Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts

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Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968) is a collection of short stories by Donald Barthelme.


  • I decided I knew nothing. Friends put me in touch with a Miss R., a teacher, unorthodox they said, excellent they said, successful with difficult cases, steel shutters on the windows made the house safe. I had just learned via International Distress Coupon that Jane had been beaten up by a dwarf in a bar on Tenerife but Miss R. did not allow me to speak of it. “You know nothing,” she said, “you feel nothing, you are locked in a most savage and terrible ignorance, I despise you, my boy, mon cher, my heart. You must attend but you must not attend now, you must attend later, a day or a week or an hour, you are making me ill....” I nonevaluated these remarks as Korzybski instructed. But it was difficult.
    • “The Indian Uprising”
  • “... Some people,” Miss R. said, “run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word. I might point out that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.”
    • “The Indian Uprising”
  • The balloon, beginning at a point on Fourteenth Street, the exact location of which I cannot reveal, expanded northward until it reached the Park. There, I stopped it; at dawn the northernmost edges lay over the Plaza; the free-hanging motion was frivolous and gentle. But experiencing a faint irritation at stopping, even to protect the trees, and seeing no reason the balloon should not be allowed to expand upward, over the parts of the city it was already covering, into the “air space” to be found there, I asked the engineers to see to it. This expansion took place throughout the morning, soft imperceptible sighing of gas through the valves. The balloon then covered forty-five blocks north-south and an irregular area east-west, as many as six crosstown blocks on the Avenue in some places. That was the situation, then.
    • opening paragraph, “The Balloon”
  • I met you under the balloon, on the occasion of your return from Norway; you asked if it was mine; I said it was. The balloon, I said, is a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation, but now that your visit to Bergen has been terminated, it is no longer necessary or appropriate. Removal of the balloon was easy; trailer trucks carried away the depleted fabric, which is now stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time of unhappiness, sometime, perhaps, when we are angry with one another.
    • closing paragraph, “The Balloon”
  • I went to the plain girl fair out Route 22 figuring I could get one if I just put on a kind face. This newspaper here had advertising the aspidistra store not far away by car where I went then and bought one to carry along. At the plain girl fair they were standing in sudden-death décolletage and brown arms everywhere. As you passed along into the tent after paying your dollar fifty carrying your aspidistra a blinding flash of some hundred contact lenses came. And a quality of dental work to shame the VA Hospital it was so fine. One fell in love temporarily with all this hard work and money spent just to please to improve. I was sad my dolphin friend was not there to see. I took one by the hand and said “come with me I will buy you a lobster.” My real face behind my kind face smiling. And the other girls on their pedestals waved and said “goodbye Marie.” And they also said “have a nice lobster,” and Marie waved back and said “bonne chance!” We motored to the lobster place over to Barwick, then danced by the light of the moon for a bit. And then to my hay where I tickled the naked soles of feet with a piece of it and admired her gestures of marvelous gaucherie. In my mind.
    • “This Newspaper Here”
  • K. at His Desk
    He is neither abrupt with nor excessively kind to associates. Or he is both abrupt and kind.
    The telephone is, for him, a whip, a lash, but also a conduit for soothing words, a sink into which he can hurl gallons of syrup if it comes to that.
    He reads quickly, scratching brief comments (“Yes”, “No”) in corners of the paper. He slouches in the leather chair, looking about him with a slightly irritated air for new visitors, new difficulties. He spends his time sending and receiving messengers.
    “I spend my time sending and receiving messengers” he says. “Some of these messages are important. Others are not.”
    • “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning”, opening
  • Gallery-going
    K. enters a large gallery on Fifty-seventh Street, in the Fuller Building. His entourage includes several ladies and gentlemen. Works by a geometrist are on show. K. looks at the immense, rather theoretical paintings.
    “Well, at least we know he has a ruler.”
    The group dissolves in laughter. People repeat the remark to one another, laughing.
    The artist, who has been standing behind a dealer, regards K. with hatred.
    • “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning”
  • K. Puzzled by His Children
    The children are crying. There are several children, one about four, a boy, then another boy, slightly older, and a little girl, very beautiful, wearing blue jeans, crying. There are various objects on the grass, an electric train, a picture book, a red ball, a plastic basket, a plastic shovel.
    K. frowns at the children whose distress issues from no source immediately available to the eye, which seems uncaused, vacant, a general anguish. K. turns to the mother of these children who is standing nearby wearing hip-huggers which appear to be made of linked marshmallows studded with diamonds but then I am a notoriously poor observer.
    “Play with them”, he says.
    The mother of ten quietly suggests that K. himself “play with them”.
    K. picks up the picture book and begins to read to the children. But the book has a German text. It has been left behind, perhaps, by some foreign visitor. Nevertheless K. perseveres.
    “A ist der Affe, er isst mit der Pfote.” (“A is the Ape, he eats with his Paw.”)
    The crying of the children continues.
    • “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning”
  • I spoke to him then about the war. I said the same things people always say when they speak against the war. I said that the war was wrong. I said that large countries should not burn down small countries. I said that the government had made a series of errors. I said that these errors once small and forgivable were now immense and unforgivable. I said that the government was attempting to conceal its original errors under layers of new errors. I said that the government was sick with error, giddy with it. I said that tens of thousands of the enemy’s soldiers and civilians had been killed because of various errors, ours and theirs. I said that we are responsible for errors made in our name. I said that the government should not be allowed to make additional errors.
    • “Report”
  • At that moment the son manqué entered the room. The son manqué was eight feet tall and wore a serape woven out of two hundred transistor radios, all turned on and tuned to different stations. Just by looking at him you could hear Portland and Nogales, Mexico.
    “No grass in the house?”
