Better Read Than Never: John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

(10-minute read)
(If 10 minutes is disheartening, I just took a shorter look at a particular section of Self-Consciousness, the one addressed to his biracial grandchildren, in my He Said/She Said compendium of pithy quotations. It’s about growing up Black in America, by a loving White granddaddy.)

I haven’t been a huge John Updike fan, but he’s growing on me. Naturally, I read Rabbit Run,

My local library's edition.

My local library’s edition.

the first of what became the “Rabbit” tetralogy following the life course of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. For me, it was pretty much required reading, since the protagonist had been a high school hoops star and basketball profoundly colours his youthful experience. I liked it, though I wasn’t crazy about Harry. Despite periodic and ephemeral resolutions, I never did get to the subsequent novels. I will. The closer in age that I get to Rabbit at Rest, the final chapter, the more Mr. Angstrom seems like a character I should know better.

The second Updike novel I read, The Centaur, really was required reading: to keep my brain alive during a period of professional drudgery, I took some Lit courses at the University of Ottawa. Unsurprisingly, Updike appeared on the American Novel course, though the choice of The Centaur was less obvious. Perhaps because I read and re-read and wrote about it¹, I love and know that novel better than the one about the basketball hero-turned-typically-jaded-American. My affection and enduring memory of the thing might have had to do, too, with the father-son tension and the high school cum mythological dream-park setting; sonsRUs, certainly, and I still haven’t finally left the halls of eternal adolescence. I coach high school hoops still, after all.

¹ It’s academic stuff, but not terribly unreadable. However, I have placed electronic drones around the text in case some undergraduate thinks to plagiarize. You will be shocked, assimilated, and outed to the Weenyverse, if you do. Reading the essay won’t hurt, though. Reading the NOVEL would be downright healthy.

But recently, not long after seeing the great and gracious radio voice of the superb literary interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, embodied on an Ottawa stage, I heard her 1996 interview with the famously media-shy Updike. (He died in 2009, at 76.) Wachtel interviews are always extended, thoughtful, generous expositions of the minds and hearts of many of the greatest writers we’ve had. John Updike was no exception, though I was mildly surprised to find what a humble, gracious and thoroughly engaging voice his was.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Perhaps I’d been swayed by some of the backlash against the privilege of the white male Authorial Voice of the mid-20th century. One of the nastiest was the dismissal of Updike as merely “a penis with a thesaurus”, but a pervasive view is that, though a big-seller among literary fiction-writers, he was over-rated simply because the voices of women – especially women of colour – had been suppressed. Time will tell, I suppose, but this cuts two ways. As unpopular as it may be to say it, there must be certain much-praised contemporary writers who benefit from the opposite current: the explosion of interest in and production by the previously under-published and under-privileged, those other voices from other cultural rooms that we now (wonderfully) get to hear more from. Some of these, I suspect, will have their ecstatic reviews and audience responses tempered by the sifting hands of critical hindsight. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To return to Updike, his was a voice that I was moved and inspired to hear, and hear more. He didn’t do many interviews, certainly not such revealing, appealing and lengthy ones as he had with Ms. Wachtel. I was moved particularly by a thread of their conversation in which he shyly but eloquently offered that he had always been interested in unnoticed little corners of life: odd bits of geography, obscure perspectives, his childhood view from under the kitchen table. (The ego-mad writer in me, inevitably I suppose, thought Hey, I got me some corners. But then, who doesn’t?) It was a gentle, humble, profound, a personally revelatory reverie, and I also felt that it was part of Wachtel’s genius that got him to speaking about it. I thought I heard a little wonder in his voice, that he’d been nudged to notice a slightly new perception of his own work.

That could’ve been sheer imagination, but it was one of several minor heart-quakes that urged me to read more Updike, especially his 1989 Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. It goes to odd corners. It is no standard autobiography,

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Chuck Wendig (on weak & entitled men)

Chuck Wendig is funnier than I am, even when he’s pissed off. Especially then.

