i. Dream On, Dear Owen
FOR A LONG TIME, his wife has awoken early, at five or five-thirty. By the rhythms of her chemistry, sometimes discordant with Owen’s, Julia wakes full of affection for him, her companion on the bed’s motionless voyage through that night of imperfect sleep. She hugs him and, above his protests that he is still sleeping, declares in a soft but relentless voice how much she loves him, how pleased she is by their marriage. “I’m just so happy with you.”
This after twenty-five years of life together. He is seventy, she sixty-five; her announcement, newsworthy to her, slightly insults him: how could it be otherwise? After all their trials, and the pain they gave others. They waded through; here they are, on the other side. She tugs at him; she twists his head in order to kiss his mouth. But his lips are puffy and numb with sleep, and in his anesthetized state, his nerves misaligned, it feels like an attempt to suffocate him; it rubs him, as people used to say, the wrong way. After a few minutes more of lovestricken fidgeting, while he stubbornly fails to respond, protecting the possibility of returning to his precious dreams, Julia relents and rises from the bed, and Owen, gratefully stretching himself into her vacated side, falls asleep for another hour or two.
One morning in this last, stolen hour he dreams that, in a house he does not know (it has a shabby, public air to it, as of a boarding-house or a hospital) faceless official presences guide him into a room where, on a bed like theirs, two single beds yoked together to make a king-size, a man—rather young, to judge from the smoothness of his blond body, with its plump buttocks—lies upon his wife’s body as if attempting resuscitation or (not at all the same thing) concealment. When, under silent direction from the accompanying, officiating presences, this stranger removes himself, Owen’s wife’s body, also naked, is revealed, supine: the white relaxed belly, the breasts flattened by gravity, her dear known sex in its gauzy beard of fur. She is dead, a suicide. She has found the way out of her pain. Owen thinks, If I had not interfered with her life, she would be still alive. He yearns to embrace her and breathe her back to life and suck back into himself the poison that his existence has worked upon hers.
Then, slowly, reluctantly, as one lifts one’s attention from a still-unsolved puzzle, he wakes up, and of course she is not dead; she is downstairs generating the smell of coffee and the rumble of an early news show: several bantering voices, male and female. Traffic and weather, Julia loves them both, they never cease to interest her, these chronic daily contingencies, though she quit commuting to Boston three years ago. He can hear the blue rubber flip-flops she insists on wearing, as if forever young and dressed for a beach, slap back and forth in the kitchen, refrigerator to countertop to breakfast table, and then to sink and trashmasher and dishwasher and on into the dining room, watering her plants. She loves her plants with the same emotional organ, perhaps, with which she loves the weather. The noise the flip-flops make, and the hazard they represent to her footing—she keeps slipping on the stairs—irritate him, but he does like the sight of her bare toes, spread slightly apart, as on hardworking Asian feet, their little joints whitened by the tension of keeping her flip-flops on. She is a small, dense-bodied brunette; unlike his first wife, she takes a good smooth tan.
Some days, half-roused, he finds the way back to sleep only by remembering one of the women, Alissa or Vanessa or Karen or Faye, who shared with him the town of Middle Falls, Connecticut, in the ’sixties and ’seventies. His hand gripping his drowsy prick, he relives having one of them beneath him, beside him, above him, brushing back her hair as she bent her face to his swollen core, its every nerve crying out for moist, knowing contact; but today is not one of those days. The strengthening white sun of spring glares brutally beneath the window shade. The real world, a tiger unwounded by his dream, awaits. It is time to get up and shoulder a day much like yesterday, a day that his animal optimism assumes to be the first of a sequence stretching endlessly into the future but that his cerebrum— hypertrophied in the species Homo sapiens—knows to be one more of a diminishing finite supply.
The village, so-called, of Haskells Crossing awakens around their private hill; the steady dull whir of traffic presses through the house walls of pine and plaster and the insulating woods beyond. The newspapers—the Boston Globe for him, the New York Times for her—have already been delivered. Birds long have been astir, the robins picking after worms, the crows boring into the lawn for chinch-bug grubs, the swallows snatching mosquitoes from midair, kind calling to kind in their jubilant pea-brained codes. He shouts down the stairs on his way to the bathroom, “Good morning, Julia!”
Her cry returns: “Owen! You’re up!”
“Sweetie, of course I’m up; my goodness, it’s after seven o’clock.”
