Friday, July 25, 2014

the last book I ever read (John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, excerpt seven)

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike:

To placate the pain, he switches to weeding the day lilies and the violet hosta. Wherever a gap permits lights to activate the sandy soil, chickweed and crabgrass grow, and purslane with its hollow red stems covers the earth in busy round-leaved zigzags. Weeds too have their styles, their own personalities that talk back to the gardener in the daze of the task. Chickweed is a good weed, soft on the hands unlike thistles and burdock, and pulls easily; it knows when the jig is up and comes willingly, where wild cucumber keeps breaking off at one of its many joints, and grass and red sorrel and poison ivy spread underground, like creeping diseases that cannot be cured. Weeds don’t know they’re weeds. Safe next to the trunk of the weeping cherry a stalk of blue lettuce has grown eight feet tall, taller than he. Those days he spent ages ago being Mrs. Smith’s gardener among her rhododendrons, the one time he ever felt rooted in a job. Fine strong young man, she had called him at the end, gripping him with her claws.

A block and a half away, the traffic on Penn Boulevard murmurs and hisses, its purr marred by the occasional sudden heave and grind of a great truck shifting gears, or by an angry horn, or the wop-wop-wopping bleat of an ambulance rushing some poor devil to the hospital. You see them now and then, driving down a side street, these scenes: some withered old lady being carried in a stretcher down her porch stairs in a slow-motion sled ride, her hair unpinned, her mouth without its dentures, her eyes staring skyward as if to disown her body; or some red-faced goner being loaded into the double metal doors while his abandoned mate in her bathrobe snivels on the curb and the paramedics close around his body like white vultures feeding. Rabbit has noticed a certain frozen peacefulness in such terminal street tableaux. A certain dignity in the doomed one, his or her moment come round at last; a finality that isolates the ensemble like a spotlit crèche. You would think people would take it worse than they do. They don’t scream, they don’t accuse God. We curl into ourselves, he supposes. We become numb bundles of used-up nerves. Earthworms on the hook.

From far across the river, a siren wails in the heart of Brewer. Above, in a sky gathering its fishscales for a rainy tomorrow, a small airplane rasps as it coasts into the airport beyond the old fairgrounds. What Harry instantly loved about this house was its hiddenness: not so far from all this traffic, it is yet not easy to find, on its macadamized dead end, tucked with its fractional number among the more conspicuous homes of the Penn Park rich. He always resented these snobs and now is safe among them. Pulling into his dead-end driveway, working out back in his garden, watching TC in his den with its wavery lozenge-paned windows, Rabbit feels safe as in a burrow, where the hungry forces at loose in the world would never think to find him.

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