More Chuck/Howdy distinctions: Wendig’s funnier, more productive, less frightened of fiction, more joyfully profane and (allegedly) actually makes decent money as a writer. (I actually quite like him, though.) He writes a blog called Terrible Minds which is particularly aimed at writers, and secondarily at those who enjoy and consume fantasy and science fiction, whether electronically or by manual analog movement of stained wood-pulp tissues. (So-called “pages” within three-dimensional, sometimes weighty and sharp-cornered “books”. Weird stuff.) He has met Neil Gaiman. He has a writing shed.

But here’s how Chuck and I are brothers: he is the father of a little boy that he’s evidently fascinated by and cuckoo about; he believes in creativity and wonder; he has a thing for Margaret Atwood; he’s wacky about words (his writing is like steroid-enhanced psychedelic popcorn and, like mine, digresses wildly but with way more profanity and phrases like “shit-shellacked”, “jerky lackwits”, “a ranty, yelly, gesticulating mess of a screed” [about “arting harder”], and “a pair of toddler underoos spackled with mess”; AND, if you thought I’d never get to the point, like me he is often inclined to spew inflammable verbal dragon-venom when men are hateful towards women and their aspirations. Chuck Wendig is bloody merciless and absolutely off-his-nut indignant when men are whiny, machofeeble, femophobic and protective of illogical and illegitimate privilege. It enrages him. It enrages me, though less colourfully and NSFW-ish.

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Stephen King (on writing and magic)

On a day when I’m frisking about on my computer and getting lots of fine things done — none of which include me actually writing anything beyond overdue emails, which are not evil in and of themselves but do help me forget the Writing Plan (such as it was) for the day — I like to recall Professor King’s encouragement. This comes from his excellent book-length essay on the creative life, On Writing. 

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Better Read Than Never: Stephen King’s CELL

My review of Stephen King’s novel Cell got a little long and breathless — much like an SK novel — so I cut it in two. The first part was my experience reading Der Horrormeister and sometimes preferring him as a teacherHere, I punch the buttons of the fictional Cell, which I found an agreeable and often compelling read.

There are gorier covers, but my son's paperback version looks like this.

There are gorier covers, but my son’s paperback version looks like this.

Here’s the deal on Cell: for reasons that are never fully understood (by characters or by us), everybody speaking on a cellular phone at a fatal moment are slammed by some kind of electronic probe, later called the Pulse, which instantly erases from them most of what we typically think of as individual humanity. They lunge for available throats and entirely forget how to drive or otherwise conduct everyday jobs, let alone the conventions of civilization. Chaos ensues, of course, and life suddenly becomes a savage, primitive contest of survival between “normies” and “phoners”.

We watch as this happens via Clayton Riddell, a young Dad separated from his wife and young son. He’s a struggling artist, and (as did King) he has daylighted as a school teacher, but on the day the world goes violently sideways, he has just sold his graphic novel, Dark Wanderer, and its sequel for a dizzying amount of money. He’s bought a gift for Sharon, estrangement be damned. He’s thinking of what comic book might thrill his little Johnny. Things are looking up. Seems like a good time to buy some ice cream.

Uh-oh. None of this helps at all six pages in, when the power-suited, ear-pieced woman ahead of him in line for soft-serve, yacking loudly, suddenly stops, drops her phone, gazes blankly, and then tries to drag Mister Softee out of his truck.

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Jonathan Franzen (fictional glimpse: doomed male desire)

There’s nothing exceptional about this extract, which is the brilliance of Franzen’s Freedom. It is full of tawdry modern incidences and aggravatingly imperfect characters that we love, distrust, admire, roll our eyes about and want to shout at. It is also full of invention and lively details, superbly written but easily readable. (A little stamina will be needed, but. There’s another one here.) Sometimes he is nastily funny, and sometimes he makes depressingly accurate observations about how the “comfort-loving peoples of the West” live these days. (Which category does this micro-excerpt fit for you?)

Here, young and newly-wed Joey arrives at the airport to meet the most impossibly beautiful woman he’s known and (maybe) begin a torrid South American affair. (I won’t try to explain the ring.)

