I Am An Unrepentant Sinner

Raymond Carver

The story I’m these days busy writing, titled Gladiolas, is growing longer by thousands of thoughts, words and deeds than I imagined it would. I’m not surprised that it’s turning out that way. After all, if truth be told, I write in much the same manner as I speak: long in the tongue and oftentimes long-winded.

I’ve decided not to post any more of that particular work of art here (oh yes it is!). Not for now, maybe not forever. For the moment, anyway. Let’s say for the moment.

Because for the moment I’m having too much fun following the characters’ unexpected twists and turns through the dark forest, in spite of the tangled trees —  the complicated, foolish changes of heart that afterward seem as if they were inevitable. Too much fun to want to rush the mystery to a forced conclusion. The thing’s turning into a book, a book of the sort I like to read. Complete with moonlit nights, bay-windowed mansions, and lust-saturated love affairs.

I own a second reason for my hesitation to click the publish button just yet. I am a proud, card-carrying perfectionist. Yes, I understand the difficulties many writers experience in company with their schizoid-fractured voices, mental cross-eyed editors, dysfunctional inner-adolescents and armor-suited enemies of Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way Brigade. “The problem is,” the oft-repeated explanation goes, “we become our own harshest critics.”

But what’s wrong with paying heed to one’s inborn critical soul mate? I ask. Good for those armored soldiers who dare to challenge Julia on the battlefield, I say. We should be our own harshest critics. I wish more people who claim to be writers would criticize, edit, rewrite and polish their stories before they beam them down to Planet Amazonia or launch them on their way to Star Base CrushSomeWords.com.

Literary snobs, unite!

Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I beseech the blessed memory of Maxwell Perkins ever-sanctified, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me. I am an unrepentant sinner.

So, although my half-dozen breathless fans have been nagging — nay begging — me to post Gladiolas, Part II, pronto, I must disappoint my audience. For now, at least. Perhaps for an eternity. Maybe, maybe, maybe comes the day I plant Gladiolas on Planet Amazonia, in the same garden that grows such fine works of art as How To Write How-To-Write Books and Sell Them To Chat-room Habitués Who Fancy Themselves Cameron’s Congregationalists.

Still, today I want some form of this show to go on, because I’m hungry to write and fill this long-unattended space.

And because I’ve been re-reading, and thinking about Raymond Carver. So I’ll talk about Raymond Carver, self-immolated artist and superior successor to Papa’s Pen.

I suspect that were Carver alive and writing today, he’d have difficulty finding curious, interested readers.

Why do I think this is true?

Carver’s style with words is spare. Most of the “language,” then, must exist between the lines he wrote, and therefore preexist inside a reader’s head.

Take for instance Carver’s story, Fat. The story’s narrator tells you, in words here paraphrased by me:

A fat man walked into a diner. He sat down and ordered a large meal. The waitress wrote down the order. She gave the order to the cook. The cook was her husband. The cook said, “That man sure is fat. He’s that fattest man I’ve ever seen.” The waitress served the fat man. She was kind to him. Each word she spoke was spoken in a respectful tone of voice. The fat man had fat fingers. He puffed when he breathed. He ate three slices of bread, smeared thick with butter. He ate a big salad. He ate meat and potatoes. He referred to himself as “we.” “We don’t usually eat this much. But we are hungry.”

The fat man ate not one, but two desserts.

Later that night, the waitress and her husband closed the diner and went home. The waitress cooked and served her husband a meal. The husband said again, “That man sure was fat.” The wife did not answer her husband. They went to bed. The husband wanted sex. He climbed on top of his wife. She let him do it, because she did not want to argue. But she felt fat. She could not feel her husband.

The End.

A reader needs to think in order to feel entertained by stories like Fat. Most people who nowadays read fiction don’t want to think too much. They want to escape, in much the same way as television sit-coms permit them to escape. Little effort. No dictionary necessary. Familiar plot lines. Outward action (Bang, bang shoot-’em-up. No inner-emotional turmoil, please; I had enough of that at work all day).

But Raymond Carver won’t allow you to escape, not unless you choose to put his book back on the shelf and click the remote instead.

