Authors: Raymond Carver
Tags: #Literary, #Short stories, #American, #Short Stories (single author), #Fiction
They didn’t touch glasses. There was no toast. What on earth was there to drink to? To death? Chekhov summoned his remaining strength and said, “It’s been so long since I’ve had champagne.” He brought the glass to his lips and drank. In a minute or two Olga took the empty glass from his hand and set it on the nightstand. Then Chekhov turned onto his side. He closed his eyes and sighed. A minute later, his breathing stopped.
Dr. Schwohrer picked up Chekhov’s hand from the bedsheet. He held his fingers to Chekhov’s wrist and drew a gold watch from his vest pocket, opening the lid of the watch as he did so. The second hand on the watch moved slowly, very slowly. He let it move around the face of the watch three times while he waited for signs of a pulse. It was three o’clock in the morning and still sultry in the room. Badenweiler was in the grip of its worst heat wave in years. All the windows in both rooms stood open, but there was no sign of a breeze. A large, black-winged moth flew through a window and banged wildly against the electric lamp. Dr. Schwohrer let go of Chekhov’s wrist. “It’s over,” he said. He closed the lid of his watch and returned it to his vest pocket.
At once Olga dried her eyes and set about composing herself. She thanked the doctor for coming. He asked if she wanted some medication —laudanum, perhaps, or a few drops of valerian. She shook her head. She did have one request, though: before the authorities were notified and the newspapers found out, before the time came when Chekhov was no longer in her keeping, she wanted to be alone with him for a while. Could the doctor help with this? Could he withhold, for a while anyway, news of what had just occurred?
Dr. Schwohrer stroked his moustache with the back of a finger. Why not? After all, what difference would it make to anyone whether this matter became known now or a few hours from now? The only detail that remained was to fill out a death certificate, and this could be done at his office later on in the morning, after he’d slept a few hours. Dr. Schwohrer nodded his agreement and prepared to leave. He murmured a few words of condolence. Olga inclined her head. “An honor,” Dr. Schwohrer said. He picked up his bag and left the room and, for that matter, history.
It was at this moment that the cork popped out of the champagne bottle; foam spilled down onto the table. Olga went back to Chekhov’s bedside. She sat on a footstool, holding his hand, from time to time stroking his face. “There were no human voices, no everyday sounds,” she wrote. “There was only beauty, peace, and the grandeur of death.”
She stayed with Chekhov until daybreak, when thrushes began to call from the garden below. Then came the sound of tables and chairs being moved about down there. Before long, voices carried up to her. It was then a knock sounded at the door. Of course she thought it must be an official of some sort-the medical examiner, say, or someone from the police who had questions to ask and forms for her to fill out, or maybe, just maybe, it could be Dr. Schwohrer returning with a mortician to render assistance in embalming and transporting Chekhov’s remains back to Russia.
But, instead, it was the same blond young man who’d brought the champagne a few hours earlier. This time, however, his uniform trousers were neatly pressed, with stiff creases in front, and every button on his snug green jacket was fastened. He seemed quite another person. Not only was he wide awake but his plump cheeks were smooth-shaven, his hair was in place, and he appeared anxious to please. He was holding a porcelain vase with three long-stemmed yellow roses. He presented these to Olga with a smart click of his heels. She stepped back and let him into the room. He was there, he said, to collect the glasses, ice bucket, and tray, yes. But he also wanted to say that, because of the extreme heat, breakfast would be served in the garden this morning. He hoped this weather wasn’t too bothersome; he apologized for it.
The woman seemed distracted. While he talked, she turned her eyes away and looked down at something in the carpet. She crossed her arms and held her elbows. Meanwhile, still holding his vase, waiting for a sign, the young man took in the details of the room. Bright sunlight flooded through the open windows. The room was tidy and seemed undisturbed, almost untouched. No garments were flung over chairs, no shoes, stockings, braces, or stays were in evidence, no open suitcases. In short, there was no clutter, nothing but the usual heavy pieces of hotel-room furniture. Then, because the woman was still looking down, he looked down, too, and at once spied a cork near the toe of his shoe. The woman did not see it—she was looking somewhere else. The young man wanted to bend over and pick up the cork, but he was still holding the roses and was afraid of seeming to intrude even more by drawing any further attention to himself. Reluctantly, he left the cork where it was and raised his eyes. Everything was in order except for the uncorked, half-empty bottle of champagne that stood alongside two crystal glasses over on the little table. He cast his gaze about once more. Through an open door he saw that the third glass was in the bedroom, on the nightstand. But someone still occupied the bed! He couldn’t see a face, but the figure under the covers lay perfectly motionless and quiet. He noted the figure and looked elsewhere. Then, for a reason he couldn’t understand, a feeling of uneasiness took hold of him. He cleared his throat and moved his weight to the other leg. The woman still didn’t look up or break her silence. The young man felt his cheeks grow warm. It occurred to him, quite without his having thought it through, that he should perhaps suggest an alternative to breakfast in the garden. He coughed, hoping to focus the woman’s attention, but she didn’t look at him. The distinguished foreign guests could, he said, take breakfast in their rooms this morning if they wished. The young man (his name hasn’t survived, and it’s likely he perished in the Great War) said he would be happy to bring up a tray. Two trays, he added, glancing uncertainly once again in the direction of the bedroom.
