Authors: John Updike
“Why don’t you resign?” she asks. “Let the young people get involved before they drop away.”
“One more peace-in-Vietnam sermon, the old-timers will be pulling out anyway.” He falls heavily into bed, smelling of chewing gum. As with men who spend nights away from home drinking in bars, he feels guilty, but the motion, the brightness and excitement of the place where he has been continues in him: the varnished old tables, the yellowing Sunday-school charts, the folding chairs and pocked linoleum, the cork bulletin board, the chatter of the children’s choir leaving, the strange constant sense of dark sacred space surrounding their lit meeting room like Creation upholding a bright planet. “One more blessing on the damn Vietcong,” he mumbles, and the young minister’s face, white and worriedly sucking a pipestem, skids like a vision of the Devil across his plagued mind. He has a headache. The sides of his nose, the tops of his cheeks, the space above his ears—wherever the frames of his glasses dig—dully hurt. His wife snores, neglected. In less than seven hours, the alarm clock will ring. This must stop. He must turn over a new leaf.
His name is Miles. He is over fifty, an electrical engineer. Every seven years or so, he changes employers and locations.
He has been a member of the council of a prosperous Methodist church in Iowa, a complex of dashing brick-and-glass buildings set in acres of parking lot carved from a cornfield; then of a Presbyterian church in San Francisco, gold-rush Gothic clinging to the back of Nob Hill, attended on Sundays by a handful of Chinese businessmen and prostitutes in sunglasses and whiskery, dazed dropout youths looking for a warm place in which to wind up their Saturday-night trips; then of another Presbyterian church, in New York State, a dour granite chapel in a suburb of Schenectady; and most recently, in southeastern Pennsylvania, of a cryptlike Reformed church sunk among clouds of foliage so dense that the lights were kept burning in midday and the cobwebbed balconies swarmed all summer with wasps. Though Miles has travelled far, he has never broken out of the loose net of Calvinist denominations that places millions of Americans within sight of a spire. He wonders why. He was raised in Ohio, in a village that had lost the tang of the frontier but kept its embattled narrowness, and was confirmed in the same colorless, bean-eating creed that millions in his generation have left behind. He was not, as he understood the term, religious. Ceremony bored him. Closing his eyes to pray made him dizzy. He distinctly heard in the devotional service the overamplified tone of voice that in business matters would signal either ignorance or dishonesty. His profession prepared him to believe that our minds, with their crackle of self-importance, are merely collections of electrical circuits. He saw nothing about his body worth resurrecting. God, concretely considered, had a way of merging with that corner of the church ceiling that showed signs of water leakage. That men should be good, he did not doubt, or that social order demands personal sacrifice; but the Heavenly hypothesis, as it had fallen upon his ears
these forty years of Sundays, crushes us all to the same level of unworthiness, and redeems us all indiscriminately, elevating especially, these days, the irresponsible—the unemployable, the riotous, the outrageous, the one in one hundred that strays. More like the ninety-five in one hundred that stray. Neither God nor His ministers displayed love for deacons—indeed, Pharisees were the first objects of their wrath. Why persist, then, in work so thoroughly thankless, begging for pledges, pinching and scraping to save decaying old buildings, facing rings of Sunday-school faces baked to adamant cynicism by hours of television-watching, attending fruitless meetings where the senile and the frustrated dominate, arguing, yawning, missing sleep, the company of his wife, the small, certain joys of home? Why? He had wanted to offer his children the Christian option, to begin them as citizens as he had begun; but all have left home now, are in college or married, and, as far as he can tactfully gather, are unchurched. So be it. He has done his part.
