My audio interpretation and reading of “Viewfinder” by Raymond Carver (about 6.5 minutes).
Click here: ViewfinderCarvermp3
My audio interpretation and reading of “Viewfinder” by Raymond Carver (about 6.5 minutes).
Click here: ViewfinderCarvermp3
Bailey’s mother had been gone again for five days. Her name was Luna Bianca, and like the moon, she lived the nightlife, going out to bars, or wherever, staying out for days on end. He never knew where she was or what she did or when she would call.
He lived with his Aunt Lily who was older and kept to herself, reading in her room. She kept the apartment clean and made sure he had clean clothes, but she was a little difficult to talk with, and when she was not working at Johan’s fashion boutique, she was playing bridge or mahjong. Aunt Lily would never discuss his mother, or where she was. She just said, “She loves you. That’s all you need to know.”
He loved his mother with all his heart and worried for her, fretting and pacing as he made himself another package of macaroni and cheese for dinner. The middle of his back got to itching as it did when she was gone and he scratched it on the corner of the doorway into the kitchen. He fretted that she might never come back, that she would die in a car wreck, be kidnapped by some crazy, or actually climb a ladder to the moon and disappear forever as she once said she had been tempted to do.
His mother was so attentive and sweet when she finally wold return home. Her short-cropped hair, brunette and blond and black, with maroon highlights, like a crazy calico cat, would be all wild. Sometimes she smelled of cigarette smoke. Sometimes she smelled of woodsmoke. And sometimes she smelled of fresh air, like cotton. Sometimes she smelled of exotic spices or perfume and she would stroke his blond hair and rub his strong, large forearms, curious about his teachers and his school assignments.
They would talk late into the night at the wooden table in the kitchen overlooking the alley. He told her about school and his dreams, which she would analyze. She always found a way to make his nightmares about her disappearing better, pointing out the positive meanings of his nightlife, that the dreams were multiple reflections of his psyche as he continued to grow into a fine young man who was in charge of his own life. This always made him feel better and proud for dreaming so creatively, instead of so psychotically as he often feared.
She laughed riotously as she told him fabulously detailed stories of places she might have been on her latest outing, and though he could never get a straight story from her, he was so happy to see her that he forgot his torment and fretting. Someday, she explained with a broad smile, she would reveal where she would disappear to, but it was not time yet, and she drifted off to another topic such as the secrets of the quantum physics of love. She would explain how he could create a prom date with the popular high school beauty, Jessica Livingston by just imagining her saying yes. Bailey told her that he couldn’t imagine himself actually asking her out because she was too beautiful. Luna hunched her shoulders and said, “Don’t limit yourself, Bailey, my beautiful, kind-hearted and too shy boy,” she said getting up to warm up a can of Spaghetti O’s.
In their small apartment, Bailey now sorted through a peach crate filled with his mother’s old cassette tapes. He had homework to do for his advanced writing class at high school– a short autobiographical sketch.
He flipped through the cassettes, clicking through them one by one for inspiration – Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson. He stopped at Run DMC. It was her first cassette, bought when she was eleven, only four years before she delivered him into the world like a magical mackerel, slick, shimmering and glistening.
He had grown into a towering, stocky, freckled-faced young man. He had no idea who his father was, but she described him as a big-boned Swede, a pensive Viking, who was a foreign exchange student for one semester at the university where she would go to listen to classes that she sneaked into.
Bailey was thinking of writing his essay about that lonely night when he emerged in his unbroken birthsack – “You are a special, spiritual boy, so kind-hearted,” she always said. According to one of the hundreds stories of his birth, this one told last year on Christmas eve: When her contractions began, she was sipping Bailey’s Irish Cream (that was how he got his name) at Mickey’s tavern. The bartender allowed her to sneak in because she looked and acted old enough. The bartender’s girlfriend who was leaning back agianst the pool table, said, “You’re going to have a baby, girl!” She placed the cue stick in the rack and took her by the hand, driving her to St. Joseph’s Hospital in a Camaro that blew thick streams of oil smoke. He had no idea if the story was true. She had also told him he was born in a dirt floor cabin during a blizzard in Leadville, delivered by a Mexican mid-wife who had given her herbs that made the birth painless. She also said she delivered him at Smiley’s Laundromat in a basket of satin bedsheets. Always, in any story, she would say that he was born in his unbroken birthsack, so that much, he figured, was true.
