Vol. 6, No. 2
Back when I was a student at the Famous Writers School (you can see what good that did me), the works of the Barthelme brothers were my Bibles. They were all so different, one from the other, yet terrifically fun and freshly perceptive of a culture in the process of being royally fucked up by Ronald Reagan and his henchmen. Even in that early stage of my understanding of literature, I could see the Barthelmes each represented a break from the then-hot yet strangely and conservatively traditional writers running the pack at the time—this was at the point, for example, where Raymond Carver had started rejecting the advice of his editor Gordon Lish, and was revising his brilliant, edgy fly-on-the-wall style (“The Bath”) into something much more predictable and syrupy-sentimental (“A Small, Good Thing”).
Against this, the Barthelmes: avant-garde, off-the-wall, devil-may-care. Also: Syrupy will get you nowhere.
Another way of saying this is that the Barthelmes were not for everybody—but that was the point. That was what made them interesting, genuine. Also, cool.
But over time, Steven Barthelme came to seem the coolest of them all to me because he seemed to me to be riveted by an idea—of both technique and content—that had to do with an ability to discern and define the difference between things that were particular enough to reveal the universal, and things that were just plain quirky.
Indeed, he was persistent in his ability to delineate the difference, and it made his work both avant-garde and totally accessible to people who don’t do avant-garde. In both form and content, his stories were about this very thing: Am I weird for a reason—i.e., do I have a chance of getting along with anybody?—or am I just weird?
And this is before I talk about his hilarious wit or glorious language.
As a writer myself I also admire that he has stuck to the short story to work this out; dedication to a form—a form every writer is encouraged to abandon in favor of longer commercial forms—can be read from certain angles as dedication to the reader.
But, as a publisher, what I like best is the idea of technique and content matching up the way it does in his work. That’s really what it’s all about—it’s a damned hard culture to make and sell books in, especially the weird books we’re so proud of publishing at Melville House, books that are interested in doing something other than just entertain you. And yet we can’t keep from doing the ones that seem weird for a reason, hard as it is.
Except every now and then I can sit back and think, wow, that Melville House project worked like a Steven Barthelme story: It was weird for a reason, and beautiful in its idiosyncrasy.
So you can imagine why everyone at Melville House is thrilled to have a project that consists of, well, Steven Barthelme’s newest short story collection.
Co-Founder and Co-Publisher, Melville House
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IS THIS WORTH A BUCK?
by Steven Barthelme
from the collection Hush Hush
Recommended by Melville House
SHE WAS A NICE WIFE, even liked me for a time. I enjoyed her company, and in the early days, when sleeping together had this scorched-earth sort of magic, we mistook that for love. But the magazine articles she sometimes gave me didn’t make sense to me. I could never find a description of what it’s like. One summer a twenty-two year old girl came to work at the bank as a teller—I was training them then—and she was pretty and young and below her wide, flat forehead her gaudy green eyes had a hint of confusion or even hurt in them. I was seduced; she was interested. I waited for her to arrive at work in the morning and maneuvered to be by the elevator or in the corridor for two minutes of her. We went to lunch a few times, talked at some dreary bank parties. Unable to touch her, I stood against a white wall in some excessively carpeted middle management home, talking to her, staring, trembling. I want. That is what it is like. Insufficiently tidy. It’s unkind to ask a man to have feelings. This is what I was thinking, standing in the rain, the day the cat came back. But that was later.
At work people say I’m “distant,” my family was sort of cool and rational—I mean they weren’t always playing kissy face with one another—and last winter when my wife left, she said living with me was like living in dry ice. “You’ve no feelings,” she said, and I told her that that wasn’t logical, that it was only reasonable to assume that, in regard to feelings, everyone had an exactly equal amount. She said, “See what I mean.” One of those things women say when they’re angry.