The older they get, the more they talk like children. Her voice comes up the stairs, lightly arguing, semi-teasing: “You always sleep to eight, now that you have no train to catch.”
“Darling, what a liar you are! I never sleep past seven; I wish I could,” he goes on, though uncertain if she has moved away from the stairs and can’t hear him, “but that’s one of the things of old age, you’re up with the birds. Wait until it hits you.”
This is connubial nonsense. Talk about pea-brained codes: if the day were a computer, he thinks, this is how it boots up, reloading main memory. Julia in fact sleeps less than he (as did his first wife, Phyllis), but her being five years younger has always been for him a source of pride and sexual stimulus, like the sight of her toes at the front of her blue flip-flops. He also likes to see, below her bathrobe, her pink heels as they retreat, the vertical strokes of her Achilles tendons alternating, one quick firm step after the other, her feet splayed outward in the female way.
They hold this conversation while he waits, his bladder aching, outside the door to his bathroom, beside the stairs that descend to the kitchen. The image of his beloved Julia lying naked and dead in his dream, and the dream sensation of guilt that made her suicide in reality a murder committed by him, are still more vivid than the daily waking facts—the wallpaper with its sepia roses and muted metallic gloss, the new hall carpet with its fresh beige nap and thick, springy undercarpet, the day ahead with its hours to climb like rungs on an ancient, dangerous, splintering ladder.
While Owen shaves at the mirror mounted by the window, where his pouchy and sun-damaged old face, cruelly magnified, frontally accepts the pitiless light, he hears the mockingbird, mounted on its favorite perch at the tip of the tallest cedar, deliver a thrilling long scolding about something or other, some minor, chronic procedural matter. All these local levels of Nature—the birds, the insects, the flowers, the furtive fauna of chipmunks and woodchucks scuttling in and out of their holes as if a shotgun might blast them the next instant—have their own network of concerns and communications; the human world to them is merely a marginal flurry, an inscrutable static, an intermittent interference rarely lethal and bearing no perceived relation to the organic bounty (the garbage, the gardens) that the human species brings to Nature’s table. They snub us, Owen thinks. We should be gods to them, but they lack our capacity for worship—for foresight and the terrors and convoluted mental grovelling that foresight brings with it, including the invention of an afterlife. Animals do not distinguish between us and the other beasts, or between us and the rocks and trees, each with its pungence and relevance to the struggle for existence. The earth offers haven to scorpions and woodchucks and quintillions of ants; the stars guide the Canada geese and arctic terns, the barn swallows and monarch butterflies in their immense annual migrations. We are mere dots beneath their wings, our cities foul and barren interruptions in the discourse of predator and prey. No, not interruptions, for many species accept our cities as habitats, not just the rats in the cellar and the bats in the attic but the hawks and pigeons on the skyscraper ledges and now the deer brazenly, helplessly stalking through suburban back yards, both pets and pests.
Owen stiffens his lower lip to take the razor’s ticklish sideways scrape. He tries to shave without seeing his face, which has never been exactly the face he wanted—too much nose, not enough chin. An inviting weakness, and yet a sharp-eyed wariness. Lately, creases drag at the corners of his mouth, and the eyelids are wrinkled like a desert reptile’s, so that their folds snag and weigh on his lashes in the morning. He hates that familiar feeling, of something in his eye, elusive but bothersome. Pollen. An eyelash. A burst capillary. Behind him, through the insulating woods, the sounds of engines, of backfiring, and of backing trucks’ warning beep, make felt the skimpy commercial section, a block or two, of Haskells Crossing; it is audible but not visible from his house in its leafy hilltop concealment. Though he can see the lights of the town clearly from his upstairs windows, he has never found a spot in town from which his house is visible. That pleases him; it is like his consciousness, invisible but central.
As a child he assumed that somehow the world was set in motion by his awaking. What happened before he awoke was like the time before he was born, a void he could not contemplate. It always surprises him how early, in villages as well as cities, morning activity begins, not just among fabled worm-catching birds but among men—the commuter hastening to catch the 6:11 train, the owner of the fruit store in town already back with his truck from the open market near the Callahan Tunnel, the jogging young mothers having done their miles before standing with their children at the bus stop, the village idlers already stationed on their bench by the war memorial, there next to the old brick fire station, across the main street from the bak- ery. The baker, an ill-shaved French Canadian with a chest sunken from too many cigarettes, has been up since four, tinging the cold air with the fragrance of baking croissants, cinnamon rolls, and blueberry muffins.
