The Ray Carver I knew looked nothing like that. He wore ties and rumpled sport jackets and never appeared quite right in them. Not that the jackets didn't fit, but that he seemed awkward, even uncomfortable wearing them: he held his shoulders too high, away from his body, like adolescent weights, giving the impression that there was an iron bar lashed across his upper back and that his body hung slackly from it. Sometimes it seemed as if that bar was the only thing holding him up. As for his hair, it grew over his ears and sat in uncombed chunks around his head. A nervous, raspy laugh punctuated his sentences and he had trouble looking people in the eye. The word youthful comes to mind, and shy, bashful, ingenuous. Or boyish. Eternally boyish. A boy who woke in a nightmare to find himself in an adult's body hemmed in on all sides by sport jackets and snatches of menacing conversation.
As for props, he usually had a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Like the imagined bar across his back, they held him up in their own way, although now I can't help seeing that cigarette as a piece of chalk he used to chart his lifeline on the cosmic blackboard, or as a baton with which he was learning to conduct his own requiem.
At the outset, I want to say that my relationship with Ray never reached the boozy intimacy he had with others. I knew him from 1967 - 1977, his most notoriously alcoholic period, and even though I can still sit and talk in bars for hours on end, I don't drink now and I didn't drink then. For that reason alone it may seem impossible that we were friends at all. Another impediment to our friendship was our personae: Ray internalized everything -- the pains, the uncertainties, the humiliations, the fears -- whereas I gushed them in a torrent of emotions and operatic gestures. Add to this that Ray was a small-town boy, and a small-town boy from the Northwest at that, while I was a city boy from the East Coast and you've got what seems an almost insurmountable barrier to friendship.
Running counter to the differences, however, were the similarities. Ray and I didn't put on airs; that's what we had most in common. Although I was from New York City, I never pretended to be cool or hip. Ray -- and Maryann, too -- were open and generous-spirited from the start. I knew they had no rocks in their hands and they knew I had none in mine. We never analyzed our friendship or even once questioned why we liked one another because whenever we saw each other we talked, laughed, shared our work, and generally enjoyed one another's company. No matter how many months would go by between meetings we resumed our friendship where we had left off.
In 1981 Ray sent me a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In it he had inscribed this dedication: "For Mort, with nothing but love, and admiration." That about says it, although the word "admiration" needs to be explained. I'd like to think it refers to the writing, which truly cemented the friendship, the recognition on both our parts that under the sport coats we were two kids trying to figure out what this life meant, no matter how horrendous the revelations, and that we were both pursuing that goal through a mutually ferocious dedication to words. That commitment was out inseparable bond.
Besides this I was a poet whose work Ray liked, and poets were something special to him. He said toward the end of his life that he would like to be remembered as a poet and I wish now I had told him more often
how good I thought his poetry was. There is a lack of pretentiousness in his poems -- in tone and diction -- which is unique in contemporary American poetry, and we can all learn from it. It is disarming and therefore makes the implications, ironies and juxtapositions of images that much more powerful. Ray wrote poetry as if it were written with a small, not a capital, "p", conveying an impression of almost artless naturalness that no other American poet of his generation -- and maybe any other generation -- has been able to evoke. In his last volume, A New Path To The Waterfall (1989), this naturalness reaches its apex, spilling with an appearance of artlessness that resembles nothing so much as water, which assumes the shapes of every channel it enters yet remains itself, and appears as swirls, slurs, elongations and a variety of textures and colors under the shifts of light and sediments it travels over yet remains as transparent and ephemeral as breath when you attempt to lift it in your hands.
Ray always insisted that we knew each other in Iowa, and so did Maryann, but I can't recall it. And our dates of tenure there don't correspond. Sometimes I think that he meant that he knew of me from Iowa. Maybe that was it. As far as I'm concerned we met at George Hitchcock's house on Laguna Street in San Francisco at one of those parties Hitchcock gave four times a year to put Kayak magazine together. There were always about twenty of us, an interchangeable group of contributors, friends, actors, and writers or painters passing through, all turned into happy workers by Hitchcock, a commanding presence with a voice like a wave booming in a sea cave, who directed us to collate and staple pages, stuff and address envelopes, and encouraged us to meet each other, while he kept bread, cold cuts, beer and pies stacked on the kitchen table.
