• 2006-02-24

    New Fiction from John Updike


    Here is John Updike's latest fictional piece in New Yorker Magazine,titled "my father's tears"(http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fiction/060227fi_fiction.)On the face of it it seems to be about typical,perhaps even a little bit literarily overwrought, son-father relationship,just rendered  in a masterful way,or Updikean style.To my mind's eye,however,it's more about the protagonist's relationship with his ex-wife Deb(and how his upbringing,family background and religious orientation etc has been interwoven and interacted with his marital mishaps) than the assumed privileged reflection upon paternal affection.The father did play a integral part in the whole fabrication though;fathers actually.Deb's father plays the literary foil almost as perfectly as does the title character.Father's tears weren't shed for his son's departure for school;They were actually the emotional outburst the occasion of seeing his son off has set off  at that specific moment,which is the sudden enlightenment once so wonderfully captured and put by Shakespeare,'Life is but a walking shadow".Yes,in this world,nobody can forever stay;No relationship can be called permanent,the wedding vows be damned.Even if you are fortunate enough to survive the increasingly frequent marital tempest,death  always lurks around the bend,waiting to do the ugly severing in due course.So,if you think it tragic,why not cry?





    Issue of 2006-02-27

    Posted 2006-02-20

    Come to think of it, I saw my father cry only once. It was at the Alton train station, back when the trains still ran. I was on my way to Philadelphia to catch the train that would return me to Boston and college. I was eager to go, for already my home and my parents had become somewhat unreal to me, and college, with its courses and the hopes for my future they inspired and the girlfriend I had acquired in my sophomore year, had become more real every semester; it shocked me—threw me off track, as it were—to see that my father’s eyes, as he shook my hand goodbye, glittered with tears.

    I blamed it on our shaking hands: for eighteen years, we had never had occasion for this ritual, this manly contact, and we had groped our way into it only in the past few years. He was taller than I, though I was not short, and I realized, his hand warm in mine while he tried to smile, that he had a different perspective than I. I was going somewhere, and he was seeing me go. I was growing in my own sense of myself, and to him I was getting smaller. He had loved me, it came to me as never before. It was something that had not needed to be said before, and now his tears were saying it.

    The old Alton station was his kind of place, savoring of transit and the furtive small pleasures of city life. I had bought my first pack of cigarettes here, with no protest from the man running the newsstand, though I was a young-looking fifteen. He simply gave me my change and a folder of matches advertising Sunshine beer, Alton’s local brand. Alton was a middle-sized industrial city that had been depressed ever since the textile mills began to slide South. In the meantime, with its orderly street grid and hearty cuisine, it still supplied its citizens with traditional comforts and an illusion of well-being. I lit up a block from the station, as I remember, and even though I didn’t know how to inhale, my nerves took a hit; the sidewalk seemed to lift toward me and the whole world felt lighter. From that day forward I began to catch up, socially, with the more glamorous of my peers, who already smoked.

    Even my stay-at-home mother, no traveller but a reader, had a connection to the station: it was the only place in the city where you could buy The American Mercury and The Atlantic Monthly. Like the stately Carnegie library two blocks down Franklin Street, it was a place you felt safe inside. It had been built for eternity, when the railroads looked to be with us forever—a foursquare granite temple with marble floors, a high ceiling whose gilded coffers glinted through a coating of coal smoke, and tall-backed waiting benches as grave as church pews. The radiators clanked and the walls murmured as if giving back some of the human noise they absorbed, day and night. The newsstand and coffee shop were usually busy, and the waiting room was always warm, as my father and I had discovered on more than one winter night. We had been commuters to the same high school, he as a teacher and I as a student, in secondhand cars that on more than one occasion failed to start, or got stuck in a snowstorm. We would make our way to the station, one place sure to be open.

    We did not foresee, that moment on the platform as the signal bells a half mile down the tracks warned of my train’s approach, that within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop, and that eventually the station, like stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. It stood on its empty acre of asphalt parking space like an oversized mausoleum. All the life it had once contained was sealed into silence, and for most of the rest of the century it ignominiously waited, in this city where progress was slow, to be razed.

    But my father did foresee, the glitter in his eyes told me, that time consumes us—that the boy I had been was dying if not already dead, and we would have less and less to do with each other. I had taken my life from his, and now I was stealing away with it. The train appeared, the engine, with its shining long connecting rods and high steel wheels, out of all proportion to the little soft bodies it dragged along. I boarded it. My parents looked smaller, foreshortened. We waved sheepishly through the smirched glass. I opened my book—“The Complete Poetical Works of John Milton”—before Alton’s gritty outskirts had fallen away.

