Authors: John Updike
Now her house is occupied by a young couple with a baby that cries all night. The Cravens have moved to Falmouth, selling their house to the Blandys. And the Latroy girls have heard that Susan is married, to a pilot from Otis Air Force Base; it’s hard to believe. It seems just yesterday she was brushed by death, a rude little girl with fat legs.
Long before this, so long ago only the Van der Bijns and Mrs. Billy Hannaford witnessed the wreckage, a drunken driver took the corner too fast in the opposite direction from
the truck and skidded up over the curb into the left-hand display window of the variety store. No one was hurt; the Van der Bijns were asleep upstairs and the drunk, well known locally, remained relaxed and amused. But the accident left a delicate scar on the corner, in the perceptible disparity between the two large plate-glass panes: the left one is less wavery and golden in tint than the right, and its frame is of newer molding, which does not perfectly match.
Somewhere between these two accidents there is an old man down from New Hampshire, lost, blinded, he said, by blazing headlights, who drove right over the traffic island, straddling it in his high 1939 Buick, shearing off the Stop sign and eviscerating his muffler on the stump. And lost in the snowy mists of time is the child who sledded down Reservoir Road and was crushed beneath a big black Peerless, in the days before cars could be counted on to be everywhere. It is strange that more accidents do not occur. Everyone ignores the rusty Stop sign. Teen-agers begin drag races down by the wharf and use the traffic island as a finish post. Friday and Saturday nights, there is screeching and roaring until two and three in the morning. Trucks heave and shift gears, turning north. Summer weekends see a parade of motorboats on trailers. The housing development, Marshview, on the east end of town, adds dozens of cars to the daily flow. The corner has already been widened—the Van der Bijns’ house once had a front yard. Old photographs exist, on sepia cardboard, that show fewer wires on the poles, a great beech where none now stands, a front yard at the house that was not then a store, the dark house across from the Blandys’ painted white, no porch at the Blandys’, no traffic island, and a soft, trodden, lanelike look to the surface of the roadway. When the Van der Bijns move or die (the same thing to the town clerk), their house will be taken by eminent domain and the corner widened still
further, enabling the cars to go still faster. Engineers’ drawings are already on file at Town Hall.
Yet, though the inhabitants strain their ears at night waiting for the squeal of tires to mushroom into the crash of metal and the splintering of glass, nothing usually happens. The corner is one of those places where nothing much happens except traffic and weather. Even death, when it came for Miss Cogswell, came as a form of traffic, as an ambulance in the driveway, and a cluster of curious neighborhood children.
The weather happens mostly in the elm, a vast old elm not yet felled by the blight. Its branches overarch the corner. Its drooping twigs brush the roofs of the dark house, and the young couple’s house, and the Latroys’. Shaped like a river system—meandering tributaries thickening and flowing into the trunk, but three-dimensional, a solid set of streets where pigeons strut, meet, and mate—the tree’s pattern of limbs fills the Blandys’ bedroom windows and their eyes on awaking in all weathers: glistening and sullen in November rain, so that you feel the awful weight the tree upholds, like a cast-iron cloud; airy tracery after a snow, or in the froth of bloom; in summer a curtain of green, with a lemon-yellow leaf, turned early, here and there like a random stitch. Lying bedridden in fever or in despair, each of the Blandys has concluded, separately, that, if there was nothing to life but lying here looking at the elm forever, it would suffice—it would be, though just barely, enough.
The elm’s leaves in autumn blow by the bushel down Prudence Lane into the Van der Bijns’ side yard, confirming the old man’s contention that the weather is always outrageous. He came to this country before the war, foreseeing it, and still finds the intemperances of the American climate remarkable. The faithful gray damp of Holland is a benchmark in his bones. For months ahead of time, he foresees the troublesome
wonder of snow, and gloats over his bizarre fate of having to shovel it. Though weak from his long days of sitting, he shovels compulsively, even during a blizzard trying to keep his forty feet of sidewalk as clean as swept tiles. Some ironical gallantry seems intended—a humorous grateful willingness to have the land that gave him refuge take his life with its barbaric weather. Our summer’s extremes also astonish him. Four sunny days become a drought in his eyes, which are delft-blue and perpetually wide open, within deep, skeletal sockets. Each growing season, as he observes its effects on Mrs. Hannaford’s bushes and lawn, seems in some way abnormal, unprecedented, weird. “Naaow, da forsydia last yaar wasn’t aaout yet vor two weeks!” “Naaow, I’fe nefer once zeen da grass zo zoon brown!”
