In the cool wash of early sun the individual strands of osier compounding the chairs stood out sharply; arched like separate serpents springing up and turning again into the knit of the wickerwork. An unusual glint of metal pierced the lenient wall of Hook’s eyes and struck into his brain, which urged his body closer, to inspect. Onto the left arm of the chair that was customarily his in the row that lined the men’s porch the authorities had fixed a metal tab, perhaps one inch by two, bearing MR, printed, plus, in ink, his latter name. A reflex of pride twitched the corners of his mouth; he had always preferred, in the days when certain honors were allowed him, to have his name spelled in full, with the dignity of the middle ini- tial: John F. Hook. On the adjoining chair the name of his companion, Gregg, was similarly imposed. With the eye it was not difficult to follow the shining squares all the way down the line.
“What birdbrain scheme is this now of Conner’s?” Gregg asked noisily, as if the taller man might not hear. “Is he putting tags on us so we can be trucked off to the slaughterhouse?”
“Well, yes: what is it? A child must tinker.”
“They’ll come right off,” Gregg said and produced from the hip pocket of his shapeless wool trousers a black bone jackknife of the old style, with a blade for removing the metal cap from bottles. With this blunt blade he adroitly began to loosen, not his own nameplate, but Hook’s.
Gregg’s small brown hands, the thumbs double-jointed and spatulate and the backs covered with dark lines as fine as hair, sought leverage with a quickness that recalled to Hook that his companion had been, before alcohol and progress had undone him, an electrician.
“Here,” Hook said, hoarse as much from the discomfort it caused him to focus his eyes on action so near at hand as from disapproval. In truth he felt helpless. He enjoyed no real control over Gregg, though some crooked whim or weakness led the younger man lately to cling close to Hook’s presence. It was Hook’s misfortune to have the appearance of authority yet lack the gift of command. He sought a reason that would stay Gregg. “If we forget our place, they’ll take the chairs themselves off, and we’ll be left to stand.”
“And then all die of heart attacks; I hope we do. It’ll make a f.ing black mark in Conner’s book, to have us all keel over without a place to sit.”
“It’s a sin to talk on so,” Hook exclaimed positively, for death, to his schoolteacher’s mind, was a bell that must find the students with their noses to the desks. “And,” he went on, “it is a mis-take for the old to mo-lest others’ property. The young now, the young have nothing, and may be winked at when they steal a foretaste; but those who have had what there was to be had are expected to be beyond such foolishness. We fellas so close to the Line”—he raised his voice on this last word, inclined his head, and lifted his right hand in a dainty gesture, the index and little fingers pointing upward and the two between curled down—“have our accounts watched very close.” The disciplinarian’s instinct—which was somewhat developed, though he had always lacked the cruelty to be the disciplinarian paramount—told him these words had been correct for the purpose; he had a shadowy sense that what Gregg sought in his company were elevated forms of thought to shape and justify the confused rage he felt toward the world that had in the end discarded him. Also, there was something in the relationship of Hook’s teaching the younger man how to be old; Hook at ninety-four had been old a third of his life, whereas Gregg, just seventy, had barely begun.
“Ah, we can pick them off with our fingers any time we want,” Gregg said with contempt, and, nimbly as a monkey on a rubber tire in the old-fashioned zoos, he turned and sat in Hook’s chair, rather than the one labelled as his own.
“Modern day workmen are not what they were,” Hook stated, satisfied. Standing on one porch edge, he rested his gaze in the comfortable depths to the east and north of the porch: shallowly concave farm plains tilled in scientifically irregular patches, the nearer lands belonging to the jurisdiction of the Poor Home; further off, small hills typical of New Jersey; presiding above, a ribbed sky, pink, betokening rain. The blurred click of Gregg’s blades being snapped back into the sheath satisfied him still further. Pain ebbed from the muscles of his eyeballs as they lengthened to suit the horizon, and he felt positive pleasure. Despite the low orange sun, still wet from its dawning, crescents of mist like the webs of tent caterpillars adhered in the crotches of the hills. Preternaturally sensitive within its limits, his vision made out the patterned spheres of an orchard on the nearest blue rise, seven miles off. Beyond and beyond the further hills, he knew ran the Delaware. His life had been spent on that river, white in morning, yellow at noon, black by supper. On the other side had stood a green rim: Pennsylvania. In those days—it would have been in the fat Taft’s administration—when Hook had freshly come, direct from normal school, to teach at a build- ing of then less than a hundred pupils, walking to work had taken him along a path from which, down the long bank through switches of sumac and sapling oak, glimpses of water had appeared as white and smooth as a plaster wall. The path ascended, passing beneath a red oak where children had attached a knotted rope and on the trunk had nailed a ladder of slats. At the highest point three shacks housing the humblest elements of the town commanded a broad view. The bank was so steep here the tops of the tallest trees clinging to it were lower than one’s own shoes. The river’s apparent whiteness was dissolved in its evident transparency: the contours of bars of silt and industrial waste could be easily read beneath the gliding robe of water. A submerged bottle reflected sunlight. Occasionally, among the opaque fans of corrugation spread by each strand of shore growth, the heavy oblong of a catfish could be spied drifting. The family in one of the shacks did woodcutting; the air at this place in the path where Hook usually paused always smelled of sawdust, even in winter, through the snow. And across the width of water a curtain of trees hung, united with its reflection, unmarked by a house or puff of smoke. To Hook Pennsylvania had been the westerly wilderness, and when he crossed the bridge at Trenton it surprised him to encounter houses and streetcars as advanced as those in his native state.
