This section contains 19,037 words
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Critical Essay by Randolph Paul Runyon
SOURCE: "Cathedral," in Reading Raymond Carver, Syracuse University Press, 1992, pp. 137-85.
In the excerpt below, Runyon examines the connecting elements and recurring themes in the short stories from Cathedral.
"Before and after" (14), Bud said, holding up an "old plaster-of-Paris cast of the most crooked, jaggedy teeth in the world" (12) next to his wife Olla's orthodontically straightened ones. It is one of several sights Jack and Fran have to endure on their visit to Bud and Olla's house. Another is the pet peacock that wanders into the house during dinner, is "smelly" (25), and lets out blood-curdling screams. Still another is their hosts' offspring, "the ugliest baby" Jack has "ever seen," with "no neck to speak of" and "three or four fat chins" (20).
Yet Jack, who narrates the story, is able to say that "that evening at Bud and Olla's was special…. That evening I felt good about almost everything in my life…. I wished … that I'd never forget or otherwise let go of that evening" (25). Fran was of a different opinion. "Fran would look back on that evening at Bud's place as the beginning of the change…. 'Goddamn those people and their ugly baby,' Fran will say, for no apparent reason." It was a change for the worse: Fran has since cut her lovely long hair and has "gotten fat on me, too" (26), Jack says. They have a child now, but he "has a conniving streak." And Fran and Jack no longer talk to each other very much. Jack's wish that he would never forget that evening was "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" (25).
We are thus presented with two differing interpretations of the meaning of the visit. For Fran it was a disagreeable experience, and the beginning of what went wrong in their lives. But for Jack it had been a glimpse of paradise—though a paradise that in retrospect he realized he'd never see again—symbolized by the peacock: "'They don't call them birds of paradise for nothing,' Bud said" (23). The baby may have been ugly, but to Bud and Olla, Jack imagines, "It's our baby" (24). He remembers "Olla giving Fran some peacock feathers to take home … all us shaking hands, hugging each other, saying things" (26).
But is a third interpretation possible? Is "Feathers" about anything else, too?
From our somewhat different vantage point as nonparticipants in the story, we can make some observations that may have escaped Jack and Fran. One of them is that this story of an evening they will both always remember began with an anecdote about the difficulty of remembering. Jack had telephoned Bud once
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 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. (4)
The strange thing about this is the resemblance between "Olla" and "Hello," between what Jack heard her say and what he couldn't remember. The voice on the other end of the line is practically telling him the name he is racking his memory to find. "Olla" and "Hello" are almost the same, yet not quite: close enough for their similarity to be noticed—by us, if not by Jack—yet not enough alike for one to be taken for the other. We might remember that in "Are You a Doctor?" a story whose plot arises out of a telephone call made to a wrong number, which was what Jack's abortive call must have appeared to Olla to have been, Arnold Breit had made a similar transposition of syllables when he thought Cheryl's name was Shirley.
A number of other things in "Feathers" present themselves in pairs, of which one can be taken to stand for the other. When Fran and Jack first arrived, they saw a baby's swing set in the front yard and some toys on the porch. "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…. Then something as big as a vulture flapped heavily down from one of the trees and landed just in front of the car" (7). It was the peacock, which occupies the stage long before they get to see the baby.
Then there are the teeth, the "before" and "after" Bud is so proud to exhibit (he had paid for the orthodontic work that Olla's parents had not been able to afford). The more closely we examine these teeth, however, the more slippery the notion of before and after becomes. The mold, of course, is just a copy of a prior original: Olla's teeth as they were before the treatment began. So the "before" is a copy, while the "after" is the (revised) original. But there is another copy: "That orthodontist wanted to keep this," Olla announces as she holds the mold in her lap. "I said nothing doing. I pointed out to him they were my teeth. So he took pictures of the mold instead. He told me he was going to put the pictures in a magazine." Bud wonders "what kind of magazine that'd be. Not much call for that kind of publication, I don't think" (14).
Yet there still is another copy, another version of this "picture in a magazine." For a few pages later, when Fran asks why Olla decided to get a peacock in the first place, she answers, "I always dreamed of having me a peacock. Since I was a girl and found a picture of one in a magazine. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw…. I kept that picture for the longest time" (18; emphasis added). So the peacock in their house is the copy of the original magazine picture, which in turn is an echo of the magazine picture mentioned earlier of the mold of Olla's teeth, which in turn …: not an infinite regression by any means, yet one of significant length.
It is fitting that the first story in Carver's new collection of stories should begin with this evocation of a chain of befores and afters, of originals and copies, of forerunners (the peacock that, in its initial appearance, could be taken for the baby) and avatars (the baby as the later version of the peacock, which had occupied the house, and Olla's affections, first). That, as we have been accustomed to discover by now, is the way his short story sequences appear to be put together: a chain of befores and afters bearing a strange resemblance to each other.
In this chain of resemblances the second story in Cathedral, like the first, is also about a house that affords a glimpse of paradise lost. This time it is told from the point of view of the wife. Edna had been separated from Wes but accepted his invitation to join him in a place with an ocean view he was renting for next to nothing from a recovered alcoholic named Chef. Wes was on the wagon too. "He said, We'll start over. I said, If I come up there, I want you to do something for me…. I want you to try and be the Wes I used to know. The old Wes. The Wes I married" (27).
Things went very well in that idyllic spot. Edna found herself wishing the summer would never end. She put her wedding ring back on. They drank no alcohol. Wes would pick flowers for her, and they'd go fishing. Their children, grown up now, "kept their distance" (29). But one afternoon Chef came by with the sad news that they had to leave. "Chef said his daughter, Linda, the woman Wes used to call Fat Linda from the time of his drinking days, needed a place to live and this place was it." Her husband had disappeared, she had a baby and couldn't afford to live anywhere else.
Wes is devastated. "This has been a happy house up to now, he said. We'll get another house, I said. Not like this one, Wes said. It wouldn't be the same, anyway. This house has been a good house for us. This house has good memories to it" (30). Edna tries in vain to keep Wes from giving up. "I said, Suppose, just suppose, nothing had ever happened. Suppose this was for the first time…. Say none of the other had ever happened" (31). But Wes replies "Then I suppose we'd have to be somebody else if that was the case. Somebody we're not. I don't have that kind of supposing left in me" (32). He can see no future, no more room to continue the fresh start they had been able to make as long as they could live in Chef's house.
And that's about where the story ends. "He seemed to have made up his mind. But having made up his mind, he was in no hurry. He leaned back on the sofa, folded his hands in his lap, and closed his eyes. He didn't say anything else. He didn't have to" (32).
For both Jack and Wes, the house they visit—Jack and Fran for an evening, Wes and Edna for a summer cut short—is an almost magical place where they can see a vision of how life ought to be lived. "This house has been a good place for us. This house has good memories to it," according to Wes. "That evening I felt good about almost everything in my life," Jack had said. Wes speaks of "good memories," and Jack made the wish "that I'd never forget or otherwise let go of that evening." Though they are at opposite moments in their lives—Jack and Fran at the beginning of their marriage, the child they will have not yet born, and Wes's children already grown—the future for both men is evidently bleak. It's just that Jack didn't know it yet.
Two smaller details from "Feathers" reappear here. The fatness of Bud and Olla's child—"big fat lips … three or four fat chins…. Fat hung over its wrists. Its arms and fingers were fat" (21)—returns in the name Wes gave its counterpart, Fat Linda, who is the baby's counterpart because both are the off-spring of the owner of the house that afforded that glimpse of paradise. The other recurrence concerns what happens to Jack's attempt to engrave on his memory the name he was so embarrassed at having forgot: "Olla, I said to myself. Olla" (4). Now when Wes lies back on the sofa and lapses into silence, Edna tells us that "I said his name to myself. It was an easy name to say, and I'd been used to saying it for a long time" (32; emphasis added)—unlike Jack, of course, who was saying that name to himself for precisely the opposite reason: to get so used to saying it that he wouldn't forget. This echo emblematizes the essentially complementary nature of these two opening stories, the first looking toward the future, the second backward to the past, because their living at Chef's house was apparently a condition of their living together at all, and this may be one of the last times Edna will ever pronounce Jack's name.
What happens near the conclusion of "Chef's House"—the way Wes demonstrated his abject surrender to bad luck when he "leaned back on the sofa, folded his hands in his lap, and closed his eyes" (32)—is what happens at the beginning of "Preservation": "Sandy's husband had been on the sofa ever since he'd been terminated three months ago" (35). "He made his bed on the sofa that night, and that's where he'd slept every night since it happened" (35-36). After a discouraging visit to the unemployment office "he got back on the sofa. He began spending all of his time there, as if, she thought, it was the thing he was supposed to do now that he no longer had any work…. It's like he lives there. Sandy thought" (36; Carver's emphasis).
The title of the story, which for once does not actually appear in the text itself, is doubly evoked (1) by the story Sandy's husband kept rereading as he lay on the sofa of "a man who had been discovered after spending two thousand years in a peat bog" (36)—in a state, that is, of almost perfect preservation—and (2) by the sudden demise of the refrigerator, that is by its inability to preserve their food any longer. "I have to cook everything tonight" (40), Sandy says, and proceeds to clean out the fridge. She "started taking things off the shelves and putting stuff on the table." Wes "took the meat out of the freezer and put the packages on the table…. He took everything out and then found the paper towels and the dishcloth and started wiping up inside" (41). Strangely, Sandy and her husband's cleaning out the refrigerator and cleaning up the mess inside repeats what happened on the last page of the preceding story. The refrigerator in Chef's house had not broken down, but since he had informed Edna and Wes that they had to leave they did feel obliged to clean it out—to eat up, that is, what was left inside: "I went in to start supper. We still had some fish in the icebox. There wasn't much else. We'll clean it up tonight, I thought, and that will be the end of it" (33). The idea is not to waste the food they have. Sandy and her husband have a lot more they'll have to eat, way too much, in fact: "'I've got to fry pork chops tonight,' she said. 'And I have to cook up that hamburger. And those sandwich steaks and the fish sticks. Don't forget the TV dinners, either'" (42).
The refrigerator had given out, Sandy's husband determines, because "we lost our Freon…. The Freon leaked out" (41). It's not the only time that gas leaks out in this story. Sandy has decided that they should go to the Auction Barn that evening because they were advertising new and used appliances. Her husband does not share her eagerness: "Whoever said anything about us buying an icebox at an auction?" (44), he asks. Sandy, however, remembers what "fun" (43) it was to go to auctions with her father when she was a child, although her father died in a car he had bought at one of those auctions. It "leaked carbon monoxide up through the floorboards and caused him to pass out behind the wheel…. The motor went on running until there was no more gas in the tank. He stayed in the car until somebody found him a few days later" (45).
