Donald Barthelme


The Captured Woman

    The captured woman asks if I will take her picture.

    I shoot four rolls of 35 mm. and then go off very happily to the darkroom. . .

    I bring back the contacts and we go over them together. She circles half a dozen with a grease pencil -- pictures of herself staring. She does not circle pictures of herself smiling, although there are several very good ones. When I bring her back prints (still wet) she says they are not big enough.

    "Not big enough?"

    "Can you make enlargements?"

    "How big?"

    How big can you make them?"

    "The largest paper I have is twenty-four by thirty-six."

    "Good!"

    The very large prints are hung around her room with pushpins.

    "Make more."

    "For what?"

    "I want them in the other rooms too."

    "The staring ones?"

    "Whichever ones you wish."

    I make more prints using the smiling negatives. (I also shoot another half dozen rolls.) Soon the house is full of her portraits, she is everywhere.

*

    M. calls to tell me that he has captured a woman too.

    "What kind?"

    "Thai. From Thailand."

    "Can she speak English?"

    "Beautifully. She's an English teacher back home, she says."

    "How tall?"

    "As tall as yours. Maybe a little taller."

    "What is she doing now?"

    "Polishing her rings. I gave her a lot of rings. Five rings."

    "Was she pleased?"

    "I think so. She's polishing like a house afire. Do you think that means she's tidy?"

    "Have to wait to see. Mine is throwing her football."

    "What?"

    "I gave her a football. She's sports-minded. She's throwing passes into a garbage can."

    "Doesn't that get the football dirty?"

    "Not the regular garbage can. I got her a special garbage can."

    "Is she good at it?"

    "She's good at everything."

    There was a pause.

    "Mine plays the flute," M. says. "She's asked for a flute."

    "Mine probably plays the flute too but I haven't asked her. The subject hasn't come up."

    "Poor Q.," M. says.

    "Oh, come now. No use pitying Q."

    "Q. hasn't got a chance in the world," M. says, and hangs up.

*

    I say: "What will you write in the note?"

    "You may read it if you wish. I can't stop you. It's you after all who will put it in the mail."

    "Do you agree not to tell him where you are?"

    "This is going to be almost impossible to explain. You understand that."

    "Do you love him?"

    "I waited six years to have a baby."

    "What does that mean?"

    "I wasn't sure, I suppose."

    "Now you're sure?"

    "I was growing older."

    "How old are you now?"

    "Thirty-two last August."

    "You look younger."

    "No I don't."

    She is tall and has long dark hair which has, in truth, some gray in it already.

    She says: "You were drunk as a lord the first time I saw you."

    "Yes I was."

    When I first met her (in a perfectly ordinary social situation, a cocktail party) she clutched my wrists, tapping them then finally grabbing, in the wildest and most agitated way, meanwhile talking calmly about some movie or other.

    She's a wonderful woman, I think.

*

    She wants to go to church!

    "What!"

    "It's Sunday."

    "I haven't seen the inside of a church in twenty years. Except in Europe. Cathedrals."

    "I want to go to church."

    "What kind?"

    "Presbyterian."

    "Are you a Presbyterian?"

    "I was once."

    I find a Presbyterian church in the Yellow Pages.

    We sit side by side in the pew for all the world like a married couple. She is wearing a beige linen suit which modulates her body into a nice safe Sunday quietude.

    The two ministers have high carved chairs on either side of the lectern. They take turns conducting the service. One is young, one is old. There is a choir behind us and a solo tenor so startlingly good that I turn my head to look at him.

    We stand and sit and sing with the others as the little mimeographed order-of-service dictates.

    The old minister, fragile, eagle beak, white close-cropped hair, stands at the lectern in a black cassock and white thin lacy surplice.

    "Sacrifice," the minister says.

    He stares into the choir loft for a moment and then repeats the thought: "Sacrifice."

    We are given a quite admirable sermon on Sacrifice which includes quotations from Euripides and A. E. Houseman.

    After the service we drive home and I tie her up again.

*

    It is true that Q. will never get one. His way of proceeding is far too clumsy. He might as well be creeping about carrying a burlap sack.

