"...I call MacGregor Mathers from his grave, 
For in my first hard spring-time we were friends, 
Although of late estranged. 
I thought him half a lunatic, half knave, 
And told him so, but friendship never ends..." 
--W.B. Yeats 

 

On the Nature of Literary Friendship
Edited and compiled by Robert Sward
 

James Houston on Raymond Carver

I first met him at a collating party in San Francisco back in 1969. This was when George Hitchcock was editing and publishing Kayak magazine out of his house on Laguna Street. I had just come back from two months in Mexico and had to think twice about climbing into a car again to drive the eighty miles from Santa Cruz into the city. But it was considered something of an honor to be invited to one of these gatherings, a little nod of recognition from George, the small-press impresario. And I had been told that Ray Carver would be there. George was about to bring out Winter Insomnia, Rayís second book of poems. I had been seeing his stories and wanting to meet him for a couple of years. 

Among other things, I was struck by his clothing, a plain white long-sleeve shirt and dark slacks. I liked him for that. 1969 was the height of the counter-culture, which had its world headquarters right there in San Francisco. The streets were teeming with headbands and broad-brim hats, turquoise pendants, amulets, moccasins, Roman sandals, shirts covered with hand-sewn embroidery and leather fringe hanging from every vest and jacket. But the Bay Area scene did not interest Ray much at all. He was not affecting the look of a hippie or a cowboy or a Buddhist or trail guide or a lumberjack. Oblivious to the costumery of the times, he was a man of the west who dressed in a sort of Midwestern way, conservative, though not entirely respectable, since the white shirt was wrinkled and the slacks were rumpled as if he might have spent the night in these clothes. 

After an hour or so of snacks and drinks, George put everyone to work on his literary assembly line, someone to collate the pages, someone to add the cover, someone to trim the edges, to staple, to fold, to stack, and so on. I was assigned to the stapling gun. Ray ended up next to me, working the trimmer with its guillotine blade. 

Neither of us was mechanically inclined. We had already talked about various forms of car trouble that had bewildered and defeated us. We wondered if our participation that afternoon would have any effect upon sales. That is, we wondered if readers would buy a poetry magazine spotted with the drops of blood that would inevitably fall upon its pages once we touched the machines weíd been asked to operate. We wondered if Hitchcock might get sued, the way angry consumers will sue a food processor when a loose fingernail turns up inside the can of stewed tomatoes. 

Then the joking subsided. We bent to our tasks. What I remember most about that day is standing next to him for the next hour or so, not talking much, standing shoulder to shoulder, stapling, trimming, stapling, trimming, as we worked along with George and the others to put this issue of the magazine together. 

Ray was an easy and comfortable man to be with, to stand next to, or to sit with for long periods of time. He had a ready wit, and an infectious laugh, and no pretensions about him, no attitude. In every way he was unassuming. From the first meeting I felt a strong kinship, and I realize now that it was due, at least in part, to our similar origins. Years later we would finally talk about how both our fathers had come west during the early 1930s looking for any kind of work, his from Arkansas into the state of Washington, mine from east Texas to the California coast. 

There was something else about Ray that I found enormously appealing. I think of it as a priestly quality. I never imagined I would be making such a statement about him, but as I look back I believe itís true. He could be very brotherly. He often seemed filled with wonder. And you knew he would never judge you for your sins, whatever they might be. That was my experience, at any rate. In later years he had the capacity for genuine forgiveness. 
He also had a brotherly demon in him, and this was appealing in another kind of way. Ray could talk you into things, cajole you or seduce you into things you were not perhaps ready for: a pied piper on the prose and poetry circuit. 

One afternoon stands out in my memory. This must have been six years later. I was upstairs working on something, I canít remember what, when I heard footsteps down below. We have an old Victorian-style place with an attic that has been converted into a writing space. Itís private yet still not entirely cut off because the building is old and poorly insulated. Rising toward me came the sound of large and deliberate footsteps, too heavy to be those of my wife or one of our kids. I listened until the footsteps stopped, in the room directly below me. A voice called my name. 

I didnít answer. I didnít care who it was. I didnít want to see anybody just then or get into a conversation. It was about three in the afternoon. 

Whoever this was had now moved to the doorway at the bottom of the attic stairs.

"Houston, you sonofabitch, I know youíre up there." 
Again I didnít speak. 
"Answer me!" he shouted. 
I knew this voice, but I said, "Who is it?" 
"Itís Carver." 
"What do you want?" 
"Goddamn it, come down here and say hello to some people." 
"Iím busy. Iím working." 
"Of course youíre working. Weíre all working. Weíre busy as bees. Do you want to come down or shall we come up?" 
"Iíll be there in a minute." 

He was traveling with Bill Kittredge and a big, red-bearded fellow named John, recently arrived from Alaskaóall large men, large and thick. The four of us completely filled my living room. Ray was carrying two bottles, a gallon of vodka and a half gallon of grapefruit juice, which he carefully set upon the rug. From a plastic bag he withdrew a plastic cup and began to fill it. 

With his rascal grin he said, "You tell me when," though he paid no attention to my reply. They had been at it since lunch, or earlier. Ray was living in Palo Alto at the time. On and off heíd been teaching here at U.C. Santa Cruz. He had them on a kind of sightseeing tour with no clear agenda, making it up as they went along. I surrendered to the inevitable and began to quench my thirst with the drink he had prepared, which ran forty-sixty in favor of the vodka. 

