Read Rabbit at rest Online

Authors: John Updike

Tags: #Fiction - General, #Angstrom; Harry (Fictitious ch, #Middle Class Men, #Animals, #Animals - Rabbits, #Non-Classifiable, #Juvenile Fiction, #Rabbits, #Novelty, #Angstrom; Harry (Fictitious character) Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Middle class men - Fiction, #Psychological, #Angstrom; Harry (Fictitious character), #Middle class men United States Fiction, #Psychological Fiction, #Fiction, #United States, #Angstrom; Harry (Fictitious character) - Fiction, #Updike; John - Prose & Criticism

Rabbit at rest

Rabbit At Rest

By John Updike

Rabbit basks above that old remembered world, rich, at
rest.

-Rabbit Is Rich

Food to the indolent is poison, not sustenance.

-Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

I. FL

STANDING amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the
Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny
sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what's floating
in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and
daughterin-law Pru and their two children but something
more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like
an airplane. The sensation chills him, above and beyond the
terminal airconditioning. But, then, facing Nelson has made
him feel uneasy for thirty years.

The airport is relatively new. You drive to it of Exit 21 of
Interstate 75 down three miles of divided highway that for all the
skinny palms in rows and groomed too-green flat-bladed
grass at its sides seems to lead nowhere. There are no billboards
or selfadvertising roadside enterprises or those low houses
with cooling white-tile roofs that are built by the acre down
here. You think you've made a mistake. An anxious red Camaro
convertible is pushing in the rearview mirror.

"Harry, there's no need to speed. We're early if anything."

Janice, Rabbit's wife, said this to him on the way in. What
rankled was the tolerant, careful tone she has lately adopted, as
if he's prematurely senile. He looked over and watched her tuck
back a stubborn fluttering wisp of half-gray hair from her
suntoughened little brown nut of a face. "Honey, I'm being
tailgated," he explained, and eased back into the right lane
and let the speedometer needle quiver back below sixty-five.
The Camaro convertible passed in a rush, a .cocoa-brown black
chick in a gray felt stewardess's cap at the wheel, her chin and
lips pushing forward, not giving him so much as a sideways
glance. This rankled, too. From the back, the way they've designed
the trunk and bumper, a Camaro seems to have a mouth, two fat metal
lips parted as if to hiss. So maybe Harry's being spooked began
then.

The terminal when it shows up at last is a long low white
building like a bigger version of the sunstruck clinics -
dental, chiropractic, arthritic, cardiac, legal,
legal-medical - that line the boulevards of this state
dedicated to the old. You park at a lot only a few steps away from
the door of sliding brown glass: the whole state babies you.
Inside, upstairs, where the planes are met, the spaces are long and
low and lined in tasteful felt gray like that cocky stewardess's
cap and filled with the kind of music you become aware of only when
the elevator stops or when the dentist stops drilling. Plucked
strings, no vocals, music that's used to being ignored, a kind of
carpet in the air, to cover up a silence that might remind you of
death. These long low tasteful spaces, as little cluttered by
advertisements as the highway, remind Rabbit of something.
Air-conditioning ducts, he thinks at first, and then crypts.
These are futuristic spaces like those square tunnels in movies
that a trick of the camera accelerates into spacewarp to show we're
going from one star to the next. 2001, will he be alive? He touches
Janice at his side, the sweated white cotton of her tennis dress at
the waist, to relieve his sudden sense of doom. Her waist is
thicker, has less of a dip, as she grows into that barrel body of
women in late middle age, their legs getting skinny, their arms
getting loose like cooked chicken coming off the bone. She wears
over the sweaty tennis dress an open-weave yellow cardigan
hung unbuttoned over her shoulders against the chill of airport
airconditioning. He is innocently proud that she looks, in her
dress and tan, even to the rings of pallor that sunglasses have
left around her eyes, like these other American grandmothers who
can afford to be here in this land of constant sunshine and eternal
youth.

