Killing Donald Barthelme

Michael Mungiello

I wrote a book called Killing Donald Barthelme. i didn’t mean to. i didn’t really mean to write a book. what I wanted was to reveal my darkest secrets and in turn receive applause. i wanted to write about one thing while actually writing about something else. i thought writing about how donald barthelme was bad would somehow set me free. but it turns out that when i told publishers i had a book about donald barthelme, they actually wanted a book about donald barthelme. and in the editing process they got rid of my winks and nudges to the reader: they reduced the book to what it said it was. and it came out. it was advertised though not reviewed in the new york review of books. my mom called and said dad was sick. i said, “what kind of sick?” mom said, “i don’t know, sick. the doctor wants to see him for another test. it’s probably nothing...” i said, “should i call him?” she said, “no, no. he doesn’t know i’m calling you. i don’t think he wants you to know, he doesn’t want you to worry.” i said, “do you want me to worry, mom?” then she cried and said, “shit. lorenzo. no. i don’t want you to worry. what are you even trying to say? you think i like this? you think i’m happy?” i said sorry but was thinking, "none of this is supposed to happen." i published a book. after you publish a book, you’re an author, not a person and you don’t have to handle people problems anymore. after i published my book my mom wasn’t supposed to call me at all. my dad was supposed to send me hand-written notes saying, “congratulations, son. i’m proud of you.” he wasn’t supposed to get sick. and even if he was, that wasn’t supposed to be my problem anymore. but the book didn’t sell and didn’t get any reviews. it wasn’t the book i thought it would be so it made sense that my life wasn’t working out that way either. i told janet. she said, "i’m so sorry." i believed her. she always liked dad. when i introduced her to my parents we were having dinner and i noticed that she and my dad picked at their cuticles the same way. like they were plucking a very tiny string on the world’s smallest violin. i told janet, “it’s like you two are plucking strings on the world’s smallest violins.” she said, “that’s mean.” and ever since then she took pity on dad because she assumed he had, like her, taken my comment as an insult. and once she spent more time with him and listened to him because she pitied him, she started to like him. this confused me because other than the cuticle thing they had nothing in common. he liked tv. she liked hiking. he loved math. she loved raves. but what do i know? maybe i didn’t want to see any other similarities between them for obvious reasons. janet and i had only been together for ten months. we’d broken up the day before mom called. i was sure that i would spend the next few months remembering janet. i would notice different things, great things about her each time i remembered her. i thought that i would probably get to know her much better now that we had broken up because i had all the time in the world to remember things. when she told me she wanted to break up i asked her if she wanted me to sign a copy of Killing Donald Barthelme for her as a going away present. i meant this as a joke but once i said it i realized i wasn’t joking. she said, “sure.” then i took down a copy from the shelf and i went to sign it, i had the pen in my hand. but i didn’t know what to say. so i wrote, “[insert something meaningful here], love always, lorenzo.” she looked at it and left, her black hair in pigtails bouncing, waving goodbye with both hands. donald barthelme was born on april 7th, 1931. he lived in new york for as long as he could. when he became too weak from the self-justifications, the divorces, the success, and the drinking, and the power of being cool and still owing the new yorker money--owing it everything--he went back to houston. he grew up there, a catholic living under an open sky with an architect dad and a drum set. he died there on july 23rd, 1989 the same exact day daniel radcliffe was born. daniel radcliffe himself became famous for playing harry potter, "the boy who lived." donald barthelme died of cancer because he smoked too many cigarettes. i was reading so much about his cancer while i was writing my book, i stopped smoking cigarettes. but after my long nj transit ride where my train car was full of stale recycled air, i got off at south orange. i took a deep breath. it was finally fall and it was beautiful outside. i bought american spirits from a nearby gas station. i sat on a bench and watched people walk by. i had a wonderful time. then i called mom and told her i was here. i said, "i'm here." she came in a big silver car. i got in the passenger seat. she said, "hey buddy." she wasn't looking at me. i wanted to touch her shoulder. i wanted to say something honest but distracting. comfort her with something real. i said, "i love you." but after a minute went by and she didn't respond i realized that was the wrong thing to say. too serious. why would i even say something like that out of the blue unless i thought something was wrong? she said, "janet couldn't make it?" i said, "no. she had work stuff this weekend." one time janet and i got on a random