Thursday, July 28, 2011

Raymond Carver / Chef's House

Summer Evening, 1947
by Edward Hopper
Private collection, Washingon, D.C.

By Raymond Carver
That summer Wes rented a furnished house north of Eureka from a recovered alcoholic named Chef. Then he called to ask me to forget what I had going and to move up there and live with him. He said he was on the wagon. I knew about that wagon. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He called again and said, Edna, you can see the ocean from the front window. You can smell salt in the air. I listened to him talk. He didn’t slur his words. I said, I’ll think about it. And I did. A week later he called again and said, Are you coming? I said I was still thinking. He said, We’ll start over. I said, If I come up there, I want you to do something for me. Name it, Wes said. I said, I want you to try and be the Wes I used to know. The old Wes. The Wes I married. Wes began to cry, but I took it as a sign of his good intentions. So I said, All right, I’ll come up.
Wes had quit his girlfriend, or she’d quit him – I didn’t know, I didn’t care. When I made up my mind to go with Wes, I had to say goodbye to my friend. My friend said, You’re making a mistake. He said, Don’t do this to me. What about us? he said. I said, I have to do it for Wes’s sake. He’s trying to stay sober. You remember what that’s like. I remember, my friend said, but I don’t want you to go. I said, I’ll go for the summer. Then I‘ll see. I’ll come back, I said. He said, What about me? What about my sake? Don’t come back, he said.

We drank coffee, pop, and all kinds of fruit juice that summer. The whole summer, that’s what we had to drink. I found myself wishing the summer wouldn’t end. I knew better, but after a month of being with Wes in Chef’s house, I put my wedding ring back on. I hadn’t worn the ring in two years. Not since the night Wes was drunk and threw his ring into a peach orchard.
Wes had a little money, so I didn’t have to work. And it turned out Chef was letting us have the house for almost nothing. We didn’t have a telephone. We paid the gas and light and shopped for specials at the Safeway. One Sunday afternoon Wes went out to get a sprinkler and came back with something for me. He came back with a nice bunch of daisies and a straw hat.
Tuesday evenings we’d go to a movie. Other nights Wes would go to what he called his Don’t Drink meetings. Chef would pick him up in his car at the door and drive him home again afterward. Some days Wes and I would go fishing for trout in one freshwater lagoon nearby. We’d fish off the bank and take all day to catch a few little ones. They’ll do fine, I’d say, and that night I’d fry them for supper. Sometimes I’d take off my hat and fall asleep on a blanket next to my fishing pole. The last thing I’d remember would be clouds passing overhead toward the central valley. At night, Wes would take me in his arms and ask me if I was still his girl.
Our kids kept their distance. Cheryl lived with some people on a farm in Oregon. She looked after a herd of goats and sold the milk. She kept bees and put up jars of honey. She had her own life, and I didn’t blame her. She didn’t care one way or the other about what her dad and I did so long as we didn’t get her into it. Bobby was in Washington working in the hay. After the haying season, he planned to work in the apples. He had a girl and was saving his money. I wrote letters and signed them, “Love always.”

