with “a kind of sweet panic” he runs: Rabbit Angstrom lights out for the territory

"Rabbit comes to the curb but instead of going to his right and around the block he steps down, with as big a feeling as if this little sidestreet is a wide river, and crosses… His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs."

John Updike dead at age 76

 
 

 


The final pages of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run:

 

"How would you support me? How many wives can you support? Your jobs are a joke. You aren’t worth hiring. Maybe once you could play basketball but you can’t do anything now. What the hell do you think the world is?"

          "Please have the baby," he says. "You got to have it."

          "Why? Why do you care?"

          "I don’t know. I don’t know any of these answers. All I know is what feels right. You feel right to me. Sometimes Janice used to. Sometimes nothing does."

          "Who cares? That’s the thing. Who cares what you feel?"

          "I don’t know," he says again.

          She groans from her face he feared she would spit and turns and looks at the wall that is all in bumps from being painted over peeling previous coats so often.

          He says, "I’m hungry. Why don’t I go out to the delicatessen and get us something. Then we can think."

          She turns, steadier. "I’ve been thinking," she says. "You know where I was when you came here the other day? I was with my parents. You know I have parents. They’re pretty poor parents but that’s what they are. They live in West Brewer. They know. I mean they know some things. They know I’m pregnant. Pregnant’s a nice word, it happens to everybody, you don’t have to think too much what you must do to get that way. Now I’d like to marry you. I would. I mean whatever I said but if we’re married it’ll be all right. Now you work it out. You divorce that wife you feel so sorry for about once a month, you divorce her or forget me. If you can’t work it out, I’m dead to you; I’m dead to you and this baby of yours is dead too. Now: get out if you want to." Saying all this unsteadies her and makes her cry, but she pretends she’s not. She grips the back of the chair, the sides of her nose shining, and looks at him to say something. The way she’s fighting for control of herself repels him; he doesn’t like people who manage things. He likes things to happen of themselves.

          He has nervously felt her watching him for some sign of resolution inspired by her speech. In fact he has hardly listened; it is too complicated and, compared to the vision of a sandwich, unreal. He stands up, he hopes with soldierly effect, and says, "That’s fair. I’ll work it out. What do you want at the store?" A sandwich and a glass of milk, and then undressing her, getting her out of that cotton dress harried into wrinkles and seeing that thickened waist calm in its pale cool skin. He loves women when they’re first pregnant; a kind of dawn comes over their bodies. If he can just once more bury himself in her he knows he’ll come up with his nerves all combed.

          "I don’t want anything," she says.

          "Oh you got to eat," he says.

          "I’ve eaten," she says.

          He tries to kiss her but she says "No" and does not look inviting, fat and flushed and her many-colored hair straggled and damp.

          "I’ll be right back," he says.

          As he goes down the stairs worries come as quick as the click of his footsteps. Janice, money, Eccles’ phone call, the look on his mother’s face all clatter together in sharp dark waves; guilt and responsibility slide together like two substantial shadows inside his chest. The mere engineering of it the conversations, the phone calls, the lawyers, the finances seems to complicate, physically, in front of his mouth, s., he is conscious of the effort of breathing, and every action, just reaching for the doorknob, feels like a precarious extension of along mechanical sequence insecurely linked to his heart. The doorknob’s solidity answers his touch, and turns with a silky click.

          Outside in the air his fears condense. Globes of ether, pure nervousness, slide down his legs. The sense of outside space scoops at his chest. Standing on the step he tries to sort out his worries. Two thoughts comfort him, let a little light through the dense pack of impossible alternatives. Ruth has parents, and she will let his baby live; two thoughts that are perhaps the same thought, the vertical order of parenthood, a kind of thin tube upright in time in which our solitude is somewhat diluted. Ruth and Janice both have parents: on this excuse he dissolves them both. Nelson remains: here is a hardness he must carry with him. On this small fulcrum he tries to balance the rest, weighing opposites against each other: Janice and Ruth, Eccles and his mother, the right way and the good way, the way to the delicatessen gaudy with stacked fruit lit by a naked bulb and the other way, down Summer Street to where the city ends. He tries to picture how it will end, with an empty baseball field, a dark factory, and then over a brook into a dirt road, he doesn’t know. He pictures a huge vacant field of cinders and his heart goes hollow.

          Afraid, really afraid, he remembers what once consoled him by seeming to make a hole where he looked through into under lying brightness, and lifts his eyes to the church window. It is, because of church poverty or the late summer nights or just carelessness, unlit, a dark circle in a limestone facade.

