LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: To John Updike, from Lancaster

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           I met you three times, each of them in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I live. You were originally from Shillington, outside Reading, which wasn’t far away, though as a teenager your family had moved to a farm in Plowville, which was closer. You were a frequent guest of Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, and you also spent time at the County Historical Society, researching James Buchanan, who had been a Lancaster resident; you wrote a play, Buchanan Dying, and later a novel, Memories of the Ford Administration, about the ex-President. Critics were rather mystified by these works but were generous, and you moved on to more muscular themes.

            I first met you at the world premier of Buchanan Dying, which was performed amidst great fanfare at Franklin & Marshall. The play was undramatic and dull, though the costumes were good. Because my mother was a trustee of the college, we were invited to an after-performance reception at Wheatland, Buchanan’s home. This was a meet-and-greet, sip-and-observe affair; I remember that you were accompanied by your mother, Linda Grace Hoyer, who was also a writer, a grumpy eminence who was both irritated and irritatingshe seemed unashamedly jealous of your success. You were wearing a smart gray suit and you were bashful and toothy and very charming, your hair the usual boyish mess. You were taller then I expected, and rather odd-looking; if you’d been miniaturized you would have looked like a garden gnome. As a writer, of course, I idolized you; you were more-or-less a local boy and had achieved immense success. We shook hands, I congratulated you on your play, and we left.

           You were back at the college a few years later for a reading, and before that a by-invitation-only dinner. Because my mother was ill, I got to sit with ten or twelve other friends of the college at your table, where you were host. During the meal you were clever and funny, deflecting any serious questions with deft non-answers and your grin. You were very winning and I wanted badly to be your friend, though unfortunately we didn’t speakI was shy, the table was wide and the room was noisy. There was thunderous applause later that evening when you finished your reading, your poetry and prose enhanced somehow by your quiet, earnest delivery.

            A few years later a professor friend of mine at the college, Rob Wilson, invited me to sit in on a late-morning English seminar where you were speaking. This wasn’t a lecture so much as an extended question and answer session, as you hadn’t prepared any remarksyou were visiting a number of classes throughout the day. You responded to questions about Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Ann Beattie, and Raymond Carver; your assessments were thoughtful and respectful, though not without some biting wit. There was a very attractive feminist in the front row of the class and about thirty minutes into the session she had had enough; she’d decided it was time for you to own up. “How can you expect to be taken seriously,” she asked, “when all you write about is chauvinism and adultery? What about the big questions, like identity and race? You write like you’ve never heard of Camus, or Faulkner.”

            You were stung, but the siege was short-lived: Professor Wilson quickly intervened, reminding the class that you, Updike, were a guest of the college, not the subject of a roast. The feminist glared, but then the polite give-and-take resumed, and you never did respond to her accusations. As the end of the hour neared, Professor Wilson took it upon himself to deliver to you a valentine: he called you the most complete man of letters since Henry James, and in a winner-take-all short story comparison declared a dead heat between your "Separating" and Chekhov’s "Lady with a Lapdog." Class dismissed. You looked a bit embarrassed as you stood shaking hands with the students and they began to file out.

            What happened next happened very quickly: Rob Wilson and his students disappeared, and another professor entered the classroom, as if by pre-arrangement. This was a fellow I recognized, by his infamous gloved hands; Guillaume Brandt was a noted linguist with a highly contagious skin condition, whose photo had recently been in the college newspaper. He seemed a bit unhinged as he lunged toward youevidently he was trying to pick up on some earlier conversation he’d been having with you that had been interrupted. His plaint? Semantic structures in the Rabbit novels, about which he was composing a paper. The three of us were alone now in the classroom and I heard you yelp.

            “My minder seems to have abandoned me,” you said, to me. “We were supposed to be having lunch.”

            “Oh, I can take you,” I volunteered. Dr. Brandt was still burbling away, backing you into the chalkboard, as he referred repeatedly to what he called your oeuvresomething that had evidently died and that he, the linguist, sought to dissect right here, right now, in ghoulish detail. I didn’t know it then, but later learned that you were afflicted with chronic skin complaints yourself, such as psoriasisno wonder you wanted nothing to do with the sickly linguist!

            “I’m late,” you told Dr. Brandt. “I apologize.” You seized me by the arm and quickly steered us from the classroom.

            “Where were you supposed to meet for lunch?” I asked.

            “I haven’t the faintest idea. I’m parched. And I need a cigarette.”

            Luckily, I was a smoker too, so we both lit up once we’d exited the building. As it turned out, you had less than an hour until your next obligation at the collegeI didn’t know who was supposed to be looking after you, or where they were, and there wasn’t time enough to go somewhere nice for lunch. It was a pleasant spring day as we strolled across the campus to the parking lot. Our house was only five minutes away, though you didn’t askyou were already lighting up a second cigarette as we climbed into my car.