When she left me the cat, asked me to keep it for her, she said, “Maybe old Rilkey will teach you something.” I thought maybe she had a boyfriend, one who didn’t like cats, not that I blame him. Talk about cold. They really do look for someone who can’t stand them, and then just jump up on his lap. This cat wasn’t so bad. I’d always hated its name, though, so I started calling him “Slick.” It took him three or four months to learn it, not because he was stupid, just because he was obstinate. Last week in the floods, his obstinacy almost got him killed.
It rained for six days. Lawns were like sponges, the air in the house was thick and wet, streets were impassable and everywhere there was mud. By the time the cat dragged himself in on the fifth day, I’d given him up for drowned. He was soaked, black fur lying flat in little gobs all over his body so that it didn’t look like fur anymore. I loved him. That’s a feeling, isn’t it?
It was a Monday, June 9, when it started raining. I let Slick out in the morning when I left for work. My wife used to put him out at night but I never do unless he makes himself such a pain I can’t stand it. Anyway I let him out and left for the bank. I’m a loan officer. You get callous after years of listening to people’s troubles, especially when you can’t always do what they want. They lie to you, anyway. Hell, if it was my money, I’d just give it to them, like I did when I was a teller. It’s only paper. That’s how everybody who works in a bank thinks, and why sometimes you just take some of it home. Sometimes you give it to other people.
About three that afternoon, Becky, my assistant, told me there was a storm coming in and a few minutes later, as if on cue, the world got dark. Out my windows, low black clouds. I left early.
When I got back to the house, Slick wasn’t around, but I didn’t notice until around eleven-thirty that night when I went into the kitchen and mixed my nightcap—a tall Scotch and water. I carried the glass over and opened the back door and whistled. By then it’d been raining seven hours straight, so I figured he’d be in the garage, contrite for staying out so late. I whistled again, stood by the door. Took a sip of the drink. Suit yourself, I thought. I stood a minute and listened to the thunderstorm.
That was one thing we used to do together sometimes, my wife and I, if there was a storm, we’d have a drink and leave the door open, cut the lights, watch the lightning and listen to the rain. And smoke, before we quit smoking.
The next morning, Tuesday, it was still raining and the cat still wasn’t back when I left for work. I drove to the office under the gloomy, gray skies listening to the rain beating on the windshield and the ripping sound the car tires made on the wet streets, thinking. I have crooked little feelings, I guess, nothing you could write a magazine article about. Not like these people with these giant, rectangular emotions that sound like volumes of an encyclopedia. Guilt, Hysteria, Independence, Joy, Loss, Zed. Rot.
Sometime that morning I told Becky that my cat was out in the rain overnight. “Slick?” she said—I didn’t even know she knew his name. “You didn’t go out and find him?” It was strange to me that she would get so excited. I said, “Becky, it was pouring. I wouldn’t know where to find him, anyway. I don’t know where he goes.” The look on her exquisitely made up face, framed in blonde-edged brown curls, was dismissive, damning.
“I whistled for him,” I said, raising my voice. All along the hall there, the clerical people were looking at me, so I tried to speak normally. “I was out calling him and calling him, for an hour.” But she knew I was lying, she’d turned back to the computer by then.
The weather was making everybody edgy. I did like the cat, a great deal. It was just the way I understood things—cats went out and later they came back. They’re animals. You don’t ask them where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing. Next thing you know the cat’ll be telling me I’ve got to learn to “let go” and “share my feelings” and “cuddle.” Jesus.
At home that evening I went out and called for the cat from both the kitchen door, that opens into the garage, and from the back bedroom windows, at the opposite end of the house. Then I remembered that once when we had first had the cat, when he was just a few months old, a kitten, pint-size, he was gone overnight and my wife and I had found him the next day, up on the roof of the house, whining. I found him, actually, and my wife gushed on and on about it, and I felt like a hero.
