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Authors: Raymond Carver

Tags: #Literary, #Short stories, #American, #Short Stories (single author), #Fiction

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The baby stood in Olla’s lap, looking around the table at us. Olla had moved her hands down to its middle so that the baby could rock back and forth on its fat legs. Bar none, it was the ugliest baby I’d ever seen. It was so ugly I couldn’t say anything. No words would come out of my mouth. I don’t mean it was diseased or disfigured. Nothing like that. It was just ugly. It had a big red face, pop eyes, a broad forehead, and these big fat lips. It had no neck to speak of, and it had three or four fat chins. Its chins rolled right up under its ears, and its ears stuck out from its bald head. Fat hung over its wrists. Its arms and fingers were fat. Even calling it ugly does it credit.

The ugly baby made its noise and jumped up and down on its mother’s lap. Then it stopped jumping. It leaned forward and tried to reach its fat hand into Olla’s plate.

I’ve seen babies. When I was growing up, my two sisters had a total of six babies. I was around babies a lot when I was a kid. I’ve seen babies in stores and so on. But this baby beat anything. Fran stared at it, too. I guess she didn’t know what to say either.

“He’s a big fellow, isn’t he?” I said.

Bud said, “He’ll by God be turning out for football before long. He sure as hell won’t go without meals around this house.”

As if to make sure of this, Olla plunged her fork into some sweet potatoes and brought the fork up to the baby’s mouth. “He’s my baby, isn’t he?” she said to the fat thing, ignoring us.

The baby leaned forward and opened up for the sweet potatoes. It reached for Olla’s fork as she guided the sweet potatoes into its mouth, then clamped down. The baby chewed the stuff and rocked some more on Olla’s lap. It was so pop-eyed, it was like it was plugged into something.

Fran said, “He’s some baby, Olla.”

The baby’s face screwed up. It began to fuss all over again.

“Let Joey in,” Olla said to Bud.

Bud let the legs of his chair come down on the floor. “I think we should at least ask these people if they mind,” Bud said.

Olla looked at Fran and then she looked at me. Her face had gone red again. The baby kept prancing in her lap, squirming to get down.

“We’re friends here,” I said. “Do whatever you want.”

Bud said, “Maybe they don’t want a big old bird like Joey in the house. Did you ever think of that, Olla?”

“Do you folks mind?” Olla said to us. “If Joey comes inside? Things got headed in the wrong direction with that bird tonight. The baby, too, I think. He’s used to having Joey come in and fool around with him a little before his bedtime. Neither of them can settle down tonight.”

“Don’t ask us,” Fran said. “I don’t mind if he comes in. I’ve never been up close to one before. But I don’t mind.” She looked at me. I suppose I could tell she wanted me to say something.

“Hell, no,” I said. “Let him in.” I picked up my glass and finished the milk.

Bud got up from his chair. He went to the front door and opened it. He flicked on the yard lights.

“What’s your baby’s name?” Fran wanted to know.

“Harold,” Olla said. She gave Harold some more sweet potatoes from her plate. “He’s real smart. Sharp as a tack. Always knows what you’re saying to him. Don’t you, Harold? You wait until you get your own baby, Fran. You’ll see.”

Fran just looked at her. I heard the front door open and then close.

“He’s smart, all right,” Bud said as he came back into the kitchen. “He takes after Olla’s dad. Now there was one smart old boy for you.”

I looked around behind Bud and could see that peacock hanging back in the living room, turning its head this way and that, like you’d turn a hand mirror. It shook itself, and the sound was like a deck of cards being shuffled in the other room.

It moved forward a step. Then another step.

“Can I hold the baby?” Fran said. She said it like it would be a favor if Olla would let her.

Olla handed the baby across the table to her.

Fran tried to get the baby settled in her lap. But the baby began to squirm and make its noises.

“Harold,” Fran said.

Olla watched Fran with the baby. She said, “When Harold’s grandpa was sixteen years old, he set out to read the encyclopedia from A to Z. He did it, too. He finished when he was twenty. Just before he met my mama.”

“Where’s he now?” I asked. “What’s he do?” I wanted to know what had become of a man who’d set himself a goal like that.

