Authors: John Updike
During that week he had remembered how in his childhood his mother would play solitaire by the light of the stained-glass chandelier in the dining room. His father would be out somewhere, doing good for the community, and he and his mother would be alone. He was an only child, and as such obscurely felt himself to be the center of the sadness that oppressed them. Frightened of her silence and of the slithering of the cards, he would beg her to stop. Tell me a story, come into the kitchen and make some toast, go to bed, anything; but stop playing solitaire.
“One more game,” his mother would say, her faced pitted and dragged by the shadows cast by the overhead chandelier. And then she would slip into one of the impersonations whereby she filled their empty house with phantoms, as if to make up to him for the brothers and sisters she had not, somehow, been permitted to give him. “The weary gambler stakes his all,” she said in a soft but heavy monotone. “The night is late. The crowds have left the gaming tables. One lonely figure remains, his house, his car, his yacht, his jewels, his very life hinging on the last turn of the cards.”
” He burst into tears, and she looked up and smiled, as if greeting a fond forgotten sight upon her return from a long journey. He felt her wonder,
Who is this child?
It was as if the roof of the house were torn off, displaying the depth of night sky.
He knew now that her mind had been burdened in that period. Everything was being weighed in it. He remembered
very faintly—for he had tried to erase it immediately—her asking him if he would like to go alone with her far away, to the sunny Southwest, and live a new life.
, must have been his answer,
For he had loved his father, loved him out of the silence and blindness that wait at the bottom of our brains as the final possibility, the second baptism; the removal of his father plunged him toward that black pool prematurely. And she, too, must have felt a lack of ripeness, for in the end she merely moved them all a little distance, to a farm where he grew up in solitude and which at the first opportunity he left, a farm where now his father and mother still performed, with an intimate expertness that almost justified them, the half-comic routines of their incompatibility. In the shrill strength of his childish fear he had forced this on them; he was, in this sense, their guardian, their father.
And now the father of others. Odd, he thought, setting a black nine below a red ten, how thoroughly our lives are devoted to doing the contrary of what our parents did. He had married early, to escape the farm, and had rapidly given his wife children, to make his escape irrevocable. Also, he had wished to spare his children the responsibility and terror of solitude. He wondered if they loved him as he had loved his father, wondered what depth of night sky would be displayed to them by his removal. To some extent he was already removed. They formed a club from which he was excluded. Their corporate commotion denied him access. The traces of his own face in their faces troubled him with the suspicion that he had squandered his identity. Slowly he had come to see that children are not our creations but our guests, people who enter the world by our invitation but with their smiles and dispositions already prepared in some mysterious other room. Their predictable woe and fright and the crippled shapes they might take had imperceptibly joined the finances
and the legalities as considerations that were finite, manageable. Problems to which there is any solution at all, no matter how difficult and complex, are not really problems.
(Red four on black five.)
Night by night, lying awake, he had digested the embarrassments, the displacements, the disappointments, the reprimands and lectures and appeals that were certain; one by one he had made impossibilities possible. At last he had stripped the problem to its two white poles, the two women.
His wife was fair, with pale eyelashes and hair containing, when freshly shampooed, reddish lights. His mistress was as black-and-white as a drawing in ink: her breasts always shocked him with their electric silken pallor, and the contrast with the dark nipples and aureoles. In the summer, she tanned; his wife freckled. His wife had the more delicate mind, but his mistress, having suffered more, knew more that he didn’t know. Their opposition was not simple. His wife’s handwriting, developed out of the printing she had been taught at a progressive school, looked regular but was often illegible; the other’s, with its hurried stenographic slant, was always clear, even when phrasing panic. His wife, carnally entered, opened under him as an intimidating moist void; his mistress in contrast felt dry and tight, so tight the first thrusts quite hurt. His wife, now that she saw herself on the edge of an abyss, clung to him with an ardor that his mistress would have found immodest. He had come to feel a furtive relief when a day passed without lovemaking being thrust upon him; pinned between whirlpools, he was sated with the sound and sight of women crying. His mistress cried big: with thrilling swiftness her face dissolved and, her mouth smeared out of all shape, she lurched against him with an awkward bump and soaked his throat in abusive sobs. Whereas his wife wept like a miraculous icon, her face immobile while the tears ran, and so silently that as they lay together in bed at night he would have to ask her,
“Are you crying?” Back and forth, back and forth, like a sore fist his heart oscillated between them, and the oscillations grew in intensity as the two poles drew together and demanded that he choose one. He had allowed them to draw together, had allowed his wife to know, and allowed his mistress to know that she knew, in the hope that they would merge—would turn out to be, in fact, one woman, with no choice needed, or the decision settled between them. He had miscalculated. Though he had drawn them so close that one settling into his embrace could smell the other’s perfume, each woman became more furiously herself.
(A king uncovered, but nowhere to put him.)
How could he balance their claims and rights? The list was entirely one-sided. Prudence, decency, pity—not light things—all belonged to the guardian of his children and home; and these he would lose. He would lose the homely old neighborhood that he loved, the summer evenings spent scratching in his little garden of lettuce and tomatoes, the gritty adhesion of his elder daughter’s hand to his as they walked to the Popsicle store, the decade of books and prints and records and furniture that had accumulated, the cellar full of carpentry tools, the attic full of old magazines. And he would as well lose his own conception of himself, for to abandon his children and a woman who with scarcely a complaint or a quarrel had given him her youth was simply not what he would do. He was the son of parents who had stayed together for his sake. That straight line, once snapped, could not be set straight again.