Her father's death and the icebox's demise respond to each other in interesting ways. A leaking gas caused both events. The faulty car had been an auction bargain—"he said he'd bought a peach of a car at this auction for two hundred dollars. If she'd been there, he said, he'd have bought one for her, too" (45)—while the faulty refrigerator is to be replaced by one bought at auction. Her father's undiscovered body had doubtless begun to deteriorate in those few days as had the food in her fridge: "She opened the door to the freezer compartment. An awful smell puffed out at her that made her want to gag" (39). Sandy doesn't say so, but the association of these two events is surely powerful enough that she could have smelled the memory of her father's corpse when she opened that door and the "warm, boxed-in air came out at her."
Sandy's father in the icebox, and especially in the "freezer compartment," is answered, too, in an interesting way by the story that follows, in which a father has "decided he wasn't going to leave the compartment. He was going to sit where he was until the train pulled away" (55; emphasis added). Carver's choice of a title for this story draws attention to this connection to its predecessor. This decision to stay put echoes as well, of course, Sandy's husband's decision to spend the rest of his life on the living room sofa reading about the corpse discovered in a Netherlands bog.
Myers, on vacation, was touring Europe alone. His son, whom he hadn't seen since the divorce eight years before, had written him a letter from Strasbourg, France, where he was studying. Myers had decided to visit him for a few days on his way from Milan to Paris. Myers had always believed that the breakup of his marriage had been "hastened along … by the boy's malign interference in their personal affairs" (47). The last time he had seen him they had actually come to blows—the son, thinking he had to defend his mother from his father's anger, "charged him. Myers sidestepped and got him in a headlock while the boy wept and pummeled Myers on the back and kidneys." Myers "slammed him into the wall and threatened to kill him. He meant it. 'I gave you life,' Myers remembered himself shouting, 'and I can take it back!'" (47-48).
In the train compartment, Myers "looked at guidebooks. He read things he wished he'd read before he'd been to the place they were about … he was sorry to be finding out certain things about the country now, just as he was leaving Italy behind" (48). But he is tired of trying to make himself understood to foreigners and probably will not spend his whole six weeks of vacation in Europe after all. When he returns from the WC Myers discovers that the expensive Japanese watch he has bought as a gift for his son is missing from the coat he had left behind in the compartment. Through sign language, he tries to ask the other passenger in the compartment if he saw anyone take it, but the man shrugs in incomprehension. Myers stalks out into the corridor but sees no chance of making anyone else understand either.
When he returns to his seat, it comes to him that "he really had no desire to see this boy whose behavior had long ago isolated him from Myers's affections…. This boy had devoured Myers's youth, had turned the young girl he had courted and wed into a nervous, alcoholic woman whom the boy alternately pitied and bullied" (54). So when the train pulled into Strasbourg Myers "decided he wasn't going to leave the compartment. He was going to sit where he was until the train pulled away" (55).
As he looks through his compartment window Myers doesn't see his son on the platform. While the train is still in the station, he gets up and opens the compartment door. "He went to the end of the corridor, where the cars were coupled together. He didn't know why they had stopped. Maybe something was wrong. He moved to the window. But all he could see was an intricate system of tracks where trains were being made up, cars taken off or switched from one train to another" (57). What happens at this point is that Myers becomes caught up in that intricate system switching and coupling. He wanders into the second-class car next to his first-class one. The train begins to move. He returns to his car and compartment—but his suitcase is gone. "It was not his compartment after all. He realized with a start they must have uncoupled his car while the train was in the yard and attached another second-class car to the train…. He was going somewhere, he knew that. And if it was the wrong direction, sooner or later he'd find it out" (58).
"a Small, Good Thing"
What has happened to Myers is what has also happened to his story, for Carver's sequences are part of an intricate system of switching, coupling, and decoupling too, and while Myers's journey started out in a car coupled at one end to "Preservation," it ended in a car coupled to "A Small, Good Thing," which, as it turns out, is a car from another train: a revised version of "The Bath," from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
We know that story. We know how it too, like "The Compartment," concerns a missed appointment: Myers's missed rendezvous with his son at the Strasbourg station is thus echoed by the one Mrs. Weiss had made with the baker to pick up her son's birthday cake. We recall as well how, like the story to which it is coupled here, this one concerns a gift for the son that does not get delivered: the expensive Japanese wristwatch that disappears from Myers's pocket, and all the gifts that Scotty would not get to open for his birthday. We recall that just before he was struck by the car, "the birthday boy was trying to find out what his friend intended to give him for his birthday that afternoon" (60).
What we didn't know when we read "The Bath"—the identity of the mysterious telephone caller and whether the boy would survive—is what "A Small, Good Thing" goes to some lengths to tell us. The caller is the baker whose cake was not picked up, and after the boy's death, the Weisses go to his bakery for a confrontation that turns into a reconciliation. The "small, good thing" the contrite baker offers them is bread.
It is now quite a different story from "The Bath." This version is in a way more comforting—the scene in the bakery becomes almost heartwarming—but in another perhaps more troubling. Coming as it does just after "The Compartment" the son's death now comes dangerously close to fulfilling the filicidal wish Myers had made when "he slammed him into the wall and threatened to kill him. He meant it. 'I gave you life … and I can take it back!'" Tess Gallagher, in her Introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall, speaks of the persistent image of the "son as an oppressive figure" (xxiv) in Carver's poetry (she mentions "The Compartment" as well), with particular reference to "On an Old Photograph of My Son," which appears in that collection. The son, a "petty tyrant," bullies his mother in that poem—as had Myers's son ("This boy had … turned [his mother] into a nervous, alcoholic woman whom the boy alternately pitied and bullied"): "Hey, old lady, jump, why don't you? Speak / when spoken to. I think I'll put you in / a headlock to see how you like it. I like / it" (86). The poet writes, apparently speaking out of Carver's own ambivalent feelings towards his son, "I want to forget that boy / in the picture—that jerk, that bully! / … Oh, son, in those days I wanted you dead / a hundred—no, a thousand—different times." What Carver confesses in "Fires," an essay on what had influenced his writing over the years, gives us some understanding of how he could have felt, as Myers did, that "this boy had devoured [his] youth." In the mid-1960s he was in a busy laundromat keeping a keen eye out for the next available dryer. He also had to worry about his children, who were at a birthday party but whom he would have to pick up as soon as he could get the laundry done.1 His wife was working that afternoon as a waitress. Every time he thought he had a dryer someone else beat him to it.
In a daze I moved away with my shopping cart and went back to waiting. But I remember thinking at that moment, amid the feelings of helpless frustration that had me close to tears, that nothing—and, brother, I mean nothing—that ever happened to me on this earth could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction…. At that moment I felt—I knew—that the life I was in was vastly different from the lives of the writers I most admired. I understood writers to be people who didn't spend their Saturdays at the laundromat and every waking hour subject to the needs and caprices of their children. (Fires, 32-33)
He did get published—"Neighbors" appeared in Esquire—"But my kids were in full cry then … and they were eating me alive" (39)—as the son in "The Compartment" "had devoured Myers's youth." And then Carver uses a railroad metaphor that puts him in very nearly the same situation as Myers at the end of "The Compartment" (the difference being that though Myers found himself on the wrong track he was still going somewhere): "My life soon took another veering, a sharp turn, and then it came to a dead stop off on a siding." He is evidently alluding to his descent into alcoholism, but it is clear that part of what drove him there was his despair at not having the time to write, time his children consumed.
How close Myers may be to Carver himself is suggested by the fact that the protagonist of "Put Yourself in My Shoes," whom we saw to bear some remarkable resemblances to the author, had the same name.
What consolation the baker can offer Ann and Howard Weiss for the loss of their son as they accept the bread he offers them at midnight in his bakery and talk on with him into the early morning hours brings them to about the same point that Myers's decision to forego meeting his son had brought him. "He decided he wasn't going to leave the compartment"; "they did not think of leaving" (89).
Such a dark reading of the story, influenced by Carver's decision to place it immediately after "The Compartment," with its tale of a father's enmity toward his son, contrasts with William Stull's sunnier interpretation. In "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver," Stull is right, of course, to say that "A Small, Good Thing" is more hopeful than "The Bath," as Carver himself has indicated in several interviews, but I think he goes too far when he says that here "Carver goes farther still … toward a final vision of forgiveness and community rooted in religious faith" (11). Quite correctly calling our attention to the manner in which the Weisses" and the baker's breaking of bread recalls the Last Supper, Stull nevertheless presumes more than I am willing to accept when he argues that "a subtle but pervasive pattern or religious symbols" in the story "suggests the presence of a third kind of love in Carver's work" in addition to erotic and brotherly love; "Christian love." Stull sees the rite of Christian baptism in the baths the parents take: "While their innocent child (a Christlike figure, to be sure) lies suspended between life and death, each of the parents bathes. Carver calls attention to this seemingly incidental action by making it the title of the original story" (12)—as if forgetting his argument that the second story is the Christianized version of the hopeless, secular first.
Stull, who has not only written widely on Carver but has even resurrected some of his early work (in Those Days) and certainly done more than anyone else to promote Carver's academic reputation, is the foremost Carver scholar we have, and "Beyond Hopelessville" is probably the most influential article yet to appear on Carver's work. Its principal thesis that the distance between Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Cathedral encompasses a significant movement "beyond Hopelessville" is undeniably correct in general terms, but precisely because of the article's special significance in Carver studies I'd like to take the opportunity to quarrel with its theological conclusion—as well as to indicate that Stull and I do agree on one very crucial point, though we interpret it differently: The slain son is a sacrificial victim. In my reading, he is slain by the father, the same father (the father behind the scenes in a number of Carver's stories and poems who is to a starting degree Carver himself, who can become a writer only by sacrificing his son) who in the immediately preceding story, "The Compartment," wishes his son were dead. In Stull's reading, Scotty is a sacrificial son because he is the Son of God: "The child Scotty dies—painfully, irrationally, unjustly—in a sacrifice that recalls not only the crucifixion but also Christ's teaching. As Jesus makes clear again and again in the Gospels, the child is the emblem of perfect faith: "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein' (Mark 10:15)…. With unwitting cruelty, [the baker] torments the Weisses, taunting them and taking the name of the Christlike child in vain" (12). Stull then cites Matthew 18:6: "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck." The problem here is that Scotty is nowhere depicted in the story as "one of these little ones which believe in me." At most he believes in his birthday, and the likelihood of presents. Nor can the baker be blamed for taking Scotty's name in vain if he was unaware (not having read Stull's article) that the child was "Christlike."