So I pulled on my raincoat, and got out the big red umbrella, and I got outside in the rain and walked back and forth around the house looking up on the roof. Of course Slick wasn’t up there. Dumb, I thought. The cat’s not on top of something, he’s under something somewhere. I went out and called him again around midnight, but he didn’t show, so I had an extra Scotch and went to sleep.
By Wednesday morning it had been raining solid for two days and the TV morning show and my soggy newspaper were talking about how many inches of rain it was and how the ground was saturated and the two rivers were cresting north of town. Water was driving snakes and deer into people’s yards and so on. My house smelled damp, muggy; you couldn’t get away from it. In the neighborhood, water was standing everywhere, and the little creek had turned into an ugly torrent. The underpass on the street that I usually took to work was full of water. You could just see the tip of the black and white stick, the flood gauge, and the stick was six feet. I had to drive about ten blocks up, past the park, to get across under the Loop.
All the way into work I dreaded Becky asking me if I had found the cat, and that was the first thing she said. When I told her I hadn’t, she frowned and went back to her keyboard. Outside the windows, gray sheets of water coming down. We didn’t talk again all day, until close to five when she was packing up to leave.
“You know, sometimes they get up under the house,” she said. “Is there a space under your house?”
I said there was, but it was probably a bog by now. I told her I would look there, with a flashlight.
Even when it’s dry, you have to get down on your belly to look under the house, but I had promised Becky. When I got home and the cat was still not back, I changed into some jeans and a sweatshirt and put my raincoat on over that and went out in the rain with a flashlight to the place in the back garden where there’s an opening in the outside wall down to the space under the house. The garden was full of water.
I slid through the mud and into the opening, my face about ten inches into the two-foot high space under the house. You could see fifteen or twenty feet to either side. Rusty pipes hung under the floor and pools of oily water filled in the low spots and cobwebs glistened with drops of condensation in the flashlight beam. There was a thirty-year-old Coke bottle and a big pipe elbow with a crack in it. A rotting magazine. Spiders. A rat, fur flat and soaking wet. Dead. I pulled back out from under there.
My clothes were drenched by this time, and the whole front of me was so filthy I felt like a kid. I rolled over in the water in the garden to get mud all over the back of me too. I was laughing, taking a mud bath. I sat up against the back wall of the house and shielded my eyes with my hand to look at my neighbor’s house. He has a better life than I have, I thought, and he’s a Republican. It’s not supposed to be that way. He even loves that fetishistic little dog. Think I’ll just sit here until my cat comes home. I tried to pick up some mud, but it drained through my fingers, so I dug down and got drier dirt, and brought it up and compressed it into a clod, and threw it at his house. Clods for clods, I thought. Cat’s dead. Life is stupid, most of it.
On Thursday it was still raining, and I didn’t go to work. I started in, drove down the service road along the Loop until, near the cross street I’d found to get under the freeway, I saw a dead cat, an orange tabby, lying out from the curb, splitting the water running in the gutter. The service road was wide and ran beside a flat, empty park. Not far away, the same creek from near my house ran parallel along the other border of the park.
I jerked the car over, stopped, and got out. The cat’s thick orange and white fur lay almost flat, like carpet. A big cat, stiff, not as big as Slick. It was pretty far from home. As I stood there in the rain, the weirdest thing happened—I almost started to cry. Now, my wife was right, actually, about my not having feelings, because I just don’t. I remember one time she read me a magazine article about how the average man is five foot ten and cries once a month. I thought, Once a month? You’ve got to be kidding.
I couldn’t go to work, so I picked the orange cat up and set it on the grass, so no one would hit it, then got back into my car and drove home, wishing I had a cigarette the way you wish for a cigarette after a few years of not smoking, wistful, wanting to be some way you used to be.
At home, I got my umbrella and then walked up and down the streets, methodically, block by block, looking, staring up driveways and into backyards, shouting Slick’s name. I’d ask kids I saw if they’d seen a big black cat. I was wearing the raincoat and holding the red umbrella and walking through water that was often over my cuffs and sometimes up to my knees. The rain slanted in under the umbrella, but once you get good and soaked it doesn’t much matter. Odd, really, the way we try to avoid the rain, stay dry, as if it hurt.