    P. uses tranquilizing darts delivered by a device which resembles the Sunday New York Times.

    D. uses chess but of course this limits his field of operations somewhat.

    S. uses a spell inherited from his great-grandmother.

    F. uses his illness.

    T. uses a lasso. He can make a twenty-foot loop and keep it spinning while he jumps in and out of it in his handmade hundred-and-fifty-dollar boots -- a mesmerizing procedure.

    C. has been accused of jacklighting, against the law in this state in regard to deer. The law says nothing about women.

    X. uses the Dionysiac frenzy.

    L. is the master. He has four now, I believe.

    I use Jack Daniels.

*

    I stand beside one of the "staring" portraits and consider whether I should attempt to steam open the note.

    Probably it is an entirely conventional appeal for rescue.

    I decide that I would rather not know what is inside, and put it in the mail along with the telephone bill and a small ($25) contribution to a lost but worthy cause.

*

    Do we sleep together? Yes.

    What is to be said about this?

    It is the least strange aspect of our temporary life together. It is as ordinary as bread.

    She tells me what and how. I am sometimes inspired and in those moments need no instructions. Once, I made an X with masking tape at a place on the floor where we'd made love. She laughed when she saw it. That is, I am sometimes able to amuse her.

    What does she think? Of course, I don't know. Perhaps she regards this as a parenthesis in her "real" life, like a stay in the hospital or being a member of a jury sequestered in a Holiday Inn during a murder trial. I have criminally abducted her and am thus clearly in the wrong, a circumstance which enables her to regard me very kindly.

    She is a wonderful woman and knows herself to be wonderful -- she is (justifiably) a little vain.

    The rope is forty feet long (that is, she can move freely forty feet in any direction) and is in fact thread -- Belding mercerized cotton, shade 1443.

    What does she think of me? Yesterday she rushed at me and stabbed me three times viciously in the belly with a book, the Viking Portable Milton. Later I visited her in her room and was warmly received. She let me watch her doing her exercises. Each exercise has a name and by now I know all the names: Boomerang, Melon, Hip Bounce, Diamond, Whip, Hug, Headlights, Ups and Downs, Bridge, Flags, Sitting Twist, Swan, Bow and Arrow, Turtle, Pyramid, Bouncing Ball, Accordion. The movements are amazingly erotic. I knelt by her side and touched her lightly. She smiled and said, not now. I went to my room and watched television -- The Wide World of Sports, a soccer match in Sao Paulo.

*

    The captured woman is smoking her pipe. It has a long graceful curving stem and a white porcelain bowl decorated with little red flowers. For dinner we had shad roe and buttered yellow beans.

    "He looks like he has five umbrellas stuck up his ass," she says suddenly.

    "Who?"

    "My husband. But he's a very decent man. But of course that's not uncommon. A great many people are very decent. Most people, I think. Even you."

    The fragrance of her special (ladies' mixture) tobacco hangs about us.

    "This is all rather like a movie. That's not a criticism. I like movies."

    I become a little irritated. All this effort and all she can think of is movies?

    "This is not a movie."

    "It is," she says. "It is it is it is."

*

    M. calls in great agitation.

    "Mine is sick," he says.

    "What's the matter?"

    "I don't know. She's listless. Won't eat. Won't polish. Won't play her flute."

    M.'s is a no-ass woman of great style and not inconsiderable beauty.

    "She's languishing," I say.

    "Yes."

    "That's not good."

    "No."

    I pretend to think -- M. likes to have his predicaments taken seriously.

    "Speak to her. Say this: My soul is soused, imparadised, imprisoned in my lady."

    "Where's that from?"

    "It's a quotation. Very powerful."

    "I'll try it. Soused, imprisoned, imparadised."

    "No. Imparadised, imprisoned. It actually sounds better the way you said it, though. Imparadised last."

    "Okay. I'll say it that way. Thanks. I love mine more than you love yours."

    "No you don't."

    "Yes I do."

    I bit off my thumb, and bade him do as much.

*

    The extremely slow mailman brings her an answer to her note.

    I watch as she opens the envelope.

    "That bastard," she says.

    "What does he say?"

    "That incredible bastard."

    "What?"

    "I offer him the chance top rescue me on a white horse -- one of the truly great moments this life affords -- and he natters on about how well he and the kid are doing together. How she hardly ever cries now. How calm the house is."

    "The bastard," I say happily.

