Thursday, July 28, 2011

The ease of overcoming fear. The Desert Encounter by John Updike

John Updike wrote a short story called The Desert Encounter in which Updike, then staying in a retirement community, encounters another retiree and a roto-rooter truck driver on a job. Updike had lost his hat and his fellow retiree retrieved it for him... It is the last line of the story (that only make sense if you read the enchanting earlier part) that rang true to me. Why? Because that sentence reminds me of the constant fear that we are being in some way misunderstood - and the real possibility (and maybe, even, graceful ease) of overcoming that fear. (Note to self: remember to tip my hat more).


"My hat!" I exclaimed. "It is!" I hurried over and, as if to prove my ownership to my two new companions, put it on my head. "Thank you, thank you," I said to each.

The man in khaki smiled, his share of my pleasure appropriately moderate, as he coiled his rooter and distributed the last of his tools to their places in the back of his truck. The older man, however, bent and bowlegged as he was, made my happiness his own. Quizzically beaming, he came closer to me, the shadow of his cane elongating to the east, where the last golfers, calling to one another like birds at dawn, were finishing their rounds before darkness fell. "What does it say on your hat?" he asked me.

In the world of retirement, customary reticence is discarded, as needless baggage from the forsaken world of midlife responsibilities. We say what we think and ask what we wish. I was taken aback only for those seconds I needed to remember that this man had been a party to my finding what I was about to assume had been lost forever, my precious hat. I took it off my head and read aloud to him, in case his eyesight was poor, the words stitched on its crown. "American Academy of Arts and Letters," I enunciated.

"And what is that?" he asked, his eyes as lively as those (as I imagine them) of Socrates driving a pupil, question by question, toward an inarguable conclusion.

I did balk, a bit. My privacy began to feel invaded, and I could hear from behind the hedge the brittle sounds of my wife preparing dinner. Yet the other witness's silent eavesdropping and the benign mood of a desert sunset enabled me to locate a certain humor in his effrontery; I took the plunge and held nothing back. "An honorary organization in New York City," I explained, "that includes writers, composers, painters, sculptors, and architects. Two hundred and fifty of them, no more and no less. Fewer than one for every million Americans--think of it! Some years ago, the Academy celebrated its hundredth anniversary, and as part of the celebration all the members were given, in a spirit of dignified fun, hats like this."

I felt the sun reddening the western side of my face. My interrogator was slightly downhill from me, wearing, I noticed now, a hat of his own--a daintily checkered wool cap, with a bill too small to keep out much sun. His hair crept out from under its protection in white curls whose length suggested that he had not yet surrendered a youthful self-image.

"Isn't that wonderful!" he exclaimed. "Did you hear that?" he asked the Roto-Rooter man, who softly slammed his truck's back door. "Did you ever hear of such a nice organization? Writers, composers, painters, and sculptors, the best in the country."

"Well," I said, my embarrassment growing. "They'd like to think that. Some people would disagree."

"Of course," he said. "There are always those. There's always that."

"I was elected to it years ago. It cheered me up at the time." I refrained, modestly, from also telling him that I had been chairman of the anniversary observances. It all seemed long ago, and, at this distance of two thousand miles, rather preposterous. I had wanted everybody to dress up in formal clothes, but, in the event, only I wore a tuxedo. Arthur Miller didn't even wear a necktie. Yet my new friend could not be detached from his glow of approbation; it was as if he had, from my meagre description, bored straight into the inner essence of the Academy, its stately and elitist hopes for itself at its founding, more than a century ago--hopes long since run afoul of modernism, East Coast parochialism, the decline of print, and diverse scorn for any notion of a canon or an elect.

"This is so exciting!" he affirmed. A fresh idea struck him. "You must do something for me. Please. Could I dare ask you?" His bright eyes grew brighter. He took a step closer, uphill, as if he were about to impart a whispered secret. "Could I ask you to sign a piece of paper?"

I would have begun to suspect a put-on, an impish tricksterism leading to some intricate fraud, except that irony doesn't carry across the Mississippi; Ivy League graduates have to fly it over the nation's great heartland direct to Hollywood. Itching to turn my back on this encounter, I reminded myself that here in the desert people have a stake in one another, especially people over a certain age. We have come out here to put our striving to rest, amid barren landscapes and big-box stores. "I'd be happy to," I told the other old man, "but I have no paper, and no pen. Do you?"

Together we looked around for a piece of paper lying on the asphalt or among the cacti, and saw none. "What do you need?" the younger man called over to us. "Paper?"

"And a pen," the merry old gentleman said. Both items were produced, and, when I scanned the environment for a desk or lectern to sign at, a clipboard appeared. Sighing with the unexpected exertion, I signed my name. Still, my fresh acquaintance wanted more. "And the name and address of the organization," he said. "Did you hear," he asked our provider, who was patiently waiting for the return of his pen and clipboard, "what a wonderful organization he belongs to? It does all this good."

"You know," I confided to him, willing to be frank now that I foresaw our encounter soon ending, "this is beginning to be humiliating."

"I know." He smiled. "But isn't it nice? Writers, composers, sculptors." They were for him, it seemed, a faraway frieze, on the eastern rim of possibility. They loomed, as our membership had been intended to loom, as immortal. "And its phone number."

This was too much. "I don't know it," I told him, truthfully.

I had signed the back of a Roto-Rooter invoice. My petitioner tucked it, twice folded, into the pocket of his striped shirt, and handed back to the third man his ballpoint pen. "Hasn't this been something?" he asked the repairman, who didn't deny it. I could hear my wife calling my name, beyond the shorn hedge and the pruned ocotillo. Trash collectors will not touch ocotillo--it is too invincibly thorny--and my trimmings lay in an uninviting heap on the dusty, stony caliche. Slipping backward out of the old man's magnetic field, I looked for the first time at his shoes; they were not the bloated patchwork running shoes with which the elderly in the Southwest anchor and ease their weary feet but real shoes, two-tone wingtips, like those of a dancer in a musical comedy. Along with the point of his cane, they held him there, on the slant surface, defying gravity. Dressed with a brave brightness, he had been headed for some festivity, and had confused the festivity with me. The encounter, when all was said and done, had been no stranger than those in "Krazy Kat," which had given me my first idea of the American desert.

The dusk was threatening to enwrap us. The calls of the golfers to one another had been silenced. At our feet a sizable city had begun to display its shimmering grid. The Roto-Rooter operative moved, uncertainly, toward his door of the truck. I felt that some concluding statement was expected from me. "I am delighted," I announced, "to have my hat back," and tipped it, floppy as it was, to the two of them, first one and then the other, overcoming my fear that they might suspect irony, where none was intended.

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