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I’m busy.
Doing what?
Writing my novel.
Still at it, you?
Nothing left to do.
What’s it about?
It’s about you, he said.
Oh yeah, sure.
Really.
About me?
You and me, he said.
Us, then.
Right. That’s right.
What’re we doing in this novel?
Talking.
About?
The problems.
Which ones?
As they exist.
Ah.
I don’t want to be here, he said.
Who does? Not me, either.
Because why?
Got nothing. What am I doing in a novel?
Reaching out.
Hate that.
Me, too.
Imbeciles.
You said it.
But us, too. I mean—
I know what you mean.
I mean we’re imbeciles, too.
Duh.
Should have been scientists if you ask me.
Face down a single, definable project.
Exactly.
None of this broad brush stuff.
Right.
I’m waving my hand like a broad brush.
See that.
Looks brush-like, from this vantage. As on a wall, for example.
I see that.
Painting up a storm, I am.
You should’ve been a painter.
I was one. Once.
Yeah?
Shows and everything. Got bored after a time.
Here?
New York. Late sixties.
Color field painting.
No, that was earlier. Concept stuff.
Oh Jesus.
Yeah, that’s what everyone said.
Tiny idea, just that one tiny idea. Beat to death.
Still, was an idea. Was something.
What?
A kind of guidance. A suggestion.
Silly shite.
That, too.
Kosuth and Larry What’sit, and Hobbler, and the Spiral Jetty guy.
Smithson. He was doing something else.
Something spiral.
Exactly, but they confused it with.
Always do that, they.
Nature of the beast.
Huebler, that was his name.
And the Brits. Art and Language.
Remember it well.
How could you forget?
A romantic period.
Bloody hash you ask me.
I did tape.
Tape?
Yeah, on walls. And that stuff you put in drawers. Also on walls.
Marking territory?
I suppose. Making a mark.
Somebody got famous for a minute doing tape.
That was later and wasn’t me. I’d moved on by then.
I remember. You sent me one.
Replacements.
Right. Instead of making something I did X.
X?
Buy stuff, mostly. Pictured. TV, etc.
You bought a TV?
I said I did.
But you didn’t really?
For me to know, he said.
Fox.
Don’t get it, he said. What’s a fox?
Animal, of course. Little, red, etc.
So what brings you here today.
Cookies. Wanted some cookies.
Know what you mean.
Chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, brownie cookies.
Basic rations.
Diabetic.
Well, there are worse things.
Burn through ‘em.
Yep.
Eat ‘em up and move on.
Better ‘n bread. Bread’ll kill you.
Don’t like fish that much.
Slice them open. I hate that.
In half.
What I mean, he said.
Down the belly.
Seems cruel, doesn’t it?
At minimum. Should be another way to attack them.
From the side would be kinder.
More humane.
Yeah.
Sorta what they’re after anyway, ain’t?
The what you call it—fillet.
Scrape the damn scales.
It’s a mess. I give it up.
SO what happened after the concept stuff?
Returned to a former life.
School?
Music. Had a band.
Had?
Was a member of.
I don’t want to be here.
Said that.
Well, maybe I could go elsewhere.
Do what?
Play music like you.
I was the worst. I was the concept guy.
Couldn’t play a lick?
That’s it. Was embarrassing.
Somehow you faked it.
They were generous toward me.
Who, the audience?
The others. Players. They could play.
Made up for you, covered for you.
Yep. I had a certain utility.
Oh yes.
I could play dog. Get the dog riled up.
Dog was in the band.
Sure. He was the best thing in the band.
What’d he do?
Howled, of course.
Barked?
Sometimes, when he had a mind to.
Scratched? You mic’d him scratching?
Precisely. Cage would’ve.
If he’d thought of it.
Friendly thing, the dog.
They are that.
Yep. Unlike some other species.
A raw nerve there.
Indeed. Flight out of Egypt.
What the?
Mary said that.
Magdelene?
No, the other Mary. Still living in Ohio.
A similar soul to be certain.
I’ll say.
So the deal is the wife left me again.
How many times now?
Uncountable.
I know the thing.
Unsettling.
They do that.
Mind of their own and all that.
Exactly.
I don’t mean to demean.
Of course not.
You understand?
I do. Utterly.
Things get out of control.
Blow up.
Magnify.
Catastrophize.
Every time. It’s unfortunate.
There’s a limit, though.
How do you mean?
Beyond which, etc.
To be sure.
They will act, by God.
Just so.
I don’t hold it against them.
No! Absolutely!
A necessary escape valve.
Perfectly correct.
A valve is a wonderful thing.
Lets stuff in, lets stuff out.
The ideal form.
Theatrical.
Just so.
And religious, too.
What would we do without.
Just so.
That which washes all our skins.
Sins?
Sins also, he said.
There seem to be fewer sins these days.
By God! You have it right!
You’ve noticed, too?
Yes! Thought it a hundred times.
All those sins we were warned about as children.
Exactly.
Touching, thinking sins, looking sins.
Wanting sins were the worst.
To want, Oh my God.
Seven and seven.
The Gold Standard.
Not too many, not too few.
Loved the box, though. Solace.
A great relief.
It has vanished, now.
Shame, that.
Isn’t it?
They ought to bring it back.
I had impure thoughts thirty-nine thousand times since my last.
Last week, you mean.
Exactly.
The little red bulb over the door.
Exquisite.
The kneeler.
Wonderfully rubberized.
The diagonally crossed wire screen.
The shadow beyond.
The smell—wood, incense, candle smoke.
The fat man beyond.
His hand in silhouette covering his face,
Discreet fellow.
Of course.
And listening intently.
They were all different.
Some earnest, some blithe.
Saying rosaries in the catbird seat.
Barely listening.
File it all away.
Some tried to talk to you.
The worst.
Reason with you.
No, those were the worst.
Some withheld the absolution.
No, THOSE were the worst.
Kinda went against the whole deal.
They should have washed those guys out.
Rotten apples.
They were going to help you no matter what.
Click click of the big rosary beads.
Unforgettable.