At that time Kayak was one of the important literary magazines in the country and fostered a sort of deep image or "near surrealist" approach to poetry. But as a kayak is a one-man vessel, so the magazine was a product of one man's taste, a man who abhorred categories, George Hitchcock. The magazine displayed his many talents as poet, editor, printer, visual artist and organizer. He was the sun from which all things grew and ideas radiated, the center we looked toward for direction. Well over six feet, a recognized playwright, and an actor in the grand manner -- on those Sundays he directed the closest thing to an American-style Parisian salon I have ever attended.
It was at one of those collating parties in the spring of 1967, I think, that Hitchcock introduced me to Ray and Maryann, an indulgence to which George's laissez-fair attitude towards social etiquette usually didn't succumb. Ray said he remembered me from Iowa and was an admirer of my poetry, but even then I wondered if he had asked George to introduce us. As I have said, I still don't remember Ray from Iowa and it wouldn't be until many years later that I learned that he had been the student of two special and talented friends of mine, the fiction writer Richard Day at Humboldt State University and the poet Dennis Schmidt at Sacramento State University, both of whom could have exposed Ray to my work. When I learned that, I suspected even more that Ray had asked Hitchcock to introduce us and that he hadn't said he knew me from Iowa but rather had heard about me there.
Whatever the reason, Ray and I were soon chatting like old friends. There was an openness about Ray and Maryann that could win over anyone. There was nothing morbid or precious about them. They weren't ego-centered or self-absorbed as are so many of the literati I've met. We talked about everything -- from literature to sports to politics, and kept talking from one collating party to the next. Within a year or two Hitchcock and his wife broke up and Maryann's sister, Amy, a vivacious, talented actress, began coming to the collating parties. She and George were entranced with each other immediately, and I remember staying late a number of times to watch them perform some hilarious, ingenious, spontaneous bit of nonsense after which the five of us would go off to dinner somewhere, joined by any odd member of the collating squad who wanted to come with us.
At about this time (1969) Hitchcock put out my first book of poems, Origins, and a year later he brought out Ray's first major book of poems, Winter Insomnia. During this period, I knew Ray as a poet. That is what we talked about mostly and I'd seen some of him poems in Kayak and other magazines. He never lost this focus on poetry and I think the extreme concentration he exercised in his prose at times can be traced to his poetic practices. Gradually he showed me one or two stories, then added others, many in manuscript or in pages stripped from magazines. I was astonished by them, to say the least. As I remember, the first one I saw was "The Student's Wife," and soon after that "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please," and within the next year or two, in the early seventies, "Fat" and "Neighbors."
What was astonishing, even unique about Ray's stories at that time was not that they engaged everyday American life and went behind the doors of suburban middle-class and blue-collar homes, but that they were scenarios of our worst dreams about the reality of our neighbors' existences, scenarios about the spiritual barrenness at the heart of American life which on the surface the majority of us were living, whether we admitted it or not. Ray had the courage to face this barrenness and the genius to make it come alive.
I sensed that a lot of Ray's writing was autobiographical, things that had happened to him and Maryann or, more, things which he feared might. That's why I call them scenarios. He was writing his worst dreams, readying himself for whatever might happen to him and his family, innocent small-town American kids moving through the world like victims in search of an oppressor.
That's why Ray's vaunted realism is so strange, or rather "unrealistic" in the end, and seems to be steeped not in bleakness but in nightmare and approaches the surreal. His poetry, especially. It is a poetry of the threatened. Winter Insomnia is propelled by a kind of paranoia, a fear that everyone the speaker encounters means him and his family harm or poses the possibility of it. Menace is everywhere, especially in the poems that deal with the Middle East. It is the paranoia one finds in a Hitchcock film or an Eric Ambler thriller: Everyone out there is a threat. This is not "realism" or "super-realism," it is, if anything, expressionism, a reality shaped and shadowed by the mind of the artist. That is why I think Ray's poems and stories were so admired by the Kayak crowd and why Winter Insomnia came out under the Kayak imprint.