Owen can see it all in his mind’s eye as he scrapes at the last of the shaving soap, thrusting his insufficient chin forward to smooth the slack creases underneath. The fire station, if you want to know, is an ornate nineteenth-century structure almost too narrow for the modern fire truck recently purchased by the alderman in Cabot City, of which Haskells Crossing is an outlying ward; after each call, usually a false alarm, the truck backs into its berth, excitedly beeping, with only a few inches to spare on either side. The war memorial is an expandable list of names, movable white letters on a black, slotted surface behind glass, the dead from Haskells Crossing listed back to the French and Indian War. The largest group fell in the Civil War, the next largest in World War II. Below the Korean conflict (two names) and the Vietnam intervention (four) and the 1991 Iraqi action (a single name, an enlisted man accidentally crushed while helping unload a sixty-seven-ton M1A1 Abrams heavy-armor battle tank from the belly of a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane at Saudi Arabia’s Jabayl Airfield), a considerable space has been left for future casualties, in future conflicts. Sensible New England thrift: Owen likes it. He has found his final home here.
This is the third village of his life. The first was in Pennsylvania: the town of Willow, population four thousand, a “string town” grown, as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, from a wayside inn along the road, surrounded by fields growing corn and tobacco. The road, following a southeasterly river for forty-five miles, eventually reached Philadelphia but was here called Mifflin Avenue, after the quarrelsome first governor of the Keystone State. Three miles in another direction lay a medium-sized city, Alton, with its factories of blackened brick set right in amid the row houses, its railroad tracks cutting the downtown in two, its red-light district called Pussy Alley, its corner bars faced in Permastone, its movie palaces of pseudo-Islamic grandeur, and its noisy, porky restaurants—“rip-off joints,” his father called the restaurants. His father hated eating out; he hated being waited on, especially by men, who he felt were more expensive and bullying than waitresses; he hated rich restaurant food, which he sometimes vomited later, as a sign of contempt; he hated dessert, the sales tax, and the tip. Owen’s mother, overweight in all but his earliest memories of her, loved eating well, and would sit there cowed and fuming while her husband methodically ruined her pleasure. Or so it seemed to her small son, their only child, who read the marital drama from a limited point of view: though his hair was the dull, safe brown of his father’s, hair so fine it lifted from their heads when they removed their hats or sat near an electric fan, his sympathies lay with his auburn-haired mother. However, his father’s fear of running out of money sank into his stomach, and gnawed there. Perhaps by no accident did his life’s migration take him northeast, to a region of rocky, shallow soil and reluctant expenditure.
In Pennsylvania, the sandstone inns—seeds of villages some of which thrived and expanded while others became a decaying huddle—were spaced every three miles or so, the distance a man could walk in an hour or a team of horses could pull a farm wagon on a summer day without needing to be watered. Farm life still controlled time. Old people dozed in the middle of the day. Neighbors on the street peddled asparagus, beans, and tomatoes grown in their back yards to one another, and Mifflin Avenue, with its high crown that made rainwater rush in the gutters, resounded in the morning to the languid hoofbeats of horses drawing wagons to the farmers’ market a half-mile away, on the far side of the central thoroughfare, the Alton Pike, which had trolley tracks in its center. By the time Owen was born, in 1933, and was brought home for lack of another home to his grandfather’s house in Willow, Roosevelt was newly in office, and the village, named for a huge old tree hard by the inn, its roots watered by the creek that meandered toward Philadelphia, had been incorporated as a borough. It had grown secondary streets parallel to Mifflin Avenue—Second Street, and then Third and Fourth, climbing a hill where children sledded in winter, down the packed snow, bouncing through the barricaded intersections, until the ride ended with a spurt of sparks on a bed of cinders the borough crew had shovelled from a truck. The sparks, the packed snow, the Christmas trees in the front parlors all along the walk to school—these lasted for only a few days, spotted through a drab, damp winter, but made memories that lasted all year and tugged time forward in a child’s virtual eternity.
