Amateurs (short stories)

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Amateurs (1976) is a collection of short stories by Donald Barthelme.


  • It is good to be a member of the bourgeoisie,” he said. “A boy likes being a member of the bourgeoisie. Being a member of the bourgeoisie is good for a boy. It makes him feel warm and happy. He can worry about his plants. His green plants. His plants and his quiches. His property taxes. The productivity of his workers. His plants/quiches/property taxes/workers/Land Rover. His sword hilt. His”
    • “Our Work and Why We Do It”
  • Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him. Colby argued that just because he had gone too far (he did not deny that he had gone too far) did not mean that he should be subjected to hanging. Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn’t pay much attention to this argument. We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he’d think about it but it would take him awhile to decide. I pointed out that we’d have to know soon, because Howard, who is a conductor, would have to hire and rehearse the musicians and he couldn’t begin until he knew what the music was going to be. Colby said he’d always been fond of Ives’s Fourth Symphony. Howard said that this was a “delaying tactic” and that everybody knew that the Ives was almost impossible to perform and would involve weeks of rehearsal, and that the size of the orchestra and chorus would put us way over the music budget. “Be reasonable”, he said to Colby. Colby said he’d try to think of something a little less exacting.
    • “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby”, first paragraph
  • I went to the grocery store to buy some soap. I stood for a long time before the soaps in their attractive boxes, RUB and FAB and TUB and suchlike, I couldn’t decide so I closed my eyes and reached out blindly and when I opened my eyes I found her hand in mine.
    Her name was Mrs. Davis, she said, and TUB was best for importat cleaning experiences, in her opinion. So we went to lunch at a Mexican restaurant which as it happened she owned, she took me into the kitchen and showed me her stacks of handsome beige tortillas and the steam tables which were shiny-brite. I told her I wasn’t very good with women and she said it didn’t matter, few men were, and that nothing mattered, now that Jake was gone, but I would do as an interim project and sit down and have a Carta Blanca. So I sat down and had a cool Carta Blanca, God was standing in the basement reading the meters to see how much grace had been used up in the month of June. Grace is electricity, science has found, it is not like electricity, it is electricity and God was down in the basement reading the meters in His blue jump suit with the flashlight stuck in the back pocket.
    • “At the End of the Mechanical Age”, opening
  • “And do you, Anne,” the minister said, “promise to make whatever mutually satisfactory accommodations necessary to reduce tensions and arrive at whatever previously agreed-upon goals both parties have harmoniously set in the appropriate sessions?”
    “I do,” said Mrs. Davis.
    “And do you, Thomas, promise to explore all differences thoroughly with patience and inner honesty ignoring no fruitful avenues of discussion and seeking at all times to achieve rapprochement while eschewing advantage in conflict situations?”
    “I do,” I said.
    “Well, now we are married,” said Mrs. Davis, “I think I will retain my present name if you don’t mind, I have always been Mrs. Davis and your name is a shade graceless, no offense, dear.”
    “O.K.,” I said.
    • “At the End of the Mechanical Age”
  • After the explanation came the divorce.
    “Will you be wanting to contest the divorce?” I asked Mrs. Davis.
    “I think not,” she said calmly, “although I suppose one of us should, for the fun of the thing. An uncontested divorce always seems to me contrary to the spirit of divorce.”
    “That is true,” I said. “I have had the same feeling myself, not infrequently.”
    • “At the End of the Mechanical Age”
  • The Balloon Man won’t sell to kids.
    Kids will come up to the Balloon Man and say, “Give us a blue balloon, Balloon Man,” and the Balloon Man will say, “Get outa here kids, these balloons are adults-only.” And the kids will say, “C’mon, Balloon Man, give us a red balloon and a green balloon and a white balloon, we got the money.” "Don’t want any kid-money,” the Balloon Man will say, “kid-money is wet and nasty and makes your hands wet and nasty and then you wipe ’em on your pants and your pants get all wet and nasty and you sit down to eat and the chair gets all wet and nasty, let that man in the brown hat draw near, he wants a balloon.” And the kids will say, “Oh please Balloon Man, we want the yellow balloons that never pop, we want to make us a smithereen.” “Ain’t gonna make no smithereen outa my fine yellow balloons,” says the Balloon Man, “your red balloon will pop sooner and your green balloon will pop later but your yellow balloon will never pop no matter how you stomp on it or stick it and beside the Balloon Man don’t sell to kids, it’s against his principles.”