    "I can see him sitting in the kitchen by the microwave oven and reading his Rolling Stone."

    "Does he read Rolling Stone?"

    "He thinks Rolling Stone is neat."

    "Well. . ."

    "He's not supposed to be reading Rolling Stone. It's not aimed at him. He's too old, the dumb fuck."

    "You're angry."

    "Damn right."

    "What are you going to do?"

    She thinks for a moment.

    "What happened to your hand?" she says, noticing at last.

    "Nothing," I say, placing the bandaged hand behind my back. (Obviously, I did not bite the thumb clean through but I did give it a very considerable gnaw.)

    "Take me to my room and tie me up," she says. "I'm going to hate him for a while."

    I return her to her room and go back to my own room and settle down with The Wide World of Sports -- international fencing trials in Belgrade.

*

    This morning, at the breakfast table, a fierce attack from the captured woman.

    I am a shit, a vain preener, a watcher of television, a blatherer, a creephead, a monstrous coward who preys upon etc. etc. etc. and is not a man enough to etc. etc. etc. Also I drink too much.

    This is all absolutely true, I have often thought the same things myself, especially, for some reason, upon awakening.

    I have a little more Canadian bacon.

    "And a skulker," she says with relish. "One who --"

    I fix her in the viewfinder of my Pentax and shoot a whole new series, Fierce.

    The trouble with capturing one is that the original gesture is almost impossible to equal or improve upon.

*

    She says: "He wants to get that kid away from me. He wants to keep that kid for himself. He has captured that kid."

    "She'll be there when you get back. Believe me."

    "When will that be?"

    "It's up to you. You decide."

    "Ugh."

    Why can't I marry one and live with her uneasily ever after? I've tried that.

    "Take my picture again."

    "I've taken enough pictures. I don't want to take any more pictures."

    "Then I'll go on Tuesday."

    "Tuesday. OK. That's tomorrow."

    "Tuesday is tomorrow?"

    "Right."

    "Oh."

    She grips the football and pretends to be about to throw it through the window.

    "Do you ever capture somebody again after you've captured them once?"

    "Almost unheard of."

    "Why not?"

    "It doesn't happen."

    "Why not?"

    "It just doesn't."

    "Tomorrow. Oh my."

    I go into the kitchen and begin washing the dishes -- the more scutwork you do, the kindlier the light in which you are regarded, I have learned.

*

    I enter her room. L. is standing there.

    "What happened to your hand?" he asks.

    "Nothing," I say.

    Everyone looks at my bandaged hand for a moment -- not long enough.

    "Have you captured her?" I ask.

    L. is the master, the nonpareil, the O. J. Simpson of our aberration.

    "I have captured him," she says.

    "Wait a minute. That's not how it works."

    "I changed the rules," she says. "I will be happy to give you a copy of the new rules which I have written out here on this legal pad."

    L. is smirking like a mink, obviously very pleased to have been captured by such a fine woman.

    "But wait a minute," I say. "It's not Tuesday yet!"

    "I don't care," she says. She is smiling. At L.

    I go into the kitchen and begin scrubbing the oven with an Easy-Off.

    How original of her to change the rules! She is indeed a rare spirit.

    "French Russian Roquefort or oil-and-vinegar," she says sometimes, in her sleep -- I deduce that she has done some waitressing in her day.

*

    The captured woman does a backward somersault from a standing position.

    I applaud madly. My thumb hurts.

    "Where is L.?"

    "I sent him away."

    "Why?"

    "He had no interesting problems. Also he did a sketch of me which I don't like."

    She shows me the charcoal sketch (L.'s facility is famous) and it is true that her beauty suffers just a bit, in this sketch. He must have been spooked a little by my photographs, which he did not surpass.

    "Poor L."

    The captured woman does another somersault. I applaud again. Is today Tuesday or Wednesday? I can't remember.

    "Wednesday," she says. "Wednesday the kid goes to dance after which she usually spends the night with her pal Regina because Regina lives close to dance. So there's really no point in my going back on a Wednesday."

*

    A week later she is still with me. She is departing by degrees.

    If I tore her hair out, no one but me would love her. But she doesn't want me to tear her hair out.

    I wear different shirts for her: red, orange, silver. We hold hands through the night.

    1981