Donald Barthelme’s “And Then” may well be my new favorite short story, thanks to Lance Olsen’s three-word comment in McSweeney’s 24, which I did not read until last fall, although I bought it new the season it came out and spent the holidays that winter cat-sitting, piles of snow up to the windows, flecks of snow sticking to the screens, a skiff of ice floating across my windowsill. On the inside. I would head out in the late afternoons which in northern Idaho in December means in a dark nearing pitch but for the burnt orange of the street lamps, slog my way through mounds of car-exhausted blackened snow and slick and snot and go sit with cats not my own, one at a time, fill up their food dishes, freshen their water bowls, scoop out their leavings, and rub their heads and their ears and the underside of their chins, and read. That is how I met Don DeLillo. And Karen Finley. An interesting juxtaposition, do you not think? “Like a meaning?” Olsen asks, his career path an eerie symmetry to my own, as if viewed through a funhouse mirror. Back then, I read as if it were fiction, these memorial tributes to a writer whose name I had never before encountered, until the names of the writers writing their memories began to be familiar. Grace Paley. Ann Beattie. And so on.
“And Then” may have beat out several by my dear Borges, including “The Book of Sand,” “The Library of Babel,” “The Other,” and “Ulrikke” – maybe not “Ulrikke” – and Calvino, yes, much as I adore Calvino, he is at his best in the long form rather than the short, “Mr. Palomar” notwithstanding; maybe even Byatt’s “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” and “The Story of the Eldest Princess,” although her stories are like little jewels, rare, fine, and highly polished; yes, even Boyle, my current flame, even though his writing pursues some fleeting object not a distant relative from my own stumblings, particularly in “Sin Dolor” or, obviously, “Wild Child”; as much as I hate to say it, I am afraid even Bukowski’s “Twelve Flying Monkeys Who Refuse to Copulate Properly,” although surely it is written on a similar theme; and even my early heartthrob, Salinger’s “For Esmé” and “Teddy” and “Perfect Day for Bananafish” – Really? Are you sure? Even the Glass family? More than, say, more recently discovered Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children,” granted, a whole other subject altogether, probably not even fair to compare story against story, or “Good Old Neon”; or anything at all by Hempel, if you can get your hands on it; are you forgetting Hemingway’s “Birth of a New School,” perhaps a precursor, even, so tersely describing writing interrupted, somewhat like the interrupted telling of a story?
“And Then” is the sort of story that leads me to fantasize that one day, long after I am dead, a young man who will be maybe not as young as he once was, but still, half a lifetime ahead of him, at least, will perhaps be eating dinner all by himself at his kitchen table one weekday evening while reading one of my stories, which will cause him to laugh out loud, maybe even spew milk through his nose, and think to himself, I just bet she would have made a phenomenal lover.