Raymond Carver walks into a bar and comes up to me to say hi. I don’t know how I recognize him, but I do. We shake hands. “Jesus Christ, Mr. Carver,” I say. “I thought you were dead!” but he says no, he’s just gone into hiding. And I feel a great sense of being happy, even though I never knew the man. I feel relieved.
We sit there for a while, drinking beers. He is a quiet guy, and reminds me a lot of my dad, who really is dead. He has big, callused hands, oversized, like a carpenter’s. He has the old fashioned habit of leaving his money, paper bills, on the bar in front of him. When he puts his money back in his wallet, the bartender will know not to refill his glass. But while the money is there, the bartender doesn’t have to ask. I watch as Mr. Carver sips his beer and purses the foam off his lips. I don’t quite know what to say to the guy. I admire him a lot.
So instead we sit there watching the TV above the bar. It’s the local news, and the high school basketball scores are being displayed in boxes the color of swimming pools. He keeps glancing over at me wryly, and after a time he takes a cigarette from my pack and puts it up to his nose, smelling it. “Do you mind?” he says, and I watch as he puts the cigarette to his mouth and uses my lighter. He takes a long drag, and smoke curls out of his nose.
“How much do you smoke?” he says conversationally, and since I know that he was supposed to have died of lung cancer, I feel apologetic.
“I’m trying to cut down,” I say, and he grins, takes another sip of beer.
“That’s okay,” he says. “I’m not trying to bust your balls.”
“I’m going to quit,” I say, “by the time I turn forty.”
“Uh-huh,” he says. He is really enjoying his cigarette. He takes two or three definitive puffs before he blows the smoke out. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Forget I ever said anything.”
“OK,” I say, and there is a long silence. At the end of the bar, we both observe as a man and a woman argue over a plastic card, maybe a driver’s license or a VISA. “Take it,” the man says, and the woman says, “No, not anymore, you bastard. I don’t want it, now.”
After a moment, Mr. Carver turns back to me, bright-eyed. “This feels so good!” he says. “Boy, aren’t you glad to be alive?” And I think for a long while before I nod.
“Raymond Carver” was first published in Artful Dodge. It appears here by permission of Dan Chaon.