Pool Sharks

The University of Houston’s reading series invited heavy-hitters from around the world.  In my three years alone:  Seamus Heaney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie, Edna O’Brien, amongst others.  After the readings, wealthy donors living in the River Oaks neighborhood would host receptions for the biggest names at their houses.  A satellite image of River Oaks Boulevard shows one palatial mansion after another, each with a chlorine-blue outcropping, a de rigueur private pool.

The Golf Specialist

River Oaks Boulevard ends in a loop in front of the River Oaks Country Club.  It boasts 18 holes of golf across 6,868 yards of Bermuda grass.  Players are expected to repair divots and marks on the greens.  Soft spikes only.  A marshal enforces tee times.  A guardhouse along River Oaks Boulevard keeps wayward graduate students from getting too close.  From our old, rickety cars, we saw the white colonnades and trimmed hedges and knew that we’d gone too far.

The Dentist

Marion Barthelme, Donald Barthelme’s widow, also hosted parties at her house, in the West University area.  Her house, in comparison, seemed more modest than the ones in River Oaks, even though she had remarried to the former CEO of Tyco International.  Marion, not surprisingly, was much more involved with the University of Houston’s creative writing program.  After her receptions, for instance, she pulled out a stack of newly-bought Tupperware containers.  For leftovers, she told us.  I know how you writers get hungry.  None of us were shy about claiming one.  For days afterwards: cold lamb brochettes, chunks of unidentified French cheese, beggar’s purses.  Our teeth remembered how it felt to eat.

The Fatal Glass of Beer

At these receptions, booze flowed freely.  We sat on her sofa and looked around her house, scrutinizing the signatures on the artwork lining her walls.  She had Picasso pencil sketches along the stairwell.  One late night, red-rimmed wine glasses and empty beer bottles occupying every flat surface, one student pointed out the de Kooning in the living room, and another student, clearly blitzed, said, “Yeah, that.  That’s just a decorative de Kooning.”

The Pharmacist

In the display case separating the dining room from the living room, Marion had a small, wooden box with antique pharmacist’s bottles — clear, small ones used to hold powders and tinctures and ointments.  These, however, were filled with marbles and sand and sea glass and pinfeathers.  I wanted to shake them, just to hear the sound the objects inside made.  “Bad idea,” someone said.  “I’m pretty sure that’s a Cornell box.”

The Barber Shop

I learned recently that Marion Barthelme died from cancer.  She lived not far from the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, and I wonder what treatments she had sought.  I wonder if her hair had fallen out.  That’s a stereotype, of course — Susan Sontag would have my hide for that — but there’s no other way to think of Marion than with her brown hair, packing away hors d’oeuvres, and we graduate students lining up, grateful, as always, for her generosity.

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