Lest you decide that I’m here condemning people for their unwillingness to invest effort when they read, permit me to say that when I first read Carver’s stories, although something about them tickled my fancy, I could not comprehend what I was reading. I thought, for instance, that Fat was about a fat man who ate too much, a cook who felt dazed by the sight of such a big man, and a waitress who went through the motions that had become her life, both at work and at home.

I understood no more than that. I “got” the point that the waitress was bored with living, but I understood nothing of the connection between her husband’s insecure arrogance and her disgust with him. I never considered the suggestion that her husband’s judgmental attitude made him far more distasteful a sight in her eyes than the self-effacing fat man’s pudgy fingers and ceaseless appetite. Matter of fact, until this very second, I hadn’t thought of any connection between the fat man’s appetite for food and the husband’s appetite for loveless sex (and isn’t that sudden discovery part of the magic involved with the writing process?).

Back then, on the day when I first read Raymond Carver, I was capable of understanding no more of life than that of the life I’d lived. Same is true, of course, today.

The year was 1985. I was a young man. I was an even younger writer. I was a hungry reader. I was a woman’s lover, and because of all this, I was full of myself. I didn’t so much think that I would live forever, as I thought that only other people died.

I walked the streets of Santa Monica, California. I parked my car near Fifth and Wilshire on a Saturday morning in summertime. For several years I’d been married to a Jewish woman in Philadelphia, PA. I adored her, and so she soon grew tired of being so much adored and so little respected. She left me, and I left Philadelphia. One-way ticket to the rest of my life.

I ate breakfast at Zucky’s Diner. I’d learned to appreciate diners and Jewish food when I lived in Philadelphia.

And books. After eating a breakfast almost as big as that of Carver’s fat man, I felt hungry for books. Half a block from the diner was a store called Pacific Books. Small store, perhaps a thousand volumes tops on the shelves. Literary titles. History texts. Atlases and scientific journals. I liked the aroma of the place. Quiet carpets on the floor. Faint classical music in the air. Customers who spoke in whispered tones.

I studied the books’ spines. I touched their covers. I pulled them close to my face and breathed the spice of possibility. Yes, I was like that. And yes again, I am still like that.

Raymond Carver lived on one of those shelves. I didn’t know him. I could not have known that day that he was busy dying, that he’d been killing himself for many years by way of alcohol, tobacco and dissatisfaction. I could not have known that in three years’ time he would be dead. All I knew that day, when I opened one of his books, was that a story named Fat was short enough that I could read it — from beginning to end — in brief enough a slice of time that I wouldn’t seem a stingy customer to the lady at the counter.

And all I knew, once I finished reading Carver’s story was that it made me think, and made me want to think some more.

Blue-Gray Days

Olde Port Fish Market
Down to the Olde Port Market

Written November 2009

I moved to this town many years ago, because the blue fog combined itself with the false impression of infinity that an ocean can provide if only an eye looks beyond the foaming coastline that signals a return to port.

For years before I came here, to this town of short-sleeved polyester shirts sitting proud around a boardroom table; this town of short walks to the Post Office or the sugary-pink bakery; this town of hello good mornings spoken to strangers; this town enveloped by a Sunday-morning, aromatic cloud of steam lifting off from crackling bacon and pan-fried onions; this town of inconsolable old fishermen and their exhausted wives. For years before I came to live with all of this, I vacationed in the next town over, just twelve miles away, but they were twelve miles that I never wanted to traverse.

Not until the morning I sat beside a wrinkled, fat and dusty man dressed in denim overalls, the two of us hunkered down over the diner’s counter, dipping burnt bread into sunny-side egg yolk, scooping dollops of homemade corned beef hash onto the wet and buttered toast. Not until we began to speak to each other, or rather he began to speak to me.

“Good to have an old-fashioned diner here in town. Mike, the tall guy who owns this place, comes from Atlantic City,” he said. His cheeks bulged with food as he spoke. His lips, full and chapped, looked slimy with the egg yolk he spilled there.

“Atlantic City? New Jersey?” I said.

“There isn’t any other, not that I know about.”

“My dad used to take me crabbing in Atlantic City.”

“Yeah, well you still have the accent,” he said. “I grew up there, too, along with Mike, though I expect that you and us came up at different times.”

“Sometimes I miss the place,” I said.

