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John Updike's Short Story on Drinking Water

In memory of the amazingly prolific writer and critic John Updike, here are some favorite lines from a piece he wrote for the New Yorker last year on one man's satisfaction glugging down a glass of water each night:

The bliss goes back, I suppose, to moments of thirst satisfied in my childhood, five states to the south of this one, where there were public drinking fountains in all the municipal buildings and department stores, and luncheonettes would put glasses of ice water on the table without your having to ask, and drugstores served Alka-Seltzer up at the soda fountain to cure whatever ailed you, from hangover to hives.

Think of it: pipes running through the earth below the frost line and up unseen from the basement right through the walls to bring you this transparent flow, which you swallowed down in rhythmic gulps—down what my grandfather called, with that twinkle he had, behind his bifocals, “the little red lane.” The copper would bead with condensation while you waited for the water to run cold enough.

That icy water held an ingredient that made me, a boy of nine or ten, eager for the next moment of life, one brimming moment after another.

I loved the idea of something irresistibly travelling along a set path—marbles rolling down wooden or plastic troughs, subway trains hurtling beneath city streets, water propelled by gravity through underground pipes, rivers implacably tumbling and oozing their way to the sea. Such phenomena gave me a secret joy to contemplate, and, with the lessening intensity that applies in my old age to all sensations, they still do.

My life-prolonging pills cupped in my left hand, I lift the glass, its water sweetened by its brief wait on the marble sink-top. If I can read this strange old guy’s mind aright, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.

With a full glass of water, we toast Updike's life.

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