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Authors: John Updike

Pigeon Feathers

BOOK: Pigeon Feathers
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Pigeon Feathers
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

2012
Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition

Copyright © 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962 by John Updike

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

R
ANDOM
H
OUSE
T
RADE
P
APERBACKS
and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., in 1962.

Of these nineteen stories, seventeen were originally published in
The New Yorker
. “Archangel” was first printed in
Big Table;
“The Crow in the Woods” was in
The Transatlantic Review
.
The stories are arranged in the order in which they were written.

eISBN: 978-0-679-64576-4

Cover design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Cover photo: © felinda/iStockphoto

www.atrandom.com

v3.1

Walter Briggs

C
OMING BACK FROM
B
OSTON
, Jack drove, his baby son slept in a Carry-Cot on the front seat beside him, and in the back seat Claire sang to their girl, Jo, age two.

“When the pie was open, the birds began to—?”

“King,” the child said.

“Wasn’t that a dainty dish, to set before the—?”

“King!”

“That’s right.”

“Sing birdy nose song.”

“Sing birdy nose song? I don’t know the birdy nose song.
You
sing the birdy nose song. How does it go?”

“How does go?”

“I’m asking you. Who sings you the birdy nose song? Did Miss Duni do that?”

Jo laughed at the old joke; “Miss Duni” was a phrase that had popped magically from her mouth one day. “Who’s Miss Duni?” she asked now.


I
don’t know who Miss Duni is. You’re the one who knows Miss Duni. When did she teach you the birdy nose song?”

“Birdy nose, birdy nose, knock knock knock,” the little girl chanted lightly.

“What a
good
song! I wish Miss Duni would teach it to me.”

“It’s the second stanza of the blackbird song,” Jack said. “Down came a blackbird and picked off her nose.”

“I’ve
never
sung it to her,” Claire vowed.

“But you know it. It’s in your genes.”

In ten minutes—the trip took fifty—the child fell asleep, and Claire eased this weight off her lap. Then, turning from a mother into a wife, she rested her chin on the back of the front seat, near Jack’s shoulder, and breathed on the right side of his neck.

“Who did you like best at the party?” he asked.

“I don’t know, really. It’s hard. I’ll say Langmuir, because he saw what I meant about Sherman Adams.”

“Everybody saw what you meant; it’s just that everybody saw it was beside the point.”

“It wasn’t.”

“Who’s best,” he asked her, “Langmuir or Behnie?” This game, Who’s Best?, was one of their few devices for whiling away enforced time together. A poor game, it lacked the minimal element of competition needed to excite Jack.

“I suppose Langmuir,” Claire said, after taking thought.

“Knifing poor old Behnie in the back. And he loves you so.”

“He
is
kind; I hate myself. Uh—who’s best, Behnie, or the boy with the cleft chin and the help-me eyes?”

“The boy with the help-me eyes,” he promptly answered. “Oh, he’s awful. What
is
his name?”

“Crowley? Cra— Crackers?”

“Something like that. Graham Crackers. What was the name of the girl he was with with the big ears who was so lovely?”

“The poor thing, whatever makes her think she can wear those bobbly gold gypsy hoops?”

“She’s not ashamed of her ears. She’s proud. She thinks they’re grand. Which they are—a lovely girl. To think, I may never see her again.”


Her
name had
o
’s in it.”

“Orlando. Ooh-Ooh Orlando, the soap-bubble queen.”

“Not quite.”

The highway made a white pyramid in the headlights; the murmur of the motor sounded lopsided, and occasionally a whiff of gasoline haunted the car’s interior.
Fuel pump
, he thought, and visualized jets of explosive fluid spraying the piping-hot metal. Pieces of dirt had always been getting into the fuel pump of his father’s old Buick, and the car would flood and stall. “This car is going to start costing us money soon,” he said, and got no response. He glanced at the speedometer and said, “Forty-three thousand miles it’s travelled for us.” He added, “Birdy nose, birdy nose, knock knock knock.”

Claire laughed abruptly, at something she had thought of. “I know. What was the name of that fat man at Arrow Island who stayed the whole summer and played bridge every night and wore a droopy fisherman’s hat?”

