by Donald Barthelme


MILAN, Tenn., Feb. 14 (AP)--The Army is planning to freeze to death three million or so blackbirds that took up residence two years ago at the Milan Arsenal.

Paul Lefebvre of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is also working on the plan, said yesterday that the birds would be sprayed with two chemicals, resulting in a rapid loss of body heat. This will be done on a night with sub-freezing temperatures, he said.

There is an elementary school, P.S. 421, across the street from my building. The board of education is busing children from the bad areas of the city to P.S. 421 (our area is thought to be a good area) and busing children from P.S. 421 to schools in the bad areas, in order to achieve racial balance in the schools. The parents of the P.S. 421 children do not like this very much, but they are all good citizens and feel it must be done. The parents of the children in the bad areas may not like it much, either, having their children so far from home, but they too probably feel that the process makes somehow for a better education. Every morning the green buses arrive in front of the school, some bringing black and Puerto Rican children to P.S. 421 and others taking the local, mostly white, children away. Presiding over all this is the loadmaster.

The loadmaster is a heavy, middle-aged white woman, not fat but heavy, who wears a blue cloth coat and a scarf around her head and carries a clipboard. She gets the children into and out of the buses, briskly, briskly, shouting, "Let's go, let's go, let's go!" She has a voice that is louder than the voices of forty children. She gets a bus filled up, gives her clipboard a fast once-over, and sends the driver on his way: "O.K., Jose." The bus has been parked in the middle of the street, and there is a long line of hungup cars behind it, unable to pass, their drivers blowing their horns impatiently. When the drivers of these cars honk their horns too vigorously, the loadmaster steps away from the bus and yells at them in a voice louder than fourteen stacked-up drivers blowing their horns all at once: "Keep your pants on!" Then to the bus driver: "O.K., Jose." As the bus starts off, she stands back and gives it an authoritative smack on its rump (much like a coach sending a fresh player into the game) as it passes. Then she waves the stacked-up drivers on their way, one authoritative wave for each driver. She is making authoritative motions long after there is any necessity for it.

My grandfather once fell in love with a dryad -- a wood nymph who lives in trees and to whom trees are sacred and who dances around trees clad in fine leaf-green tutu and who carries a great silver-shining ax to whack anybody who does any kind of thing inimical to the well-being and mental health of trees. My grandfather was at that time in the lumber business.

It was during the Great War. He'd got an order for a million board feet of one-by-ten of the very poorest quality, to make barracks out of for the soldiers. The specifications called for the dark red sap to be running off it in buckets and for the warp on it to be like the tops of waves in a distressed sea and for the knotholes in it to be the size of an intelligent man's head for the cold wind to whistle through and toughen up the (as they were then called) doughboys.

My grandfather headed for East Texas. He had the timber rights to ten thousand acres there, Southern yellow pine of the loblolly family. It was third-growth scrub and slash and shoddy--just the thing for soldiers. Couldn't be beat. So he and his men set up operations and first crack out of the box they were surrounded by threescore of lovely dryads and hamadryads all clad in fine leaf-green tutus and waving great silver-shining axes.

"Well now," my grandfather said to the head dryad, "wait a while, wait a while, somebody could get hurt."

"That is for sure," says the girl, and she shifts her ax from her left hand to her right hand.

"I thought you dryads were indigenous to oak," says my grandfather, "this here is pine."

"Some like the ancient tall-standing many-branched oak," says the girl, "and some the white-slim birch, and some take what they can get, and you will look mighty funny without any legs on you."

"Can we negotiate," says my grandfather, "it's for the War, and you are the loveliest thing I ever did see, and what is your name?"

"Megwind," says the girl, "and also Sophie. I am Sophie in the night and Megwind in the day and I make fine whistling ax-music night or day and without legs for walking your life's journey will be a pitiable one."

"Well Sophie," says my grandfather, "let us sit down under this tree here and open a bottle of this fine rotgut here and talk the thing over like reasonable human beings."

"Do not use my night-name in the light of day," says the girl, "and I am not a human being and there is nothing to talk over and what type of rotgut is it you have there?"

"It is Teamster's Early Grave," says my grandfather, "and you'll cover many a mile before you find the beat of it."

"I will have one cupful," says the girl, "and my sisters will each have one cupful, and then we will dance around this tree while you still have legs for dancing and they you will go away and your men also."

"Drink up," says my grandfather, "and know that of all the women I have interfered with in my time you are the absolute top woman."

"I am not a woman," says Megwind, "I am a spirit, although the form of the thing is misleading I will admit."

"Wait a while," says my grandfather, "you mean that no type of mutual interference between us of a physical nature is possible?"

"That is a thing I could do," says the girl, "if I chose."

"Do you choose?" asks my grandfather, "and have another wallop."

"That is a thing I will do," says the girl, and she has another wallop.

"And a kiss," says my grandfather, "would that be possible do you think?"

"That is a thing I could do," says the dryad, "you are not the least prepossessing of men and men have been scarce in these parts in these years, the trees being as you see mostly scrub, slash, and shoddy."

"Megwind," says my grandfather, "you are beautiful."

"You are taken with my form which I admit is beautiful," says the girl, "but know that this form you see is not necessary but contingent, sometimes I am a fine brown-speckled egg and sometimes I am an escape of steam from a hole in the ground and sometimes I am an armadillo."

"That is amazing," says my grandfather, "a shape-shifter are you."

"That is a thing I could do," says Megwind, "if I choose."

"Tell me," says my grandfather, "could you change yourself into one million board feet of one-by-ten of the very poorest quality neatly stacked in railroad cars on a siding outside of Fort Riley, Kansas?"

"That is a thing I could do," says the girl, "but I do not see the beauty of it."

