Authors: Raymond Carver
Tags: #Literary, #Short stories, #American, #Short Stories (single author), #Fiction
And it’s board and room and then some. Jim and I won’t have to worry anymore about what’s going to happen to us. You know what I m saying. Right now, Jim doesn’t have anything,” she said. “He was sixty-two last week. He hasn’t had anything for some time. He came in this morning to tell you about it himself, because I was going to have to give notice, you see. We thought—I thought—it would help if Jim was here when I told you.” She waited for Carlyle to say something. When he didn’t, she went on. “I’ll finish out the week, and I could stay on a couple of days next week, if need be. But then, you know, for sure, we really have to leave, and you’ll have to wish us luck. I mean, can you imagine—all the way out there to Oregon in that old rattletrap of ours? But I’m going to miss these little kids. They’re so precious.”
After a time, when he still hadn’t moved to answer her, she got up from her chair and went to sit on the cushion next to his. She touched the sleeve of his robe. “Mr. Carlyle?”
“I understand,” he said. “I want you to know your being here has made a big difference to me and the children.” His head ached so much that he had to squint his eyes. “This headache,” he said. “This headache is killing me.”
Mrs. Webster reached over and laid the back of her hand against his forehead. “You still have some fever,” she told him. “I’ll get more aspirin. That’ll help bring it down. I’m still on the case here,” she said.
“I’m still the doctor.”
“My wife thinks I should write down what this feels like,” Carlyle said. “She thinks it might be a good idea to describe what the fever is like. So I can look back later and get the message.” He laughed. Some tears came to his eyes. He wiped them away with the heel of his hand.
“I think I’ll get your aspirin and juice and then go out there with the kids,” Mrs. Webster said. “Looks to me like they’ve about worn out their interest with that clay.”
Carlyle was afraid she’d move into the other room and leave him alone. He wanted to talk to her. He cleared his throat. “Mrs.Webster, there’s something I want you to know. For a long time, my wife and I loved each other more than anything or anybody in the world. And that includes those children. We thought, well, we knew that we’d grow old together. And we knew we’d do all the things in the world that we wanted to do, and do them together.” He shook his head. That seemed the saddest thing of all to him now—that whatever they did from now on, each would do it without the other.
“There, it’s all right,” Mrs. Webster said. She patted his hand. He sat forward and began to talk again.
After a time, the children came out to the living room. Mrs. Webster caught their attention and held a finger to her lips. Carlyle looked at them and went on talking. Let them listen, he thought. It concerns them, too. The children seemed to understand they had to remain quiet, even pretend some interest, so they sat down next to Mrs. Webster’s legs. Then they got down on their stomachs on the carpet and started to giggle. But Mrs. Webster looked sternly in their direction, and that stopped it.
Carlyle went on talking. At first, his head still ached, and he felt awkward to be in his pajamas on the sofa with this old woman beside him, waiting patiently for him to go on to the next thing. But then his headache went away. And soon he stopped feeling awkward and forgot how he was supposed to feel. He had begun his story somewhere in the middle, after the children were born. But then he backed up and started at the beginning, back when Eileen was eighteen and he was nineteen, a boy and girl in love, burning with it.
He stopped to wipe his forehead. He moistened his lips.
“Go on,” Mrs. Webster said. “I know what you’re saying. You just keep talking, Mr. Carlyle. Sometimes it’s good to talk about it. Sometimes it has to be talked about. Besides, I want to hear it. And you’re going to feel better afterward. Something just like it happened to me once, something like what you’re describing. Love. That’s what it is.”
The children fell asleep on the carpet. Keith had his thumb in his mouth. Carlyle was still talking when Mr. Webster came to the door, knocked, and then stepped inside to collect Mrs. Webster.
“Sit down, Jim,” Mrs. Webster said. “There’s no hurry. Go on with what you were saying, Mr. Carlyle.”
Carlyle nodded at the old man, and the old man nodded back, then got himself one of the dining-room chairs and carried it into the living room. He brought the chair close to the sofa and sat down on it with a sigh. Then he took off his cap and wearily lifted one leg over the other. When Carlyle began talking again, the old man put both feet on the floor. The children woke up. They sat up on the carpet and rolled their heads back and forth. But by then Carlyle had said all he knew to say, so he stopped talking.
“Good. Good for you,” Mrs. Webster said when she saw he had finished. “You’re made out of good stuff.
And so is she—so is Mrs. Carlyle. And don’t you forget it. You’re both going to be okay after this is over.”
She got up and took off the apron she’d been wearing. Mr. Webster got up, too, and put his cap back on.
At the door, Carlyle shook hands with both of the Websters.
