The Discreet Charms of the Literati
By: Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue
I couldn’t quite catch what Carmen had said. The wind had blown her words away. I could almost see the scrambled letters, flitting between an all natural food store and a Big Tex Burger franchise.
“I said my favorite story is by Donald Barthelme, about saving Robert Kennedy from drowning. He’s from Houston, too. Like you.”
“Oh, yeah, I heard of that story, but I’ve never read it. I read Cinderella in grad school. It was cool. Kinda funny.”
We stopped at the corner of 27th and Guadalupe. Above us wisps of low-ceiling clouds scudded across the sky, absolutely Platonic in its blueness, while one blood-red balloon sped just below tree-top level seemingly on a race to Town Lake.
I nodded left. “A stroll down the Drag?”
“Sure,” Carmen nodded.
As we crossed Guadalupe, Carmen went on, talking over the Drag’s ambient street noise, “You see it’s about Robert Kennedy, but you only know that from the title. Barthelme doesn’t use his name, just his initial.”
Which one, I wondered, R, F, or K? Not wanting to interrupt Carmen’s dulcet drone, I decided it was better not to ask.
We were heading south down the Drag. It was Saturday. As always during the fall, alums were out in force, sporting mirrored sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts, their minds on their good ol’ salad days: Bevo, Longhorn football, skinny dipping in Hippie Hollow or lying they had. While today’s students walked fast, head-down, stressed-out, obsessed with where they were going to get their next meal, next lover, next happy fix.
“You see, nothing really happens in the story. It’s just a collage of 24 observations, a pastiche of metafictional fragmented realia, if you will, about Kennedy or about people’s conception of him. But at the end of the story, Robert Kennedy is out swimming. The weather suddenly turns, and he begins to drown. Then the writer all of a sudden appears in the story, like a deus ex machina out of nowhere, throws a rope, and saves him. And get this, all Bobby can say afterwards, is, ‘Thank you.’”
Once Carmen finished, I basked in her most radiant, literati smile, reveling in all of Carmen’s je ne sais quoi.
“Do you know Lisa Silver?” I asked.
“I’ve heard of her. Don’t know her, really. Used to see her hanging around Chez Nous. She’s in the MFA program at U of H, right?”
“Yeah, we’re kinda friends now. I met her through Goldblum. She used to be his best student. Anyway, she was telling me that when she was an intern in Congress she was in an elevator at the Capitol and who but Teddy Kennedy got on. He was standing facing the elevator door with his back to her. And she didn’t want to have the thought, but she really couldn’t help herself. She realized that if she had a gun she could shoot him, and that would be the end of the Kennedy dynasty.”
Carmen laughed. “Too funny . . .”
Then out of no where, there was a scream, and then, multiple ones, all at once. Our heads turned in unison. Across the street, on the West Mall, women with head scarves dressed in dark clothes that covered them from neck to toe let out anguished cries and god-awful shrieks. We saw a group of them move toward us in fits and starts. Intermittently, they huddled together, hugging each other, but in between they were screaming, crying, speaking loudly in their tongue with its emphatic spitting out of consonants and uvular trill of vowels. Carmen and I exchanged looks of total befuddlement.
“They’ve been demonstrating in front of The Union, you know, against Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and. . . ” Carmen said, her voice trailing off.
Now they began to move toward us, so close we could see their tear-stained cheeks, notice the gut-wrenching pain in their unironic faces. Something had definitely gone down. Now a few of the women stopped, began to actually flail at their chests. Never in real life had I seen anything like this, only in documentaries about professional mourners in some godforsaken hellholes. Honestly, I was thinking, what has Austin been transformed into – some third-world country?
Carmen’s dark eyes dilated. She looked like a trapped animal ready for fight or flight. She wasn’t made for this. A daughter of two professors, she was made for subtle ironies, light satire, intelligent conversation over wine or cappuccinos. So without a word, I took her hand. She didn’t bother to ask where we were going, which was good because I had no idea.
In front of us, a flight of pigeons, their iridescent green and purple necks bobbing, took wing as we jogged through their lice-filled flutterings. Halfway down the block, we still heard the women’s intermittent screams echoing against storefronts.
“Come on, let’s cross the street.” I shouted.
We dashed east across Guadalupe, just dodging two sweaty cyclists. Then we ran all the way to Parlin Hall where we found a bench, in fact, the perfect university, pastoral bench enveloped by shade from one venerable oak.
We collapsed on it, out of breath, giggling like children. After a few minutes, we calmed down. Then looked at each other, our faces absolutely beaming, out of range of crying, out of earshot of screams. Safe from the boringly unironic.
The next morning I was to meet Goldblum and Lydia at Kirby Lane for brunch. While I waited outside, some aged beat personage with a graying goatee and laughable beret on – God, do they still make those? – was bitching about crowds in the once small, peaceful Austin of Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb. Blah, blah, blah. Then he opened up his Sunday Austin American-Statesman, and I could not help but notice a below-the-fold headline about a massacre at some Lebanese refugee camps.
Well, mystery solved, I thought. That’s what those unfashionably covered-up women were all going on and on about. I’ll need to remember to tell Carmen. Then Goldblum came sans Lydia. And he was in especially good humor, explaining all the whys and wherefores of his alone status, and I immediately forgot all about faraway doings.