And Mrs. Hannaford, whose house of all the houses on the corner is most distant from the elm, regards this tree as a benign veil drawn across the tar-shingled roofs and ungainly dormers of the neighborhood. She sees it, too, as a sea fan superimposed on a cockleshell sunset, and as a living entity that has doubled its size since as a girl she studied it from the same windows she now sleeps behind. Once, when four or five, she thought she saw the robed shadow of Jesus moving in its branches, and prayed that the end of the world be not yet come.
The people on the corner do not know each other very well. It is the houses who know each other, whose windows watch. Mrs. Billy Hannaford goes to the Episcopal church whenever Communion is offered; she dresses in purple and walks with a cane, her cheeks painted salmon, her hair rinsed blue. Some weekend nights, cars belonging to the Blandys’ friends are parked in front of their house until hours after midnight. The young couple’s baby cries. The man who lives in the dark house is off in his car from seven to seven, and his
wife is indistinguishable among the two or three ginger-haired women who come and go. The Latroys have beautiful blonde daughters, and much of the hot-rodding on the corner is for their benefit. This is what the houses know of each other’s inner lives, what their windows can verify.
Rain made Ray Blandy romantic and he had hoped to romance his wife, but June Blandy had fallen asleep in the middle of an embrace, and he had risen from the bed in bad temper. It was Saturday midnight. He stood by the window, wanting to be loved by the rain. There was a nearing roar of motors and a braking slither, and he saw (this is what he thought he saw) a speeding VW bus pursued by a black sedan. The bus disappeared behind the edge of the dark house. The sedan skidded on the smooth patch where just that April some frost-heaves had been retarred; its weight swung from side to side, like an accelerated dance step. Out of control, the car went up with one pair of tires onto the sidewalk, and also disappeared. Then there was a thump, not deafening but definite, and deeply satisfying; and a silence. Then the high-pitched gear whine of a prolonged backing up. The VW bus appeared, backward, from behind the dark house. Shouting voices dropped to a mutter. Mr. Latroy, wearing his auxiliary-policeman’s badge, appeared in front of his house. The Van der Bijns’ lights went on.
June Blandy sat up in bed. “What was that?”
“You mean you weren’t asleep, you were just faking?”
“I was sound asleep, but something thumped.”
“Sonic boom,” he told her. She missed the allusion. He told her, “A car lost control going around the corner and hit something up the street. I can’t see what.”
“Why are you just standing there? Let’s go.” Last year, when a dog had been hit on the corner and their neighbors
from the curb idly watched it yelp and writhe, June had spontaneously run into the street and taken the broken animal into her arms. Now she put on her bathrobe and was past him, and down the stairs, and out of the door. He looked in two closets for a bathrobe or a raincoat to put over his pajamas and finally, afraid of missing everything, followed her into the drizzle in a short yellow slicker that barely covered his fly.
The corner had cracked open like a piñata, spilling absurdly dressed people. Mr. Van der Bijn wore a long nightcap, with a tassel—who would have imagined it? Mrs., her daytime braids undone, had gray hair down to her waist. The young mother, baby on hip, wore bell-bottom pants of crimson crushed velvet: her normal at-home costume? Why were so many people up and dressed after midnight? Mrs. Latroy wore a blue print dress, and her husband black trousers and his pin-striped Tarbox Dairy shirt, with a cream-colored logo. Did he never sleep? His milk route began at four. From the dark house emerged two middle-aged women, ginger-haired and flirtatious, in house slippers. “That’s a cute costume,” one of them said to Ray. A tense, slight man with a rash of pimples on his forehead, he looked down and adjusted his pajama fly.
June, who had reached the street earlier than he, told him, “About six people got out of the car into the bus and drove away. Shouldn’t somebody have stopped them, or done
thing?” She had turned from him to address a larger audience, her voice lifted operatically.
The mother in red pants said, “One of them came into the house to call the police and another one came after her and said not to bother, they’d drive to the station, it’d be faster.” She had a narrow, impoverished face but an exotic flat accent, Midwestern or Western. As she spoke, she kept bouncing the baby on her hip.
A ginger-haired lady said, “One of them said it was all right, she was the wife of a fireman.”
-ohh,” the other said. “He’s been going to too many fires.” There was general laughter.