“He’s dead,” Olla said. She was watching Fran, who by now had the baby down on its back and across her knees. Fran chucked the baby under one of its chins. She started to talk baby talk to it.

“He worked in the woods,” Bud said. “Loggers dropped a tree on him.”

“Mama got some insurance money,” Olla said. “But she spent that. Bud sends her something every month.”

“Not much,” Bud said. “Don’t have much ourselves. But she’s Olla’s mother.”

By this time, the peacock had gathered its courage and was beginning to move slowly, with little swaying and jerking motions, into the kitchen. Its head was erect but at an angle, its red eyes fixed on us.

Its crest, a little sprig of feathers, stood a few inches over its head. Plumes rose from its tail. The bird stopped a few feet away from the table and looked us over.

“They don’t call them birds of paradise for nothing,” Bud said.

Fran didn’t look up. She was giving all her attention to the baby. She’d begun to patty-cake with it, which pleased the baby somewhat. I mean, at least the thing had stopped fussing. She brought it up to her neck and whispered something into its ear.

“Now,” she said, “don’t tell anyone what I said.”

The baby stared at her with its pop eyes. Then it reached and got itself a baby handful of Fran’s blond hair. The peacock stepped closer to the table. None of us said anything. We just sat still. Baby Harold saw the bird. It let go of Fran’s hair and stood up on her lap. It pointed its fat fingers at the bird. It jumped up and down and made noises.

The peacock walked quickly around the table and went for the baby. It ran its long neck across the baby’s legs. It pushed its beak in under the baby’s pajama top and shook its stiff head back and forth. The baby laughed and kicked its feet. Scooting onto its back, the baby worked its way over Fran’s knees and down onto the floor. The peacock kept pushing against the baby, as if it was a game they were playing.

Fran held the baby against her legs while the baby strained forward.

“I just don’t believe this,” she said.

“That peacock is crazy, that’s what,” Bud said. “Damn bird doesn’t know it’s a bird, that’s its major trouble.”

Olla grinned and showed her teeth again. She looked over at Bud. Bud pushed his chair away from the table and nodded.

It was an ugly baby. But, for all I know, I guess it didn’t matter that much to Bud and Olla. Or if it did, maybe they simply thought, So okay if it’s ugly. It’s our baby. And this is just a stage. Pretty soon there’ll be another stage. There is this stage and then there is the next stage. Things will be okay in the long run, once all the stages have been gone through. They might have thought something like that.

Bud picked up the baby and swung him over his head until Harold shrieked. The peacock ruffled its feathers and watched.

Fran shook her head again. She smoothed out her dress where the

baby had been. Olla picked up her fork and was working at some lima beans on her plate.

Bud shifted the baby onto his hip and said, “There’s pie and coffee yet.”

That evening at Bud and Olla’s was special. I knew it was special. That evening I felt good about almost everything in my life. I couldn’t wait to be alone with Fran to talk to her about what I was feeling. I made a wish that evening. Sitting there at the table, I closed my eyes for a minute and thought hard.

What I wished for was that I’d never forget or otherwise let go of that evening. That’s one wish of mine that came true. And it was bad luck for me that it did. But, of course, I couldn’t know that then.

“What are you thinking about, Jack?” Bud said to me.

“I’m just thinking,” I said. I grinned at him.

“A penny,” Olla said.

I just grinned some more and shook my head.

After we got home from Bud and

Olla’s that night, and we were under the covers, Fran said, “Honey, fill me up with your seed!” When she said that, I heard her all the way down to my toes, and I hollered and let go.

Later, after things had changed for us, and the kid had come along, all of that, Fran would look back on that evening at Bud’s place as the beginning of the change. But she’s wrong. The change came later—and when it came, it was like something that happened to other people, not something that could have happened to us.

“Goddamn those people and their ugly baby,” Fran will say, for no apparent reason, while we’re watching TV late at night. “And that smelly bird,” she’ll say. “Christ, who needs it!” Fran will say. She says this kind of stuff a lot, even though she hasn’t seen Bud and Olla since that one time.

Fran doesn’t work at the creamery anymore, and she cut her hair a long time ago. She’s gotten fat on me, too. We don’t talk about it. What’s to say?