train at grand central. we chose a random stop to get off at. it was a dry winter day. there was no snow. there wasn't anything. it was like someone had pulled an alarm and the natural world evacuated and the people evacuated. it was me and janet alone in a world that'd made room for us. we walked into a diner. it was empty except for the hostess and one waiter. we walked to the back and got a booth. i put my head in her lap and she put her hand in my hair. i don't remember anyone coming over to take our order. we started talking about running away. we would move to mexico. janet spoke fluent spanish. i said i would learn but really i thought i'd stay home all day writing stories and working on a serious non-fiction book. she said she wanted to have my baby. we both knew it'd be a girl. we'd have a daughter and i'd stay home with her while janet was at work. when janet came home from teaching or working as a translator at some non-profit, our daughter and i would hear the door and run to give her a hug. i had this perfect vision of the three of us. at some point we left the diner--i still can't remember if we ate or drank anything there at all, it doesn't even matter. we walked back to the train station and i remember i was glad the wind was blowing so hard because it gave us an excuse to huddle close together. we ran, supposedly to keep warm but actually out of joy. we were running toward a future that was real because we'd imagined it together. that was february and now it was october. mom said, "all good?" and i knew i didn't have it in me to tell her janet and i had broken up. for a split-second i even let myself believe it was the book's fault. royalty statements come twice a year, once in the middle of the summer and again in the fall. i had this idea that when my first royalty check came in july, i would've earned enough money to buy tickets and surprise janet. we'd airbnb or rent something until the second royalty check came in and my fantasy was that this second royalty check would give me enough money to put a down payment on a house for me and janet. we'd actually be able to live in mexico. and after that, the plan was to live on my royalties forever. we would save until we had enough money to be in a financially stable enough place to try to conceive. but in reality when the july royalty report came i didn't get a penny. the book only sold eight hundred copies and my advance was unearned by four thousand three hundred twenty-one dollars. was Killing Donald Barthelme a failure? and if so was it the same kind of failure as my relationship? abandoned promises. footnotes to a larger more interesting literature. practice for a larger better life with people janet would date after me. probably. when we pulled into the driveway dad came out to meet us wearing a gray tracksuit. he hadn't shaved and wasn't wearing his contacts. with his thick emergency glasses on, i almost didn't recognize him. he looked suspicious. he said, "lorenzo. what's up?" i said, "not much. how about you? just stopping by for a visit." dad said, "what's wrong?" mom said, "joe." i said, "nothing's wrong." dad slapped me on the shoulder. he said, "ok. good to see you. you eat?" they heated up a pepperoni roll and some wedding soup. i double-checked the walls to make sure mom hadn't hung up any pictures of me and janet yet. since i'm an only child mom couldn't put up photos of siblings so instead she was very quick to put up photos of me and my girlfriends. i think every time i brought someone new home mom saw her as another family member. and she never got rid of the photos even after my girlfriend and i broke up. sure, photos of my exes wouldn't be prominently displayed but they wouldn't be thrown out either. i'd find them still framed in the garage and dusted clean. mom would say, "they aren't your pictures. this isn't your house." some of my exes who don't talk to me anymore still send mom peanut butter brittle for christmas. but as i looked around, chewing on a turkey meatball and swilling chicken broth, i didn't see a single picture of janet. neither framed nor unframed. for a second i was even anxious my family didn't like janet. but then i remembered that didn't matter. donald barthelme was married four times. once his wife killed herself. this was in copehagen. this was after barthelme divorced her. he moved back to new york and got a new wife. he wrote stories that were oblique attacks on the men who were dating his ex-wives--ex-wives he hadn't treated particularly well while he was married to them but towards whom he now felt possessive. donald barthelme couldn't let go of the past and, even worse, he couldn't get a grip on the present. he was unfaithful. when i met janet she was dating two other guys. i even ran into one of them at a fence magazine reading. his name was greg i think? he was taller than me and wider too. if i'm a great dane, he's a rhinoceros. he was there with janet who was wearing a bright green sweater and coral colored small hoop earrings. it was snowing outside on 14th and 6th. greg said, "hi." i said, "hey." janet held it together. she grabbed my shoulder and said, "we have to talk about nicholas grider's misadventure. have you started it yet?" she'd lent it to me the last time i saw her, the second