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Authors: Donald Barthelme

Snow White

BOOK: Snow White
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CONTENTS

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

About Donald Barthelme

for Birgit

PART ONE

SHE
is a tall dark beauty containing a great many beauty spots: one above the breast,
one above the belly, one above the knee, one above the ankle, one above the buttock,
one on the back of the neck. All of these are on the left side, more or less in a
row, as you go up and down:

The hair is black as ebony, the skin white as snow.

BILL is tired of Snow White now. But he cannot tell her. No, that would not be the
way. Bill can’t bear to be touched. That is new too. To have anyone touch him is unbearable.
Not just Snow White but also Kevin, Edward, Hubert, Henry, Clem or Dan. That is a
peculiar aspect of Bill, the leader. We speculate that he doesn’t want to be involved
in human situations any more. A withdrawal. Withdrawal is one of the four modes of
dealing with anxiety. We speculate that his reluctance to be touched springs from
that. Dan does not go along with the anxiety theory. Dan does not believe in anxiety.
Dan speculates that Bill’s reluctance to be touched is a physical manifestation of
a metaphysical condition that is not anxiety. But he is the only one who speculates
that. The rest of us support anxiety. Bill has let us know in subtle ways that he
doesn’t want to be touched. If he falls down, you are not to pick him up. If someone
holds out a hand in greeting, Bill smiles. If it is time to wash the buildings, he
will pick up his own bucket. Don’t hand him a bucket, for in that circumstance there
is a chance that your hands will touch. Bill is tired of Snow White. She must have
noticed that he doesn’t go to the shower room, now. We are sure she has noticed that.
But Bill has not told her in so many words that he is tired of her. He has not had
the heart to unfold
those cruel words, we speculate. Those cruel words remain locked in his lack of heart.
Snow White must assume that his absence from the shower room, in these days, is an
aspect of his not liking to be touched. We are certain she has assumed that. But to
what does she attribute the “not-liking” itself? We don’t know.

“OH I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear!”
Snow White exclaimed loudly. We regarded each other sitting around the breakfast table
with its big cardboard boxes of “Fear,” “Chix,” and “Rats.” Words in the world that
were not the words she always heard? What words could those be? “Fish slime,” Howard
said, but he was a visitor, and rather crude too, and we instantly regretted that
we had lent him a sleeping bag, and took it away from him, and took away his bowl
too, and the Chix that were in it, and the milk on top of the Chix, and his spoon
and napkin and chair, and began pelting him with boxes, to indicate that his welcome
had been used up. We soon got rid of him. But the problem remained. What words were
those? “Now we have been left sucking the mop again,” Kevin said, but Kevin is easily
discouraged. “Injunctions!” Bill said, and when he said that we were glad he was still
our leader, although some of us had been wondering about him lately. “Murder and create!”
Henry said, and that was weak, but we applauded, and Snow White said, “That is one
I’ve never heard before ever,” and that gave us courage, and we all began to say things,
things that were more or less satisfactory, or at least adequate, to serve the purpose,
for the time being. The whole thing was papered over, for the time
being, and didn’t break out into the open. If it had broken out into the open, then
we would really have been left sucking the mop in a big way, that Monday.

THEN we went out to wash the buildings. Clean buildings fill your eyes with sunlight,
and your heart with the idea that man is perfectible. Also they are good places to
look at girls from, those high, swaying wooden platforms: you get a rare view, gazing
at the tops of their red and gold and plum-colored heads. Viewed from above they are
like targets, the plum-colored head the center of the target, the wavy navy skirt
the bold circumference. The white or black legs flopping out in front are like someone
waving his arms over the top of the target and calling, “You missed the center by
not allowing sufficiently for the wind!” We are very much tempted to shoot our arrows
into them, those targets. You know what that means. But we also pay attention to the
buildings, gray and noble in their false architecture and cladding. There are Tiparillos
in our faces and heavy jangling belts around our waists, and water in our buckets
and squeegees on our poles. And we have our beer bottles up there too, and drink beer
for a second breakfast, even though that is against the law, but we are so high up,
no one can be sure. It’s too bad Hogo de Bergerac isn’t up here with us, because maybe
the experience would be good for him, would make him less loathsome. But he would
probably just seize the occasion to perform some new loathsome act. He
would probably just throw beer cans down into the street, to make irritating lumps
under the feet of those girls who, right this minute, are trying to find the right
typewriter, in the correct building.

