Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
A few years ago, I drafted two linked stories, one about Kurt Cobain and the other about Raymond Carver. Both grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Both had fathers who worked at a sawmill. Both were, in one way or another, working-class kids. There was another overlap that I struggled to show, but which was much deeper and had to do with the fact that both struggled with addiction—Carver with drinking, Cobain, with heroin. In his last days Cobain stayed in a hotel room that seemed straight out of one of Carver’s stories, at least in theory, the details being somewhat fuzzy. The stories sat in a folder and waited for revisions, and I vowed to go back to them because I loved both artists and wanted to find a fictional way to imagine them together, united. I met Carver one time, when he gave a reading for PEN on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I told him how much his work meant to me and he thanked me and gave me a nod and a sidelong look—he was smoking, I think, and he took the cigarette out of his mouth and tapped it into the ashtray and then looked past me, over my shoulder, and I moved to the side and let the next admirer step up. Cobain was around nineteen when that moment transpired—that must’ve been sometime around 1986? I imagine Cobain, lonely in a good way, with the smell of pine sap in the air, listening to records and making sketches in his sketchbook, unaware that he and his mother were living inside a Carver story. Perhaps that’s a stretch. I would’ve explained to Carver, if I could have, that when I bought his book of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, I began to read and was stunned to recognize the landscape, to see that the world I knew could exist in the world of fiction. In Michigan, my neighbor—Mr. Bycroff, now dead—had worked at the paper mill, the Bryant Mill, just down the hill to the east of my house. He was an electrician in the mill, and he came home in overalls—name patch, tool belt, black lunch pail, the works—and drank by himself on the front porch of his house, and in the night, usually late, from my window I heard him singing to himself, singsong slurred chants, and then, on some occasions, he gave out a kind of howl, or began shouting at his wife, and I heard then but didn’t know I was hearing something that I would hear, years later, in Cobain’s voice, somewhere around the edges of his singing, pushing as hard as he could to the very edge of a scream yet still, somehow, for me at least, stark and brutally clear and well-wrought.
He could still recall the way his father had uttered the phrase “coffin nail,” waving a cigarette during an argument, and he’d try to tweeze that moment apart, to remember what fury had driven him out of the house that day, down the road, along the side of the overpass to the trail and to the river where the water deepened as it entered the concrete sluice and provided a nice, cool resting spot for fish in the afternoon flow.
One more boy finding solace in the act of fishing while cars went past, dusty and quick, on the road overhead.
Years later, when he was living in Port Angeles, he’d remember that moment and he’d consider his own imminent death—a fact that sat just over the horizon—while upstairs, in the window, the sound of typing came into the air along with a zip sound whenever she, his lover, Tess, returned the platen at the end of a line. It was a sound that told him she was making a poem, cutting the lines sharply against the white edge of the page. It was a soothing and strangely assuring sound that attested to the fact that they had found, he thought, some comfortable mutual arrangement in which to work. With this in mind, he turned back to the memory of that afternoon, and tried once again to find something in it, to locate what he needed: a clear, concise awareness of what had transpired at that moment, far back in time, and in that awareness some elemental image that might be used: the way the hook sometimes caught his shirttail when he brought it up for bait. The corrugation of riffles around a submerged branch. The sound of tires making way on the concrete overpass. The sun as it spread down through the water into the depths and then became darker as it neared the bottom. The softness of the bank, fern and moss and leaf matter as he trod as close as possible without going in, because at that spot the bank gave way clean and sudden into the water. Or perhaps, going back to the fight: his father’s thick calloused hands—nicked and bandaged from saw-blade work at the mill? He tried for a while and then put his pen down and looked out at the sky, milky over the sharp pines, and he remembered the way—one night, maybe when he was sixteen—he’d gone out and looked up at the stars and pondered the clear, hard clarity of eternity … and then, on the deck, he thought, not another story with fishing, not another story about a boy and his father and turning to the motions of the cast in the end, to bring it to a close, and then he stopped thinking and listened, again, to the tap of the typewriter keys upstairs where she was, from the sound of it, still writing a poem, breaking the lines. He looked up at the window and then out at the trees again and thought, I’m done with stories, most likely, the last one finished, the one about Chekhov, because each one takes a toll, requires a certain energy, which was limited from the start, even back when I had youthful energy, and each one, the ones that worked, gave me a little bit of fuel to write the next, but now all I get are small bursts, hardly enough for a poem. Once I drew stories out of the chaos and void the same way I reached under the mattress that time, in what I called a drying out joint, to find my clandestine cigarettes, the pack crumpled and soft, and against the rules smoked one at the window, staring out at the sky, feeling the relief and rush of the nicotine. Much later I used some of that in a story, ordered it and gave it some sense when, in truth, it hadn’t had much when it was happening, although I’d known, somehow, in that way all writers probably know, that I’d get something out of it eventually, when my life found whatever form of stability was necessary to go on with the work. Upstairs in the window he heard another short burst of typing and he thought, hearing