One more word about the work. Not so much those of us around Kayak, but later, in Santa Cruz from 1970 to 1976, just before What We Talk About When We Talk About Love hurled Ray to the heights of the literary world, a number of writers I knew thought Ray's stories too depressing. I wonder if they would think that now, not because Ray has become a legend, but because in the last few years what he imagined about America has become the truth of our lives -- the unemployment, the fear of homelessness and the lack of medical security; I mean the terror of being poor or disenfranchised in this land of milk and acid. Intuitively Ray knew what that part of America was all about and the terror of that knowledge drove him to the bottle and cigarettes, or so I thought then and think to this day.
Now it might seem too simple to assign the fear of the small town boy with the weak father, who didn't even provide him with a location of good places to fish, as the reason for Ray's drinking and smoking, but I did, as many of us do with our friends. The bottle lip and cigarette tip were nipples on a milk bottle that gave Ray security, pacifiers that let him relax -- pacifiers he didn't need any more when he met Tess and that he had needed with Maryann because he and Maryann were both young and he had to grow through his fears and out of them when he was with her. Which means Tess was the lucky one and Maryann was not. Or Tess had that certain trait that could wean him away from the bottle where Maryann couldn't. Maybe those notions are too easy. And, again, maybe they're not.
By late summer of 1968 I'd moved seventy miles south of San Francisco to the small coastal town of Santa Cruz, where I had gotten a job teaching English at a community college. I still journeyed to San Francisco for the Kayak collating parties, but within a year Hitchcock followed me to Santa Cruz and was teaching poetry and acting at the local University of California campus. He continued printing Kayak magazine and books from his Santa Cruz address.
Ray and Maryann were living in Cupertino, a suburban town thirty miles south of San Francisco and ten miles north of San Jose, the center of a middle-class residential area which in the late sixties and early seventies served the families of the burgeoning computer micro-chip industry called Silicon Valley. Ray and Maryann were living the TV version of the American good life. As I remember, their house was a one-story, upper middle-class showpiece complete with swimming pool, field-stone walls, and huge bay windows set in angles like transparent guillotines -- although I suspect my hyperbolic imagination has galloped off here with the frail damsel of memory. I do recall that at night you could see all the way to the bay, several miles away, street lights and house windows along the way glittering like an overturned jewel box. I remember at least several memorable parties there, each with dozens of people -- a lot of writers and businessmen and engineers, the last two groups obviously neighbors and fellow workers.
I'm not sure but I think Ray was still employed as a text-book editor at Science Research Associates and Maryann was teaching high school in Los Altos. What is certain is that they were living beyond their means and soon it was difficult to reach them by phone. The creditors were descending and any friendly "Hi!" chirping from the receiver could be followed by demands for payment of overdue bills. Was it that year, 1970, or five years later, that Ray's mother or Maryann would answer the phone explaining that the Carvers no longer resided at that address? When I came to visit once, Ray's mother, who didn't know me, insisted I had the wrong house, until Ray, who was standing behind an inner door, rescued me.
At about this time Ray showed me the manuscript of a new story called "What Is It?" (later renamed "Are These Actual Miles?"), one of the most terrifying pieces he ever wrote. It was about the day in the life of a man burdened with bills whose wife goes off to sell the family car. At different points during the afternoon and evening the man receives calls from his wife who says she is on the verge of making a "great deal" on the car. Finally, in the early hours of the next morning, drunk, she is covertly dropped at home by the car salesman, and the husband stoically puts her to bed. But the salesman returns to place the wife's handbag, which she had left in his car, on the porch. Observing the salesman through the window, the husband wrenches the door open to confront him, but he is unable to say anything to the man, who retreats and drives off behind a nervous spattering of excuses.
