I Could See The Smallest Things by Raymond Carver

Like most of his work, I Could See the Smallest Things, is an ultra-short piece–a snapshot of how humans interact.

A woman wakes in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep because of the way her husband sounds, breathing and snoring. She gets up and goes down to the fence her husband had built after getting in an argument with the neighbor, strangely, the neighbor has also built a fence as well, as if not to be outdone by the man he had once counted as a friend.

Despite the late hour, the neighbor guy is down by the gate and the narrator starts talking with him. He’s out in the middle of the night pouring some kind of stuff on the slugs, to make them shrivel up. I remember doing this with salt when I was a kid. I am sad to think of how cruel that is. I can’t imagine what I might have felt like. I remember finding the snotty smears that were the remains of the slugs about 15-20 minutes later. My mother would ask me to do this outside her garden. I guess it was for a good reason and I never killed enough slugs to hurt their population, but still, I feel bad.

It’s obvious that both the characters in this piece feel bad too. I’ve always felt like it’s the words that aren’t there that Carver is so great at bringing to light, and this story is no different. There’s a lot going on between the narrator and this neighbor that is only ever hinted at, but the sadness they share is a connection that might be deeper than anyone can know.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

I have read this story so many times, trying to make sense of it. Trying to glean the what I can from the dialogue–the majority of the piece. However, it still alludes me at times.

If you’ve never read this piece, you should certainly do so. It’s short–or at least, it’s a quick read. Takes a couple minutes and it’s one of the most profound short stories there is. Four people sit around a table drinking. That’s it. That’s the whole story. But what is remarkable about this piece is the way in which Carver captures the reluctance and doubt people have when they try to express and put into words, complex ideas that strain the limits of the English language. There are some concepts that English is simply not suited to describe and love is perhaps the most obvious one. Do we equate actions that we see on TV, in magazines, and other media forms and then act in those ways when we think we are in love?

While the piece deals with love, its ultimate goal deals with meaning. What we talk about when we talk about meaning, is perhaps a more apt title for the piece. However, most people might not get that.

What this piece does that I’ve never seen in any other piece, is steadily up the tension between the four people at the table without anything other than the dialogue really taking place in terms of action. While there is a recurring narrative conversation in the piece, Carver shows the character’s humanity through their detours of other topics. He juxtaposes their moods with not only their conversation but also with the light that slowly slides through the kitchen over the hours. By the end, there is no doubt, despite the lack of action, that something within all the characters present has changed.

2/23/15

He hoisted the garbage bag full of clothes over his shoulder and tossed his coffee, still a little in the bottom of the cup, into a garbage, before stepping back out into the wet winter.

He walked down the street and through an alley. The rain wasn’t coming down as hard as it had been once, but he lamented the fact that he had put his jeans on as they were already getting damp and who knew when it might be warm enough to dry them out again.

He went past store fronts and then past apartments. He walked past the fake grass and past the door that Mousy–Ames lived, the buildings towering high above him, balconies dripping. Then he was on the gravel path. But as he turned a corner around a tree he stopped.

Someone was already standing on the path. Right where the gravel turned to a mud track a police man stood. In front of the police man was a large flatbed truck with it’s cab facing in the direction of Doug.

He stopped walking and slowly turned around. Nobody called to him, nobody asked saw him, which he was happy for. He took a right on the street and went up to the paved path people ran on and biked on and would, if he followed it, would lead him into Fairhaven. He walked along it until he came to the bridge that was looked down upon by the fancy apartments overhead. He looked off the bridge and onto the scene.

Three men in coveralls and thick rubber gloves were picking up all his bottles and cans and garbage and and putting them in large black garbage bags. His broken bicycle, his tent and tarp and dresser had all been thrown unceremoniously onto the flatbed. Everything he owned but his clothes were now verifiable trash.

Doug thought of the books he’d collected. The Corrections. The Book of Strange New Things. Cloud Atlas. There had been many others. He took a breath. He’d loved his book collection. Now all he had was What We Talk About when We Talk About Love and he didn’t even like it that much.

He thought for a moment. Someone walked by behind him. Someone zipped by on a bike, the tires whirring on the pavement. The rain was soaking through his sweater. His pants were now officially damp. He turned away from his home, the swamp and walked back the way he had come. His steps were uneven steps because he didn’t know where he was going. Or maybe it was that he did and he just didn’t want to go there, but still he walked.

From the paved path he took a left and walked past the gravel path that led down to the swamp. Then he passed the police car–how he hadn’t noticed it, he wasn’t sure. And then he was in the avenue of the giant apartment buildings, with the fake, too-bright grass and less green doors. And he stopped in front of Ames door–the one he thought was Ames door and stood there, wondering and waiting and hoping she’d just come out and ask him what he was doing and he’d say he wasn’t doing anything because what he was doing was so–just so fucking embarrassing.