“Rebecca,” a very short story by Donald Barthleme

“Rebecca”

by

Donald Barthelme


Rebecca Lizard was trying to change her ugly, reptilian, thoroughly unacceptable last name.

“Lizard,” said the judge. “Lizard, Lizard, Lizard, Lizard. There’s nothing wrong with it if you say it enough times. You can’t clutter up the court’s calendar with trivial little minor irritations. And there have been far too many people changing their names lately.

Changing your name countervails the best interest of the telephone comany, the electric company, and the United States goverment. Motion denied.”

Lizard in tears.

Lizard led from the courtroom. A chrysanthemum of Kleenex held under her nose.

“Shaky lady,” said a man, “are you a schoolteacher?”

Of course she’s a schoolteacher, you idiot. Can’t you see the poor woman’s all upset? Why don’t you leave her alone?

“Are you a homosexual lesbian? Is that why you never married?”

Christ, yes, she’s a homosexual lesbian, as you put it. Would you please shut your face?

Rebecca went to the damned dermatologist (a new damned dermatologist), but he said the same thing the others had said. “Greenish,” he said, “slight greenishness, genetic anomaly, nothing to be done, I’m afraid, Mrs. Lizard.”

“Miss Lizard.”

“Nothing to be done, Miss Lizard.”

“Thank you, Doctor. Can I give you a little something for your trouble?”

“Fifty dollars.”

When Rebecca got home the retroactive rent increase was waiting for her, coiled in her mailbox like a pupil about to strike.

Must get some more Kleenex. Or a Ph.D. No other way.

She thought about sticking her head in the oven. But it was an electric oven.

Rebecca’s lover, Hilda, came home late.

“How’d it go?” Hilda asked, referring to the day.

“Lousy.”

“Hmmm,” Hilda said, and quietly mixed strong drinks of busthead for the two of them.

Hilda is a very good-looking woman. So is Rebecca. They love each other–an incredibly dangerous and delicate business, as we know. Hilda has long blond hair and is perhaps a shade the more beautiful. Of course Rebecca has a classic and sexual figure which attracts huge admiration from every beholder.

“You’re late,” Rebecca said. “Where were you?”

“I had a drink with Stephanie.”

“Why did you have a drink with Stephanie?”

“She stopped by my office and said let’s have a drink.”

“Where did you go?”

“The Barclay.”

“How is Stephanie?”

“She’s fine.”

“Why did you have to have a drink with Stephanie?”

“I was ready for a drink.”

“Stephanie doesn’t have a slight greenishness, is that it? Nice, pink Stephanie?”

Hilda rose and put an excellent C & W album on the record player. It was David Rogers’s

“Farewell to the Ryman,” Atlantic SD 7283. It contains such favorites as “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Great Speckled Bird,” “I’m Movin’ On,” and “Walking the Floor Over You.” Many great Nashville personnel appear on this record.

“Pinkness is not everything,” Hilda said. “And Stephanie is a little bit boring. You know that.” “Not so boring that you don’t go out for drinks with her.”

“I am not interested in Stephanie.”

“As I was leaving the courthouse,” Rebecca said, “a man unzipped my zipper.”

David Rogers was singing “Oh please release me, let me go.”

“What were you wearing?”

“What I’m wearing now.”

“So he had good taste,” Hilda said, “for a creep.” She hugged Rebecca, on the sofa. “I love you,” she said.

“Screw that,” Rebecca said plainly, and pushed Hilda away. “Go hang out with Stephanie Sasser.”

“I am not interested in Stephanie Sasser,” Hilda said for the second time.

Very often one “pushes away” the very thing that one most wants to grab, like a lover. This is a common, although distressing, psychological mechanism, having to do (in my opinion) with the fact that what is presented is not presented “purely,” that there is a tiny little canker or grim place in it somewhere. However, worse things can happen.

“Rebecca,” said Hilda, “I really don’t like your slight greenishness.”

The term “lizard” also includes geckos, iguanas, chameleons, slowworms, and monitors. Twenty existing families make up the order, according to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life, and four others are known only from fossils. There are about twenty-five hundred species, and they display adaptations for walking, running, climbing, creeping, or burrowing. Many have interesting names, such as the Bearded Lizard, the Collared Lizard, the Flap-Footed Lizard, the Frilled Lizard, the Girdle-Tailed Lizard, and the Wall Lizard.

“I have been overlooking it for these several years, because I love you, but I really don’t like it so much,” Hilda said. “It’s slightly–”

“Knew it,” said Rebecca.
Rebecca went into the bedroom. The color television set was turned on, for some reason.

In a greenish glow, a film called Green Hill was unfolding.

I’m ill, I’m ill.
I will become a farmer.
Our love, our sexual love, our ordinary love!

Hilda entered the bedroom and said, “Supper is ready.”

“What is it?”

“Pork with red cabbage.”

“I’m drunk,” Rebecca said.

Too many of our citizens are drunk at times when they should be sober–suppertime, for example. Drunkenness leads to forgetting where you have put your watch, keys, or money clip, and to a decreased sensitivity to the needs and desires and calm good health of others. The causes of overuse of alcohol are not as clear as the results. Psychiatrists feel in general that alcoholism is a serious problem but treatable, in some cases. AA is said to be both popular and effective. At base, the question is one of willpower.

“Get up,” Hilda said. “I’m sorry I said that.”

“You told the truth,” said Rebecca.

“Yes, it was the truth,” Hilda admitted.

“You didn’t tell me the truth in the beginning. In the beginning, you said it was beautiful.”

“I was telling you the truth, in the beginning. I did think it was beautiful. Then.”

This “then,” the ultimate word in Hilda’s series of three brief sentences, is one of the most pain-inducing words in the human vocabulary, when used in this sense. Departed time! And the former conditions that went with it! How is human pain to be measured? But remember that Hilda, too… It is correct to feel for Rebecca in this situation, but, reader, neither can Hilda’s position be considered an enviable one, for truth, as Bergson knew, is a hard apple, whether one is throwing it or catching it.

“What remains?” Rebecca said stonily.

“I can love you in spite of–”

Do I want to be loved in spite of? Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree?

Aren’t there important parts of all of us which must be, so to say, gazed past? I turn a blind eye to that aspect of you, and you turn a blind eye to that aspect of me, and with these blind eyes eyeball-to-eyeball, to use an expression from the early 1960s, we continue our starched and fragrant lives. Of course it’s also called “making the best of things,” which I have always considered a rather soggy idea for an Americal ideal. But my criticisms of this idea must be tested against those of others–the late President McKinley, for example, who maintained that maintaining a good, in not necessarily sunny, disposition was the one valuable and proper course.

Hilda placed her hands on Rebecca’s head.

“The snow is coming,” she said. “Soon it will be snow time. Together then as in other snow times. Drinking the busthead ’round the fire. Truth is a locked room that we knock the lock off from time to time, and then board up again. Tomorrow you will hurt me, and I will inform you that you have done so, and so on and so on. To hell with it. Come, viridian friend, come and sup with me.”

They sit down together. The pork with red cabbage steams before them. They speak quietly about the McKinley Administration, which is being revised by revisionist historians. The story ends. It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm tympanic page.

(Via)

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