Upon the pleasant veranda of Père Antoine’s cottage, that adjoined the church, a young girl had long been seated, awaiting his return. It was the eve of Easter Sunday, and since early afternoon the priest had been engaged in hearing the confessions of those who wished to make their Easters the following day. The girl did not seem impatient at his delay; on the contrary, it was very restful to her to lie back in the big chair she had found there, and peep through the thick curtain of vines at the people who occasionally passed along the village street.
She was slender, with a frailness that indicated lack of wholesome and plentiful nourishment. A pathetic, uneasy look was in her gray eyes, and even faintly stamped her features, which were fine and delicate. In lieu of a hat, a barege veil covered her light brown and abundant hair. She wore a coarse white cotton “josie,” and a blue calico skirt that only half concealed her tattered shoes.
As she sat there, she held carefully in her lap a parcel of eggs securely fastened in a red bandana handkerchief.
Twice already a handsome, stalwart young man in quest of the priest had entered the yard, and penetrated to where she sat. At first they had exchanged the uncompromising “howdy” of strangers, and nothing more. The second time, finding the priest still absent, he hesitated to go at once. Instead, he stood upon the step, and narrowing his brown eyes, gazed beyond the river, off towards the west, where a murky streak of mist was spreading across the sun.
“It look like mo’ rain,” he remarked, slowly and carelessly.
“We done had ’bout ‘nough,” she replied, in much the same tone.
“It’s no chance to thin out the cotton,” he went on.
“An’ the Bon-Dieu,” she resumed, “it’s on’y to-day you can cross him on foot.”
“You live yonda on the Bon-Dieu, donc?” he asked, looking at her for the first time since he had spoken.
Donald Barthelme published a short story called “The Ontological Basis of Two” under the pseudonym “Michael Houston” in the June, 1963 issue of Cavalier, a “men’s” magazine. In her biography Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound, Barthelme’s ex-wife Helen Moore Barthelme writes,
…Don had with him the June issue of Cavalier. In it was a story he had written the previous December and submitted to Playboy. But “killing my hopes of a warm winter,” the story was turned down. He then submitted it under a pseudonym to a Playboy-styled magazine, Cavalier…
The story was “The Ontological Basis of Two,” and it appeared under the name of Michael Houston, a pseudonym he had used for Forum. A parody of B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two, it is an ironical tale of a girl–Peridot Concord– “who was raised in a glass box by a Harvard Professor.” He says of Peridot that because she inhabited the box until her fourth year, she “is as healthy and natural as a shrub.” Although she is free of the inhibitions of appearing nude that beset the narrator and everyone else, four years in the box have also left her “lacking in basic carnality.“
The goblins raised the mountain roofs on lofty gold pillars and celebrated the midwinter festival. The brownies danced around the Christmas porridge in new red caps. Old gods wandered about the heavens in gray storm cloaks, and in the Österhaninge graveyard stood the horse of Hel. He pawed with his hoof on the frozen ground; he was marking out the place for a new grave.
Not very far away, at the old manor of Årsta, Mamsell Fredrika was lying asleep. Årsta is, as every one knows, an old haunted castle, but Mamsell Fredrika slept a calm, quiet sleep. She was old now and tired out after many weary days of work and many long journeys,— she had almost traveled round the world,—therefore she had returned to the home of her childhood to find rest.
Outside the castle sounded in the night a bold fanfare. Death mounted on a gray charger had ridden up to the castle gate. His wide scarlet cloak and his hat’s proud plumes fluttered in the night wind. The stern knight sought to win an adoring heart, therefore he appeared in unusual magnificence. It is of no avail, Sir Knight, of no avail! The gate is closed, and the lady of your heart asleep. You must seek a better occasion and a more suitable hour. Watch for her when she goes to early mass, stern Sir Knight, watch for her on the church-road! Continue reading “Read “Mamsell Fredrika,” a haunted Christmas tale by Selma Lagerlöf”→
Dark mesquit spread from horizon to horizon. There was no house or horseman from which a mind could evolve a city or a crowd. The world was declared to be a desert and unpeopled. Sometimes, however, on days when no heat-mist arose, a blue shape, dun, of the substance of a specter’s veil, appeared in the southwest, and a pondering sheep-herder might remember that there were mountains.
In the silence of these plains the sudden and childish banging of a tin pan could have made an iron-nerved man leap into the air. The sky was ever flawless; the manoeuvring of clouds was an unknown pageant; but at times a sheep-herder could see, miles away, the long, white streamers of dust rising from the feet of another’s flock, and the interest became intense.
Bill was arduously cooking his dinner, bending over the fire and toiling like a blacksmith. A movement, a flash of strange colour, perhaps, off in the bushes, caused him suddenly to turn his head. Presently he arose, and, shading his eyes with his hand, stood motionless and gazing. He perceived at last a Mexican sheep-herder winding through the brush toward his camp.
“Hello!” shouted Bill.
The Mexican made no answer, but came steadily forward until he was within some twenty yards. There he paused, and, folding his arms, drew himself up in the manner affected by the villain in the play. His serape muffled the lower part of his face, and his great sombrero shaded his brow. Being unexpected and also silent, he had something of the quality of an apparition; moreover, it was clearly his intention to be mystic and sinister. Continue reading “Read “A Man and Some Others,” a tale by Stephen Crane”→
Freddie was mixing a cocktail. His hand with the long spoon was whirling swiftly, and the ice in the glass hummed and rattled like a cheap watch. Over by the window, a gambler, a millionaire, a railway conductor, and the agent of a vast American syndicate were playing seven-up. Freddie surveyed them with the ironica
l glance of a man who is mixing a cocktail.
From time to time a swarthy Mexican waiter came with his tray from the rooms at the rear, and called his orders across the bar. The sounds of the indolent stir of the city, awakening from its siesta, floated over the screens which barred the sun and the inquisitive eye. From the far-away kitchen could be heard the roar of the old French chef, driving, herding, and abusing his Mexican helpers.
A string of men came suddenly in from the street. They stormed up to the bar. There were impatient shouts. “Come, now, Freddie, don’t stand there like a portrait of yourself. Wiggle!” Drinks of many kinds and colors—amber, green, mahogany, strong and mild—began to swarm upon the bar, with all the attendants of lemon, sugar, mint, and ice. Freddie, with Mexican support, worked like a sailor in the provision of them, sometimes talking with that scorn for drink and admiration for those who drink which is the attribute of a good barkeeper.
