The Secret Life of Barthelm

by Marc Levy

With his sad face and bemused, bleary eyes Barthelm, retired speech pathologist, self styled polymath, keeper of uncommon words, prides himself a preternaturally good listener, an expert judge of character.
This morning, having quietly risen from bed, though not without ever increasing muscular aches and crackle bone pains, he rubs dreamy aggregate sleep from puffy eyes, lifts a bushy brow to place, then shuffles the lovely hypnopompic trance waltz down the bare thread carpeted hall, turns left at the kitchen, tip toes past three cupboard sized closets, and enters the sweet sheltering hand tiled cozy room whose universal architecture defines the standard garden apartment: the stiff, upright, convexed metal hamper conveniently located near twin towel racks; the overhead rectangular light fixture, its delicate opaque glass immortalizing errant moths, horse flies, the occasional spider; a porcelain sink saturated with time and ritual use; a medicine cabinet jammed with medicinal condiments; a lime green tub replete with lusterless chrome faucets, spigot and drain, a hint of mildew hugging gray tiled walls.
Near the door, wedged in permanent stoic crouch sits the glistening white ceramic bowl upon whose hard plastic seat Barthelm settles, adjusts his reading glasses (set on the tubs near corner, atop yesterdays paper), and licked finger combs his way to Section C.
He begins to read, delighting in the authors well constructed rhythmic phrases, flowing sentence structure, well placed alliteration, knowing his bowels will soon provide additional rise and fall. Such are his private pleasures of a Sunday morning.
“After you drink the tea, wash the cup.” The tight knit aphorism lay embedded deep in the marvelous text on zen koans penned by a devotee of all things pyramidal, zodiac, mystical. What exactly could that mean? Coffee, tea, a certain popular drink, each invariably produced in him a not unpleasant laxative effect. Oh well.
There followed nine compelling paragraphs detailing Buddhistic myths, the flame of desire, paths to enlightenment, mindful conundrums for which he had no empiric reply. Undeterred he mentally noted Orientalism contained five syllables, of which only two were stressed.
Turning the page, Barthelm felt the slow, downward push of last nights Cajun sirloin, butter whipped mashed potatoes, snow peas sautéed in ginger, the entire potpourri chugging zig zag across the labyrinthine transit of his abdominal canal. A moment more he leaned into the first pleasureful expulsion. Out slid a long dark boat. An instant later a pair of lazy buoys floated in the small chlorinated pond beneath him. He recalled the water wreaths of Basho’s pond after the green frog's infinite kerplop.
Yes. When a tree falls what matter if no one hears. All uprooted logs bow obedient to entropic destiny. Yes, he thought. That was it. Likewise, a projectile: bullet, arrow, shell, will never surmount its initial discharge speed. He bruited a smile then birthed an enormous light beige pearl smooth and center curved, suggesting a swan’s neck or wild elephant’s tusk. Poor elephants. Endangered. At great risk of insensate decline. What was that? In the next apartment something shifted, someone moved. He immediately recognized her far away voice.
Eggs, he read, focused on the recent breakthrough highlighted in Science, page 44. A flight of mousey ringlets pattered into the bowl. The miniature continents drifted aimless in the landlocked sea.
EGGNIGMA. Clever headline. Explaining static, frictive and perpendicular forces the pithy article related cause, effect, solution. In the photography of his inner eye Barthelm viewed the solid boiled mass as it spun impossibly upright, centrifugally pulled into brief verticular orbit, whirling round and round until table and egg, exhausted, wobbled no more.
“Oh yes, baby, yes.....”
Barthelm dipped his head, folded the paper in half, set it down and watched himself stiffen. This time she whelped a delicious long, susurrant moan, followed by a second, somewhat sweetly diminished. Waiting for what he knew lay next he calculated manifold layers of sheet rock, spackle and paint, wallpaper, the urban strata insufficient at blocking loves intimate rumpus. Her partner groaned with a lustful, carnal indiscretion.
He had never actually seen them. By the subtle rhythmic manner in which she inflected primary syllables, clipped intermediate consonants, skipped or gathered sly diphthongs, in short, by the centripetal play of tongue to teeth or roof of mouth and maxo-mandibular exit Barthelm deduced her age, place of origin, her physical stature.