time we'd ever talked. i said, "oh yeah. it's so good." i lied. i hadn't read it yet. but when i got home that night i read the whole thing and carefully, legibly, annotated her copy which i returned to her a week later. i never met the other guy she was dating, the one who wasn't greg, but that doesn’t matter, what matters is she chose me. but now that didn't matter either because she'd changed her mind. i said, "mom, why aren't there any pictures of me and janet around the house?" she didn't look up from her laptop. without my noticing she'd put her platinum blonde hair into a high tight bun. she was biting the insides of her cheeks, probably looking up something stressful online, something about whatever dad might have. she said, "what're you talking about? it's upstairs." and as i walked up the stairs i almost asked mom to come with me because i was so scared. it was in the hallway right across from the upstairs bathroom. it was us on the 4th of july and looking at the picture you could tell that nothing was wrong. neither of our smiles were pained or forced, there wasn't any caged animal intensity in our eyes. we might as well have been overlapping outlines of pure light we were so happy. we were sitting in the same chair and i had my arms around her. i checked the amazon page for Killing Donald Barthelme. it was hanging steady, still 1,244,367th in books. no reviews except for the one obviously written by one of my publisher's interns who had given my book five stars and plagiarized the back cover copy in order to write the requisite two sentences of "review." despite this effort on behalf of my publisher, Killing Donald Barthelme had 2.5 stars. had janet given it a bad rating? or maybe it was somebody else, someone random, somebody who held a grudge against me and that i knew absolutely nothing about. maybe it was greg? was he after me? dad called me back downstairs. i sat next to him on the couch. he said, "look at this." he pressed a button on the remote and gestured at the tv. i looked at the tv. his favorite movie was on--my cousin vinny--and he'd paused at his favorite part, when marisa tomei explains everything to the courtroom. he resumed playing the movie and as i watched dad's favorite scene from his favorite movie while sitting next to him, i wanted to memorize everything. i wanted to keep that moment forever just in case he was actually sick. he said, "so lorenzo. work ok?" i said, "yeah. you know, same old same old." he asked if i was tenure yet and like always i said, "soon" even though i’d been passed over for a promotion twice. he said, "how's the book doing?" i sighed and said something about the market and how only politician memoirs were selling. dad wasn't buying it. he said, "that's a damn shame." he cracked his knuckles. i looked him up and down and wondered if he was more brittle now, was he weaker? he said, "isn't it controversial?" i said, "not really. i mean, i think it's original. but it doesn't have any bombshells. it's not like a tabloid exclusive or a big reveal. it's more about interpreting the existing material on donald barthelme in a new and interesting way." he said, "but don't you need a hook to sell books?" dad turned to me as exasperated as if he'd just run 20 miles in 10 minutes and i told him to run 20 more. i said, "well, not always. sometimes yes but really that's more for news-based books or...things like that. and that's not really my book." he said, "look maybe i'm stupid, i honestly don't know--but the book is called Killing Donald whatever his name is. that sounds to me like it's going to be some kind of attack. and usually if one person is attacking another person, that gets a lot of attention. can you revise the book before the next printing? add something to make it more exciting or bombastic?" i was 100% sure university of kentucky press, my publisher, was never reprinting my book. i said, "sure, yeah, i'll see. thanks, dad." but dad didn't look satisfied yet. he tied his face into knots and asked me if i was happy with the book, if i was proud of it. i said yes. i was 32. i said, "this is my legacy, for right now. i'm proud of it." dad said, "i'm very happy for you." my phone vibrated. mom texted me. she said, "ask him how he's doing." she wasn't sitting six feet away from us, on the other side of the couch. i said, "how're you doing?" dad ignored the question and instead of answering, he turned to me with this jokey smile and asked, "so, i haven't been able to read the book yet. what killed donald barthelme?" i laughed. i said, "gotta read the book for that one." dad laughed. mom frowned then looked at dad then smiled, cautiously. the truth was, donald barthelme had killed himself. not by jumping, like his replaced wife. not by smoking either because that's not what i'm talking about. i'm talking about his work. he killed himself because he gave his work an expiration date. all those stories only make sense in the context of 60s and 70s new york. they're reactionary--anxieties about authoritarianism, inner-city violence, goddard, the xerox machine, vietnam: straight people and their predictable problems. the man was born in 1931. and the fragmentation and novelty, the formal disguise he gave his conservative nihilism, they aren't what people want