Lots of literary things have been cool recently.
For instance, today I read the play Standing on My Knees and thought it was quite brilliant.
And, inspired by some of the lovely exchanges in it, I started what I am calling my Notebook of Beautiful Words, and already it has several pages of just good thoughts which have been percolating. Not mine, of course. C. S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde and Madeleine L’Engle and Dostoyevsky and Aristotle and other very cool people.
But today I want to talk about Raymond Carver.
Raymond Carver wrote a beautiful story which has been published multiple times under different names, usually as “Everything Stuck to Him” in the short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But I first saw it published as “Distance” in The Moral Compass, the anthology compiled by William J. Bennett (same guy from the Book of Virtues), and I like that version best.
Here it is.
She’s in Milan for Christmas and wants to know what it was like when she was a kid. Always that on the rare occasions when he sees her.
Tell me, she says. Tell me what it was like then. She sips Strega, waits, eyes him closely.
She is a cool, slim, attractive girl, a survivor from top to bottom.
That was a long time ago. That was twenty years ago, he says. They’re in his apartment on the Via Fabroni near the Cascina Gardens.
You can remember, she says. Go on, tell me.
What do you want to hear? he asks. What can I tell you. I could tell you about something that happened when you were a baby. It involves you, he says. But only in a minor way.
Tell me, she says. But first get us another drink, so you won’t have to interrupt half way through.
He comes back from the kitchen with drinks, settles into his chair, begins.
They were kids themselves, but they were crazy in love, this eighteen-year-old boy and his seventeen-year-old girl friend when they married. Not all that long afterwards they had a daughter.
The baby came along in late November during a severe cold spell that just happened to coincide with the peak of the waterfowl season in that part of the country. The boy loved to hunt, you see, that’s part of it.
The boy and girl, husband and wife now, father and mother, lived in a three-room apartment under a dentist’s office. Each night they cleaned the upstairs office in exchange for their rent and utilities. In the summer they were expected to maintain the lawn and the flowers, and in winter the boy shoveled snow from the walks and spread rock salt on the pavement. The two kids, I’m telling you, were very much in love. On top of this they had great ambitions and they were wild dreamers. They were always talking about the things they were going to do and the places they were going to go.
He gets up from his chair and looks out the window for a minute over the tile rooftops at the snow that falls steadily through the late afternoon light.
Tell the story, she says.
The boy and girl slept in the bedroom, and the baby slept in a crib in the living room. You see, the baby was about three weeks old at this time and had only just begun to sleep through the night.
One Saturday night, after finishing his work upstairs, the boy went into the dentist’s office, put his feet up on the desk, and called Carl Sutherland, an old hunting and fishing friend of his father’s.
Carl, he said when the man picked up the receiver. I’m a father. We had a baby girl.
Congratulations, boy, Carl said. How is the wife?
She’s fine, Carl. The baby’s fine, too, the boy said. Everybody’s fine.
That’s good, Carl said. I’m glad to hear it. Well, you give my regards to the wife. If you called about going hunting, I’ll tell you something. The geese are flying down there to beat the band. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many of them and I’ve been going for years. I shot five today. Two this morning and three this afternoon. I’m going back in the morning and you come along if you want to.
I want to, the boy said. That’s why I called.
You be here at five-thirty sharp then and we’ll go, Carl said. Bring lots of shells. We’ll get some shooting in all right. I’ll see you in the morning.
The boy liked Carl Sutherland. He’d been a friend of the boy’s father, who was dead now. After the father’s death, maybe trying to replace the loss they both felt, the boy and Sutherland had started hunting together. Sutherland was a heavy-set, balding man who lived alone and was not given to casual talk. Once in a while, when they were together, the boy felt uncomfortable, wondered if he had said or done something wrong because he was not used to being around people who kept still for long periods of time. But when he did talk the older man was often opinionated, and frequently the boy didn’t agree with the opinions. Yet the man had a toughness and woods-savvy about him that the boy liked and admired.