Bessie Smith, Whitney Houston, Beyonce, Celone Dion. He pulled a cassette by Aretha from the crate and slid it into the boom box with his meaty fingers. He moved around the apartment, bobbing his head to the music. He looked at the alarm clock on his mother’s nightstand. He patted her bed and soft white bedspread that was always made neatly before she disappeared again, before he came home from school.
He looked at the perfume bottles aligned on her dresser. He looked at a photo of him and her at the aquarium where she took him every Sunday when he was younger. In the photo, he was two years old in a backpack with his chubby, smiling face peering around her shoulder, smiling through her hair that was long and black at the time. She was only seventeen, the same age as he was now.
He looked at her alarm clock. It was only five o’clock, and he thought he would take the bus to the aquarium to watch the fish. Maybe he would get inspiration for the essay there, he thought. He didn’t feel like writing anything. He was sure his mother would not show up that evening. He wanted to cry. He closed his eyes and moaned, “Mother, where are you?”
He grabbed his hooded sweatshirt. He only had a B+ in Mrs. McMillan’s writing class. She was tough and he was determined to write an essay that would finally impress her. It would somehow collapse upon itself when it ended. He loved the idea of self-referential writing, stumbling across old writers from the 60s in the library.
The baseball, basketball, and even the football coaches had encouraged him to go out for sports since he was a natural athlete with giant, powerful forearms, but he shook his head. He was determined to get into college with straight A’s, and to become a marine biologist, adventuring around the world, diving for big bucks. He had finally concluded that he was going to have to leave his mother. He was going to have to stop worrying about her. He put an MC Hammer tape in his pocket. He pulled the Aretha cassette from the boombox and put it in his pocket too. He didn’t have an iPod like everyone else, or even a CD player, only a cassette Walkman. He put on the headphones, grabbed his skateboard, and walked out the door and down the dim hallway to the elevator, thinking of how to do it.
At the aquarium, he stood in the great underwater gallery, gazing at the schools of fish. Small colorful fish flickered by. Jellyfish hovered like diaphanous parachutes. Stingrays flew past like great birds and he kept thinking of the stories of his birth, looking for the mackerels. The fish swirled like liquid diamonds to the music, now that he was high, and he could not imagine where his mother could possibly be and what her life was like.
He pulled out his spiral notebook and began scribbling, “His mother’s name was Luna, and like the moon, she lived the nightlife….” As he wrote, he became vaguely aware of a crying child.
He looked up and there was a little boy walking in circles, looking completely lost. Bailey folded his notebook and approached the boy, who looked up at him tentatively. The boy tugged at Bailey’s shirtsleeve, and whispered, “I don’t know where my mom is,” gulping air, trying to be brave. The boy looked toward the dark opening of the nocturnal fish exhibit and started to sob quietly and hopelessly, just shaking, holding it in, squeezing his eyes closed. Bailey swallowed. He knew what it was like to be away from your mother, the life-giver not to know where your lifeline is, your history.
“Hey, kid, I’ll help you find your mom.” The boy put out his hand and nodded. “Hold my hand.” He placed his headphones over the boy’s ears, Aretha booming it out. That’s how he got along, listening to her cassettes. He grinned looking at the boy smiling. He looked out the huge atrium window, as if he were one of the fish in the aquarium.
For a second, he thought he saw his own mother outside by the fountain. It was only for a second. She was walking arm-in-arm with a dashing man wearing a white fedora and using a walking cane…just another hallucination he had frequently. He shook his head, and gazed at the rising moon, wondering where his mother really was, holding the hand of a boy who, like him, didn’t know where is mother was, which is where he figured he would end his autobiographical sketch, the first chapter of his first novel, in third person, for Ms. McMillan.
Here is a remake of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s little masterpiece, “One of These Days,” I wrote the other day. Athough Garcia Marquez wrote it in the late ’50s/ early 60’s about the Colombian “violencia,” the story seems so apropos for the civil, so far, civil war we currently find ourselves in, especially regarding gun violence:
One of These Days
The general came in holding his jaw with one hand and supporting himself with an ebony cane with an ivory handle carved like an elephant with the other hand. It was was swollen much more than the day before—nearly the size a plum sagging from his jaw, unshaven.
“Is Grainger in?” he mumbled out of the good side of his mouth. “An immediate root canal is essential!” He had trouble saying this. “I must see him today. I am doing TV shows this weekend. He must see me today!” He stroked his bushy mustache.
“He is in, indeed, Hon’,” she said, smiling politely and nervously. “He’s just in from his morning racing practice at Snowland.”
