“Me and Miss Mandible,” by Donald Barthelme
First appeared in 1961 in Contact, issue 7 (I can’t find this magazine and presume it’s defunct), under the title “The Darling Duckling at School” (which I think is terrible); collected in Come Back, Dr. Caligari (Little, Brown and Company, 1964) and Sixty Stories (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981); online here
4,185 words—or close enough
So this was Barthelme’s first published story? Wouldn’t have guessed. Rereading, I want to quote so many lines. This wonderful portrait of prepubescent sexuality, for instance: “Amos Darin has been found drawing a dirty picture in the cloakroom. Sad and inaccurate, it was offered not as a sign of something else but as an act of love in itself. It has excited even those who have not seen it, even those who saw but understood only that it was dirty. The room buzzes with imperfectly comprehended titillation.”
I wonder what we’re to make of Miss Mandible (what a name!) being “ruined but fulfilled”? Was her moment of sexual ecstasy worth her job? Maybe her fulfillment is part of an elaborate fantasy going on here. (Either the narrator or Barthelme is a bit of a pig, after all; he thinks a little girl has “a woman’s disguised aggression and a woman’s peculiar contradictions.”)
But we’re told Miss Mandible “knows now that everything she has been told about life, about America, is true.” Doesn’t that go against the main idea in this story, the way “the authorities” run so much of our lives, the arbitrariness of so much of society and the roles we play in it? “Who decides?” Isn’t Miss Mandible, after all, being punished for the authorities’ edict that a thirty-five-year-old is actually eleven? Or is her punishment itself the thing that confirms in her mind the authorities’ righteousness? How is it that “truth is punishment”? I don’t know. I enjoy the story without being able to puzzle it out.
Glad I googled Sounds of Sebring.