“The wedding ring was still stalled somewhere in his abdomen as he breasted through the churning warm sea of travellers at Miami International and located Jenna in the cooler, calm bay of a business-class lounge. She was wearing sunglasses and was additionally defended by an iPod and the latest Conde Nast Traveller. She gave Joey a once-over, head to toe, the way a person might confirm that a product she’d ordered had arrived in acceptable condition, and then removed the hand luggage from the seat beside her and — a little reluctantly, it seemed — pulled the iPod wires from her ears. Joey sat down smiling helplessly at the amazement of travelling with her. He’d never flown business-class before.”

Jonathan Franzen is an American novellist that you’ve likely heard of. I mull over the story of Joey Berglund and his family, with whom I’ve lived for a couple of weeks. I’ve gotten very close to his parents, Walter and Patty, though they drive me crazy.


Jonathan Franzen (in Freedom, on rival wives)

After a small festival of reading Franzen non-fiction, and non-fiction about Franzen, and speculating idly about the famous Franzen Twitter-aversitude, I dived into his most recent novel, Freedom. I read and enjoyed his The Corrections six or seven years ago, and have been waiting for “the right time” to start his newest. ‘Nuff waitin. Ain’t no ‘right time’. (Unless it’s now.) I’m a quite delicious (thank you) 164 pages in, with no real effort. Here are just a few sentences — the last knocked me out — brief character description that somehow implies an entire generational critique. Merrie Paulsen is a neighbour of protagonist Patty Berglund’s, and not in her fan club:

“Another problem…was that Patty was no great progressive and certainly no feminist (staying home with her birthday calendar, baking those goddamned birthday cookies) and seemed altogether allergic to politics. If you mentioned an election or a candidate to her, you could see her struggling and failing to be her usual cheerful self — see her becoming agitated and doing too much nodding, too much yeah-yeahing. Merrie, who was ten years older than Patty and looked every year of it, had formerly been active with the SDS in Madison and was now very active in the craze for Beaujolais nouveau…”

Jonathan Franzen, pp. 8-9 of the paperbook version of Freedom, just getting rolling. The SDS, for you youngsters and un-Americans, was the radical organization Students for a Democratic Society, which had no interest in wine or gentrification at all.



Alice Munro (fiction and parental fears)

Don’t be fooled: her writing isn’t dainty, but perfectly dangerous.

Well, you all know that the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, 82 years young, won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year after a career of writing nothing but short stories.

Or maybe you didn’t. Short story: she’s magnificent, and I blushed at how long it’s been since I have read her. When the Nobel news came there was only one thing at hand for me to read: “Miles City, Montana”, from a paperback Canadiana collection that I picked up somewhere, my Can-Lit homework for this fifth China year.

It’s typically homely, but danger lurks. A couple and their two small girls travel by car from British Columbia to southern Ontario, mostly via the United States. I won’t go on, but simple events and the hauntings of memory make us feel that we have known the narrator from the inside. Here’s the quote.

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Chad Harbach (on art and beauty and sport)

I just finished The Art of Fielding, a 2011 novel by Chad Harbach that centres on baseball but ranges widely (sometimes wildly) from Herman Melville to environmental activism to collegiate sexual mores to the nature of the life well-lived. I liked best its many meditations on the meaning of sport, and the pursuit of greatness in it. Here is one passage:

“The making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.

“For Schwartz, this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition…, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

“Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day,how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer — you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability…”

Chad Harbach is a new writer to me. He is the co-founder a literary and cultural magazine called n+1, also new to me. He writes about baseball like Henry the Shortstop, his protagonist, fields ground balls: with grace, the occasional wow, and deep understanding.