At last a man was afflicted with a stroke of dice-shaking. A herculean discussion was waging, and he was deeply engaged in it, but at the same time he lazily flirted the dice. Occasionally he made great combinations. “Look at that, would you?” he cried proudly. The others paid little heed. Then violently the craving took them. It went along the line like an epidemic, and involved them all. In a moment they had arranged a carnival of dice-shaking, with money penalties and liquid prizes. They clamorously made it a point of honor with Freddie that he too should play, and take his chance of sometimes providing this large group with free refreshment. With bent heads, like football players, they surged over the tinkling dice, jostling, cheering, and bitterly arguing. One of the quiet company playing seven-up at the corner table said profanely that the row reminded him of a bowling contest at a picnic. Continue reading “Read Stephen Crane’s story “The Five White Mice””→
That morning, as he carefully shaved his head until it glistened, Aaron Tozzo pondered a vision too unfortunate to be endured. He saw in his mind fifteen convicts from Nachbaren Slager, each man only one inch high, in a ship the size of a child’s balloon. The ship, traveling at almost the speed of light, continued on forever, with the men aboard neither knowing nor caring what became of them.
The worst part of the vision was just that in all probability it was true.
He dried his head, rubbed oil into his skin, then touched the button within his throat. When contact with the Bureau switchboard had been established, Tozzo said, “I admit we can do nothing to get those fifteen men back, but at least we can refuse to send any more.”
His comment, recorded by the switchboard, was passed on to his co-workers. They all agreed; he listened to their voices chiming in as he put on his smock, slippers and overcoat. Obviously, the flight had been an error; even the public knew that now. But —
“But we’re going on,” Edwin Fermeti, Tozzo’s superior, said above the clamor. “We’ve already got the volunteers.”
“Also from Nachbaren Slager?” Tozzo asked. Naturally the prisoners there would volunteer; their lifespan at the camp was no more than five or six years. And if this flight to Proxima were successful, the men aboard would obtain their freedom. They would not have to return to any of the five inhabited planets within the Sol System.
I’ve read “The Balloon” more than any other Barthelme story. I’ve read it at least three times a year, every year, for the past ten years, in the context of an American Literature after 1865 course I teach every Fall-Spring-Summer. It’s widely-anthologized. It’s over-anthologized. It’s probably most folks only exposure to Barthelme, which I think is strange—I think it’s a particularly challenging Barthelme story, even though it’s the Barthelme story I’ve read more than any other Barthelme story.
My students are often exasperated by the story, which seems to lack any traditional plot or character—but I think that’s kind of the point. “The Balloon” is about the creation of “The Balloon.” It’s a story about a story, as much as Barthelme would have protested the notion. This interpretation is not particularly radical. Just earlier this month, the writer Donald Antrim did a reading of “The Balloon” for The New Yorker’s fiction podcast. After the reading, fiction editor Deborah Treisman engages (or tries to engage) Antrim in a discussion of the meaning of the balloon. Antrim insists on rebuking the balloon’s metaphoricity, repeatedly claiming it’s a “real” balloon. Treisman points out that it’s just a story.
As many readers have observed, Don’s story considers public responses to art. But besides this general theme, he had in mind a specific set of reactions, in a crucial time.
In invoking Manet’s balloon and the Olympia scandal, Don encoded in his story an early chapter of the art that nourished him throughout his career; an art inseparable from social change, resistant to strict ordering, and opposed to the narrowing of perceptions required by commodification.
5. “Will You Tell Me?” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)
One of Barthelme’s more formally challenging stories, “Will You Tell Me?” begins strange (“Hubert gave Charles and Irene a nice baby for Christmas”) and gets even stranger. It’s a subtle satire on soap operas and convoluted prize (“The French countryside (the countryside of France) was covered with golden grass”) shot through anarchic glee:
In the cellar Paul continued making his bombs, by cellarlight. The bombs were made from tall Schlitz cans and a plastic substance which Paul refused to identify. The bombs were sold to other boys Paul’s age to throw at their fathers.
Note the ever-present oedipal theme in Barthelme’s work.
4. “For I’m the Boy” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)
Like most of Barthelme’s stories, “For I’m the Boy” is a rewarding re-read. Among the stories in Sixty Stories culled from Come Back, Dr. Caligari, “For I’m the Boy” has a somewhat straightforward plot: A man named Bloomsbury has divorced his wife. He takes his two friends Whittle and Huber with her to the airport to see her off so that there will be no “weeping.” They then drive home, stopping for a bottle of brandy on the way. Whittle and Huber demand details of the divorce from Bloomsbury:
It would be interesting as well as instructive Whittle said casually, to know for instance at what point the situation of living together became untenable, whether she wept when you told her, whether you wept when she told you, whether you were the instigator or she was the instigator, whether there were physical fights involving bodily blows or merely objects thrown on your part and on her part, if there were mental cruelties, cruelties of what order and on whose part, whether she had a lover or did not have a lover, whether you did or did not, whether you kept the television or she kept the television, the disposition of the balance of the furnishings including tableware, linens, light bulbs, beds and baskets, who got the baby if there was a baby, what food remains in the pantry at this time, what happened to the medicine bottles including Mercurochrome, rubbing alcohol, aspirin, celery tonic, milk of magnesia, No-Doze and Nembutal, was it a fun divorce or not a fun divorce, whether she paid the lawyers or you paid the lawyers, what the judge said if there was a judge, whether you asked her for a “date” after the granting of the decree or did not ask, whether she was touched or not touched by this gesture if there was such a gesture, whether the date if there was such a date was a fun thing or not a fun thing – in short we’d like to get the feel of the event he said.
“Give us the feeling,” they insist, but Bloomsbury refuses. At the end of the story Whittle and Huber literally beat it out of him with a brandy bottle and tire iron. The feeling emerges in the form of tears and blood.
In Hiding Man, Daugherty makes a strong argument that “For I’m the Boy” serves as an early aesthetic statement from Barthelme: art is “our most refined public expression of what is private, unreachable, unsayable…it fails–words cannot do the trick–but it is the best we have…art’s value lies in the fact that it offers forms for our experiences.”
“Me and Miss Mandible” is an excellent and absurd story told by an adult man who is “officially a child.” Here is the story’s opening:
Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal’s office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven’t quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I’ve been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind.
Our narrator handles the mix-up (if it could be called a mix-up) with bemused aplomb. Unlike the hero of Barthelme’s 1976 story “The Sergeant,” who similarly awakes to find himself affixed with the wrong identity, the narrator of “Mandible” seems to find opportunity in his predicament. There’s nothing especially sinister here; the situation is Kafkaesque, but the tone isn’t. The narrator gets to see the American educational system through the eyes of an experienced adult: “Everything is promised my classmates and I, most of all the future. We accept the outrageous assurances without blinking.”
As the story develops, the narrator comes to understand that these promises are perhaps undeliverable:
We read signs as promises. Miss Mandible understands by my great height, by my resonant vowels, that I will one day carry her off to bed. Sue Ann interprets these same signs to mean that I am unique among her male acquaintances, therefore most desirable, therefore her special property as is every thing that is Most Desirable. If neither of these propositions work out then life has broken faith with them.
