The Party
by Donald Barthelme

I went to a party and corrected a pronunciation. The man whose voice I had adjusted fell back into the kitchen. I praised a Bonnard. It was not a Bonnard. My new glasses, I explained, and I'm terribly sorry, but significant variations elude me, vodka exhausts me, I was young once, essential services are being maintained. Drums, drums, drums, outside the windows. I thought that if I could persuade you to say "No," then my own responsibility would be limited, or changed, another sort of life would be possible, different from the life we had previously, somewhat skeptically, enjoyed together. But you had wandered off into another room, testing the effect on members of the audience of your ruffled blouse, your long magenta skirt. Giant hands, black, thick with fur, reaching in through the window. Yes, it was King Kong, back in action, and all of the guests uttered loud exclamations of fatigue and disgust, examining the situation in the light of their own needs and emotions, hoping that the ape was real or papier-mache according to their temperments, or wondering whether other excitements were possible out in the crisp, white night.

"Did you see him?"

"Let us pray."

The important tasks of a society are often entrusted to people who have fatal flaws. Of course we tried hard, it was intelligent to do so, extraordinary efforts were routine. Your zest was, and is, remarkable. But carrying over into private life attitudes that have been successful in the field of public administration is not, perhaps, a good idea. Zest is not fun for everybody. I am aware that roles change. Kong himself is now an adjunct professor of art history at Rutgers, co-author of a text on tomb scupture; if he chooses to come to a party through the window he is simply trying to make himself interesting. A lady spoke to me, she had in her hand a bunch of cattleyas. "I have attempted to be agreeable," she said, "but it's like teaching iron to swim, with this group." Zest is not fun for everybody. When whippoorwills called, you answered. And then I would go out, with the lantern, up and down the streets, knocking on doors, asking perfect strangers if they had seen you. OK. That is certainly one way of doing it. This is not a complaint. But wouldn't it be better to openly acknowledge your utter reliance on work, on specific, carefully formulated directions, agreeing that, yes, a certain amount of anesthesia is derived from what other people would probably think of as some kind of career? Excel if you want, but remember that there are gaps. You told me that you had thought, as a young girl, that masturbation was "only for men." Couldn't you be mistaken about other things, too?

The two sisters were looking at the television in the bedroom, on the bed, amidst the coats and hats, umbrellas, airline bags. I gave them each a drink and we watched the game together, the Osservatore Romano team vs. the Diet of Worms, Worms leading by six points. I had never seen khaki-colored punch before. The hostess said there would be word games afterward, some of the people outside would be invited in, peasant food would be served in big wooden bowls -- wine, chicken, olive oil, bread. Everything would improve, she said. I could still hear, outside, the drums; whistles had been added, and there were both whistles and drums. I was surprised. The present era, with its emphasis on emotional cost control as well as its insistent, almost annoying lucidity, does not favor splinter groups, because they can't win. Small collective manifestations are OK insofar as they show "stretch marks" -- traces of strain which tend to establish that public policy is not a smooth, seamless achievement, like an egg, but has rather been hacked out at some cost to the policymakers. Kong got to his feet. "Louise loves me," he said, pointing to a girl, "but I would rather sleep with Cynthia Garmonsway. It's just one of those things. Human experience is different, in some ways, from ape experience, but that doesn't mean I don't like perfumed nights, too." I know what he means. The mind carries you with it, away from what you are supposed to do, toward things that cannot be explained rationally, toward difficulty, lack of clarity, late-afternoon light.

"Francesca. Do you want to go?"

"I want to stay."

Now the sisters have begun taking their interminable showers, both bathrooms are tied up, I must either pretend not to know them or accept the blame. In the larger rooms tender fawns and pinks have replaced the earlier drab, sad colors. I noticed that howls and rattles had been added to the whistles and drums. Is it some kind of revolution? Maybe a revolution in taste, as when Mannerism was overthrown by the Baroque. Kong is being curried by Cynthia Garmonsway. She holds the steel curry comb in her right hand and pulls it gently through the dark thick fur. Cynthia formerly believed in the "enormous diversity of things"; now she believes in Kong. The man whose pronunciation I had corrected emerged from the kitchen. "Probably it is music," he said, nodding at the windows, "the new music, which we older men are too old to understand.

You, of course, would never say such a thing to me, but you have said worse things. You told me that Kafka was not a thinker, and that a "genetic" approach to his work would disclose that much of it was only a kind of very imaginative whining. That was during the period when you were going in for wrecking operations, feeling, I suppose, that the integrity of your own mental processes was best maintained by a series of strong, unforgiving attacks. You made quite an impression on everyone, in those days: you ruffled blouse, you long magenta skirt slit to the knee, the dagger thrust into your boot. "Is that a metaphor?" I asked, pointing to the dagger; you shook your head, smiled, said no. Now that you have had a change of heart, now that you have joined us in finding Kafka and Kleist, too, the awesome figures that we have agreed that they are, the older faculty are more comfortable with you, are ready to promote you, marry you, even if that is your wish. But you don't have to make up your mind tonight.

Relax and enjoy the party, to the extent that it is possible to do so; it is not over yet. THe game has ended, a news program has begun. "Emerald mines in the northwest have been nationalized." A number of young people standing in a meadow, holding hands, singing. Can the life of the time be caught in an advertisement? Is that how it is, really, in the meadows of the world?

And where are all the new people I have come here to meet? I have met only a lost child, dressed in rags, real rags, holding an iron hook attached to a fifty-foot rope. I said, "What is that for?" The child said nothing, placed the hook quietly on the floor at my feet, opened a bottle and swallowed twenty aspirin. Is six too young for a suicide attempt? We fed her milk, induced vomiting, the police arrived within minutes. When one has spoken a lot one has already used up all of the ideas one has. You must change the people you are speaking to so that you appear, to yourself, to be still alive. But the people here don't look new; they look like emerald-mine owners, or proprietors of some other sector of the economy that something bad has just happened to. I'm afraid that going up to them and saying "Travel light!", with a smile, will not really lift their spirits. Why am I called upon to make them happier, when it is so obviously beyond my competence? Francesca, you have selected the wrong partner, in me. You made a mistake a long time ago. I am not even sure that I like you now. But it is true that I cannot stop thinking about you, that every small daily problem -- I will never be elected to the academy, Richelieu is against me and d'Alembert is lukewarm -- is examined in the light of your possible reaction, or displeasure. At one moment you say the Academy is a joke, at another you are working industriously to sway Webster to my cause. Damned capricious! In the silence, an alphorn sounds. THen the noise again, drums, whistles, howls, rattles, alphorns. Attendants place heavy purple veils or shroudes over statuary, chairs, the buffet table, members of the orchestra. People are clustered in front of the bathroom holding the fine deep-piled towels, vying to dry the beautiful sisters. The towels move sensuously over the beautiful surfaces. I too could be excited by this tissue.

Dear Francesca, tell me, is this a successful party, in your view? Is this the best we can do? I know that you have always wanted to meet Kong; now that you have met him and he has said whatever he has said to you (I saw you smiling), can we go home? I mean you to your home, me to my home, all these others to their own homes, cells, cages? I am feeling a little ragged. What made us think that we could escape things like bankruptcy, alcoholism, being disappointed, haing children. Say "No," refuse me once and for all, let me try something else. Of course we did everything right, insofar as we were able to imagine what "right" was. Is is really important to know that this movie is fine, and that one terrible, and to talk intelligently about the difference? Wonderful elegance! No good at all!

"The Party" is from 
Sadness .

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

thanks to Julianne for typing it!