forever. by definition they can't be. bathelme would rather ironically comment on reality than create one of his own. i think he just wanted the authority and a critic always has more authority than an artist. a critic can be ironic but an artist is always earnest because they're creating something they intended to, and in that sense an artist always says what they mean. what killed donald barthelme? the fact he never stuck his neck out. the fact he'd rather call shots than shoot them. the fact that he was the hiding man through and through. and the fact that the world had moved on and it was 2018 now and soon it'd be 2019 and wouldn't it be better to see something whole, consistent, true, instead of barthelme and post-barthelme stuff: broken, breaking, ending, shattered? that was my argument, at least. but turns out readers didn't want that either. they didn't want barthelme and they didn't want anti-barthelme. i slept over mom and dad's house that night. my house, i guess, my old house. it was hard to think of it that way. what was mine about it? just the memories which were in my head, not actually inside the house. it felt ridiculous to sentimentalize the house. the building itself wasn't special, its interior was identical to every other house on our block. small foyer. bottleneck hallway to first guest room and bathroom. dining room adjacent to office adjacent to garage. then on the other side of the house was the kitchen. then upstairs where there was another guest room, another bathroom, mom and dad's room, and my room. my old room. i dreamed about work. i was an english teacher at st. regis. i had six colleagues in the english department. in my dream one colleague took me aside and levelled with me and said, "everyone here hates you." she then went into detail about how each colleague hated me in a unique way. ms. hannah thought i was pretentious. mr. conroy thought i was an aloof upstart, arrogant and young. mr. epstein thought i took offensively little pride in my appearance: dirty fingernails, no cologne, no tie, my jacket never matched my pant, halitosis that singed his nose hairs, flecks of oatmeal in my teeth. my posture. ms. rub thought i obviously didn't care about my students and was just waiting until i became famous at which point i would officially quit. she also hated Killing Donald Barthelme. imagine how a beethoven snob would feel about, i don't know, three teens kill four; that's how ms. rub felt about my opus. mr. philips despised my sexual daydreams about janet (not that i ever mentioned them, it's just that he could read my mind). ms. robinson thought i was too surly and never washed her coffee mug when her mug and my mug were the only two left in the faculty lounge sink and i washed mine but "abandoned" hers: she thought i was selfish. so that's five of my colleagues. this left the colleague who was revealing all of this to me, ms. anna. i said, "ms. anna, do you have a problem with me?" she said, "yes. you wrote a book called Killing Donald Barthelme. now your dad is dying. you're a murderer." i woke up. i lay in bed and looked at my blanket and thought about these things. i thought about how an english teacher at st. regis makes approximately $55,000/year. multiplied by six that meant $330,000 said i was bad, hateable, hated. they couldn't be totally wrong, $330,000 was a lot of money. and they weren't wrong. i was biding time at my job. i didn't really care what i looked like. and i had written Killing Donald Barthelme as an act of patricide--but not toward dad. it was a book about killing donald barthelme. what happened was this: i'd idolized donald barthelme; i wrote short fiction like his; i didn't get published and i felt like barthelme had lied to me; i didn’t get that raise i wanted; i stabbed my copy of 60 stories with a steak knife; as a coup de grâce i wrote the book. the hope was to put donald barthelme behind me. but i felt more haunted by him than ever: so many books to go before i earned out! i wanted the success of Killing Donald Barthelme to lead to an interest in my fiction. originally my preface had been about my struggle to write like donald barthelme and my realization that his surrealist vision didn't actually address any of my concerns or any of the concerns of the world in 2018. it was sort of memoir. i even mentioned how i stabbed 60 stories. i thought all that was great. it made my book my own, and literary, instead of just another academic tome. but it turns out university presses want to publish academic tomes. they made me delete the preface. the book became sociological, historiographical, hermeneutical, materialistically exegetical, vaguely marxist with new york literary gossip that was 30 years past its due date thrown in for good measure. it was a book. it was shaped like a book. it looked at home in libraries and bookstores. it could've been used as a prop in a movie about someone who reads books. it was a book and technically it was my book but it wasn't me. somewhere along the line i'd failed. here's my test for writing. imagine you wrote everything by hand on a yellow legal pad. imagine you'd filled one up with writing. now imagine someone stealing your yellow legal pad and holding up a lighter to it. they light the corner on fire and the fire