“There’s lots of crab and fish in the next town over. Just a short stretch, and I’ll be going there after breakfast if you want to come along. Won’t be much sunshine there today. Never is,” he said. “Want to come with me? Finish your meal, then.”

We both let the weight we gained from our full breakfast pull us down from the diner’s vinyl-covered stools.

His truck, rusty as a ripened crab trap, was parked around the corner. Along the way we walked past clean-shaven Christians holding hands with their pleated-skirt wives and pert college girls looking at their reflections in shop windows.

The truck door’s hinges creaked as I pulled her open. I climbed the distance from sidewalk to worn-cloth upholstery, sat and stared through a dirt-streaked windshield; and once out of town I allowed my glance to follow the four-lane highway’s painted lines.

My breakfast companion said nothing until we reached the exit that led to Our Town.

“Gotta drive down to the boat launch first, then we’ll ride back again and meet the crabs I was talking about. You game?”

“I’m game. You own a boat?” I said.

“No. I clean the fish that others carry up to the sinks. Then I sell what I can for them down to the Olde Port Market. Rest I give away to friends. It’s all part of the deal, the way I make my living now that I’m old. Once upon a time, though, I owned a side trawler. Many folks nowadays find it fashionable to condemn the man who trawls for the food they eat, but that’s just the way it is.”

“Is that why you gave it up? Because tree huggers criticized you?” I said.

“No. It’s a long story you don’t want to hear, but the short of it is that Manny, one of my Mexican crew, killed himself by being crushed in the winch’s cable. Nothing any of us could do in spite of his screaming. Once you’re caught, you’re dead. There’s a monument just the other side of town that makes mention of Manny and all the others lost to sea. Maybe someday you’ll say a prayer while standing there.”

I thought better than to ask the man any further questions. I figured that he needed time to think about Manny and then some more time to recoup his sense of purpose.

The boat launch felt like a lost and empty place, grey and filthy as the fog, constant rainbows of blood and guts flickering on the metal cutting boards beside the sinks. My breakfast companion worked fast and with the skill of a seasoned surgeon. I shuffled and humble-shifted my body around the several men working there, men who not once asked who I was, men who seemed so intent on completing their day’s work that nothing outside of that sweat-soaked reality registered as being part of the world.

My companion loaded several coolers, each filled with fresh-cut fish covered in ice, into the bed of his pickup truck, then wiped his hands on a blood-soaked towel and climbed back into the driver’s seat. I followed suit. We traveled less than a mile before he pushed his foot down hard on the brake pedal.

“There’s the crab tubs. Get yourself down and out, and go to look at them,” he said. “I’ll be inside talking business with Giovanni.”

To the left side of the Olde Port Market’s front doors sat two metal tanks filled with live crabs. A filter ran a continual bubbling stream of water into the vats in order to keep the crabs alive. I stared and ran my thoughts backward to the times I and my dad went crabbing just outside of Atlantic City.

“They’re beauties, ain’t they now?” he said.

I jumped when I heard his voice come from behind me. I’d been lost in thought, and now I felt irritated because of his interruption.

“No. No, they aren’t beautiful, friend. Matter of fact, they’re downright ugly,” I said.

“What’s got you pissed?”

“The hair on the back of their shells. I never saw, much less ate, a crab who needed a haircut.”

“This ain’t Atlantic City, you know, but it’s as close as you’ll come out this far away.”

“Maybe, then, just maybe I should turn around and make my way back home.” I said.

“I like you better without all that make pretend shyness, kid. Hash and eggs, and catering to old men like me won’t cure your disease, but –”

“Disease, what disease are you talking about?”

“Loneliness. Don’t go back now to pretending, because a second act can’t erase a first impression,” he said.

“I’m not particularly lonely. No more than most who move from one shore to another,” I said.

“Okay, whatever you say, but for what it’s worth, I think you’re right about crabs. You’re not the only one who remembers the oily smell of mud around Atlantic City. But home you are. Right here and now. Manny was lonesome for home, too. But in fact of things insofar as I understand them he died at home, right there crushed to bits inside that winch’s cable.”

I never again saw my breakfast companion, and I never want to see him on a different day. But on blue-gray mornings such as this one I oftentimes visit the monument he talked about, and standing there I say a prayer for all of us.