Authors: Raymond Carver
Tags: #Literary, #Short stories, #American, #Short Stories (single author), #Fiction
by Raymond Carver
Copyright 1987, 1988 by Raymond Carver
To Tess Gallagher
We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come. —Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The stories in this collection are arranged, generally, in chronological order. A number of them have been revised for this edition, and in a few cases titles have been changed.
Table of Contents
I could hear them out in the kitchen.
I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were arguing. Then it got quiet and she started to cry. I elbowed George. I thought he would wake up and say something to them so they would feel guilty and stop. But George is such an asshole. He started kicking and hollering.
“Stop gouging me, you bastard,” he said. “I’m going to tell!”
“You dumb chickenshit,” I said. “Can’t you wise up for once? They’re fighting and Mom’s crying.
He listened with his head off the pillow. “I don’t care,” he said and turned over toward the wall and went back to sleep. George is a royal asshole.
Later I heard Dad leave to catch his bus. He slammed the front door. She had told me before he wanted to tear up the family. I didn’t want to listen.
After a while she came to call us for school. Her voice sounded funny—I don’t know. I said I felt sick at my stomach. It was the first week in October and I hadn’t missed any school yet, so what could she say?
She looked at me, but it was like she was thinking of something else. George was awake and listening. I could tell he was awake by the way he moved in the bed. He was waiting to see how it turned out so he could make his move.
“All right.” She shook her head. “I just don’t know. Stay home, then. But no TV, remember that.”
George reared up. “I’m sick too,” he said to her. “I have a headache. He gouged me and kicked me all night. I didn’t get to sleep at all.”
“That’s enough!” she said. “You are going to school, George! You’re not going to stay here and fight with your brother all day. Now get up and get dressed. I mean it. I don’t feel like another battle this morning.”
George waited until she left the room. Then he climbed out over the foot of the bed. “You bastard,” he said and yanked all the covers off me. He dodged into the bathroom.
“I’ll kill you,” I said but not so loud that she could hear.
I stayed in bed until George left for school. When she started to get ready for work, I asked if she would make a bed for me on the couch, I said I wanted to study. On the coffee table I had the Edgar Rice Burroughs books I had gotten for my birthday and my Social Studies book. But I didn’t feel like reading.
I wanted her to leave so I could watch TV.
She flushed the toilet.
I couldn’t wait any longer. I turned the picture on without the volume. I went out to the kitchen where she had left her pack of weeds and shook out three. I put them in the cupboard and went back to the couch and started reading The Princess of Mars. She came out and glanced at the TV but didn’t say anything. I had the book open. She poked at her hair in front of the mirror and then went into the kitchen. I looked back at the book when she came out.
“I’m late. Good-bye, sweetheart.” She wasn’t going to bring up the TV. Last night she’d said she wouldn’t know what it meant any more to go to work without being “stirred up.”
“Don’t cook anything. You don’t need to turn the burners on for a thing. There’s tuna fish in the icebox if you feel hungry.” She looked at me. “But if your stomach is sick, I don’t think you should put anything on it. Anyway, you don’t need to turn the burners on. Do you hear? You take that medicine, sweetheart, and I hope your stomach feels better by tonight. Maybe we’ll all feel better by tonight.”
She stood in the doorway and turned the knob. She looked as if she wanted to say something else. She wore the white blouse, the wide black belt, and the black skirt. Sometimes she called it her outfit, sometimes her uniform. For as long as I could remember, it was always hanging in the closet or hanging on the clothesline or getting washed out by hand at night or being ironed in the kitchen.
She worked Wednesdays through Sundays.
I waited until she had started the car and had it warm. I listened as she pulled away from the curb. Then I got up and turned the sound on loud and went for the weeds. I smoked one and beat off while I watched a show about doctors and nurses. Then I turned to the other channel. Then I turned off the TV. I didn’t feel like watching.