Where Stull, using the King James Version, cites "whoso shall offend," the Revised Standard Version gives "whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin," a more accurate translation of the original Greek "causes … to stumble" (an skandalisé)—which resonates intriguingly with what really did happen to Scotty: "the birthday boy stepped off the curb at an intersection and was immediately knocked down by a car … the boy got unsteadily to his feet. The boy wobbled a little…. He walked home" (60-61). If anyone causes the boy to stumble, it's not the baker but the driver of the car.
Stull is of course right to say that Carver's story recycles elements of the Christian Gospels, but I think it is risky to conclude from that that the story buys into the Christian message itself. "In breaking bread together," Stull writes, "the characters reenact the central rite of Christianity, the Lord's Supper. 'It's a heavy bread, but rich,' the baker says—an apt description of the Eucharist" (12-13). It may be more accurate to say that Carver's characters here achieve, on their own, without divine intervention, a genuine but purely human communion. They don't need God to do it, and Carver doesn't need a Christian conversion to write it. Stull, having brought Carver back into the fold of the "humanist realism" of a James Joyce or a Henry James by arguing that Cathedral, in contrast to his earlier stories, is "more expressive, more 'painterly'" (8), seems to want to bring him back into the church as well: "A study of Carver's revisions reveals not only another side of his realism, the humanist side, but also another spirit in his work, a spirit of empathy, forgiveness, and community tacitly founded on Judeo-Christian faith" (6). The way Carver recycles his own stories, particularly in their sequential resonance, allows us to see how he can incorporate elements of a prior narrative into a new one without having to "found" the new one on the old. What I'm criticizing in Stull—that he "reads into" Carver's story the haunting presence of a prior narrative (by another Hand, in this instance)—could be turned against my own reading of Carver were it not for the preponderance of evidence. More importantly, I am not suggesting that the second story (of two sequentially linked ones) actually retells the first or is dependent on the first for anything more than the raw material it gives such a strong impression (or illusion) of borrowing. What essential relation it may have with the story it echoes or recycles is likely to be an ironic one, each playing off the other for a greater effect. What's missing from Stull's reading is the very real possibility of irony in Carver's recycling here of the Christian foundation myth.
Before Mrs. Weiss told the baker her son was dead, when the atmosphere was still tense with anger—the Weisses' for the baker's sinister phone calls, the baker's for their sticking him with an unbought cake—he had said: "You want to pick up your three-day-old cake?… There it sits over there, getting stale. I'll give it to you for half of what I quoted you. No. You want it? You can have it. It's no good to me, no good to anyone now" (85-86). The vitamins in "Vitamins" are a product no one wants either. The narrator's wife tries to sell them door to door but business is terrible. "Nobody's buying vitamins…. Middle of winter, people sick all over the state, people dying, and nobody thinks they need vitamins" (98). The narrator concurs: "Vitamins were on the skids, vitamins had taken a nose-dive. The bottom had fallen out of the vitamin market" (100).
The vitamins are not the only thing in "Vitamins" into which the cake of the immediately preceding story is transformed, as if it had passed through the distorting process of dream. Dreams are in fact thematic in the story, as the narrator's wife is plagued by nightmares: "Everybody dreams," she tells her husband. "If you didn't dream, you'd go crazy. I read about it. It's an outlet. People dream when they're asleep. Or else they'd go nuts. But when I dream, I dream of vitamins. Do you see what I'm saying?" (97) "A dream," Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, "is a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish" (194; the parentheses are Freud's). It is inevitably distorted into a disguise in order to get past the dream censor of the conscious part of the brain. The raw material for the disguise in which the unconscious clothes its wish is the "day residue"—the events of the immediately preceding day. "In every dream it is possible to find a point of contact with the experiences of the previous day," but dreams "make their selection" from those immediately previous events "upon different principles from our waking memory, since they do not recall what is essential and important but what is subsidiary and unnoticed" (197). Carver's sequential stories behave in similar fashion: each successive one functioning like a dream, picking up details left over from the immediately preceding story—details that are generally of quite minor significance there—and using them as raw material for its own narrative. We earlier saw Freud's dream analysis emerge as a model for understanding how these stories work when we found that the protagonist of "Night School" was caught up in the analysis of a dream that repeated an event that seemed to have come from the immediately preceding story.
The birthday cake, as I was saying, returns in "Vitamins" as the vitamins themselves. Or rather, the relatively unimportant detail of the baker's halfhearted attempt to sell Mrs. Weiss the cake at half price, together with his frustration at being unable to sell it at all, returns in the form of Patti's inability to unload her vitamins. Two details about that cake, its having dried out after three days ("There it sits … getting stale") and it's having almost become the body of the boy whose name is on it ("Your Scotty, I got him ready for you" , the taunting voice on the phone said to the grieving mother after her son had died, as if he had his corpse ready for burial), also recur, in the form of something that resembles a piece of stale food: "It looked like a dried mushroom" (106). It is the "dried-up" (107) severed ear of an enemy soldier, brought back from Vietnam by Nelson, a sinister black vet the narrator encounters in the back room of Khaki's Off-Broadway Bar. The narrator was there with Donna, one of his wife's vitamin salespeople, and he had been confident of scoring with her until Nelson sat down at their table and spoiled things by showing them the ear and by proposing to purchase Donna's sexual services.
Other minor details from the immediately preceding story emerge again here. When Ann Weiss realized whom the calls were coming from, she and her husband drove to the shopping center where the bakery was located.
The sky was clear and stars were out…. They parked in front of the bakery. All of the shops and stores were closed…. The bakery windows were dark, but when they looked through the glass they could see a light in the back room…. They drove around behind the bakery and parked…. She knocked on the door and waited…. "I'm closed for business," he said. "What do you want at this hour? It's midnight. Are you drunk or something?" (85; emphasis added)
It was the same hour of night when the narrator of "Vitamins" left work and went with Donna to Khaki's bar: "I'd walked out of the hospital just after midnight" (100; emphasis added). The baker complained that he was "closed for business … at this hour," while the narrator was in the habit of frequenting the Off-Broadway "because I could get a drink there after closing hours" (99; emphasis added). The weather was precisely the same: "It'd cleared up and stars were out." The baker's accusation that the Weisses were "drunk or something" was genuinely true in the narrator's case: "I still had this buzz on from the Scotch I'd had." The Weisses had to go to the back room of the bakery, as the narrator goes to the back room of the bar: "The front half of the Off-Broadway was like a regular café and bar…. We went through the café and into the big room in back" (101; emphasis added).
The recurrence of details is naturally puzzling. Why should the scene in Khaki's bar come this close to repeating the scene in the bakery? What does the confrontation with the black Vietnam vet have to do with the confrontation with the baker? To the extent that Carver's stories recycle residual details from their immediate predecessors as dreams recycle day residue, this question might not really have an answer, because what dreams are devised to express is not the hidden meaning of what happened the day before but the repressed wishes of the unconscious. The day residue is just the clothing of the disguise. With these stories, however, the situation is a little more complicated, for each preceding one is not only a fund of leftover residue to be mined for raw material for the next, but is itself—but virtue of its relation to its immediate predecessor, if for no other reason—something like a dream. And of course there are other reasons for saying Carver's stories are like dreams, as "A Small, Good Thing" for instance reveals when it shows itself, as does "The Compartment," to be a dream about the death of his son.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say a daydream. In "The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming" Freud suggests that the imaginative writer is a daydreamer, and that a day-dreamer is like a child at play: "Every child at play behaves like an imaginative writer, in that he creates a world of his own or, more truly, he rearranges the things of his world and orders it in a new way that pleases him better…. Now the writer does the same as the child at play; he creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously" (35). Freud also maintains that daydreams and night dreams are really the same. "Language, in its unrivaled wisdom, long ago decided the question of the essential nature of dreams by giving the name of 'day-dreams' to the airy creations of phantasy. If the meaning of our dreams usually remains obscure in spite of this clue, it is because of the circumstance that at night wishes of which we are ashamed also become active in us…. Such repressed wishes … can therefore achieve expression only when almost completely disguised" (39). Normally, he writes, we would find other persons' daydreams boring, if not in fact repellent. "But when a man of literary talent … relates what we take to be his personal day-dreams, we experience great pleasure…. The writer softens the egotistical character of the day-dream by changes and disguises, and he bribes us by the offer of a purely formal, that is, aesthetic, pleasure in the presentation of his phantasies" (42-43). So the writer's ability to disguise his daydreams to make them more palatable to the reader performs the same task as the dream work of the unconscious, which disguises its repressed wishes in order to express them without the conscious realizing what they mean. Carver's stories, I believe, are day-dreams to the extent that through his art he has made his fantasies palatable to the reader; yet they resemble night dreams to the degree that they treat their immediate predecessor in his short story sequences as day residue to be transformed into the fabric of its disguises. Freud does not say whether the "changes and disguises" the successful writer exerts on his daydreams are consciously or unconsciously done; it is quite probable they are a mixture of both. Certainly what happens in nocturnal dreams is an unconscious phenomenon. We have seen in Carver some evidence of conscious change in the alterations he has made in his stories so that they will "couple" (in the railroad sense) better in sequence. Yet surely much of what we are uncovering here is unconscious as well, and thus all the more intriguing.
But if we are going to try to tackle the question of the reason for the resemblance between the back room of the bakery and the back room of Khaki's bar we must first be sure we are in command of all the details of that resemblance. One parallel that needs to be made more explicit is the one between Nelson and the baker. Both are sinister, in fact downright mean, and both threaten violence, Nelson had "little red eyes" (102; emphasis added); while Ann Weiss found, when she first set eyes on the baker, that his "eyes were small, mean-looking" (86; emphasis added). Nelson threatens violence by attributing the thought of it to the narrator: "I bet you thinking, 'Now here a big drunk nigger and what am I going to do with him? Maybe I have to whip his ass for him!' That what you thinking?" (104-5). Likewise the baker had made a show of warning against violence at the very moment he was brandishing a weapon: "A look crossed Ann's face that made the baker move back and say. 'No trouble, now.' He reached to the counter and picked up a rolling pin with his right hand and began to tap it against the palm of his other hand…. The baker continued to tap the rolling pin against his hand. He glanced at Howard, 'Careful, careful,' he said to Howard" (86).