    At the end of that long day of travel, getting off not at Boston’s South Station but at Back Bay, one stop earlier and closer to Cambridge, I was met by my girlfriend. How swanky that felt, to read Milton all day, the relatively colorless and hard-to-memorize pentameters of “Paradise Regained,” and, in sight of the other undergraduates disembarking, to be met and embraced on the platform by a girl—no, a woman—wearing a gray cloth coat, canvas tennis sneakers, and a ponytail. It must have been spring break, because if Deb was greeting me the vacation had been too short for her to go back and forth to St. Louis, where her home was. Instead, she had been waiting a week for me to return. She tended to underdress in the long New England winter, while I wore the heavy winter coat, with buckled belt and fleecy lining, that my parents had bought me, to my embarrassment, to keep me from catching colds up in New England.

    She told me, as we rode first the Green Line and then the Red back to Harvard Square, what had happened to her that week. There had been an unpredicted snow squall, whose sullied traces were still around us, and she was angry to the point of tears at having been given, because of her college education, in the restaurant where she was a part-time waitress, the assignment of adding up numbers in the basement while the other waitresses pocketed all the tips. I told her what I could recall of my week in Pennsylvania, already faded in memory except for the detail lodged there like a glittering splinter—my father’s tears. My own eyes itched and burned after a day of reading in a jiggling train; I lifted them only to admire the shining water as the train travelled the stretch of track around New London.

    In the years when we were newly married and still childless, Deb and I would spend a summer month with each set of parents. Her father was an eminent Unitarian minister, who preached in a gray neo-Gothic edifice built for eternity near the Washington University campus. Each June he moved his family from the roomy brick parsonage on Lindell Boulevard to an abandoned Vermont farmhouse he had bought in the nineteen-thirties for less than five hundred dollars. Some Junes, Deb and I arrived before her father’s parish duties permitted him and the rest of his family, a wife and two other daughters, to be there. The chilly solitude of the place, with basic cold-water plumbing but no electricity, high on a curving dirt road whose only visible house, a half mile away, was occupied by another Unitarian minister, reinforced my sense of having moved up, thanks to my blue-eyed bride, into a new, more elevated and spacious territory.

    The lone bathroom was a long room, its plaster walls and wooden floor both bare, that was haunted by a small but intense rainbow, which moved around the walls as the sun in the course of the day glinted at a changing angle off the bevelled edge of the mirror on the medicine cabinet. When we troubled to heat up enough water on the kerosene stove for a daylight bath, the prismatically generated rainbow kept the bather company; it quivered and bobbed when footsteps or a breath of wind made the house tremble. To me this Ariel-like phenomenon was the magical child of Unitarian austerity, symbolic of the lofty attitude that sought out a primitive farmhouse as a relief from well-furnished urban comfort. It had to do, I knew, drawing upon my freshly installed education, with idealism, with Emerson and Thoreau, with self-reliance and taking Nature on Nature’s terms. A large side room in the house, well beyond the kerosene stove’s narrow sphere of warmth, held a big loom frame that had come with the house, and an obsolete encyclopedia, and a set, with faded spines, of aged but rarely touched books entitled “The Master Works of World Philosophy.” When I broke precedent by taking one of the volumes down, its finely ridged cloth cover gave my fingers an unpleasant tingle. It was the volume containing selections from Emerson’s essays. “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,” I read, and “Everything is made of one hidden stuff,” and “Every hero becomes a bore at last,” and “We boil at different degrees.”

    Deb used this large room, and the vine-shaded stone porch outside, to paint her careful oils and pale watercolors. When the day was sunny, and heating the tub water on the kerosene stove seemed too much trouble, we bathed in the mountain creek an easy walk from the house, in a pond whose dam her father had designed and built. I wanted to take her nude photograph with my Brownie Hawkeye, but she primly declined. One day I sneaked a few snapshots anyway, from the old bridge, while she, with exclamations that drowned out the noise of the shutter, waded in and took the plunge.

    It was in Vermont, before the others arrived, that, by our retrospective calculations, we conceived our first child, unintentionally but with no regrets. This microscopic event deep within my bride became allied in my mind with the little rainbow low on the bathroom wall, our pet imp of refraction.

    Her father, when he arrived, was a father I wasn’t used to. Mine, though he had sufficient survival skills, enacted the role of an underdog, a man whose every day, at school or elsewhere, proceeded through a series of scrapes and embarrassments. The car wouldn’t start, the students wouldn’t behave. He needed people, the rub o...