1988. On a Sunday morning late in June, both Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff turned up unexpectedly at the Port Angeles home of Raymond Carver and his partner, the poet Tess Gallagher. The two friends of Carver arrived independently of each other but still they came to the door no more than a minute apart. When Tess answered the first knock she found Ford standing there, holding back the gauze door saying, ‘Good mornin’, ma’am,’ in that slow southern way of his and then, before she could summon any kind of response to Ford, or think to check the alignment of her dressing gown, Wolff bounded up the steps, declaring, ‘Hi, y’all.’
Ford flinched, spun on his heel, and held his fists bunched at his sides. Wolff stood grinning, his moustache stretched across the width of his face, and then some. ‘Toby,’ Ford said, letting one hand go, then the other. He threw his arms around Wolff and slapped his palms between his friend’s shoulders. ‘Goddamn you,’ he said. ‘You scared the shit outta me.’
Tess pressed a finger to her lips and motioned toward the inner workings of the house. ‘Sleeping,’ she whispered. She hugged them both and ushered them quietly inside. She led them into the kitchen that opened out onto the deck and stood a moment to realign the tortoiseshell sticks in her long dark hair.
The two men took up positions on opposite sides of the table and sat there grinning at each other. ‘Goddamn you,’ Ford said again, shaking his head at Wolff, who just kept grinning.
Tess lit the stove and set a kettle over the flame. She took mugs down from a shelf and put them on the table. She turned away again, picked up a canister that sat on the bench beside the window and began to spoon coffee out into a stainless steel plunger. Wolff put the heel of his boot on the toe of Ford’s shoe and ground it down hard against the floor. Ford poked his free foot about under the table until he found Wolff ’s shin and gave it such a sharp jab with the toe of his shoe that Wolff reeled his leg away, slamming his knee up under the table. The mugs rattled about and Ford quickly rested a hand on them to settle them into place. Wolff gestured apologetically at Tess. She just shook her head.
Tess pulled out the lid of the kettle as it began to boil. She cut off the gas and poured the steaming water over the dark grounds. ‘Rough night,’ she said as she brought the plunger to the table. ‘Ray couldn’t find any comfort. It’s that way more often than not now. Most likely he’ll sleep right through into the afternoon. You’re welcome to wait if you want to, though.’ Tess sighed as she poured the coffee. ‘I could sure do with the company.’
Ford and Wolff both nodded eagerly. ‘Sure, sure,’ they said together, and they all sat at the table and drank their coffee and talked about what they were all working on at the moment. Ford was between books. He’d followed up The Sportswriter with Rock Springs, his own collection of stories, and it had sold well enough. The critics liked it, too, but he wasn’t sure what he might do next.
‘Well, I reckon that you,’ Wolff said, pointing across the table, ‘and your friend Frank Bascombe might have some unfinished business.’
Tess nodded. ‘He’s right, you know. You might just end up pulling a Rabbit out of your hat.’
Ford winced at the notion and shrugged. ‘Maybe,’ he said slowly.
‘May–be. But for now, I’ve been thinking that I’d like to try my hand at something different. For me, anyway. Write something about a child, maybe. A teenager.’
Wolff laughed quietly to himself. He was in town for a reading he was to give the following night to promote his novella, The Barrack’s Thief, and, though he didn’t want to say so at the time, he was well into a memoir of his own childhood. ‘Imagine that,’ Wolff said to Tess. ‘Imagine reading about this boy’s life down there in Jackson, Mississippi.’
‘Plenty worse things in print right now,’ Ford said.
‘Maybe so, maybe so,’ Wolff said, his voice trailing off. He was thinking about something that had just come to him. ‘Have you got a loose sheet of paper handy, Tess? I just got to make a few notes.’
‘Sure.’ Tess got up and handed Wolff a page from a collection of stories a MFA student had left in Carver’s mailbox, perhaps hoping that he might have something nice to say about it or even think enough of it to pass it on to his editor. ‘Here’s something we don’t need right now,’ Tess said. ‘There’s plenty more, too. If you need it,’ she added, pointing out a pair of archive boxes beside the lounge. Both of the boxes were overflowing with manuscript pages.