Yet at this point the resemblance surely ends, for the encounter with Nelson ends on an angry note while the meeting with the baker is suddenly transformed, when Ann Weiss tells him what happened to her son, into a reconciliation. Benny, who was a friend of the narrator's, had brought Nelson over to be introduced. Unfortunately, they decided to join the narrator at his table. What begins as a friendly gesture, at least on Benny's part, will soon turn into something much uglier, as Nelson becomes increasingly aggressive. What began, however, as a hostile confrontation turned into something much more amiable in the other story when the baker, in sudden contrition, "cleared a space for them at the table…. Howard and Ann sat down and pulled their chairs up to the table. The baker sat down, too. 'Let me say how sorry I am,' the baker said" (87). "Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years" (88-89).
Why is it that these two back-room scenes should bear so many ties of resemblance and yet turn out so differently? Have we overlooked something that could resolve this discrepancy?
Well, yes—in one small detail that was added to "The Bath" when it became "A Small, Good Thing." The family that Ann Weiss had met in the hospital when she was looking for the elevator in "The Bath"—"she turned and saw a little waiting room, a family in there, all sitting in wicker chairs, a man in a khaki shirt, a baseball cap pushed back on his head, a large woman wearing a housedress, slippers, a girl in jeans, hair in dozens of kinky braids" (55)—has been transformed into a black family: "she turned to her right and entered a little waiting room where a Negro family sat in wicker chairs. There was a middle-aged man in a khaki shirt and pants…. A large woman wearing a housedress and slippers…. A teenaged girl in jeans, hair done in dozens of little braids" (73). One could argue that they were black already because of the "kinky braids" (since changed to "little" ones). But Carver's greater explicitness now makes it possible to see this family as a middle term between the baker and Nelson. Like Nelson, they are black—and the fact that these two consecutive stories should both feature black characters is itself worthy of comment, since there are otherwise so few in Carver's white working-class world. Like the baker, they are in a position to sympathize with Ann Weiss's plight, and to receive her sympathy in return. This was not particularly evident in "The Bath," where the only response Ann elicits when she tells them about her son's accident (he is not yet dead in either story) is that the father shakes his head and repeats his own son's name (56). In the revised version, the father responds to Ann's recital of her plight with an account of what happened to his son. "Our Franklin, he's on the operating table. Somebody cut him…. We're just hoping and praying, that's all we can do now" (74).
Not only does Carver strengthen the connection between the two stories by explicitly naming the family as black, but he goes on to give a name to the proprietor of the bar where the narrator encounters the sinister Nelson that comes directly from the description of the black father who commiserated with Ann Weiss. He was "a middle-aged man in a khaki shirt and pants," while the Off-Broadway Bar "was run by a spade named Khaki" (99; emphasis added). Khaki was a reassuring presence: the narrator might have had reason to fear for his safety when he frequented this all-black establishment were it not for Khaki's devotion to preserving the peace, and for his friendly attitude toward him.
A story went around once that somebody had followed somebody into the Gents and cut the man's throat while he had his hands down pissing. But I never saw any trouble. Nothing that Khaki couldn't handle…. If somebody started to get out of line, Khaki would go over to where it was beginning. He'd rest his big hand on the party's shoulder and say a few words and that was that. I'd been going there off and on for months. I was pleased that he'd say things to me, things like, "How're you doing tonight, friend?" Or, "Friend, I haven't seen you for a spell." (99-100)
Khaki came over at the right moment, when things were getting especially tense with Nelson. "Khaki had a hand on my shoulder and the other one on Benny's shoulder. He leaned over the table…. 'How you folks? You all having fun?'" (106) Benny assures him that they are, but the narrator takes advantage of Khaki's presence to make his exit. "Khaki was watching Nelson now. I stood beside the booth with Donna's coat. My legs were crazy. Nelson raised his voice. He said, 'You go with this mother here, you let him put his face in your sweets, you both going to have to deal with me.' We started to move away from the booth…. We didn't look back. We kept going" (107).
Khaki's name gives us the clue we need. The amiable proprietor of the Off-Broadway Bar is the reincarnation of the khaki-clad father who commiserates in as friendly a way as their circumstances permit with Ann Weiss, while Nelson is that of the baker in his menacing mode. The black father anticipates the baker's other mode by offering sympathy to Ann Weiss and receiving hers in return, as does the baker in the final scene. The bakery and the bar can with appropriateness resemble each other so much (the clear night sky, the stars, the midnight hour, the back rooms in both instances) because the baker's two personae—his sinister side and his commiserating side—are represented, alternately, by Nelson and Khaki together at the narrator's table.
In "Fires," Carver tells a curious anecdote that tells us significantly more about just how it was that Nelson came to stand for that menacing baker.
Not so long ago in Syracuse, where I live, I was in the middle of writing a short story when my telephone rang. I answered it. On the other end of the line was the voice of a man who was obviously a black man, someone asking for a party named Nelson. It was a wrong number and I said so and hung up. I went back to my short story. But pretty soon I found myself writing a black character into my story, a somewhat sinister character whose name was Nelson. At that moment the story took a different turn. But happily it was, I see now, and somehow knew at the time, the right turn for the story. (Fires, 29-30)
Nelson's name, as well as his presence in the story at all, was thus due to the purest chance: "This character found his way into my story with a coincidental rightness I had the good sense to trust" (30). But it is a coincidence on top of a coincidence, for his name is the same as that of the son over whom the father in khaki was in anguish in "The Bath": "'Nelson,' the woman said. 'Is it about Nelson?'… The man shifted in his chair, He shook his head. He said, 'Our Nelson'" (55-56). Carver changed the name to Franklin in "A Small, Good Thing": was he covering his tracks? Was the anecdote about the telephone call a ruse? Surely not, yet that phone call itself seems to come right out of this story about the effects of a mysteriously sinister voice on the phone. By comparing in detail the scene in the back room of the bakery with the one in the back room of Khaki's bar we explored the remarkable extent to which the baker who made those calls resembles that "somewhat sinister character whose name was Nelson." Carver's anecdote about the fortuitous event that interrupted, yet influenced the writing of "Vitamins," while appearing to stress how much Nelson's presence in that story is the product of chance, actually reveals how much that story grows out of the one that immediately precedes it in Cathedral's unfolding sequence.
One more incident in "Vitamins" deserves our attention, for its strange resemblance to something that happened in "A Small, Good Thing" can, I think, be interpreted. It takes place early in "Vitamins," quite possibly before Carver's phone rang with the wrong number, because it would appear not to have much to do with Nelson. Yet it has a lot to do with the death of the Weisses' son. Sheila, one of the vitamin sellers working under the narrator's wife, Patti, "passed out on her feet, fell over, and didn't wake up for hours" (93). It happened at a Christmas party Patti gave for her employees. Sheila had had too much to drink. "One minute she was standing in the middle of the living room, then her eyes closed, the legs buckled, and she went down with a glass in her hand…. Patti and I and somebody else lugged her out to the back porch and put her down on a cot and did what we could to forget about her" (93). Sheila's sudden collapse into unconsciousness uncannily repeats Scotty's: "he suddenly lay back on the sofa, closed his eyes, and went limp" (61). Why should this be so? What does Sheila have in common with the Weisses' son?
The answer draws us back to our reading of "A Small, Good Thing" as it coupled with "The Compartment"—to the father's daydream of the death of his son. Myers, we recall, had been locked in Oedipal conflict with his son. Although he accused him of turning "the young girl [Myers] had courted and wed into a nervous, alcoholic woman whom the boy alternately pitied and bullied," the son on another occasion had sought to come to his mother's rescue, to show her he loved her more than his father did. It had happened in a family dispute when she began angrily breaking china plates, and Myers uttered what the son interpreted as a threat: "That's enough,' Myers had said, and at that instant the boy charged him" (47). Now in the eyes of the narrator of "Vitamins" Sheila, like Myers's son, was a rival for his wife's affections, "One night this Sheila said to Patti that she loved her more than anything on earth. Patti told me these were the words…. Then Sheila touched Patti's breast. Patti … told her she didn't swing that way" (92-93). Sheila's sudden collapse into unconsciousness, by recalling Scotty's, shows the extent to which a father's jealousy, already invoked in "The Compartment," presides in secret over the events of "A Small, Good Thing." There is absolutely no evidence of this in "A Small, Good Thing" considered by itself—Howard Weiss's expressions of grief are genuine, and heart-rending to read. But when we consider the larger underlying narrative that extends to the stories on either side (not to mention such a text as "On an Old Photograph of My Son") we can see a father's jealousy at work. Sheila, as the rival for his wife's affections, stands—or rather, falls—for the hated son. In our reading of "The Bath" in the context of the stories that accompanied it in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, we found what lay behind the apparently innocent image of a son sitting on the sofa with his mother, which was what Scotty was doing just before he lapsed into the coma from which he never recovered. It is reason enough to justify a father's jealous rage.
When Sheila fell her hand had struck the coffee table, and when she woke the next morning "she was sure her little finger was broken. She showed it to me. It looked purple" (93). Later it grew "as big as a pocket flashlight" (94). "But she'd made a serious pass at Patti, a declaration of love, and I didn't have any sympathy." We have seen before, in "Fat," how phallic fingers can be. This tumescent digit, which though it belongs to a woman in fact belongs to an Oedipal son, has received a symbolically castrating blow.
The next story begins, too, with a woman having apparently fallen into unconsciousness on the living room floor, "Once … he stopped on the landing and looked into his landlady's living room. He saw the old woman lying on her back on the carpet. She seemed to be asleep. Then it occurred to him she might be dead. But the TV was going, so he chose to think she was asleep. He didn't know what to make of it" (111-12). It's hard for us to know what to make of it either, for nothing happens later in "Careful" to integrate it into the story, which concerns not the old woman but her lodger, Lloyd, who stumbles across the sight of her deathlike slumber. It's almost as if this woman dead asleep on the living room carpet were something left over from the previous story—a kind of day residue, to use the term from Freud's dream analysis that has, as I have indicated, a certain relevance to how Carver puts his story collections together. Indeed, in the Alton interview Carver said that the germ of a story or poem is for him often, quite literally, residue: "I never start with an idea. I always see something. I start with an image, a cigarette being put out in a jar of mustard, for instance, or the remains, the wreckage, of a dinner left on the table. Pop cans in the fireplace, that sort of thing" (Conversations, 154).2 Carver's point of course is that his stories begin with an image. But the choice of images he provides tells us something more, for they are all images of debris, of remnants left over from a previous event.