          There is light, though, in the streetlights; muffled by trees their mingling cones retreat to the unseen end of Summer Street. Nearby, to his left, directly under one, the rough asphalt looks like dimpled snow. He decides to walk around the block, to clear his head and pick his path. Funny, how what makes you move is so simple and the field you must move in is so crowded. His legs take strength from the distinction, scissor along evenly. Goodness lies inside, there is nothing outside, those things he was trying to balance have no weight. He feels his inside as very real suddenly, a pure blank space in the middle of a dense net. I don’t know, he kept telling Ruth; he doesn’t know, what to do, where to go, what will happen, the thought that he doesn’t know seems to make him infinitely small and impossible to capture. Its smallness fills him like a vastness. It’s like when they heard you were great and put two men on you and no matter which way you turned you bumped into one of them and the only thing to do was pass. So you passed and the ball belonged to the others and your hands were empty and the men on you looked foolish because in effect there was nobody there.

          Rabbit comes to the curb but instead of going to his right and around the block he steps down, with as big a feeling as if this little sidestreet is a wide river, and crosses. He wants to travel to the next patch of snow. Although this block of brick three-stories is just like the one he left, something in it makes him happy; the steps and windowsills seem to twitch and shift in the corner of his eye, alive. This illusion trips him. His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.

 

 

“An unlikely rabbit: the world’s first look at Harry Angstrom:

 

Rabbit, Run

By John Updike

 

The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.

 

—Pascal, Pensée 507

 

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he’s twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.

          His standing there makes the real boys feel strange. Eyeballs slide. They’re doing this for themselves, not as a show for some adult walking around town in a double-breasted cocoa suit. It seems funny to them, an adult walking up the alley at all. Where’s his car? The cigarette makes it more sinister still. Is this one of those going to offer them cigarettes or money to go out in back of the ice plant with him? They’ve heard of such things but are not too frightened; there are six of them and one of him.

          The ball, rocketing off the crotch of the rim, leaps over the heads of the six and lands at the feet of the one. He catches it on the short bounce with a quickness that startles them. As they stare hushed he sights squinting through blue clouds of weed smoke, a suddenly dark silhouette like a smokestack against the afternoon spring sky, setting his feet with care, wiggling the ball with nervousness in front of his chest, one widespread white hand on top of the ball and the other underneath, jiggling it patiently to get some adjustment in air itself. The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper. "Hey!" he shouts in pride.

          "Luck," one of the kids says.

          "Skill," he answers, and asks, "Hey. O.K. if I play?"

          There is no response, just puzzled silly looks swapped. Rabbit takes off his coat, folds it nicely, and rests it on a clean ashcan lid. Behind him the dungarees begin to scuffle again. He goes into the scrimmaging thick of them for the ball, flips it from two weak grubby-knuckled child’s hands, has it in his own. That old stretched-leather feeling makes his whole body go taut, gives his arms wings. It feels like he’s reaching down through years to touch this tautness. His arms lift of their own and the rubber ball floats toward the basket from the top of his head. It feels so right he blinks when the ball drops short, and for a second wonders if it went through the hoop without rifling the net. He asks, "Hey whose side am I on?" 

 

 

…four books later, the death of Rabbit:

 

Tears are in Janice’s eyes constantly ever since the blue police lights appeared but this remark and the old man’s wise and kind manner freshen them. Dr. Morris paid closer attention to Harry toward the end than she did. In a way since those glimpses of him shining on the basketball court she had slowly ceased to see him, he had become invisible. "Did he mention me?" she asks, wondering if Harry had revealed that they were estranged.

          The old doctor’s sharp Scots gaze pierces her for a second. "Very fondly," he tells her.

          At this hour in the morning, a little after nine o’clock, with dirty breakfast trays still being wheeled along the halls, there is no one else in the ICCU waiting room, and Nelson in his own agitation keeps wandering off, to telephone Pru, to go to the bathroom, to get a cup of coffee and some Frosted Flakes at a cafeteria he’s discovered in another wing.The waiting room is tiny, with one window looking toward the parking lot, damp at the edges from the lawn sprinklers last night, and a low table of mostly religious magazines, and a hard black settee and chairs and floor lamps of bent pipes and plastic shades, they don’t want you to get too comfortable, they really want the patient all to themselves. While she’s in this limbo alone Janice thinks she should pray for Harry’s recovery, a miracle, but when she closes her eyes to do it she encounters a blank dead wall. From what Dr. Olman said he would never be alive the way he was and as Dr. Morris said, sometimes it’s time. He had come to bloom early and by the time she got to know him at Kroll’s he was already drifting downhill, though things did look up when the money from the lot began to be theirs. With him gone, she can sell the Penn Park house. Dear God, dear God, she prays. Do what You think best.