The story is filled with a sense of humiliation for both husband and wife, a sense of hopelessness for anyone caught in our socioeconomic treadmill. Few writers anywhere have portrayed economic degradation this nakedly. At the time I was overwhelmed by the story and wondered if it was yet another scenario of Ray's terrors, but I never asked him. Now I assign the story to the category of those chilling pieces of literature which depict the end of an age, such as Ray's beloved Chekhov continually wrote so relentlessly about in plays and stories. The cultures and times are different, but the vision and subject are the same, although Chekhov's vision is not as raw as Ray's.
During this period I was teaching a course I had designed for the University of California Extension called "Writers Off the Page." the class met all day Saturday. In the morning we discussed a novel or book of poems by a contemporary author, and in the afternoon the author met with the class to read aloud, answer questions, and discuss his work.
I asked Ray to be one of the participants and select several stories. He chose "What Is It?" ("Are These Actual Miles?"), "Neighbors," "Fat," and an initiation story he had just finished called "Steelhead Summer" (which appeared renamed and revised, not for the better, as "Nobody Said Anything" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and later as the first piece in Ray's selected stories, Where I'm Calling From). The story is about a boy who does combat with a giant fish in the river on the other side of his home town. What makes the story unique is its frame, which comments ironically on the boy's coming of age ritual: at the beginning and the end of the story, the boy is witness to his parents arguing. This intrusion of the mundane,
drearily unhappy adult world of 1950's America destroys the boy's heroic undertaking which had charged his imagination by making the everyday world marvelous, all of which was suggested in the original story by medieval quest imagery that paralleling the contemporary images, but was cut by the time the story reached What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as "Nobody Said Anything."
(Ray puts the frame to similar use in another story that would have been ordinary without it. The piece, called "Distance," first appeared in the Furious Seasons and in severely truncated form under the title "Everything Stuck to Him" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The story line deals with the first serious argument between a young married couple with a sick child. The husband wants to go hunting, as he has done for years, but his wife wants him to stay home because of the child's condition. He goes but returns early and the couple make up, dancing in their small house and vowing eternal love. However, the frame occurs twenty years later when the child, now a young woman, visits her father, divorced from her mother and living in Rome, and begs him to tell her a story about when he and her mother were married. The sense of loss and pathos is conveyed by the use of the frame. Even the poignancy in the story is created by the frame. It is a brilliant choice here. So is the original title, which Ray later restored. Distance, in time and place, colors the central meaning of the story, reminding the reader of how transitory human relationships are. I should also mention that Chekhov, Ray's favorite writer, put the frame to similar use in a number of stories -- "Gooseberries" and "In Exile" come immediately to mind -- and the bittersweet nostalgia in "Distance" comes closest to echoing the Russian master's in tone and coloring. As does "Errand," of course. Generally, however, Ray's stories are much more brutal than Chekhov's.)
The class was composed mostly of teachers taking the course for graduate units. Ray's stories excited and horrified them because of their freshness and the way he had directly faced the dark side of American life. The group was filled with admiration and generated the kind of energy one feels when a group discovers someone in their midst who is going to be a celebrity.
This was the third time I had given the class, and the powers that be had decided to move its location to Palo Alto, fifty miles northeast of Santa Cruz, as an experiment to draw new students. Weather permitting, we would meet for the afternoon session under a shady clump of trees in a rolling, open park.
When I met Ray to guide him to our glade, I was surprised by how nervous he was. He was more jumpy than I had ever seen him. I pretended not to notice at first, but as he tremblingly lit one cigarette after another I finally asked what was wrong.
"This is the first time," he said.
"For what?" I replied.
"This is the first time I ever taught a class."
"On your own work?"
It had never occurred to me that Ray hadn't taught before. I tried to calm him down, give him confidence and a few basic pointers -- a coach's pep talk. I tried to make him see that he had already introduced himself through his stories, that everyone in the class thought they knew him to the quick because of who they imagined the writer of those stories to be. I don't think that set him at ease at all.
