Critique de la Vie Quotidienne
by Donald Barthelme

While I read the Journal of Sensory Deprivation, Wanda, my former wife, read Elle. Elle was an incitement to revolt to one who had majored in French in college and now had nothing much to do with herself except take care of a child and look out of the window. Wanda empathizes with the magazine. "Femmes enceintes, ne mangez pas de bifteck cru!" Elle once proclaimed, and Wanda complied. Not a shred of bifteck cru passed her lips during the whole period of her pregnancy. She cultivated, as Elle instructed, un petit air naiif, or the schoolgirl look. She was always pointing out to me four-color photographs of some handsome restored mill in Brittany which had been redone with Arne Jacobsen furniture and bright red and orange plastic things from Milan: "Une Maison Qui Capte la Nature." During this period Elle ran something like four thousand separate actualité pieces on Anna Karina, the film star, and Wanda actually came to resemble her somewhat.

Our evenings lacked promise. The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise, if you are a married man. There is nothing to do but go home and drink your nine drinks and forget about it.

Slumped there in your favorite chair, with your nine drinks lined up on the side table in soldierly array, and your hand never far from them, and your other hand holding on to the plump belly of the overfed child, and perhaps rocking a bit, if the chair is a rocking chair as mine was in those days, then it is true that a tine tendril of contempt - strike that, content - might curl up from the storehouse where the world's content is kept, and reach into your softened brain and take hold there, persuading you that this, at last, is the fruit of all your labors, which you'd been wondering about in some such terms as, "Where is the fruit?" And so, newly cheered and warmed by this false insight, you reach out with your free hand (the one that is not clutching the nine drinks) and pat the hair of the child, and the child looks up into your face, gauging your mood as it were, and says, "Can I have a horse?", which is after all a perfectly reasonable request, in some ways, but in other ways is total ruin to that state of six-o'clock equilibrium you have so painfully achieved, because it, the child's request, is of course absolutely out of the question, and so you say "No!" as forcefully as possible - a bark rather like a bite - in such a way as to put the quietus on this project, having a horse, once and for all, permanently. But, placing yourself in the child's ragged shoes, which look more like used Brillo pads than shoes now that you regard them closely, you remember that time long ago on the other side of the Great War when you too desired a horse, and so, pulling yourself together, and putting another drink in your mouth (that makes three, I believe), you assume a thoughtful look (indeed, the same grave and thoughtful look you have been wearing all day, to confuse your enemies and armor yourself against the indifference of your friends) and begin to speak to the child softly, gently, cunningly even, explaining that the genus horse prefers the great open voids, where it can roam, and graze, and copulate with other attractive horses, to the confined space of a broken-down brownstone apartment, and that a horse if obtained would not be happy here, in the child's apartment, and does he, the child, want an unhappy horse, moping and brooding, and lying all over the double bed in the bedroom, and perhaps vomiting at intervals, and maybe even kicking down a wall or two, to express its rage? But the child, sensing the way the discussion is trending, says impatiently, with a chop of its tiny little hand, "No, I don't mean that," giving you to understand that it, the child, had not intended what you are arguing against but had intended something else altogether: a horse personally owned by it, the child, but pastured at a stable in the park, a horse such as Otto has - "Otto has a horse?" you say in astonishment - Otto being a schoolfellow of the child, and indeed the same age, and no brighter as far as the naked eye can determine but perhaps a shade more fortunate in the wealth dimension, and the child nods, yes, Otto has a horse, and a film of tears is squeezed out and presented to you, over its eyes, and with liberal amounts of anathematization for Otto's feckless parents and the profound hope that the fall of the market has ruined them beyond repair you push the weeping child with its filmic tears off your lap and onto the floor and turn to your wife, who has been listening to all of this with her face turned to the wall, and no doubt a look upon her face corresponding to that which St. Catherine of Siena bent upon poor Pope Gregory whilst reproaching him for the luxury of Avignon, if you could see it (but of course you cannot, as her face is turned to the wall) - you look, as I say, to your wife, as the cocktail hour fades, there being only two drinks left of the nine (and you have sworn a mighty oath never to take more than nine before supper, because of what it does to you), and inquire in the calmest tones available what is for supper and would she like to take a flying fuck at the moon for visiting this outrageous child upon you. She, rising with a regal sweep of her air naiif, and not failing to let you have a good look at her handsome legs, those legs you could have, if you were good, motors out of the room and into the kitchen, where she throws the dinner on the floor, so that when you enter the kitchen to get some more ice you begin skidding and skating about in a muck of pork chops, squash, sauce diable, Danish stainless-steel flatware, and Louis Martini Mountain Red. So, this being the content of your happy hour, you decide to break your iron-clad rule, that rule of rules, and have eleven drinks instead of the modest nine with which you had been wont to stave off the song of twilight, when the lights are low, and the flickering shadows, etc., etc. But, opening the refrigerator, you discover that the slovely bitch has failed to fill up the ice trays so there is no more ice for your tenth and eleventh sloshes. On discovering this you are just about ready to throw in the entire enterprise, happy home, and go to the bordel for the evening, where at least you can be sure that everyone will be kind to you, and not ask you for a horse, and the floor will not be a muck of sauce diable and pork chops. But when you put your hand in your pocket you discover that there are only three dollars there - not enough to cover a sortie to the bordel, where Master Charge is not accepted, so that the entire scheme, going to the bordel, is blasted. Upon making these determinations, which are not such as to bring the hot flush of excitement to the old cheek, you measure out your iceless over-the-limit drinks, using a little cold water as a make-do, and return to what is called the "living" room, and prepare to live, for a little while longer in a truce with your circumstances - aware that there are wretches worse off than you, people whose trepanations have not been successful, girls who have not been invited to the sexual revolution, priests still frocked. It is seven-thirty.