A new job offer arrives, irresistible, inviting him to New England. In Pennsylvania the Fellowship Society gives him a farewell dinner; his squad of Sunday-school teachers presents him with a pen set; he hands in his laborious financial records, his neat minutes of vague proceedings. He bows his head for the last time in that dark sanctuary smelling of moldering plaster and buzzing with captive wasps. He is free. Their new house is smaller, their new town is wooden. He does not join a church; he stays home reading the Sunday paper. Wincing, he flicks past religious news. He drives his wife north to admire the turning foliage. His evenings are immense. He reads through Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War; he installs elaborate electrical gadgets around the house,
which now and then give his wife a shock. They go to drive-in movies, and sit islanded in acres of fornication. They go bowling and square-dancing, and feel ridiculous, too ponderous and slow. His wife, these years of evenings alone, has developed a time-passing pattern—television shows spaced with spells of sewing and dozing—into which he fits awkwardly. She listens to him grunt and sigh and grope for words. But Sunday mornings are the worst, stirred up by the swish and roar of churchward traffic on the street outside. He stands by the window; the sight of three little girls, in white beribboned hats, bluebird coats, and dresses of starched organdy, scampering home from Sunday school, gives him a pang unholy in its keenness.
Behind him, his wife says, “Why don’t you go to church?”
“No, I think I’ll wash the Dodge.”
“You washed it last Sunday.”
“Maybe I should take up golf.”
“You want to go to church. Go. It’s no sin.”
“Not the Methodists. Those bastards in Iowa nearly worked me to death.”
“What’s the pretty white one in the middle of town? Congregational. We’ve never been Congregationalists; they’d let you alone.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take a drive?”
“I get carsick with all this starting and stopping in New England. To tell the truth, Miles, it would be a relief to have you out of the house.”
Already he is pulling off his sweater, to make way for a clean shirt. He puts on a coat that doesn’t match his pants. “I’ll go,” he says, “but I’ll be damned if I’ll join.”
He arrives late, and sits staring at the ceiling. It is a wooden church, and the beams and ceiling boards in drying out have
pulled apart. Above every clear-glass window he sees the stains of leakage, the color of dried apples. At the door, the minister, a pale young man with a round moon face and a know-it-all pucker to his lips, clasps Miles’s hand as if never to let it go. “We’ve been looking for you, Miles. We received a splendid letter about you from your Reformed pastor in Pennsylvania. As you know, since the UCC merger you don’t even need to be reconfirmed. There’s a men’s supper this Thursday. We’ll hope to see you there.” Some minister’s hands, Miles has noticed, grow fatty under the pressure of being so often shaken, and others dwindle to the bones; this one’s, for all his fat face, is mostly bones.
The church as a whole is threadbare and scrawny; it makes no resistance to his gradual domination of the Men’s Club, the Board of Finance, the Debt Liquidation and Building Maintenance Committee. He cannot help himself; he is a leader, a doer. He and a few shaggy Pilgrim Youth paint the Sunday-school chairs Chinese-red. He and one grimy codger and three bottles of beer clean the furnace room of forgotten furniture and pageant props, of warped hymnals and unused programs still tied in the printer’s bundles, of the gilded remnants of a dozen abandoned projects. Once, he attends a committee meeting to which no one else comes. It is a gusty winter night, a night of cold rain from the sea, freezing on the roads. The minister has been up all night with the family of a suicide and cannot himself attend; he has dropped off the church keys with Miles.
The front-door key, no bigger than a car key, seems magically small for so large a building. Is it the only one? Miles makes a mental note: Have duplicates made. He turns on a light and waits for the other committee members—a retired
banker and two maiden ladies. The furnace is running gamely, but with an audible limp in its stride. It is a coal burner converted to oil twenty years ago. The old cast-iron clinker grates are still heaped in a corner, too heavy to throw out. They should be sold for scrap. Every penny counts. Miles thinks, as upon a mystery, upon the prodigality of heating a huge vacant barn like this with such an inefficient burner. Hot air rises direct from the basement to the ceiling, drying and spreading the wood. The fuel needle keeps getting gummed up. Waste. Nothing but waste in this operation, salvage and waste. And weariness.
Miles removes his glasses and rubs the chafed spots at the bridge of his nose. He replaces them to look at his watch. His watch has stopped, its small face wet from the storm like an excited child’s. The electric clock in the minister’s study has been unplugged. There are books: concordances, daily helps, through the year verse by verse, great sermons, best sermons, sermon hints, all second-hand, no, third-hand, worse, hundredth-hand, thousandth-hand, a coin rubbed blank. The books are leaning on their sides and half the shelves are empty. Empty. The desk is clean. He tests the minister’s fountain pen and it is dry. Dry as an old snakeskin, dry as a locust husk that still clings to a tree.