    • “The Great Hug”
  • Balloon Man sells the Balloon of Fatigue and the Balloon of Ora Pro Nobis and the Rune Balloon and the Balloon of the Last Thing to Do at Night; these are saffron-, cinnamon-, salt-, and celery-colored, respectively. He sells the Balloon of Not Yet and the Balloon of Sometimes. He works the circus, every circus. Some people don’t go to the circus and so don’t meet the Balloon Man and don’t get to buy a balloon. That’s sad. Near to most people in any given city at any given time won’t be at the circus. That’s unfortunate. They don’t get to buy a brown, whole-life-long cherishable Sir Isaiah Berlin Balloon. “I don’t sell the Balloon Jejeune,” the Balloon Man will say, “let them other people sell it, let them people have all that wet and nasty kid-money mitosising in their sock. ...” Balloon Man sells the Balloon of Those Things I Should Have Done I Did Not Do, a beige balloon. And the Balloon of the Ballade of the Crazy Junta, crimson of course. Balloon Man stands in a light rain near the popcorn pushing the Balloon of Wish I Was, the Balloon of Busoni Thinking, the Balloon of the Perforated Septum, the Balloon of Not Nice. Which one is my balloon, Balloon Man? Is it the Balloon of the Cartel of Noise Makers? Is it the Balloon of God Knows I Tried?
    • “The Great Hug”
  • Pin Lady tells the truth. Balloon Man doesn’t lie, exactly. How can the Quibbling Balloon be called a lie? Pin Lady is more straightforward, Balloon Man is less straightforward. Their stances are semiantireprophetical. They’re falling down the hill together, two falls out of three. Pin him, Pin Lady. Expand, Balloon Man. When he created our butter-colored balloon, we felt better. A little better. The event that had happened to us went floating out into the world, was made useful to others. The Balloon Man says, “I got here the Balloon of the Last Concert. It’s not a bad balloon. Some people won’t like it. Some people will like it. I got the Balloon of Too Terrible. Not every balloon can make you happy. Not every balloon can trigger glee. But I insist that these balloons have a right to be heard! Let that man in the black cloak step closer, he wants a balloon.
    “The Balloon of Perhaps. My best balloon.”
    • “The Great Hug”, conclusion
  • So.
    The situation is, I agree, desperate. But fortunately I know the proper way to proceed. That is why I am giving you these instructions. They will save your life. First, persuade yourself that the situation is not desperate (my instructions will save your life only if you have not already hopelessly compromised it by listening to the instructions of others, or to the whispers of your heart, which is in itself suspect, in that it has been taught how to behave—how to whisper, even—by the very culture that has produced the desperate situation). Persuade yourself, I say, that your original perception of the situation was damaged by not having taken into account all of the variables (for example, my instructions) and that the imminent disaster that hangs in the sky above you can be, with justice, downgraded to the rank of severe inconvenience by the application of corrected thinking. Do not let what happened to the dog weaken your resolve.
    • “What to Do Next”, opening
  • This morning, at the breakfast table, a fierce attack from the captured woman.
    I am a shit, a vain preener, a watcher of television, a blatherer, a creephead, a monstrous coward who preys upon etc. etc. etc. and is not man enough to etc. etc. etc. Also I drink too much.
    This is all absolutely true. I have often thought the same things myself, especially, for some reason, upon awakening.
    I have a little more Canadian bacon.
    “And a skulker,” she says with relish. “One who—”
    I fix her in the viewfinder of my Pentax and shoot a whole new series, Fierce.
    The trouble with capturing one is that the original gesture is almost impossible to equal or improve upon.
    • “The Captured Woman”
  • The part of the story that came next was suddenly missing, I couldn’t think of it, so I went into the next room and drank a glass of water (my “and then” still hanging in the frangible air) as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do at that point, thinking that I would “make up” something, while in the other room, to put in place of that part of the anecdote that had fallen out of my mind, to keep the light glittering in his cautious eyes. And in truth I was getting a little angry with him now, not fiercely angry but slightly désabusé, because he had been standing very close to me, closer than I really like people to stand, the rims of his shoes touching the rims of my shoes, our belt buckles not four inches distant, a completely unwarranted impingement upon my personal space. And so I went, as I say, into the next room and drank a glass of water, trying to remember who he was and why I was talking to him, not that he wasn’t friendly, if by “friendly” you mean standing aggressively close to people with an attentive air and smiling teeth, that’s not what I mean by “friendly”, and it was right then that I decided to lie to him, although what I had been telling him previously was true, to the best of my knowledge and belief. But, faced now with this “gap” in the story, I decided to offer him a good-quality lie in place of the part I couldn’t remember, a better strategy, I felt, than simply stopping, leaving him with a maimed, not-whole anecdote, violating his basic trust, simple faith, or personhood even, for all I knew. But the lie had to be a good one, because if your lie is badly done it makes everyone feel wretched, liar and lied-to alike plunged into the deepest lackadaisy, and everyone just feels like going into the other room and drinking a glass of water, or whatever is available there, whereas if you can lie really well then you get dynamic results, 35 percent report increased intellectual understanding, awareness, insight, 40 percent report more tolerance, acceptance of others, liking for self, 29 percent report they receive more personal and more confidentual information from people and that others become more warm and supportive toward them—all in consequence of a finely orchestrated, carefully developed untruth. And while I was thinking about this, counting my options, I noticed that he was a policeman, had in fact a dark-blue uniform, black shoes, a badge and a gun, a policeman’s hat, and I noticed also that my testicles were aching, as they sometimes do if you sit too long in a uncomfortable or strained position, but I had been standing and then I understood, in a flash, that what he wanted from me was not to hear the “next” part of my story, or anecdote, but that I give my harpsichord to his wife as a present.