I walked up and down, opened people’s gates, jumped fences, crossed patios. Sometimes people’s cats would watch me from a windowsill and I’d knock at the house and ask about mine. I would finish one street and then start the next, block after block. Slogging through the water I got hunches and premonitions—he’s in this block, or, Buicks, he likes Buicks. I saw black spots which turned out to be buckets, holes, hunks of mud, tree stumps, a black T-shirt wadded into a ball.
After four days of rain there was garbage everywhere—cups, a golf club, three or four shoes, a dog’s collar, panties, a can of green beans. I was out all morning and into the afternoon, getting crazier, starting to get hot flashes and sweating in the rain, and starting to love the cat, desperately, wanting him back.
I finally got to the creek which was now angry, fifteen feet across, loud, shushing ahead like a picture in fast forward. I stopped, watching tree branches race past, then started to walk along beside it. If he got caught in this, I thought, he’s gone. He was so clumsy he could barely make it across the living room rug without stumbling. So careless he’d fall asleep under a rocking chair. So insecure he wouldn’t eat unless you stood there and watched. You could barely tell the fool was a cat.
As I walked along the creek bank, staying back from the edge, slipping and sliding, I kept thinking he couldn’t have wandered this far, but then I thought: It explains why he hasn’t come home—he crossed it before the rain and then couldn’t get back. Or, he tried to get back.
Eventually when I looked up, I was in the park. It was about three in the afternoon. I was on the opposite side of the park from the service road, but a concrete footbridge led over the fat angry creek, so I crossed and went to look for the orange tabby.
It was still lying where I’d left it that morning, but its mouth seemed to have opened slightly, baring the small front teeth. It was ugly. I knelt down to pick it up, and looked around. No one was ever going to find it here.
Carrying the cat under my raincoat I walked across the park, back across the bridge, and then along the creek, all the way to my neighborhood, and back up to my house. I set the cat on the front lawn, and stood looking down in the rain, thinking of it as a sort of signal, a crooked totem. A message to my cat, about what could happen. It lay out there the rest of the afternoon, all night, and most of the next morning.
I found Slick lying sprawled on the garage concrete, shivering, clumsy, careless. Obstinate. I carried him in and set him on the kitchen floor. On the white linoleum, limp, he looked like an embryo, his breaths heaving in the thin blue skin over his flanks, too tired to protest as I wrapped him in a towel and went over him with a hair dryer, blubbering like a baby. Later, I took a shovel from the garage and went to bury the other one. Standing out in the rain thinking, This doesn’t mean anything. It just kept on raining.
Steven Barthelme was born in Houston, the son of the celebrated architect Donald Barthelme, Sr. He is the author of the story collection, And He Tells the Little Horse the Whole Story, the essay collection, The Early Posthumous Work, and the co-author, with his brother Frederick, of Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss. He is the director of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he is also a professor of English. His writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and McSweeney’s. Barthelme won Pushcart Prizes in 1993 and 2005, and in 2004 he won the Texas Institute of Letters Short Story Award for work published in Yale Review.
About the Guest Editor
Melville House is an independent publisher with offices in Brooklyn and London. The company is well-known for its fiction, with two Nobel Prize winners on its list: Imre Kertész and Heinrich Böll. In particular, the company has developed a world-wide reputation for its rediscovery of forgotten international writers—its translation of a forgotten work by Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone, launched a world-wide phenomenon. The company also takes pride in its discovery of many first-time writers—such as Tao Lin (Eeeee Eee Eeee), Lars Iyer (Spurious), Lee Rourke (The Canal), and Christopher Boucher (How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive)—who have gone on to success.
© 2012 Steven Barthelme. Reprinted by permission of Melville House Publishing.