Authors: Raymond Carver
Tags: #Literary, #Short stories, #American, #Short Stories (single author), #Fiction
They kept walking and when they reached their block, Hamilton took his arm away.
“What if he’d picked up a knife, Dad? Or a club?”
“He wouldn’t have done anything like that,” Hamilton said.
“But what if he had?” his son said.
“It’s hard to say what people will do when they’re angry,” Hamilton said.
They started up the walk to their door. His heart moved when Hamilton saw the lighted windows.
“Let me feel your muscle,” his son said.
“Not now,” Hamilton said. “You just go in now and have your dinner and hurry up to bed. Tell your mother I’m all right and I’m going to sit on the porch for a few minutes.”
The boy rocked from one foot to the other and looked at his father, and then he dashed into the house and began calling, “Mom! Mom!”
He sat on the porch and leaned against the garage wall and stretched his legs. The sweat had dried on his forehead. He felt clammy under his clothes.
He had once seen his father—a pale, slow-talking man with slumped shoulders—in something like this. It was a bad one, and both men had been hurt. It had happened in a cafe. The other man was a farmhand.
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.
He was still sitting on the porch when his wife came out.
“Dear God,” she said and took his head in her hands. “Come in and shower and then have something to eat and tell me about it. Everything is still warm. Roger has gone to bed.”
But he heard his son calling him.
“He’s still awake,” she said.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” Hamilton said. “Then maybe we should have a drink.”
She shook her head. “I really don’t believe any of this yet.”
He went into the boy’s room and sat down at the foot of the bed.
“It’s pretty late and you’re still up, so I’ll say good night,” Hamilton said.
“Good night,” the boy said, hands behind his neck, elbows jutting.
He was in his pajamas and had a warm fresh smell about him that Hamilton breathed deeply. He patted his son through the covers.
“You take it easy from now on. Stay away from that part of the neighborhood, and don’t let me ever hear of you damaging a bicycle or any other personal property. Is that clear?” Hamilton said.
The boy nodded. He took: his hands from behind his neck and began picking at something on the bedspread.
“Okay, then,” Hamilton said, “I’ll say good night.”
He moved to kiss his son, but the boy began talking.
“Dad, was Grandfather strong like you? When he was your age, I mean, you know, and you—”
“And I was nine years old? Is that what you mean? Yes, I guess he was,” Hamilton said.
“Sometimes I can hardly remember him,” the boy said. “I don’t want to forget him or anything, you know? You know what I mean, Dad?”
When Hamilton did not answer at once, the boy went on. “When you were young, was it like it is with you and me? Did you love him more than me? Or just the same?” The boy said this abruptly. He moved his feet under the covers and looked away. When Hamilton still did not answer, the boy said, “Did he smoke? I think I remember a pipe or something.”
“He started smoking a pipe before he died, that’s true,” Hamilton said. “He used to smoke cigarettes a long time ago and then he’d get depressed with something or other and quit, but later he’d change brands and start in again. Let me show you something,” Hamilton said. “Smell the back of my hand.”
The boy took the hand in his, sniffed it, and said, “I guess I don’t smell anything, Dad. What is it?”
Hamilton sniffed the hand and then the fingers. “Now I can’t smell anything, either,” he said. “It was there before, but now it’s gone.” Maybe it was scared out of me, he thought. “I wanted to show you something. All right, it’s late now. You better go to sleep,” Hamilton said.
The boy rolled onto his side and watched his father walk to the door and watched him put his hand to the switch. And then the boy said, “Dad? You’ll think I’m pretty crazy, but I wish I’d known you when you were little. I mean, about as old as I am right now. I don’t know how to say it, but I’m lonesome about it.
It’s like—it’s like I miss you already if I think about it now. That’s pretty crazy, isn’t it? Anyway, please leave the door open.”
Hamilton left the door open, and then he thought better of it and closed it halfway.