    • —“And Then”, opening paragraph
  • is true that I was at the wedding, but only to raise my voice and object when the minister came to that part of the ceremony where he routinely asks for objections, “Yes!” I shouted, “she’s my mother. And although she is a widow, and legally free, she belongs to me in my dreams!” but I was quickly hushed up by a quartet of plainclothesmen, and the ceremony proceeded. But what is the good of a mother if she is another man’s wife, as they mostly are, and not around in the morning to fix your buckwheat cakes or Rice Krispies, as the case may be, and in the evening to argue with you about your vegetables, and in the middle of the day to iron your shirts and clean up your rooms, and at all times to provide intimations of ease and bliss (however misleading and ill-founded)...
    • —“And Then”
  • Music from somewhere. It is Vivaldi’s great work, The Semesters.
    The students wandered among the exhibits. The Fisher King was there. We walked among the industrial achievements. A good-looking gas turbine, behind a velvet rope. The manufacturers described themselves in their literature as “patient and optimistic”. The students gazed, and gaped. Hitting them with ax handles is no longer permitted, hugging and kissing them is no longer permitted, speaking to them is permitted but only under extraordinary circumstances.
    • “The Educational Experience”, opening
  • Here is a diode, learn what to do with it. Here is Du Guesclin, constable of France 1370–80—learn what to do with him. A divan is either a long cushioned seat or a council of state—figure out at which times it is what. Certainly you can have your dangerous drugs, but only for dessert—first you must chew your cauliflower, finish your fronds.
    • “The Educational Experience”
  • “Do you think intelligent life exists outside this bed?” one student asked another, confused as to whether she was attending the performance, or part of it.
    • “The Educational Experience”
  • And Sergeant Preston of the Yukon was there in his Sam Browne belt, he was copulating violently but copulating with no one, that’s always sad to see. Still it was a “nice try” and in that sense inspirational, a congratulation to the visible universe for being what it is.
    • “The Educational Experience”
  • “The world is everything that was formerly the case,” the group leader said, “and now it is time to get back on the bus.” Then all of the guards rushed up and demanded their bribes. We paid them with soluble travelers checks and hoped for rain, hoped for rodomontade, braggadocio, blare, bray, fanfare, flourish, tucket.
    • “The Educational Experience”, conclusion
  • “I’m depressed,” Kate said.
    Boots became worried. “Did I say something wrong?”
    “You don’t know how to say anything wrong.”
    “The thing about you is, you’re dull.”
    “I’m dull?”
    There was a silence. Then Fog said: “Anybody want to go over to Springs to the rodeo?”
    “Me?” Boots said. “Dull?”
    The Judge got up and went over and sat down next to Kate.
    “Now Kate, you oughtn’t to be goin’ ’round callin’ Boots dull to his face. That’s probably goin’ to make him feel bad. I know you didn’t mean it, really, and Boots knows it too, but he’s gonna feel bad anyhow—”
    “How ’bout the rodeo, over at Springs?” Fog asked again.
    The Judge gazed sternly at his friend, Fog.
    “—he’s gonna feel bad, anyhow,” the Judge continued, “just thinkin’ you mighta meant it. So why don’t you just tell him you didn’t mean it.”
    “I did mean it.”
    “Aw come on, Katie. I know you mean what you say, but why make trouble? You can mean what you say, but why not say something else? On a nice day like this?”
    The dry and lifeless air continued parching the concrete-like ground.
    • “The Discovery”, opening
  • Rebecca Lizard was trying to change her ugly, reptilian, thoroughly unacceptable last name.