I remember once we were sleeping in a narrow bed, Wand and I, in a hotel, on a holiday, and the child crept into bed with us. "If you insist on overburdening the bed," we said, "you must sleep at the bottom, with the feet." "But I don't want to sleep with the feet" the child said. "Sleep with the feet," we said, "they won't hurt you." "The feet kick," the child said, "in the middle of the night." "The feet or the floor," we said. "Take your choice." "Why can't I sleep with the heads," the child asked, "like everybody else?" "Because you are a child," we said, and the child subsided, whimpering, the final arguments int he case having been presented and the verdict in. But in truth the child was not without recourse, it urinated in the bed, in the vicinity of the feet. "God damn it," I said, inventing this formulation at the instant of need. "What the devil is happing, at the bottom of the bed?" "I couldn't help it," the child said. "It just came out." "I forgot to bring the plastic sheet," Wanda said. "Holy hell," I said. "Is there to be no end to this family life?"
I spoke to the child and the child spoke to me and the merest pleasantry trembled with enough animus to bring down an elephant.
"Clean your face," I said to the child. "It's dirty." "It's not," the child said. "By God it is," I said, "filth adheres in ine areas which I shall enumerate." "That is because of the dough," the child said. "We were taking death masks." "Dough!" I exclaimed, shocked at the idea that the child had wasted flour and water and no doubt paper too in this lightsome pastime, taking death masks. "Death!" I exclaimed for added emphasis. "What do you know of death?" "It is the end of the world," the child said, "for the death-visited individual. The world ends," the child said, "when you turn out your eyes." This was true, I could not dispute it. I returned to the main point. "Your father is telling you to wash your face," I said, locating myself in the abstract where I was more comfortable. "I know that," the child said, "that's what you always say." "Where are they, the masks?" I asked. "Drying," the child said, "on the heaterator"- its word for radiator. I then went to the place were the heaterator stood and looked. Sure enough, four tiny life masks. My child and three of its tiny friends lay there, grinning. "Who taught you how to do this?" I asked, and the child said, "We learned it in school." I cursed the school then, in my mind. It was not the first time I had cursed the school, in my mind. "Well, what will you do with them?" I asked, demonstrating an interest in childish projects. "Hang them on the wall?" the child suggested. "Yes, yes, hang them on the wall, why not?" I said. "Intimations of mortality," the child said, with a sly look. "Why the look?" I asked. "What is that supposed to mean?" "Ho ho," the child said, sniggering - a palpable snigger. "Why the snigger?" I asked, for the look in combination with the snigger had struck fear into my heart, a place where no more fear was needed. "You'll find out," the child said, testing the masks with a dirty finger to determine if they had dried. "I'll find out!" I exclaimed. "What does that mean, I'll find out?" "You'll be sorry," the child said, with a piteous glance at itself, in the mirror. But I was ahead of him, I was already sorry. "Sorry!" I cried, "I've been sorry all my life!" "Not without reason," the child said, a wise look replacing the piteous look. I am afraid that a certain amount of physical abuse of the child ensued. But I shall not recount it, because of the shame.


"You can have the seven years," I said to Wanda. "What seven years?" Wanda asked. "The seven years by which you will, statistically, outlive me," I said. "Those years will be yours, to do with as you wish. Not a word of reproof or critique will you hear from me, during those years. I promise." "I cannot wait," she said. I remember Wanda in the morning. Up in the morning reading the Times I was walked past by Wanda, already sighing although not thirty seconds out of bed. At night I drank and my hostility came roaring out of its cave like a jet-assisted banshee. When we played checkers I'd glare at her so hotly she'd often miss a triple jump.