    Barbara got the grass which was kept in one of those little yellow and red metal canisters made for sending film back to Eastman Kodak.
    Edgar tried to think of a way to badmouth this immense son leaning over him like a large blaring building. But he couldn’t think of anything. Thinking of anything was beyond him. I sympathize. I myself have these problems. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.
    • “The Dolt”
  • The old Commissioner’s idea was essentially that if there was a disturbance on the city’s streets—some ethnic group cutting up some other ethnic group on a warm August evening—the Police Band would be sent in. The handsome dark-green band bus arriving with sirens singing, red lights whirling. Hard-pressed men on the beat in their white hats raising a grateful cheer. We stream out of the vehicle holding our instruments at high port. A skirmish line fronting the angry crowd. And play “Perdido”. The crowd washed with new and true emotion. Startled, they listen. Our emotion stronger than their emotion. A triumph of art over good sense.
    • “The Police Band”
  • When my falling event was postponed, were you disappointed? Did you experience a disillusionment-event?
    • “Can We Talk”
  • the hinder portion scalding-house good eating curve B in addition to the usual baths and ablutions military police sumptuousness of the washhouse risking misstatements kept distances iris to iris queen of holes damp, hairy legs note of anger chanting and shouting konk sense of “mold” on the “muff” sense of “talk” on the “surface” konk2 all sorts of chemical girl who delivered the letter give it a bone plummy bare legs saturated in every belief and ignorance rational living private client bad bosom uncertain workmen mutton-tugger obedience to the rules of the logical system Lord Muck hot tears harmonica rascal
    • “Alice”
  • that’s chaos can you produce chaos? Alice asked certainly I can produce chaos I said I produced chaos she regarded the chaos chaos is handsome and attractive she said and more durable than regret I said and more nourishing than regret she said
    • “Alice”
  • chaos is tasty AND USEFUL TOO
    • ”Alice”
  • Kellerman falls to his knees in front of the bench. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I committed endoarchy two times, melanicity four times, encropatomy seven times, and preprocity with igneous intent, pretolemicity, and overt cranialism once each.”
Within how long a period?:
Since Monday.:
Did you enjoy it?:
Any of it.:
Some of it. Melanicity in the afternoon promotes a kind of limited joy.:
Have you left anything out?:
A great deal.:
    • “A Picture History of the War”
  • See the moon? It hates us.
    • “See the Moon?"
  • I wanted be be one, when I was young, a painter. But I couldn’t stand stretching the canvas. Does things to the fingernails. And that’s the first place people look.
    Fragments are the only forms I trust.
    Light-minded or no, I’m...riotous with mental health.
    • “See the Moon?”
  • Gregory, you didn’t listen to my advice. I said try the Vernacular Isles. Where fish are two for a penny and women two for a fish. But you wanted M.I.T. and electron-spin-resonance spectroscopy.
    • “See the Moon?”
  • It’s my hope that these...souvenirs...will someday merge, blur—cohere is the word, maybe—into something meaningful. A grand word, meaningful. What do I look for? A work of art, I’ll not accept anything less. Yes I know it’s shatteringly disingenuous but I wanted to be a painter. They get away with murder in my view; Mr. X on the Times agrees with me. You don’t know how I envy them. They can pick up a Baby Ruth wrapper on the street, glue it to the canvas (in the right place, of couse, there’s that), and lo! people crowd around and cry, “a real Baby Ruth wrapper, by God, what could be realer than that?” Fantastic metaphysical advantage. You hate them, if you’re ambitious.
    • “See the Moon?”
  • We talked about the size of the baby, Ann and I. What could be deduced from the outside.
    I said it doesn’t look very big to me. She said it’s big enough for us. I said we don’t need such a great roaring big one after all. She said they cost the earth, those extra-large sizes. Our holdings in Johnson’s Baby Powder to be considered too. We’d need acres and acres. I said we’ll put it in a Skinner box maybe. She said no child of hers. Displayed like a rump roast. I said you haven’t wept lately. She said I keep getting bigger whether I laugh or cry.
    Dear Ann. I don’t think you’ve quite...
    What you don’t understand is, it’s like somebody walks up you and says, I have a battleship I can’t use, would you like to have a battleship. And you say, yes yes, I’ve never had a battleship, I’ve always wanted one. And he says, it has four sixteen-inch guns forward, and a catapult for launching scout planes. And you say, I’ve always wanted to launch scout planes. And he says, it’s yours, and then you have this battleship. And then you have to paint it, because it’s rusting, and clean it, because it’s dirty, and anchor it somewhere, because the Police Department wants you to get it off the streets. And the crew is crying, and there are silverfish in the chartroom and a funny knocking sound in the No. 2 hold, and the chaplain can’t find the Palestrina tapes for the Sunday service. And you can’t get anybody to sit with it. And finally you discover that what you have here is this great, big, pink-and-blue rockabye battleship.
    • “See the Moon?”
  • There was no particular point at which I stopped being promising.
    • “See the Moon?”
  • I set out to study cardinals, about whom science knows nothing. It seemed to me that cardinals could be known in the same way we know fishes or roses, by classification and enumeration. A perverse project, perhaps, but who else has embraced this point of view? Difficult nowadays to find a point of view kinky enough to call one’s own, with Sade himself being carried through the streets on the shoulders of sociologists, cheers and shouting, ticker tape unwinding from high windows...
    • “See the Moon?”
  • Too, maybe I was trying on the role. Not for myself. When a child is born, the locus of one’s hopes...shifts, slightly. Not altogether, not all at once. But you feel it, this displacement. You speak up, strike attitudes, like the mother of a tiny Lollabrigida. Drunk with possibility once more.
    • “See the Moon?”