Assorted Prose

Assorted Prose by John Updike

Book: Assorted Prose by John Updike Read Free Book Online
Authors: John Updike
tint. The girl, talking to the director, put her hands on her hips and laughed. Everybody along the wall hushed at the laugh. We all held silent, waiting for another. There wasn’t another; she walked away, flat-footed, and the gray pattern that decorates the stage was vivid now that the platform was empty. The crowd that had attended the cancellation was slow to leave. Above the trees, the buildings along Fifth Avenue and Central Park South burned with a great cool wealth of fluorescent tints. The city is lovely from within the Park after dark; it’s a view we don’t see often enough. The crowd lingered, smoking. An out-of-town voice behind us insisted, “No, I loved it. Listen, in the winter I make sacrifices to see this stuff.” The crowd—perhaps three hundred or more—wandered away, east, west, and south, long lines silhouetted under the lamps heavily caged against vandals. We ourselves went back to the path along the pond, where the ducks were sleeping.
Morality Play
    October 1959
    T HE MYSTERIOUS AND AWFUL THING about the television quiz scandals is not that the jaded souls who ran the show were hoaxers but that dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of contestants, almost all of whom must have applied in the simplicity of good faith, were successfully enrolled in the hoax. Now, as we remember the flavor and ethos of that innocent era, the contestants, aside from their freakish passion for Hittite history or skeet-shooting statistics, were meant to be us—you and me and the bright boy next door. This was America answering. This was the mental wealth behind the faces you saw in a walk around the block. The appeal of the programs, with the rising challenge of Soviet brain power as a backdrop, was ultimately patriotic; the contestants were selected to bea cross-section of our nation just as deliberately as the G.I.s in a war movie are. There we bravely sat in our living rooms, sweating it out with this or that Shakespeare-reading poultry farmer or chemistry-minded chorus girl, and there they were on the other side of the blurred little screen, patting (not wiping) their brows with handkerchiefs, biting their tongues as instructed, stammering out rehearsed answers, gasping with relief at the expected cry of congratulation. And we sat there, a nation of suckers, for years. It’s marvellous how long it went on, considering the number of normal Americans who had to be corrupted to keep the cameras whirring. In all this multitude, not one snag, not one audible bleat, not one righteous refusal that made the news. The lid didn’t blow off until, years afterward, a winner, disgruntled because he had not won more, was moved to confess and purge his guilt.
    We are fascinated by the unimaginably tactful and delicate process whereby the housewife next door was transmogrified into a paid cheat. We picture her coming into the studio, a little weary still from yesterday’s long plane trip, a bit flustered by the noise and immensity of the metropolis—Dorothy Dotto, thirty-eight, happily married for nineteen years, the mother of three, a member of the Methodist Church, the Grange, and the Ladies’ Auxiliary. She lives, and has lived all her life, in the town of Elm Corners, somewhere in the Corn Belt; as a child, she won seven consecutive pins for perfect Sunday-school attendance, and she graduated with good grades from a public school where the remarkable truthfulness of George Washington and the durable axioms of Benjamin Franklin were often invoked. Her father, Jesse, who is retired but still alive (bless him), for forty years kept above his desk at the feed mill a sign declaring, “Honesty Is the Best Policy.”
    Our heroine meets the show’s producer, dapper, dimpled Leonard Blough (pronounced “Bluff”), who takes her into a little room walled with aluminum and frosted glass:
    BLOUGH (
smiling and lifting from her arms a bundle, containing her lunch, that she has been clutching awkwardly
): Well, Mrs. Dotto, you did very

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