The boy looked at them again, though without any sign of recognition or comprehension. Then his eyes scrunched closed, his mouth opened, and he howled until he had no more air in his lungs. His face seemed to relax and soften then. His lips parted as his last breath was puffed through his throat and exhaled gently through the clenched teeth.
—Raymond Carver, “A Small, Good Thing”
Closing the book of short stories, I get up from the armchair and go into Isabel’s room. At first it looks like she’s asleep on her back, but in fact she has her eyes open and is staring up at the ceiling. Silently absorbed in the shapes her hands make, or the shadows of the things that move around in the dark. It’s the middle of the night. I find her lack of fear a surprise. Perhaps she’s still too small for fear. It was only a few months ago, after all, that dark and quiet were her home. She is still a part of it all, she is still the world. And the darkness. And the silence. I lift her out of the crib and carry her through to the bedroom. She blinks in the lamplight.
The next thing to happen in the story is the baker phoning the house of the parents who have just lost their son. I know the story by heart. I must have read it ten, fifteen times, and each time the figure of the baker strikes me as key. It’s a story about the banality of evil. Or about the fragility of human beings. Or about the banality of human beings and the fragility of evil. Another sob story, in other words, fragile human nature, evil human nature, the seeming triviality of one’s actions in the cold light of day, when the bread’s risen and kettles whistle on the stove . . . No, obviously not. It’s about nothing of the sort—Carver, the alcoholic, wrote it, not some eunuch like Kant. In this story, the boy dies. He dies after several days in a coma. He wakes screaming, pierces his parents with a look, and dies. That’s what made me close the book and go to look in on Isabel. She was in her crib, playing. Sometimes when I see her drifting off I catch myself calling out to her…
Perhaps Carver’s idea was to hide the seams, the back of the stitchwork. Because if you flip the thing over, it’s awful. The boy’s parents go back and forth between the hospital and their house, returning for some food, to rest and freshen up, and meanwhile the baker is after them to come and pick up the cake they ordered before the accident, he keeps calling, and they’re about to lose their minds. But that’s still only one side of it. The boy wakes up screaming, he cries out in pain and terror, expelling all the air from his lungs until he’s empty, void, lying there on the hospital bed. Yes, Carver includes the parents’ tears, their despair at losing a child, and the child waking screaming, too, but it still isn’t the full picture…
Isabel’s asleep again. I feel an impulse to wake her, to hold her. No, fiction is just that: fiction. Leave her be. I bunch the quilt up to stop her from falling out, but otherwise don’t touch her. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to her. It would be just me again… I go downstairs to the kitchen and make coffee. Yes, I think, Carver wrote the story backward, in order to emphasize certain things, he presented us with something resembling a negative—perhaps not a negative exactly, but he certainly did restrict himself to describing the actions of the people around the boy. There’s nothing of the boy’s experience. There’s nothing on the emptiness contained in the child’s silence; the child’s skull functions like a nutshell: nobody knows what’s inside. But the child wakes screaming and dies.
I pour the coffee and head back up to the bedroom. The other side of the story: I ought to write it. The idea makes me catch my breath, and a gap opens in my stomach as though my diaphragm had been pulled up and away. There’s something meager, mean-spirited about it somehow . . . I wonder if Carver approached the story as he did out of shame toward the child, or out of respect for the parents? But then the boy wakes screaming. If only we could know what he sees during the days he’s unconscious. What dreams might visit a child with a clot pressing on its brain, stretching out its orchidlike embrace inside his skull? I pick up my pace—I want to know Isabel’s all right. I’ll sit at my desk and sketch out the directions this story might take. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything short, it’ll do me good. The novel’s going nowhere . . . I spill coffee on the stairs, and rub it and soak it up with the brown socks I’m wearing.
Isabel’s fine. Sleeping. Her chest barely moves, but the peaceful brow, the faint smile, calm me down. I get so worried, I know it’s ridiculous. I suppose everyone must get that way—like checking to see if anybody’s hiding in the backseat when you stop at traffic lights on your way home from the movies. Fiction doesn’t have the power to jinx, and it can’t be used to predict the future. Fiction is fiction.
I turn on the computer and begin writing. First comes the crash, the car failing to stop, sending the child flying into the curb. The impact isn’t particularly awful, and it isn’t a spectacle of any kind—the body doesn’t go somersaulting over the car onto the far curb. In fact the car slows down considerably before hitting the child. He falls to the street, he gets back up again. His friend asks him if he’s all right, then What was it like? what was going through his mind as he hit the street?, but he doesn’t answer. He walks home. The mother says something to him, cleans his scrapes with some disinfectant, and he falls asleep in a chair.