I finished the chapter where Tars Tarkas falls for a green woman, only to see her get her head chopped off the next morning by this jealous brother-in-law. It was about the fifth time I had read it. Then I went to their bedroom and looked around. I wasn’t after anything in particular unless it was rubbers again and though I had looked all over I had never found any. Once I found a jar of Vaseline at the back of a drawer. I knew it must have something to do with it, but I didn’t know what. I studied the label and hoped it would reveal something, a description of what people did, or else about how you applied the Vaseline, that sort of thing. But it didn’t. Pure Petroleum Jelly, that was all it said on the front label. But just reading that was enough to give you a boner. An Excellent Aid in the Nursery, it said on the back. I tried to make the connection between Nursery—the swings and slides, the sandboxes, monkeybars—and what went on in bed between them. I had opened the jar lots of times and smelled inside and looked to see how much had been used since last time. This time I passed up the Pure Petroleum Jelly. I mean, all I did was look to see the jar was still there. I went through a few drawers, not really expecting to find anything. I looked under the bed. Nothing anywhere. I looked in the jar in the closet where they kept the grocery money. There was no change, only a five and a one. They would miss that. Then I thought I would get dressed and walk to Birch Creek. Trout season was open for another week or so, but almost everybody had quit fishing. Everybody was just sitting around now waiting for deer and pheasant to open.
I got out my old clothes. I put wool socks over my regular socks and took my time lacing up the boots. I made a couple of tuna sandwiches and some double-decker peanut-butter crackers. I filled my canteen and attached the hunting knife and the canteen to my belt. As I was going out the door, I decided to leave a note. So I wrote: “Feeling better and going to Birch Creek. Back soon. R. 3:15.” That was about four hours from now.
And about fifteen minutes before George would come in from school. Before I left, I ate one of the sandwiches and had a glass of milk with it.
It was nice out. It was fall. But it wasn’t cold yet except at night. At night they would light the smudgepots in the orchards and you would wake up in the morning with a black ring of stuff in your nose. But nobody said anything. They said the smudging kept the young pears from freezing, so it was all right.
To get to Birch Creek, you go to the end of our street where you hit Sixteenth Avenue. You turn left on Sixteenth and go up the hill past the cemetery and down to Lennox, where there is a Chinese restaurant.
From the crossroads there, you can see the airport, and Birch Creek is below the airport. Sixteenth changes to View Road at the crossroads. You follow View for a little way until you come to the bridge.
There are orchards on both sides of the road. Sometimes when you go by the orchards you see pheasants running down the rows, but you can’t hunt there because you might get shot by a Greek named Matsos. I guess it is about a forty-minute walk all in all.
I was halfway down Sixteenth when a woman in a red car pulled onto the shoulder ahead of me. She rolled down the window on the passenger’s side and asked if I wanted a lift. She was thin and had little pimples around her mouth. Her hair was up in curlers. But she was sharp enough. She had a brown sweater with nice boobs inside.
“Playing hooky?” “Guess so.”
“Want a ride?”
“Get in. I’m kind of in a hurry.”
I put the fly rod and the creel on the back seat. There were a lot of grocery sacks from Mel’s on the floorboards and back seat. I tried to think of something to say.
“I’m going fishing,” I said. I took off my cap, hitched the canteen around so I could sit, and parked myself next to the window.
“Well, I never would have guessed.” She laughed. She pulled back onto the road. “Where are you going?
I nodded again. I looked at my cap. My uncle had bought it for me in Seattle when he had gone to watch a hockey game. I couldn’t think of anything more to say. I looked out the window and sucked my cheeks.
You always see yourself getting picked up by this woman. You know you’ll fall for each other and that she’ll take you home with her and let you screw her all over the house. I began to get a boner thinking about it. I moved the cap over my lap and closed my eyes and tried to think about baseball.
“I keep saying that one of these days I’ll take up fishing,” she said. “They say it’s very relaxing. I’m a nervous person.”
I opened my eyes. We were stopped at the crossroads. I wanted to say, Are you real busy? Would you like to start this morning? But I was afraid to look at her.
“Will this help you? I have to turn here. I’m sorry I’m in a hurry this morning,” she said.
“That’s okay. This is fine.” I took my stuff out. Then I put my cap on and took it off again while I talked.
“Good-bye. Thanks. Maybe next summer,” but I couldn’t finish.
“You mean fishing? Sure thing.” She waved with a couple of fingers the way women do.
