Where I’m Calling From, Raymond Carver
The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988
Positioned in a sitz bath in more agony than I had even imagined going into this mess, I turn another page of Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From and contemplate, appropriately enough, a world of pain.
In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard.
-from “Why Don’t You Dance?”
Why do people do the things they do? Why arrange a bedroom set in the front yard just so, most likely duplicating the exact arrangement as it existed for so many years inside? Why go to the trouble of running an extension cord to a TV and record player that now sit on a front lawn? And after all that, why does a man just turn around and give it all away to a couple of strangers passing by?
“The real story lies right here, in this house, this very living room, and it’s time it was told!”
-from “Put Yourself in My Shoes”
As dictated by the logistics of the medium, a short story writer—Carver (or, even Tolstoy, wink wink)—must be adept at squeezing the maximum from the minimum. This isn’t to say he is limited in any way from presenting stories that are fully realized but to suggest he is best served painting with broader strokes. As a result, the reader needs to be more than a passive participant. To fully appreciate Raymond Carver’s wondrous world of whys, the reader is asked to dig beneath the surface. The answer to why a man’s bedroom is now in his front yard is here, within the cracks. While Carver provides enough breadcrumbs to lead us along the trail of an assumption that tells us something is not quite right and that perhaps this man’s better days have come and gone, we are left to imagine what those better days entailed and to consider how the man in giving his things away to a young couple may very well have bequeathed to the strangers a hell of a lot more than they bargained for.
The efficiency in which Carver tells a tale strikes a chord. If life can be reduced in this way in the shortest of short stories, where one or two leftovers—true or even untrue—become all the ingredients that are needed to capture the essence of a character, then what does it say about our own lives? Can they be just as easily reduced and if so, which details will be the ones that choose to stick, left holding the reigns over our own blustery years?
The story most folks seemed to believe was the most horrible. The woman was a dope addict, so this story went, and the husband had brought her up here to help her get rid of the habit.
-from “What Do You Do in San Francisco?”
One family’s life story is manufactured from nothing more than an assembly line of town gossip, composed entirely from discarded shards of hearsay. The End. Wouldn’t want to be them, and yet, we are them, or at the very least, easily can be. The chopping block does not discriminate.
Hamilton had loved his father and could recall many things about him. But now he recalled his father’s one fistfight as if it were all there was to the man.
-from “Bicycles, Muscles, and Cigarettes”
Maybe that is all we were ever destined to be: the summation of one or two major or even minor details that ultimately brand us. While the thought can be depressing—that lives can be so easily minimized in this way—how conversely exciting it is to contemplate the power inherent in details, including too the details from someone else’s portfolio. A relatively unremarkable event from a life not even your own may one day reveal its disguise much later down the road, the details of which have been simmering as foil within your disillusioned subconscious. It hits. The reason the memory and its accompanying details have stayed with you all these years becomes painfully clear.
“Those old people must be dead now,” she goes, “side by side out there in some cemetery. You remember they asked us in for cake? And later they showed us around? And there was this gazebo there out back? It was out back under some trees? It had a little peaked roof and the paint was gone there were these weeds growing up over the steps. And the woman said that years before, I mean a real long time ago, men used to come around and play music out there on a Sunday, and the people would sit and listen. I thought we’d be like that too when we got old enough. Dignified. And in a place. And people would come to our door.”
I do not think that Raymond Carver appreciated the minimalist writer label. He did not seek to strip a story to its bare bones for the sake of being minimalist, but rather to tell a story efficiently and with purpose so that its power would resonate all the more. Resonate, they do. Carver’s characters do not reside within the confines of pages that once wowed me. They are real people. Their stories are the gazebos that we all stumble upon throughout our own long and winding journeys. They are reminders of what it means to be alive, in love, out of love, happy, sad (painfully so), paralyzed with fear, intoxicated with regret, but also reminders too of what it feels like to be in those mind-blowing moments of moments when a light suddenly appears in a tunnel of darkness.
But right away, as soon as he turns of the light and gets into bed, Rudy begins. I turn on my back and relax some, though it is against my will. But here is the thing. When he gets on me, I suddenly feel I am fat. I feel I am terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all.
Because sadness and pain are so prevalent in Carver stories, the experience is certainly not an easy one, but payoffs loom large. Ensconced in such murk, any glimmer of hope and any ray of light becomes all the more piercing. I think of a lonely baker who toils at night making cakes for parties and other happy occasions he will never attend. I remember seeing the Robert Altman version of the grim story that involved this baker, and although I love Altman’s interpretation of the Carver stories including the ingenious way he was able to weave otherwise unrelated stories into one cohesive and stunning film (Short Cuts), I do not remember feeling much sympathy for the baker who was making harassing phone calls to two people who were in the midst of experiencing a shocking and devastating loss. When I read the story however, I did feel empathy for the baker and better understood what a vital role he would play in reviving these two poor souls back from the dead as he and his bakery help to awaken their shattered senses. Although an excruciatingly long and painful recovery is only just beginning, that it is capable of beginning at all is both poignant and inspiring.
“Smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. It’s heavy bread but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the bread. It was like daylight under fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
-from “A Small, Good Thing”
I think of Bill and Arlene, two people whose lives are sparked from the doldrums through the task of watching over a neighbor couple’s apartment. When they accidentally lock their neighbors’ keys inside the very apartment they have been trusted to maintain, the reader might imagine that the fear suddenly swallowing Bill and Arlene is somehow directed at the fact they will not be able to complete their duties (not least of which is to take care of the neighbor’s poor cat, which got locked inside). But it does not take long to realize what the lockout really comes to signify as Bill and Arlene face the jolt of an expedited return to their own sad existence that is once again void of the vitality their lives had unexpectedly been infused with.
“Don’t worry,” he said into her ear. “For God’s sake, don’t worry.”
They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.
In a style unlike Carver, I know I have said way too much but what the hell, just one more thing.
“Those people are crazy,” Paul said.
Myers patted her hand.
“They were scary,” she said.
He did not answer. Her voice seemed to come to him from a great distance. He kept driving. Snow rushed at the windshield. He was silent and watched the road. He was at the very end of a story.
-from “Put Yourself in My Shoes”