Two of the remarks the observant Lloyd makes, however, do serve a purpose beyond his awareness, thanks to Carver's practice of planting resemblances in his sequentially occurring stories. That "it occurred to him she might be dead" confirms the suspicion that Sheila's similarly unconscious state was likewise a semblance of death—not hers of course but Scotty's. And that "he chose to think she was asleep" echoes the doctor's words with which the Weisses tried to comfort themselves in the hospital: "Now he simply seemed to be in a very deep sleep—but no coma, Dr. Francis had emphasized" (61). "Howard gazed at his son…. Scotty was fine, but instead of sleeping at home in his own bed, he was in a hospital bed" (65). The landlady was evidently not dead, for the lodger later "saw the old woman down in the yard, wearing a straw hat and holding her hand against her side" (112). That something might be wrong with her hand recalls the injury Sheila's hand received in her descent: "The hand holding the drink smacked the coffee table when she fell" (93). As residue from the immediately preceding story, the scene of the woman asleep on the living room floor persists, even though it seems to have no immediate relevance to the story it finds itself in now. On the other hand, we can see that it has a great deal of relevance to the sequence in which the story appears, confirming the interpretation to which Sheila's collapse gave rise—that she was a figure for the son as rival for the wife's affections.
Sheila's—and Scotty's—reappearance in the form of the woman on the floor is not, however, the residue from which Carver has fashioned his story. That role belongs to another piece of detritus—a classic case perhaps of one man's trash being another's treasure—left over from the story just before: the object of disgust Nelson showed off in the Off-Broadway Bar, the body part retrieved from the corpse of a Viet Cong soldier. "I looked at the ear inside. It sat on a bed of cotton. It looked like a dried mushroom. But it was a real ear, and it was hooked up to a key chain…. 'I took it off one of them gooks,' Nelson said. 'He couldn't hear nothing with it no more. I wanted me a keepsake'" (106-7). The whole story recounted in "Careful" turns upon the problem Lloyd is having with his ear: "He'd awakened that morning and found that his ear had stopped up with wax. He couldn't hear anything clearly, and he seemed to have lost his sense of balance, his equilibrium, in the process. For the last hour, he'd been on the sofa, working frustratedly on his ear, now and again slamming his head with his fist" (113). A problem, as it happens, of too much residue.
Lloyd, an alcoholic who has taken up drinking champagne, is living apart from his wife. But Inez does pay a visit to his third-floor apartment that morning, just as he has worried himself into a helpless state over his ear. As he tells her his tale of woe the chain to which Nelson had attached his keepsake (Nelson "took up the chain and dangled the ear…. He let it swing back and forth on the chain" ) returns here too, in the chain attached to Lloyd's memory of the last time he had this problem. "My ear's plugged up. You remember that other time it happened? We were living in that place near the Chinese take-out joint. Where the kids found that bulldog dragging its chain? I had to go to the doctor then and have my ears flushed out" (114-15). Inez is willing to do what she can to help but unfortunately her nail-file technique (she couldn't find a hairpin) is neither safe nor effective. But she does have the bright idea of going downstairs to ask his landlady if she "has any Wesson oil, or anything like that. She might even have some Q-tips. I don't know why I didn't think of that before. Of asking her" (119).
She returns with baby oil, and some good advice on how to use it; warm the oil, pour it in the ear, and massage gently. "She said it used to happen to her husband…. She said try this. And she didn't have any Q-tips. I can't understand that, her not having any Q-tips. That part really surprises me" (120). Inez still doesn't understand that putting any solid object into the ear, whether hairpin or Q-tip, is only going to push the wax deeper in, though her stubborn insistence on procuring cotton swabs does serve the purpose of recalling the "bed of cotton" on which Nelson's ear was displayed. However, by following Mrs. Matthews's instructions to the letter, success is achieved. "He heard a car pass on the street outside the house and, at the back of the house, down below his kitchen window, the clear snick-snick of pruning shears…. 'I'm all right! I mean, I can hear. It doesn't sound like you're talking underwater anymore'" (121-22).
So the old woman whose supine state resembled death did have an important part to play after all. It's just that her unconsciousness, whether from having blacked out or simply from sleep, still seems a naggingly irrelevant episode, troubling because of its apparent lack of purpose. We went some distance toward making sense of its presence in the story when we found how it served to confirm our sense of what was going on in the sequence at this point. But I think I can now show that that opening scene has more to do in the story—and not just in the sequence—than that.
Let us look once more at Lloyd's behavior the day the principal events of the story take place: "He was on the sofa, in his pajamas, hitting his fist against the right side of his head. Just before he could hit himself again, he heard voices downstairs on the landing…. He gave his head another jolt with his fist, then got to his feet" (113). At that moment we had no idea why he was hitting his head with his fist. We would learn the reason in the next paragraph—that it was because his ear is stopped up—but before we did his self-inflicted blows had the stage to themselves, and they were incomprehensible. And they continue: "Now and again slamming his head with his fist" (113). "He pounded his head a good one" (114). "He whacked his head once more" (116).
All that we have seen up to now of the way the stories in Cathedral and in the two earlier collections retain echoes of prior events, words, and gestures should justify my making the following hypothesis. In slamming his fist against his head Lloyd was not only trying to clear the obstruction in his ear, but as a figure for the father in the ongoing narrative hidden in the sequence of these stories he was also trying to inflict on himself the injury his son had suffered—the son whose death he had wished for in "The Compartment," the son who died in "A Small, Good Thing." For the father in "The Compartment" had in fact "slammed him into the wall" as Lloyd kept "slamming his head with his fist," while Scotty suffered a "hairline fracture of the skull" (66) that was caused by his head hitting the pavement ("He fell on his side with his head in the gutter" ) and died from "a hidden occlusion" (80). An occlusion is the stopping up, the closing, the obstruction of a passage—in Scotty's case something like a blood vessel in the brain, in Lloyd's the auditory canal of his ear.
Something really does happen in the buried narrative hidden between Carver's stories: one event succeeds another. The father desires the son's death, then the son dies, and then the father, chastened by the fulfillment of his wish, repents of his desire and tries in his anguish to turn the suffering inflicted on the child upon himself. But then something else takes place, and that is the reason the old woman downstairs who provides the remedy for Lloyd's suffering was first glimpsed passed out on the living room floor as if she were dead, repeating Sheila's collapse that itself repeats the son's. For by her recreation of Scotty's coma she becomes, in the buried narrative the sequence tells, the son (as Sheila had when she took on the son's Oedipal role of rival for the wife's affections). And by providing the cure for Lloyd's head pounding and for his auricular occlusion, she delivers the son's forgiveness. (It is not perhaps by accident that it should appear in the form of "baby oil," instead of the cooking oil Inez had originally requested.) That reconciliation, of course, is this father's deepest desire. For the same poem where Carver confesses "Oh, son, in those days I wanted you dead" ends with these words: "But don't / worry, my boy—the pages turn, my son. We all / do better in the future" ("On an Old Photograph of My Son").
These stories tell this story by recycling each other's details (for example, the ear) as dreams do the residue of the immediately preceding day, so it is fitting that Lloyd should doubt the permanence of the cure just effected and fear his malady might return as he slept: "He began to feel afraid of the night that was coming…. What if, in the middle of the night he accidentally turned on his right side, and the weight of his head pressing into the pillow were to seal the wax again in the dark canals of his ear?… 'Good God,' he said…. 'I just had something like a terrible nightmare'" (122-23). It is fitting, too, that this fear of falling asleep should invoke not only the fate that befell the son (who fell into a sleep from which he never awoke) but also the dread Patti evidently had of falling asleep and having dreams that offered her no solace, just the same worries that had fatigued her throughout the day. "I even dream of vitamins when I'm asleep. I don't have any relief. There's no relief! At least you can walk away from your job and leave it behind. I'll bet you haven't had one dream about it. I'll bet you don't dream about waxing floors or whatever you do down there" (97). Her husband performs janitorial duties in a hospital. It's a remarkable coincidence that she should complain that her husband doesn't dream of wax.
"where I'm Calling From"
After Inez's departure, even though his ear is, at least for the moment, cleared of its obstruction, Lloyd still must face his other problem—his addiction to champagne. "In the beginning, he'd really thought he could continue drinking if he limited himself to champagne. But in no time he found he was drinking three or four bottles a day" (119). On the next to last page of the story we find him taking a fresh bottle out of the fridge. "He worked the plastic cork out of the bottle as carefully as he could, but there was still the festive pop of champagne being opened" (124; first two emphases added). These words form some resonant echoes. When his ear was stopped up, Lloyd thought that "it felt like it had when he used to swim near the bottom of the municipal pool" (115) and "his ears would pop" (116; emphasis added) when he cleared the water out of them by blowing with his mouth and nose closed tight. Before Inez arrived he had been "working frustratedly on his ear" (113; emphasis added). And of course the title, already repeated in Lloyd's plea to "Be careful" (118; emphasis added), reappears in the adverb that describes how he worked the cork out of the bottle. Not surprisingly, that cork bears a close resemblance to what the landlady once saw emerge from her husband's ear: "this one time she saw a piece of wax fall out of his ear, and it was like a big plug of something" (120).
This conclusion to "Careful" not only recalls the events that had preceded it but anticipates the subject of the story to follow, which takes place at a "drying-out facility" for confirmed alcoholics. Lloyd's favorite drink is what the narrator consumed en route to the sanitarium: "We drank champagne all the way" (138). Early in the story the narrator witnesses the same kind of event that Lloyd had glimpsed as he mounted the stairs to his apartment. Tiny, one of the inmates at Frank Martin's farm, "was on his back on the floor with his eyes closed" (128; emphasis added), as Mrs. Matthews had been "lying on her back on the carpet" (111; emphasis added) with her eyes closed as if she were asleep. We never find out why she was doing that; Tiny was having a quasi-epileptic seizure, apparently brought on by alcoholism. The narrator spends most of the story listening, primarily to fellow drunk J.P., who first tells him how he fell into a well when he was twelve, and then how he met his wife. Both episodes repeat significant elements of what Lloyd went through in the story before.