I still see Bud at the plant. We work together and we open our lunch pails together. If I ask, he tells me about Olla and Harold. Joey’s out of the picture. He flew into his tree one night and that was it for him.

He didn’t come down. Old age, maybe, Bud says. Then the owls took over. Bud shrugs. He eats his sandwich and says Harold’s going to be a line backer someday. “You ought to see that kid,” Bud says. I nod. We’re still friends. That hasn’t changed any. But I’ve gotten careful with what I say to him. And I know he feels that and wishes it could be different. I wish it could be, too.

Once in a blue moon, he asks about my family. When he does, I tell him everybody’s fine. “Everybody’s fine,” I say. I close the lunch pail and take out my cigarettes. Bud nods and sips his coffee. The truth is, my kid has a conniving streak in him. But I don’t talk about it. Not even with his mother. Especially her.

She and I talk less and less as it is. Mostly it’s just the TV. But I remember that night. I recall the way the peacock picked up its gray feet and inched around the table. And then my friend and his wife saying good night to us on the porch. Olla giving Fran some peacock feathers to take home. I remember all of us shaking hands, hugging each other, saying things. In the car, Fran sat close to me as we drove away.

She kept her hand on my leg. We drove home like that from my friend’s house.

Cathedral

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-laws’.

Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.

That summer in Seattle she had needed a job. She didn’t have any money. The man she was going to marry at the end of the summer was in officers’ training school. He didn’t have any money, either. But she was in love with the guy, and he was in love with her, etc. She’d seen something in the paper: HELP WANTED—Reading to Blind Man, and a telephone number. She phoned and went over, was hired on the spot. She’d worked with this blind man all summer. She read stuff to him, case studies, reports, that sort of thing. She helped him organize his little office in the county social-service department. They’d become good friends, my wife and the blind man. How do I know these things? She told me. And she told me something else. On her last day in the office, the blind man asked if he could touch her face. She agreed to this. She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck! She never forgot it. She even tried to write a poem about it. She was always trying to write a poem. She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important had happened to her.

When we first started going out together, she showed me the poem. In the poem, she recalled his fingers and the way they had moved around over her face. In the poem, she talked about what she had felt at the time, about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips. I can remember I didn’t think much of the poem. Of course, I didn’t tell her that. Maybe I just don’t understand poetry. I admit it’s not the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read.

Anyway, this man who’d first enjoyed her favors, the officer-to-be, he’d been her childhood sweetheart.

So okay. I’m saying that at the end of the summer she let the blind man run his hands over her face, said good-bye to him, married her childhood etc., who was now a commissioned officer, and she moved away from Seattle. But they’d kept in touch, she and the blind man. She made the first contact after a year or so. She called him up one night from an Air Force base in Alabama. She wanted to talk. They talked. He asked her to send him a tape and tell him about her life. She did this. She sent the tape. On the tape, she told the blind man about her husband and about their life together in the military. She told the blind man she loved her husband but she didn’t like it where they lived and she didn’t like it that he was a part of the military-industrial thing. She told the blind man she’d written a poem and he was in it. She told him that she was writing a poem about what it was like to be an Air Force officer’s wife. The poem wasn’t finished yet. She was still writing it. The blind man made a tape. He sent her the tape. She made a tape. This went on for years. My wife’s officer was posted to one base and then another. She sent tapes from Moody AFB, McGuire, McConnell, and finally Travis, near Sacramento, where one night she got to feeling lonely and cut off from people she kept losing in that moving-around life. She got to feeling she couldn’t go it another step. She went in and swallowed all the pills and capsules in the medicine chest and washed them down with a bottle of gin. Then she got into a hot bath and passed out.

But instead of dying, she got sick. She threw up. Her officer—why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?—came home from somewhere, found her, and called the ambulance. In time, she put it all on a tape and sent the tape to the blind man. Over the years, she put all kinds of stuff on tapes and sent the tapes offlickety-split. Next to writing a poem every year, I think it was her chief means of recreation. On one tape, she told the blind man she’d decided to live away from her officer for a time. On another tape, she told him about her divorce. She and I began going out, and of course she told her blind man about it. She told him everything, or so it seemed to me. Once she asked me if I’d like to hear the latest tape from the blind man. This was a year ago. I was on the tape, she said. So I said okay, I’d listen to it. I got us drinks and we settled down in the living room. We made ready to listen.