“Well then! What are we waiting for? Tell him I want this done now,” he said as best he could. His normal mellifluous baritone was higher pitched, strained, shrinking. He inhaled deeply and slowly and closed his eyes in pain. He was a short, stubby cigar of a man. Retired Air Force. Adjunct Faculty member at the Academy. Popular Talk show host…AM 1050.
“He is not seeing patients today.”
The General pulled his .45 from his shoulder holster. He grinned a rumpled, crazed smile. “Please tell him I want to see him. Now! No guff this time.” He gently touched the infected area on his jaw with the back of his trigger finger, as if it were a dark purple egg nested in a tuft of cactus needles, winter light gleaming through the front windows directly onto it.
As usual, he was wearing his ascot and had a carnation pinned to the lapel of his blazer. He waved his gun in the air, pointing toward the security door that led to the examination and operating rooms, and then he aimed directly at her forehead. “Go on, now.”
Earlier that morning, Dr. Granger twisted his knee by catching his ski tip on a fast giant slalom course. It was the fourteenth gate, and he was going well in the clear winter morning at 7:00 am. Then he was twisted up in the frosty netting. He certainly didn’t want to see any patients now, except for little Lily, his four o’clock, who had barely survived the theater shooting and needed so much reconstruction.
He was sitting at his stainless steel worktable in his lab that was nicely appointed with the most modern equipment and gadgets, in Fountain, Colorado, a small town south of Colorado Springs, where he was the only dentist and oral surgeon in the area. He was wearing his Hawaiian shirt and scrubs, crafting a platinum grill for a guy who’d been curb-checked. The guy was lucky not to have had a bullet also schooled into his brain. Drug dealers, he thought. Good money and lots of expensive dental work. He rubbed his knee. It felt good to sit and do the intricate work.
His matronly assistant appeared at his open door in her blue, flowered smock. Usually, the woman who had been with him for seventeen years was unflappable, but she was pale and her neck muscles were strained. “Doctor. I think you’re going to have to see him. Really. Five days you’ve put him off and now he’s pulled a gun on me.” She forced a smile.
“You are fricking kidding me. I told him to call Clint Washington in Denver.” Granger opened his drawer and pulled out his .22. He’d bought it years ago to teach his son how to handle a gun, shooting tin cans and bottles at the range.
She rolled her eyes. “He has a really damned big gun.”
“Okay. Tell him to come back here. Get room number two ready and take some pictures of that tooth after we speak.
The General appeared at the door holding his gun steady and trained on Grainger. Grainger was leaning back in his chair, two-fisting his gun and aiming carefully at the general’s multi-jowled jaw.
“I told you a couple days ago to call Dr. Washington.”
“Come on, Doc,” he mumbled. “You know I don’t trust those kind of doctors.” He paused and closed his eyes. He swallowed and gingerly touched around the infection. “It’s an M.D. diploma he has on his wall, but you never know.” He managed a kind of bark. “There are those Caribbean med schools that write degrees to anyone who has the money.”
“He went to Temple University. A strong school.” Grainger said. “Looks pretty bad from here. I’d have to take a closer look, of course.” He refocused his aim. “I suppose I could relieve the problem right here, right now, though it might go through your brain too.” He, himself, hadn’t shaven for three days, but he flashed his big, bright white smile.
“Candy?” He reached into the drawer and tossed the general a cherry-flavored Jolly Rancher.
The general deftly deflected it with his gun as he leaned on his cane, the candy careening against the wall and bouncing onto the floor. He frowned and gritted his teeth in anger and then winced from the sudden movement, his fingertips turning white as he worried the smooth, yellowed ivory of his cane. He re-aimed and cocked the gun with his other hand. He was sweating and holding himself in steady agony.
“Ok.” Granger smiled. “Let’s take a look.”
“Thank you, sir.” He uncocked the gun and slid it back underneath his blazer.
“You’re too old to be racing, Doc,” the general muttered as Grainger limped into the room, gritting his teeth and shaking off the pain. His assistant had opened the x-ray files on the computer screen. He adjusted the multi-jointed arm. The general reclined in the dental chair, nervously, continuing to brush his whiskers on his swollen jaw lightly with his stubby, nail-bitten fingers.
“You should,” the general said, grimacing, “get that checked out,” He pointed to Grainger’s knee as he was snapping on his latex gloves.
“Or just put me out of my misery. Shoot me like an old stud,” Granger laughed.
