Book Review: There Must Be Some Mistake, by Frederick Barthelme (2014)

I first read Frederick Barthelme’s short stories in the New Yorker many years ago. I was captivated by them. He painted pictures of ordinary people in ordinary situations. Although they were fiction, they seemed to be gently commenting on middle-class society in the 1970s. It was fine with me if there were no gripping plots or twists to the storylines. I loved his writing.

I was so happy to rediscover Barthelme and this novel was a great welcome-back present. Like the protagonist, Wallace Webster, I am recently retired and still feeling my way through unstructured days, learning not to get up at the crack of dawn for work, and still adjusting to not being part of a workplace. I can relate to Wallace in that respect, except I’m not a night owl the way he is. Like him, though, moving away from my former community and retiring has meant a change in the way I socialize and learn to make new friends. Breaking into new social situations is markedly different in one’s fifties compared to one’s twenties. Happy hours, volleyball games, and loud music are replaced by dinners with other couples, midmorning coffee dates, and long walks.

Wallace’s awkward forays into a new social environment are the focus of the book. A series of strange events in his neighborhood is merely the backdrop against which this adjustment plays out. I found that I cared more deeply for the characters than finding out the causes of those unsettling events. Just as in those early short stories, these are ordinary people dealing with ordinary issues: annoying homeowners associations, nosy neighbors, aging, loss, insecurity.

The reader is either privy to Wallace’s first-person thoughts as he navigates both old and new relationships and tries to make them all mesh together, or we are treated to delightful dialogue among the various characters that ranges from playful banter to rapid-fire interviews to sarcastic commentaries. Barthelme adds so much detail to these conversations, which include nuances in speech and mannerisms that probably were carefully captured and curated over the years.

I imagine Barthelme as a patient and careful observer and listener, going everyday to his favorite coffee shop to eavesdrop on the simplest of stories, collecting and storing them for later. It’s a nice image to have of a writer whom I admire, even if it’s not accurate. Maybe it’s what I hope for myself some day as a writer. I’m looking forward to catching up on several decades of his books.

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April 5, 1968

Fifty years have passed since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was young, but the anxiety and upset of that time have been seared into memory, influencing me in so many ways. My father remembered 1968 as a time of near anarchy when society was splitting apart over the coming election, the Vietnam War, racial issues, and civil rights.

Let me set the stage. We moved to Washington, D.C., because my father was offered a job as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. We lived in the Southwest quadrant of the city, then called “New Southwest.” Before the 1960s, this part of town had become rundown and impoverished, thus making it a target for urban renewal. The mainly black residents were displaced to other parts of the city, homes and buildings razed, and thus began a great experiment.

The new brutalist concrete, glass, and aluminum-trimmed apartments and townhomes became populated by mostly white, young professionals and families who had also moved to Washington, either as part of the government or in support of the growing government-centric economy.  Delaware Avenue separated us from the remaining housing projects, a world very different from mine.

There were three elementary schools within only a mile or so of each other. Syphax and Bowen served the children in the projects to the east of us. Amidon served New Southwest. The racial divides between the three were starkly obvious. Recognizing the need to remedy this inequity, my father and some others convinced the school board to pool resources and Tri-School was born: 1st and 2nd grade in Syphax, 3rd and 4th grade in Amidon, and 5th and 6th in Bowen.

The plan was for black and white children to learn together and for black and white teachers to learn from each other. Some white parents, however, soon pulled their children out of public school or moved away. By the time I was in 4th grade, I was one of only a few white children in my classroom.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on the evening of April 4th. On April 5th, we went to school as usual, but then the city erupted in violence and fire. At some point during the day, our teacher, Evelyn Smith, pulled us all into a close circle around her and told us that Dr. King had been killed. She then gently told us that school was closing and we were to go home for our safety because people were angry. There were tears and nervous chattering.

She then said that all the white students were going to be driven home by the teachers because blacks were very angry at whites. My friend Malcolm, the wisecracking goofball of the class and a resident of the neighboring projects, swaggered over and said, “That’s all right, Mrs. Smith, I’ll walk ‘Lizabeth home–I gotta knife!” after which he quickly whipped it out of his pocket. Not missing a beat, Mrs. Smith replied, “Umm, that’s OK, Malcolm, we’ll take her home.” It was not a time for admonishment.

At home, my brother and I watched the city burn from his third-floor bedroom. It was fascinating and frightening all at once. Our family did not own a car back then, but later that day we were whisked out of the house by a friend who drove us to his home in Bowie. As we traveled out of the city eastward to the suburbs, we could see the fires and smoke rising to the west.

Thinking back to that time, it occurred to me that the lives of the black children were in just as much danger as those of the white kids on that awful day, if not more so. Some had to walk several blocks toward burning neighborhoods, by themselves. Some probably had no parent at home waiting for them. Being that young, they were not prepared to protect themselves from the rioting.