"Gate A5," Janice says, as if his touch had been a technical
question. "From Cleveland by way of Newark," she says, with that
businesswoman efficiency she has taken on in middle age, especially
since her mother died seven years ago, leaving her the lot,
Springer Motors and its assets, one of only two Toyota agencies in
the Brewer, Pennsylvania, area: the family all still speak of it as
"the lot," since it began as a used-car lot owned and run by
Fred Springer, dead Fred Springer, who is reincarnated, his widow
Bessie and daughter Janice have the fantasy, in Nelson, both being
wiry shrimps with something shifty about them. Which is why Harry
and Janice spend half the year in Florida - so Nelson can
have free run of the lot. Harry, Chief Sales Representative for
over ten years, with him and Charlie Stavros managing it all
between them, wasn't even mentioned in Ma Springer's will, for all
the years he lived with her in her gloomy big house on Joseph
Street and listened to her guff about what a saint Fred was and her
complaining about her swollen ankles. Everything went to Janice, as
if he was an unmentionable incident in the Springer dynasty. The
house on Joseph Street, that Nelson and his family get to live in
just for covering the upkeep and taxes, must be worth three hundred
thousand now that the yuppies are moving across the mountain from
northeast Brewer into the town of Mt. Judge, not to mention the
cottage -in the Poconos where even the shacks in the woods
have skyrocketed, and the lot land alone, four acres along Route
111 west of the river, might bring close to a million from one of
the hi-tech companies that have come into the Brewer area
this last decade, to take advantage of the empty factories, the
skilled but depressed laboring force, and the old-fashionedly
cheap living. Janice is rich. Rabbit would like to share with her
the sudden chill he had felt, the shadow of some celestial
airplane, but a shell she has grown repels him. The dress at her
waist when he touched it felt thick and unresponsive, a damp hide.
He is alone with his premonition.

A crowd of welcomers has collected this Tuesday after Christmas
in this last year of Ronald Reagan's reign. A little man with that
hunched back and awkward swiftness Jews often seem to have dodges
around them and shouts behind him to his wife, as if the Angstroms
weren't there, "Come on, Grace!"

Grace, Harry thinks. A strange name for a Jewish woman. Or maybe
not. Biblical names, Rachel, Esther, but not always: Barbra, Bette.
He is still getting used to the Jews down here, learning from them,
trying to assimilate the philosophy that gives them such a grip on
the world. That humpbacked old guy in his pink checked shirt and
lipstick-red slacks racing as if the plane coming in was the
last train out of Warsaw. When Harry and Janice were planning the
move down here their advisers on Florida, mostly Charlie Stavros
and Webb Murkett, told them the Gulf side was the Christian coast
as opposed to the Jewish Atlantic side but Harry hasn't noticed
that really; as far as his acquaintanceship goes all Florida is as
Jewish as New York and Hollywood and Tel Aviv. In their condo
building in fact he and Janice are pets of a sort, being gentiles:
they're considered cute. Watching that little guy, seventy if he's
a day, breaking into a run, hopping zigzag through the padded
pedestal chairs so he won't be beaten out at the arrival gate,
Harry remorsefully feels the bulk, two hundred thirty pounds the
kindest scales say, that has enwrapped him at the age of fiftyfive
like a set of blankets the decades have brought one by one. His
doctor down here keeps telling him to cut out the beer and munchies
and each night after brushing his teeth he vows to but in the
sunshine of the next day he's hungry again, for anything salty and
easy to chew. What did his old basketball coach, Marty Tothero,
tell him toward the end of his life, about how when you get old you
eat and eat and it's never the right food? Sometimes Rabbit's
spirit feels as if it might faint from lugging all this body
around. Little squeezy pains tease his ribs, reaching into his
upper left arm. He has spells of feeling short of breath and
mysteriously full in the chest, fill of some pressing essence. When
he was a kid and had growing pains he would be worried and the
grownups around him laughed them off on his behalf; now he is
unmistakably a grownup and must do his own laughing off.

A colorful octagonal nook of a shop selling newspapers and
magazines and candy and coral souvenirs and ridiculous pastel
T-shirts saying what bliss southwestern Florida is interrupts
the severe gray spaces of the airport. Janice halts and says,
"Could you wait here a sec till I see if they have the new
Elle
? And maybe I should go back and use the Ladies while
I have the chance, the traffic going home might be terrible what
with the weather continuing so beachy."

"Now you think of it," he says. "Well, do it if you're going to
do it." The little Mamie Eisenhower bangs she still wears have
grown skimpy with the years and curly with the humidity and
saltwater and make her look childish and stubborn and cute,
actually, along with the sun wrinkles.

"We still have ten minutes at least, I don't know what that jerk
was in such a hurry about."