The boy hung up the telephone and went downstairs to tell the girl. She watched while he laid out his things. Hunting coat, shell bag, boots, socks, hunting cap, long underwear, pump gun.
What time will you be back? the girl asked.
Probably around noon, he said. But maybe not until after five or six o’clock. Is that too late?
It’s fine, she said. We’ll get along just fine. You go and have some fun. You deserve it. Maybe tomorrow evening we’ll dress Catherine up and go visit Sally.
Sure, that sounds like a good idea, he said. Let’s plan on that.
Sally was the girl’s sister. She was ten years older. The boy was a little in love with her, just as he was a little in love with Betsy, who was another sister the girl had. He’d said to the girl, If we weren’t married I could go for Sally.
What about Betsy? the girl had said. I hate to admit it but I truly feel she’s better looking than Sally or me. What about her?
Betsy too, the boy said and laughed. But not in the same way I could go for Sally. There’s something about Sally you could fall for. No, I believe I’d prefer Sally over Betsy, if I had to make a choice.
But who do you really love? the girl asked. Who do you love most in all the world? Who’s your wife?
You’re my wife, the boy said.
And will we always love each other? the girl asked, enormously enjoying this conversation he could tell.
Always, the boy said. And we’ll always be together. We’re like the Canada geese, he said, taking the first comparison that came to mind, for they were often on his mind in those days. They only marry once. They choose a mate early in life, and they stay together always. If one of them dies or something, the other one will never remarry. It will live off by itself somewhere, or even continue to live with the flock, but it will stay single and alone amongst all the other geese.
That’s sad, the girl said. It’s sadder for it to live that way, I think, alone but with all the others, than just to live off by itself somewhere.
It is sad, the boy said. But it’s Nature.
Have you ever killed one of those marriages? she asked. You know what I mean.
He nodded. He said. Two or three times I’ve shot a goose, then a minute or two later I’d see another goose turn back from the rest and begin to circle and call over the goose that lay on the ground.
Did you shoot it too? she asked with concern.
If I could, he answered. Sometimes I missed.
And it didn’t bother you? she said.
Never, he said. You can’t think about it when you’re doing it. You see, I love everything there is about geese. I love to just watch them even when I’m not hunting them. But there are all kinds of contradictions in life. You can’t think about the contradictions.
After dinner he turned up the furnace and helped her bathe the baby. He marveled again at the infant who had half his features, the eyes and mouth, and half the girl’s, the chin and the nose. He powdered the tiny body and then powdered in between the fingers and toes. He watched the girl put the baby into its diaper and pajamas.
He emptied the bath into the shower basin and then he went upstairs. It was cold and overcast outside. His breath streamed in the air. The grass, what there was of it, looked like canvas, stiff and gray under the street light. Snow lay in piles beside the walk. A car went by and he heard sand grinding under the tires. He let himself imagine what it might be like tomorrow, geese milling in the air over his head, the gun plunging against his shoulder.
Then he locked the door and went downstairs.
In bed they tried to read but both of them fell asleep, she first, letting the magazine sink to the quilt. His eyes closed, but he roused himself, checked the alarm, and turned off the lamp.
He woke to the baby’s cries. The light was on out in the living room. He could see the girl standing beside the crib rocking the baby in her arms. In a minute she put the baby down, turned out the light and came back to bed.
It was two o’clock in the morning and the boy fell asleep once more.
The baby’s cries woke him again. This time the girl continued to sleep. The baby cried fitfully for a few minutes and stopped. The boy listened, then began to doze.
He opened his eyes. The living room light was burning. He sat up and turned on the lamp.
I don’t know what’s wrong, the girl said, walking back and forth with the baby. I’ve changed her and given her something more to eat. But she keeps crying. She won’t stop crying. I’m so tired I’m afraid I might drop her.
You come back to bed, the boy said. I’ll hold her for a while.
He got up and took the baby while the girl went to lie down.
Just rock her for a few minutes, the girl said from the bedroom. Maybe she’ll go back to sleep.
The boy sat on the sofa and held the baby. He jiggled it in its lap until its eyes closed. His own eyes were near closing. He rose carefully and put the baby back in the crib.
