Read Museums and Women Online

Authors: John Updike

Museums and Women (3 page)

“Let’s walk,” I said.

Blind to all beauty, we walked through halls of paintings and statues and urns. A fountain splashed unseen off to our left. Through a doorway I glimpsed, still proud, its broad chest still glowing, the headless sphinx.

“No, it’s my fault,” I said. “I was in no position to love you. I guess I never have been.” Her eyes went bold and her freckles leaped up childishly as she grinned, as if to console me.

Yet what she said was not consolatory. “Well, just don’t do it to anybody else.”

“Lady, there is nobody else. You’re all of it. You have no idea, how beautiful you are.”

“You made me believe it at the time. I’m grateful for that.”

“And for nothing else?”

“Oh, for lots of things, really. You got me into the museum world. It’s fun.”

“You came here to please me?”

“Yes.”

“God, it’s terrible to love what you can’t have. Maybe that’s why you love it.”

“No, I don’t think so. I think that’s the way you work. But not everybody works that way.”

“Well, maybe one of those others will find you now.”

“No. You were it. You saw something in me nobody else ever saw. I didn’t know it was there myself. Now go away, unless you want to see me cry some more.”

We parted and I descended marble stairs. Before pushing through the revolving doors, I looked back, and it came to me that nothing about museums is as splendid as their entrances—the sudden vault, the shapely cornices, the motionless uniformed guard like a wittily disguised archangel, the broad stairs leading upward into Heaven knows what mansions of expectantly hushed treasure. And it appeared to me that now I was condemned, in my search for the radiance that had faded behind me, to enter more and more museums, and to be a little less exalted by each new entrance, and a little more quickly disenchanted by the familiar contents beyond.

The Hillies

T
ARBOX WAS FOUNDED
, in 1634, as an agricultural outpost of the Boston colony, by men fearful of attack. They built their fortified meetinghouse on a rocky outcropping commanding a defensive view of the river valley, where a flotilla of canoes might materialize and where commerce and industry, when they peaceably came, settled of their own gravity. Just as the functions of the meetinghouse slowly split between a town hall and a Congregational church, the town itself evolved two centers: the hilltop green and the downtown. On the green stands the present church, the sixth successive religious edifice on this site, a marvel (or outrage, depending upon your architectural politics) of poured concrete, encircled by venerable clapboarded homes that include the tiny old tilting post office (built in 1741, decommissioned 1839) and its companion the onetime town jail, recently transformed into a kineticart gallery by a young couple from Colorado. Downtown, a block or more of false fronts and show windows straggles toward the factory—once productive of textiles, now of plastic
“recreational products” such as inflatable rafts and seamless footballs. The street holds two hardware stores, three banks, a Woolworth’s with a new façade of corrugated Fiberglas, an A & P, the granite post office (built in 1933) with its Japanese cherry trees outside and its Pilgrim murals inside, and a host of retail enterprises self-proclaimed by signs ranging in style from the heartily garish to the timidly tasteful, from 3-D neo-Superman to mimicry of the delicate lettering incised on colonial tombstones. This downtown is no uglier than most, and its denizens can alleviate their prospect by lifting their eyes to Near Hill, where the new church’s parabolic peak gleams through the feathery foliage of the surviving elms. Between the green and the downtown lies an awkward steep area that has never been, until recently, settled at all. Solid ledge, this slope repelled buildings in the early days and by default became a halfhearted park, a waste tract diagonally skewered by several small streets, dotted with various memorial attempts—obelisks and urns—that have fallen short of impressiveness. There are a few park benches where, until recently, no one ever sat. For lately these leaden, eerily veined rocks and triangular patches of parched grass
have
been settled, by flocks of young people; they sit and lie here overlooking downtown Tarbox as if the spectacle is as fascinating as Dante’s rose. Dawn finds them already in position, and midnight merely intensifies the murmur of their conversation, marred by screams and smashed bottles. The town, with the wit anonymously secreted within the most pedestrian of populations, has christened them “the hillies.”