It was a dry well, lucky for him…. But he told me that being at the bottom of that well had made a lasting impression. He'd sat there and looked up at the well mouth. Way up at the top, he could see a circle of blue sky…. A flock of birds flew across, and it seemed to J.P. their wingbeats set up this odd commotion. He heard other things. He heard tiny rustlings above him in the well, which made him wonder if things might fall down into his hair…. He heard wind blow over the well mouth, and that sound made an impression on him, too. In short, everything about his life was different for him at the bottom of the well. But nothing fell on him and nothing closed off that little circle of blue. Then his dad came along with the rope, and it wasn't long before J.P. was back in the world he'd always lived in. (130)
Lloyd described what it felt like to have his ear stopped up in ways that anticipate J.P.'s experience both of being trapped in a cylinder and of hearing how cylinders distort sounds. "When I talk, I feel like I'm talking inside a barrel. My head rumbles…. When you talk, it sounds like you're talking through a lead pipe" (115). J.P.'s being "at the bottom of that well" recalls Lloyd's memory of being "near the bottom of the municipal pool" (115) when he had had the same sensation in his ears. When the wax was removed, he could hear things like the "rustlings" and the wind blowing over the mouth of the well: "Lloyd heard the sound her breath made as it came and went … the clear snick-snack of pruning shears" (121-22). J.P.'s terror of something falling on him from above parallels the claustrophobia induced by the sharply slanting ceiling of Lloyd's top-floor apartment. "He had to stoop to look from his windows and be careful getting in and out of bed" (111). That too-low ceiling contributed to the terror he felt at the thought of his ear problem returning: "What if he woke up then, unable to hear, the ceiling inches from his head?" (122-23). J.P. was rescued by clinging to his father's rope; Lloyd had been at the end of his: "he'd tried everything he could think of, and he was nearing the end of his rope" (114).
Lloyd's rescue is evoked in the most remarkable way by the other story J.P. tells. It was Lloyd's wife (with help from the landlady downstairs) who managed to clean out his occluded canal, while what made J.P. fall in love with the woman who became his wife was the fact that she cleaned out obstructed passages for a living.3 Roxy was a professional chimney sweep with all the traditional regalia of the trade and had shown up to clean the chimney at the house of a friend J.P. was visiting. "She's wearing a top hat, the sight of which knocked J.P. for a loop…. She spreads a blanket on the hearth and lays out her gear" (131)—as, with much less aplomb, Inez had "emptied the purse out onto the sofa. 'No hairpins,' she said. 'Damn'" (117). The sexy chimney sweep is "wearing these black pants, black shirt, black shoes and socks…. J.P. says it nearly drove him nuts to look at her. She does the work, she cleans the chimney…. J.P. and his friend … raise their eyebrows when the upper half of the young woman disappears into the chimney" (131).
What are we to make of these two particular bits of recycling: Lloyd's ear blockage transformed into J.P.'s falling into a well and one wife's ear cleaning become another wife's chimney sweeping? Their effect, I believe, is to justify my hypothesis about the sleeping Mrs. Matthews. I had suggested that the person really responsible for curing Lloyd's malady was the landlady, that his wife was only the medium through which her cure was effected, and furthermore that the old lady passed out on the carpet really represented the son, who was symbolically saving his father from his self-inflicted pain. What happens in the first of these two episodes in "Where I'm Calling From" is that the father-son relationship that I had said was behind Lloyd's aural occlusion has now been brought out into the open: here a father rescues a son; in "Careful" it was the other way around. Each story is a complement to the other, as so many story pairs have shown themselves to be. And the wife still has a part to play, but her contribution has been separated out and re-presented in a totally different story.
Near the end of "Where I'm Calling From" a scene takes place that both repeats the scene near the beginning of "Careful" in which Lloyd spied on his landlady stretched out on her living room rug and does so in terms of a father-son connection. Lloyd had glanced into his landlady's apartment on his way up the stairs; here, the narrator, in bed with his wife on a Sunday morning, thinks he can hear something outside the window. His wife suddenly remembers who it must be: the landlord, who was going to paint the exterior of the house.
I push the curtain away from the window…. It's the landlord, all right—this old guy in coveralls. But his coveralls are too big for him…. And a wave of happiness comes over me that I'm not him—that I'm me and that I'm inside this bedroom with my wife…. The old fart breaks into a grin. It's then I realize I'm naked…. I can see the old fellow nod to himself like he's saying, "Go on, sonny, go back to bed. I understand." He tugs on the bill of his cap. Then he sets about his business. He picks up his bucket. He starts climbing the ladder. (145)
Everything is reversed. The landlady has become a landlord. The protagonist has changed from voyeur into someone whose nakedness is the object of someone else's gaze—while in both cases the person doing the viewing is climbing up, (the stairs, a ladder) at the time. That the landlady represented the son (not Lloyd's son, of course, but the son of the father whose presence haunts these stories from "The Compartment" on) is evidenced by the fact that in this reversal the landlord addresses the narrator—"Go on, sonny, go back to bed"—as if he were a father speaking to his son. It is the reversal, that is, of the landlady as son and the lodger as father. And the forgiveness that I contended the son was extending to his father by offering the remedy that would make him stop slamming his fist against his skull—that filial forgiveness has now become a paternal blessing: "Go on, sonny…. I understand."
"The Train," which is inscribed "for John Cheever," begins where Cheever's "The Five-Forty-Eight" leaves off, with Miss Dent holding a gun on the man who had seduced her and then fired her from her job.4 She had followed him into his train home to Shady Hill, sat next to him, and explained that she had a pistol in her purse. In the darkness past the station parking lot, as Carver picks up the story. "She'd made him get down in the dirt and plead for his life. While the man's eyes welled with tears and his fingers picked at leaves, she pointed the revolver at him and told him things about himself…. 'Be still!' she'd said, although the man was only digging his fingers into the dirt and moving his legs a little out of fear" (147). Blake's terror, and especially the way his eyes "welled with tears," evokes J.P.'s terrifying experience at the bottom of the well, though it was J.P. who said that "being at the bottom of that well had made a lasting impression" (130) on him, and Miss Dent who "knew she would remember for a long time the sound he made through his nose as he got down on his knees" (148; emphasis added). This persistent memory of the sound of his nose is an even more precise recycling of J.P.'s recollection of a similarly breathy noise: "He heard wind blow over the well mouth, and that sound made an impression on him, too" (130).
How is it that the scene of a son trapped and then rescued from deep in the ground by his father gets transformed into one of a woman trapping a man and forcing him to "get down in the dirt"? It is that what had been separated into two stories in "Where I'm Calling From"—the plot of "Careful" divided into the episode at the well and J.P.'s courtship of his chimney-sweep wife—has been put together again into one. For Miss Dent, while putting her victim through an experience that recalls J.P.'s in the well, at the same time bears a significant resemblance to J.P.'s wife: both are women extraordinarily capable of violence. Miss Dent had "held a gun on a man … she put her foot on the back of his head and pushed his face into the dirt" (147), and Roxy "is a woman who can make firsts if she has to" (143). "Her hands are broad and the fingers have these big knuckles. This woman broke a man's nose once" (142).5
In "The Train" Miss Dent leaves the man groveling in the dirt and goes into the station to wait for the next train back to the city. An odd couple enter, an elderly man wearing stockings but no shoes and a middle-aged woman who speaks to him in a mixture of Italian and English. They seem to be discussing a cocktail party they have just left, and what they say to each other is as opaque to the reader as it must have been to Miss Dent, something about a girl "alone in a house filled with simps and vipers," an "imbecile they call Captain Nick" (150), "café au lait and cigarettes, their precious Swiss chocolate and those goddamned macaws" (151), and having to sit through "home movies about Point Barrow, Alaska" (152).6 There is nothing I can think of in any other Carver story to compare to this barrage of pointless information, pointless, that is, until we realize that it does serve at least one function: it puts Miss Dent in the same situation in which "The Train" puts the reader who does not know Cheever's story. Carver after all does not tell us exactly how his story is an homage to Cheever; he doesn't tell us which Cheever story this is the sequel of, or even that this is one. Carver's story in fact can stand alone, just like all the others in Cathedral (which is to say that it can also be part of a larger whole, as they are); we don't need to have read Cheever's story to understand Carver's. Yet while all that is true, Carver evidently still felt the need to put in his story some telltale sign that would make the reader feel that he or she has arrived on the scene too late, that a lot must have already happened before the story began.
What happens at the end of the story points in the same direction. As Miss Dent and the man and woman get on the train, "The passengers naturally assumed that the three people boarding were together; and they felt sure that whatever these people's business had been that night, it had not come to a happy conclusion" (155). As the old man had held the waiting room door for the middle-aged woman and then for Miss Dent, so that they emerged onto the platform with Miss Dent between them, this was not an unreasonable assumption. But in fact they were not together; neither had they transacted any business. The extent of their interaction in the waiting room had been: the man and Miss Dent exchanged a "Good evening" (148-49); Miss Dent silently shook her head when the woman said to her companion. "If you really must smoke, she may have a match" (149); the woman once referred to Miss Dent in the third person in the midst of an argument with the man (151); the woman eventually did address her directly: "'You don't say much. But I'll wager you could say a lot if someone got you started…. What do they call you?' 'Miss Dent. But I don't know you'" (153); later, Miss Dent almost began to open a conversation, but just then the train pulled into the station. The three people boarding the train were just as much a closed book to the passengers already on the train as the couple's bizarre conversation had been to Miss Dent; more than that, by assuming they were together the passengers raise the same issue that the story itself raises by being an unannounced sequel to Cheever's "The Five-Forty-Eight"; are the stories together or not?
It is of course the same question that Carver's stories always raise: are they to be read intertextually—in conjunction with the story just finished—or not? Are they all, in this sense, sequels?
Arthur Saltzman accurately observes that the narrator of "Where I'm Calling From" "is at first unwilling or unable to relate his own story…. Instead of confessing, the narrator persuades a fellow drunk, J.P., to tell his" (147). The woman in "The Train" makes the same observation about Miss Dent: "You don't say much. But I'll wager you could say a lot if someone got you started. Couldn't you? But you're a sly boots. You'd rather just sit with your prim little mouth while other people talk their heads off" (153). The wife in "Fever" likewise urges the husband she has left to talk it out: "Tell me about yourself," she said on the phone. "He told her the kids were fine. But before he could say anything else, she interrupted him to say, 'I know they're fine. What about you?'" (165).
"Fever" is the account of Carlyle's eventually successful effort to accept his wife's not coming back. He teaches art at a high school; Eileen ran away with the drama teacher, leaving Carlyle to cope with his two young children alone. After some bad experiences with babysitters, his luck changes dramatically when his wife puts him in touch with the grandmotherly Mrs. Webster. For six weeks things go beautifully, until Carlyle comes down with a severe bout of the flu. His fever and headaches keep him in bed for several days, while Mrs. Webster takes care of both him and the children.