I myself, in my former existence, read the company motto (“Here to Help in Time of Need”) as a description of the duty of the adjuster, drastically mislocating the company’s deepest concerns. I believed that because I had obtained a wife who was made up of wife-signs (beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery) I had found love. Brenda, reading the same signs that have now misled Miss Mandible and Sue Ann Brownly, felt she had been promised that she would never be bored again. All of us, Miss Mandible, Sue Ann, myself, Brenda, Mr. Goodykind, still believe that the American flag betokens a kind of general righteousness.
But I say, looking about me in this incubator of future citizens, that signs are signs, and that some of them are lies. This is the great discovery of my time here.
In “A Shower of Gold,” we find Peterson, “a minor artist” with a bad liver, mulling over whether or not to sell out by appearing on the television show Who Am I? He’s tormented by a series of absurd “punishments” for even considering selling out, including having the President of the United States show up and destroy one of his pieces of art. Finally though, broke and beerless, he condescends to the appearance. The tale ends with an epiphanic monologue:
I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it. I affirm the absurdity. On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd. Before the emcee could ask the first question, Peterson began to talk. “Yesterday,” Peterson said to the television audience, “in the typewriter in front of the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue, I found a recipe for Ten Ingredient Soup that included a stone from a toad’s head. And while I stood there marveling a nice old lady pasted on the elbow of my best Haspel suit a little blue sticker reading THIS INDIVIDUAL IS A PART OF THE COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY FOR GLOBAL DOMINATION OF THE ENTIRE GLOBE. Coming home I passed a sign that said in ten-foot letters COWARD SHOES and heard a man singing “Golden earrings” in a horrible voice, and last night i dreamed there was a shoot- out at our house on Meat Street and my mother shoved me in a closet to get me out of the line of fire.” The emcee waved at the floor manager to turn Peterson off, but Peterson kept talking. “In this kind of world,” Peterson said, “absurd if you will, possibilities nevertheless proliferate and escalate all around us and there are opportunities for beginning again. I am a minor artist and my dealer won’t even display my work if he can help it but minor is as minor does and lightning may strike even yet. Don’t be reconciled. Turn off your television sets,” Peterson said, “cash in your life insurance, indulge in a mindless optimism. Visit girls at dusk. Play the guitar. How can you be alienated without first having been connected? Think back and remember how it was.” A man on the floor in front of Peterson was waving a piece of cardboard on which something threatening was written but Peterson ignored him and concentrated on the camera with the little red light. The little red light jumped from camera to camera in an attempt to throw him off balance but Peterson was too smart for it and followed wherever it went. “My mother was a royal virgin,” Peterson said, “and my father a shower of gold. My childhood was pastoral and energetic and rich in experiences which developed my character. As a young man I was noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form express and admirable, and in apprehension…” Peterson went on and on and although he was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not.
Peterson takes up the mantle Perseus, an ironic hero for an absurd world.
1. “Margins” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)
“Margins” is one of only two stories collected in Sixty Stories to directly address race relations in the United States (the other one is “The Sandman”). Interestingly, the “first” story of Sixty Stories is close to pure dialogue, the form that that Barthelme would land on almost exclusively in his latter years. The dialogue here is between Edward, a white man, and Carl, a black man. Edward is critiquing the margins and handwriting of a sandwich board Carl is wearing. This is the text of the sandwich board:
I Was Put In Jail in Selby County Alabama For Five Years For Stealing A Dollar and A Half Which I Did Not Do. While I Was In Jail My Brother Was Killed & My Mother Ran Away When I Was Little. In Jail I Began Preaching & I Preach to People Wherever I Can Bearing the Witness of Eschatological Love. I Have Filled Out Papers for Jobs But Nobody Will Give Me a Job Because I Have Been In Jail & The Whole Scene Is Very Dreary, Pepsi Cola. I Need Your Offerings to Get Food. Patent Applied For & Deliver Us From Evil.
Edward’s microaggressions swell to macroaggressions: “You look kind of crummy,” he tells Carl, and then asks, “Do you think I’m a pretty color…Are you envious?” When Carl replies, “No,” Edward pauses before offering a baffled, “but I’m what.” Carl tries to shift the conversation to something of substance: “Let’s talk about values or something.” Carl recommends a few books to Edward: Italo Svevo’s As a Man Grows Older and John Hawkes’s The Cannibal and The Beetleleg. But Edward isn’t interested in making connections. He demands to know Carl’s “inner reality.” But like Bloomsbury in “For I’m the Boy,” Carl keeps that inner reality for himself: “‘It’s mine,’ Carl said quietly.”
The aggression mounts: Edward accuses Carl of having lied on his sign about stealing a dollar and a half. Carl protests, but does admit to being a biblioklept:
“Mostly in drugstores, ” Carl said. “I find them good because mostly they’re long and narrow and the clerks tend to stay near the prescription counters at the back of the store, whereas the books are usually in those little revolving racks near the front of the store. It’s normally pretty easy to slip a couple in your overcoat pocket, if you’re wearing an overcoat ”
“Yes, ” Carl said, “I know what you’re thinking. If I’ll steal books I’ll steal other things. But stealing books is metaphysically different from stealing like money. Villon has something pretty good to say on the subject I believe.
At the end of the story, Carl asks Edward to put on his sign for a minute so Carl can use a nearby restroom. “Boy, they’re kind of heavy aren’t they?” Edward declares, to which Carl replies, “They cut you a bit.” Barthelme notes Carl delivers the line with “a malicious smile.”
“Margins” might seem oblique on a first read, but rereading it there’s a lack of subtlety to Barthelme’s approach–the trading of the sign is a bit heavy handed. But the final strange image saves the story: “When Carl returned the two men slapped each other sharply in the face with the back of the hand-that beautiful part of the hand where the knuckles grow.”
Summary thoughts: Everything here is pretty strong. “Margins” and “Shower of Gold” have an energy that might make up for some zany misteps and heavyhanded symbolism, and “Will You Tell Me?” is a difficult but rewarding read. “Me and Miss Mandible” is Essential Barthelme (as is “The Balloon,” of course). Rereading “Mandible” simply confirmed its excellence. In contrast, I’ll admit that I didn’t remember “For I’m the Boy” at all, but found it to be surprisingly strong and unexpectedly moving for something that didn’t stick with me when I first read Sixty Stories.
Going forward (in reverse): At some point early in this reverse reread I thought, Hey, maybe I’ll do the same thing with Forty Stories, but now, no, no, no. Maybe next year, maybe never. I will have one final post though. I’ll read David Gates’s introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of Sixty Stories and offer my own edits: Thirty Stories, Fifteen Stories, and Ten Stories.