The following month, the Poor People’s Campaign set up Resurrection City, populated by thousands of poor Southern blacks who came to Washington to lobby for their economic rights–better jobs, higher wages, safer communities. It rained constantly for weeks that spring, and the encampment became flooded and mired in mud. Despite the conditions, my father insisted that we go and visit with the poor; it was important to him that I witnessed this moment in history.

In the years that followed, we white kids endured backlashes from the project kids. I was mugged once and had my glasses stolen, a gang of boys threw rocks at our house one evening, and one afternoon I was chased home by a large group of kids who began screaming at me “Hey, white girl!” after I was caught walking home alone. I learned to run fast that year.

We had a tall peach tree in the back patio. Every spring, the project kids would raid it in plain sight, climbing the tree and stealing almost all of the ripe fruit. “Forget about it,” my father said, “they need it more than we do.” After four years, we, too, moved away.

I’ve wondered about my classmates over the years, hoping they survived being poor and black and going on to much better lives than the ones they endured as children. The Black Lives Matter and Showing Up For Racial Justice movements have brought my past experience into even sharper focus. Despite my upbringing in a household where fighting for social justice was modeled every day while I was a child, I still have never understood what it is like to be black. Despite the hard work of the civil rights movement, some things have not changed.

I have taken my whiteness for granted. I have never had to worry about how to act in the presence of police. I’ve never been watched carefully as I browse for items in a store. I’ve never been ignored while trying to order a meal. I can’t imagine moving about in the world ever mindful that someone might decide that I looked suspicious or that I didn’t belong there–isn’t that what living under an authoritarian regime is like?

Friday Nights

Skipping down the sidewalk ahead of our parents on the way to temple, innocence.

Pizza and music with good friends, maybe some Frisbee in the dark, elation.

Loud parties, immersed in new wave, blues, and rockabilly, reckless.

Wine and cheese and light jazz and lively conversation, loneliness.

Candles and challah and card games and reading, satisfaction.

Football games and marching bands, shivering, selflessness.

Waiting past midnight for the sound of the front door opening, trusting.

Savoring the quiet after the evening news, smiles and bursts of laughter, fulfillment.

 

Feeling Philatelic

When I left full-time employment, I set some long-term goals. One was to cull the many boxes of stuff we have lugged around from place to place–over 50 in all. These boxes contained the remnants of our parents’, grandparents’, and other relatives’ lives. They survived multiple moves, storage lockers, and basement floods.

You know how it is–a loved one dies, you have to empty the family home quickly, and there is no time to pick through all the personal items and papers. My biggest fear is that the same task would fall on our daughter when we are gone. I know how hard this activity has been on me, and as an only child, it will be even harder for her.

I couldn’t stomach staging a yard sale, and some of the items seemed just a little too dear for Goodwill or not suitable for the hospital thrift shop. So, I boxed them up and took them to an auction house. I was told it would be a few months until they got to them.

Meanwhile, my father-in-law’s second wife began to clean out her home. In broken English, she tried to explain that she was getting old and wanted to make sure she gave us (seemingly) everything that did not belong to her by marriage. Three car loads later, we had even more work to do.

Among one of her boxes was my husband’s childhood stamp collection. He was overjoyed to be reunited with it and decided it would be a wonderful retirement hobby. I felt faint and slightly nauseous, not at the thought of another retirement hobby, but because one of the boxes I had dropped off at the auction house contained my own childhood stamp collection as well as what was left of my grandfather’s after my mother sold the most valuable holdings.

Feeling a little sheepish, I called the auction house to see if the lot had been sold. I could imagine the kind lady at the other end rolling her eyes–she must get plenty of remorseful phone calls like mine.  My lot was still in the warehouse, but it’s home now and we are looking forward to delighting in our collections all over again.

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The Sun Casts Long Shadows

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It’s actually March right now–a gray, rainy day of which we’ve had many this winter. Like everyone else, I’m ready for spring. But in my mind, it’s already the end of August. The late summer light’s warm and earthy tones are almost as beautiful as the early spring brightness seen in clear blue skies, purple hyacinths, and new leaves. The brightness is past, the heat is dissipating. For some, late summer brings new energy as school children head back to school, adults head back to work, and routines return to normal. For others, it is a time of reflection and the hollow feeling that time is getting short.

I’m walking through late summer, cognizant that the leaves will be falling sometime soon (but not that soon); sometime in the very far future, winter will settle into my bones and I want to be ready for that. For now, I am going to savor the summer light and the near perfect warmth. I’m going to walk in the early evening and delight in the long shadows. I’m going to harvest what was planted and put food up, but I’m also going to reach back into those bare fields where seeds were planted and root out some memories.