His eyes had a thirst for water, but no amount of study would turn the blue-green hills into a river, and even were the intervening land shaved as clear as a table top, the Delaware would be hidden from him by the curvature of the earth—eight inches to the mile, as he recalled it. His education was prominent in two places: Roman history, which he had received in the grammar school of his day, and nineteenth-century American politics, talk of which had filled his father’s home.
Closer to where he stood, on this side of the rough sandstone wall the women were beginning to move about on the dark grass, picking up sticks and carrying tables; foolish women, the dew would soak their feet.
“The sky suggests rain,” he said, returning to Gregg in voice while not moving.
“The f.ing bastard I have half a mind to snip every one of these rotten tags off and throw them in his birdbrain face.”
These wild words were not worth answering, and an answer, no matter what, would involve him deeper with Gregg. He felt distaste for Gregg: Gregg was like a student who, having been given the extra attention due the sheep in a hundred that has strayed, then refuses to know his place, and makes of the instructor’s consideration cause for a displeasing familiarity. Yet Gregg’s physical aspect, and specifically the small, stained, wrinkle-hatched, dour and dangerous face that left no impression of its eyes, inspired persistent affection, reminding Hook of Harry Petree. Against Harry Petree’s memory Hook abruptly shut his mind.
He said, “Aren’t the women foolish now, to be setting up for the fair with a storm at their elbows? They’ll be bringing in those tables before noon. No doubt Conner put them up to it.”
The sense of moisture ascending was everywhere: on the sandstone walls, some stones wet and others without clear reason dry; in the odor of the freshened grass; in the amplified sound of the grackles in the maples to the left and the chatter of the women down below; in the hazy solid movements of the women. Tens of thousands of such mornings had Hook seen.
The deepening of the sky, however, above the southeast horizon, where it should be lightest, and the proclamatory weight of the slow wind that fitfully blew, were peculiar to this day.
“A bit of ago,” he stated, “the sky was savage red.”
Gregg raved on, “What we ought to do is take one of these tabs every day and mail it to him, a different tab every day; the post office can’t refuse our custom.”
“Such talk,” Hook sighed, lowering himself philosophically into the chair to the left of Gregg, his customary position. Since Gregg was sitting not on the chair labelled his own but perversely in Hook’s, Hook correspondingly occupied a wrong chair. When George Lucas came around the porch, from the side beneath the maples, he unthinkingly sat beside Hook, as he always did. “Have you noticed these tags?” Hook asked his other friend.
“The damn bastard Conner,” Gregg shouted across, “I have half a mind to strip every one of them off.”
Lucas was a fat man, yellowish in complexion, with a brief hooked nose. Young by the standards of the place, he had been a truck farmer in the southern wedge of Diamond County. His land had been requisitioned by a soybean combine organized by the Federal Department of Conservation. With the money they paid Lucas he had begun a real estate business in the nearest town, where he was well known, and had failed. He knew land but displeased people. Hook himself, charitable and gregarious to a fault, found it hard to enjoy association with Lucas, not because of the man’s bluntness, but because he seemed preoccupied still with the strings of the outer world and held himself aloof from the generality of inmates. His friendship with Hook, Hook felt, served some hidden use. As a legally declared bankrupt Lucas had come to the poorhouse less than three years past, the winter of Mendelssohn’s funeral. He was forever digging in his ear with a wooden match to keep an earache alive. “No,” he said, “where are the tags?” As he said this an instinct made him lift the wrist beneath which the silver rectangle glittered.
“They put these on the chairs so we won’t lose our way,” Hook stated with irony.
“But this ain’t mine, it’s Benjie’s chair,” Lucas was saying, having read the name imbedded in the arm.
“A child like Conner must tinker endless-ly,” Hook continued, deafened by his own chain of thought. He felt his wrist being lifted and his wine-dark lips quivered with being startled as he gradually brought his eyes to bear on the man inches from him.
Excerpted from The Poorhouse Fair by John Updike. Copyright © 2004 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.