First she inserted the tape into the player and adjusted a couple of dials. Then she pushed a lever. The tape squeaked and someone began to talk in this loud voice. She lowered the volume. After a few minutes of harmless chitchat, I heard my own name in the mouth of this stranger, this blind man I didn’t even know! And then this: “From all you’ve said about him, I can only conclude—” But we were interrupted, a knock at the door, something, and we didn’t ever get back to the tape. Maybe it was just as well. I’d heard all I wanted to.

Now this same blind man was coming to sleep in my house.

“Maybe I could take him bowling,” I said to my wife. She was at the draining board doing scalloped potatoes. She put down the knife she was using and turned around.

“If you love me,” she said, “you can do this for me. If you don’t love me, okay. But if you had a friend, any friend, and the friend came to visit, I’d make him feel comfortable.” She wiped her hands with the dish towel.

“I don’t have any blind friends,” I said.

“You don’t have any friends,” she said. “Period. Besides,” she said, “goddamn it, his wife’s just died!

Don’t you understand that? The man’s lost his wife!”

I didn’t answer. She’d told me a little about the blind man’s wife. Her name was Beulah. Beulah! That’s a name for a colored woman.

“Was his wife a Negro?” I asked.

“Are you crazy?” my wife said. “Have you just flipped or something?” She picked up a potato. I saw it hit the floor, then roll under the stove. “What’s wrong with you?” she said. “Are you drunk?”

“I’m just asking,” I said.

Right then my wife filled me in with more detail than I cared to know. I made a drink and sat at the kitchen table to listen. Pieces of the story began to fall into place.

Beulah had gone to work for the blind man the summer after my wife had stopped working for him.

Pretty soon Beulah and the blind man had themselves a church wedding. It was a little wedding—who’d want to go to such a wedding in the first place?—just the two of them, plus the minister and the minister’s wife. But it was a church wedding just the same. It was what Beulah had wanted, he’d said. But even then Beulah must have been carrying the cancer in her glands. After they had been inseparable for eight years—my wife’s word, inseparable—Beulah’s health went into a rapid decline. She died in a Seattle hospital room, the blind man sitting beside the bed and holding on to her hand. They’d married, lived and worked together, slept together—had sex, sure—and then the blind man had to bury her. All this without his having ever seen what the goddamned woman looked like. It was beyond my understanding. Hearing this, I felt sorry for the blind man for a little bit. And then I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led. Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one. A woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved. A woman whose husband could never read the expression on her face, be it misery or something better. Someone who could wear makeup or not—what difference to him? She could, if she wanted, wear green eye-shadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks, and purple shoes, no matter. And then to slip off into death, the blind man’s hand on her hand, his blind eyes streaming tears—I’m imagining now—her last thought maybe this: that he never even knew what she looked like, and she on an express to the grave. Robert was left with a small insurance policy and half of a twenty-peso Mexican coin. The other half of the coin went into the box with her. Pathetic.

So when the time rolled around, my wife went to the depot to pick him up. With nothing to do but wait-sure, I blamed him for that—I was having a drink and watching the TV when I heard the car pull into the drive. I got up from the sofa with my drink and went to the window to have a look.

I saw my wife laughing as she parked the car. I saw her get out of the car and shut the door. She was still wearing a smile. Just amazing. She went around to the other side of the car to where the blind man was already, starting to get out. This blind man, feature this, he was wearing a full beard! A beard on a blind man! Too much, I say. The blind man reached into the backseat and dragged out a suitcase. My wife took his arm, shut the car door, and, talking all the way, moved him down the drive and then up the steps to the front porch. I turned off the TV. I finished my drink, rinsed the glass, dried my hands. Then I went to the door.

My wife said, “I want you to meet Robert. Robert, this is my husband. I’ve told you all about him.” She was beaming. She had this blind man by his coat sleeve.

The blind man let go of his suitcase and up came his hand.

I took it. He squeezed hard, held my hand, and then he let it go.

“I feel like we’ve already met,” he boomed.

