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The Corrections

St. Jude

The Madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You
could feel it: wsomething terrible was going to happen. The sun low
in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of
disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern
religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here.
Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and
swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm
windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup
of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the
ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline
with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his
morning painting of the wicker love seat.

Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic
suburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair in
which he'd been sleeping since lunch. He'd had his nap and there
would be no local news until five o'clock. Two empty hours were a
sinus in which infections, bred. He struggled to his feet and stood
by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid.

Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but
Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of
anxiety. It was like one of those big cast-iron dishes with an
electric clapper that send schoolchildren into the street in fire
drills. By now it had been ringing for so many hours that the
Lamberts no longer heard the message of "bell ringing" but, as with
any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to
learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it
resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a
clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but
a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of
overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the
background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the
other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been
ringing in their heads for so long as they could remember; ringing
for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of
metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression
waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their
consciousness of the sound. Which consciousness was particularly
acute when the weather itself was in an anxious mood. Then Enid and
Alfred -- she on her knees in the dining room opening drawers, he
in the basement surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table -- each
felt near to exploding with anxiety.

The anxiety of coupons, in a drawer containing candles in designer
autumn colors. The coupons were bundled in a rubber band, and Enid
was realizing that their expiration dates (often jauntily circled
in red by the manufacturer) lay months and even years in the past:
that these hundred-odd coupons, whose total face value exceeded
sixty dollars (potentially one hundred twenty dollars at the
Chiltsville supermarket that doubled coupons), had all gone bad.
Tilex, sixty cents off. Excedrin PM, a dollar off. The dates were
not even close. The dates were historical. The alarm bell had been
ringing for years.

She pushed the coupons back in among the candles and shut the
drawer. She was looking for a letter that had come by Registered
mail some days ago. Alfred had heard the mailman knock on the door
and had shouted, "Enid! Enid!" so loudly that he couldn't hear her
shouting back, "Al, I'm getting it!" He'd continued to shout her
name, coming closer and closer, and because the sender of the
letter was the Axon Corporation, 24 East Industrial Serpentine,
Schwenksville, PA, and because there were aspects of the Axon
situation that Enid knew about and hoped that Alfred didn't, she'd
quickly stashed the letter somewhere within fifteen feet of the
front door. Alfred had emerged from the basement bellowing like a
piece of earth-moving equipment, "There's somebody at the door!"
and she'd fairly screamed, "The mailman! The mailman!" and he'd
shaken his head at the complexity of it all.

Enid felt sure that her own head would clear if only she didn't
have to wonder, every five minutes, what Alfred was up to. But, try
as she might, she couldn't get him interested in life. When she
encouraged him to take up his metallurgy again, he looked at her as
if she'd lost her mind. When she asked whether there wasn't some
yard work he could do, he said his legs hurt. When she reminded him
that the husbands of her friends all had hobbies (Dave Schumpert
his stained glass, Kirby Root his intricate chalets for nesting
purple finches, Chuck Meisner his hourly monitoring of his
investment portfolio), Alfred acted as if she were trying to
distract him from some great labor of his. And what was that labor?
Repainting the porch furniture? He'd been repainting the love seat
since Labor Day. She seemed to recall that the last time he'd
painted the furniture he'd done the love seat in two hours. Now he
went to his workshop morning after morning, and after a month she
ventured in to see how he was doing and found that all he'd painted
of the love seat was the legs.

He seemed to wish that she would go away. He said that the brush
had got dried out, that that was what was taking so long. He said
that scraping wicker was like trying to peel a blueberry. He said
that there were crickets. She felt a shortness of breath then, but
perhaps it was only the smell of gasoline and of the dampness of
the workshop that smelled like urine (but could not possibly be
urine). She fled upstairs to look for the letter from Axon.

