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A FTERWORD A Few Riffs for Barthelme BY GEOFFREY RIPS WE WERE DISCUSSING Diderot and the demise of possibility when the woman who changes the toilet paper rolls in the bathrooms on the bottom four floors came up and said, “Donald Barthelme died.” “He was, for me, one of my guiding lights,” she said, “right up there with Hans Kling, John Coltrane particularly in his `Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard’ days and Dizzy Dean, before ol’ Diz got shot in the toe. It’s a loss I may never recover from. He was under-appreciated.” “I talked to him here once,” I said, “after he read in a classroom at the university. We sat in a series of concentric rings rising above him and he read to us as if from the bottom of a well, where he stood in the command-control station of the world’s best equipped audio-visual arsenal. Afterward I met him in the corridor, and he shook my hand. ‘How is Texas suiting you?’ he asked. I didn’t know. I spent the whole night wondering.” “It should have been front-page news,” she said. “Not even on the front page of The New York Times. I take some solace in that. It proves Yankees are no smarter than we are. He appreciated the richness of everyday life,” she sighed, swinging her plunger. “And its poverty,” I intoned. \(I have always been most comfortable as an in”He was Texas’s greatest living writer, at least in the humble opinion of this cleaning woman of the bottom four floors,” she said, “and not even a six-gun salute. What ceremony else? I found myself muttering.” “A TV movie might have helped,” I intoned again. “But he had that Texas lean,” she said, “that angle of standing repose that was more Hud than Hemingway. Everything below the neck was Texas. The rest struck me as Amish. The spaces between his words were Geoff Rips is a former editor of the Observer. Texas, but the words themselves were quick, sharp, to the point. I can still hear him reading, biting of the ends of words and sentences and swallowing them quickly so we would not become too attached to them.” About this time Big Daddy showed. He was carrying his axe. “Play the axe, Big Daddy. Play it. We heard Huey also died.” “Yeah, man, that was real sadness. But I’m here to grieve for my man Barthelme. He could pick ’em up and lay ’em down.” BIG DADDY hadn’t been seen much in the last 15 years. He once stood with Jean Genet as a translator on the Yale Green when Genet was denouncing the incarceration of Bobby Seale. That was the night after Huey Newton had explicated in the Yale Chapel the dialects of Hegel as compared to the Marx of Marx. It was the first time Huey had been invited to lecture at Yale, and he wasn’t going to let the . occasion pass with just a few salutes and a couple of “Free Bobby’s.” \(Marx, by the way, had a cousin who had emigrated to San Antonio and opened a dry goods store. He kept writing to Karl in England: “Karl, make the trip. They’s a bunch of dumbkins, buying cheap cotton like Anyway, Big Daddy, being Minister of Translation of the Black Panther Party, provided the little Frenchman with the down-home twist he needed to get his dramaturgical nuances over to a New Haven crowd more intent upon proclaiming in unison, “We are all Timothy Leary.” Since then, Big Daddy’s mostly been playing the saxophone in local bars trying to forget. “We dead, ya’11,” he said, unpacking his axe. “Huey, Abbie, Walter Karp, now my man Don. This ain’t about Woodstock 20 years later. This is about us. The 1960s and the immediate aftermath are committed to dust. All that beautiful chaos, juxtaposition and transubstantiation. It was the way we saw the world that’s dying all those little pieces to extemporize upon. Now we’re just here, our rock-solid, landlocked ol’ sluggish selfs. No imagination left. No room for rifling. But I’m here to play a few bars for Donald. He wrote this for the rest of us.” And he played: One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? The trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas and the mommas, Matthew and Toney, where did they go? And I said, I don’t know, I don’t know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? and I said, no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of I said, yes, maybe. They said, we don’t like it. I said, that’s sound. They said, it’s a bloody shame! I said, it is. They said, will you make love now with Helen it is done? We know you like Helen. I do like Helen but I said that I would not. We’ve heard so much about it, they said, but we’ve never seen it. I said I would be fired and that it was never, or almost never, done as a demonstration. Helen looked out of the window. They said, please, please, please make love with Helen, we require an assertion of value, we are frightened. I said that they shouldn’t and that there was value everywhere. Helen came and embraced me. I kissed her a few times on the brow. We held each other. Then there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly. Big Daddy put down his axe. “The man could play,” he said. He sucked on the mouthpiece and stared at some trees. He tore down his axe, put it in the case, closed the case and began to walk away. “Next time,” Big Daddy said. “Now who has the best ear in America?” the cleaning woman asked. “Who will listen to me down in the basement flushing the commodes now that Don Barthelme is dead?” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23