It was fifteen minutes to four and he still had forty-five minutes that he could sleep. He crawled into bed.
But a few minutes later the baby began to cry once more. This time they both got up, and the boy swore.
For God’s sake what’s the matter with you? the girl said to him. Maybe she’s sick or something. Maybe we shouldn’t have given her the bath.
The boy picked up the baby. The baby kicked its feet and was quiet. Look, the boy said, I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with her.
How do you know that? the girl said. Here, let me have her. I know that I ought to give her something, but I don’t know what I should give her.
After a few minutes had passed and the baby had not cried, the girl put the baby down again. The boy and the girl looked at the baby, and then they looked at each other as the baby opened its eyes and began to cry.
The girl took the baby. Baby, baby, she said with tears in her eyes.
Probably it’s something on her stomach, the boy said.
The girl didn’t answer. She went on rocking the baby in her arms, paying no attention now to the boy.
The boy waited a minute longer, then went to the kitchen and pulled on water for coffee. He drew on his woolen underwear and buttoned up. Then he got into his clothes.
What are you doing? the girl said to him.
Going hunting, he said.
I don’t think you should, she said. Maybe you could go later on in the day if the baby is all right then. But I don’t think you should go hunting this morning. I don’t want to be left alone with the baby crying like this.
Carl’s planning on me going, the boy said. We’ve planned it.
I don’t give a damn about what you and Carl have planned, she said. And I don’t give a damn about Carl, either. I don’t even know the man. I don’t want you to go is all. I don’t think you should even consider wanting to go under the circumstances.
You’ve met Carl before, you know him, the boy said. What do you mean you don’t know him?
That’s not the point and you know it, the girl said. The point is I don’t intend to be left alone with a sick baby.
Wait a minute, the boy said. You don’t understand.
No, you don’t understand, she said. I’m your wife. This is your baby. She’s sick or something. Look at her. Why is she crying? You can’t leave us to go hunting.
Don’t get hysterical, he said.
I’m saying you can go hunting any time, she said. Something’s wrong with this baby and you want to leave us to go hunting.
She began to cry. She put the baby back in the crib, but the baby started up again. The girl dried her eyes hastily on the sleeve of her nightgown and picked the baby up once more.
The boy laced his boots slowly, put on his shirt, sweater, and his coat. The kettle whistled on the stove in the kitchen.
You’re going to have to choose, the girl said. Carl or us, I mean it, you’ve got to choose.
What do you mean? the boy said.
You heard what I said, the girl answered. If you want a family you’re going to have to choose.
They stared at each other. Then the boy took his hunting gear and went upstairs. He started the car, went around to the windows and, making a job of it, scraped away the ice.
The temperature had dropped during the night, but the weather had cleared so that the stars had come out. The stars gleamed in the sky over his head. Driving, the boy looked out at the stars and was moved when he considered their distance.
Carl’s porchlight was on, his station wagon parked in the drive with the motor idling. Carl came outside as the boy pulled to the curb. The boy had decided.
You might want to park off the street, Carl said as the boy came up the walk. I’m ready, just let me hit the lights. I feel like hell, I really do, he went on. I thought maybe you had overslept so I just this minute called your place. Your wife said you had left. I feel like hell.
It’s okay, the boy said, trying to pick his words. He leaned his weight on one leg and turned up his collar. He put his hands in his coat pockets. She was already up, Carl. We’ve both been up for a while. I guess there’s something wrong with the baby. I don’t know. The baby keeps crying, I mean. The thing is, I guess I can’t go this time, Carl.
You should have just stepped to the phone and called me, boy, Carl said. It’s okay. You know you didn’t have to come over here to tell me. What the hell, this hunting business you can take it or leave it. It’s not important. You want a cup of coffee?
I’d better get back, the boy said.
Well, I expect I’ll go ahead then, Carl said. He looked at the boy.
The boy kept standing on the porch, not saying anything.
It’s cleared up, Carl said. I don’t look for much action this morning. Probably you won’t have missed anything anyway.