    “Lizard,” said the judge. “Lizard, Lizard, Lizard. Lizard. There’s nothing wrong with it if you say it enough times. You can’t clutter up the court’s calendar with trivial minor irritations. And there have been far too many people changing their names lately. Changing your name countervails the best interests of the telephone company, the electric company, and the United States government. Motion denied.”
    Lizard in tears.
    Lizard led from the courtroom. A chrysanthemum of Kleenex held under her nose.
    “Shaky lady,” said a man, “are you a schoolteacher?”
    Of course she’s a schoolteacher, you idiot. Can’t you see the poor woman’s all upset? Why don’t you leave her alone?
    “Are you a homosexual lesbian? Is that why you never married?”
    Christ, yes, she’s a homosexual lesbian, as you put it. Would you please shut your face?
    Rebecca went to the damned dermatologist (a new damned dermatologist), but he said the same thing the others had said. “Greenish,” he said, “slight greenishness, genetic anomaly, nothing to be done, I’m afraid, Mrs. Lizard.”
    “Miss Lizard.”
    “Nothing to be done, Miss Lizard.”
    “Thank you, Doctor. Can I give you a little something for your trouble?”
    “Fifty dollars.”
    When Rebecca got home the retroactive rent increase was waiting for her, coiled in her mailbox like a pupil about to strike.
    • “Rebecca”, opening
  • Very often one “pushes away” the very thing that one most wants to grab, like a lover. This is a common, although distressing, psychological mechanism, having to do (in my opinion) with the fact that what is presented is not presented “purely”, that there is a little canker or grim place in it somewhere. However, worse things can happen.
    • “Rebecca”
  • ...truth, as Bergson knew, is a hard apple, whether one is throwing it or catching it.
    • “Rebecca”
  • Do I want to be loved in spite of? Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree? Aren’t there important parts of all of us which must be, so to say, gazed past? I turn a blind eye to that aspect of you, and you turn a blind eye to that aspect of me, and with these blind eyes eyeball-toeyeball, to use an expression from the early 1960’s, we continue our starched and fragrant lives. Of course it’s also called “making the best of things”, which I have always considered a rather soggy idea for an American ideal. But my criticisms of this idea must be tested against those others—the late President McKinley, for example, who maintained that maintaining a good, if not necessarily sunny, disposition was the one valuable and proper course.
    • “Rebecca”
  • Hilda placed her hands on Rebecca’s head.
    “The snow is coming,” she said. “Soon it will be snow time. Together then as in other snow times. Drinking busthead ’round the fire. Truth is a locked room that we knock the lock off from time to time, and then board up again. Tomorrow you will hurt me, and I will inform you that you have done so, and so on and so on. To hell with it. Come, viridian friend, come and sup with me.”
    • “Rebecca”
  • Warp.”
    “In the character?”
    “He warp ever’ which way.”
    “You don’t think we should consider him, then.”
    “My friend Shel McPartland whom I have known deeply and intimately and too well for more than twenty years, is, sir, a brilliant O.K. engineer-master builder cum-city and state planner. He’ll plan your whole cottonpickin’ state for you, if you don’t watch him. Right down to the flowers on the sideboard in the the governor’s mansion. He’ll choose marginalia.”
    “I sir am not familiar sir with that particular bloom sir.”
    “Didn’t think you would be, you bein’ from Arkansas and therefore likely less than literate. You are the Arkansas State Planning Commission, are you not?”
    “I am one of it. Mr. McPartland gave you as a reference.”
    “Well sir let me tell you sir that my friend Shel McPartland who has incautiously put me down as a reference has a wide-ranging knowledge of all modern techniques, theories, dodges, orthodoxies, heresies, new and old innovations, and scams of all kinds. The only thing about him is, he warp.”
    • “The Reference”, opening
  • You eavesdrop in three languages. Has no one ever told you not to pet a leashed dog? We wash your bloody hand with Scotch from the restaurant.
    Children. I want one, you say, pointing to the mother pushing a pram. And there’s not much time. But the immense road-mending machine (yellow) cannot have children, even though it is a member of the family, it has siblings—the sheep’s-foot roller, the air hammer.
    You ask: Will there be fireworks?
    I would never pour lye in your eyes, you say.
    Where would you draw the line? I ask. Top Job?
    Shall we take a walk? Is there a trout stream? Can one rent a car? Is there dancing? Sailing? Dope? Do you know Saint-Exupéry? Wind? Sand? Stars? Night flight?
    You don’t offer to cook dinner for me again today.
    • “You Are as Brave as Vincent Van Gogh”, opening