In the spring of 1981, I drove with my best friend Gary Fisketjon from Manhattan to Syracuse, which was to be my new home, to visit Raymond Carver and his girlfriend Tess Gallagher. I’d been accepted into the creative writing program at Syracuse. I’d met Ray in New York the previous fall, through Gary, who was working for Random House, and he’d encouraged me to apply to the program. Ray and Tess shared a rambling three-story shingled Victorian on a quiet street not far from campus. Tess was a well-regarded poet, also teaching at Syracuse. She had an abundance of wavy brown hair and a hippie earth-mother aspect that obviously appealed to Ray.
“Ray in his native habitat,” I wrote in my journal, “turns out to be an overstuffed homebody — a house pet,” as Tess says. He likes to sit around, eat and watch TV when he’s not working, and if the plan calls for venturing outside the walls of the home, he takes the car, even if we’re only going a block. He took us on a tour of the campus, which is compact enough, and within easy walking distance of the house, stopping and parking in the lots of several nearly adjacent buildings, getting out only because the car wouldn’t make it through the door. He baked a large cake in honor of our visit, and ate most of it himself. We got stoned a lot, that being Ray’s only escape from reality, and acted like silly high school boys.
Ray told us about his first date with Tess. He was only a few months sober, in a new, barely furnished apartment in Iowa City. So he dressed up a couple of sofa cushions in t-shirts to serve as pillows. “Like little thalidomide babies,” he said. I was impressed with Tess, and the way she took care of Ray and managed him — though I would later come to find her management far too rigorous, her possessiveness excessive. At the time I found her strong and willful but sensitive. She is the husband of the relationship. She loves and understands Ray but doesn’t let him eat all the cake or stay indoors all day. She prods him and he moves eventually in his own bearish way.
Over lunch of baloney and turkey sandwiches, they told us the story of Tess’s friend, the blind man, who had come to visit them shortly before we did. Ray was still fascinated by the experience. Tess had once worked for the blind man, reading to him, almost a decade before and they’d kept in touch, mailing cassette tapes back and forth over the years. Recently the blind man’s wife had died, and he took the train up to Syracuse to visit his old friend. Ray was completely unnerved at the prospect, by the thought of entertaining a blind man. For all the dishevelment of his earlier life, the alcohol-fueled outrages and the bankruptcies, the petty larceny and the infidelities, there was something profoundly conventional about Ray. He did not like moving outside his comfort zone.
After Tess had picked up the blind man from the train station and he’d settled into the living room sofa, Ray asked him which side of the train he’d sat on. “What difference does it make?” Tess asked. Ray was about to explain that on the way up from the city you had the view of the Hudson from the left-hand side of the train…Ray remained pretty freaked out by this blind man for much of the visit. He felt self-conscious about watching TV with someone who couldn’t see the screen. He tried to describe what he was seeing on the screen to the blind man.
About a year later I read Ray’s story, “Cathedral.” He showed it to me shortly before he sent it to The New Yorker. We were very tight by then. The first part of the story was almost identical to what he’d told us that day. But the end of the story was new to me. The two men are watching a documentary and the narrator finds himself unable to describe a cathedral, so the blind man asks him to draw it. But there was no cathedral in his original recitation, no ecstatic session in which the blind man convinces him to draw a cathedral and holds the narrator’s hand as he does so. “It was like nothing else in my life up to now,” the narrator says, feeling a sense of liberation and empathy. The epiphany was Carver’s invention and it turned an anecdote into art.