"He was just in love with life," Harry tells her, and obediently
waits. While she's in the Ladies he cannot resist going into the
shop and buying something to nibble, a Planter's Peanutbrittle bar
for forty-five cents. Planter's Original Peanut Bar, the
wrapper says. It was broken in two somewhere in transit and he
thinks of saving one half to offer his two grandchildren when
they're all together in the car heading home. It would make a small
hit. But the first half is so good he eats the second and even
dumps the sweet crumbs out of the wrapper into his palm and with
his tongue licks them all up like an anteater. Then he thinks of
going back and buying another for his grandchildren and him to
share in the car- "Look what Grandpa has!" as they turn onto
Interstate 75 - but doesn't trust himself not to eat it all
and makes himself stand and look out the window instead. This
airport has been 'designed with big windows viewing the runways, so
if there's a crash everybody can feast upon it with their own eyes.
The fireball, the fuselage doing a slow skidding twirl, shedding
its wings. As he tries with his tongue to clean the sticky brittle
stuff, the caramelized sugar and corn syrup, from between his teeth
- all his still, thank God, and the front ones not even
crowned - Rabbit stares out through the glass at the wide
blank afternoon. The runway tapering to a triangle, the Florida
flatness turning brown as thatch beyond the green reach of a
watering system. Winter, the shadow of it that falls down here,
hasn't hit yet. Every day the temperature has been in the eighties.
After four winters in Florida he knows how the wind off the Gulf
can cut into you on the first tee ifyou have an early starting time
and the sweaters can be shed only as the sun climbs toward noon,
but this December except for that one cold snap in the middle of
the month has been like early September in Pennsylvania -
hot, and only the horse chestnuts turning and only a certain weary
dryness in the air and the buzz of cicadas to suggest that summer
is over.

As the candy settles in his stomach a sense of doom regrows its
claws around his heart: little prongs like those that hold fast a
diamond solitaire. There has been a lot of death in the newspapers
lately. Max Robinson the nation's first and only black national
anchorman and Roy Orbison who always wore black and black
sunglasses and sang "Pretty Woman" in that voice that could go high
as a woman's and then before Christmas that Pan Am Flight 103
ripping open like a rotten melon five miles above Scotland and
dropping all these bodies and flaming wreckage all over the golf
course and the streets of this little town like Glockamorra, what
was its real name, Lockerbie. Imagine sitting there in your seat
being lulled by the hum of the big Rolls-Royce engines and
the stewardesses bringing the clinking drinks caddy and the feeling
of having caught the plane and nothing to do now but relax and then
with a roar and giant ripping noise and scattered screams this
whole cozy world dropping away and nothing under you but black
space and your chest squeezed by the terrible unbreathable cold,
that cold you can scarcely believe is there but that you sometimes
actually feel still packed into the suitcases, stored in the
unpressurized hold, when you unpack your clothes, the dirty
underwear and beach towels with the merciless chill of death from
outer space still in them. Just yesterday some jet flying from
Rochester to Atlanta tore open at thirty-one thousand feet, a
fourteen-inch hole the newspaper said, and was lucky to land
in West Virginia. Everything falling apart, airplanes, bridges,
eight years under Reagan of nobody minding the store, making money
out of nothing, running up debt, trusting in God.

Harry has flown in his life to dealers' conferences here and
there and that great time nine years ago with two other couples to
the Caribbean, but to Florida he and Janice always drive, so they
have the car there. Nelson will probably bitch because there's only
one, though it's a Camry station wagon that takes six comfortably;
Nelson likes to do his own thing, going off on mysterious errands
that take hours. Nelson. A real sore spot. Harry's tongue begins to
sting, so he stops working at a jagged bit of corn-syrup
sweetness stuck behind an eye tooth.

And also in the Fort Myers
News-Press
this
morning an item about a pregnant woman over in Fort Lauderdale shot
in an attempted robbery yesterday. Must have been black but the
paper didn't say so, they don't now. She died but they saved the
baby by Caesarean section. And then there was also on the front
page this interview with a guy convicted of picking up a
twelve-year-old girl and getting her to smoke dope and
raping her and then burning her alive somehow and now complaining
about the cockroaches and rats in the cell on death row and telling
the reporter, "I've always tried to do the best I can, but I'm no
angel. And I'm no killer either." His saying this made Harry laugh,
it rang a kind of bell with him. No angel yet no killer either. Not
like this guy Bundy who murdered dozens of women in dozens of
states and has been stalling his execution for ten years in
Tallahassee down here. And Hirohito too is taking his time. Harry
can remember when Hirohito was right up there with Hitler and
Mussolini in the war propaganda.

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