“So long,” Jim Webster said. He touched the bill of his cap.
“Good luck to you,” Carlyle said.
Mrs. Webster said she’d see him in the morning then, bright and early as always.
As if something important had been settled, Carlyle said, “Right!”
The old couple went carefully along the walk and got into their truck. Jim Webster bent down under the dashboard. Mrs.Webster looked at Carlyle and waved. It was then, as he stood at the window, that he felt something come to an end. It had to do with Eileen and the life before this. Had he ever waved at her?
He must have, of course, he knew he had, yet he could not remember just now. But he understood it was over, and he felt able to let her go. He was sure their life together had happened in the way he said it had. But it was something that had passed. And that passing—though it had seemed impossible and he’d fought against it— would become a part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he’d left behind.
As the pickup lurched forward, he lifted his arm once more. He saw the old couple lean toward him briefly as they drove away. Then he brought his arm down and turned to his children.
This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper. I didn’t know his wife and he didn’t know Fran. That made us even. But Bud and I were friends. And I knew there was a little baby at Bud’s house. That baby must have been eight months old when Bud asked us to supper. Where’d those eight months go? Hell, where’s the time gone since? I remember the day Bud came to work with a box of cigars. He handed them out in the lunchroom. They were drugstore cigars. Dutch Masters. But each cigar had a red sticker on it and a wrapper that said IT’S A BOY! I didn’t smoke cigars, but I took one anyway. “Take a couple,” Bud said. He shook the box. “I don’t like cigars either. This is her idea.” He was talking about his wife. Olla.
I’d never met Bud’s wife, but once I’d heard her voice over the telephone. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I didn’t have anything I wanted to do. So I called Bud to see if he wanted to do anything. This woman picked up the phone and said, “Hello.” I blanked and couldn’t remember her name. Bud’s wife.
Bud had said her name to me any number of times. But it went in one ear and out the other. “Hello!” the woman said again. I could hear a TV going. Then the woman said, “Who is this?” I heard a baby start up. “Bud!” the woman called. “What?” I heard Bud say. I still couldn’t remember her name. So I hung up. The next time I saw Bud at work I sure as hell didn’t tell him I’d called. But I made a point of getting him to mention his wife’s name. “Olla,” he said. Olla, I said to myself. Olla.
“No big deal,” Bud said. We were in the lunchroom drinking coffee. “Just the four of us. You and your missus, and me and Olla. Nothing fancy. Come around seven. She feeds the baby at six. She’ll put him down after that, and then we’ll eat. Our place isn’t hard to find. But here’s a map. “He gave me a sheet of paper with all kinds of lines indicating major and minor roads, lanes and such, with arrows pointing to the four poles of the compass. A large X marked the location of his house.
I said, “We’re looking forward to it.” But Fran wasn’t too thrilled.
That evening, watching TV, I asked her if we should take anything to Bud’s.
“Like what?” Fran said. “Did he say to bring something? How should I know? I don’t have any idea.”
She shrugged and gave me this look. She’d heard me before on the subject of Bud. But she didn’t know him and she wasn’t interested in knowing him. “We could take a bottle of wine,” she said. “But I don’t care. Why don’t you take some wine?” She shook her head. Her long hair swung back and forth over her shoulders. Why do we need other people? she seemed to be saying. We have each other. “Come here,” I said. She moved a little closer so I could hug her. Fran’s a big tall drink of water. She has this blond hair that hangs down her back. I picked up some of her hair and sniffed it. I wound my hand in her hair. She let me hug her. I put my face right up in her hair and hugged her some more.
Sometimes when her hair gets in her way she has to pick it up and push it over her shoulder. She gets mad at it. “This hair,” she says. “Nothing but trouble.” Fran works in a creamery and has to wear her hair up when she goes to work. She has to wash it every night and take a brush to it when we’re sitting in front of the TV. Now and then she threatens to cut it off. But I don’t think she’d do that. She knows I like it too much. She knows I’m crazy about it. I tell her I fell in love with her because of her hair. I tell her I might stop loving her if she cut it. Sometimes I call her “Swede.” She could pass for a Swede. Those times together in the evening she’d brush her hair and we’d wish out loud for things we didn’t have. We wished for a new car, that’s one of the things we wished for. And we wished we could spend a couple of weeks in Canada. But one thing we didn’t wish for was kids. The reason we didn’t have kids was that we didn’t want kids. Maybe sometime, we said to each other. But right then, we were waiting. We thought we might keep on waiting. Some nights we went to a movie. Other nights we just stayed in and watched TV. Sometimes Fran baked things for me and we’d eat whatever it was all in a sitting.
