Raymond Carver’s short stories are some of the most distinct in the English language. He wrote most prolifically in the 1970s and 80s, and was inclined toward what he described as “brevity and intensity.” His sentences are short, the subject matter is often the grimy rough-and-tumble of the American lower-middle class, but the impact left on the reader defies any easy categorization.
“I Could See the Smallest Things,” isn’t one of Carver’s more popular stories, but it’s my favorite. Published in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, it was cut heavily by Gordon Lish, Carver’s longtime editor, by about twenty pages. The final version of the story is only five pages, but doesn’t lack any power for that. On the contrary, “I Could See the Smallest Things,” is an object lesson in how to capture your reader’s attention with grace and subtlety.
The opening paragraphs of “I Could See the Smallest Things,” begin with a mystery:
I was in bed when I heard the gate. I listened carefully. I didn’t hear anything else. But I heard that. I tried to wake Cliff. He was passed out. So I got up and went to the window. A big moon was laid over the mountains that went around the city. It was a white moon and covered with scars. Any damn fool could imagine a face there.
There was light enough so that I could see everything in the yard—lawn chairs, the willow tree, clothesline strung between the poles, the petunias, the fences, the gate standing wide open.
But nobody was moving around. There were no scary shadows. Everything lay in the moonlight, and I could see the smallest things. The clothespins on the line, for instance.
I put my hands on the glass to block out the moon. I looked some more. I listened. Then I went back to bed.
But I couldn’t get to sleep. I kept turning over. I thought about the gate standing open. It was like a dare.
In true story-teller form, Carver is artfully inviting us to be interested in the mystery the protagonist is experiencing. The gate. What made the noise at the gate? Sometimes, as writers, we forget that simple open-ended questions are powerful tools. A reader nagged by a question is a reader motivated to turn the page. This doesn’t mean we should give up the poetry in our writing, or over-emphasize an arbitrary question. Notice how Carver includes details about the moon and what the narrator sees in her yard. But these aren’t arbitrary either. These details work in service to the story as a whole. We are experiencing the world of the protagonist and her context. The details contextualize the relevance of the question, while the question gives direction to the details.
Pretty simple so far.
The narrator, Nancy, walks outside to her gate to see what made the noise and finds her neighbor, Sam, leaning on his own fence.
“Evening, Nancy,” Sam Lawton said.
I said, “Sam, you scared me.” I said, “What are you doing up?” “Did you hear something?” I said. “I heard my gate unlatch.”
He said, “I didn’t hear anything. Haven’t seen anything, either. It might have been the wind.”
He was chewing something. He looked at the open gate and shrugged.
His hair was silvery in the moonlight and stood up on his head. I could see his long nose, the lines in his big sad face.
I said, “What are you doing up, Sam?” and moved closer to the fence.
I let myself out and went along the walk. It felt funny walking around outside in my nightgown and my robe. I thought to myself that I should try to remember this, walking around outside like this.
Sam was standing over by the side of his house, his pajamas way up high over his tan-and-white shoes. He was holding a flashlight in one hand and a can of something in the other.
It’s easy to miss what’s being done here. Did you notice the bait and switch? In section 1 the object of interest is the opening of the gate. Now it’s switched. Sam dismisses the opening of the gate, “It might have been the wind,” and now we are left wondering a) who is Sam? and b) what is he going to show the narrator? This switching doesn’t mean the gate is meaningless or just a trick to catch our attention. But, as we will see, the meaning of the gate changes.
Sam and Cliff used to be friends. Then one night they got to drinking. They had words. The next thing, Sam had built a fence and then Cliff built one too.
Sam then shows Nancy his problem.
“Look at this,” Sam said, hitching his pajama trousers and squatting down. He pointed his light at the ground.
I looked and saw some wormy things curled on a patch of dirt.
“Slugs,” he said.
Sam takes Nancy by the arm and guides her to see the holes in his rose bushes and the traps he sets for the slugs. “An awful invention, the slug,” Sam says.
And then there are a few key images:
A plane passed overhead. I imagined the people on it sitting belted in their seats, some of them reading, some of them staring down at the ground.
“Sam,” I said, “how’s everybody?”
“They’re fine,” he said, and shrugged.
He chewed on whatever it was he was chewing. “How’s Clifford?” he said.
I said, “Same as ever.”
Sam said, “Sometimes when I’m out here after the slugs, I’ll look over in your direction.” He said, “I wish me and Cliff was friends again. Look there now,” he said, and drew a sharp breath. There’s one there. See him? Right there where my light is.”
I closed my arms under my breasts and bent over to where he was shining his light. The thing stopped moving and turned its head from side to side. Then Sam was over it with his can of powder, sprinkling the powder down.
“I quit, you know,” Sam said. “Had to. For a while it was getting so I didn’t know up from down. We still keep it around the house, but I don’t have much to do with it anymore.”
I nodded. He looked at me and he kept looking.
“I’d better get back,” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll continue with what I’m doing and then when I’m finished, I’ll head in too.”
I said, “Good night, Sam.”
He said, “Listen.” He stopped chewing. With his tongue, he pushed whatever it was behind his lower lip. “Tell Cliff I said hello.”
I said, “I’ll tell him you said so, Sam.”
Sam ran his hand through his silvery hair as if he was going to make it sit down once and for all, and then he used his hand to wave.
Nancy then gets in bed and lays her robe “within reach,” hears Cliff clear his throat, and swallow.
I don’t know. It made me think of those things that Sam Lawton was dumping powder on.
I thought for a minute of the world outside my house, and then I didn’t have any more thoughts except the thought that I had to hurry up and sleep.
Raymond Carver can teach the willing writer that a simple story, like life, can be more than the sum of its parts. The writer need not smack the reader over the head. Sometimes all a powerful story does is leave a trail of bread crumbs to something else.
Remember the gate. It opened. We never found out how it opened. “It might have been the wind.” Or maybe Sam opened it himself. But the real point of the story isn’t the gate, or who opened it, but that it opened. The gate, once a piece of tangible mystery, a who-done-it, becomes a symbol. The gate, a doorway through the fence, that was built out of spite, becomes on opportunity—perhaps a damned opportunity—to restore what has been lost.
Buy Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love