He was dry-mouthed and twitching as he began the class. But many of the women, seeing his nervousness, gave him maternal encouragement; and the outright admiration of the entire group was so apparent that within fifteen minutes my rhetorical questions and other verbal aides were no longer necessary. Ray's shy, humble manner won everyone over, and he warmed to the serious conversation about his work. I like to think he developed his unassuming, open classroom style because of what happened that day, but the truth is he was just being Ray and sooner or later he would have realized that simple secret of teaching. As I remember, I invited him to talk to the class for several successive semesters; those who took the course repeatedly insisted on it.
One more thing. Neither the class nor I could convince Ray that "Steelhead Summer" ("Nobody Said Anything") was a first-rate story. I nagged him about it endlessly over the next several years and he did finally
send it out and get it published in Sou'Wester, but he always felt unsure about it. Maybe he thought it was too much like Hemingway's The Old Man In The Sea. Maybe he was piqued at himself for writing an initiation story, the kind of tale he had been raised on and knew had become cliched by the late fifties. I don't know. But I was happy to see it as the lead off story in Where I'm Calling From, even in its severely revised form.
By 1972 Hitchcock had gotten Ray a teaching assignment at the University of California Santa Cruz. That had to have been accomplished through the man who had hired Hitchcock, the well-known short-story writer, James B. Hall, who had been made the Provost of the new Creative Arts College on campus, which was called, for lack of a financial donor, College Five. George worked there and now so did Ray.
While he was at the University, Ray influenced a lot of students, including a number of my former pupils who would tell me how much they loved him as both a teacher and a human being. I, of course, would tell those of my students heading up to the University to be sure and take a class with him. Although he was only working at the University part-time and would soon begin a dizzying travel week teaching at both Santa Cruz and the University of Iowa, a schedule reminiscent of the feverish peregrinations across Siberia of Vasily Sergeich in Chekhov's "In Exile," Ray had the energy to convert UC Santa Cruz's literary magazine, Quarry, into a publication of national stature, under the name Quarry West, by lobbying many of the poets and fiction writers he knew to submit work to it.
It was during his tenure at Santa Cruz that one of the more revealing episodes in my relationship with him took place. As I recall, it was in 1973. Ray had been chosen to host Charles Bukowski, who was to give a reading at the University. When he met Bukowski at the airport he discovered that the irascible poet had been on a binge for more than a week. I wonder if Ray saw a future image of himself in the creased, pockmarked face of his older contemporary. I know something early on made him decide not to drink glass for glass with Bukowski, and when we met before the reading Ray was completely sober -- and worried. He didn't have any idea of how Bukowski was going to behave, and had quickly realized that the Los Angeles poet operated on both insult and shock.
"Stick close," Ray said to me, "and be sure to come to the party after -- please."
Bukowski, on his part, must have taken one look at Ray in his corduroy trousers and rumpled sports jacket and decided to dismiss him as an insipid academic. The reading drew a full audience and was a wild affair. Bukowski punctuated each poem by sucking from a large bottle of gin and tossing raspy insults at the audience -- at all the spoiled middle-class students and prissy professors, as far as he was concerned. The professors grinned condescendingly or left. Or grinned and then left. But by and large the students were titillated and warmed to this old drunk telling them what little shits they were. I got the impression that Bukowski was delighted in parading his image and that the students were experiencing the taboo excitement of slumming, or being in touch with "real life" -- at least for the evening.
Ray wasn't amused by any of it. His worried expression was a mask stuck to his face throughout the reading. As host, he said later, he felt responsible for whatever happened and I translated this into meaning that he saw his credibility slipping with his superiors at the University with every insult Bukowski growled.
At the party, held in the house of two former students of mine who were currently students of Ray, things got wilder. Only students were present after the first ten minutes. Rock music and pot smoke engulfed the shabby room. Bukowski, drinking everything in sight, muttered, bragged, cursed, and getting drunker by the minute, grabbed the girls and mashed his whiskery face against theirs, or shot his hand to the crotch of their jeans or down their shirts. Several of the girls screamed and ran from the house. A number of the more cerebral students sat back and stared straight ahead, probably stoned. A group of rough town poets watched Bukowski's every move adoringly, as if they were learning how to be real poets with every belch or snort. Ray started drinking.