While on the other side there was nothing, or next to nothing—merely a cry, a cry for him that he had never heard before. No doubt it was momentary; but so was life. She had little to give him but bereavement and a doubtless perishable sense of his existing purely as a man. Her presence made him happy and her near presence made him very happy. Yet, even
when they were so closely together their very skins felt wished away, strange glass obstacles came between them, transparent elbows and icy hard surfaces that constituted, he supposed, the structure of what is called morality.
The weary gambler stakes his all
. This game was clearly headed nowhere. An ominous unanimity of red had pretty well blocked the seven ranks. The kings had been buried for lack of space, one of the aces was not yet up, and the cards left in his hand were few. He fanned them and found that in fact there were three. He turned the top one up. The eight of spades. He put it below a red nine, but this unblocked nothing. Two cards left. He decided upon a gamble. A card for his wife, a card for
. His heart began to tremble at this boldness. In the months past, he had learned to listen to his heart; he had never noticed before what a positive will this supposedly oblivious organ possessed. On his way to a tryst it would press in his throat like a large bird trying to escape a trap, and at night, when he lay down in the hope of sleeping, it would churn and rattle on his ribs like the blade of a Waring Blender chopping ice.
He turned the first card and looked down at it from what felt like a great height. The ten of diamonds, for his wife. It was a strong card. He felt frightened, and looked down at the spiderweb back of the last card with a sensation of his vision’s being impaired by the roaring in his chest.
Instead of turning the last card over, he tore it across; the card was plastic-coated and tough, and crumpled before it tore. From a fragment he saw that it had been the missing ace. No matter. He was a modern man, not superstitious even alone with himself; his life must flow from within. He had made his decision, and sat inert, waiting for grief to be laid upon him.
, like chemical unions, release upon dissolution packets of the energy locked up in their bonding. There is the piano no one wants, the cocker spaniel no one can take care of. Shelves of books suddenly stand revealed as burdensomely dated and unlikely to be reread; indeed, it is difficult to remember who read them in the first place. And what of those old skis in the attic? Or the doll house waiting to be repaired in the basement? The piano goes out of tune, the dog goes mad. The summer that the Turners got their divorce, their swimming pool had neither a master nor a mistress, though the sun beat down day after day, and a state of drought was declared in Connecticut.
It was a young pool, only two years old, of the fragile type fashioned by laying a plastic liner within a carefully carved hole in the ground. The Turners’ side yard looked infernal while it was being done; one bulldozer sank into the mud and had to be pulled free by another. But by midsummer the new grass was sprouting, the encircling flagstones were in place,
the blue plastic tinted the water a heavenly blue, and it had to be admitted that the Turners had scored again. They were always a little in advance of their friends. He was a tall, hairy-backed man with long arms, and a nose flattened by football, and a sullen look of too much blood; she was a fine-boned blonde with dry blue eyes and lips usually held parted and crinkled as if about to ask a worrisome, or whimsical, question. They never seemed happier, nor their marriage healthier, than those two summers. They grew brown and supple and smooth with swimming. Brad would begin his day with a swim, before dressing to catch the train, and Linda would hold court all day amid crowds of wet matrons and children, and Brad would return from work to find a poolside cocktail party in progress, and the couple would end their day at eleven, when their friends had finally left, by swimming nude, before bed. What ecstasy! In darkness the water felt mild as milk and buoyant as helium, and the swimmers became giants, gliding from side to side in a single languorous stroke.
In May of the third summer, the pool was filled as usual, and the usual after-school gangs of mothers and children gathered, but Linda, unlike her, stayed indoors. She could be heard within the house, moving from room to room, but she no longer emerged, as in other years, with a cheerful tray of ice and a brace of bottles, and Triscuits and lemonade for the children. Their friends felt less comfortable about appearing, towels in hand, at the Turners’ on weekends. Though Linda had lost some weight and looked elegant, and Brad was cumbersomely jovial, they gave off the faint, sleepless, awkward-making aroma of a couple in trouble. Then, the day after school was out, Linda fled with the children to her parents in Ohio. Brad stayed nights in the city, and the pool was deserted. Though the pump that ran the water through the filter
continued to mutter in the lilacs, the cerulean pool grew cloudy. The bodies of dead horseflies and wasps dotted the still surface. A speckled plastic ball drifted into a corner beside the diving board and stayed there. The grass between the flagstones grew lank. On the glass-topped poolside table, a spray can of Off! had lost its pressure and a gin-and-tonic glass held a sere mint leaf. The pool looked desolate and haunted, like a stagnant jungle spring; it looked poisonous and ashamed. The postman, stuffing overdue notices and unanswered solicitations into the mailbox, averted his eyes from the side yard politely.
Some June weekends, Brad sneaked out from the city. Families driving to church glimpsed him dolefully sprinkling chemical substances into the pool. He looked pale and thin. He instructed Roscoe Chace, his neighbor on the left, how to switch on the pump and change the filter, and how much chlorine and Algitrol should be added weekly. He explained he would not be able to make it out every weekend—as if the distance that for years he had travelled twice each day, gliding in and out of New York, had become an impossibly steep climb back into the past. Linda, he confided vaguely, had left her parents in Akron and was visiting her sister in Minneapolis. As the shock of the Turners’ joint disappearance wore off, their pool seemed less haunted and forbidding. The Murtaugh children—the Murtaughs, a rowdy, numerous family, were the Turners’ right-hand neighbors—began to use it, without supervision. So Linda’s old friends, with their children, began to show up, “to keep the Murtaughs from drowning each other.” For, if anything were to happen to a Murtaugh, the poor Turners (the adjective had become automatic) would be sued for everything, right when they could least afford it. It became, then, a kind of duty, a test of loyalty, to use the pool.