I started walking, going over what I should have said. I could think of a lot of things. What was wrong with me? I cut the air with the fly rod and hollered two or three times. What I should have done to start things off was ask if we could have lunch together. No one was home at my house. Suddenly we are in my bedroom under the covers. She asks me if she can keep her sweater on and I say it’s okay with me.
She keeps her pants on too. That’s all right, I say. I don’t mind.
A Piper Cub dipped low over my head as it came in for a landing. I was a few feet from the bridge. I could hear the water running. I hurried down the embankment, unzipped, and shot off five feet over the creek. It must have been a record. I took a while eating the other sandwich and the peanut-butter crackers. I drank up half the water in the canteen. Then I was ready to fish.
I tried to think where to start. I had fished here for three years, ever since we had moved. Dad used to bring George and me in the car and wait for us, smoking, baiting our hooks, tying up new rigs for us if we snagged. We always started at the bridge and moved down, and we always caught a few. Once in a while, at the first of the season, we caught the limit. I rigged up and tried a few casts under the bridge first.
Now and then I cast under a bank or else in behind a big rock. But nothing happened. One place where the water was still and the bottom full of yellow leaves, I looked over and saw a few crawdads crawling there with their big ugly pinchers raised. Some quail flushed out of a brush pile. When I threw a stick, a rooster pheasant jumped up cackling about ten feet away and I almost dropped the rod.
The creek was slow and not very wide. I could walk across almost anywhere without it going over my boots. I crossed a pasture full of cow pads and came to where the water flowed out of a big pipe. I knew there was a little hole below the pipe, so I was careful. I got down on my knees when I was close enough to drop the line. It had just touched the water when I got a strike, but I missed him. I felt him roll with it.
Then he was gone and the line flew back. I put another salmon egg on and tried a few more casts. But I knew I had jinxed it.
I went up the embankment and climbed under a fence that had a KEEP OUT sign on the post. One of the airport runways started here. I stopped to look at some flowers growing in the cracks in the pavement.
You could see where the tires had smacked down on the pavement and left oily skid marks all around the flowers. I hit the creek again on the other side and fished along for a little way until I came to the hole. I thought this was as far as I would go. When I had first been up here three years ago, the water was roaring right up to the top of the banks. It was so swift then that I couldn’t fish. Now the creek was about six feet below the bank. It bubbled and hopped through this little run at the head of the pool where you could hardly see bottom. A little farther down, the bottom sloped up and got shallow again as if nothing had happened. The last time I was up here I caught two fish about ten inches long and turned one that looked twice as big—a summer steelhead, Dad said when I told him about it. He said they come up during the high water in early spring but that most of them return to the river before the water gets low.
I put two more shot on the line and closed them with my teeth. Then I put a fresh salmon egg on and cast out where the water dropped over a shelf into the pool. I let the current take it down. I could feel the sinkers tap-tapping on rocks, a different kind of tapping than when you are getting a bite. Then the line tightened and the current carried the egg into sight at the end of the pool.
I felt lousy to have come this far up for nothing. I pulled out all kinds of line this time and made another cast. I laid the fly rod over a limb and lit the next to last weed. I looked up the valley and began to think about the woman. We were going to her house because she wanted help carrying in the groceries. Her husband was overseas. I touched her and she started shaking. We were Frenchkissing on the couch when she excused herself to go to the bathroom. I followed her. I watched as she pulled down her pants and sat on the toilet. I had a big boner and she waved me over with her hand. Just as I was going to unzip, I heard a plop in the creek. I looked and saw the tip of my fly rod jiggling.
He wasn’t very big and didn’t fight much. But I played him as long as I could. He turned on his side and lay in the current down below. I didn’t know what he was. He looked strange. I tightened the line and lifted him over the bank into the grass, where he started wiggling. He was a trout. But he was green. I never saw one like him before. He had green sides with black trout spots, a greenish head, and like a green stomach. He was the color of moss, that color green. It was as if he had been wrapped up in moss a long time, and the color had come off all over him. He was fat, and I wondered why he hadn’t put up more of a fight. I wondered if he was all right. I looked at him for a time longer, then I put him out of his pain.