John Updike: “A&P” & “Separating”

“A&P” (PIGEON FEATHERS, 1962)

The story begins “in medias res,” but on the low register of suburban American summer:

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I’m in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don’t see them until they’re over by the bread. The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.”

The old woman at the register he’s tending (a “witch”) catches him ringing up crackers twice because he’s distracted. Other than “the chunky one” is “the striking one” that will “never quite make it,” and finally, the “queen”:

“She didn’t look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on slowly, on these long white prima donna legs. She came down a little hard on her heels, as if she didn’t walk in her bare feet that much, putting down her heels and then letting the weight move along to her toes as if she was testing the floor with every step, putting a little deliberate extra action into it. You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glassjar?) but you got the idea she had talked the other two into coming in here with her, and now she was showing them how to do it, walk slow and hold yourself straight.”

In a Holden Caulfield tone, he continues: “She had on a kind of dirty-pink – – beige maybe, I don’t know — bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down…. I mean, it was more than pretty.” In the next paragraph he names her “Queenie,” just starts calling her that, and delightedly describes the “house-slaves in pin curlers [who] even looked around after pushing their carts past to make sure what they had seen was correct” – these girls walking around barefoot in their swimsuits in the A & P.

“You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.”

The speaker considers what happens to a woman’s body when it is displayed not just among, but as packaging like any other. There’s a sweetness to the boy’s innocent connectedness to a community to whom he’s told this story already: “Now here comes the sad part of the story, at:least my family says it’s sad but I don’t think it’s sad myself.”

“…the girls come to me. Queenie puts down the jar and I take it into my fingers icy cold. Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢. Now her hands are empty, not a ring or a bracelet, bare as God made them, and I wonder where the money’s coming from. Still with that prim look she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top. The jar went heavy in my hand. Really, I thought that was so cute. Then everybody’s luck begins to run out.”

Suddenly the girl speaks and her class becomes all to evident to the narrator:

“Queenie blushes, though maybe it’s just a brush of sunburn I was noticing for the first time, now that she was so close. “My mother asked me to pick up a jar of herring snacks.” Her voice kind of startled me, the way voices do when you see the people first, coming out so flat and dumb yet kind of tony, too, the way it ticked over “pick up” and “snacks.” All of a sudden I slid right down her voice into her living room. Her father and the other men were standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them. When my parents have somebody over they get lemonade and if it’s a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses with “They’ll Do It Every Time” cartoons stencilled on.”

The manager repeats “This isn’t the beach,” and the tense of the story shifts: “Queenie’s blush is no sunburn now, and the plump one in plaid, that I liked better from the back — a really sweet can — pipes up, “We weren’t doing any shopping. We just came in for the one thing.”

“We want you decently dressed when you come in here.”

“We are decent,” Queenie says suddenly, her lower lip pushing, getting sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy. Fancy Herring Snacks flashed in her very blue eyes.

Lengel tells the narrator, who we now know is named Sammy, to ring them up. He does, and gives Queenie her change.

The girls, and who’d blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say “I quit” to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. They keep right on going, into the electric eye; the door flies open and they flicker across the lot to their car, Queenie and Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony (not that as raw material she was so bad), leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow.

Even though he can see they might be gone, he repeats, “I quit.” His repetition parallels that of Lengel insisting the girls leave. “You didn’t have to embarrass them.” “It was they who were embarrassing us.”

“I don’t think you know what you’re saying,” Lengel said.

“I know you don’t,” I said. “But I do.” I pull the bow at the back of my apron and start shrugging it off my shoulders. A couple customers that had been heading for my slot begin to knock against each other, like scared pigs in a chute.

“Sammy, you don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad,” he tells me. It’s true, I don’t. But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it. I fold the apron, “Sammy” stitched in red on the pocket, and put it on the counter, and drop the bow tie on top of it. The bow tie is theirs, if you’ve ever wondered. “You’ll feel this for the rest of your life,” Lengel says, and I know that’s true, too, but remembering how he made that pretty girl blush makes me so scrunchy inside I punch the No Sale tab and the machine whirs “pee-pul” and the drawer splats out.

I look around for my girls, but they’re gone, of course. There wasn’t anybody but some young married screaming with her children about some candy they didn’t get by the door of a powder-blue Falcon station wagon. Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’djust had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.

It’s hard not to quote this story in big sections because the tone is so painfully true, and yet so shudderingly maudlin. Updike manages to capture that moment in adolescence where you think it’s just you who feels certain things and will stand up for them, as well as the sad reality that most people will end up decent but conventional, like Lengel and Sammy’s parents. The mix in this of class makes the point all the sharper.

“SEPARATING” (TOO FAR TO GO, 1974)

The Maples, Joan and Richard, plan to tell each of their children (Judith, Jr., John, and Margaret) separately about their impending divorce, with “the bauble of summer” to hopefully distract them. Updike employs the wonderful image of construction as a sign of impending doom for couples, and the Maples’ arrogance in thinking they could escape this fate (their prosaic name is perfect here). “All spring he had been morbidly conscious of insides and outsides, of barriers and partitions. He and Joan stood as a thin barrier between the children and the truth.” He is fixing up the house for his departure and is focused on the lock to the porch’s screen door. Judith, who has just returned from England, tells her father, though she loved her year abroad, that she was happy to come home: ” ‘I’m an American.’ She was a woman… The partition between himself and the tears broke… the back of his throat aching… the champagne, the lobsters… he saw them and tasted them through tears.” As he begins to cry, the children let on that they have known. ” ‘That we do not love each other’ was the rest of the sentence; he couldn’t finish it.” John, the younger boy, gets upset and his father leads him to the green rise as he begins to cry. In bed, Joan complains that it was Richard’s idea, but his tears made her look bad. He lies awake thinking and tells his wife he would “undo” it all if he could, but she asks, “Where would you begin?” “There was no place.” As he drives his older son Jr. home, there is an abrupt twist: “They turned the corner; the church they went to loomed like a gutted fort. The home of the woman Richard hoped to marry stood across the green.” Jr. goes to bed without saying much or seeming affected. His wife goes into Jr.’s bedroom and is haloed by “an inexplicable light.” The boy cries and kisses his father on the lips, asking “why?” “Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness. The white face was gone, the darkness was featureless. Richard had forgotten why.”

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