"The beauty of it," says my grandfather, "is two cents a board foot."

"What is the quid pro quo?", asks the girl.

"You mean spirits engage in haggle?" asks my grandfather.

"Nothing from nothing, nothing for nothing, that is a law of life," says the girl.

"The quid pro quo," says my grandfather, "is that me and my men will leave this here scrub, slash, and shoddy standing. All you have to do is to be made into barracks for the soldiers and after the War you will be torn down and can fly away home."

"Agreed," says the dryad, "but what about this interference of a physical nature you mentioned earlier? For the sun is falling down and soon I will be Sophie and human men have been scarce in these parts for ever so damn long."

"Sophie," says my grandfather, "you are as lovely as light and let me just fetch another bottle from the truck and I will be at your service."

This is not really how it went. I am fantasizing. Actually, he just plain cut down the trees.

I was on an operating table. My feet were in sterile bags. My hands and arms were wrapped in sterile towels. A sterile bib covered my beard. A giant six-eyed light was shining in my eyes. I closed my eyes. There was a doctor on the right side of my head and a doctor on the left side of my head. The doctor on the right was my doctor. The doctor on the left was studying the art. He was Chinese, the doctor on the left. My doctor spoke to the nurse who was handing him tools. "Rebecca! You're not supposed to be holding conversations with the circulating nurse, Rebecca. You're supposed to be watching me, Rebecca!" We had all gathered here in this room to cut out part of my upper lip, into which a basal-cell malignancy had crept.

In my mind, the basal-cell malignancy resembled a tiny truffle.

"Most often occurs in sailors and farmers," the doctor had told me. "The sun." But I, I sit under General Electric light, mostly. "We figure you can lose up to a third of it, the lip, without a bad result," the doctor had told me. "There's a lot of stretch." He had demonstrated upon his own upper lip, stretching it with his two forefingers. The doctor a large handsome man with silver spectacles. In my hospital room, I listened to my Toshiba transistor, Randy Newman singing "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield." I was waiting for the morning, for the operation. A friendly Franciscan entered in his brown robes. "Why is it that in the space under 'Religion' on your form you entered 'None'?" he asked in a friendly way. I considered the question. I rehearsed for him my religious history. We discussed the distinguishing characteristics of the various religious orders--the Basilians, the Capuchins. Recent outbreaks of Enthusiasm among the Dutch Catholics were touched upon. "Rebecca!" the doctor said, in the operating room. "Watch me, Rebecca!"

I had been given a morphine shot along with various locals in the lip. I was feeling very good! The Franciscan had lived in the Far East for a long time. I too had been in the Far East. The Army band had played, as we climbed the ramp into the hold of the troopship, "Bye Bye Baby, Don't Forget That You're My Baby." "We want a good result," my original doctor had said, "because of the prominence of the--" He pointed to my upper lip. "So I'm sending you to a good man." This seemed sensible. I opened my eyes. The bright light. "Give me a No. 10 blade," the doctor said. "Give me a No. 15 blade." Something was certainly going on there, above my teeth. "Gently, gently," my doctor said to his colleague. The next morning a tiny Thai nurse came in bringing me orange juice, orange Jell-O, and an orange broth. "Is there any pain?" she asked.

My truffle was taken to the pathologist for examination. I felt the morphine making me happy. I thought: What a beautiful hospital.

A handsome nurse from Jamaica came in. "Now you put this on," she said, handing me a wrinkled white garment without much back to it. "No socks. No shorts."

No shorts!

I climbed onto a large moving bed and was wheeled to the operating table, where the doctors were preparing themselves for the improvement of my face. My doctor invited the Chinese doctor to join him in a scrub. I was eating my orange Jell-O, my orange broth. My wife called and said that she had eaten a superb Beef Wellington for diner, along with a good bottle. Every time I smiled the stitches jerked tight.

I was standing outside the cashier's window. I had my pants on and was feeling very dancy. "Udbye!" I said. "Hank you!"

* * *

I went to a party. I saw a lady I knew. "Hello!" I said. "Are you pregnant?" She was wearing what appeared to be maternity clothes.

"No," she said, "I am not."


But where are you today?

Probably out with your husband for a walk. He has written another beautiful poem, and needs the refreshment of the air. I admire him. Everything he does is successful. He is wanted for lectures in East St. Louis, at immense fees. I admire him, but my admiration for you is... Do you think he has noticed? What foolishness! It is as obvious as a bumper sticker, as obvious as an abdication.

Your Royal Canadian Mounted Police hat set squarely across the wide white brow...

Your white legs touching each other, under the banquet table...

Probably you are walking with your husband in SoHo, seeing what the new artists are refusing to do there, in their quest for a scratch to start from.

The artists regard your brown campaign hat, your white legs. "Holy God!" they say, and return to their lofts.

I have spent many message units seeking your voice, but I always get Frederick instead.

"Well, Frederick," I ask cordially, "what amazing triumphs have you accomplished today?"

He has been offered a sinecure at Stanford and a cenotaph at CCNY. Bidding for world rights to his breath has begun at $500,000.

But I am wondering--

When you placed your hand on my napkin, at the banquet, did that mean anything?

When you smashed in the top of my soft-boiled egg for me, at the banquet, did that indicate that I might continue to hope?

I will name certain children after you. (People often ask my advice about naming things.) It will be suspicious, so many small Philippas popping up in our city, but the pattern will become visible only with the passage of time, and in the interval, what satisfaction!

I cannot imagine the future. You have not made your intentions clear, if indeed you have any. Now you are climbing aboard a great ship, and the hawsers are being loosed, and the flowers in the cabins arranged, and the dinner gong sounded....

"Departures" is from 40 Stories

Copyright (c) 1996-2004 The Estate of Donald Barthelme, reprinted with permission