Read The Afterlife Online

Authors: John Updike

The Afterlife

BOOK: The Afterlife

The Afterlife
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Random House Trade Paperback Edition

Copyright © 1994 by John Updike

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York in 1994.

Of these twenty-two stories, seventeen were first published in
The New Yorker
. “Wildlife” and “The Rumor” originally appeared in
; “Aperto, Chiuso” and “Bluebeard in Ireland” in
; and “The Brown Chest” in
The Atlantic Monthly
. The stories were written in much the order they have here.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Updike, John.
The afterlife and other stories / by John Updike.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-41677-3
. Middle-aged persons—United States—Fiction. 2. Married people—United States—Fiction. 3. Domestic fiction. American.
I. Title.
PS3571.P4A6 1994
813′.54—dc20      94-9818

Cover design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Cover photograph: Robert Kohlhuber/Getty Images


The Afterlife

The Billingses, so settled in their ways, found in their fifties that their friends were doing sudden, surprising things. Mitch Lothrop, whom Carter and Jane had always rather poked fun at as stuffy, ran off with a young Jamaican physical therapist, and Augustina, who had seemed such a mouse all those years—obsessed with her garden and her children’s educations—took it rather raucously in stride, buying herself a new wardrobe of broad-shouldered dresses, putting a prodigiously expensive new slate roof on the Weston house, and having in as a new companion another woman, a frilly little blue-eyed person who worked in Boston as a psychologist for the Department of Social Services. Ken McEvoy, on the other hand, was one day revealed in the newspapers as an embezzler who over the course of twenty years had stolen between two and five million from his brokerage firm; nobody, including the IRS, knew exactly how much. The investigation had evidently been going on for ages, during which time Ken and Molly had been showing up at cocktail parties and dinner parties and zoning hearings with not a hair out of place, smiling and looking as handsome a couple as ever. Even now, with the indictment in the paper and the plea-bargaining stage under
way, they continued to appear at gatherings, Ken quite hilarious and open about it all and basking at the center of attention; he had always seemed rather stiff and shy before. What had he done with all the money? It was true they had two foreign cars, and a place on the Cape, and trips to Europe in the years they didn’t go to Florida; but, then, so did everybody, more or less.

And then the Billingses’ very dearest friends, Frank and Lucy Eggleston, upped and moved to England. It was something, Frank confided, they had thought about for years; they detested America, the way it was going—the vulgarity, the beggary, the violence. They both, Frank and Lucy, were exceptionally soft-spoken and virtual teetotallers, with health diets and peaceable hobbies; Frank did watercolors, Lucy bird-watched. A juncture came in his career when the corporation asked him to move to Texas. He opted to take early retirement instead, and with his savings and a little inheritance of hers, plus the ridiculous price their house brought—ten times what they had paid for it in the early Sixties—they moved to England, at a time when the pound was low against the dollar. Why defer a dream, they asked the Billingses, until you’re too old to enjoy it? They found a suitable house not in one of the pretty counties south of London but up in Norfolk, where, as one of Lucy’s early letters put it, “The sky is as big as they say the sky of Texas is.”

The letters were less frequent than the Billingses had expected, and on their side they proved slower than they had promised to arrange a visit to their transplanted friends. Three years had gone by before they at last, after some days in London to adjust to the time change and the coinage and the left-right confusion, took a train north, got off at a station beyond Cambridge, and were greeted in the damp and windy
spring twilight by a bouncy, bog-hatted shadow they eventually recognized as Frank Eggleston. He had put on weight, and had acquired that rosy English complexion and an un-American way of clearing his throat several times in rapid succession. As they drove along the A-11, and then navigated twisting country roads, Carter seemed to hear Frank’s accent melt, becoming less clipped and twitchy as his passengers and he talked and warmed the car’s interior with their growly, drawling Americanness.

