The Carol Sing

    by John Updike (1970)

Surely one of the natural wonders of Tarbox was Mr. Burley at the Town Hall carol sing. How he would jubilate, how he would God-rest those merry gentlemen, how he would boom out when the male voices became Good King Wenceslas:

Mark my footsteps, good my page;
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less co-oh-ldly.

When he hit a good “oh,” standing beside him was like being inside a great transparent Christmas ball. He had what you’d have to call a God-given bass. This year, we other male voices just peck at the tunes: Wendell Huddlestone, whose hardware store has become the pizza place where the dropouts collect after dark; Squire Wentworth, who is still getting up petitions to protect the marsh birds from the atomic power plant; Lionel Merson, lighter this year by about three pounds of gallstones; and that selectman whose freckled bald head looks like the belly of a trout; and that fireman whose face is bright brown all the year round from clamming; and the widow Covode’s bearded son, who went into divinity school to avoid the draft; and the Bisbee boy, who no sooner was back from Vietnam than he grew a beard and painted his car every color of the rainbow; and the husband of the new couple that moved this September into the Whitman place on the beach road. He wears thick glasses above a little mumble of a mouth tight as a keyhole, but his wife appears perky enough.

The-ey lookèd up and saw a star,
Shining in the east, beyond them far;
And to the earth it ga-ave great light,
And so it continued both da-ay and night.

She is wearing a flouncy little Christmassy number, red with white polka dots, one of those dresses so short that when she sits down on the old plush deacon’s bench she has to help it with her hand to tuck under her bottom, otherwise it wouldn’t. A bright bit of a girl with long thighs glossy as pond ice. She smiles nervously up over her cup of cinnamon-stick punch, wondering why she is here, in this dusty drafty public place. We must look monstrous to her, we Tarbox old-timers. And she has never heard Mr. Burley sing, but she knows something is missing this year; there is something failed, something hollow. Hester Hartner sweeps wrong notes into every chord: arthritis—arthritis and indifference.

The first good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of one;
To see the blessèd Jesus Christ
When he was first her son.

The old upright, a Pickering, for most of the year has its keyboard turned to the wall, beneath the town zoning map, its top piled high with rolled-up plot plans filing for variances. The Town Hall was built, strange to say, as a Unitarian church, around 1830, but it didn’t take around here, Unitarianism; the sea air killed it. You need big trees for a shady mystic mood, or at least a lake to see yourself in like they have in Concord. So the town took over the shell and ran a second floor through the air of the sanctuary, between the balconies: offices and the courtroom below, more offices and this hall above. You can still see the Doric pilasters along the walls, the top halves. They used to use it more; there were the Tarbox Theatricals twice a year, and political rallies with placards and straw hats and tambourines, and get-togethers under this or that local auspice, and town meetings until we went representative. But now not even the holly the ladies of the Grange have hung around can cheer it up, can chase away the smell of dust and must, of cobwebs too high to reach and rats’ nests in the piano, that faint sour tang of blueprints. And Hester lately has taken to chewing eucalyptus drops.

And him to serve God give us grace,
O lux beata Trinitas.

The little wife in polka dots is laughing now: maybe the punch is getting to her, maybe she’s getting used to the look of us. Strange people look ugly only for a while, until you begin to fill in those tufty monkey features with a little history and stop seeing their faces and start seeing their lives. Regardless, it does us good, to see her here, to see young people at the carol sing. We need new blood.

This time of the year is spent in good cheer,
And neighbors together do meet,
To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,
Each other in love to greet.
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
All sorrows aside they lay;
The old and the young doth carol this song,
To drive the cold winter away.

At bottom it’s a woman’s affair, a chance in the darkest of months to put on some gaudy clothes and get out of the house. Those old holidays weren’t scattered around the calendar by chance. Harvest and seedtime, seedtime and harvest, the elbows of the year. The women do enjoy it; they enjoy jostle of most any kind, in my limited experience. The widow Covode as full of rouge and purple as an old-time Scollay Square tart, when her best hope is burial on a sunny day, with no frost in the ground. Mrs. Hortense broad as a barn door, yet her hands putting on a duchess’s airs. Mamie Nevins sporting a sprig of mistletoe in her neck brace. They miss Mr. Burley. He never married and was everybody’s gallant for this occasion. He was the one to spike the punch and this year they let young Covode do it, maybe that’s why Little Polka Dots can’t keep a straight face and giggles across the music like a pruning saw.

Adeste, fideles,
Laeti triumphantes;
Venite, venite
In Bethlehem.

Still that old tussle, “v” versus “wenite,” the “th” as hard or soft. Education is what divides us. People used to actually resent it, the way Burley, with his education, didn’t go to some city, didn’t get out. Exeter, Dartmouth, a year at the Sorbonne, then thirty years of Tarbox. By the time he hit fifty he was fat and fussy. Arrogant, too. Last sing, he two or three times told Hester to pick up her tempo. “Presto, Hester, not andante!” Never married, and never really worked. Burley Hosiery, that his grandfather had founded, was shut down and the machines sold South before Burley got his manhood. He built himself a laboratory instead and was always about to come up with something perfect: the perfect synthetic substitute for leather, the harmless insecticide, the beer can that turned itself into mulch. Some said at the end he was looking for a way to turn lead into gold. That was just malice. Anything high attracts lightning, anybody with a name attracts malice. When it happened, the papers in Boston gave him six inches and a photograph ten years old. “After a long illness.” It wasn’t a long illness, it was cyanide, the Friday after Thanksgiving.

The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas day in the morn.

They said the cyanide ate out his throat worse than a blowtorch. Such a detail is satisfying but doesn’t clear up the mystery. Why? Health, money, hobbies, that voice. Not having that voice makes a big hole here. Without his lead, no man dares take the lower parts; we just wheeze away at the melody with the women. It’s as if the floor they put in has been taken away and we’re standing in air, halfway up that old sanctuary. We peek around guiltily, missing Burley’s voice. The absent seem to outnumber the present. We feel insulted, slighted. The dead flee us. The older you get, the more of them snub you. He was rude enough last year, Burley, correcting Hester’s tempo. At one point, he even reached over, his face black with impatience, and slapped her hands that were still trying to make sense of the keys.

Rise, and bake your Christmas bread:
Christians, rise! The world is bare,
And blank, and dark with want and care,
Yet Christmas comes in the morning.

Well, why anything? Why do we? Come every year sure as the solstice to carol these antiquities that if you listened to the words would break your heart. Silence, darkness, Jesus, angels. Better, I suppose, to sing than to listen.

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