“Good Lord. Amen, brother. There’s another reason!” The general said, whispering, pressing hard on his forehead with the palm of his hand, his eyes shut tightly. It throbbed and the pressure throughout his head distorted his focus. He now felt himself saying, as the pain now daggered and throbbed, ”Those idiots claim there are so many suicides because of guns.” The flowers on Grainger’s shirt were rotating. He would persevere through this misery, by God. He had to spread his message like Paul Revere. “Clearly, that is another false argument for why they are going to take away our guns! It’s your goddamned, God-given, (excuse my French, dear Jesus), right to take yourself out. Jefferson understood that, I tell you.” The general clenched his fist in the air. He rested for a moment. “Who defines pursuit of happiness? Suicide has nothing to do with the 2nd Amendment!” The pain seared. Throbbing. Not much could keep him from talking but this had just about done him in.
“I was joking, General.” Grainger surveyed his tools.
“This is no joking matter.” He hadn’t slept now for many days. He’d once heard medics use the term “exquisite pain.” This was perfectly apt at the moment. The pain bubbled through him like mudpots at Yellowstone. “You know he’s a King George down deep,” He croaked in pain. “Just you wait. Oh dear Lord this pain is intense. He will declare a state of emergency just before his second term is up and suspend the election. Sweet Lord, the pain is exquisite,” he spat.
“General,” Grainger said. “You might want to take it down a notch, relax and breathe. Let me get to work.”
“You can bet it takes a lot of guns and ammo to match the firepower of the United States military!” the general spewed a fog of rancidness and spittle leaked from the bad side of his mouth. “Been there, seen that for twenty plus years! They are stooges. All of ‘em. You know Americans invented guerilla warfare. Overthrow the Czar!” He howled in pain. He felt dizzy. Grainger’s face contracted and expanded. The clock on the wall was melting or was that a painting? “I’ll be the widow-maker if I have to, dear Jesus ! Good Lord, I have a TV appearance. You’d better fix me up quick and good doc.” Tears leaked from the corner of his eyes as he grimaced, inching down the sides his mottled face. He wiped them as inconspicuously as possible with the back of his hand.
“No worries. Open up, please.” Granger said, turning on his forehead lamp. He pulled up his mask and looked through his high-powered magnifying glasses. “Let’s take a look.”
“You been listening to me, right? Every day. 585 AM. 6-10 a.m.” Granger nodded vaguely, and the general appeared satisfied with the barest return of a nod and opened his mouth.
His teeth were as thick as a pig’s and yellowed from chewing tobacco and drinking coffee. He hadn’t been using his whitening trays. Two of rear molars were capped with gold. The bridge he had done two years before was holding up nicely but he was going to have to drill right through the crown to get to the infected root. He regarded the x-rays.
“OK.” Grainger said. He called his assistant. “This could hurt. Could be hard to get you numb. The inferior alveolar nerve is right there. It’s going to be tight.”
The general nodded somberly. “You oughtta cut the pony tail, doc. You’re a balding old man. 60? Right?”
“Fifty-seven. That’s what my wife says too, but I say screw you all!” He laughed, flashing his pearlies. “What a life I live, eh? I make enough money to support my expensive habits…addictions. Skiing. Making infinite turns. It’s addicting, I tell you. No idiots or boarders in the way. Clean, cold air in God’s cathedrals!
“Really? Addiction? You freely admit that. Not a hobby? Oh God.”
“Admit it, General. You’ve got one too. It’s fun to squeeze off a couple hundred rounds with an AR-15 and tear apart a cow, right? Why? We all have our childhood traumas, don’t we?” Grainger said matter of factly. “First time I held a Colt .45 in my hand was when I was eight. I still can remember that rush of power, the weight, the blue-black metal, the finely machined instrument. I suddenly felt invincible. I had power, real power in my hands. Then I was told to fire it and it scared the shit out of me. Threw me back hard against my dad who was holding me. I nearly hit both of us in the face with the recoil. My ears rang for weeks.” He paused. “I have more fun carving turns. It’s what I was meant to do.” Granger said and loaded the syringe. “Open and relax.”
He inserted the needle into the dark, pinkish gum. The thick liquid of the abscess flowed out around the needle as he poked and prodded. “Damn, it’s going to be hard to get this numb.” The general was breathing furiously. Grainger jiggled his cheek trying to distribute the anesthetic as evenly as possible, finding room for more of it. You should be good and numb in a few minutes….or not.”