I’m a huge sucker for Avon-Bard massmarket paperbacks, so I couldn’t pass up Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. (The conversations are with the late writer Richard Burgin.) I also picked up a nifty 1976 paperback of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.
Here’s one of those cosmicomics, “All at One Point” (English translation by William Weaver):
“All at One Point”
Through the calculations begun by Edwin P. Hubble on the galaxies’ velocity of recession, we can establish the moment when all the universe’s matter was concentrated in a single point, before it began to expand in space.
Naturally, we were all there, —old Qfwfq said, — where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?
I say “packed like sardines,” using a literary image: in reality there wasn’t even space to pack us into. Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were. In fact, we didn’t even bother one another, except for personality differences, because when space doesn’t exist, having somebody unpleasant like Mr. Pber^t Pber^d underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.
How many of us were there? Oh, I was never able to figure that out, not even approximately. To make a count, we would have had to move apart, at least a little, and instead we all occupied that same point. Contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t the sort of situation that encourages sociability; I know, for example, that in other periods neighbors called on one another; but there, because of the fact that we were all neighbors, nobody even said good morning or good evening to anybody else.
In the end each of us associated only with a limited number of acquaintances. The ones I remember most are Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, her friend De XuaeauX, a family of immigrants by the name of Z’zu, and Mr. Pber^t Pber^d, whom I just mentioned. There was also a cleaning woman — “maintenance staff” she was called — only one, for the whole universe, since there was so little room. To tell the truth, she had nothing to do all day long, not even dusting — inside one point not even a grain of dust can enter — so she spent all her time gossiping and complaining.
Just with the people I’ve already named we would have been overcrowded; but you have to add all the stuff we had to keep piled up in there: all the material that was to serve afterwards to form the universe, now dismantled and concentrated in such a way that you weren’t able to tell what was later to become part of astronomy (like the nebula of Andromeda) from what was assigned to geography (the Vosges, for example) or to chemistry (like certain beryllium isotopes). And on top of that, we were always bumping against the Z’zu family’s household goods: camp beds, mattresses, baskets; these Z’zus, if you weren’t careful, with the excuse that they were a large family, would begin to act as if they were the only ones in the world: they even wanted to hang lines across our point to dry their washing.
But the others also had wronged the Z’zus, to begin with, by calling them “immigrants,” on the pretext that, since the others had been there first, the Z’zus had come later. This was mere unfounded prejudice — that seems obvious to me — because neither before nor after existed, nor any place to immigrate from, but there were those who insisted that the concept of “immigrant” could be understood in the abstract, outside of space and time.
It was what you might call a narrow-minded attitude, our outlook at that time, very petty. The fault of the environment in which we had been reared. An attitude that, basically, has remained in all of us, mind you: it keeps cropping up even today, if two of us happen to meet — at the bus stop, in a movie house, at an international dentists’ convention — and start reminiscing about the old days. We say hello — at times somebody recognizes me, at other times I recognize somebody — and we promptly start asking about this one and that one (even if each remembers only a few of those remembered by the others), and so we start in again on the old disputes, the slanders, the denigrations. Until somebody mentions Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0 — every conversation finally gets around to her — and then, all of a sudden, the pettiness is put aside, and we feel uplifted, filled with a blissful, generous emotion. Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, the only one that none of us has forgotten and that we all regret. Where has she ended up? I have long since stopped looking for her: Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, her bosom, her thighs, her orange dressing gown — we’ll never meet her again, in this system of galaxies or in any other.
Let me make one thing clear: this theory that the universe, after having reached an extremity of rarefaction, will be condensed again has never convinced me. And yet many of us are counting only on that, continually making plans for the time when we’ll all be back there again. Last month, I went into the bar here on the corner and whom did I see? Mr. Pber^t Pber^d. “What’s new with you? How do you happen to be in this neighborhood?” I learned that he’s the agent for a plastics firm, in Pavia. He’s the same as ever, with his silver tooth, his loud suspenders. “When we go back there,” he said to me, in a whisper, “the thing we have to make sure of is, this time, certain people remain out … You know who I mean: those Z’zus …”
I would have liked to answer him by saying that I’ve heard a number of people make the same remark, concluding: “You know who I mean … Mr. Pber^t Pber^d …”
To avoid the subject, I hastened to say: “What about Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0? Do you think we’ll find her back there again?”
“Ah, yes … She, by all means …” he said, turning purple.
For all of us the hope of returning to that point means, above all, the hope of being once more with Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0. (This applies even to me, though I don’t believe in it.) And in that bar, as always happens, we fell to talking about her, and were moved; even Mr. Pber^t Pber^d’s unpleasantness faded, in the face of that memory.
Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0’s great secret is that she never aroused any jealousy among us. Or any gossip, either. The fact that she went to bed with her friend, Mr. De XuaeauX, was well known. But in a point, if there’s a bed, it takes up the whole point, so it isn’t a question of going to bed, but of being there, because anybody in the point is also in the bed. Consequently, it was inevitable that she should be in bed also with each of us. If she had been another person, there’s no telling all the things that would have been said about her. It was the cleaning woman who always started the slander, and the others didn’t have to be coaxed to imitate her. On the subject of the Z’zu family — for a change! — the horrible things we had to hear: father, daughters, brothers, sisters, mother, aunts: nobody showed any hesitation even before the most sinister insinuation. But with her it was different: the happiness I derived from her was the joy of being concealed, punctiform, in her, and of protecting her, punctiform, in me; it was at the same time vicious contemplation (thanks to the promiscuity of the punctiform convergence of us all in her) and also chastity (given her punctiform impenetrability). In short, what more could I ask?
And all of this, which was true of me, was true also for each of the others. And for her: she contained and was contained with equal happiness, and she welcomed us and loved and inhabited all equally.
We got along so well all together, so well that something extraordinary was bound to happen. It was enough for her to say, at a certain moment: “Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!” And in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough, her bosom leaning over the great mound of flour and eggs which cluttered the wide board while her arms kneaded and kneaded, white and shiny with oil up to the elbows; we thought of the space that the flour would occupy, and the wheat for the flour, and the fields to raise the wheat, and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields, and the grazing lands for the herds of calves that would give their meat for the sauce; of the space it would take for the Sun to arrive with its rays, to ripen the wheat; of the space for the Sun to condense from the clouds of stellar gases and burn; of the quantities of stars and galaxies and galactic masses in flight through space which would be needed to hold suspended every galaxy, every nebula, every sun, every planet, and at the same time we thought of it, this space was inevitably being formed, at the same time that Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0 was uttering those words: “… ah, what noodles, boys!” the point that contained her and all of us was expanding in a halo of distance in light-years and light-centuries and billions of light-millennia, and we were being hurled to the four corners of the universe (Mr. Pber^t Pber^d all the way to Pavia), and she, dissolved into I don’t know what kind of energy-light-heat, she, Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, she who in the midst of our closed, petty world had been capable of a generous impulse, “Boys, the noodles I would make for you!,” a true outburst of general love, initiating at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets, and fields of wheat, and Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, scattered through the continents of the planets, kneading with floury, oil-shiny, generous arms, and she lost at that very moment, and we, mourning her loss.
