By Brett Lott
Featured art: The Farm at Les Collettes, Cagnes by Auguste Renoir
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.
Raymond Carver, “Chef’s House”
I remember vividly the day I first read a story by Raymond Carver. I was standing in the front room of a minuscule apartment in Northampton, Massachusetts reading “Chef’s House” in The New Yorker—only two pages in the magazine. I then looked up and out the window at the bare trees there, full of wonder and awe at discovering that what mattered in a story was not, as I had thought it to be, the writer of the story and how wonderfully he performed his magic tricks. Rather, what mattered in a story were the lives of the people involved.
To this day, the first assignment I make in every first-semester fiction writing course I teach regards “Chef’s House,” and the more times I read it, the more I see that it is as perfect a story as a story can get. Told from Edna’s first-person point of view, it’s about how she and her estranged and newly-recovering alcoholic husband, Wes, set up house for the summer in an attempt to recapture their past. The place is owned by Chef, Wes’s AA sponsor, and serves as an idyllic safe house for the couple, until Chef shows up and lets Wes know he needs the house back so that his daughter and grandchild can live there. Then Edna watches as Wes retreats, there in Chef’s living room and in only moments, into the Wes of old, the one whose life is riven with alcohol and regret and loss.
The first day of class, I read the story out loud, then lead a discussion about various technical elements of the story, from the fact Wes and Edna’s lives are so stripped of themselves that there’s no room even for quotation marks, to the brilliantly brave and deceptively simple two words “One afternoon,” the beginning of the sentence that leads into the one and only true scene of the story,
when Wes and Edna are there in that living room and facing now the end of their summer—and lives—together.
Then I spring the true assignment on them: Each student is to take his or her copy of the story home and retype it, word for word. This is their first writing assignment, meant to make them see as deeply as humanly possible into the mind of the writer of a story—they must, as apprentice artists have always done, recreate stroke for stroke the work of the master. This way they will notice how
one word is set next to another, how imagistic patterns are set up and then employed, how repetitions operate and a scene is blocked.
But it is also meant to allow them into the lives of Wes and Edna, and to see them, I hope, as the human beings they are.
They turn in the story, and I read each one, word for word. I am looking for typos, for wrong words, for dropped sentences, anything that shows a lack of regard for the arrangement of words. Part of this assignment, too, is to begin to school them in the fact a writer must be functionally obsessive-compulsive, that writing is a form of micro-management that calls for the highest possible level of
attention to detail. It is to teach them that words matter. And I admit here, too, that my reading every story word for word in each class is yet another manifestation of that obsessive-compulsiveness. I will, depending upon which semester, read the story from twenty to forty times in a row, cruising for those typos.
But I am also reading them because of the moment I know will always come—it always comes—when the façade of the teacher crumbles and I am yet again that punk kid in an apartment in Northampton, November trees outside the window, this story in my hands.
That moment most often arrives once I get to the passage quoted above. It’s the only flashback in the story, and comes near the end, after Edna asks Wes to imagine they have just met, that their beleaguered history didn’t exist. This in an effort to get him to leave his old life behind and begin the new one available to him. But Wes will have none of it. “If I was somebody else,” he quietly admonishes her, “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?”
It is at this point Edna has her flashback to a time when in fact they were different people. It’s a brief paragraph, unremarkable save for the plainspoken quality to it, but it is one that breaks wide open for the reader the past they share and are about to lose forever. It’s also one that breaks my heart every time, not only for the fact Wes’s dad is dead, but also because the children are grown and long gone, living as far from the sphere of their parents’ influence as possible—earlier in the story, we’re told Bobby works “in the hay” in Washington, and that Cheryl lives on a farm tending goats and putting up honey. “Our kids have kept their distance,” is how Edna puts it, and the sorrow of that loss
is felt exquisitely with her reminding herself of this truth here at the end of this tiny flashback, this smallest of windows into their lives. The past is gone, and there will be no recapturing of it.
And somewhere in my reading of those twenty to forty retypes of the story—it can be the first one I read, or the tenth, I’ve never really kept track—I crack, always when Edna, on the razor-sharp edge between holding on and letting go, remembers what they will lose, that life when there existed hope, and a future.
This is when I am once again filled with awe at what a story can do, and what this story still does: I begin to cry—I don’t care who knows this!—because I see yet again that what matters in a story are the people involved.
Bret Lott is the bestselling author of fourteen books, including the novels Jewel and The Hunt Club, the essay collection Fathers, Sons and Brothers, and the story collection The Difference Between Women and Men. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina, where he teaches at the College of Charleston.