The slight twang imparted to certain dynamic vowels, her penchant for throaty pause, the edgy hard cased suffix sundered by half, all hinted a contiguously bordered Midwestern state. He had ruled out Iowa's sprawling agro-cadence, the Dakota's missile pocked basin and range, New Mexico's dry laconic megrim, pierced as it was by ancestral spirits.
In Barthelm's mind she was likely native to Ohio or Kansas, a college graduate out of school one to three years and thus properly twenty four. She was, he thought, blonde haired, approximately five feet five, with a solid, proportional, somewhat buxom figure and a plain, sensible ordinary face. When coyly parted her full pink lips revealed a playful tongue; an insouciant smile dotted both cheeks. Her tight fitting clothes accentuated full, round pleasurey breasts capped by exquisitely hard upturned nipples.
A bureau draw urgently opened then insurgently shut. A tea cup rattled its saucer.
“Put it on,” she begged. “Now. Put it on and fuck me.”
“Soon,” he said.
Barthelm sprinkled a golden jet of warm pee that wetted the bowl's immaculate white rim. How like the clever Dutch to adhere ceramic flies in the font of men's urinals. He had found Amsterdam's sex shows exceedingly trite.
“What are you doing?” she said.
Barthelm allowed himself to view her partners astounding manhood, so large and wonderfully rigid. She giggled. He marveled, imagining her standing before her lover, half nude in heels and nylons, garter belts affixed to each thigh, her upper body tilted slightly forward, the entrancing cleavage a happy impasse made actual by a tight corset pushing her breasts upward, nipples erect, perfectly suckable pari passau. A pair of white panties formed a taut naughty halo which encircled her knees. Her man, big, strong, handsome, knelt behind her, slowly parting her buttocks. He would press himself into her tenderest muscle.
“Yes,” she would say. “Oh god, yes.”
The Chinese shop girl had laughed a carefree insouciant laugh while Barthelm stared at the riotous shower of cardboard tickets whose carnival designs screamed “Buy Me, Scratch Me, You Will Win, I Swear It.” “That funny?” he’d said, a one dollar bill gripped in each hand. “I know. Remove the gaudy colors, ridiculous shapes, taunting promises, what have you got? Tempestuous gimmicks, impossible odds. But that's the point, isn't it? The coin edge stripping away the soft outer layer, the fleeting hope that I will win, WIN...not gamble my logic.” He had smirked at his cleverness then handed her money. “That one,” he said. And lost.
Her man groaned again. Groaned with each muscular push ramming her deeper, faster.
“Don't stop. Fuck me like that, baby. Oh god, yes. Fuck me like that.”
He would suckle her breasts, lick and pinch her nipples, prop himself sideways, slowly worm one finger deep into her shiny round bottom.
“Yes, baby. Yes. Like that. Oh, yes. Fuck me like that.”
Barthelm leaned to his left, the better to hear, the better to assist the first of several pleasing contractions. Out plopped an extraordinary glaucous loaf. Next, a pair of flinty liverish turds spit fired in aerial delight. Finally, in the fleecy secret language of clouds there tumbled a skelter of fat coins, scumbled in hue, opaque in pallor. What had he eaten the night before last?
The waiter stood obedient, his slim yellow pencil pressed to a small white pad.
“And would the gentleman like desert?”
Barthelm had thoroughly enjoyed the tasty salad littered with breast of roast chicken, garlic sauce and imported blue cheese. His rack of lamb was infinitely superb. Side dishes of chilled Dorset potatoes, double onion rings, a literal nest of steamed shitake, each luscious helping seemed to melt in his mouth.
“A large slice of Black Forest and a double espresso,” he said.
“Of course, sir,” the waiter replied.
And Barthelm had gorged and supped and eaten his fill, sated beyond all measure.
“Check, please,” he announced above a weald of lacquered cups, stained napkins and dirty dishes. He left an abundant gratuity. The waiter dipped his head in polite esteem.
“More, baby, more. Fuck me. Fuck me like that. Oh, yes. Don’t stop. Fuck me like that.”
Barthelm's inner eye widened. He observed her lips coo as she wrapped her legs tighter around her lovers sleek form. Hips jouncing, mouths a riot of cum, their lithe bodies curled and kicked in obscene priapic jumble. Oh how they rollicked and rumbled and fucked. Oh how they rollicked and fucked.