Therefore that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labor, feasting, or any other way upon any such account aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay for every offense five shillings as a fine to the county.
Statute enacted by the General Court of
Massachusetts, May 1659, repealed 1681
‘Twas the night before Christmas. Silent night, holy night. The snow lay deep and crisp and even. Etc. etc. etc.; let these familiar words conjure up the traditional anticipatory magic of Christmas Eve, and then — forget it.
Forget it. Even if the white moon above Boston Bay ensures that all is calm, all is bright, there will be no Christmas as such in the village on the shore that now lies locked in a precarious winter dream.
(Dream, that uncensorable state. They would forbid it if they could.)
At that time, for we are talking about a long time ago, about three and a quarter hundred years ago, the newcomers had no more than scribbled their signatures on the blank page of the continent that was, as it lay under the snow, no whiter nor more pure than their intentions.
They plan to write more largely; they plan to inscribe thereon the name of God.
And that was why, because of their awesome piety, tomorrow, on Christmas Day, they will wake, pray and go about their business as if it were any other day.
For them, all days are holy but none are holidays.
New England is the new leaf they have just turned over; Old England is the dirty linen their brethren at home have just — did they not recently win the English Civil War? — washed in public.
Back home, for the sake of spiritual integrity, their brothers and sisters have broken the graven images in the churches, banned the playhouses where men dress up as women, chopped down the village Maypoles because they welcome in the spring in altogether too orgiastic a fashion.
Nothing particularly radical about that, given the Puritans’ basic premises. Anyone can see at a glance that a Maypole, proudly erect upon the village green as the sap is rising, is a godless instrument. The very thought of Cotton Mather, with blossom in his hair, dancing round the Maypole makes the imagination reel. No. The greatest genius of the Puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival in, say, the custom of decorating a house with holly for the festive season; they were the stuff of which social anthropologists would be made!
And their distaste for the icon of the lovely lady with her bonny babe — Mariolatry, graven images! — is less subtle than their disgust at the very idea of the festive season itself. It was the festivity of it that irked them.
Nevertheless, it assuredly is a gross and heathenish practice, to welcome the birth of Our
Saviour with feasting, drunkenness, and lewd displays of mumming and masquerading.
We want none of that filth in this new place.
No, thank you.
As midnight approached, the cattle in the byres lumbered down upon their knees in homage, according to the well-established custom of over sixteen hundred English winters when they had mimicked the kneeling cattle in the Bethlehem stable; then, remembering where they were in the nick of time, they hastily refrained from idolatry and hauled themselves upright.
Boston Bay, calm as milk, black as ink, smooth as silk. And suddenly, at just the hour when the night spins on its spindle and starts to unravel its own darkness, at what one could call, elsewhere, the witching hour —
I saw three ships come sailing in,
Christmas Day, Christmas Day,
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.
Three ships, silent as ghost ships; ghost ships of Christmas past.
The original manuscript may be consulted in the library at the University of Leyden; it is in
Latin, but its occasional Hellenism justifies the conjecture that it may be a translation from the Greek. According to Leisegang, it dates from the fourth century of the Christian era; Gibbon mentions it, in passing, in one of his notes to the fifteenth chapter of The Decline and Fall.
These are the words of its anonymous author:
…The Sect was never large, but now its followers are few indeed. Their number decimated by sword and fire, they sleep by the side of the road or in the ruins spared them by war, as they are forbidden to build dwellings. They often go about naked. The events my pen describes are known to all men; my purpose here is to leave a record of that which has been given me to discover about their doctrine and their habits. I have engaged in long counsel with their masters, but I have not been able to convert them to Faith in Our Lord.
The first thing which drew my attention was the diversity of their opinion with respect to the dead. The most unschooled among them believe that they shall be buried by the spirits of those who have left this life; others, who do not cleave so tight to the letter, say that Jesus’ admonition Let the dead bury the dead condemns the showy vanity of our funerary rites.
The counsel to sell all that one owns and give it to the poor is strictly observed by all; the first recipients give what they receive to others, and these to yet others. This is sufficient explanation for their poverty and their nakedness, which likewise brings them closer to the paradisal state. Fervently they cite the words Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap: which neither have storehouse nor barn: and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? The text forbids saving, for If God so clothe the grass, which is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven: how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind.
The prescription Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart is an unmistakable exhortation to purity. Still, many are the members of the Sect who teach that because there is no man under heaven who has not looked upon a woman to desire her, then we have all committed adultery. And since the desire is no less sinful than the act, the just may deliver themselves up without risk of hellfire to the exercise of the most unbridled lustfulness.
The Sect shuns churches; its teachers preach in the open, from a mountaintop or the top of a wall, or sometimes from a boat upturned upon the shore.
There has been persistent speculation as to the origins of the Sect’s name. One such conjecture would have it that the name gives us the number to which the body of the faithful has been reduced; this is ludicrous but prophetic, as the perverse doctrine of the Sect does indeed predestine it to extinction.
Another conjecture derives the name from the height of the Ark, which was thirty cubits; another, misrepresenting astronomy, claims that the name is taken from the number of nights within the lunar month; yet another, from the baptism of the Savior; another, from the age of Adam when he rose from the red dust. All are equally false. No less untruthful is the catalog of thirty divinities or thrones, of which, one is Abraxas, pictured with the head of a cock, the arms and torso of a man, and the coiled tail of a serpent. I know the Truth but I cannot plead the Truth. To me the priceless gift of giving word to it has not been granted. Let others, happier men than I, save the members of the Sect by the word. By word or by fire.
It is better to be killed than to kill oneself. I shall, therefore, limit myself to an account of the abominable heresy. The Word was made flesh so that He might be a man among men, so that men might bind Him to the Cross, and be redeemed by Him. He was born from the womb of a woman of the chosen people not simply that He might teach the gospel of Love but also that He might undergo that martyrdom.
It was needful that all be unforgettable. The death of a man by sword or hemlock was not sufficient to leave a wound on the imagination of mankind until the end of days. The Lord disposed that the events should inspire pathos. That is the explanation for the Last Supper, for Jesus’ words foretelling His deliverance up to the Romans, for the repeated sign to one of His disciples, for the blessing of the bread and wine, for Peter’s oaths, for the solitary vigil on Gethsemane, for the twelve men’s sleep, for the Son’s human plea, for the sweat that was like blood, for the swords, the betraying kiss, the Pilate who washed his hands of it, the flagellation, the jeers and derision, the thorns, the purple and the staff of cane, the vinegar with honey, the Tree upon the summit of the Hill, the promise to the good thief, the earth that shook, and the darkness that fell upon the land.