I donít remember all that we talked about. Kittredge was down from Montana as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, so we must have talked about that. Rayís first book of stories, Will You Please be Quiet Please, had been put together, so we must have talked about that. It was a rambling conversation about books and writers and schemes and plans, that grew noisier as I caught up with them, as we sat and sipped and argued and laughed, and while Ray, self-appointed host, refilled and refilled the plastic glasses. 

I guess an hour had passed when someone mentioned starting back. 

"What do you mean?" said Ray. 
"Who can drive?" said Kittredge. 
"My God, youíre right," said Ray. It was his car. "Whoís going to do it?" 

This led to a long debate over who was most qualified to navigate Highway 17, the curving mountain speedway that connects Santa Cruz to Santa Clara Valley and the Peninsula. 

"Maybe Houston should," said Ray, at one point, "while he can still see." 
"Gladly," I said, "though there is a problem with that. Once we got to your place, I would need a ride over the hill." 
He leaned toward me with a raspy and infectious giggle. "Well, it goes without saying. One good turn deserves another. Weíd just have to give you a lift back home." 

The next thing I knew they were lunging through the house, down the hallway, out the back door and into the yard. While they piled into the car we shouted our good-byes. It was a big, unkempt American car, a car from a Ray Carver story, with low tires and a rumbling exhaust. It lurched a couple of times, kicking up dust. Ray took the corner without braking. The rear end swung wide, he gunned it, and they were gone. 

There was no wind. The sky was clear, ordinarily a great time to be outdoors. But my head was throbbing. I was alone in a sudden stillness. In those days my driveway wasnít paved. It had not rained in a month or so. Dust hung in the slanting light of late afternoon and slowly settled around me, and I stood there wondering what I was now supposed to do, stunned with drink at quarter to five and abandoned in my own driveway. 

Later on we would talk about that trip and others like it, and Ray would always laugh the hardest, hearing his escapades repeated. But it doesnít seem so funny now. It fills me with sadness, thinking back on the turmoil of those mid-1970s days, when he was always on the run. I prefer to remember him as he was in the years after the running ended, after the drinking stopped. 

The last time I saw him was in February 1987, maybe six months before he learned about the cancer in his lungs. By that time he had gone back home to Washington. He and Tess Gallagher were living in Port Angeles. He had come down to the Bay Area to spend a few days as the Lane Lecturer at Stanford, which included a public reading at Kresge Auditorium. It was a triumphant return to the campus and to the region where he had honed his writing style. To a packed house he read "Elephant," which had recently appeared in The New Yorker, and got a standing ovation. Ray had a hulking, self-effacing way of receiving praise. At the podium he looked a bit surprised. He also looked genuinely prosperous. He was wearing an elegant suit, light beige, almost cream colored. It had an Italian look, single breasted, with narrow lapels. 

As I stood there applauding with all the others I was thinking about a time I had flown to Tucson, fall of 1979, on my way home from a trip to Albuquerque. Tess had a one-year appointment at the University of Arizona, and Ray was on a Guggenheim. Heíd been moving around so much I hadnít seen him for a while. Iíd heard about the big changes in his life, from him, and from others, but I wasnít sure quite what this meant, until we went out that night for Mexican food. "You have whatever you want," Ray said, when it came time to order the beverages, "Iím sticking with the iced tea." 

As we began to talk I saw that the crazy restlessness had gone out of his body. he had lost some weight. He was calmer, clearer, his laugh was softer. He had spiraled all the way down, he told me, drunk himself into the final coma, which he described as being at the dark bottom of a very deep well. 

"I was almost a goner, I see that now. I was ready to go out. I could have. I was ready to. But I saw this pinpoint of light, so far up there it seemed an impossible distance. It seemed completely beyond my reach, and yet something told me I had to try and reach it. Somehow I had to climb up toward that last tiny glimmer. And by God, I managed to do that. What do you call it? The survival instinct? I climbed out of that hole and I realized how close I had come, and that was it. I havenít had a drop from that day to this, and Iíve never felt better in my life." 

He had always had the will to write, no matter what. Now he had joined that with the will to live. It made a powerful combination. You can see the effects in his later stories, and you could see it in his face the night he read at Stanford. 

After the reception that followed the reading we found some time to chat, catch up on things, old times, new timesóa chat which turned out to be our last, face to face. I had never seen him so happy. There was a lot of light around him, the kind of light given off by a man who feels good about himself and his work, a light enhanced by the ivory-tinted cloth of his tailored suit. Ray had quite a bit of money tied up in that suit, and he liked it. That is, he liked the idea of it, though my guess is he was not entirely comfortable wearing it. 
He had a way of leaning in and lowering his voice, even when no one else was around, as if what he was about to say should not be overheard or repeated. "I have to tell you something," he said. "Every day I feel blessed. Every day I give thanks. Every day I am simply amazed at the way things have turned out. All you have to do is look at what Iím wearing. Look at this suit . . ." 

He laughed his high, light, conspiratorial laugh. "Can you imagine me wearing anything like this? Itís just astounding!" 
 

THE DAYS WITH RAY 
Copyright ©1999, by James D. Houston 
2-1130 East Cliff Drive 
Santa Cruz, California 95062 

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