“Maybe they don’t drink wine,” I said.
“Take some wine anyway,” Fran said. “If they don’t drink it, we’ll drink it.”
“White or red?” I said.
“We’ll take something sweet,” she said, not paying me any attention. “But I don’t care if we take anything. This is your show. Let’s not make a production out of it, or else I don’t want to go. I can make a raspberry coffee ring. Or else some cupcakes.”
“They’ll have dessert,” I said. “You don’t invite people to supper without fixing a dessert.”
“They might have rice pudding. Or Jell-O! Something we don’t like,” she said. “I don’t know anything about the woman. How do we know what she’ll have? What if she gives us Jell-O?” Fran shook her head. I shrugged. But she was right. “Those old cigars he gave you,” she said. “Take them. Then you and him can go off to the parlor after supper and smoke cigars and drink port wine, or whatever those people in movies drink.”
“Okay, we’ll just take ourselves,” I said.
Fran said, “We’ll take a loaf of my bread.”
Bud and Olla lived twenty miles or so from town. We’d lived in that town for three years, but, damn it, Fran and I hadn’t so much as taken a spin in the country. It felt good driving those winding little roads. It was early evening, nice and warm, and we saw pastures, rail fences, milk cows moving slowly toward old barns. We saw red-winged blackbirds on the fences, and pigeons circling around haylofts. There were gardens and such, wildflowers in bloom, and little houses set back from the road. I said, “I wish we had us a place out here.” It was just an idle thought, another wish that wouldn’t amount to anything. Fran didn’t answer. She was busy looking at Bud’s map. We came to the four-way stop he’d marked. We turned right like the map said and drove exactly three and three-tenths miles. On the left side of the road, I saw a field of corn, a mailbox, and a long, graveled driveway. At the end of the driveway, back in some trees, stood a house with a front porch. There was a chimney on the house. But it was summer, so, of course, no smoke rose from the chimney. But I thought it was a pretty picture, and I said so to Fran.
“It’s the sticks out here,” she said.
I turned into the drive. Corn rose up on both sides of the drive. Corn stood higher than the car. I could hear gravel crunching under the tires. As we got up close to the house, we could see a garden with green things the size of baseballs hanging from the vines.
“What’s that?” I said.
“How should I know?” she said. “Squash, maybe. I don’t have a clue.”
“Hey, Fran,” I said. “Take it easy.”
She didn’t say anything. She drew in her lower lip and let it go. She turned off the radio as we got close to the house.
A baby’s swing-set stood in the front yard and some toys lay on the porch. I pulled up in front and stopped the car. It was then that we heard this awful squall. There was a baby in the house, right, but this cry was too loud for a baby.
“What’s that sound?” Fran said.
Then something as big as a vulture flapped heavily down from one of the trees and landed just in front of the car. It shook itself. It turned its long neck toward the car, raised its head, and regarded us.
“Goddamn it,” I said. I sat there with my hands on the wheel and stared at the thing.
“Can you believe it?” Fran said. “I never saw a real one before.”
We both knew it was a peacock, sure, but we didn’t say the word out loud. We just watched it. The bird turned its head up in the air and made this harsh cry again. It had fluffed itself out and looked about twice the size it’d been when it landed.
“Goddamn,” I said again. We stayed where we were in the front seat.
The bird moved forward a little. Then it turned its head to the side and braced itself. It kept its bright, wild eye right on us. Its tail was raised, and it was like a big fan folding in and out. There was every color in the rainbow shining from that tail.
“My God,” Fran said quietly. She moved her hand over to my knee.
“Goddamn,” I said. There was nothing else to say.
The bird made this strange wailing sound once more. “May-awe, may-awe!” it went. If it’d been something I was hearing late at night and for the first time, I’d have thought it was somebody dying, or else something wild and dangerous.
The front door opened and Bud came out on the porch. He was buttoning his shirt. His hair was wet. It looked like he’d just come from the shower.
“Shut yourself up, Joey!” he said to the peacock. He clapped his hands at the bird, and the thing moved back a little. “That’s enough now.
That’s right, shut up! You shut up, you old devil!” Bud came down the steps. He tucked in his shirt as he came over to the car. He was wearing what he always wore to work—blue jeans and a denim shirt. I had on my slacks and a short-sleeved sport shirt. My good loafers. When I saw what Bud was wearing, I didn’t like it that I was dressed up.
“Glad you could make it,” Bud said as he came over beside the car. “Come on inside.”
“Hey, Bud,” I said.
Fran and I got out of the car. The peacock stood off a little to one side, dodging its mean-looking head this way and that. We were careful to keep some distance between it and us.