The drizzle was lifting, but the neighbors drew snugly closer beneath the sheltering elm, as if to consolidate their sudden conquest of the distance the houses had always imposed between them. “Naaow, isn’t dis wedder somezing,” Mr. Van der Bijn said, and again they all laughed, having heard him say it so often before. The driver of the disabled car glanced toward them enviously. His sedan was up the street, sideways against a telephone pole; it had spun almost totally around. His gaze inhibited the carnival crowd on the corner. He smelled of recent danger, and was dangerous. The man who lived in the dark house emerged in pants and rumpled shirt and spectacles; his eyes looked rubbed, as after sleep or a long bout of television. His ladies grew animated; the more flirtatious one told Ray her version of the accident. The VW was coming down Prudence Lane, and didn’t stop at the Stop sign, they never do, and the black sedan, to avoid hitting it, swerved to the left, into the pole. Ray told her, no, he had happened to be at his window, and the VW was being chased by the other—a drag race, obviously.
June asked, “Hasn’t
body called the police?”
Mrs. Van der Bijn said, “Mr. Latroy has.” But by this she meant, probably, that in a sense he
police; for he had not moved from the sidewalk. He stood there serenely, his face tilted upward, as if basking on a sunny day. The window above him lit up, and two of his beautiful daughters were framed in it, their blond hair incandescent. A carload of male teen-agers swung around the corner, abruptly braked, and eased by. The two daughters waved. Another car stopped, and asked the way
to East Mather. Three voices at once—Ray, Mr. Latroy, and a ginger-haired lady—chorused the directions.
June was conferring with the girl in velvet pants. The girl agreed to go inside and call the police. Her husband was asleep. He was a very sound sleeper. “I can never get the lunk up, to take care of Emily. Every night, it’s the same story.”
“She has fear,” Mrs. Van der Bijn announced. “You must sing her to sleep.”
The girl studied Mrs. Van der Bijn and handed her the baby and went into her house. The baby began its feeble, well-practiced whimper, paced to last for hours. Mrs. Van der Bijn began to sing, in a distant lost language, its gutturals low in her throat.
The driver of the sedan came closer. He swaggered like a man with something to sell, his hands in his pockets. He was a stocky young man, with hair combed wet, so the tooth furrows showed. “It’s all right,” he told them. “I got everybody’s number. Nothing to worry about,” he said, and told them his story. There was a third car. A yellow convertible, a crazy man. Down by the wharf, it had cut right in front of him, and tried to run him off the road, into that metal rail there. He, the man telling the story, had braked just in time—he was lucky to have such fast reflexes—and then, seeing red, had given chase, lost control at the corner, and had this accident. There was a VW bus right behind him. It had stopped, and the people in it had said they knew the driver of the convertible, and would catch him and bring him back. As some kind of insurance, the sedan’s passengers, a guy he knew and the guy’s girlfriend, had crowded into the bus, and off they had all gone. They should be back any minute. At any rate, it didn’t matter, because he had the license-plate numbers.
It was a strange story, but he pulled from a pocket the little pad upon which he had firmly written down two long numbers.
Ray wondered how the man had focused his eyes on those speeding, shuttling vehicles, and why in Ray’s own memory the bus had been ahead of the sedan, and why he had not seen the third car, the yellow convertible. The rest of the corner, too, distrusted the driver’s story, and, amid polite comments and expressions of interest, slowly closed against him, isolating him again. Undiscouraged, like an encyclopedia salesman turned from the door, the driver walked briskly away, toward his crippled car and, farther down the street, an approaching blue twinkle.
The police car pulled up. They all knew the cops that emerged; one was a wife-beater, and the other had been a high-school quarterback. The baby’s mother came out of her house and stood so close that Ray, looking down, saw cerise satin slippers, with bunny-tail pompoms, next to his own knobby bare feet. The erotic short-circuit nearly knocked him over.
It was as when bombs fall, baring swaths of wallpaper and plaster, unexpected bathroom tiles, dangling fixtures. The two policemen softly interviewed the driver, the people at the corner watched from a safe distance and kept their versions to themselves, the gentle event of the rain ceased, the law closed its notebook, the elm sighed, the little crowd reluctantly broke up and returned to their houses. Later, some heard, but only the streetlamp saw, the tow truck come and take the sedan away. Overhead, the clouds paled and pulled apart, revealing stars. The driver’s story had been strange, but no stranger, to the people who live here, than the truth that the corner is one among many on the map of the town, and the town is a dot on the map of the state, and the state a mere patch on the globe, and the globe invisible from any of the stars overhead.