In search of the time, Miles goes into the sanctuary. The 1880 pendulum clock on the choir balustrade still ticks. He can hear it in the dark, overhead. He switches on the nave lights. A moment passes before they come on. Some shaky connection in the toggle, the wiring doubtless rotten throughout the walls, a wonder it hasn’t burned down. Miles has never belonged to a wooden church before. Around and above him, like a stiff white forest, the hewn frame creaks and groans in conversation with the wind. The high black windows, lashed
as if by handfuls of sand, seem to flinch, yet do not break, and Miles feels the timbers of this ark, with its ballast of box pews, give and sway in the fierce weather, yet hold; and this is why he has come, to share the pride of this ancient thing that will not quite die, to have it all to himself. Warm air from a floor grill breathes on his ankles. Miles can see upward past the clock and the organ to the corner of the unused gallery where souvenirs of the church’s past—Puritan pew doors, tin foot-warmers, velvet collection bags, Victorian commemorative albums, cracking portraits of wigged pastors, oval photographs of deceased deacons, and unlabelled ferrotypes of chubby cross children lined up under trees long since cut down—repose in dusty glass cases that are in themselves antiques. All this anonymous treasure Miles possesses by being here, like a pharaoh hidden with his life’s rich furniture while the rain like a robber rattles to get in.
Yes, the deacon sees, it is indeed a preparation for death—an emptiness where many others have been, which is what death will be. It is good to be at home here. Nothing now exists but himself, this shell, and the storm. The windows clatter; the sand has turned to gravel, the rain has turned to sleet. The storm seizes the church by its steeple and shakes, but the walls were built, sawed and nailed, with devotion, and withstand. The others are very late, they will not be coming; Miles is not displeased, he is pleased. He has done his part. He has kept the faith. He turns off the lights. He locks the door.
T THE FAREWELL PARTY
for the Bridesons, the Bridesons themselves were very tired. Lou (for Louise) had been sorting and packing and destroying for days, and her sleep was gouged by nightmares of trunks that would not close, of doors that opened to reveal forgotten secret rooms crammed with yet more debris from ten years’ residence—with unmended furniture and outgrown toys and stacked
s and hundreds, thousands, of children’s drawings, each one a moment, a memory, impossible to keep, impossible to discard. And there was another dream, recurrent, in which she and the children arrived in Texas. Brown horizon on all sides enclosed a houseless plain. They wheeled the airplane stairway away, and Tom was not there, he was not with them. Of course: he had left them. He had stayed behind, in green Connecticut. “Now, children”—she seemed to be shouting into a sandstorm—“we must keep together, together.…” Lou would awake, and the dark body beside hers in the bed was an alien presence, a visitor from another world.
And Tom, hurriedly tying up loose ends in the city, lunching one day with his old employers and the next day with representatives of his new, returning each evening to an emptier house and increasingly apprehensive children, slept badly also. The familiar lulling noises—car horn and dog bark, the late commuter train’s slither and the main drag’s murmur—had become irritants; the town had unravelled into tugging threads of love. Departure rehearses death. He lay staring with open sockets, a void where thoughts swirled until the spell was broken by the tinkle of the milkman, who also, it seemed, had loved him. Fatigue lent to everything the febrile import of an apparition. At the farewell party, his friends of over a decade seemed remote, yet garish. Linda Cotteral, that mouse, was wearing green eyeshadow. Bugs Leonard had gone Mod—turquoise shirt, wide pink tie—and had come already drunk from cocktails somewhere else. Maggie Aldridge, as Tom was carrying the two coats to the bedroom, swung down the hall in a white dress with astonishingly wide sleeves. Taken unawares, Tom uttered the word “Lovely!” to hide his loud heartbeat. She grinned, and then sniffed, as if to erase the grin. Her grin, white above white, had been a momentary flash of old warmth, but in the next moment, as she brushed by him, her eyes were cast ahead in stony pretense of being just another woman. He recognized his impulse to touch her, to seize her wrist, as that of a madman, deranged by lack of sleep.