Warm weather lasted from March to October. A haze settled over Willow. Owen’s little bedroom, with its wainscoted walls and single bookshelf, overlooked a vacant lot where he often played with the other children of the neighborhood, for an hour after supper in summer, in a milky twilight, the long grass scratchy, going to seed. Fungo, kick-the-can, touch football: girls played them all, since the neighborhood held more girls than boys. Once, in the lot’s matted grasses, flattened and wet with dew—for it was fall and school had begun again—Owen came upon his glasses in the brown snap case that had vanished some days before. Found! He had looked everywhere in the house, and his mother had confided what a grief it would be for his poor father to have to pay for a replacement pair. It was a miracle, it seemed to the child as he bent down and took the case, damp with its nights and days of patiently waiting for him to find it, into his hand. Inside, yes, were the gold-rimmed disks that sharpened his sight, the little bean-shapes that left dents in his nose, the curved metal handles that hurt his ears. When he had been told, in second grade, that he must wear glasses for reading and the movies, he had cried. Some day, he consoled himself, he would outgrow them. Perhaps his finding them was less than a miracle, for he took this diagonal path through the weeds every day to meet Buddy Rourke, his friend from the class above his, so they could walk to school together, away from the pack of girls from Second Street. Buddy had no father, which made him strange and slightly frightening. He was moody, with hairs between his eyebrows. He had straight hair that bristled forward and a mouth that never smiled, because of braces, shiny metal bands with a silver square in the middle of each tooth. Owen wanted to run back to tell his mother that he had found his glasses and his father wouldn’t have to pay for new ones, but he didn't want to be late for Buddy, and hurried on, the recovered case making the pocket of his knickers damp, so the skin of his thigh tingled.
From this same side of the house, beyond the lot, early on another morning, Owen heard the sound of a shot. He had been sleeping. He seemed to awake in the moment before hearing, as if in a dream, the noise that had awoken him. He had seen enough gangster movies to know the sound of gunpowder under percussion, but in the movies it came in machine-gun waves, whereas this was a single, lonely sound.
His parents heard it, too, for they stirred in their bedroom, beyond his closed door, and the two voices, male and female, intertwined and then fell silent again. It was not quite dark outside; the trees in the side yard had silhouettes, their masses welling into that wash of gray light, with a faint tan tinge to the sky, before birds began to twitter. The street was silent, devoid of traffic, even a farm wagon. Later, he heard a siren, and later still the news, reported at breakfast by his father, who had been up the street news-gathering, that a young man in the Hoffmans’ household, two doors up from the house next to the vacant lot, had shot himself, with a service revolver, a Colt .38, that Wes Hoffman had kept from his time in the Great War. Danny Hoffman was not yet twenty, but a child under his supervision at a summer camp had dived into shallow water and broken his neck, and his responsibility had haunted him, though it had happened a summer ago. Danny had never been the same; he had stayed in the house listening to the radio serials and had stopped looking for a job.
That explained that. In a dozen years of Depression and World War II, from 1933 to 1945, it was the most dramatic event in Owen’s neighborhood. The woman across the street, Mrs. Yost, had a five-star flag in her front window, but all five soldier-sons came back in fine fettle. Skip Potteiger got Mary Lou Brumbach next door pregnant when she was only seventeen but then he married her so it was all right—by D-Day the baby was in a carriage that Mary Lou pushed back and forth on her way to the Acme, over the shallow troughs that carried roof water out to the gutter and the sidewalk squares that the roots of the horse-chestnut trees were tilting up, tripping you if you were on roller skates. On hot summer evenings the sounds of family quarrels would come across the street from the screened windows of the crowded row houses on the other side, the high side, up cement steps in the retaining walls that leaned outward precariously. But there were no divorces, as Owen remembered things. Voices were raised and shouts and door-slams cut through the neighborhood, but divorces happened elsewhere, in Hollywood and New York, and were tragic scandals, producing what nobody and certainly no child wanted: a broken home. The very phrase had a sinful, terrible sound and the ashen taste of disaster, like the bombed and smoking houses that filled the Fox Movietone newsreels at the Scheherazade, the local movie theatre. The world was full of destruction and evil, and only the United States, it seemed, could put it right. The country was at war, and in Owen’s fantasy the vacant lot in view of his bedroom was a bomb crater, overgrown with weeds.