Divine mercy, to which I myself owe so many blessings, has allowed me to discover the true and secret reason for the Sect’s name. In Kerioth, where it is plausibly reputed to have arisen, there has survived a conventicle known as the Thirty Pieces of Silver. That was the Sect’s original name, and it provides us with the key. In the tragedy of the Cross (and I write this with all the reverence which is its due) there were those who acted knowingly and those who acted unknowingly; all were essential, all inevitable. Unknowing were the priests who delivered the pieces of silver; unknowing, too, was the mob that chose Barabbas; unknowing the Judean judge, the Romans who erected the Cross on which He was martyred and who drove the nails and cast the lots. Of knowing actors, there were but two: Judas and the Redeemer. Judas cast away the thirty coins that were the price of our souls’ salvation and immediately hanged himself. At that moment he was thirty-three years old, the age of the Son of Man. The Sect venerates the two equally, and absolves the others.
There is not one lone guilty man; there is no man that does not carry out, wittingly or not, the plan traced by the All-Wise. All mankind now shares in Glory.
My hand fails when I will it to write a further abomination. The initiates of the Sect, upon reaching a certain age, are mocked and crucified on the peak of a mountain, to follow the example of their masters.
This criminal violation of the Fifth Commandment should be met with the severity that human and divine laws have ever demanded. May the curses of the Firmament, may the hatred of angels …
The end of the manuscript has not been discovered.
I wanted to be amazing. I wanted to be so amazing. I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point. I wanted to go past that point. I wanted to be more amazing than I had been up to that point. I wanted to do something which went beyond that point and which went beyond every other point and which people would look at and say that this was something which went beyond all other points and which no other boy would ever be able to go beyond, that I was the only boy who could, that I was the only one.
I was going to a day camp which was called the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp and which at the end of the summer had an all-campers, all-parents, all-sports field day which was made up of five different field events, and all of the campers had to take part in all five of all of the five different field events, and I was the winner in all five of the five different field events, I was the winner in every single field event, I came in first place in every one of the five different field events — so that the head of the camp and the camp counselors and the other campers and the other mothers and the other fathers and my mother and my father all saw that I was the best camper in the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp, the best in the short run and the best in the long run and the best in the high jump and the best in the broad jump and the best in the event which the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp called the ball-throw, which was where you had to go up to a chalk line and then put your toe on the chalk line and not go over the chalk line and then go ahead and throw the ball as far as you could throw.
It was 1944 and I was ten years old and I was better than all of the other boys at that camp and probably all of the boys at any other camp and all of the boys everywhere else.
I felt more wonderful than I had ever felt. I felt so thrilled with myself. I felt like God was whispering things to me inside of my head to me. I felt like God was asking me for me to have a special secret with him or for me to have a secret arrangement with him and that I had better keep on listening to his secret recommendations to me inside of my head. I felt like God was telling me to realize that he had made me the most unusual member of the human race and that he was going to need for me to be ready for him for me to go to work for him at any minute for him on whatever thing he said.
They gave me a piece of stiff cloth which was in the shape of a shield and which was in the camp colors and which had five blue stars on it. They said that I was the only boy ever to get a shield with as many as that many stars on it. They said that it was unheard-of for any boy ever to get as many as that many stars on it. But I could already feel that I was forgetting what it felt like for somebody to do something which would get you a shield with as many as that many stars on it. I could feel myself forgetting and I could feel everybody else forgetting — even my mother and father and God forgetting. It was just a little while afterwards, but I could tell that everybody was already forgetting everything about it — that the head of the camp was and the camp counselors were and the other campers were and that the other mothers and the other fathers were and that my mother and my father were and that even that I myself was, even though I was trying with all of my might for me to be the one person who never would.
I felt like God was ashamed of me. I felt like God was sorry that I was the one which he had picked out and that he was getting ready for him to make a new choice and for him to choose another boy instead of me and that I had to hurry up before God did it, that I had to be quick about showing God that I could be just as amazing again as I used to be and that I could do something, do anything, else.
It was August.
I was feeling the strangest feeling that I have ever felt. I was standing there with my parents and with all of the people who had come there for the field day and I was feeling the strangest feeling which I have ever felt.
I felt like lying down on the field. I felt like killing all of the people. I felt like going to sleep and staying asleep until someone came and told me that my parents were dead and that I was all grown up and that there was a new God in heaven and that he liked me better than even than the old God had.
My parents kept asking me where did I want to go now and what did I want to do. My parents kept trying to get me to tell them where I thought we should all of us go now and what was the next thing for us as a family to do. My parents kept saying they wanted for me to be the one to make up my mind if we should all of us go someplace special now and what was the best thing for the family, as a family, to do. But I did not know what they meant — do, do, do?
My father took the shield away from me and held it in his hands and kept turning it over in his hands and kept looking at the shield in his hands and kept feeling the shield with his hands and kept saying that it was made of buckram and of felt. My father kept saying did we know that it was just something which they had put together out of buckram and of felt. My father kept saying that the shield was of a very nice quality of buckram and of felt but that we should make every effort for us not to ever get it wet because it would run all over itself, buckram and felt.
I did not know what to do.
I could tell my parents did not know what to do.
We just stood around with the people all around all going away to all of the vehicles that were going to take them to places and I could tell that we did not, as a family, know if it was time for us to go.
The head of the camp came over and said that he wanted to shake my hand again and to shake the hands of the people who were responsible for giving the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp such an outstanding young individual and such a talented young athlete as my mother and father had.
He shook my hand again.
It made me feel dizzy and nearly asleep.
I saw my mother and my father get their hands ready. I saw my father get the shield out of the hand that he thought he was going to need for him to have his hand ready to shake the hand of the head of the camp. I saw my mother take her purse and do the same thing. But the head of the camp just kept shaking my hand, and my mother and my father just kept saying thank you to him, and then the head of the camp let go of my hand and took my father’s elbow with one hand and then touched my father on the shoulder with the other hand and then said that we were certainly the very finest of people, and then — he did this, he did this! — and then he went away.
Outside his window five-year-old Priscilla Hess, square and squat as a mailbox (red sweater, blue lumpy corduroy pants), looked around poignantly for someone to wipe her overflowing nose. There was a butterfly locked inside that mailbox, surely; would it ever escape? Or was the quality of mailboxes stuck to her forever, like her parents, like her name? The sky was sunny and blue. A filet of green Silly Putty disappeared into fat Priscilla Hess and he turned to greet his wife who was crawling through the door and her hands and knees.
“Yes?” he said. “What now?”