It’s starting to get light outside. The following images in the story can only be those of some monstrous character lying on top of the child. It’s the clot as it begins to form on the brain. The boy, sprawled on the chair, has the sensation of a man lying on top of him. The icy belt buckle presses into his back. He can’t breathe. He tries to call out but his voice fails, retreating back into his lungs. He opens his mouth only to find he can’t then close it again, as though a gigantic ball of cotton wool has been stuffed into his oral cavity, or maybe it’s the figure wrenching open his jaw. His eyes fill with tears. The figure stretches out an arm. He can’t look directly at him, but he knows that it’s an enormous, deformed man, a man with bloodshot eyes. His mother was there a few moments ago but now she’s gone away—it’s as though she did know what was happening but chose expressly not to look. Then he’s being lifted up, the man is lifting him up, and he’s being carried out of the house and placed in a car. This is being dead, a voice says in his ear. But he can’t be dead. When you die you don’t have a body, and he’s felt everything, everything the figure did while he was on top of him. He can’t cry, tears don’t come now. Maybe it’s a question of time—maybe the body fades gradually. But he’s afraid. His head is pounding, as though the figure had introduced himself in there as well.
After that, the image of the hospital. The faint sense of pitching up at a prison, or somewhere like that. He’d see his mother driving the car. No. Just hear her voice, that’s all . . .
It feels wrong. I can’t write about a child like this, even an imaginary child. Isabel’s still asleep. Imagine putting these images in her head, it would be awful. If she knew this was what her father’s mind was like, she’d leave too. She’s too small to leave though. She still needs me . . . But the shell has to be cracked if we’re to see what’s inside. If I could understand what the boy saw while he was in the coma, those three or four days . . . People will say the boy saw nothing, that his brain had switched off already, but no: he woke screaming at his parents, screaming, he stared at them and screamed until his lungs were nothing but a pair of wet, collapsed plastic bags.
I’m on my way to the hospital in the car. I’ve just dropped Isabel with my parents. They hadn’t expected me quite so early. She cried when I passed her over.
The telephone rang a couple of hours ago, 5 or 6 a.m. it must have been. The phone itself didn’t wake me, rather Isabel’s crying did—the phone must have been ringing for a while. My friends’ son had fallen down the stairs at their house. I could hear the tears in Laura’s voice when we spoke. I settled Isabel, got her back to sleep. I showered, waited for the sun to come up, rang my parents. They’re up early nowadays. As I was showering the Carver story came back to me. What was happening was just like Carver’s text, with a few small changes here and there, as if Gordon Lish, that savage editor, had meddled with it. (I’ve always thought of Lish as Carver’s persecutor, as someone who hounded and harassed Carver, though now I wonder if it might not have been the other way round . . . ) No, hardly. Because Lish’s interventions changed the actual meaning of some of Carver’s stories, whereas here, it’s like the essence has been kept, only a few details have changed, stairs instead of a car, and me to keep the parents company instead of the baker. I’m the baker then? . . . Yes, it’s as though an editor had just reached in (or out?) and made a few tweaks. But there are two versions of Carver’s story. In one the child dies and in the other he doesn’t—or the story ends before he does, at least. Which one is this? If Laura and her husband knew my thoughts, I can’t imagine it would go down very well. I hope it’s nothing serious with their boy—as did the parents in the story. They also said to themselves, over and over, that the child was simply sleeping, that at some point he had to wake up. But not in the second version. In the second version that was left out too. Lish was a savage editor, yes: he stripped any trace of humanity from the piece. The baker only figures as a voice at the end of the telephone. The child’s parents barely get to speak; what we see of their suffering is just the clichéd outer edges of suffering. The child doesn’t die screaming. At that point, the story was called “The Bath.” “The Bath.” Yes, it wasn’t like this in all the stories; Carver’s drunken sentimentalism was given free rein before being stuffed into Lish’s stiff, minimalist apparel, like that urban myth of the bonsai cats being cultivated inside square bottles. You have to be savage to do something like that, completely lacking in empathy. It’s like editing a person’s life. Particularly if Carver had asked him not to, had asked for mercy—had said he’d never be able to write again. You have to be a savage to play this role. It’s essential.
Laura’s sitting on a waiting room sofa when I come in, and she looks a wreck. Her husband is talking with the nurses. Seeing me, she pushes her hair off her face but doesn’t get up. I go over and hug her. I can’t imagine what she’s feeling. I don’t know what to say. Isabel comes into my mind. She’s probably still asleep.
“How are you?’”
“They say he probably isn’t going to wake up.”
“Oh no . . . ?”
“He’s stable, but unconscious. They think he might stay that way. My boy!… He went downstairs to get some water. He was frightened, he’d had a nightmare and didn’t want to wake me. We heard the fall and went down. He was still conscious at that point, crying a bit, not a lot… I thought it wasn’t serious but then he passed out.”
I don’t know what to say. I sit with her. Rodrigo comes over, I get up and we embrace. He’s unshaven. He says it’s going to be OK, that the doctors are saying the boy might improve. A knock to the head is all.
“We were going to get coffee, but the nurses say they can’t watch him if we’re gone.”
They’re good people, good friends. They came and helped in the first few days after Ana left. The moment she’d weaned Isabel, she walked out. They don’t ask about her any more, for a couple of months now they haven’t—unlike everyone else I meet. Everyone’s always asking after Ana, or you can see it in their faces that they want me to say, Still no news, or, The police found a grave, or, She ran off with someone…. At least Laura and Rodrigo have stopped all that.
He sits down next to her and she rests her head against him. Their child: asleep, unconscious, dead.
“Can I see him?”