He laughed, too, at her recalling this man. The first three months of their married life, five years ago, had been spent at a YMCA family camp on an island in a New Hampshire lake. Jack had worked as registrar, and his bride had run the camp store. “Walter,” he began confidently. “Then something monosyllabic. He was always fishing down by that row of men’s tents and was there when we got there and stayed after we left, to help them take the metal pier down.” He could see everything about the man: his sly cat’s smile, the peak of hair at the back of his head, his hemispherical stomach, his candy-striped T-shirt, and his crepe-soled shoes.

“Give me,” Claire went on, “Mrs. Young’s first name.”
Young, a chain-smoking failed minister, had been in charge of the camp; his wife was a short thick-necked woman with a square face and alert green eyes and, like so many wives of “good” men, a rather tart tongue. Once, she had called up from the mainland with an excursion of children, and Jack, overworked, had forgotten to tell the Dartmouth boy who ran the launch, and when she called an hour later, still waiting with these whiny children on the hot mainland, Jack had exclaimed into the faint telephone (the underwater cable was all but eaten away), “How ghastly!” After that, all summer, she called him How Gawstly. Coming into the office, she would rasp, “And how’s old How Gawstly today?” and Jack would blush.

“Marguerite,” he said.

“Right,” Claire said. “Now their two girls.”

“One was Muffie, she was the tractable one. And the other—”


I
know.”

“Wait. Muffie and—it kind of rhymed. Muffie and Toughie.”

“Audrey. She had a chipped front tooth.”


Very
good. Now let’s think about that fat man. It began with
B
. Baines. Bodds. Byron. They went together, so you never thought of him as one name or the other but as both run together. Walter Buh, buh—isn’t that maddening?”

“Byron sounds close. Remember he was so good at shuffle-board, and organized the tournaments every week?”

“He played cards at night, in the rec hall. I can just
see
him, sitting there, on a brown, steel, folding chair.”

“Didn’t he live the rest of the year in Florida?” she asked, laughing at the idea of a man spending his entire year in vacation spots, and laughing further because, if you tried to imagine such a man, who could he be but lazy, complacent Walter Somebody?

“He used to sell plumbing equipment,” Jack said with triumph. “He was retired.” But this avenue, like the others, queerly failed to lead to the sanctum where the man’s name was hidden. “I can remember their professions but not their names,” he said, anxious to score something in his own favor, for he felt his wife was getting ahead of him at this game. “I should remember them all,” he went on. “I wrote all their names down on those damn registration cards.”

“Yes, you should. Who was that girl who had to leave the island because she started throwing stones at people?”

“God, yes. Mentally disturbed, and
aw
fully good-looking. And never said anything.”

“She used to stand under trees and brood.”

“Oh, how Young worried with her! And that other Special Case, who was always coming back on the train, and said his brother in Springfield would pay, and the Y had this special fund he thought was all for him.…”

“He loved chess so. Checkers. I guess you tried to teach him chess.”

“Everything you’d show him on the board, he’d say, ‘Pretty neat,’ or ‘You’re a mighty smart fella.’ ”

“And every time you’d say anything he’d sense you thought was funny, he’d laugh hysterically, that high laugh. He loved us, because we were nice to him.”

“Robert—”


Roy
, darling; how could you forget Roy? And then there was Peg Grace.”

“Peg, Grace. Those huge eyes.”

“And that tiny long nose with the nostrils shaped like water wings,” Claire said. “Now: tell me the name of her pasty-faced boyfriend.”

“With the waxy blond hair. Lord. I can’t con
ceiv
ably hope to remember his name. He was only there a week.”

“I always remember him coming up from the lake after swimming. That long white body and then those tiny black bathing trunks: sexy. Oogh.”

“He
was
white. But not unpleasant. In retrospect,” Jack announced pompously, “I like them all, except the German kitchen boy with curly hair he thought was so cute and apoplectic cheeks.”

“You didn’t like him because he was always making eyes at me.”

“Was he? Yes, he was, now that I think. The thing I really had against him, though, was that he beat me so badly in the broad jump. Then the Peruvian beat him, happily.”

BOOK: Pigeon Feathers
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