          A young black nurse appears at the open door and says so softly, yet with a beautiful half-smile, "He’s conscious now," and leads her into the intensive-care unit, which she remembers from last December- the central circular desk like an airport control tower, full of TV sets showing in jumping orange lines each patient’s heartbeat, and on three sides the rows of individual narrow bedrooms with glass front walls. When she sees her Harry lying in one of them as white as his sheets with all these tubes and wires going in and out of him, lying behind the wall of glass, an emotion so strong she fears for a second she might vomit hits her from behind, a crashing wave of sorrow and terrified awareness of utter loss like nothing ever in her life except the time she accidentally drowned her own dear baby. She had never meant never to forgive him, she had been intending one of these days to call, but the days slipped by; holding her silence had become a kind of addiction. How could she have hardened her heart so against this man who for better or worse had placed his life beside hers at the altar? It hadn’t been Harry really, it had been Pru, what man could resist, she and Pru and Nelson had analyzed it to the point of exhaustion. She was satisfied it wouldn’t happen again and she had a life to get on with. Now this. Just when. He called her stupid, it was true she was slower than he was, and slower to come into her own, but he was beginning to respect her, it was hard for him to respect any woman, his mother had done that to him, the hateful woman. Though all four of their parents were alive when they courted at Kroll’s she and Harry were orphans really, he more than she even. He saw something in her that would hold him fast for a while. She wants him back, back from this element he is sinking in, she wants it so much she might vomit, his desertions and Pru and Thelma and all whatever else are washed away by the grandeur of his lying there so helpless, so irretrievable.

          The nurse slides the door open. Above his baby-blue nose tubes for oxygen his blue eyes are open but he doesn’t seem to hear. He sees her, sees his wife here, little and dark-complected and stubborn in her forehead and mouth, blubbering like a waterfall and talking about forgiveness. "I forgive you," she keeps saying while he can’t remember for what. He lies there floating in a wonderful element, a bed of happy unfeeling that points of pain now and then poke through. He listens to Janice blubber and marvels at how small she grows, sitting in that padded wheelchair they give you, small like something in a crystal snowball, but finer, fine like a spiderweb, every crease in her face and rumpled gray saleswoman’s suit. She forgives him, and he thanks her, or thinks that he thanks her. Hebelieves she takes his hand. His consciousness comes and goes, and he marvels that in its gaps the world is being tended to, just as it was in the centuries before he was born. There is a terrible deep dryness in his throat, but he knows the sensation will pass, the doctors will do something about it. Janice seems one of those bright figures in his dream, the party they were having. He thinks of telling her about Tiger and I won but the impulse passes. He is nicely tired. He closes his eyes. The red cave he thought had only a front entrance and exit turns out to have a back door as well.

          His wife’s familiar and beloved figure has been replaced by that of Nelson, who is also unhappy. "You didn’t talk to her, Dad," the kid complains. "She said you stared at her but didn’t talk."

          O. K., he thinks, what else am I doing wrong? He feels sorry about what he did to the kid but he’s doing him a favor now, though Nelson doesn’t seem to know it.

          "Can’t you say anything? Talk to me, Dad!" the kid is yelling, or trying not to yell, his face white in the gills with the strain of it, and some unaskable question tweaking the hairs of one eyebrow, so they grow up against the grain. He wants to put the kid out of his misery. Nelson, he wants to say, you have a sister.

          But does he say it? His son’s anxious straining expression hasn’t changed. What he next says, though, shows he may have understood the word "sister."

          "We phoned Aunt Mim, Dad, and she’ll get here as soon as she can. She has to change planes in Kansas City!"

          From his expression and the pitch of his voice, the boy is shouting into a fierce wind blowing from his father’s direction. "Don’t die, Dad, don’t!" he cries, then sits back with that question still on his face, and his dark wet eyes shining like stars of a sort. Harry shouldn’t leave the question hanging like that, the boy depends on him.

          "Well, Nelson," he says, "all I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad." Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.

 

 

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