The original willow tree still lived, coddled like an old dignitary with injections of pesticide and fertilizer thrust into its roots by making holes with a crowbar; it survived from the time when there had been a paper mill with a water wheel, and a pond stocked with trout, and a dirt racetrack, with harness races, before a grid of streets was laid out on the level low land north of the Pike. Owen’s house—not his house, really, and not even his parents’; it belonged to his mother’s parents, Isaac and Anna Rausch—was one of the older and bigger along Mifflin Avenue, bought by his grandfather when he felt rich from growing leaf tobacco in the First World War. He sold his farm and moved ten miles to this newly fashionable borough of Willow. Then, with the Depression, his savings melted away and his daughter and her husband and child moved in. One couple had a house, the other had some earning ability. Owen’s father was an accountant for one of the knitting mills in Alton. Owen’s auburn-haired, then slender mother sold draperies in an Alton department store until her little boy pricked her conscience by running after her down Mifflin Avenue, sobbing, as she was on her way to catch the trolley car; she quit the job to spend more time with him. His father, Floyd Mackenzie, came from Maryland. Owen had been named after a sickly grandfather who had died before he was born, but who, by the family’s legendary accounts, had had a twinkle, a sprightliness and inventiveness of mind, they thought of as Scots. He owned a hardware store, in Mt. Airy, this original Owen, and in his spare time had invented things, improvements on the implements he sold—a weed-extractor a person could operate without bending over, a hedge-trimmer geared to make the crank turn much easier—but no company had ever taken up their manufacture and made him rich. He died bankrupt and tubercular. Yet a glimmer of his hopes of outwitting the hard world descended to his grandson. The Mackenzies were not rich but were clever, canny. Owen’s father told him, “You take after my old man. You have his intellectual curiosity. He liked to sit and figure out how things worked. Me, I never wondered about anything except where my next dollar was coming from.” Daddy said this somewhat mournfully, as if the Mackenzie heritage was a mixed blessing—a hopeful imagination mixed with a certain frailty of constitution and essential ignorance of the way the world worked as it ground away day by day and picked your pockets.
His other grandfather, whom Owen lived with, had also a touch of the dreamer, selling his farm and investing in stocks that became worthless. He was a Pennsylvania German, but of an adaptable strain, speaking English perfectly, reading the afternoon newspaper faithfully, ornamenting his idleness with large thoughts and stately pronouncements. Owen recognized in the old man, with his yellowish mustache and white hair and gracefully gesturing hands, the wistfulness of the partial outsider, who had not quite found his way to the sources of power, the decisive secrets, in the only environment he knew.
“Pop should have been a politician, he has the gift of gab,” his son-in-law would say; but even Owen could see that his grandfather was too fastidious for politics, too passive-minded as he moved through his day, from the back yard, where he hoed and weeded a vegetable garden and could smoke a cigar, to his upstairs bedroom, where he took a nap, to the caneback sofa in the living room, where he sat waiting for Grammy to prepare the evening meal. His house was in Willow but, except for its lone child and Grammy, not quite of it. Grammy was a Yoder, the youngest of ten siblings, a member of a populous clan spread throughout the county. Willow was full of her relatives, cousins and nieces and nephews; sometimes she earned spare money by helping one of them with a big spring housecleaning, or helping prepare and serve a meal for a large gathering. These relatives had money: they owned small businesses or had good positions in the hosiery mills, wore nice clothes, and took vacations in the Poconos or along the Jersey Shore. When Owen heard them speak fondly of “Aunt Annie,” in that slow-spoken sentimental vein that country people so easily slipped into then, he at first had trouble realizing that they meant Grammy. We are different people, he realized, to different people.
After Owen had left it behind, his original village seemed an innocent, precious place, but it did not strike him as that while he lived there. It was the world, with a fathomless past and boundaries that were over the horizon. There were snakes in the grass and in piles of rocks warmed by the sun. Sex and religion had distinct, ancient odors; families perched like shaky nests on tangled twigs of previous history; and death could pounce in the middle of the night. In the period of young Danny Hoffman’s suicide, when Owen was still a child sleeping beneath a shelf holding two dozen Big Little Books, a one-eyed teddy bear called Bruno, and a rubber Mickey Mouse with a bare black chest and yellow shoes, a big horse-barn on the edge of Willow—the Blake farm, the property of absentee rich people from Delaware—burned down, and his father, who chased after disasters like a boy, reported how the horses, led to safety outside, in their terror bolted back inside, and how terrible the stench of their burning flesh and horsehair was. In the sky from Owen’s window that night, an orange glow silhouetted the roof and chimneys of the house next to the vacant lot, and the tallest spruces and hemlocks in people’s back yards beyond. The town fire sirens blasted again and again, enormous angry cries to which no answer came. As on the morning of the gunshot, Owen had rolled over and gone back to sleep, letting the world’s rivers of pain wash over him.
Excerpted from Villages 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.