He came into my line of sight rather pathetically: a student in my writing class in a Chinese university, hectored by me to find something fun/interesting/pleasurable to read in English rather than the stiff, classical and too damnedly difficult texts they typically have chosen for them, showed up with The Art of Fielding. She’d paid 77 yuan for the paperback, about 13 bucks, which was in a Chinese bookstore solely because it was a New York Times notable book. Her choice was a sad, bitter and completely unintentional joke on me and my sometimes absurd hopes for students, and nobody got the joke but me: not only is it a fine and rather literary novel, it’s about baseball. Ms. An hadn’t the faintest clue what the book was about, and hadn’t even bothered trying to begin it. I released her from this painful (or patently fake) fantasy of fiction reading, then borrowed the book, and have so far been unsuccessful in convincing her to allow me to pay her for it. (It’s great. It’s so laughably/pitiably far beyond the grasp of nearly any Chinese student, though not apparently a financial stretch for this one.)


Reason to Remember: A Short Story

Memory was a funny thing. David Jenkins could still name the starters on UCLA’s 1973 championship basketball team, and he could recite Marcy’s girlhood phone number, twenty-five years, four Bruins coaches, and two wedding days later. Yet it seemed to him that his days were dedicated to forgetfulness. So many gaps. There were entire years of his schooling with only the barest souvenir shreds attached to them. The childhoods of his own three kids had become one big soup, with only the occasional bit of meaty remembrance.

“Well, I do remember that Johnny loved to dance. Every time I played ‘Blind’, he went crazy, just boogeying around in his diaper. You know, that was the last vinyl album I ever bought, I think. That was the Talking Heads, right? And projectile poop, I told you about that, didn’t I? That was definitely Jordan, straight off the change table, splat against the wall! Who was trying to change him? Mary, maybe? How’s that for ‘good morning, auntie’! No picture of that one. Hey. I used to have a great picture of Joey, what happened to that? He’s maybe 18 months, standing beside a stop sign. Or a fire hydrant. Anyway, believe it or not, Joey was chubby when he was a little sprout! I think he was the one that fell off the back stoop, or was that…?” It was always Marcy Gingrich, though, at the center of his memories, the one who could always redraw the lines that had faded. He had met her when he was fourteen, and most things before that were hazy in his mind.

Elwood Henry had found a way – one of the usual ones – to deal with a name that can get a boy a bloody nose at recess. He had become the fun boy, the goofball, the lucky charmer, “crazy Henry”. On David’s high school football team, Elwood was a treasured cutup and the object of many gags, practical or just bloody foolish. The Blues were a pitiable team, with a history of doing more damage to each other than to any opponent. One practice, while the team’s only coach was still grabbing an after-school coffee, the captains tried to get things started. So did Potter, who really was crazy when he put on a helmet. He grabbed Elwood around the thigh pads from behind, turned him upside-down, and used him to demonstrate King Kong Bundy’s pro wrestling pile-driver move. A few guys cheered. This was better than stretching! No one was too surprised when Elwood started staggering around the calisthenics lines, eyes wide, arms pointing vaguely. This was Crazy Henry.

“What am I doing?  Where am I?” As a sophomore, David had nothing to say, but the veteran players were enjoying the show.

“Hey, not bad, Henry!”

“Better go down to guidance. Rabbit’ll tell you what to do!”

“Listen, how many times did Elwood watch Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, anyhow?”

“Nah, he’s just in a daze. He slept all the way through The Perv’s class.”

“Alright, shut-up, you guys. You wanna get stretching, dickhead? Coach is still pissed about your fumble Friday – hey, dipstick, you listening? Hey! Woody?”

David only knew Elwood from the team, and the occasional hallway elbow, but he knew something about this was weird. He was carrying the joke too far. He had even taken off his helmet, and he looked scared. Jason was stunned to see that Crazy Henry was crying.

“I don’t know who I am!” he wailed.

Nobody knew much about concussions back then, but the Blues were learning. The halls were still buzzing with wide-eyed details – I’m not shittin’ you, he didn’t even know his own name! – when David Jenkins added to the fogbound memories of that vague and losing season.

The Blues practiced Monday through Thursday, though on Fridays it often looked like they’d been press-ganged out of class just that afternoon. A few days after what was by then called The Henry Shuffle, David lined up at his usual slotback position. He knew his assignment on Power Pitch 37, and everyone else’s, too. He imagined himself bursting from his stance, getting a good angle on the outside linebacker, and sealing him to the inside as the running back went wide. Ecker wasn’t quick, but he outweighed David by at least 75 pounds. He knew there was no choice but to cut-block him, since he’d get buried if he tried to hit Ecker up high. On the snap, David sprinted to get wide of the pursuing linebacker, who was quicker than he looked. He threw his body across his path, and the last image he saw before blankness was Ecker’s left knee.