it, that if he could somehow find the energy he’d write the coffin nail story, whatever it might be, as a last gesture to eternity, and put in it the sweet resinous smell of the pine grove and how it felt to wade barefoot over to where the stream smoothed out before going under the road, into that dark sluice, and the risk of being cut by one of the bottles that got tossed out from cars, and he’d go into great detail on the catch he had made that afternoon, having forgotten his net on his rush out of the house, bringing each fish in carefully so as not to lose it. But then, on the deck, coming up and out of the reverie again, he knew that he was only thinking wishfully and that it would not be possible in his weak condition to find the strength to finish one more, and that his work would have to stand on its own, as it was, and that it didn’t matter because one couldn’t know how one would stand in the future because there was no way to answer that imponderable question that stood in front of you each day of your life, a question that had arrived even before he wrote fiction. He knew that it was impossible because it took a paradoxically light kind of energy to get to that place. It took a kind of power that no longer resided in his limbs. He should not think about how his work would be regarded years from now, in the scheme of things, and if his work would be read. That was the great, imponderable question. It had been there each day of his life. Even before he began to write he had pondered, What will I do or not do to put my mark on the world? It made him think of the Jack London story. Jack goes in a house and begs a meal when he’s on the road, talking his way into a woman’s kitchen. (This was in his unknown memoir, The Road. He had read a stiff-spined old copy at the library one afternoon when he was sixteen, skipping school. He had kept his head down under his coat, like a sleeping bum, to avoid being seen.) London had gone into a kitchen and sweet-talked a meal with a tale about his life. He had made up a story to touch the woman’s heart. His father had suffered from falling sickness, he told the woman. We were crossing the street and he simply fell down. Then he embellished further and created a dead mother for himself, ranging the countryside for work: from a ranch in Texas to book canvassing and then San Francisco. Then London added some more woes. He had gone in deep and unfolded his predicament step by step until he had spent long windy nights on San Francisco streets. Meanwhile, the woman fed him biscuits, bacon, and eggs. The key to the story, Carver thought (he had since reread it), lay in the fact that sitting at the table was the woman’s son, who was injured, his head bandaged, and who had gazed upon him with wide eyes. In the end, the woman made a bagged lunch for London to take, with hardboiled eggs, an apple, and even a pair of new wool socks. In the book London wrote: “I hope that woman in Reno will read these lines and forgive me my gracelessness and unveracity. I do not apologize, for I am unashamed. It was youth, delight in life, zest for experience, that brought me to her door. It did me good. It taught me the intrinsic kindliness of human nature. I hope it did her good.” Back then, he had wondered if he too might touch the mind of some soul that way, work himself into the trickery of storytelling. There had been photos in the book—he now remembered—of a man hopping a freight train, leaning off a boxcar, showing some particular technique on how it was done. A part of the book had been about the maneuvering around train cars and the technique involved in evading the yard cops. He thought about that—looking off at the trees and the bright blue sky that had, as of late, become suddenly acutely vivid—and he thought about his own father, who had jumped freights on his way to look for work down in Texas. Not for glory or dreams of fame but simply in search of steady employment, a good job to make ends meet. His father didn’t make stories of himself, didn’t see himself in that light. He moved in a different kind of water. Yet he might be wrong about that. What could one man know about the inside of another without making something up? Upstairs, from the window, came the sound of typing, the keys hitting the platen. A rattle of it and then silence, and then some more and then silence again. Yes, his lover was writing a poem, tearing into it, breaking those lines. When he turned back to look at the view, he got a sense, clear and firm, of the story he would write if he had the energy to do so, and the will, and the sense not to think too much. It had been in his mind for years, something close to the vest, a part of family history. The time his former wife—as he sometimes thought of her now—had given birth to his daughter, in a hospital back in Yakima. By pure chance his father had been right down the hall in his own ward, working out the demons in his mind, gaunt and thin and barely alive, a man who had been sucked dry of all life. He had gone out in the hall for a cigarette, to take a breather away from the newborn baby, and standing out there he had remembered something: his father beside him on the North Coast Limited. They were passing over the Cascade Range, on the way from Yakima to Seattle where they were to stay at the Vance Hotel and eat at the Dinner Bell Café. His father had taken a couple of days off from the mill to go on the trip. He had looked out the window and pointed out the sights, using his cigarette as a pointer. Perhaps it had been on that trip that he had first heard the phrase “coffin nail.” He wasn’t sure. But he knew for sure that he had stood in the hospital hall and thought about the trip and about his father and about the hardships the old man had endured, one after another, in the struggle to make ends meet for the sake of his family. In that image there was the material for some kind of story, a kernel, yet to be created. A wife’s glowing, exalted face, her hand resting softly on her belly, and the baby, swaddled tightly in a white cotton blanket as she sleeps the first soft sleep of her life while not far away, just down the white corridors—antiseptic and clean—the baby’s grandfather, an old saw sharpener, his hands gnarled and scarred from work, struggled mightily to sort the demonic world from the real world, to get things straight.