Nobody said anything as Wolff glanced at the page and turned it face down to write. They were all writers and, though such a thing might raise eyebrows in mixed company, they knew that these intrusions were an indispensable part of their own lives. These moments came and went between the hours of thinking and not thinking about the work at hand – and they all knew such moments well. They craved these moments. The certainty that came when they knew they had it, really had it, that palpable thing in a scene – an image, a gesture, the look on a character’s face, or something one character might say to another – some tangible thing on which they could pin the immense weight of a story.
Wolff finished making notes and folded the page in half and half again, creasing the paper with the palm of his hand. Tess topped up their mugs as Wolff slipped the page into his pocket and then he picked up his coffee and drank, and the conversation got going again, moving out from themselves to other writer friends, then further still to other writers they only knew by name, and finally to people outside their writing lives. They kept at it for half an hour or more, all the while talking around Carver until Tess just came out and asked them. ‘Have you seen the New Yorker?’
Ford and Wolff both looked over at her. ‘‘‘Errand”?’ Wolff asked. Tess nodded and looked across at Ford as he shifted in his seat, the black rubber foot of the chair marking the linoleum as he pulled a folded copy of the magazine from his back pocket and laid it out on the table. ‘He took it all the way to Coleman’s,’ Ford said. Tess and Wolff nodded in agreement.
Coleman’s was shorthand for a story they each knew well.
A year or two before, in the fall, Tess had found a great place to eat, an Irish place called Coleman’s. She had wanted to take Carver there for dinner, so they set off across Port Angeles. Every time they passed a Wendy’s or McDonald’s, Carver would ask if they could just stop there, if they’d not gone far enough already, but Tess was insistent that they go all the way to Coleman’s. Carver fussed a little more each time they drove by someplace else where he felt they could have happily sat down to eat. But once he got to Coleman’s, once he started to eat, he nodded and grinned, he said that it was well worth the trip across town and that he was glad they hadn’t stopped somewhere short. Since then, whenever he and Tess shared their work with each other, they’d sum up where the piece was at by saying anything from, ‘That one didn’t quite make it to Coleman’s’ if it wasn’t quite there yet; or, if the piece had really hit its mark, ‘You took that one all the way to Coleman’s.’
‘It’d be nice if Ray had himself a permanent table there at Coleman’s,’ Ford said as matter-of-factly as he could. Then he bit down on his lip and looked out over the yard.
Tess turned too, following his gaze to Carver’s unkempt lawn.
Out in the yard, the grass was densely matted and had grown so high up against the fence that it was collapsing under its own weight, curling back over on itself in an improbable wave.
‘We could see to that there lawn, Tess,’ Ford said. ‘You know we could.’
Tess declined the offer, saying that neither of them were there for that reason nor were they dressed for manual labour. But Wolff chimed in, ‘It ain’t much, Tess. But it is something we could do while we wait for Ray.’
‘Lord’s day, though – ain’t it, Toby?’ Ford said.
Wolff threw his hands up in the air like he’d forgotten that he was supposed to be someplace else. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I guess Tess and me’ll just have to sit out there on the deck and keep an eye on you. Make sure you’re not doing it all wrong, you know, you being from the sowth n’ awl,’ he said, dragging the vowels out until Tess reached across the table to slap him on the shoulder. Ford and Wolff laughed out loud, and Tess shushed them both.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Ford said.
‘I don’t think the Lord would mind if I pitched in,’ Wolff said. ‘As long as I didn’t enjoy it too much.’
‘Not much chance of that happening if you’re anything like Ray,’ Tess said, then she put her hand across her mouth as though she’d spoken out of turn. She looked down the hall, toward the closed door of the bedroom.
Ford put his hand on her arm. ‘There’s no harm in that,’ he said.
‘Never known a man who did so much dislike physical labour nor so freely admit to it.’
Tess nodded, and got up and rinsed her mug and left it on the sink. She went quietly into Carver’s room and returned with some old clothes of his: corduroy pants and plaid shirts that Ford had last seen Carver wearing two years before on a geese hunting trip to Canada. Tess brought the clothes through to the kitchen and put them on the table, apologising that everything was long-sleeved and long-legged.