“I’m ugly,” she said, sitting back on her haunches. “Our children are ugly.”
“Nonsense,” Brian said sharply. “They’re wonderful children. Wonderful and beautiful. Other people’s children are ugly, not our children. Now get up and go back out to the smokeroom. You’re supposed to be curing a ham.”
“The ham died,” she said. “I couldn’t cure it. I tried everything. You don’t love me any more. The penicillin was stale. I’m ugly and so are the children. It said to tell you goodbye.”
“The ham,” she said. “Is one of our children named Ambrose? Somebody named Ambrose has been sending us telegrams. How many do we have now? Four? Five? Do you think they’re heterosexual?”
She made a moue and ran a hand through her artichoke hair. “The house is rusting away. Why did you want a steel house? Why did I think I wanted to live in Connecticut? I don’t know.”
“Get up,” he said softly, “get up, dearly beloved. Stand up and sing. Sing Parsifal.”
“I want a Triumph,” she said from the floor. “A TR-4. Everyone in Stamford, every single person, has one but me. If you gave me a TR-4 I’d put our ugly children in it and drive away. To Wellfleet. I’d take all the ugliness out of your life.”
“A green one?”
“A red one,” she said menacingly. “Red with red leather seats.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be chipping paint?” he asked. “I bought us an electric data processing system. An IBM.”
“I want to go to Wellfleet,” she said. “I want to talk to
Edmund Wilson and take him for a ride in my red TR-4. The children can dig clams. We have a lot to talk about, Bunny and me.”
“Why don’t you remove those shoulder pads?” Brian said kindly. “It’s too bad about the ham.”
“I loved that ham,” she said viciously. “When you galloped into the University of Texas on your roan Volvo, I thought you were going to be somebody. I gave you my hand. You put rings on it. Rings that my mother gave me. I thought you were going to be distinguished, like Bunny.”
He showed her his broad, shouldered back. “Everything is in flitters,” he said. “Play the piano, won’t you?”
“You always were afraid of my piano, she said. “My four or five children are afraid of the piano. You taught them to be afraid of it. The giraffe is on fire, but I don’t suppose you care.”
“What can we eat,” he asked, “with the ham gone?”
“There’s some Silly Putty in the deepfreeze,” she said tonelessly.
“Rain is falling,” he observed. “Rain or something.”
“When you graduated from the Wharton School of Business,” she said, “I thought at last! I thought now we can move to Stamford and have interesting neighbors. But they’re not interesting. The giraffe is interesting but he sleeps so much of the time. The mailbox is rather interesting. The man didn’t open it at 3:31 P.M. today. He was five minutes late. The government lied again.”
With a gesture of impatience, Brian turned on the light. The great burst of electricity illuminated her upturned tiny face. Eyes like snow peas, he thought. Tamar dancing. My name in the dictionary, in the back. The Law of Bilateral Good Fortune. Piano bread perhaps. A nibble of pain running through the Western World. Coriolanus.
“Oh God,” she said, from the floor. “Look at my knees.”
Brian looked. Her knees were blushing.
“It’s senseless, senseless,” she said. “I’ve been caulking the medicine chest. What for? I don’t know. You’ve got to give me more money. Ben is bleeding. Bessie wants to be an S.S. man. She’s reading The Rise and Fall. She’s identified with Himmler. Is that her name? Bessie?”
“What’s the other one’s name? The blond one?”
“Billy. Named after your father. Your Dad.”
“You’ve got to get me an air hammer. To clean the children’s teeth. What’s the name of that disease? They’ll all have it, every single one, if you don’t get me an air hammer.”
“And a compressor,” Brian said. “And a Pinetop Smith record. I remember.”
She lay on her back. The shoulder pads clattered against the terrazzo. Her number, 17, was written large on her chest. Her eyes were screwed tight shut. “Altman’s is having a sale,” she said, “Maybe
I should go in.”
“Listen,” he said. “Get up. Go into the grape arbor. I’ll trundle the piano out there. You’ve been chipping too much paint. ”
“You wouldn’t touch that piano,” she said. “Not in a million years.”
“You really think I’m afraid of it?”
“Not in a million years,” she said, “you phoney.”
“All right,” Brian said quietly. “All right.” He strode over to the piano. He took a good grip on its black varnishedness. He began to trundle it across the room, and, after a slight hesitation, it struck him dead.
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Henry Harris said gently, “just why do you think you’re a plant?”
As he spoke, Harris glanced down again at the card on his desk. It was from the Base Commander himself, made out in Cox’s heavy scrawl: Doc, this is the lad I told you about. Talk to him and try to find out how he got this delusion. He’s from the new Garrison, the new check-station on Asteroid Y-3, and we don’t want anything to go wrong there. Especially a silly damn thing like this!
Harris pushed the card aside and stared back up at the youth across the desk from him. The young man seemed ill at ease and appeared to be avoiding answering the question Harris had put to him. Harris frowned. Westerburg was a good-looking chap, actually handsome in his Patrol uniform, a shock of blond hair over one eye. He was tall, almost six feet, a fine healthy lad, just two years out of Training, according to the card. Born in Detroit. Had measles when he was nine. Interested in jet engines, tennis, and girls. Twenty-six years old.
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Harris said again. “Why do you think you’re a plant?”
The Corporal looked up shyly. He cleared his throat. “Sir, I am a plant, I don’t just think so. I’ve been a plant for several days, now.”
“I see.” The Doctor nodded. “You mean that you weren’t always a plant?”
“No, sir. I just became a plant recently.”
“And what were you before you became a plant?”
“Well, sir, I was just like the rest of you.”
There was silence. Doctor Harris took up his pen and scratched a few lines, but nothing of importance came. A plant? And such a healthy-looking lad! Harris removed his steel-rimmed glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. He put them on again and leaned back in his chair. “Care for a cigarette, Corporal?”
The Doctor lit one himself, resting his arm on the edge of the chair. “Corporal, you must realize that there are very few men who become plants, especially on such short notice. I have to admit you are the first person who has ever told me such a thing.”
“Yes, sir, I realize it’s quite rare.”
“You can understand why I’m interested, then. When you say you’re a plant, you mean you’re not capable of mobility? Or do you mean you’re a vegetable, as opposed to an animal? Or just what?”
The Corporal looked away. “I can’t tell you any more,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Well, would you mind telling me how you became a plant?”
Corporal Westerburg hesitated. He stared down at the floor, then out the window at the spaceport, then at a fly on the desk. At last he stood up, getting slowly to his feet. “I can’t even tell you that, sir,” he said.