After her man pumped one last impossible time, Barthelm, having sat still an entire hour released a sudden cloud burst of spectacular measure. Oh the sweet felicity of such etudes, fleet cri de couers, whose warm fruity notes enfolded the room in their dolorous shroud. Beneath him the cool Aurelian water lay still in perfect palimpsest.
Poor elephants, he thought. In childhood he had viewed daguerreotypes of white hunter’s squinting over their trophy kills. Save for a hole near the heart and shorn tusks the leviathans, once rogue, lay serenely intact, forelocks stiff in rictus prayer. Poor near sighted, ancestral, pachyderms. What was the word for shapes seen in clouds?
They must be sleeping. Wrapped in a web of limbs and natures dreamy opiates. Preparing to read Barthelm once more pinched his tongue. He scanned the cross word puzzle. One word remained. 17 Across: Flightless. Nine letters. Hmmm. Echidna? No. Penguin? No. Cassowary? Yes. He cocked his thumb. Bulls eye.
Next, Barthelm surveyed the weeks most prominent obituaries: A publishing magnate known to have mixed business with dubious pleasure; an obscure delicatessen clerk risen to Cold War fame; the passing of one Gerhard D. Shultz, MD, Chief, Applied Endoscopic Research, St. Vincent's Hospital, New York City, aged eighty five.
The familiar details lay lifeless as the poor man himself. “Born 1926 in Baton Rouge, the son of immigrants, Gerhard Shultz obtained his medical degree at Harvard. A veteran of WWII he served as physician to Gen. Patton and received the Bronze Star.”
At this Barthelm spawned a loud vaporous cross fire. Heroic indeed. He himself had fought in France, had met his wife while healing. In France. Poor, ruined, triumphant France.
Dr. Shultz, the elegy continued, had co-invented a pliant optical scope which, when inserted into the colon afforded unparalleled views of the intestinal tract, its winding corrugations and switch back crannies. A life long philanthropist, the deceased is survived by his wife Martha. Services to be held at Saint John the Divine.
Well and true, though absent from this last page of life was the good doctor's uncommon frontal lisp the result, Barthelm deduced, of stunted frenulum and pronounced sub-lingual over-bite. He recalled how laying on his left side encased in a powder blue gown the procedure would be over “Thoon.” And Barthelm had inhaled deeply. “Oneth more, pleathhh...Oneth more...” said the good doctor. Who could forget such things?
Setting the newspaper aside Barthelm unfurled a length of pastel tissue, in mindful orison wound the pennant rosary about his fingers and proceeded to clean himself. When finished he stood, admired his handiwork, then flushed the toilet. Round and round swirled a garden of lonely planets, alien creatures, enduring fictions.
“Bon voyage, Monsieur. Auf wiedersehen, Fraulein” he said at the waters swirling erasure.
Rinsing his hands Barthelm inspected his seventy-five year old face in the bathroom's mirror. He combed the white spidery hair which refused to lay flat. He would shave, brush his teeth. Rinse with clove.
“Orlay,” he said, recalling her youth.
For in the bedroom lay Catherine, her face, much like his own, sun creased, rim eyed, depleted by time. Frail Catherine, who refused to straddle him sideways, or kneel, or slowly disrobe, or make love while dressed, yet whose simplest touch might cause him to weep.
His once beautiful wife, ever French after forty years wed to her American ‘jhee ai,’ called out, “C’est toi?”
Her once firm breasts sagged like sacks.
He recalled how the sweet scent of her embrochred cleft lingered long after love. Saw again her powerful sculpted back gained from purling the midnight sea. He inhaled the aromatic rhyme of her thighs dark cove, felt the soft press of her pleasing mouth.
He kissed her wrinkled brow, slipped beneath the covers.
“Oui,” said Barthelm, avid listener, keeper of uncommon words. “Oui, mon cheri. C’est moi.”
The Secret Life of Barthelm © 2003, Marc Levy .All rights reserved. Not to be reprinted without written permission of the author
"My work has appeared in Slant, Peregrine,,,, Masquerade Books, Best American Erotica 2000, Slowtrains, Mammoth Book of Erotica 2002, Rattapallax, Skidrow Penthouse, Vietnam War Generation Journal, and PLACES magazine. It is forthcoming in the poetry anthology Off the Cuffs. The Real Deal, a video of my war experiences is distributed as a teaching tool by The Cinema Guild. In 2002 I was accepted to attend an ACA residence taught by Spalding Gray."
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