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The Slump

John Updike Random House, Inc. "The Slump" from Museums and Women and Other Stories by John Updike. Copyright © 1968 by John Updike. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a Division of Random House, Inc. For on-line information about other Random House, Inc. books and authors, see the Internet website at http://www.randomhouse.com.

During Reading Strategy
Use What You Know as You Read

Vocabulary from the Selection
immortal panic

Guided Reading Question 1
Who blames the baseball player’s slump on his reflexes?
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Guided Reading Question 2
How well did the ballplayer used to see the ball?
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Guided Reading Question 3
What reason does the ballplayer give for his sudden inability to hit the ball?
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They say reflexes, the coach says reflexes, even the papers now are saying reflexes, but I don’t think it’s the reflexes so much—last night, as a gag to cheer me up, the wife walks into the bedroom wearing one of the kids’ rubber gorilla masks and I was under the bed in six-tenths of a second, she had the stopwatch on me. It’s that I can’t see the ball the way I used to. It used to come floating up with all seven continents showing, and the pitcher’s thumbprint, and a grass smooch or two, and the Spalding guarantee in ten-point san-serif1, and whop! I could feel the sweet wood with the bat still cocked. Now, I don’t know, there’s like a cloud around it, a sort of spiral vagueness, maybe the Van Allen belt2, or maybe I lift my eye in the last second, planning how I’ll round second base, or worrying which I do first, tip my cap or slap the third-base coach’s hand. You can’t see a blind spot, Kierkegaard3 says, but in there now, between when the ball leaves the bleacher background and I can hear it plop all fat and satisfied in the catcher’s mitt, there’s somehow just nothing, where there used to be a lot, everything in fact, because they’re not keeping me around for my fielding, and already I see the afternoon tabloid has me down as trade bait.

The flutters don’t come when they used to. It used to be, I’d back the convertible out of the garage and watch the electric eye put the door down again and drive in to the stadium, and at about the bridge turnoff I’d ease off grooving with the radio rock, and then on the lot there’d be the kids waiting to get a look and that would start the big butterflies, and when the attendant would take my car I’d want to shout Stop, thief, and walking down that long cement corridor I’d fantasize like I was going to the electric chair and the locker room was some dream after death, and I’d wonder why the suit fit, and how these really immortal guys, that I recognized from the bubble-gum cards I used to collect, knew my name. They knew me. And I’d go out and the stadium mumble would scoop at me and the grass seemed too precious to walk on, like emeralds, and by the time I got into the cage I couldn’t remember if I batted left or right.

Guided Reading Question 4
Formerly, what did the ballplayer fantasize as he walked to the locker room?
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Now, heck, I move over the bridge singing along with the radio, and brush through the kids at just the right speed, not so fast I knock any of them down, and the attendant knows his Labor Day tip is coming, and we wink, and in the batting cage I own the place, and take my cuts, and pop five or six into the bullpen as easy as dropping dimes down a sewer. But when the scoreboard lights up, and I take those two steps up from the dugout, the biggest two steps in a ballplayer’s life, and kneel in the circle, giving the crowd the old hawk profile, where once the flutters would ease off, now they dig down and begin.

They say I’m not hungry, but I still feel hungry, only now it’s a kind of panic hungry, and that’s not the right kind. Ever watch one of your little kids try to catch a ball? He gets so excited with the idea he’s going to catch it he shuts his eyes. That’s me now. I walk up to the plate, having come all this way—a lot of hotels, a lot of shagging—and my eyes feel shut. And I stand up there trying to push my eyeballs through my eyelids, and my retinas register maybe a little green, and the black patch of some nuns in far left field. That’s panic hungry.

Guided Reading Question 5
What are the “biggest two steps” for a ballplayer? What does this ballplayer feel then?
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Kierkegaard called it dread. It queers the works. My wife comes at me without the gorilla mask and when in the old days, whop!, now she slides by with a hurt expression and a flicker of gray above her temple, I go out and ride the power mower and I’ve already done it so often the lawn is brown. The kids get me out of bed for a little fungo and it scares me to see them trying, busting their lungs, all that shagging ahead of them. In Florida—we used to love it in Florida, the smell of citrus and marlin, the flat pink sections where the old people drift around smiling with transistor plugs in their ears—we lie on the beach after a workout and the sun seems a high fly I’m going to lose and the waves keep coming like they’ve been doing for a billion years, up to the plate, up to the plate. Kierkegaard probably has the clue, somewhere in there, but I picked up Concluding Unscientific Postscript the other day and I couldn’t see the print, that is, I could see the lines, but there wasn’t anything on them, like the rows of deep seats in the shade of the second deck on a Thursday afternoon, just a single ice-cream vendor sitting there, nobody around to sell to, a speck of white in all that shade, and Søren Sock himself, keeping his goods cool.

Guided Reading Question 6
What does Kierkegaard call “panic hungry”?
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Guided Reading Question 7
Where does the ballplayer seek the answer to his problem? Why doesn’t it help?
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I think maybe if I got beaned. That’s probably what the wife is hinting at with the gorilla mask. A change of pace, like the time DiMaggio4 broke his slump by Topping’s5 telling him to go to a night club and get plastered. I’ve stopped ducking, but the trouble is, if you’re not hitting, they don’t brush you back. On me, they’ve stopped trying for even the corners; they put it right down the pike. I can see it in his evil eye as he takes the sign and rears back, I can hear the catcher snicker, and for a second of reflex there I can see it like it used to be, continents and cities and every green tree distinct as a stitch, and the hickory sweetens in my hands, and I feel the good old sure hunger. Then something happens. It blurs, skips, fades, I don’t know. It’s not caring enough, is what it probably is, it’s knowing that none of it—the stadium, the averages—is really there, just you are there, and it’s not enough.

Guided Reading Question 7
What solution does the ballplayer think of?
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