They look up at me. They’re surprised—so am I. I’ve never played with the boy, I can’t have laid eyes on him more than a couple of times.
“Yes, of course. Come on.”
They lead me along a corridor to the room. I shouldn’t think their minds are on the coffee now. The boy is sleeping on the bed, face up, his head wrapped in bandages and one eye covered too. Rodrigo stays outside. Laura sits at the edge of the bed while I stand quietly to one side.
“You can talk to him. The doctor said he’ll hear us if we talk.”
I can think of nothing. I stand there, silent, looking at him. I try to force a smile, some show of sympathy.
“He fell down the stairs because he had a nightmare and didn’t want to wake me. His socks slipped on the wooden floor and he hit his head. When we heard the noise we came out. There was a bit of blood on the step. It looked like he’d fallen all the way from the top of the stairs. ”
“You shouldn’t talk like this. Not in front of him. You heard the doctor, he can hear us.”
“No, he can’t hear us. It’s like he’s dead.”
He doesn’t respond. Rodrigo disappears down the corridor.
“When I came downstairs he was breathing, he opened his eyes. He was crying very slightly, said he was frightened, he’d had a nightmare, then he passed out. There was a cut on his head and his arm was bent underneath him. The doctor says some ribs are broken too. That’s why he was hardly crying, I think—it hurt too much.”
There in front of us, the boy: enclosed in a corpse, hearing the story of his death from his mother’s mouth. He hears his father preparing the coffin outside the room. That’s how the story ought to go. The mother perching on the bed, sobs contained in her speech, held back, and the child listening but unable to move. His body a shroud. I look at Laura—now the tears have come. I don’t know if I should go to her. I’m not sure exactly how long she’s been crying for. I ought to say something. I know I at least ought to go over and put my arms around her. But I can’t. Plus the fact there’s something… fine about the scene, something moving about the way the boy has turned to stone… That can’t stay, that sort of phrase needs excising—find some way of suggesting it, perhaps, but don’t state it directly. It’s the truth.
“Go and get yourself a coffee. Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on him. If he wakes I’ll get the nurses straightaway.”
Laura stands up, head bowed. I place my hand on the nape of her neck, tousle her hair there, guide her to the door. Laura glances at the boy before disappearing along the corridor too. I look around for a place to sit, it doesn’t feel right taking Laura’s place on the bed. I sit down on a chair to one side. I ought to call my mother and check in on Isabel. I’ll do it when they get back. The boy has an undaunted, unflinching look on his face. I wonder what might be going on behind his closed eyes, what he might be seeing. I get up again and look at him close up, like turning around in the cinema and looking at people’s lit-up faces. He doesn’t move though, not a muscle. For all I know his eye’s open under the bandage, this is all one big joke. For all I know the emptiness is leaking out through the crack in his skull. He’ll suddenly leap up shouting, spitting at his parents, and then he’ll die. Yes, if fiction stopped being fiction. There’s a notebook hanging from the foot of the bed, a pen attached to it by a piece of string. That’s where the nurses make their observations. I ought to note it all down myself or I’ll forget. I could finish Carver’s story… Nobody knows it, but the clot is forming on the child’s brain. A second head, red, demonic, grows inside his head. It’s stretching out inside him, embracing him, just as no lover will ever embrace him. No lover will ever embrace him. Full stop. I ought to be writing this down. No one would notice if I tore a page out of the notebook, and I could write down what I’m thinking, fold up the paper and put it in my pocket, all before they get back. I can’t though. Besides it wouldn’t make any sense. They’d kill me if they ever read it. Why make the notes if I’m not going to turn them into a story? Maybe I could have written it before, but not now, they’re sure to think I’ve used them for it. They’d hardly be likely to believe that I was talking about some other child, a fictional child, a child that barely even features in Carver’s own story, an unreal child. And what if Isabel were to read it? What if she had any idea of the things her father was capable of, of the thoughts he has when she’s asleep? But the image is irreplaceable, it can’t be repeated. Suddenly the boy will leap up and let out a harrowing cry, as if he’d returned from death only to tell us it’s everything we fear it might be, before dying again, this time irrevocably. Something in me has to know what he’s seen, what he’s seeing right now. If I can give an account of it, maybe that will negate its awfulness for the future. To translate the harrowing cry. It’s the figure sprawled on the chair. It’s the journey in the car, listening to his mother’s voice as she drives the car, as she mouths incomprehensible lists of words. It’s the figure lifting him up by the legs in the back seat, saying to him, over and over, This is death. And after that comes not the stranger, but his own mother, telling him what happened, describing the accident, recounting each of the impacts as his body tumbled down the stairs, everything that led up to him passing out, to where he now finds himself. Perhaps Ana will come back if I publish something that’s halfway decent. Perhaps, yes, if she were to see I can put myself in someone else’s shoes, get inside people’s heads and see what they see—that I’m not a selfish pig.
“Parece una tontería” first published in Daniel Saldaña Paris, ed., Un nuevo modo. Antología de narrativa mexicana actual (Dirección de Literatura, UNAM, 2012). © Agustín Goenaga. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Thomas Bunstead. All rights reserved.