“Likewise,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. Then I said, “Welcome. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

We began to move then, a little group, from the porch into the living room, my wife guiding him by the arm. The blind man was carrying his suitcase in his other hand. My wife said things like, “To your left here, Robert. That’s right. Now watch it, there’s a chair. That’s it. Sit down right here. This is the sofa.

We just bought this sofa two weeks ago.”

I started to say something about the old sofa. I’d liked that old sofa. But I didn’t say anything. Then I wanted to say something else, small-talk, about the scenic ride along the Hudson. How going to New York, you should sit on the right-hand side of the train, and coming from New York, the left-hand side.

“Did you have a good train ride?” I said. “Which side of the train did you sit on, by the way?”

“What a question, which side!” my wife said. “What’s it matter which side?” she said.

“I just asked,” I said.

“Right side,” the blind man said. “I hadn’t been on a train in nearly forty years. Not since I was a kid.

With my folks. That’s been a long time. I’d nearly forgotten the sensation. I have winter in my beard now,” he said. “So I’ve been told, anyway. Do I look distinguished, my dear?” the blind man said to my wife.

“You look distinguished, Robert,” she said. “Robert,” she said. “Robert, it’s just so good to see you.”

My wife finally took her eyes off the blind man and looked at me. I had the feeling she didn’t like what she saw. I shrugged.

I’ve never met, or personally known, anyone who was blind. This blind man was late forties, a heavy-set, balding man with stooped shoulders, as if he carried a great weight there. He wore brown slacks, brown shoes, a light-brown shirt, a tie, a sports coat. Spiffy. He also had this full beard. But he didn’t use a cane and he didn’t wear dark glasses. I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind. Fact was, I wished he had a pair. At first glance, his eyes looked like anyone else’s eyes. But if you looked close, there was something different about them. Too much white in the iris, for one thing, and the pupils seemed to move around in the sockets without his knowing it or being able to stop it. Creepy.

As I stared at his face, I saw the left pupil turn in toward his nose while the other made an effort to keep in one place. But it was only an effort, for that eye was on the roam without his knowing it or wanting it to be.

I said, “Let me get you a drink. What’s your pleasure? We have a little of everything. It’s one of our pastimes.”

“Bub, I’m a Scotch man myself,” he said fast enough in this big voice.

“Right,” I said. Bub! “Sure you are. I knew it.”

He let his fingers touch his suitcase, which was sitting alongside the sofa. He was taking his bearings. I didn’t blame him for that.

“I’ll move that up to your room,” my wife said.

“No, that’s fine,” the blind man said loudly. “It can go up when I go up.”

“A little water with the Scotch?” I said.

“Very little,” he said.

“I knew it,” I said.

He said, “Just a tad. The Irish actor, Barry Fitzgerald? I’m like that fellow. When I drink water, Fitzgerald said, I drink water. When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey.” My wife laughed. The blind man brought his hand up under his beard. He lifted his beard slowly and let it drop.

I did the drinks, three big glasses of Scotch with a splash of water in each. Then we made ourselves comfortable and talked about Robert’s travels. First the long flight from the West Coast to Connecticut, we covered that. Then from Connecticut up here by train. We had another drink concerning that leg of the trip.

I remembered having read somewhere that the blind didn’t smoke because, as speculation had it, they couldn’t see the smoke they exhaled. I thought I knew that much and that much only about blind people.

But this blind man smoked his cigarette down to the nubbin and then lit another one. This blind man filled his ashtray and my wife emptied it.

When we sat down at the table for dinner, we had another drink. My wife heaped Robert’s plate with cube steak, scalloped potatoes, green beans. I buttered him up two slices of bread. I said, “Here’s bread and butter for you.” I swallowed some of my drink. “Now let us pray,” I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold,” I said.

We dug in. We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn’t talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed that table. We were into serious eating. The blind man had right away located his foods, he knew just where everything was on his plate. I watched with admiration as he used his knife and fork on the meat. He’d cut two pieces of meat, fork the meat into his mouth, and then go all out for the scalloped potatoes, the beans next, and then he’d tear off a hunk of buttered bread and eat that. He’d follow this up with a big drink of milk. It didn’t seem to bother him to use his fingers once in a while, either.

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