Bukowski blinked when he saw me coming up the stairs. "Allen," he said, "I didn't know you were here. Why doncha recite some lines from 'Howl'."
I shot back some stupid remark to the effect that "My name isn't Allen. It's Kenneth, Kenneth Pachen."
A malevolent smile lit Bukowski's face, making him look like a sinister pumpkin, as he turned toward Ray. "Hey, Professor, why didntcha tell me that Allen was going to be here?" Then he turned back to me and said, "Come on Allen give us some 'Howl'."
My former students were so poor they didn't own a couch and Bukowski was seated like a malicious Buddha on a mattress set on the living room floor, stubbing out his cigarettes on the floorboards until one of the students who lived in the apartment stopped him.
Bukowski kept turning to Ray between drinks and grabs, derisively calling him "professor" and treating him like the most menial servant, every once in a while turning to me with that sinister pumpkin face and saying, "Come on, Allen, let's hear it."
I smiled back as malevolently as I could. Bukowski continued drinking. More students ran squealing from the house. Soon Ray, fed up, and by now drunk himself, stalked out. There was no one left but my two former students, Bukowski and two or three others. Bukowski had not risen from the mattress in several hours. Now, obviously exhausted, he subsided into a stupor, his chin on his chest. "So, Allen," he muttered one more time, "what do you think of this shit?"
At this point Ray clumped up the stairs. Bukowski spied him and raised his head for a moment. "Professor," he said with the last bit of derision he could muster, "Professor..."
Ray looked down at him, swaying, but said nothing, his expression caught midway between disgust and pity. But maybe it was neither: Ray was drunker than I'd ever seen him. Something about Bukowski's behavior struck deep inside him, like a pickaxe sinking into the wall of a mine, something he never spoke to me about. My sense of the extremity of Ray's reaction, however, suggests that there was something more to it than just disgust or pity. I'm convinced he saw in Bukowski's drinking and behavior intimations of his own future, a sort of Mr. Hyde who would be released by his incessant boozing. On the other hand, this is said with a good deal of hindsight and may be just literary balderdash.
It was a revelatory evening, an historic non-meeting of two major American writers. For the first time I saw Ray act uncomfortably, feeling responsible for someone else and not knowing how to handle the situation. Bukowski was too much for him: Ray couldn't deal with his continual insults and venomous behavior. But Bukowski was more revealing to me. He showed that the self image he chose to establish in his poems, an image which limited the poems in both reach and meaning, had taken him over. He had become the mask he chose to face the world wearing. More than this he was so overwhelmed by this image, and the easy assumptions of others that went with it, that he stereotyped Ray and never realized that he was in the presence of the one artist whose work, on the same subjects and themes, had achieved what he rarely, if ever, could for the very reasons he failed to recognize who Ray was -- lack of real interest in others and compassion.
The upshot of the incident was a nasty poem by Bukowski about the uptight academic host who took care of him in Santa Cruz and a reply from Ray, the collage-barrage of lines he heard or thought he heard Bukowski speak throughout the evening incorporated into the poem "You Don't Know What Love Is," a poem that can be found in Fires.
I've often wondered if Bukowski ever read any of Ray's work and realized that that Ray Carver, that "uptight academic" host was was no prissy professor but the author of stories of more depth, passion, and authenticity than he allowed himself to write.
During the winter of 1972, Noel Young of Capra Press asked to bring out two of my books. That request grew into a friendship and, for the next several years, my sending along a dozen writers or so to Capra for Noel's burgeoning chapbook series, a dozen or so west coast writers, I should add, for there was a feeling among us of neglect and downright hostility from the publishers and editors of the good green east.
The first author I introduced Noel to was James D. Houston, a novelist whose subject matter and themes are the mores and lifestyles of the California central coast, a thinker who in book after book has insightfully defined what California means to the psyches of those who live here. Jim, also a friend of Ray, was completing a group of stories at that time concerning a character named Charlie Bates whose very existence, often depicted in Kafkaesque comic situations, was bound up with cars and freeways, certainly a most California subject. Noel immediately took one of the stories for the chapbook series and a year later brought out all the Charlie Bates stories in one volume. Now both Jim and I were feeding Noel authors, and I'm sure that both of us urged him to get in touch with Ray, while urging Ray to get in touch with Noel.