David remembered nothing else until he noticed that he was sitting in Doctor Linden’s office across town, and he never did recall how he’d gotten there. Marcy filled in most of the blanks later. She had stayed after school that day for cheerleading practice, and Guck, the football manager and “go-fer” extraordinaire, knew where to find her.

“Marcy, you gotta come ‘cause Dave got conked out and he can’t find his locker and he doesn’t know which clothes are his, come on!”

Despite the oddity and the overpowering odor of entering the jam-packed jumble of the boys’ tiny change room, Marcy had no trouble in picking out David’s usual jeans, green hockey sweater, and his white Chuck Taylor All-Stars with the wide blue laces. She then took him to his locker, and held up the lock, its dial marked from 0-60.

“Can you remember your combination, sweetie?”

“Yeah!  129, 63, 108.” (Hearing the tale recounted months later, for the fiftieth time, David suddenly laughed, realizing he must have given the combination for his father’s office safe.) With repeated reminders of what he needed to do, and with three red-faced entries into the boys’ washroom near the science labs, Marcy did manage to get David clothed and then driven to the doctor’s. She phoned the Jenkins’s to explain what had happened.

“Oh, my.  It’s an ill wind. We just found out that Wayne’s father has died. Heart attack,” David’s mother said. Wayne had married David’s oldest sister, Mary, five years before, and David idolized him – his stunning speed as a country fastball pitcher, the facts he spewed on the most arcane and undebatable subjects, and one unique bit of living room gymnastics. He would make an inverted arch by linking his fingers below his waist, then hop over his joined hands, frontwards and back.

“Oh, Dave,” Marcy said when she came back to the waiting room. “I’ve just talked to your mom. Wayne’s father died today!”  She held David’s hand, and watched him. His reaction was muted and very slow, but he seemed to understand. He looked at the carpet, shaking his head slowly. His voice was hollow and strained.

“Oh, no. That’s terrible.” He sat, unmoving, for several minutes. Marcy let him grieve quietly, a little surprised that David wanted no more details and had nothing else to say.

“Your mom says the funeral’s Friday.”

“What funeral? Who died?”

“Mr. Richardson! Wayne’s dad!”

“He died?  Oh, no. That’s terrible.” He looked down, and shook his head slowly.

In the hospital that night, Marcy made a little laughter grow through the solemnity, telling David’s visitors how she had broken the news repeatedly, getting a fresh flood of slow-moving grief each time. He could remember the last time she had told him, sitting in those hard chairs in a white room, waiting for the family doctor. It was the first memory that had stuck in his head since his closeup view of the grass-stained knees of Ecker’s football pants.


Years passed. By the end of high school, the Blues had better helmets and some wins, and Marcy and David had already envisioned their riverside wedding. Though they enrolled in different universities, there was no doubt they’d soon be together again. “Darcy and Mave”, their friends sometimes called them. Delighted at their merging, they sometimes called themselves that. Their respective dormitory staffs marveled at the volume of their loving mail. They were married at 21 in Marcy’s back yard, and threw flowers in the water. They were the golden couple, almost always the first among their various associates and friends to have married.

By age 25, there was Joseph and new-born careers. By 27, there was Jordan, a first house, and weekend trips to see Daddy play in various outposts of fast-pitch softball. By 32, there was Jonathan staggering about the backyard Olympics of his two big brothers. And by 34, David and Marcy had loved each other for more than half their lives, but were somehow forgetting how to do it. Too many questions were asked, and too much darkness was falling. There was impotent hope, and pleas for the impossible, bruised walls and broken words. As he traced the plotlines in his mind, David could see the shadows of separation, but no matter how many times he reread the story, he was always surprised at the end, and after all the slowly marching pain, how abrupt it seemed. He kept looking for a rose-colored epilogue.