starts spreading. if you're able to let it burn, you failed. if every single copy of Killing Donald Barthelme burned tomorrow i'd survive. that's how i know i failed. i'd light the fire myself. if dad died on the other hand. my staying alive had always seemed contingent on his staying alive. once when i was 4 dad was mowing the lawn. it was an old kind of mower, one you had to fill with gas. i sat on the stoop watching him. i was sitting right next to a big red gas container. i lifted it up and opened the nozzle and tilted it down and opened my mouth. dad said, "no!" he ran over like he was in a movie about a dad who saves his son's life. which is what he did. he asked me why i tried to drink gas. i said, "i have no idea." another time we were driving on the highway. i was 6 and in the backseat. dad was driving at 60 mph. i thought, "what'll happen if i open the door? i bet dad'll think that's hilarious." so i opened the door. luckily we were already in the right-most lane, right next to the shoulder. dad said, "AHHHH" and pulled over onto the shoulder. he parked and opened his door and got out and shut his door and started walking around to my door and i closed my door and locked it before dad could open it. i locked all the other doors in the car until, through the slightly rolled down window, dad promised not to get mad. he lied, obviously. he was pissed. wouldn't you be pissed if your son constantly imperiled himself? dad didn’t want me to die. what was i supposed to do now? storm into mom and dad's room and shake him awake and say, "stop! don't be sick!" dad hadn't asked me about janet which made me suspicious that he somehow already knew. i worried he was mad at me for unconsciously provoking janet into breaking up with me. the next morning we were eating breakfast. i told them i had to get back to the city because i had some papers to finish grading. mom said, "ok." dad said, "you have to have them graded by tomorrow." i said, "yeah. unfortunately." we were eating pancakes and frittat. i felt empty. i wished i could do something romantic or sweet like tell them, "fuck my students. i'll grade their papers tomorrow night. i'll call in sick and stay home tomorrow. i wanna spend the day with just you guys. i wanna sleep here again." and even though i was once the kind of person who would do that, i wasn't that person anymore. that sharp extravagant light in me had dimmed into a glow it was easier to see by: i mean i could navigate the world like this: i'd calmed down: i was more realistic. after their divorce barthelme's first ex-wife went to france and needed someone to watch her car in houston while she was away. barthelme volunteered. his ex-wife said he had to replace the brakes. when she came back to houston she called barthelme and said, "hey can you pick me up from the airport." he showed up driving her car. the brakes weren't working. but the car had a bold new coat of red paint. that's what he'd spent the money on. that's the kind of guy he was. in my book i made a point about how behavior like that was infantile and how any reasonable adult should be insulted by barthelme's total inconsiderateness. but part of me found his roguishness, the romantic fantasy of it all, that fresh red paint on a car with bad brakes--well, i found it absolutely disarming, charming. of course i did: after all, i had once planned to move to mexico with a woman i'd only known for three months but loved completely, more than moths love the moon. i got up from the kitchen table and went to the garage. i took an old framed photo of me and an ex-girlfriend. i slid the picture out of the frame and folded it up and put it in my pocket. i went upstairs and took the framed photo of me and janet; i kept the frame where it was but switched the pictures. mom didn't notice anything was wrong for three weeks, after the test results for dad's follow-up came back and we knew for sure there was nothing wrong with him, the doctors apologized for any inconvenience and mom somehow got credited a $50 visa gift card for the trouble. mom would call me and tell me the good news and i'd want to call dad and congratulate him and tell him how happy i was and how much i loved him but mom would say, "no. don't do that. he doesn’t know you know. just text him and ask how he's doing." but that would happen later. now i had the picture of me and janet safe in my pocket and i still thought dad was sick. dad drove me to the south orange train station. i wanted to say something but instead i listened to talk radio with him. i wished he would say, "lorenzo, i love you. i'm proud of you. i know you had big ambitions for Killing Donald Barthelme. i know it's not all you'd dreamed it would be. and i know about you and janet. that's tough too: you think you're gonna get married, start a family, build a life with somebody. and then it slips away seemingly for no reason but then after a few months the reason is clear as day and you can't unsee it. then the reason is stuck with you forever even worse than the confusion was. anyway. i know what you're going through is painful. i just want you to know you can count on me." but he didn't say that. instead he teared up and said, "they think i'm sick, you know." i said, "who's they?" he said, "mom probably already