He had been reading to her from Rilke, a poet he admired, when she fell asleep with her head on his pillow. He liked reading aloud, and he read well—a confident sonorous voice, now pitched low and somber, now rising, now thrilling. He never looked away from the page when he read and stopped only to reach to the nightstand for a cigarette. It was a rich voice that spilled her into a dream of caravans just setting out from walled cities and bearded men in robes. She had listened to him for a few minutes, then she had closed her eyes and drifted off.
He went on reading aloud. The children had been asleep for hours, and outside a car rubbered by now and then on the wet pavement. After a while he put down the book and turned in the bed to reach for the lamp. She opened her eyes suddenly, as if frightened, and blinked two or three times. Her eyelids looked oddly dark and fleshy to him as they flicked up and down over her fixed glassy eyes. He stared at her.
“Are you dreaming?” he asked.
She nodded and brought her hand up and touched her fingers to the plastic curlers at either side of her head. Tomorrow would be Friday, her day for all the four-to-seven-year-olds in the Woodlawn Apartments. He kept looking at her, leaning on his elbow, at the same time trying to straighten the spread with his free hand. She had a smooth-skinned face with prominent cheekbones; the cheekbones, she sometimes insisted to friends, were from her father, who had been one-quarter Nez Perce.
Then: “Make me a little sandwich of something, Mike. With butter and lettuce and salt on the bread.”
He did nothing and he said nothing because he wanted to go to sleep. But when he opened his eyes she was still awake, watching him.
“Can’t you go to sleep, Nan?” he said, very solemnly. “It’s late.”
“I’d like something to eat first,” she said. “My legs and arms hurt for some reason, and I’m hungry.”
He groaned extravagantly as he rolled out of bed.
He fixed her the sandwich and brought it in on a saucer. She sat up in bed and smiled when he came into the bedroom, then slipped a pillow behind her back as she took the saucer. He thought she looked like a hospital patient in her white nightgown.
“What a funny little dream I had.”
“What were you dreaming?” he said, getting into bed and turning over onto his side away from her. He stared at the nightstand waiting. Then he closed his eyes slowly.
“Do you really want to hear it?” she said.
“Sure,” he said.
She settled back comfortably on the pillow and picked a crumb from her lip.
“Well. It seemed like a real long drawn-out kind of dream, you know, with all kinds of relationships going on, but I can’t remember everything now. It was all very clear when I woke up, but it’s beginning to fade now. How long have I been asleep, Mike? It doesn’t really matter, I guess. Anyway, I think it was that we were staying someplace overnight. I don’t know where the kids were, but it was just the two of us at some little hotel or something. It was on some lake that wasn’t familiar. There was another, older, couple there and they wanted to take us for a ride in their motorboat.” She laughed, remembering, and leaned forward off the pillow. “The next thing I recall is we were down at the boat landing. Only the way it turned out, they had just one seat in the boat, a kind of bench up in the front, and it was only big enough for three. You and I started arguing about who was going to sacrifice and sit all cooped up in the back. You said you were, and I said I was. But I finally squeezed in the back of the boat. It was so narrow it hurt my legs, and I was afraid the water was going to come in over the sides. Then I woke up.”
“That’s some dream,” he managed to say and felt drowsily that he should say something more. “You remember Bonnie Travis? Fred Travis’ wife? She used to have color dreams, she said.”
She looked at the sandwich in her hand and took a bite. When she had swallowed, she ran her tongue in behind her lips and balanced the saucer on her lap as she reached behind and plumped up the pillow.
Then she smiled and leaned back against the pillow again.
“Do you remember that time we stayed overnight on the Tilton River, Mike? When you caught that big fish the next morning?” She placed her hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember that?” she said.