They arrived, after many a turning in the growing dark, at “Flinty Dell”—a name no natives, surely, would have given the slightly gaunt mustard-brick house, with its many gables and odd-sized, scattered windows, behind its high wall and bristlings of privet. Lucy seemed much as ever. A broad-faced strawberry blonde, she had always worn sweaters and plaid pleated skirts and low-heeled shoes for her birding walks, and here this same outfit seemed a shade more chic and less aggressively “sensible” than it had at home. Her pleasant plain looks, rather lost in the old crowd of heavily groomed suburban wives, had bloomed in this climate; her manner, as she showed them the house and their room upstairs, seemed to Carter somehow blushing, bridal. She escorted them through a maze of brightly papered rooms and awkward little hallways, up one set of stairs and down another, and on through the kitchen to a mudroom, where she and Frank outfitted themselves with scarves and Wellingtons and fat leather gloves and canes and riding crops and rakes and shovels for their dealings with the constantly invigorating out-of-doors. A barn went with the place, where they boarded horses. The village church was just across the pasture and through the wood on a path. Some obscure duke’s vast estate stretched all about, with miles and miles of wonderful riding. And then
there were fens, and a priory ruin, and towns where antiques could be had for almost nothing. It was all too much to take in, or to talk about, so late at night, Lucy said, especially when the Billingses must be exhausted and still on funny time.

“Oh no,” Jane said. “Carter was de
mined to get on your time and he wouldn’t let me take even a nap that first, awful day. We walked all the way in the rain from the National Gallery to the Tate, where they had a huge retrospective of this horrid Kitchen Sink school.”

“Such fun you make it sound,” Lucy said, tucking her plump freckled calves under her on the tired-looking sofa. The living room was rather small, though high-ceilinged. The furniture, which they must have bought here, clustered like a threadbare, expectant audience about the tiny grated fireplace, as it vivaciously consumed chunks of wood too short to be called logs. “We thought we’d be going down to London every other day but there seems so much to do

The birding was incredible, and Lucy had become, to her own surprise, quite involved with the local church and with village good works. Frank was painting very seriously, and had joined an artists’ association in Norwich, and had displayed a number of watercolors in their biannual shows. Lately he had switched from watercolors to oils. Some of his new works were hung in the living room: wet gray skies and tiny dark houses in the lee of gloomy groves scrubbed in with purple and green. Having poked the fire, and added more chunks (whose smoke smelled narcotically sweet), Frank pressed drinks upon the Billingses though, as all agreed, it was already late and tomorrow was a big day. Lucy was going to drive them to the sea while Frank rode in the local hunt. Scotch, brandy, port, Madeira, and several tints of sherry were produced; Carter remembered the Egglestons as abstemious,
but English coziness seemed to have teased that out of them. Carter drank port and Jane cream sherry as they gave the American news: Mitch Lothrop and the Jamaican bodybuilder live in Bay Village and have had a baby, and Augustina has turned that big Weston place into some sort of commune, with a total of five women living in it now. Ken McEvoy is out, having served less than two years, and has been given a job by one of the big Boston banks, because now he’s supposedly an expert on fraudulent bookkeeping. Though he and Molly still drive their old Jaguar and a Volvo station wagon, it’s obvious he must have stashed millions away, because they’re always flying off, even just for weekends, to this place they seem to own in the Bahamas. And so on.

Frank and Lucy had grown smilingly silent under this barrage of imported gossip, and when Carter stood and announced, “We’re boring you,” neither of them contradicted him. He had lost count of the times Frank had refreshed his port, or poured himself another brandy, and the freckles on Lucy’s shins were beginning to swarm; yet he felt he was cutting something short, standing at last. All seemed to feel this—this failure, for all their good will, to remake the old connection—and it was in an atmosphere of reluctance that the guests were, sensibly, led up to bed, Lucy showing them the bathroom again and making sure they had towels.

In the night, Carter awoke and needed to go to the bathroom. All that port. A wind was blowing outside. Vague black-on-blue tree shapes were thrashing. Not turning on a light, so as not to wake Jane, he found the bedroom door, opened it softly in the dark, and took two firm steps down the hall toward where he remembered the bathroom was. On his second step, there was nothing but air beneath his foot. His
sleepy brain was jolted into action; he realized he was falling down the stairs. As he soared through black space, he had time to think what a terrible noise his crashing body would make, and how the Egglestons would be awakened, and how embarrassing and troublesome it would be for them to deal with his broken body. He even had time to reflect how oddly selfless this last thought was. Then something—some
, he felt—hit him a solid blow in the exact center of his chest, right on the sternum, and Carter was standing upright on what seemed to be a landing partway down the stairs. He listened a moment, heard only the wind as it moaned around the strange brick house, and climbed the six or so steps back to the second floor.

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