The boy nodded. I’ll see you, Carl, he said.
So long, Carl said. Hey, don’t let anybody ever tell you otherwise, Carl said. You’re a lucky boy and I mean that.
The boy started his car and waited. He watched Carl go through the house and turn off all the lights. Then the boy put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.
The living room light was on, but the girl was asleep on the bed and the baby was asleep beside her.
The boy took off his boots, pants and shirt. He was quiet about it. In his socks and woolen underwear, he sat on the sofa and read the morning paper.
Soon it began to turn light outside. The girl and the baby slept on. After a while the boy went to the kitchen and began to fry bacon.
The girl came out in her robe a few minutes later and put her arms around him without saying anything.
Hey, don’t catch your robe on fire, the boy said. She was leaning against him but touching the stove, too.
I’m sorry about earlier, she said. I don’t know what got into me. I don’t know why I said those things.
It’s all right, he said. Here, let me get this bacon.
I didn’t mean to snap like that, she said. It was awful.
It was my fault, he said. How’s Catherine?
She’s fine now. I don’t know what was the matter with her earlier. I changed her again after you left and then she was fine. She was just fine and she went right off to sleep. I don’t know what it was. Don’t be mad with us.
The boy laughed. I’m not mad with you. Don’t be silly, he said. Here, let me do something with this pan.
You sit down, the girl said. I’ll fix this breakfast. How does a waffle sound with this bacon?
Sounds great, he said. I’m starved.
She took the bacon out of the pan and then she made waffle batter. He sat at the table, relaxed now, and watched her move around the kitchen.
She left to close their bedroom door. In the living room she put on a record that they both liked.
We don’t want to wake that one up again, the girl said.
That’s for sure, the boy said, and laughed.
She put a plate in front of him with bacon, a fried egg, and a waffle. She put another plate on the table for herself. It’s ready, she said.
It looks swell, he said. He spread butter and poured syrup over the waffle. But as he started to cut into the waffle, he turned the plate into his lap.
I don’t believe it, he said jumping up from the table.
The girl looked at him and then at the expression on his face. She began to laugh.
If you could see yourself in the mirror, she said. She kept laughing.
He looked down at the syrup that covered the front of his woolen underwear, at the pieces of waffle, bacon, and egg that clung to the syrup. He began to laugh.
I was starved, he said, shaking his head.
You were starved, she said laughing.
He peeled off the woolen underwear and threw it at the bathroom door. Then he opened his arms and she moved into them.
We won’t fight any more, she said. It’s not worth it, is it?
That’s right, he said.
We won’t fight any more, she said.
The boy said, We won’t. Then he kissed her.
He gets up from his chair and refills their glasses.
That’s it, he says. End of story. I admit it’s not much of one.
I was interested, she says. It was very interesting if you want to know. But what happened? she says. I mean later.
He shrugs and carries his drink over to the window. It’s dark now but still snowing.
Thing change, he says. I don’t know how they do. But they do without your realizing it or wanting them to.
Yes, that’s true, only – but she does not finish what she started.
She drops the subject then. In the window’s reflection he sees her study her nails. Then she raises her head. Speaking brightly, she asks if he is going to show her the city, after all.
He says, Put your boots on and let’s go.
But he stays by the window, remembering that life. They had laughed. They had leaned on each other and laughed until the tears had come, while everything else – the cold and where he’d go in it – was outside, for a while anyway.
I was telling my dad about this story when I came home for the weekend a day or two ago, and he said something that surprised me. He said, “I did that.”
And he told me a story, a bit similar, about a time when I was pretty small, and either I or my younger sister was sick, and he had planned to go hunting with a colleague and friend. Apparently my mother told him to go, but, as my dad said, “I knew she didn’t really want me to.”
“And so I drove over there, still deciding, and when I got there,” my dad said, “I told him I couldn’t go. The kids were sick. And I came home. And I never really went hunting with him after that.”
It was a bit sad, but I understood it, I think. Duty calls. Eventually, you are going to have to choose.