 

artwork by Rae Buleri
Frederick Barthelme was a founding member, with Mayo Thompson, of the art/noise/psychedelic rock band Red Krayola, and a painter and conceptual artist in Houston and New York in the late 1960s. His work in that area appears in many of the seminal publications of the movement including Lucy Lippard’s The Dematerialization of the Art Object, Donald Karshan’s exhibition catalog Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects, several of Seth Siegelaub’s projects, and other books and monographs on the movement. In the mid-seventies he studied fiction with John Barth at The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, from which he received his Master of Arts degree. From 1977-2010 he taught fiction writing and directed the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. He won numerous awards including individual grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and diverse grants and awards as editor of Mississippi Review, the literary magazine he edited in print 1977-2010, and for the independent online magazine Mississippi Review Online which he founded and edited 1995-2010. He provided texts for Susan Lipper’s 1999 book of photographs, Trip, and has long been an occasional contributor to The New Yorker. He has also published fiction and nonfiction in Fiction, Epoch, GQ, Ploughshares, Playboy, Esquire, TriQuarterly, North American Review, The New York Times, Frank, The Southern Review, the Boston Globe Magazine, and elsewhere. His work has been translated into a dozen languages. The memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, was co-authored with his brother Steven, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The same honor was awarded his retrospective collection of stories, The Law of Averages, published by Counterpoint in November 2000. His novel Elroy Nights, published in October 2003 by Counterpoint, was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and was one of five finalists for the 2004 PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2009 he published Waveland, a novel set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast a year after Katrina. In 2010 he won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction and he is presently editor and publisher of the online literary publication New World Writing (previously Mississippi Review Online, Blip, Rick Magazine, and Stand Away from the Vehicle). His most recent novel is There Must Be Some Mistake, published by Little, Brown and now available in paperback.

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