told you. i know that's why you came to visit. i just wanted to talk about it like this. i don't want you to feel like we can't talk about it." i said, "it's just a follow-up. i understand you're concerned but i don't think it's serious." i looked away from him. i looked out the window at yellow hunched trees. i looked at the inside handle of the car door. dad said, "you think so." he was looking at me but i couldn't look back at him yet. he said, "i want you to know our life insurance policy gives you $1,000,000 if i die." i said, "jesus." i wished i could've put my hand on dad's hand but then i couldn't. we were outside the station. i said, "you're going to be fine. love you, dad. i'll come back and visit soon." he coughed and sneezed then pulled me in for a hug across the middle console. on the platform i realized i'd left my american spirits in mom's big silver car. donald barthelme wrote a novel called the dead father and i swear to god it's the only book of his i've never finished. forty minutes later i was back in new york. i opened the door to my apartment. if this were a different kind of story janet would've been there. she would've wanted to talk more. but i opened the door and i was alone. i took the scrunched up photo of us out of my pocket. i put it on the table where it jerkily unfurled. i texted mom and dad that i got home okay. i let worry spread through me, finally. i wanted to cry but nothing made me sad enough. not dad or the thought of him being sick. his blue eyes gooed over with ochre gunk. his breath smelling fecal then hospital sanitized. that thought didn't make me sad. just worried. i felt like there was something i could do to make sure dad didn't get sick but i was fucking up and couldn't do it. i also couldn't cry when i thought about janet. i thought about how actually good her weird trance music was. when i told her how much i loved nicholas grider, i told her my favorite writer was donald barthelme. i didn't tell her how Killing Donald Barthelme had just been published but i showed her his most beautiful story. she read it at the bean. i was pretending to grade but really i was trying to gauge her reaction to the story. i kept looking at her then at the outdoor stacks by the strand across the street. snow was melting. she didn't finish the story. she handed me back the book. she said, "he's your favorite writer?" she said this in a way that made me want to pretend the whole thing was a joke. instead i said, "yeah." she said, "not for me." i said, "but what about this line? 'and you can never return to felicities in the same way, the brilliant body, the distinguished spirit recapitulating moments that occur once, twice, or another number of times in rebellion or water.'" she shrugged. she said, "it's just sort of obvious, isn't it?" i loved her for that. one time we went hiking and she went on without me and met me on the way back. part of me thought the breakup would be like that. she was going on without me. she'd meet me on the way back. but i was wrong. i was alone now. i never saw janet ever again, except for at a friend's book launch a few months later. it was an ebook-exclusive though so there were no copies of the book around. the launch was a formality. it was just people drinking, people with bumpy foreheads and bad haircuts, small ears and smoldering remains of leningrad teeth: “creatives” who weren't happy with where they were: “creatives.” she wasn’t there with anyone new. i wanted to tell her that dad was okay. it was a false alarm. the doctors had made a bad call. in their white coats. but i didn't say anything. i stepped outside and had a cigarette. barthelme got lip cancer from cigarettes. he had to get surgery and after the surgery he couldn't grow any hair on his upper lip. he couldn't grow a moustache. i touched my moustache. i told myself once my moustache fell off, once i woke up and saw my moustache on my pillow, i'd stop smoking again for good. in my head, on my walk home, i repeated that line about felicities. i haven't seen janet since then. i realized what to do with the picture of us. i put it in the middle of Killing Donald Barthelme like a bookmark. this was my last copy. disgusted by myself and my failed attack of a book--its perfunctory meagerness, a first book--i'd given away every other copy to housing works or local libraries. but i kept one copy for myself and this was it. i put the picture in it, like i said. i turned to the title page. i wrote, "dead don. i hate you. i loved you. i loved what i thought you were: someone original. someone who was only mean because he was romantic. but i was wrong. you were actually a coward who fucked himself. you have no idea how hurt i feel. you don't even know me. you couldn't let go of being au courant which is why no one gives a shit about you now. that scares me because i learned everything from you so what if nobody gives a shit about me either? you don't get it because you're dead. but on some level you know what i'm saying is true. you couldn't consent to be part of the past. the immutable groove of it that deepens every day. the hideaway become foxhole become mass grave. but if you don't accept your place in the past, it's not like you get to live forever. instead you're just forgotten. it's