“That hurt, Doc,” the General mumbled. Grainger wiped the General’s mouth with the blue paper bib.
“There’s a lot of pus in there, General, a lot of fluid and pressure. Yep. It hurts at first. No doubt about it.” He grinned, patted the General’s chest and feeling the location and hardness of the gun.
“That’s good. I like that. It hurts at first,” the general barked. “I think I’ll use that. My listeners will like it. If we put armed guards in schools, it may hurt at first, but we will lance the problem of gun violence like an abscessed tooth!!” The general paused. He tested his cheek with finger. “Shitfucktohellandbackinabucket!” The general shook his head. “We must be able to protect ourselves. Good God, I’ll say it again and again. The only way to deal with a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, right, man? We’ won’t let ‘em touch your guns, Doc. We are free!!! Don’t you worry!”. We’re rolling out a shooter game app for first graders! “Protect your teacher!” Pretty good, eh?” He sank back into the chair tried to smile but his face squeezed up in pain, his multiple jowls tightening. “I don’t think this anesthetic is working, Doc. I need something stronger.“
“That’s the highest grade I got.”
“No laughing gas?”
“Not today. Out.”
“I’ll give you a little more,” Granger said. He inserted a new vial into his syringe. “Double.”
“Open,” he said and pushed the anesthetic in quickly, forcefully, and not completely gently.
The General immediately arched and groaned making fists under his smock. After the pain subsided, he said, “Damn, doc. Worse than the flak in ‘Nam. You served, right?”
Granger shook his head no.
“You are an old hippy aren’t you?” the general said between gasps. “Smoking weed. Skiing the bumps, “dude” instead of fighting for freedom! What are you doing? Trying to hang onto that era and politics with that stringy ponytail and balding top? You may be in great shape and ski fast and have the best of reputations, but I’m not sure you’re fully aware of the seriousness of our situation.”
Grainger adjusted his glasses. “Open,” he said and tested the air-power drill with a few quick, zipping bursts. ”Now you will pay for little Lily,” he said without rancor, but rather bitter tenderness. “And even for the drug dealers.”
He drilled fast and deep, with the precision and nerve of a downhiller. The general bowed in pain. He yowled and sweated as Granger worked. “I’m not numb!” he managed once, but he held as steady as he could, coldly stealing himself as he’d listened to the grinding and smelled the burning of tooth.
“Then you’re not going to get numb. Too much infection. Sorry.” Grainger continued relentlessly as the deeply unpleasant, yeasty smell of the abscess released like lava from the tooth. He vacummed and drilled and cleaned out the pulp. The general flailed, his tortoise-like belly raising in the air, his boots pegged to the stirrups of the chair. Grainger continued to express the absess and suction the tooth until he finally he’d cleaned it, the General writhing and gripping the padded armrests of the chair.
Then Grainger irrigated and went in with the minuscule file and worked out the offending root as the general jerked and recoiled, gurgling in pain, gasping for breaths. He pulled the nerve out, dangling it from the tip of the file in front of the general’s gaze, a bloody pinworm. “See that? I got that sucker in one piece!” he said looking at it through his magnifying glasses. Then he wiped it on a gauze pad on his instrument table.
The general was breathing exhausted, his eyes baggy and red. Granger undid the bib and then snapped off the general’s smock like a matador. The general ripped off his ascot and wiped his mouth and patted his forehead and the top of his crewcut. He leaned back into the chair, eyes closed, seemingly thankful to be alive and not in pain. Grainger slowly slid his hand under the general’s blazer and pulled the gun from the holster. He causally held it millimeters away from the general’s forehead. “You see, guns aren’t always the protection you think they are. The bad guys can take them away from you.” The general opened his eyes, terrified and then submitted to his apparently dire predicament.
“Kill me if you want. I made it past the Cong and now a demented dentist will do me in.” He swallowed, drained. He managed and smiled a wrinkled, fat-lipped grin. “Amazing how pain can disappear so instantly after torturing you for so long.”
Granger slid the gun back into the holster.
“Dry your tears,” he said patting the general’s chest, thinking of racing through the gates again, going through the them over and over, sliding over the crystalline whiteness was where he was free from the relentless tragedies. He threw the general a clean towel.
“Send the bill,” the General said.
“To you or the PAC?”
The General didn’t look at him as he wiped himself and ran his fingers over his bristly scalp. He tossed the towel into the hamper at the rear of the room, turned, and just before he tromped down the hallway, he said:
“What Fricking Ever.”