During this time Eileen occasionally telephones to ask how he is and to say that her life has significantly improved since she left him, all in a trendy psychobabble about her "karma" and his that convinces Carlyle she is going crazy. "Eileen must be losing her mind to talk like that" (164). Her perceived insanity is mentioned at least a half-dozen times in the story. On one occasion even Eileen shows that she realizes how strange she must sound: "'You may think I'm crazy or something,' she said. 'But just remember.' Remember what? Carlyle wondered in alarm, thinking he must have missed something she'd said" (168). On another Carlyle tells his girlfriend Carol why he's not going to answer the phone. "It's my wife. I know it's her. She's losing her mind. She's going crazy. I'm not going to answer it" (175). When he falls ill, Eileen advises him to keep a journal of his illness, just like Colette.7 "She wrote a little book about what it was like, about what she was thinking and feeling the whole time she had this fever…. Right now you've just got this discomfort. You've got to translate that into something usable" (181). Carlyle can make no sense of what seemed like pointless advice. "It was clear to him that she was insane" (182).
Miss Dent was crazy too, in fact certifiably insane—had even been institutionalized for it—not in "The Train" but in Cheever's "The Five-Forty-Eight." "Oh, I know what you're thinking," she said as she sat next to Blake on the train, aiming the pistol in his direction from inside her purse.
You're thinking that I'm crazy, and I have been very sick again but I'm going to be better. It's going to make me better to talk with you. I was in the hospital all the time before I came to work for you but they never tried to cure me, they only wanted to take away my self-respect…. Even if I did have to kill you, they wouldn't be able to do anything to me except put me back in the hospital. (289)
She was evidently insane even before she came to work for him and did not become so because he seduced her. In Cheever's story, her vengeance is thus not so much the act of a woman taking a stand against male injustice as it is the irrational act of a poor demented soul. We can read Carver's "The Train" and not realize this about her, as long as we do not follow the hint his dedicatory lines to Cheever make and track down "The Five-Forty-Eight." But if we do read Cheever's story and appreciate the extent to which Carver's "Train" is a sequel to it, then we are also in a position to appreciate the extent to which "Fever" is a sequel to both, and Eileen's craziness a distant echo of Miss Dent's. This is particularly evident when we compare Miss Dent's words: "You're thinking that I'm crazy" (289) to Eileen's: "You may think I'm crazy" (168). More than this unites Eileen to Cheever's heroine, for they both also share a firm belief in the efficacy of the talking cure. "It's going to make me better to talk with you," Miss Dent had said. And later: "I won't harm you if you'll let me talk" (290). Eileen's insistence that Carlyle articulate his thoughts during his illness finally bears fruit when, in the midst of a splitting headache, he begins to talk to Mrs. Webster, not about his fever but about what Eileen's leaving means. "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" (184). And he goes on at considerable length, spilling out all the thoughts that had been pent up for so long and that had surely contributed, psychosomatically, to his having fallen sick. "There, it's all right,' Mrs. Webster said. She patted his hand. He sat forward and began to talk again." The children came into the room. "Carlyle looked at them and went on talking." They kept quiet but started to giggle. "Carlyle went on talking. At first, his head still ached…. But then his headache went away." He had started "in the middle," after the birth of the children, but now he went back to the very beginning, when he and Eileen had first met. "You just keep talking, Mr. Carlyle," Mrs. Webster said. "Sometimes it's good to talk about it" (185). He talked so much more that the children had time to fall asleep and wake up again.
When he was finally all talked out, not only had his headache disappeared, but at last "he understood [the marriage] was over, and he felt able to let her go … it was something that had passed. And that passing … would become a part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he'd left behind" (186). Eileen, crazy as she may have seemed to him to be, was right about one thing. "Remember," she had said, "sickness is a message about your health and your well-being. It's telling you things" (181). His fever was trying to tell him something: it was telling him he had something to tell.
In the end it's Carlyle who begins to resemble Miss Dent. It did both of them good to talk it out. And it turns out they had almost the same dreams: earlier in the story, "when the alarm went off, he wanted to keep his eyes closed and keep on with the dream he was having. Something about a farmhouse…. Someone … was walking along the road carrying something. Maybe it was a picnic hamper…. In the dream, there seemed to exist a sense of well-being" (169). "I dream about picnics and heaven and the brotherhood of man," Miss Dent had told Blake (293).
Carlyle has at least one thing in common with Miss Dent's victim, too. Blake's eyes, we recall, had "welled with tears and his fingers picked at leaves" (147) (in a passage that recalled J.P.'s terror in the well). Carlyle "felt a welling in his chest as he kissed each of his children goodbye" (171).8
Like Carlyle, and like the Miss Dent of Cheever's story, Betty Holits too finds it helps to talk it out. "And that's fine with me," Marge tells us in "The Bridle." Marge is a hairstylist, and Betty is her customer. "They like to talk when they're in the chair" (198). Marge at the same time manages, with her husband, Harley, an apartment complex where the Holitses have rented a suite. But the more Betty talks the more it appears that the character in this story to which the protagonist of "Fever" bears the most resemblance is her husband, who like Carlyle is referred to by his last name as if it were his first. Holits, like Carlyle, had a wife (before Betty) who "lit out on them" (198), leaving him with two children to raise.
Holits, an unemployed farmer from Minnesota who has moved west with his family to look for work, had earlier developed a passionate interest in horses and bought a race-horse on which he pinned all his hopes. He named it Fast Betty, after his wife, but it didn't exactly live up to its name. When they moved into the apartment complex and were unloading their possessions from the car, Marge had seen him carry in "something [with] straps hanging from it" that she recognized as a horse's bridle (191-92). At the end of the story, after Holits sustains a head injury from a drunken leap one night from the roof of a cabana onto the deck of the pool and the family moves out a week later, Marge goes to clean the vacated apartment. Betty had left the rooms in unexpectedly tidy condition, but there was one thing left behind. "One of the bureau drawers is open and I go to close it. Back in a corner of the drawer I see the bridle he was carrying in when he first came. It must have been passed over in their hurry. But maybe it wasn't. Maybe the man left it on purpose" (208; emphasis added). At the end of "Fever" too we had seen Carlyle leaving something behind, the marriage his wife had walked out on: "their life together … was something that had passed. And that passing … would become a part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he'd left behind" (186; emphasis added).
The parallel is even greater if we can place any faith in the possible pun between the bridle Holits left and the bride (or bridal hopes) Carlyle left behind—or in Holits having named the horse after his wife, so that its bridle, by evoking the horse, evokes his bride. Betty recognizes the incongruity of the horse bearing her name: "The Betty part is a joke. But he says it can't help but be a winner if he names it after me. A big winner, all right. The fact is, wherever it ran, it lost" (199).
The duplication of Betty's name is itself duplicated by the odd way Marge duplicates her name on the fifty-dollar bills with which the Holitses paid their first installment of rent: "I write my name in ink across Grant's broad old forehead: MARGE. I print it. I do it on every one. Right over his thick brows. People will stop in the midst of their spending and wonder. Who's this Marge?" (192) Marge is like Carver in this regard—not that he keeps writing his name everywhere, but he does keep writing the same words in different places, both between and within his stories.9 The activity in which Marge is here engaged offers an intriguing case in point, for her disfiguration of U. S. Grant's forehead is echoed in the climactic later scene of Holits's fall from the cabana roof:
He dragged up one of the tables and climbed onto that. Then … he lifted up onto the roof of the cabana…. They're egging him on. They're saying. "Go on, you can do it." "Don't belly-flop, now." "I double-dare you." Things like that.
Then I hear Betty's voice. "Holits, think what you're doing." But Holits just stands there at the edge. He looks down at the water. He seems to be figuring how much of a run he's going to have to make to get out there. He backs up to the far side. He spits in his palm and rubs his hands together…. I see him hit the deck…. Holits has this gash on his forehead. (203)
Forehead, that is, is written into both scenes. Now is this done haphazardly, promiscuously, as are Marge's MARGEs? Or is there an underlying reason for this echo?
There are actually two.
Holits was trying to make a leap into the swimming pool from the cabana roof, but he failed because he couldn't run fast enough: "He seems to be figuring how much of a run he's going to have to make to get out there." He thus came to resemble his beloved Fast Betty, the horse that could never run fast enough, that, "wherever it ran, it lost." His drunken and foolish behavior would brand him for life with a scar on his forehead in which one can read his identification with the horse whose name is also the name of his wife. Thus does Marge's gesture of inscribing her name on a man's forehead find its echo in the trace of another wife's name.
His head injury at the same time recalls the headache and fever Carlyle suffered in the immediately preceding story, for as Holits's wound was self-inflicted so too, in the final analysis, was Carlyle's psychosomatic illness. He fell sick because he couldn't cope with his wife's having left him (and once he had talked out all his feelings on that subject, he was suddenly cured of his headache). Now while Holits's first wife did leave him in apparently similar circumstances (left him, that is, with two children to take care of by himself), his second wife Betty didn't. Yet apparently it was despair that brought him to make his near-suicidal leap, a despair that we may be able to understand by paying attention to Marge's meditation on the meaning of the bridle he left behind, in the concluding words of the story:
"Bridle," I say. I hold it up to the window and look at it in the light…. I don't know much about them. But I know that one part of it fits in the mouth…. Reins go over the head and up to where they're held on the neck between the fingers. The rider pulls the reins this way and that, and the horse turns. It's simple. The bit's heavy and cold. If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you'd catch on in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you'd know it was time. You'd know you were going somewhere.
Clearly, bridle here takes on a bridal connotation. Holits may have had the bridal bit between his teeth, but he had apparently lost the ability, and more importantly the will, to go where it was telling him to go: "I can't go it" (104; emphasis added), he had mysteriously said after he fell. "'What'd he say?'… 'He said he can't go it….' 'Go what? What's he talking about?'" It's understandable, after the failure of his farm and his long period of unemployment. He may have started working again, Marge thinks, just before the accident. But if so his injury and subsequent hospitalization have put an end to that; he no longer seems in full control of his faculties—when their friends wave at his departure, he doesn't at first respond but then raises his hand and then "keeps waving at them, even after they've stopped" (207).10
Yet he has to keep on going all the same, as the conversation between Marge and Harley reveals, with its repeated emphasis on that word: "He asks me where they're going. But I don't have any idea where they're going. Maybe they're going back to Minnesota. How do I know where they're going? But I don't think they're going back to Minnesota. I think they're going someplace else to try their luck" (206).
