K at His Desk
He is neither abrupt with nor excessively kind to associates. Or he is both abrupt and kind. The telephone is, for him, a whip, a lash, but also a conduit for soothing words, a sink into which he can hurl gallons of syrup if it comes to that. He reads quickly, scratching brief comments (“Yes,” “No”) in corners of the paper. He slouches in the leather chair, looking about him with a slightly irritated air for new visitors, new difficulties. He spends his time sending and receiving messengers. “I spend my time sending and receiving messengers,” he says. “Some of these messages are important. Others are not.”
Described by Secretaries
A: “Quite frankly I think he forgets a lot of things. But the things he forgets are those which are inessential. I even think he might forget deliberately, to leave his mind free. He has the ability to get rid of unimportant details. And he does.” B: “Once when I was sick, I hadn’t heard from him, and I thought he had forgotten me. You know usually your boss will send flowers or something like that. I was in the hospital, and I was mighty blue. I was in a room with another girl, and her boss hadn’t sent her anything either. Then suddenly the door opened and there he was with the biggest bunch of yellow tulips I’d ever seen in my life. And the other girl’s boss was with him, and he had tulips too. They were standing there with all those tulips, smiling. “
Behind the Bar
At a crowded party, he wanders behind the bar to make himself a Scotch and water. His hand is on the bottle of Scotch, his glass is waiting. The bartender, a small man in a beige uniform with gilt buttons, politely asks K. to return to the other side, the guests’ side, of the bar. “You let one behind here, they all be behind here,” the bartender says.
Read the rest of Donald Barthelme’s short story “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning.”