Luring aside one of the trolley-car numbers, the street started at the corner of a crowded avenue. For a long time it crept on in obscurity, with no shop windows or any such joys. Then came a small square (four benches, a bed of pansies) round which the trolley steered with rasping disapproval. Here the street changed its name, and a new life began. Along the right side, shops appeared: a fruiterer’s, with vivid pyramids of oranges; a tobacconist’s, with the picture of a voluptuous Turk; a delicatessen, with fat brown and gray coils of sausages; and then, all of a sudden, a butterfly store. At night, and especially when it was damp, with the asphalt shining like the back of a seal, passers-by would stop for a second before that symbol of fair weather. The insects on exhibit were huge and gorgeous. People would say to themselves, ‘What colors—amazing!’ and plod on through the drizzle. Eyed wings wide open in wonder, shimmering blue satin, black magic—these lingered for a while, floating in one’s vision, until one boarded the trolley or bought a newspaper. And, just because they were together with the butterflies, a few other objects would remain in one’s memory: a globe, pencils, and a monkey’s skull on a pile of copybooks.
As the street blinked and ran on, there followed again a succession of ordinary shops—soap, coal, bread—with another pause at the corner where there was a small bar. The bartender, a dashing fellow in a starched collar and a green sweater, was deft at shaving off with one stroke the foam topping the glass under the beer tap; he also had a well-earned reputation as a wit. Every night, at a round table by the window, the fruiterer, the baker, an unemployed man, and the bartender’s first cousin played cards with great gusto. As the winner of the current stake immediately ordered four drinks, none of the players could ever get rich.
On Saturdays, at an adjacent table, there would sit a flabby elderly man with a florid face, lank hair, and a grayish moustache, carelessly clipped. When he appeared, the players greeted him noisily without looking up from their cards. He invariably ordered rum, filled his pipe, and gazed at the game with pink-rimmed watery eyes. The left eyelid drooped slightly.
Occasionally someone turned to him, and asked how his shop was doing; he would be slow to answer, and often did not answer at all. If the bartender’s daughter, a pretty freckled girl in a polka-dotted frock, happened to pass close enough, he had a go at her elusive hip, and, whether the slap succeeded or not, his gloomy expression never changed, although the veins on his temple grew purple. Mine host very humorously called him ‘Herr Professor.’ ‘Well, how is the Herr Professor tonight?’ he would ask, coming over to him, and the man would ponder for some time in silence and then, with a wet underlip pushing out from under the pipe like that of a feeding elephant, he would answer something neither funny nor polite. The bartender would counter briskly, which made the players at the next table, though seemingly absorbed in their cards, rock with ugly glee.
The man wore a roomy gray suit with great exaggeration of the vest motif, and when the cuckoo popped out of the clock he ponderously extracted a thick silver watch and gazed at it askance, holding it in the palm of his hand and squinting because of the smoke. Punctually at eleven he knocked out his pipe, paid for his rum, and, after extending a flaccid hand to anyone who might choose to shake it, silently left.
He walked awkwardly, with a slight limp. His legs seemed too thin for his body. Just before the window of his shop he turned into a passage, where there was a door on the right with a brass plate: PAUL PILGRAM. This door led into his tiny dingy apartment, which could also be reached by an inner corridor at the back of the shop. Eleanor was usually asleep when he came home on those festive nights. Half a dozen faded photographs of the same clumsy ship, taken from different angles, and of a palm tree that looked as bleak as if it were growing on Helgoland, hung in black frames above the double bed. Muttering to himself, Pilgram limped away into bulbless darkness with a lighted candle, came back with his suspenders dangling, and kept muttering while sitting on the edge of the bed and slowly, painfully, taking off his shoes. His wife, half-waking, moaned into her pillow and offered to help him; and then, with a threatening rumble in his voice, he would tell her to keep quiet, and repeated that guttural ‘Ruhe!’ several times, more and more fiercely.
After the stroke which had almost killed him some time ago (like a mountain falling upon him from behind just as he had bent towards his shoestrings), he now undressed reluctantly, growling until he got safely into bed, and then growling again if the faucet happened to drip in the adjoining kitchen. Eleanor would roll out of bed and totter into the kitchen and totter back with a dazed sigh, her small face wax-pale and shiny, and the plastered corns on her feet showing from under her dismally long nightgown. They had married in 1905, almost a quarter of a century before, and were childless because Pilgram had always thought that children would be merely a hindrance to the realization of what had been in his youth a delightfully exciting plan but had now gradually become a dark, passionate obsession.
He slept on his back with an old-fashioned nightcap coming down on his forehead; it was to all appearances the solid and sonorous sleep that might be expected in an elderly German shopkeeper, and one could readily suppose that his quilted torpor was entirely devoid of visions; but actually this churlish, heavy man, who fed mainly on Erbswurst and boiled potatoes, placidly believing in his newspaper and quite ignorant of the world (in so far as his secret passion was not involved), dreamed of things that would have seemed utterly unintelligible to his wife or his neighbors; for Pilgram belonged, or rather was meant to belong (something—the place, the time, the man—had been ill-chosen), to a special breed of dreamers, such dreamers as used to be called in the old days ‘Aurelians’—perhaps on account of those chrysalids, those ‘jewels of Nature,’ which they loved to find hanging on fences above the dusty nettles of country lanes.
On Sundays he drank his morning coffee in several sloppy sessions, and then went out for a walk with his wife, a slow silent stroll which Eleanor looked forward to all week. On workdays he opened his shop as early as possible because of the children who passed by on their way to school; for lately he had been keeping school supplies in addition to his basic stock. Some small boy, swinging his satchel and chewing a sandwich, would slouch past the tobacconist’s (where a certain brand of cigarettes offered airplane pictures), past the delicatessen (which rebuked one for having eaten that sandwich long before lunchtime), and then, remembering he wanted an eraser, would enter the next shop. Pilgram would mumble something, sticking out his lower lip from under the stem of his pipe, and, after a listless search, would plump down an open carton on the counter. The boy would feel and squeeze the virgin-pale India rubber, would not find the sort he favored, and would leave without even noticing the principal wares in the store.
‘These modern children!’ Pilgram would think with disgust, and he recalled his own boyhood. His father—a sailor, a rover, a bit of a rogue—married late in life a sallow-skinned, light-eyed Dutch girl whom he brought from Java to Berlin, and opened a shop of exotic curios. Pilgram could not remember now when, exactly, butterflies had begun to oust the stuffed birds of paradise, the stale talismans, the fans with dragons, and the like; but as a boy he already feverishly swapped specimens with collectors, and after his parents died butterflies reigned supreme in the dim little shop. Up to 1914 there were enough amateurs and professionals about to keep things going in a mild, very mild, way; later on, however, it became necessary to make concessions, a display case with the biography of the silkworm furnishing a transition to school supplies, just as in the old days pictures ignominiously composed of sparkling wings had probably been a first step towards lepidopterology. Continue reading “Read “The Aurelian,” a short story by Vladimir Nabokov”→