Marge's fascination with the idea of her name cropping up in strange places, in the mouths of strangers—"People will stop in the midst of their spending and wonder. Who's this Marge?"—finds a precise counterpart in the wonderment the narrator of "Cathedral" feels when his wife plays for him a tape from her blind correspondent. Before her marriage to the narrator, she had worked as a reader to Robert, and they had continued to exchange tapes in the years since. "I was on the tape, she said…. 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" (212). Marge's heart-to-heart talk with Betty Holits had suffered a similar interruption: "I'm starting to tell how it was before we moved here, and how it's still like that. But Harley picks right then to come out of the bedroom" (201). And Betty "for some reason … doesn't come back to get her hair done" any more so the conversation is never resumed. The architecture of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, its ongoing sequence of contiguous repetitions, is about to be broken off too, since "Cathedral" is the last story in the collection. It is therefore fitting that one of the last of these repetitions should be about the sudden interruption of discourse.
The narrator is at first annoyed by the news that Robert is coming to visit. He has never had much to do with blind people and knows he is going to feel uncomfortable. But Robert is a jolly sort, who clearly enjoys good food, good whiskey, and good dope, though it was his first time for the latter. "We thought we'd have us some cannabis" (220), the narrator tells his wife when she came back downstairs and encountered the smell. High on pot, the blind man and the narrator sit up until late into the evening, listening to a TV program about "the church and the Middle Ages" (222) for which the narrator gives Robert a running commentary. He does his best to depict the spires, the gargoyles and the flying buttresses. But realizing the difficulty of describing a cathedral to someone who has never seen one, he asks, "If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they're talking about?" (223-24) Robert responds that he knows, since the man on the television had just said as much, that "they took hundreds of workers fifty or a hundred years to build," that "the men who began their life's work on them, they never lived to see the completion of their work. In that wise, bub, they're no different from the rest of us, right?" (224) If Carver's Cathedral is self-naming, then the kind of cathedral it is is one of these unfinished ones, for the nature of its architecture is forever open-ended, each last word always open to the possibility of being succeeded by another.
The last word in this case is the final scene of the story, which finds the narrator trying to draw a cathedral on the "heavy paper" (226) the blind man had asked him to look for (an empty shopping bag served the purpose), pressing down very firmly with the pen so that Robert would be able to follow the tracings with his fingers. "So I began. First I drew a box that looked like a house…. Then I put a roof on it. At either end of the roof, I drew spires. Crazy" (227)—then windows, arches, gargoyles, people, and all. The blind man now tells him to close his eyes. "'Keep them that way…. Don't stop now. Draw.' So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now" (228). But it was like something else, two stories before, in "Fever"; "'Like this, like this,' he said, guiding their hands…. 'Suggestion is what it's all about,' he said, holding lightly to Sue Colvin's fingers as he guided her brush. 'You've got to work with your mistakes until they look intended. Understand?'" (172) Carlyle, we recall, was a high school art teacher. Should we take his advice? Should we work with the products of chance—what in his context are pupils' mistakes but in ours such possibly chance occurrences as the way this passage so strikingly anticipates the one that concludes the book—until they look intended?
Or are they intended? I think they are intended to make us think, to feel a sense of wonder as we linger in Carver's Cathedral to explore some of its more obscure passages, to realize how—as at Chartres, for example—one image in stained glass or statuary responds to another somewhere else in the fabric (Joseph's coat of many colors to Jesus' seamless robe, his fall into the pit to Christ's descent into hell, or the silver cup hidden in the sack of grain to the chalice of the Eucharist). "Suggestion," to adopt another piece of Carlyle's pedagogical advice, "is what it's all about."
Though distributed at different places in "Fever," two other moments anticipate what happens at the end of the title story. "At school, they were just leaving the medieval period and about to enter the Gothic" (176)—as were the narrator and Robert as they kept pace with the television broadcast. The "heavy paper" that Robert asked the narrator to procure, and that was indispensable for the effect he wanted him to create, had already appeared in a drawing "on heavy paper" Eileen had sent him "of a woman on a riverbank in a filmy gown, her hands covering her eyes, her shoulders slumped. It was, Carlyle assumed, Eileen showing her heartbreak over the situation" (164).
Yet the concluding scene where the blind man's fingers "rode" the narrator's as he drew the cathedral while both were high on cannabis recalls as well the conclusion of "The Bridle" when Holits was high on the cabana roof. For in his loser's run he was, as we have seen, acting the part of the horse wearing the bridle with reins that "go over the head and up to where they're held on the neck between the fingers. The rider pulls the reins this way and that, and the horse turns." And in a significant reversal, while at first it was the narrator who was in charge, drawing the cathedral on the heavy paper so that Robert could then move "the tips of his fingers over the paper" (227) to get some idea of what it looked like, by the time the story ends it's the blind man who is guiding the narrator, riding him with his fingers. He is showing him what it is like to be blind. He tells him to shut his eyes and then to keep on drawing. "His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now. Then he said, 'I think that's it, I think you got it'" (228), as if he were an art instructor congratulating his student. "'Take a look. What do you think?' But I had my eyes closed. I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer…. 'It's really something,' I said."
In a question-and-answer session at the University of Akron in 1982 Carver said that in his view to build a cathedral was to engage in a collaborative endeavor. "This is a farfetched analogy, but it's in a way like building a fantastic cathedral. The main thing is to get the work of art together. You don't know who built those cathedrals, but they're there" (Conversations, 23). He was referring to the collaboration between writer and editor, though surely the kind of joint effort in which the blind man and the narrator are engaged in "Cathedral," which he was then writing or had recently completed, was on his mind. But this uncertainty as to authorship extends to the uncertainty into which Cathedral's stories lead us: to which of these two stories can the origin of the image of the riding fingers be traced—"Cathedral," which was written first, or "The Bridle," which the stories' order places before the other in the total fabric of the work?11 "Cathedral, in other words, is a cathedral in the Carverian sense: like the protagonists of its title story, its stories ride each other, depend on each other, collaborate with each other to create together what they could not have done by themselves.
1. That is, he thinks he remembers it was a birthday party, but he isn't entirely sure: "They were with some other kids that afternoon, a birthday party maybe. Something…. As I say, I'm not sure where our kids were that afternoon. Maybe I had to pick them up from someplace, and it was getting late, and that contributed to my state of mind" (32). In light of the fact that in "The Bath" (and later in "A Small, Good Thing") the son dies on his birthday and that the cake was an elaborately iced birthday cake makes the uncertainty of his recollection all the more interesting. Concealed beneath it may be a kind of birthday wish that could be expressed only in a fiction: that his children had never been born.
2. When Alton later asks Carver about the role of the unconscious in his work, he acknowledges its relevance: "JA: You have a dream motif in many stories [he mentions "The Student's Wife," "Elephant," and "Whoever Was Using This Bed"]. There are several more that involved dreams occurring, and I wonder what importance you place on the unconscious mind and its relation to the kind of surface reality you record. You get at the unconscious only in an indirect way…. I wonder if you think about it much. RC: I don't think about it very much. It may be one of those things you don't think about but that's sometimes relevant to your work" (Conversations, 164).
3. In her short story "Turpentine," Tess Gallagher has her narrator tell practically the same tale and make the same connection between the shape of a well and the shape of a chimney: "A chimney sweep had come to our house not long ago. He'd learned his trade in Germany, where the sweeps go to weddings and kiss all the women on the cheeks for luck. He'd told an incredible story about falling into a well at the age of twelve. He'd had to be rescued by his father…. His affection for chimneys, he thought, was entirely due to the excitement and danger of his falling into a well when he was twelve" (The Lover of Horses, 12). Ginny Skoyles, who tells this story, found that people were always telling her their life stories and confesses that "sometimes I told them back one of the stories someone else had told me. And once in a while I told it back as though it had happened to me. It was harmless enough and it gave me something to say" (60). Gallagher's narrator, in other words, is a thief of stories. In an oddly self-referential way, so too is the author of the story—or Carver, depending on who told it first.
4. More precisely, it begins just before Cheever's story ends. Miss Dent walks away, leaving Blake in the dirt. When it was safe to do so, he gets up and makes his way home.
5. The man was J.P., with whom she would trade blows in the troubled years of their marriage (134).
6. Mark Facknitz was also struck by the incoherence of the scene: "We eavesdrop, but learn little. In fact, the more they say, the less we know. Why is this man in his socks? What is all this about a trip to the North Pole?… The growing, inchoate set of questions suggests many meaningful and intriguing stories, none of which can cohere unless Miss Dent asks for elaborations, for sense" (346).
7. Which makes "Fever" the third story in a row to allude to other writers—John Cheever in the dedication to "The Train," and in "Where I'm Calling From" the author of The Call of the Wild: "Jack London used to have a big place on the other side of this valley," Frank Martin told his guests. "Right over there behind that green hill you're looking at. But alcohol killed him. Let that be a lesson to you. He was a better man than any of us. But he couldn't handle the stuff, either" (137).
8. Cheever's story may provide the origin, too, for those almost unbearably troubling words the woman's son utters in Carver's story "Why, Honey?" (in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?): "Kneel is what I say, kneel down is what I say, he said, that's the first reason why" (173). For they are what Miss Dent said to Blake: "When the train had passed beyond the bridge, the noise grew distant, and he heard her screaming at him, 'Kneel Down! Kneel down! Do what I say. Kneel down!'" (293). Note that not only is the command the same, but the accompanying phrase "what I say" appears in both passages. Could the son be speaking the torment of a seduced and abandoned lover?
9. Of which this is, among those published in the three collections studied here, the fiftieth. This would exclude Furious Seasons, which stands apart from the rest of Carver's fiction because of the wholly untypical title story ("unusual among Carver's stories for its disruption of linear progression, its conflation of dream and reality, and a surprising lushness of style" [Saltzman, 96]) and its not having been published by a major press. It would exclude the stories in Fires, too, which unlike the other collections consists of poetry and essays as well as stories. I do not think the stories in Fires or Furious Seasons exhibit the sequential echoing structure of those considered here.
10. Holits has become a strange parody of the man in "Viewfinder" who climbed up on the roof of his garage, as Holits did on the roof of the cabana, and waved.
11. After What We Talk About "the first story I wrote was 'Cathedral'" (Conversations, 44).
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