Six days a week several pounds of mail came through the slot in the
front door, and since nothing incidental was allowed to pile up
downstairs -- since the fiction of living in this house was that no
one lived here -- Enid faced a substantial tactical challenge. She
didn't think of herself as a guerrilla, but a guerrilla was what
she was. By day she ferried matériel from depot to depot,
often just a step ahead of the governing force. By night, beneath a
charming but too-dim sconce at a too-small table in the breakfast
nook, she staged various actions: paid bills, balanced checkbooks,
attempted to decipher Medicare copayment records and make sense of
a threatening Third Notice from a medical lab that demanded
immediate payment of $0.22 while simultaneously showing an account
balance of $0.00 carried forward and thus indicating that she owed
nothing and in any case offering no address to which remittance
might be made. It would happen that the First and Second Notices
were underground somewhere, and because of the constraints under
which Enid waged her campaign she had only the dimmest sense of
where those other Notices might be on any given evening. She might
suspect, perhaps, the family-room closet, but the governing force,
in the person of Alfred, would be watching a network newsmagazine
at a volume thunderous enough to keep him awake, and he had every
light in the family room burning, and there was a non-negligible
possibility that if she opened the closet door a cascade of
catalogues and House Beautifuls and miscellaneous Merrill Lynch
statements would come toppling and sliding out, incurring Alfred's
wrath. There was also the possibility that the Notices would not be
there, since the governing force staged random raids on her depots,
threatening to "pitch" the whole lot of it if she didn't take care
of it, but she was too busy dodging these raids to ever quite take
care of it, and in the succession of forced migrations and
deportations any lingering semblance of order was lost, and so the
random Nordstrom shopping bag that was camped behind a dust ruffle
with one of its plastic handles semi-detached would contain the
whole shuffled pathos of a refugee existence -- non-consecutive
issues of Good Housekeeping, black-and-white snapshots of Enid in
the 1940s, brown recipes on high-acid paper that called for wilted
lettuce, the current month's telephone and gas bills, the detailed
First Notice from the medical lab instructing co-payers to ignore
subsequent billings for less than fifty cents, a complimentary
cruise ship photo of Enid and Alfred wearing leis and sipping
beverages from hollow coconuts, and the only extant copies of two
of their children's birth certificates, for example.

Although Enid's ostensible foe was Alfred, what made her a
guerrilla was the house that occupied them both. Its furnishings
were of the kind that brooked no clutter. There were chairs and
tables by Ethan Allen. Spode and Waterford in the breakfront.
Obligatory ficuses, obligatory Norfolk pines. Fanned copies of
Architectural Digest on a glass-topped coffee table. Touristic
plunder -- enamelware from China, a Viennese music box that Enid
out of a sense of duty and mercy every so often wound up and raised
the lid of. The tune was "Strangers in the Night."

Unfortunately, Enid lacked the temperament to manage such a house,
and Alfred lacked the neurological wherewithal. Alfred's cries of
rage on discovering evidence of guerrilla actions -- a Nordstrom
bag surprised in broad daylight on the basement stairs, nearly
precipitating a tumble -- were the cries of a government that could
no longer govern. He'd lately developed a knack for making his
printing calculator spit columns of meaningless eight-digit
figures. After he devoted the better part of an afternoon to
figuring the cleaning woman's social security payments five
different times and came up with four different numbers and finally
just accepted the one number ($635.78) that he'd managed to come up
with twice (the correct figure was $70.00), Enid staged a nighttime
raid on his filing cabinet and relieved it of all tax files, which
might have improved household efficiency had the files not found
their way into a Nordstrom bag with some misleadingly ancient Good
Housekeepings concealing the more germane documents underneath,
which casualty of war led to the cleaning woman's filling out the
forms herself, with Enid merely writing the checks and Alfred
shaking his head at the complexity of it all.

It's the fate of most Ping-Pong tables in home basements eventually
to serve the ends of other, more desperate games. After Alfred
retired he appropriated the eastern end of the table for his
banking and correspondence. At the western end was the portable
color TV on which he'd intended to watch the local news while
sitting in his great blue chair but which was now fully engulfed by
Good Housekeepings and the seasonal candy tins and baroque but
cheaply made candle holders that Enid never quite found time to
transport to the Nearly New consignment shop. The Ping-Pong table
was the one field on which the civil war raged openly. At the
eastern end Alfred's calculator was ambushed by floral print
pot-holders and souvenir coasters from the Epcot Center and a
device for pitting cherries which Enid had owned for thirty years
and never used, while he, in turn, at the western end, for
absolutely no reason that Enid could ever fathom, ripped to pieces
a wreath made of pinecones and spray-painted filberts and brazil

Excerpted from THE CORRECTIONS © Copyright 2011 by
Jonathan Franzen. Reprinted with permission by Picador USA. All
rights reserved.

The Corrections
by by Jonathan Franzen

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312421273
  • ISBN-13: 9780312421274