He fell silent and ran a finger around the inside of his collar. He didn’t understand. He wasn’t even sure the woman had been listening. He didn’t know what else to do now; he was still holding the vase. The sweet odor of the roses filled his nostrils and inexplicably caused a pang of regret. The entire time he’d been waiting, the woman had apparently been lost in thought. It was as if all the while he’d been standing there, talking, shifting his weight, holding his flowers, she had been someplace else, somewhere far from Badenweiler. But now she came back to herself, and her face assumed another expression. She raised her eyes, looked at him, and then shook her head. She seemed to be struggling to understand what on earth this young man could be doing there in the room holding a vase with three yellow roses. Flowers? She hadn’t ordered flowers.
The moment passed. She went over to her handbag and scooped up some coins. She drew out a number of banknotes as well. The young man touched his lips with his tongue; another large tip was forthcoming, but for what? What did she want him to do? He’d never before waited on such guests. He cleared his throat once more.
No breakfast, the woman said. Not yet, at any rate. Breakfast wasn’t the important thing this morning.
She required something else. She needed him to go out and bring back a mortician. Did he understand her? Herr Chekhov was dead, you see. Comprenez-vous? Young man? Anton Chekhov was dead. Now listen carefully to me, she said. She wanted him to go downstairs and ask someone at the front desk where he could go to find the most respected mortician in the city. Someone reliable, who took great pains in his work and whose manner was appropriately reserved. A mortician, in short, worthy of a great artist. Here, she said, and pressed the money on him. Tell them downstairs that I have specifically requested you to perform this duty for me.
Are you listening? Do you understand what I’m saying to you?
The young man grappled to take in what she was saying. He chose not to look again in the direction of the other room. He had sensed that something was not right. He became aware of his heart beating rapidly under his jacket, and he felt perspiration break out on his forehead. He didn’t know where he should turn his eyes. He wanted to put the vase down.
Please do this for me, the woman said. I’ll remember you with gratitude. Tell them downstairs that I insist. Say that. But don’t call any unnecessary attention to yourself or to the situation. Just say that this is necessary, that I request it—and that’s all. Do you hear me? Nod if you understand. Above all, don’t raise an alarm. Everything else, all the rest, the commotion—that’ll come soon enough. The worst is over.
Do we understand each other?
The young man’s face had grown pale. He stood rigid, clasping the vase. He managed to nod his head.
After securing permission to leave the hotel he was to proceed quieriy and resolutely, though without any unbecoming haste, to the mortician’s. He was to behave exactly as if he were engaged on a very important errand, nothing more. He was engaged on an important errand, she said. And if it would help keep tu’s movements purposeful he should imagine himself as someone moving down the busy sidewalk carrying in his arms a porcelain vase of roses that he had to deliver to an important man. (She spoke quietly, almost confidentially, as if to a relative or a friend.) He could even tell himself that the man he was going to see was expecting him, was perhaps impatient for him to arrive with his flowers.
Nevertheless, the young man was not to become excited and run, or otherwise break his stride.
Remember the vase he was carrying! He was to walk briskly, comporting himself at all times in as dignified a manner as possible. He should keep walking until he came to the mortician’s house and stood before the door. He would then raise the brass knocker and let it fall, once, twice, three times. In a minute the mortician himself would answer.
This mortician would be in his forties, no doubt, or maybe early fifties—bald, solidly built, wearing steelframe spectacles set very low on his nose. He would be modest, unassuming, a man who would ask only the most direct and necessary questions. An apron. Probably he would be wearing an apron. He might even be wiping his hands on a dark towel while he listened to what was being said. There’d be a faint whiff of formaldehyde on his clothes. But it was all right, and the young man shouldn’t worry. He was nearly a grown-up now and shouldn’t be frightened or repelled by any of this. The mortician would hear him out. He was a man of restraint and bearing, this mortician, someone who could help allay people’s fears in this situation, not increase them. Long ago he’d acquainted himself with death in all its various guises and forms; death held no surprises for him any longer, no hidden secrets. It was this man whose services were required this morning.
The mortician takes the vase of roses. Only once while the young man is speaking does the mortician betray the least flicker of interest, or indicate that he’s heard anything out of the ordinary. But the one time the young man mentions the name of the deceased, the mortician’s eyebrows rise just a little.
Chekhov, you say? Just a minute, and I’ll be with you.
Do you understand what I’m saying, Olga said to the young man. Leave the glasses. Don’t worry about them. Forget about crystal wineglasses and such. Leave the room as it is. Everything is ready now. We’re ready. Will you go?
But at that moment the young man was thinking of the cork still resting near the toe of his shoe. To retrieve it he would have to bend over, still gripping the vase. He would do this. He leaned over. Without looking down, he reached out and closed it into his hand.
Where I’m Calling From
is Raymond Carver’s tenth book; he has also published numerous chapbooks and limited editions. His most recent book was Ultramarine, 1986, poems. He was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, in 1939, and currently lives in Port Angeles, Washington. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1979 and has twice been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1983 Carver received the prestigious Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award, and in 1985 Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize. In 1988 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.