirty joke, the two boys turn—the shimmer on their backs darts and shifts in cool z's—and walk away, while the man is shouting, “Hey, uh winneh. Hey, uh winneh, evvybody wins.” His board is bare, and as his mouth continues to form the loud words his eyes lock Ben into a stare of heartbreaking brown blankness that seems to elucidate with paralyzing clarity Ben's state: his dungarees, his fifty cents, his ten years, his position in space, and above the particulars the immense tinted pity, the waste, of being at one little place instead of everywhere, at any time. Then the man looks away, and twirls the wheel for his own amusement.

The fifty-cent piece feels huge to Ben's fingers, a wide oppressive rigidity that must be broken, shattered into twinkling fragments, to merge in the tinsel and splinters of strewn straw. He buys, at the first stand he strikes, a cone of cotton candy, and receives, with the furry pink pasty uncoiling thing, a quarter, a dime, and a nickel: three coins, tripling his wealth.

Now people multiply, crowd in from the houses of the town, which stand beyond the lot on all sides in black forbidding silhouettes like the teeth of a saw. The lights go on; the faces of the houses flee. There is nothing in the lot but light, and at its core, on the stage, three girls wearing white cowboy hats and white spangled skirts and white boots appear, and a man also in white and bearing a white guitar strung with gold. The legs around Ben crush him toward the stage; the smell of mud mingles with the bright sight there. One of the girls coughs into the microphone and twists its neck, so a sharp whine pierces from the loudspeakers and cuts a great crescent through the crowd, leaving silence as harvest. The girls sing, toe-tapping gingerly: “The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms.” The spangles on their swishing skirts spring prickles like tears in Ben's eyes. The three voices sob, catch, twang, distend his heart like a rubber band at the highest pitch of their plaint. “—I was mistaken, and I hung my head, a-and cried.” And then the unbearable rising sugar of the chorus that makes his scalp so tight he fears his head will burst from sweet fullness.

The girls go on to sing other songs, less good, and then they give way to a thin old man in suspenders and huge pants he keeps snapping and looking down and whooping into. He tells horrible jokes that make the nice fat ladies standing around Ben—nice fat factory and dust-mop women that make him feel protected—shake with laughter. He fears their quaking, feels threatened from beneath, as if there is a treacherous stratum under this mud and straw. He wanders away, to let the words of “You Are My Sunshine” revolve in his head. “Please don't take my sunshine away.” Only the money in his pocket weighs him; get rid of it, and he will sail away like a dandelion seed.

He goes to the booth where the wheel is turning, and puts his nickel on the board in a square marked 7, and loses it.

He puts the dime there, and it too is taken away.

Squeezed, almost hidden, between the crusty trousered haunches of two adults, he puts down his quarter, as they do, on the inner edge, to be changed. The tattooed man comes along, picking up the quarters and pouring, with his wonderfully automatic fingers, the little slipping stacks of five nickels; Ben holds his breath, and to his horror feels his low face catch in the corner of the man's absent-minded eyes. The thick solemn body snags in its smooth progress, and Ben's five nickels are raggedly spaced. Between the second and third there is a gap. A blush cakes Ben's cheeks; his gray-knuckled fingers, as they push out a nickel, are trembling sideways at each other. But the man goes back, and spins the wheel, and Ben loses three nickels one after another. The twittering wheel is a moon-faced god; but Ben feels humanity clouding the space between him and it, which should be unobstructed. When the tattooed arm—a blue fish, an anchor, the queer word peace—comes to sweep in his nickels, he feels the stippled skin breathing thought, and lowers his head against the expected fall of words. Nothing is said, the man moves on, returns to the wheel; but Ben feels puzzled pressure radiating from him, and the pointed eyes of a man in a suit with chalk stripes who has come to stand at the far side of the stand intersect this expanding circle, and Ben, hurrying to pour his money down a narrowing crack, puts down his last two nickels, still on 7.

The rubber tongue leaps into pattering and as the wheel whirls the tattooed man leans backward to hear the one in chalk stripes talk; this one's tongue patters silently but a tiny motion of his smooth hand, simultaneous with a sideways stab of his eyes, is toward Ben.

The rubber tongue slows, flops, stops at 7—no, 8. He lost, and can leave. The floor of his stomach lifts queerly. “Hey, kid.” The man with terrible spoiled arms comes over. Ben feels that no matter how fast he would run those arms would stretch and snare him.

“Huh?”

“How old are you, kid?”

“Ten.”

“Whatsamatta with ya, ya daddy rich?”

A titter moves stiffly among the immense adult heads all around. Ben understands the familiar role, that he has undergone a hundred times with teachers and older boys, of being a comic prop. He understands everything, and wants to explain that he knows his eyes are moist and his cheeks red but that it's because of joy, freedom, not because of losing. But this would be too many words; even the one-word answer “No” sticks to the roof of his mouth and comes loose with a faint tearing noise.

“Here.” With his exciting expert touch, the tattooed man flicks Ben's two coins back across the painted number. Then he digs into his pocket. He comes up with the usual little stack of five, drops four, but holds the fifth delicately between the tips of two fingers and a thumb, hesitates so that Ben can reread peace in blue above his wrist, and then flips the fifth nickel up into his palm and thence down with a plunge into his dirty sagging apron pouch.

“Now move away from the board, kid, move away. Don't come back.”

Ben fumbles the coins into his hands and pushes away, his eyes screwed to the sharp edge of painted wood, and he shoulders blindly backward through the legs. Yet all the time, in the midst of the heat and water welling up from springs all over his body, he is figuring, and calculates he's been gypped. Forty: he had the quarter and dime and nickel, and they gave him back only six nickels: thirty. The injustice. They pretend he's too little to lose and then keep a dime. The waste. The lost dime seems a tiny hole through which everything in existence is draining. As he moves away, his wet knees jarring, trying to hide forever from every sailor and fat woman and high-schooler who witnessed his disgrace, the six nickels make a knobbed weight bumping his thigh through his pocket. The spangles, the splinters of straw and strings of light, the sawtooth peaks of houses showing behind the heads of grown-ups moving above the scent of grassy mud are hung like the needles of a Christmas tree with the transparent, tinted globes confusing his eyelashes.

Thus the world, like a jaded coquette, spurns our attempts to give ourselves to her wholly.

Copyright© 2003 by John Updike
Read More Show Less

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2010

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    Posted October 16, 2009

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    Posted February 13, 2011

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    Posted February 28, 2011

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    Posted April 8, 2011

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    Posted March 29, 2009

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    Posted January 10, 2010

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    Posted January 28, 2010

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