            “This campus is so improved,” you said. “It’s impressive. Where are we off to, anyway?”

            “To get you some iced tea,” I said.

            “How nice of you.”

            You seemed neither uncomfortable nor anxiousyou’d undoubtedly visited dozens of campuses before and had your share of misadventures. And you knew Lancaster, you knew the college. About me, you weren’t curious at all; you seemed content just to bob along, relieved to be out of the limelight for the moment and confident you would be looked after properly.

            When we arrived at the house you climbed out of the car and took off your suit coat, leaving it in the back seat. “Nice place,” you said.

            This time of day, her morning chores completed, in spring and summer my wife, Meredith, liked to adjourn to the patio behind the house with an iced beverage and her cigarettes. As luck would have it, that was where we found her.

            We had glasses of iced tea and smoked while you and my wife exchanged pleasantries. Meredith offered you lunch, but you declined, bashfullyyou claimed that you were dietingthough that seemed ridiculous given your trim frame. Then you looked across our wide back yard and said, “Wow, nice course. Should we play a round?”

            Behind our house, we have a lovely flat lawn that I had just the evening before laid out for a croquet courseI cut the grass there myself, one-half inch shorter than the rest of the lawn, to give the balls on it a nice crisp roll. If we were going to play a game, as now seemed imperative, I thought we’d need a fourth, to make two teamsotherwise, as our guest, you might feel that Meredith and me were ganging up on you.

            “Brad’s probably out front,” Meredith said, having seemed to read my thoughts. She was referring to our mailman, Brad, who often parked his truck under a big shade tree by our house to eat his lunch. Brad and I frequently stole a quick game of croquet during the summer.

            Indeed, Brad was sitting in his van, eating an apple. “Don’t ask me any questions,” I said. “This is an emergency. We’re entertaining a big honcho from the college. I just set up the course last night.”

            In the backyard, I introduced you to Brad, and croquet mallets were selected. You were teamed with Brad, the two of you against Meredith and me.

            I knew you were a golfer, which was clear from the way you addressed the croquet ball, your feet widely spaced, your hands in a traditional golfer’s grip. I’d heard that you were also quite competitive. The game proceeded rather predictably, turn after turn, but then at the middle wicket you found a congestion of balls that offered you a special chance: you could either try for the wicket with your ball or knock Meredith’s ball aside, out of contention. You chose the latter. You gave your ball a big solid swat and Meredith’s ball sailed off the short grass into the brush adjoining our neighbor’s yard.

            Meredith is not generally competitive but I could tell that she was pissed. Did she think you were impolite or just overly aggressive?

            “All right, then,” she announced, dropping her mallet. “I’m out. You literary gents play on.”

            Honestly, I was a bit mystified by your hit myself: why sail your hostess’s ball into the woods? Had you mistaken Meredith’s ball for another? Or maybe you weren’t at all what you seemed; did your affable public face mask a deeper, more ruthless man? Or were you feeling hostile from your morning? Somehow, lashing out seemed entirely in keeping with what must be your tougher side; after all, you hadn’t gotten where you were through pandering. I don’t know, maybe this was the way your crowd played croquet up in Ipswich.

            You and Brad won, handily, and we all shook hands. When we returned to the patio there was a fresh pitcher of iced tea, though your time was running short.

            “I’ve liked your books, mostly,” said Meredith, eyeing you. “I’ve often wondered, though, why is it you’ve never done anything about your hair?”

            “Is it that bad?” you said, looking rather wounded. You drew your hand up to your scalp.

            “Oh, it’s all right,” Meredith said. “It just looks like you never had time to think about it, which, I gather, is probably true.”

            We had another cigarette in the car as I drove you back to campus. Thinking about it, I was a bit annoyed, frankly, knowing I was going to have to defend you, in absentia, to Meredith when I got home; too, there was that lost ball, and I was going to have to get down on my hands and knees and rummage around in the neighbor’s underbrush to find it.

            “Anywhere is fine,” you said, once we were back on campus. “I can find my way.”

            “All right, then,” I said. “It was a pleasure.” I pulled the car over and you climbed out, retrieving your suit coat from the back seat.

            We shook hands. “Thanks,” you said, “You rather saved me.” You slammed the car door, and that was that. You strode briskly up the walkway toward the classrooms.

            Though you seem to have used nearly everything that ever happened to you, in your life, to my knowledge this incident never made it into your work. As the years rolled on and the flood of poems, novels, and stories piled up, there was no mention of our matcha highlight in my life, forgettable to youand that made all the difference.

Samuel Atlee is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. He has published two collections of short stories: Men at Risk and Baby Why Not? He lives in Pennsylvania.