She did. After scarcely thinking about it these last years, it had begun coming back to her lately. It was a month or two after they’d married and gone away for a weekend. They had sat by a little campfire that night, a watermelon in the snow-cold river, and she’d fried Spam and eggs and canned beans for supper and pancakes and Spam and eggs in the same blackened pan the next morning. She had burned the pan both times she cooked, and they could never get the coffee to boil, but it was one of the best times they’d ever had. She remembered he had read to her that night as well: Elizabeth Browning and a few poems from the Rubalyat, They had had so many covers over them that she could hardly turn her feet under all the weight. The next morning he had hooked a big trout, and people stopped their cars on the road across the river to watch him play it in.
“Well? Do you remember or not?” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “Mike?”
“I remember,” he said. He shifted a little on his side, opened his eyes. He did not remember very well, he thought. What he did remember was very carefully combed hair and loud half-baked ideas about life and art, and he did not want to remember that.
“That was a long time ago, Nan,” he said.
“We’d just got out of high school. You hadn’t started to college,” she said.
He waited, and then he raised up onto his arm and turned his head to look at her over his shoulder. “You about finished with that sandwich, Nan?” She was still sitting up in the bed.
She nodded and gave him the saucer.
“I’ll turn off the light,” he said.
“If you want,” she said.
Then he pulled down into the bed again and extended his foot until it touched against hers. He lay still for a minute and then tried to relax.
“Mike, you’re not asleep, are you?”
“No,” he said. “Nothing like that.”
“Well, don’t go to sleep before me,” she said. “I don’t want to be awake by myself.”
He didn’t answer, but he inched a little closer to her on his side. When she put her arm over him and planted her hand flat against his chest, he took her fingers and squeezed them lightly. But in moments his hand dropped away to the bed, and he sighed.
“Mike? Honey? I wish you’d rub my legs. My legs hurt,” she said.
“God,” he said softly. “I was sound asleep.”
“Well, I wish you’d rub my legs and talk to me. My shoulders hurt, too. But my legs especially.”
He turned over and began rubbing her legs, then fell asleep again with his hand on her hip.
“What is it, Nan? Tell me what it is.”
“I wish you’d rub me all over,” she said, turning onto her back. “My legs and arms both hurt tonight.”
She raised her knees to make a tower with the covers.
He opened his eyes briefly in the dark and then shut them. “Growing pains, huh?”
“Oh God, yes,” she said, wiggling her toes, glad she had drawn him out. “When I was ten or eleven years old I was as big then as I am now. You should’ve seen me! I grew so fast in those days my legs and arms hurt me all the time. Didn’t you?”
“Didn’t I what?”
“Didn’t you ever feel yourself growing?”
“Not that I remember,” he said.
At last he raised up on his elbow, struck a match, and looked at the clock. He turned his pillow over to the cooler side and lay down again.
She said, “You’re asleep, Mike. I wish you’d want to talk.”
“All right,” he said, not moving.
“Just hold me and get me off to sleep. I can’t go to sleep,” she said.
He turned over and put his arm over her shoulder as she turned onto her side to face the wall.
He tapped his toes against her foot.
“Why don’t you tell me all the things you like and the things you don’t like.”
“Don’t know any right now,” he said. “Tell me if you want,” he said.
“If you promise to tell me. Is that a promise?
He tapped her foot again.
“Well…” she said and turned onto her back, pleased. “I like good foods, steaks and hash-brown potatoes, things like that. I like good books and magazines, riding on trains at night, and those times I flew in an airplane.” She stopped. “Of course none of this is in order of preference. I’d have to think about it if it was in the order of preference. But I like that, flying in airplanes. There’s a moment as you leave the ground you feel whatever happens is all right.” She put her leg across his ankle. “I like staying up late at night and then staying in bed the next morning. I wish we could do that all the time, not just once in a while. And I like sex. I like to be touched now and then when I’m not expecting it. I like going to movies and drinking beer with friends afterward. I like to have friends. I like Janice Hendricks very much. I’d like to go dancing at least once a week. I’d like to have nice clothes all the time. I’d like to be able to buy the kids nice clothes every time they need it without having to wait. Laurie needs a new little outfit right now for Easter. And I’d like to get Gary a little suit or something. He’s old enough. I’d like you to have a new suit, too. You really need a new suit more than he does. And I’d like us to have a place of our own. I’d like to stop moving around every year, or every other year. Most of all,” she said, “I’d like us both just to live a good honest life without having to worry about money and bills and things like that. You’re asleep,” she said.