Outside the hospital, as he might imagine it, a misty rain would fall, the kind you found in the Pacific Northwest. It would fall—in his story—with a light persistence, as if unwilling to ever ease up, while through the clouds far to the west would be a dull sun, attempting to work its way through the mist. He looked out and thought, If I had the time, I’d write that one. It would certainly be my last, he thought, trying not to cough, feeling his ribs and his chest ache. If he coughed now he would never stop and his love would have to break off from her work upstairs and come down to help. Are you alright, she would say, and he would say, I’m fine, and gather his breath, easing up under her touch. And she would say, What were you thinking about out here Ray? And he would have to keep it simple. He would have to say, I was thinking about Chekhov. I was thinking about the master.
Alone on a bed in the sad karma of the Crest Motel, or the Marco Polo, take your pick, one last stop on the road through—no, he didn’t think anything like that because his mind is impenetrable, untraceable step by step through those last movements, which much later would become legend partly because only he knew where he went those last few days, before returning to the house and the gun. One more guy checks in, waiting to shoot up, with the old fear of needles gone. A connection named Hobert, or Rudy, or Blake out in the parking lot, leaning against his car, glancing up and down for cops, while inside the room he parts the curtains and looks out and then sits back down on the bed, shaking slightly. The room is shabby with wood paneling and has that reek (The sky an excrement beneath our feet!), having served fifty years of trysts: lovers cusped by the sagging springs into the dead center of the bed. (There was that time in Vegas, that fuck-up of a weekend when the glitter and gloss of the future was just ahead and everything became reduced to beautiful impulse, the drive into art, or so it seemed, and in that moment everything hugged reality, the actuality of time doubling back on itself. At that, time still living near Aberdeen, surrounded by logging detritus, not only the trees, but the old mills, too, the shabby ransacked vestiges of the lumber age, timber thrust into the bite of the blade, halved and halved again into board feet.) On the bed he might be thinking about the times his father took him to the mill. The time his mother and father fought and his mother ended up alone on the couch, face in hands, saying, “It’s over, over, over,” and he left her there and went outside to walk alone through the cold, pine-tree night, the smell of sap and wood smoke, and then he stopped to look up through the branches at the stars, far up, a firmament in the great bowl of cosmos and then—and this was when, he admits (secretly), apparent only in the reductio ad absurdum of introspection—he felt destiny for the first time: a keen awareness that he would someday, somehow, prevail and obtain, almost against his will, the fame and stardom that has—he likes to think, although he knows it’s simplistic bullshit—driven him here to the Crest, or maybe it’s the Marco Polo, to satisfy the need of his bones.
He goes to the window and parts the curtain and lights a smoke and draws deeply as he watches his connection in the parking lot who, in turn, is watching him, glancing his way, and nodding slightly.
There was an evidentiary moment, place, connector, or apex when his longing to create and to be heard and known met up with something else (insecurity, self-loathing, take your pick) and turned in on itself so that, to survive it, he had to go back and reclaim what was lost, and in doing so remembered the past.
(How does one make a story out of the enigmatic non-stuff of self-immolation, out of the death impulse, when the will to live, bright small compact of lifeblood, of baby lift, hefting the child up to hear the chortling, the bloody first giggle, gives way to the urge to avoid procreation, to find some terminal point? For God’s sake, all one can do is make raw conjecture.)
Back on the bed, watching the curtain shake, he knows that this is what will form around him, in the end.
(Maybe that’s part of the deal. He longs for a hazy non-narrative around whatever he has left of his own story. But then, maybe not. Maybe it’s just a reduction of the mental into the physical. Anybody who has suffered addiction knows the story, and anyone who has suffered chronic pain can understand the moment at hand.)
On the bed he’s humming softly. In theory, he has another song to write, one more fragment to put to tape. All he has is a fragment of melody with a few words—Hamlet/fuckin/dimwit—and not much else, but he’s humming it as he remembers a time his mother took him to Seattle, cutting alongside Capital State forest, and he had leaned his cheek against the cold car window while she pointed to the mountain and explained to him how a tree line forms, up in the higher reaches where the oxygen thins and it’s snowy all year, and he followed her finger up to the peaks and felt a distinctive sense, maybe for the first time, of being able to see, really see, in a secretive way, the inside of the world, and in the car that day he thought to himself: I’ll remember this moment, even when I’m an old fuck, and then, looking over at his mother, dressed in Capri pants and a white blouse, her Ray-Bans on, a kerchief over her hair, he straightened himself up and imagined himself as a man, as a father, and then he yelled yeeee hoooo, at the top of his lungs.
David Means is the author of four story collections, including Assorted Fire Events and The Spot. His novel, Hystopia, was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.