They are less exotic than hippies. Many are the offspring of prominent citizens; the son of the bank president is one, and the daughter of the meat-market man is another. But even children one recognizes from the sidewalk days when they
peddled lemonade or pedalled a tricycle stare now from the rocks with the hostile strangeness of marauders. Their solidarity appears absolute. Their faces, whose pallor is accented by smears of dirt, repel scrutiny; returning their collective stare is as difficult as gazing into a furnace or the face of a grieving widow. In honesty, some of these effects—of intense embarrassment, of menace—may be “read into” the faces of the hillies; apart from lifting their voices in vague mockery, they make no threatening moves. They claim they want only to be left alone.

When did they arrive? Their advent merges with the occasional vagrant sleeping on a bench, and with the children who used to play here while their mothers shopped downtown. At first, they seemed to be sunning; the town is famous for its beach, and acquiring a tan falls within our code of comprehensible behavior. Then, as the hillies were seen to be sitting up and clothed in floppy costumes that covered all but their hands and faces, it was supposed that their congregation was sexual in motive; the rocks were a pickup point for the lovers’ lanes among the ponds and pines and quarries on the dark edges of town. True, the toughs of neighboring villages swarmed in, racing their Hondas and Mustangs in a preening, suggestive fashion. But our flaxen beauties, if they succumbed, always returned to dream on the hill; and then it seemed that the real reason was drugs. Certainly their torpi-tude transcends normal physiology. And certainly the afternoon air is sweet with pot, and pushers of harder stuff come out from Boston at appointed times. None of our suppositions has proved entirely false, even the first, for on bright days some of the young men do shuck their shirts and lie spread-eagled under the sun, on the brown grass by the Civil War obelisk. Yet the sun burns best at the beach, and sex and
dope can be enjoyed elsewhere, even—so anxious are we parents to please—in the hillies’ own homes.

With the swift pragmatism that is triumphantly American, the town now tolerates drugs in its midst. Once a scandalous rumor on the rim of possibility, drugs moved inward, became a scandal that must be faced, and now loom as a commonplace reality. The local hospital proficiently treats fifteen-year-old girls deranged by barbiturates, and our family doctors matter-of-factly counsel their adolescent patients against the dangers, such as infectious hepatitis, of dirty needles. That surprising phrase woven into our flag, “the pursuit of happiness,” waves above the shaggy, dazed heads on the hill; a local parson has suggested that the community sponsor a “turn-on” center for rainy days and cold weather. Yet the hillies respond with silence. They pointedly decline to sit on the green that holds the church, though they have been offered sanctuary from police harassment there. The town discovers itself scorned by a mystery beyond drugs, by an implacable “no” spoken here between its two traditional centers. And the numbers grow; as many as seventy were counted the other evening.

We have spies. The clergy mingle and bring back reports of intelligent, uplifting conversations; the only rudeness they encounter is the angry shouting (“Animals!” “Enlist!”) from the passing carfuls of middle-aged bourgeoisie. The guidance director at the high school, wearing a three days’ beard and blotched blue jeans, passes out questionnaires. Two daring young housewives have spent an entire night on the hill, with a tape recorder concealed in a picnic hamper. The police, those bone-chilled sentries on the boundaries of chaos, have developed their expertise by the intimate light of warfare. They sweep the rocks clean every second hour all night,
which discourages cooking fires, and have instituted, via a few quisling hillies, a form of self-policing. Containment, briefly, is their present policy. The selectmen cling to the concept of the green as “common land,” intended for public pasturage. By this interpretation, the hillies graze, rather than trespass. Nothing is simple. Apparently there are strata and class animosities within the hillies—the “grassies,” for example, who smoke marijuana in the middle area of the slope, detest the “beeries,” who inhabit the high rocks, where they smash their no-return bottles, fistfight, and bring the wrath of the town down upon them all. The grassies also dislike the “pillies,” who loll beneath them, near the curb, and who take harder drugs, and who deal with the sinister salesmen from Boston. It is these pillies, stretched bemused between the Spanish-American War memorial urns, who could tell us, if we wished to know, how the trashy façades of Poirier’s Liquor Mart and Bailey’s Pharmaceuticals appear when deep-dyed by LSD and ballooned by the Eternal. In a sense, they see an America whose glory is hidden from the rest of us. The guidance director’s questionnaires reveal some surprising statistics. Twelve percent of the hillies favor the Vietnam War. Thirty-four percent have not enjoyed sexual intercourse. Sixty-one percent own their own automobiles. Eighty-six percent hope to attend some sort of graduate school.

