You Slide Down Their Voices

How could I have copied out a mere half sentence of John Updike yesterday without giving the whole great passage? It’s from the short story “A & P”, at which arrive three girls in bathing suits.  “Sammy,” the young guy working the register, describes the manager’s attempt to shame them for dressing the way they are dressed.

When the prettiest of the girls responds Sammy suddenly ‘sees’ her whole life:  “All of a sudden I slid right down [it} 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.”

That’s his view of their home, very different from the place to which he will return to after work: “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.” 

Remember that old cartoon? Remember those free drinking glasses you got at the gas station, or because your grape jelly came in them? Ours were covered with pictures of the Flintstones and their good neighbors the Rubbles. But back to the master:

In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. …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. I stood there with my hand on a box of HiHo crackers trying to remember if I rang it up or not. I ring it up again and the customer starts giving me hell. She’s one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I knowit made her day to trip me up. She’d been watching cash registers forty years and probably never seen a mistake before.

By the time I got her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag — she gives me little snort in passing, if she’d been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem — by the time I get her on her way the girls had circled around the bread and were coming back, without a pushcart, back my way along the counters, in the aisle between the check-outs and the Special bins. They didn’t even have shoes on. There was this chunky one, with the two-piece — it was bright green and the seams on the bra were still sharp and her belly was still pretty pale so I guessed she just got it (the suit) — there was this one, with one of those chubby berry-faces, the lips all bunched together under her nose, this one, and a tall one, with black hair that hadn’t quite frizzed right, and one of these sunburns right across under the eyes, and a chin that was too long — you know, the kind of girl other girls think is very “striking” and “attractive” but never quite makes it, as they very well know, which is why they like her so much — and then the third one, that wasn’t quite so tall. She was the queen. She kind of led them, the other two peeking around and making their shoulders round. She didn’t look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on slowly, on these long white prima donna legs. ….. 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. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.

Lengel’s pretty dreary, teaches Sunday school and the rest, but he doesn’t miss that much. He comes over and says, “Girls, this isn’t the beach.”

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”  – and it’s then that Sammy sees the life of privilege behind her voice, her origins “in a place “a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy.

This is three times more than I usually write here but how I miss this writer, gone from us since January of ’09!. Every time I read him I slide down HIS voice and into HIS world. I just had to say that. I’m thinking of him these warm  days, seeing all around me the bare shoulders of the young girls in their suits and their camis, the lovely young the girls in their summer dresses.  


One thought on “You Slide Down Their Voices

  1. Terry, the date of this column is Susie’s 72nd b-day and we’re on Ocracoke Island, NC where I just body surfed the best waves ever. No bikinis.! Tank top and boy’s long bermuda bathing suit. The power of the ebbing wave brought the top almost over my head!

    I have all of John Updike to read. Aren’t you jealous? I have read John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany being one of my favorite books.


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