One afternoon Wes was in the yard pulling weeds when Chef drove up in front of the house. I was working at the sink. I looked and saw Chef’s big car pull in. I could see his car, the access road and the freeway, and, behind the freeway, the dunes and the ocean. Clouds hung over the water. Chef got out of his car and hitched his pants. I knew there was something. Wes stopped what he was doing and stood up. He was wearing his gloves and a canvas hat. He took off his hat and wiped his face with the back of his hand. Chef walked over and put his arm around Wes’s shoulders. Wes took off one of his gloves. I went to the door. I heard Chef say to Wes God knows he was sorry but he was going to have to ask us to leave at the end of the month. Wes pulled off his other glove. Why’s that, Chef? 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. Chef told Wes that Linda’s husband had taken his fishing boat out a few weeks back and nobody had heard from him since. She’s my own blood, Chef said to Wes. She’s lost her husband. She’s lost her baby’s father. I can help. I’m glad I’m in a position to help, Chef said. I’m sorry, Wes, but you’ll have to look for another house. Then Chef hugged Wes again, hitched his pants, and got in his big car and drove away. Wes came inside the house. He dropped his hat and gloves on the carpet and sat down in the big chair. Chef’s chair, it occurred to me. Chef’s carpet, even. Wes looked pale. I poured two cups of coffee and gave one to him.
It’s all right, I said. Wes, don’t worry about it, I said. I sat down on Chef’s sofa with my coffee.
Fat Linda’s going to live here now instead of us, Wes said. He held his cup, but he didn’t drink from it.
Wes, don’t get stirred up, I said.
Her man will turn up in Ketchikan, Wes said. Fat Linda’s husband has simply pulled out on them. And who could blame him? Wes said. Wes said if it came to that, he’d go down with his ship, too, rather than live the rest of his days with Fat Linda and her kid. Then Wes put his cup down next to his gloves. 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. Now Fat Linda and her kid will be in here, Wes said. He picked up his cup and tasted from it.
It’s Chef’s house, I said. He has to do what he has to do.
I know that, Wes said. But I don’t have to like it.
Wes had this look about him. I knew that look. He kept touching his lips with his tongue. He kept thumbing his shirt under his waistband. He got up from the chair and went to the window. He stood looking out the ocean and at the clouds, which were building up. He patted his chin with his fingers like he was thinking about something. And he was thinking.
Go easy, Wes, I said.
She wants me to go easy, Wes said. He kept standing there.
But in a minute he came over and sat next to me on the sofa. He crossed one leg over the other and began fooling with the buttons on his shirt. I took his hand. I started to talk. I talked about the summer. But I caught myself talking like it was something that had happened in the past. Maybe years back. At any rate, like something that was over. Then I started talking about the kids. Wes said he wished he could do it over again and do it right this time.
They love you, I said.  
No, they don’t, he said.
I said, Someday, they’ll understand things.
Maybe, Wes said. But it won’t matter then.
You don’t know, I said.
I know a few things, Wes said, and looked at me. I know I’m glad you came up here. I won’t forget you did it, Wes said.
I’m glad, too, I said. I’m glad you found this house, I said.
Wes snorted. Then he laughed. We both laughed. That Chef, Wes said, and shook his head. He threw us a knuckleball, that son of a bitch. But I’m glad you wore your ring. I’m glad we had us this time together, Wes said.
Then I said something. I said, Suppose, just suppose, nothing had ever happened. Suppose this was for the first time. Just suppose. It doesn’t hurt to suppose. Say none of the other had ever happened. You know what I mean? Then what? I said.
Wes fixed his eyes on me. He said, 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. We were born who we are. Don’t you see what I’m saying?
I said I hadn’t thrown away a good thing and come six hundred miles to hear him talk like this.
He said, I’m sorry, but I can’t talk like somebody I’m not.
I’m not somebody else. If I was somebody else, I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. If I was somebody else, I wouldn’t be me.
But I’m who I am. Don’t you see?
Wes, it’s all right, I said. I brought his hand to my cheek. Then, I don’t know, I remembered how he was when he was nineteen, the way he looked running across this field to where his dad sat on a tractor, hand over his eyes, watching Wes run toward him. We’d just driven up from California. I got out with Cheryl and Bobby and said, There’s Grandpa. But they were just babies.
Wes sat next to me patting his chin, like he was trying to figure out the next thing. Wes’s dad was gone and our kids were grown up. I looked at Wes and then I looked around Chef’s living room at Chef’s things, and I thought, We have to do something now and do it quick.
Hon, I said. Wes, listen to me.
What do you want? he said. But that’s all he said. 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.
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. Then I said it once more. This time I said it loud. Wes, I said.
He opened his eyes. But he didn’t look at me. He just sat where he was and looked toward the window. Fat Linda, he said. But I knew it wasn’t her. She was nothing. Just a name. Wes got up and pulled the drapes and the ocean was gone just like that. 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.


  1. brilliant, lovely, a evolved style that is no style at all, simple but eternal, from a place inside

  2. Hooked right from the start!