NOW she’s written a dirty great poem four pages long, won’t let us read it, refuses
absolutely, she is adamant. We discovered it by accident. We had trudged home early,
lingered in the vestibule for a bit wondering if we should trudge inside. A strange
prehension, a boding of some kind. Then we trudged inside. “Here’s the mail,” we said.
She was writing something, we could see that. “Here’s the mail,” we said again, usually
she likes to paw over the mail, but she was preoccupied, didn’t look up, not a flicker.
“What are you doing there,” we asked, “writing something?” Snow White looked up. “Yes,”
she said. And looked down again, not a pinch of emotion coloring the jet black of
her jet-black eyes. “A letter?” we asked wondering if a letter then to whom and about
what. “No,” she said. “A list?” we asked inspecting her white face for a hint of
tendresse
. But there was no
tendresse
. “No,” she said. We noticed then that she had switched the tulips from the green
bowl to the blue bowl. “What then?” we asked. We noticed that she had shifted the
lilies from the escritoire to the chiffonier. “What then?” we repeated. We observed
that she had hauled the Indian paintbrush all the way out into the kitchen. “Poem,”
she said. We had the mail in our paws still. “Poem?” we said. “Poem,” she said. There
it was, the red meat on the rug. “Well,”
we said, “can we have a peek?” “No,” she said. “How long is it?” we asked. “Four pages,”
she said, “at present.”
“Four pages!”
The thought of this immense work . . .

Vacillations and confusions of Snow White:
“But who am I to love?” Snow White asked hesitating, because she already loved us,
in a way, but it wasn’t enough. Still, she was slightly ashamed.

THEN I took off my shirt and called Paul, because we were planning to break into his
apartment, and if he was there, we could not do so. If he was there we would be recognized,
he would know who we were, and that we were carrying his typewriter out into the street
to sell it. He would know everything about us: how we made our living, what girls
we liked, where we kept the vats. Paul didn’t answer so it wasn’t necessary to ask
if Anna was there—the prepared name we were going to ask for. Paul sat in his baff,
under the falling water. He was writing a palinode. “Perhaps it is wrong to have favorites
among the forms,” he reflected. “But retraction has a special allure for me. I would
wish to retract everything, if I could, so that the whole written world would be . . .”
More hot water fell into the baff. “I would retract the green sea, and the brown fish
in it, and I would especially retract that long black hair hanging from that window,
that I saw today on my way here, from the Unemployment Office. It has made me terribly
nervous, that hair. It was beautiful, I admit it. Long black hair of such texture,
fineness, is not easily come by. Hair black as ebony! Yet it has made me terribly
nervous. Why some innocent person might come along, and see it, and conceive it his
duty to climb up, and discern the reason it is being hung out of that window. There
is probably
some girl attached to it, at the top, and with her responsibilities of various sorts . . .
teeth . . . piano lessons. . . . There is the telephone ringing, now. Who is it? Who
or what wants me? I will not answer. That way, I am safe, for the time being.”

THERE is a river of girls and women in our streets. There are so many that the cars
are forced to use the sidewalks. The women walk in the street proper, the part where,
in other cities, trucks and bicycles are found. They stand in windows too unbuckling
their shirts, so that we will not be displeased. I admire them for that. We have voted
again and again, and I think they like that, that we vote so much. We voted to try
the river in the next town. They have a girl-river there they don’t use much. We slipped
into the felucca carrying our baggage in long canvas tubes tied, in the middle, with
straps. The girls groaned under the additional weight. Then Hubert pushed off and
Bill began to beat time for the rowers. We wondered if Snow White would be happy,
alone there. But if she wasn’t, we couldn’t do anything about it. Men try to please
their mistresses when they, men, are not busy in the countinghouse, or drinking healths,
or having the blade of a new dagger chased with gold. In the village we walked around
the well where the girls were dipping their trousers. The zippers were rusting. “Ha
ha,” the girls said, “we could tear this down in a minute, this well.” It is difficult
to defeat that notion, the one the village girls hold, that the boy who trembles by
the wall, against the stones, will be Pope someday. He is not even hungry; his family
is not even poor.

WHAT is Snow White thinking? No one knows. Today she came into the kitchen and asked
for a glass of water. Henry gave her a glass of water. “Aren’t you going to ask me
what I want this glass of water for?” she asked. “I assumed you wanted to drink it,”
Henry said. “No, Henry,” Snow White said. “Thirsty I am not. You are not paying attention,
Henry. Your eye is not on the ball.” “What do you want the glass of water for, Snow
White?” “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” Snow White said. Then she left the room, carrying
the glass of water. Kevin came in. “Snow White smiled at me in the hall,” Kevin said.
“Shut up Kevin. Shut up and tell me what this means:
let a hundred flowers bloom
.” “I don’t know what it means Henry,” Kevin said. “It’s Chinese, I know that.” What
is Snow White thinking? No one knows. Now she has taken to wearing heavy blue bulky
shapeless quilted People’s Volunteers trousers rather than the tight tremendous how-the-West-was-won
trousers she formerly wore, which we admired immoderately. An unmistakable affront
I would say. We are getting pretty damned sick of the whole thing, of her air of being
just about to do something and of the dozen-odd red flags and bugles she has nailed
to the dining-room table. We are getting pretty damned sick of the whole thing and
our equanimity is leaking away and finding those tiny Chairman Mao poems in the baby
food isn’t helping one bit, I can tell you that.

BOOK: Snow White
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