“I’m not,” he said.
“I can’t think of anything else. You go now. Tell me what you’d like.”
“I don’t know. Lots of things,” he mumbled.
“Well, tell me. We’re just talking, aren’t we?”
“I wish you’d leave me alone, Nan.” He turned over to his side of the bed again and let his arm rest off the edge. She turned too and pressed against him.
“Jesus,” he said. Then: “All right. Let me stretch my legs a minute, then I’ll wake up.”
In a while she said, “Mike? Are you asleep?” She shook his shoulder gently, but there was no response.
She lay there for a time huddled against his body, trying to sleep. She lay quietly at first, without moving, crowded against him and taking only very small, very even breaths. But she could not sleep.
She tried not to listen to his breathing, but it began to make her uncomfortable. There was a sound coming from inside his nose when he breathed. She tried to regulate her breathing so that she could breathe in and out at the same rhythm he did. It was no use. The little sound in his nose made everything no use. There was a webby squeak in his chest too. She turned again and nestled her bottom against his, stretched her arm over to the edge and cautiously put her fingertips against the cold wall. The covers had pulled up at the foot of the bed, and she could feel a draft when she moved her legs. She heard two people coming, up the stairs to the apartment next door.
Someone gave a throaty laugh before opening the door. Then she heard a chair drag on the floor. She turned again. The toilet flushed next door, and then it flushed again. Again she turned, onto her back this time, and tried to relax. She remembered an article she’d once read in a magazine: If all the bones and muscles and joints in the body could join together in perfect relaxation, sleep would almost certainly come. She took a long breath, closed her eyes, and lay perfectly still, arms straight along her sides. She tried to relax. She tried to imagine her legs suspended, bathed in something gauze-like. She turned onto her stomach. She closed her eyes, then she opened them. She thought of the fingers of her hand lying curled on the sheet in front of her lips. She raised a finger and lowered it to the sheet. She touched the wedding band on her ring finger with her thumb. She turned onto her side and then onto her back again.
And then she began to feel afraid, and in one unreasoning moment of longing she prayed to go to sleep.
Please, God, let me go to sleep.
She tried to sleep.
“Mike,” she whispered.
There was no answer.
She heard one of the children turn over in the bed and bump against the wall in the next room. She listened and listened but there was no other sound. She laid her hand under her left breast and felt the beat of her heart rising into her fingers. She turned onto her stomach and began to cry, her head off the pillow, her mouth against the sheet. She cried. And then she climbed out over the foot of the bed.
She washed her hands and face in the bathroom. She brushed her teeth. She brushed her teeth and watched her face in the mirror. In the living room she turned up the heat. Then she sat down at the kitchen table, drawing her feet up underneath the nightgown. She cried again. She lit a cigarette from the pack on the table. After a time she walked back to the bedroom and got her robe.
She looked in on the children. She pulled the covers up over her son’s shoulders. She went back to the living room and sat in the big chair. She paged through a magazine and tried to read. She gazed at the photographs and then she tried to read again. Now and then a car went by on the street outside and she looked up. As each car passed she waited, listening. And then she looked down at the magazine again.
There was a stack of magazines in the rack by the big chair. She paged through them all.
When it began to be light outside she got up. She walked to the window. The cloudless sky over the hills was beginning to turn white. The trees and the row of two-story apartment houses across the street were beginning to take shape as she watched. The sky grew whiter, the light expanding rapidly up from behind the hills. Except for the times she had been up with one or another of the children (which she did not count because she had never looked outside, only hurried back to bed or to the kitchen), she had seen few sunrises in her life and those when she was little. She knew that none of them had been like this. Not in pictures she had seen nor in any book she had read had she learned a sunrise was so terrible as this.