I remember that I fixed the child's bicycle, once. That brought me congratulations, around the fireside. That was a good, a fatherly thing to do. It was a cheap bicycle, 29.95$ or some such, and the seat wobbled and the mother came home from the park with the bicycle in an absolute fury because the child was being penalized by my penury, in the matter of the seat. "I will fix it," I said. i went to the hardware store and bought a two-and-one-half-inch piece of pipe which I used as a collar around the seat's stem to accommodate the downward thrust. Then I affixed a flexible metal strap about eight inches in length to the back of the seat and then to the chief upright, by means of screws. This precluded side-to-side motion of the seat. A triumph of field expediency. Everyone was loving and kind that night. The child brought me my nine drinks very prettily, setting them on the side table and lining them up with the aid of a meterstick, into a perfect straight line. "Thank you," I aid. We beamed at each other contesting as to who could maintain the beam the longest.
I visited the child's nursery school once. Fathers were invited seriatim, one father a day. I sat there on a little chair while the children ran to and fro and made sport. I was served a little cake. A tiny child not my own attached herself to me. Her father was in England, she said. She had visited him there and his apartment was full of cockroaches. I wanted to take her home with me.

After the separation, which came about after what is known as the breaking point was reached, Wanda visited me in my bachelor setup. We were drinking healths. "Health to the child!" I proposed. Wanda lifted her glass. "Health to your projects!" she proposed, and I was pleased. That seemed very decent of her. I lifted my glass. "Health to the republic!" I proposed. We drank to that. Then Wanda proposed a health. "Health to abandoned wives!" she said. "Well now," I said. "'Abandoned,' that's a little strong." "Pushed out, jettisoned, abjured, thrown away," she said. "I remember," I said, "a degree of mutuality, in our parting." "And when guests came," she said, "you always made me sit in the kitchen." "I thought you liked it in the kitchen," I said. "You were forever telling me to get out of the bloody kitchen." "And when my overbite required correction," she said, "you would not pay for the apparatus." "Seven years of sitting by the window with your thumb in your mouth," I said. "What did you expect?" "And when I needed a new frock," she said, "you hid the Master Charge." "There was nothing wrong with the old one," I said, "that a few well-placed patches couldn't have fixed." "And when we were invited to the Argentine Embassy," she said, "you made me drive the car in a chauffeur's cap, and park the car, and stand about with the other drivers outside while you chatted up the Ambassador." "You know no Spanish," I pointed out. "It was not the happiest of marriages," she said, "all in all." "There has been a sixty percent increase in single-person households in the last ten years, according to the Bureau of the Census," I told her. "Perhaps we are part of a trend." That thought did not seem to console her much. "Health to the child!" I proposed, and she said, "We've already done that." "Health to the mother of the child!" I said, and she said, "I'll drink to that." To tell the truth we were getting a little wobbly on our pins, at this point. "It is probably not necessary to rise each time," I said, and she said, "Thank God," and sat. I looked at her then to see if I could discern traces of what I had seen int he beginning. There were traces but only traces. Vestiges. Hints of a formerly intact mystery never to be returned to its original wholeness. "I know what you're doing," she said, "you are touring the ruins." "Not at all," I said. "You look very well, considering." "Considering!" she cried, and withdrew from her bosom an extremely large horse pistol. "Health to the dead!" she proposed, meanwhile waving the horse pistol in the air in an agitated manner. I drank that health, but with misgivings, because who was she talking about? "The sacred dead," she said with relish. "The well-beloved, the well-esteemed, the well-remembered, the well-ventilated." She attempted to ventilate me then, with the horse pistol. The barrel wavered to the right of my head, and to the left of my head, and I remember that although its guidance system was primitive its caliber was large. The weapon discharged with a blurt of sound and the ball smashed a bottle of J&B on the mantel. She wept. The place stank of scotch. I called her a cab.

Wanda is happier now, I think. She has taken herself off to Nanterre, where she is studying Marxist sociology with Lefebvre (not impertinently, the author of the Critique de la Vie Quotidienne). The child is being cared for in an experimental nursery school for the children of graduate students run, I understand, in accord with the best Piagetian principles. And I, I have my J&B. The J&B company keeps manufacturing it, case after case, year in and year out, and there is, i am told, no immediate danger of a dearth.

"Critique de la Vie Quotidienne"
is from Sadness. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

Copyright (c) 1996-2013 The Estate of Donald Barthelme, reprinted with permission