Each week, the
Tarbox Star
prints more of the vivacious correspondence occasioned by the hillies. One taxpayer writes to say that God has forsaken the country, that these young people are fungi on a fallen tree. Another, a veteran of the Second World War, replies that on the contrary they are harbingers of hope, super-Americans dedicated to saving a mad world from self-destruction; if he didn’t have a family to support,
he would go and join them. A housewife writes to complain of loud obscenities that wing outward from the hill. Another housewife promptly rebuts all such “credit-card hypocrites, installment-plan lechers, and Pharisees in pin curlers.” A hillie writes to assert that he was driven from his own home by “the stench of ego” and “heartbreaking lasciviousness.” The father of a hillie, in phrases broken and twisted by the force of his passion, describes circumstantially his child’s upbringing in an atmosphere of love and plenty and in conclusion hopes that other parents will benefit from the hard lesson of his present disgrace—a punishment he “nightly embraces with grateful prayer.” Various old men write in to reminisce about their youths. Some remember hard work, bitter winters, and penny-pinching; others depict a lyrically empty land where a boy’s natural prankishness and tendency to idle had room to “run their course.” One “old-timer” states that “there is nothing new under the sun”; another sharply retorts that
everything
is new under the sun, that these youngsters are “subconsciously seeking accommodation” with unprecedented overpopulation and “hypertechnology.” The Colorado couple write from their gallery to agree, and to suggest that salvation lies in Hindu reposefulness, “free-form creativity,” and wheat germ. A downtown businessman observes that the hillies have become something of a tourist attraction and should not be disbanded “without careful preliminary study.” A minister cautions readers to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The editor editorializes to the effect that “our” generation has made a “mess” of the world and that the hillies are registering a “legitimate protest”; a letter signed by sixteen hillies responds that they protest nothing, they just want to sit and “dig.” Dig? “Life as it just is,” the letter (a document mimeographed and distributed by the local chapter of
PAX
) concludes, “truly grooves.”

The printed correspondence reflects only a fraction of the opinions expressed orally. The local sociologist has told a luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club that the hillies are seeking “to reëmploy human-ness as a non-relative category.” The local Negro, a crack golfer and horseman whose seat on his chestnut mare is the pride of the hunt club, cryptically told the Kiwanis that, “when you create a slave population, you must expect a slave mentality.” The local Jesuit informed an evening meeting of the Lions that drugs are “the logical end product of the pernicious Protestant heresy of the ‘inner light.’ ” The waitresses at the local restaurant tell customers that the sight of the hillies through the plate-glass windows gives them “the creeps.” “Why don’t they go to
work?
” they ask; their own legs are blue-veined from the strain of work, of waiting and hustling. The local Indian, who might be thought sympathetic, since some of the hillies affect Pocahontas bands and bead necklaces, is savage on the subject: “Clean the garbage out,” he tells the seedy crowd that hangs around the news store. “Push ’em back where they came from.” But this ancient formula, so often invoked in our history, no longer applies. They came from our own homes. And in honesty do we want them back? How much a rural myth is parental love? The Prodigal Son no doubt became a useful overseer; they needed his hands. We need our self-respect. That is what is eroding on the hill—the foundations of our lives, the identities our industry and acquisitiveness have heaped up beneath the flag’s blessing. The local derelict is the only adult who wanders among them without self-consciousness and without fear.

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