Nothing happened until the spring of 1972 or '73, and Jim and I were both involved in it. It was at the annual Swanton Corn Roast, a spring ritual in those years when all the local craftspersons -- potters, weavers, jewelry makers and leather workers -- showed their wares in makeshift stalls set up in the wilds of a rural road north of the coastal hamlet of Davenport. The scenery was the epitome of old California, open farmlands surrounded by woods. The corn roast was held in a meadow hemmed in by redwoods, madrone trees with their sweet potato-colored bark, lime-colored lichen-splotched coast live oaks, and spicy-smelling California bay trees, all tangled together by vines and jumbles of weeds and poison oak still green and succulent from the winter rains.
The corn roast drew people from as far away as San Jose and San Francisco. Hundreds of cars lined the narrow road. The roast was an event, a reason to get into the country for city-dwellers and come away with a pitcher or belt or beaded necklace made by local artisans, not mass-produced by anonymous third world workers. The roast was a result of the return to the earth movement that gripped the nation in the early seventies.
As Noel remembers it, I was strolling with him, both of us looking at the displays. Jim Houston was playing bass with a blue grass band called The Red Mountain Boys, a traditional part of the day's entertainment, and as the banjos caplunketed and the fiddles whined and the guitars thwanged, and Jim plucked baritone sounds of gastric disorder from his phlegmatic bass, Noel and I came upon a tall galoot lying on his side in the grass with his head propped in one hand, listening to the music. Noel remembers that he had a purple wine mustache. I remember that there was several paper cups on the ground near by.
I turned to Noel and said something like "Remember I told you about a terrific short story and writer you should get a hold of? Well, here he is." Then I spoke to the reclining figure. "How you doing, Ray? Remember that publisher from down south I've been urging you to send stuff to, Noel Young? Well, here he is. Noel, Ray. Ray, Noel."
Now that may sound like one of the great shaggy dog stories of all time, an anti-anecdote, the report of one of the great non-events in any memoir. But truth to tell, it was an historic meeting. Out of it Noel would eventually publish Ray's short story collection, The Furious Seasons, in 1977 and the potpourri of short stories, poems and essays, Fires, in 1983. Capra would become the publishing house where the original and restored
versions of some of Ray's best stories would be permanently maintained. That Ray returned to Capra to publish Fires after he had become one of the nation's most publicized writers was a symbolic return to the west from the frenetic east, a move he would make physically within two years after the book came out. Fires contains the definitive versions of those stories that first appeared in The Furious Seasons and that, in two instances, appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the book that made him famous but which also contained drastically revised versions -- to my taste, far too drastically -- of many previously published stories. In Fires Ray re-revised (actually restored) two of the stories which I consider among his best, "Distance" and "So Much Water So Close To Home." For that reason, and its plenteous helping of poems, Fires is an important source for understanding Ray's work. We can thank Noel Young for that as well as for the original versions of the stories in The Furious Seasons.
In a letter to an editor inquiring about Ray, I wrote that "I knew him before the fame, before he became a legend, I knew him as he groped his way through the thicket of his problems and I can tell you that even then he was a lovable man who, despite the debt and drinking, I would trust with my life, and for me that is the test of a human being's mettle." A friend, who is a therapist, told me that such values are typical of people abandoned in childhood, which I was. Who knows. But loyalty and a good heart go a long way to winning my affections, and Ray had both. Do those words smack of sentimentality? So be it. There was a man here I loved who is a hole in the air now, a doorway the wind shuttles through. This man left us gifts at great personal expense, a suitcase full of small trick mirrors in which we can see our distorted inner selves. I remember this person as someone who shaped and polished those mirrors day after day through cigarette smoke, alcohol fumes, unpaid bills and domestic dog fights. He came and is gone, but the gifts he made for us remain, each one a kiss on our lives.