“Any trouble finding the place?” Bud said to me. He hadn’t looked at Fran. He was waiting to be introduced.
“Good directions,” I said. “Hey, Bud, this is Fran. Fran, Bud. She’s got the word on you, Bud.”
He laughed and they shook hands. Fran was taller than Bud. Bud had to look up.
“He talks about you,” Fran said. She took her hand back. “Bud this, Bud that. You’re about the only person down there he talks about. I feel like I know you.” She was keeping an eye on the peacock. It had moved over near the porch.
“This here’s my friend,” Bud said. “He ought to talk about me.” Bud said this and then he grinned and gave me a little punch on the arm.
Fran went on holding her loaf of bread. She didn’t know what to do with it. She gave it to Bud. “We brought you something.”
Bud took the loaf. He turned it over and looked at it as if it was the first loaf of bread he’d ever seen.
“This is real nice of you.” He brought the loaf up to his face and sniffed it.
“Fran baked that bread,” I told Bud.
Bud nodded. Then he said, “Let’s go inside and meet the wife and mother.”
He was talking about Olla, sure. Olla was the only mother around. Bud had told me his own mother was dead and that his dad had pulled out when Bud was a kid.
The peacock scuttled ahead of us, then hopped onto the porch when Bud opened the door. It was trying to get inside the house.
“Oh,” said Fran as the peacock pressed itself against her leg.
“Joey, goddamn it,” Bud said. He thumped the bird on the top of its head. The peacock backed up on the porch and shook itself. The quills in its train rattled as it shook. Bud made as if to kick it, and the peacock backed up some more. Then Bud held the door for us. “She lets the goddamn thing in the house. Before long, it’ll be wanting to eat at the goddamn table and sleep in the goddamn bed.”
Fran stopped just inside the door. She looked back at the cornfield. “You have a nice place,” she said.
Bud was still holding the door. “Don’t they, Jack?”
“You bet,” I said. I was surprised to hear her say it.
“A place like this is not all it’s cracked up to be,” Bud said, still holding the door. He made a threatening move toward the peacock. “Keeps you going. Never a dull moment.” Then he said, “Step on inside, folks.”
I said, “Hey, Bud, what’s that growing there?”
“Them’s tomatoes,” Bud said.
“Some farmer I got,” Fran said, and shook her head.
Bud laughed. We went inside. This plump little woman with her hair done up in a bun was waiting for us in the living room. She had her hands rolled up in her apron. The cheeks of her face were bright red. I thought at first she might be out of breath, or else mad at something. She gave me the once-over, and then her eyes went to Fran. Not unfriendly, just looking. She stared at Fran and continued to blush.
Bud said, “Olla, this is Fran. And this is my friend Jack. You know all about Jack. Folks, this is Olla.”
He handed Olla the bread.
“What’s this?” she said. “Oh, it’s homemade bread. Well, thanks. Sit down anywhere. Make yourselves at home. Bud, why don’t you ask them what they’d like to drink. I’ve got something on the stove.” Olla said that and went back into the kitchen with the bread.
“Have a seat,” Bud said. Fran and I plunked ourselves down on the sofa. I reached for my cigarettes.
Bud said, “Here’s an ashtray.” He picked up something heavy from the top of the TV. “Use this,” he said, and he put the thing down on the coffee table in front of me. It was one of those glass ashtrays made to look like a swan. I lit up and dropped the match into the opening in the swan’s back. I watched a little wisp of smoke drift out of the swan.
The color TV was going, so we looked at that for a minute. On the screen, stock cars were tearing around a track. The announcer talked in a grave voice. But it was like he was holding back some excitement, too. “We’re still waiting to have official confirmation,” the announcer said.
“You want to watch this?” Bud said. He was still standing.
I said I didn’t care. And I didn’t. Fran shrugged. What difference could it make to her? she seemed to say. The day was shot anyway.
“There’s only about twenty laps left,” Bud said. “It’s close now. There was a big pile-up earlier. Knocked out half-a-dozen cars. Some drivers got hurt. They haven’t said yet how bad.”
“Leave it on,” I said. “Let’s watch it.”
“Maybe one of those damn cars will explode right in front of us,” Fran said. “Or else maybe one’ll run up into the grandstand and smash the guy selling the crummy hot dogs.” She took a strand of hair between her fingers and kept her eyes fixed on the TV.
Bud looked at Fran to see if she was kidding. “That other business, that pile-up, was something. One thing led to another. Cars, parts of cars, people all over the place. Well, what can I get you? We have ale, and there’s a bottle of Old Crow.”