Fiction Fiction Issue

The Apparition

Milford did not want to draw too close to Lorena. At his age, he preferred to observe at a safe distance.
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He did not want to draw too close to Lorena. At his age, he preferred to observe at a safe distance, to embrace her with a wry sideways attention. She was beyond his means in every way. On the one occasion when, in the informal rotation of the couples and widowed singles and gay bachelors whereby the tour group sought to vary the round of thrice-daily meals, the Milfords and the Billingses shared a dinner table, the younger couple emitted an aura of expenditure, as their conversation revealed details of second homes in Southampton and Dorset, Vermont, not to mention a Miami apartment and annual trips back to Chile. Though to the Milfords they seemed youthful, they were old enough to be much concerned with their children’s admissions to preferred day schools and, eventually, Ivy League colleges. Like the solar beads that wink through the moon’s mountain valleys during a total eclipse, an undeclared fortune twinkled in their humorous offhand complaints at the unbridled expenditures of nouveaux-riche condo boards and the levies that New York City, in taxes and charities, extracts from its fortunate on behalf of its omnipresent poor.

Not that the Billingses were anything but pleasant and tactful with the elderly New England provincials. Milford observed that Lorena warmed in her husband’s presence, her eyes and voice taking on a cosmopolitan quickness and gleam as she touched on plays, fashions, art exhibits, and Manhattan architectural disputes of which, he saw she slowly realized, the Milfords knew almost nothing—only what had been reported in TheBoston Globe. Her mouth lapsed into that frozen, uncertain look with which she had addressed the strangers on the stairs; but then she decided, with an inaudible click, that the Milfords were happy to bask in a reflected glitter, and talked on.

Billings, Henry saw with a vicarious husbandly pride, permitted her to be herself, to display herself. Her expanding curls softly bobbed, the faint formality of her English melted into brassy New York diphthongs. “People keep telling us Jasper is so wonderful, but—no doubt it’s my stupidity—I find his post-Pop phase to be so dry, so disperso. But then we don’t own any of him, except for a few prints Ian picked up when he was still doing the alphabet and numbers. Compare him, say, with Botero, who’s just done a wonderful series of drawings on the American atrocities at Abu Ghraib—utterly savage, like nothing else he’s ever done. They absolutely rank with Goya, Los Desastres de la Guerra.” When she dropped into Spanish, a truer self leaped forth, sharp edges and trills, her voice a bit deeper, on bedrock.

Billings, more aware than she of a range of conservative opinion outside of Manhattan, where the phrase “American atrocities might possibly grate, readjusted his rimless glasses on his sharp-tipped nose. Almost inaudibly, he cleared his throat. These delicate alterations registered with his wife, and, her lips taking on their numb look, she slightly changed the subject. “Did either of you happen to be in the city when they had these big fat Botero people in bronze all up and down Park Avenue? That center strip has never looked so good, even in tulip season. The statues shone—is that the word?—in the sun. They were noble, and ridiculous, and everything all at once!”

“Terrific,” Milford said, meaning her entire presentation.

“I never saw them,” Jean coolly interposed, “but I read about them, somewhere. Where was it, Henry? Time? But I never see Time, do I, except in the dentist’s office? Oh dear,” she added, sensing her husband’s displeasure at her interruption, “we’re such bumpkins.”

Afterward, when the Milfords were alone, Jean said, “They were very sweet, indulging us.”

“I was fascinated,” Milford told her, “by her husband’s face. It’s so minimal, like one of those happy faces. He gives away absolutely nothing.”

“He’s a lawyer, dear.”

Milford had been a professor, teaching statistics and probability at a small but choice business school in Wellesley. It surprised him, upon retirement, to find how little he cared about his subject once he no longer had to teach it to classrooms of future profiteers. His teaching had been dutiful, and so now was his tourism. The world’s wonders seemed to him weary, overwhelmed by the mobs that came to see them.

The tour’s head lecturer, too, after two weeks of shouting to make himself heard above the echoing hubbub of temples and the shuffling distractions of museums, seemed to be losing interest and looking forward to his next tour, of German castles. The more-experienced travelers on the tour explained to the Milfords that everything was simpler and more concentrated on the Rhine; you stayed in your cabin in the boat, instead of hopping by bus all over southern India and constantly packing and repacking.

As the head guide’s energy slackened, his native assistant, Shanta Subbulakshmi, a short, dark woman from Madurai and the warrior caste, took the microphone in the bus and spoke charmingly, fluently, of herself—her parents’ unusual determination that she pursue an education, the ornate etiquette (the advance scouts, the ceremonial visitations, the seclusion of bride and groom from each other) of her arranged marriage. She spoke of the way the roads of Tamil Nadu used to run, when she was a girl, through the emerald green of rice fields, field after field, before the advent of the industrial parks and a ruthless widening of the dusty, pitted roads. She made the only case for Hinduism that Milford ever heard. “Unlike Buddhism and Catholic Christianity,” Shanta explained in her strict, lilting English, “Hinduism does not exalt celibate monks. It teaches that life has stages, and each stage is holy. It says that sexuality is a part of life, and business also—a man earns a living for his family, and this fulfills his duty to society. In the last stage of life he is permitted to leave his family and his business and become a seeker after God and life’s ultimate meaning. But the middle stages, the worldly stages, are holy also. Thus Hinduism allows for life’s full expression, where Buddhism teaches renunciation and detachment. Hinduism is the oldest of religions still widely practiced, and also the most modern, in that nothing is alien to it. There are no Hindu disbelievers. Even our particle physicists and computer programmers are good Hindus.”