past or nothing. you should've learned to live life like it was already over. you don't get it. you're dead." i opened the window by my kitchen sink. i got a lighter. i lit the book over my kitchen sink. it took a bunch of times until it finally caught fire. but then it did. the flame licked up into a clean hard column. when Killing Donald Barthelme was on fire i put it under the running faucet. i did this until what had been my big book was a heap of cold black flakes. i shut the window. i kept the water running until all the burned paper went down the drain. it was good to let it go. four years later dad died. he was hit by a car while crossing the street to pick up pizza from the restaurant by our house. i got the call from aunt bethany who called from mom's phone. mom was too upset to talk. it was hard to find those pictures of dad to put up on easels next to the flowers. dad at his communion before he got glasses. dad holding me two days after i was born: he has a bad moustache which he probably grew because he was scared. or excited. dad at my graduation. kissing mom at an anniversary. we didn't invite janet to the funeral. mom didn't invite any of my exes to the funeral. she's taken down their pictures. she said, "it feels silly to keep those." they're not even in the garage anymore. i check. i'm back at home. i moved back in with mom to help: first her then myself. she's thinking about fostering. i want to quit st. regis. part of me is saying that so dad will come back to talk me out of it. to push my hand away from the computer where i'm typing my resignation email and say, "what're you thinking?" i want to write another book just to dedicate it to him. to write the words, "to my father." even though i never thought of him that way, as "my father," until he died. for his whole life i only thought of him as "dad." and what would i write? what message is worth shoving out into the choppy waters of the future? i don't think there is one. and if there is, i don't have it. instead there's the past: unbroken, endless, the tower you can't enter, a line you can't cross. it rises above me from behind. it starts at the back of my knees and is stories directly above my head. i want it to tumble down and kill me. but if i'm gone, what about mom? mom and i sat outside in the chairs in the backyard. we looked at the trees. it was only sort of cold outside. winter but not how winter used to be: climate change. we had a fire going and she and i were sitting next to each other. she said, "tell me a funny story." i said, "donald barthelme was in new york. he was getting coffee with a woman who was in town to translate his books into german. she was his german translator. she was so nervous to meet him that she started crying. barthelme said, 'why are you crying? is it because i'm not as good a writer as samuel beckett?'" mom smiled. she said, "that's a silly thing for him to think." but by silly she didn't mean bad. she was maybe even glad it was silly. she said, "tell me another one." so i did. i told her a story about a man who bought a little city. i told her a story about a giant balloon. i told her a story about a jazz competition and how one man’s solo sounded like a herd of musk ox in full flight. i told her a story about a man whose wife is about to leave him on the advice of her psychiatrist and so the man writes a letter to the psychiatrist himself, arguing in favor of love as opposed to health. i told her a story about kierkegaard and schlegel. i told her a story about the tolstoy museum and the 30,000 pictures of him there and a flock of pigeons. i told her a story about robert kennedy. i told her a story about marriage and dissatisfaction. i told her a story about art and a falling dog. i told her a story about a genius. i told her a story about donald barthelme traveling overnight to many distant cities and having supper with the holy spirit. and mom laughed and i realized i was wrong about donald barthelme. i had been completely wrong. i tried to kill him but he wasn’t the one who died. he never would be. and mom told me stories about dad which are special and which i won’t repeat here. and i told her stories about other writers. truman capote and peggy lee singing together at a restaurant. gordon lish going to jail with hayden carruth. donald barthelme letting his daughter draw his picture and submitting that when asked for a self-portrait. i told her more stories about donald barthelme the man and the life he’d actually lived. she'd ask questions like, "this was in new york?" and i'd say, "yeah." and she'd ask questions like, "seriously?" and i'd say, "yeah." and she'd ask questions like, "did people you knew in new york who were writers, did they drink like that? did they get paid like that? is that what it's still like?" i was very glad that i didn't live in new york anymore and that's what i told her. she smiled when i said that. do you know what that's like? to make your mom smile by telling her the truth? i hope you do. i really hope you do. because if you don't then the past is the straight back of a knife you hold by the blade.

Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey. His Twitter is @_______Michael_.

Killing Donald Barthelme was originally published on The Nervous Breakdown.