He was living by then next to Mary and Wayne, in the small apartment they’d built for the last years of his mother’s life after Wayne’s father had died. Having given up playing ball years before to keep summers more clear for Marcy and the lads – she’d never been much for sports – David didn’t hesitate to resume playing when the Port Hope club gave him a call. He brooded dully on the irony that, though he wanted to live and play with hope, there wasn’t any left for him and Marcy. The Sailors weren’t the young, athletic powerhouse they had been before, either, though David was more player than he’d been in his twenties. The manager, Jerry Edwards, remembered too well.

“You know, Dave, you wore mediums when you played before,” he said, handing Jason a pair of large uniform pants. Still, he was able to shed the rust from his throwing arm, his batting stroke was still there, and though he needed a lot more stretching in between innings, he was still pretty quick going from first to third. David, at 35, was glad to have teammates, as well as a ball and some lukewarm dreams to chase. Joey and Jordan, even little Johnny, enjoyed seeing Daddy play, and loved even more roaring about among the trees and picnic tables beyond the rightfield fence.

David remembered where the weakest kid always got placed in tyke baseball, so it was a pin to his pride to have to play right field. It did make it easy to daydream and watch the boys on his custody weekends, and he’d had worse stings. Besides, the kid who’d been the batboy during his first tour of ball-playing duty was the new shortstop, and David had to admit that Skinny was pretty good. Pony was a fast little fixture in centerfield, David’s other favorite position, but he didn’t take charge of the outfield the way David thought he should. He would have reason to remember that thought, not far into his first season back in the blue and gold.

It was a warm Friday in June, and a few bugs lazily circled the floodlights. David was having a good night, and was starting to feel like a ballplayer again, not just “Dad” to his younger teammates. In the fifth inning, he got a good jump on a short fly ball, right off the bat.  As he raced in from right, his eyes bounced from the falling ball to Eddie, the second baseman, who was running into the outfield. When he knew Eddie wouldn’t get there, David yelled, “I got it got it got it!” The last thing he remembered this time was that he was going to have to dive to make that catch.

They probably shouldn’t have moved him after a blow to the head like that. He was unconscious for a couple of minutes, and the blood bubbled and spurted from his nose and mouth. After he seemed to know roughly where he was and what was happening, his mates helped him to his feet and, arms draped across the broadest shoulders, David began a deeply drunken march to the dugout. The ambulance was already driving in to the park by the time he crossed the first baseline, and David wanted to know one thing.

“Somebody hurt? Whosa ambulance for?”

The guys had some laughs telling that story, and David filled in the gaps. It had likely been Pony’s left knee – another one, smaller than Ecker’s but moving much faster – as he galloped wordlessly in from centerfield and made the catch, that had broken David’s nose and scrambled his brain. His first dim awareness, the next memory that remained after I got it!, was at least half an hour after leaving the suburban ballpark. He realized, wonderingly, as the back doors opened at the entrance to the hospital emergency room, that he was in an ambulance.

He was wearing his ball uniform. There was lots of blood across the Sailors logo. Memory of where he had been, and how he might have been hurt came only slowly, and David never did recall anything after the doomed race for that short pop fly. The next thing he knew was that Mary was by his hospital bedside. It seemed odd, somehow, that his sister was there, but he was glad to see her. She gently explained what she knew of the accident, its results, and how she’d been notified. Something bothered David, though. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t remember what it was. He was vaguely but increasingly anxious throughout their conversation, before a question bloomed in his mind like an instantaneous tumor.

“Where’s Marcy?”

He hadn’t even finished the third syllable before he groaned like a huge and badly wounded beast. He had flashed, in a thundering moment, from his disquiet to the cascading replay of the previous two years of marital drama and separation. Instantly. David hadn’t cried in front of his sister since he’d been five, but sobs shook him like a Doberman does a rag doll. Later, she told him that this blitzkrieg of sudden awareness had played itself out half a dozen times since she’d arrived at his bedside.

“I’m sorry, Mary,” he moaned as she hugged him. “I just remembered.”