Shanta helped the women of the tour dress in saris for the farewell dinner. The saris had been acquired in little shopping sprees squeezed between the long bus rides (some along a coast swept as bare as a desert by last year’s tsunami) and the claustral great temples, dingy mazes surmounted by towering polychrome pyramids of gods, gods upon gods, their popping eyes and protruding tongues and multiplied arms signifying divine energy.

Jean, a thrifty New Englander, reasoned she would never have another occasion for wearing a sari, and showed up in her best pantsuit. “These clothes people buy on vacation in a kind of frenzy of being there,” she said, “look so flimsy and tawdry back in the real world. They just collect dust in the back of the closet.”

The luxurious New York wives, however, wore saris; their silk and sateen glimmered in the firelight of the lawn torches while their excited voices shot Spanish compliments back and forth beneath the palms.

¡Que bonita!

¡Tú eres una India! ¡En verdad!

But in truth the costumes did not flatter most of the women: The fashionably thin appeared scrawny and starved, and those with more flesh seemed uneasy in their wrappings, as if something might at any moment pop loose. Milford would not have thought that a garment consisting only of an underblouse and a few square yards of cloth could fail to fit anybody, but the women by torchlight resembled a cluster of hotel guests who, chased by a fire alarm into the street, had grabbed gaudy sheets to cover themselves.

Except for Lorena: This curly-haired, Americanized Latina looked in Milford’s eyes as if she had been born to wear a sari, or at least this particular one, its pale-green border framing a ruddy, mysterious pattern that suggested, in the flickering light, rosy thumbprints. Her eyes seemed nearly golden. He had come up to her intending to say something jovial and flattering about her costume, but was struck dumb by how, with a kind of shameless modesty, she had given the tucked and folded cloth her shape—the inviting pelvic width, the exercise-flattened abdomen, the firm shoulders.

His voice came out croaky: “Terrific,” he said.

She seemed uncomfortable, ambushed by this new version of her own beauty. Her shoulders defensively cupped inward, and in a plaintive New York whine she asked, “You like it?”

Milford’s crippled voice regained a little strength and smoothness. “I adore it,” he told her, adding, kiddingly, “En verdad.

He offered to move past her, releasing her to the party of her Upper East Side friends, but—a misstep on the uneven lawn, possibly—she moved sideways, blocking his way, just as Jean sometimes did, as a way of saying, “Look at me!” She asked, “Do you and Jean ever get to New York?”

“We used to, but now, almost never,” he told her, wanting to flee this apparition.

When, with the night’s torch-lit farewells jangling in his veins, Milford lay in bed face-down beside his sleeping wife, he seemed again to be confronting Lorena, body to body. A few nights before, the entire tour, but for its oldest and frailest members, had been taken to a giant city temple where, each night, a group of bare-chested, sweating priests carried a small bronze statue of Parvati, dressed in flowers, out of her sanctuary and through the temple corridors to stay until morning with her consort, Lord Shiva. The bronze statue, a third or less life-size, was carried in a curtained palanquin, so one could see nothing but the four Brahman priests shouldering the poles and the other priests accompanying the procession with drums and shouts and a blood-curdling long trumpeting. The priests trotted, rather than walked, except when they halted for a serenade to the invisible goddess; the trumpet riffed in an orgasmic rapture that reminded Milford uncannily of, on a younger continent, jazz. A mob of sensation- seeking tourists and God-seeking Hindus jostled and stampeded in the fast-moving procession’s wake; flashbulbs kept flashing, and Ian Billings, his arm uplifted like the Statue of Liberty’s, was videotaping the proceedings with a digital camera, whose intensely glowing little screen projected what the camera saw—bouncing bodies, bobbing heads, the curtained palanquin—and betrayed, above the thundering pack, his and his consort’s whereabouts.

Milford followed at a timid, elderly distance, but his height enabled him to see, at the intervals when the procession halted and drummed and trumpeted as if to renew its supernatural sanction, the circling, sweating, blank-faced priests. One of them looked curiously fair, grimacing and squinting through the smoke of incense in a skeptical modern manner—a convert, perhaps, except that Hinduism, in its aloof hundreds of millions, accepted no converts. The procession, after one last noisy pause, hurried down the corridor to Shiva’s sanctuary, where non-Hindus were forbidden to follow.

Sleepless on the verge of departure, Milford saw that this had been truth, earthly and transcendent truth, one body’s adoration of another, hidden Shivas and Parvatis united amid the squalor and confusion of happenstance, of karma. He rejoiced to be tasting, in its sweet folly, the fascination once more, though the dark shape he was lying upon, fitted to him exactly, was that of his body in its grave.

John Updike's recent books include the novel Terrorist (2006) and Still Looking: Essays on American Art (2005). His latest collection of poems is Americana (2001).
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