‘He never was a shorts-and-t-shirt kind of guy,’ Wolff said.
Tess pointed down the hall, past the room where Ray was sleeping, to a room where the two men could change. They headed in that direction and came back a minute or so later. Ford was as tall as Carver, but a little leaner than he had been in his hunting days, so he’d used his own belt to cinch the pants tightly at the waist to stop them slipping down over his buttocks. He was swimming a little in the shirt, but Wolff, who was a couple of inches shorter than both Ford and Carver, though broad-shouldered and heavier set, looked all at sea. The shirt was tight on his arms but the cuffs hung across the meat of his palms, the pants were tight across his hips, which caused the zip to fall half open despite his best efforts, and the leg of the pants extended down over his bare feet.
Tess stifled a laugh. ‘You don’t have to.’
‘No, no,’ Wolff said. He sat at the table and rolled up the leg of the pants. ‘Wouldn’t have it any other way.’
‘There’s shoes by the back door,’ Tess said. ‘They’re all okay to wear out in the yard.’
In socks, Ford and Wolff tip-toed down past Carver’s bedroom and on toward the door at the rear of the house where they each pulled on a pair of shoes. Ford’s feet were about the same size as Carver’s and he stood comfortably in the hallway, gesturing to Tess that they would continue out the back door. But Wolff ’s toes had a little too much room and his feet slid about inside the shoes as he followed Ford down the steps.
They went into the garage and pulled the two-stroke mower out between Carver’s silver Mercedes 300D and his red Jeep Cherokee. They dragged the mower out over the grass, its chassis surfing over the high blades as they made for the middle of the yard. It was warm out and, dressed so heavily, they’d both broken into a sweat already. Tess looked down from the deck and watched them paper-scissors-rock over the mower. ‘Damn,’ Ford said when he lost the first hand. ‘Best of three?’ Wolff nodded. Ford lost the next hand and went and picked up a rake from where it lay in the grass beneath a Japanese Maple.
Wolff looked up at where Tess stood on the deck. ‘We’re bound to make a helluva racket out here,’ he said. ‘Be some kinda miracle if he were to sleep through it.’
Tess dismissed his concern with a loose wave of her hand. ‘If he wakes, he wakes,’ she said. ‘No amount of sleep seems to do him any good.’
Though it hadn’t been used for quite some time, the mower started readily and Wolff began making a series of lunging movements, working the mower deeper into the grass each time, turning all the while in a slow arc so that he soon cleared a crude circle from which to work his way out. Ford trailed behind, raking the cut grass into a pile. Wolff paused and wiped his brow with the sleeve of his oversized shirt. He looked at the remaining grass for a moment and then forced his way back into it. It was not going to be easy, but he kept at it. At times, when the grass was too dense or Wolff ’s desire to have it all over with was too great, the engine stalled and Ford jeered, calling Wolff a ‘cityslicker’, saying that maybe he wasn’t cut out for the Wild West.
‘Didn’t see you in Vietnam, cowboy,’ Wolff said, and Ford stopped grinning. Instead, he took to standing there, the sun bearing down on him, until Wolff had the mower going again. They kept at it for over an hour, stopping and starting, and were still yet to make a great impression when the mower finally gave out. It had stalled in the deep grass and Wolff couldn’t restart it.
Ford looked around. ‘Hey, soldier,’ he called, tugging at a lock of his own hair. ‘Got any Agent Orange on you?’
Wolff shook his head, the bare crown glistening with sweat, and he yanked on the mower’s starter cord. The engine didn’t fire up. He pulled on the cord so hard that it came away in his hand and he just looked at it between his fingers. Then he looked over at where Ford stood leaning over the rake, laughing.
‘Why don’t you just come give me a hand,’ Wolff said. ‘Soon as you finish breast-feeding that rake.’
Ford straightened up and began striding through the long grass so that it made a brisk, irritated noise at his ankles. Wolff took on a boxer’s stance and started cycling his fists about in the space between them. ‘Come on, cowboy,’ he said, more than half-seriously. ‘Come on.’ But Ford stopped short of Wolff and looked up past him to the deck above. When Wolff turned, he saw that Carver was there in his white dressing gown, watching over them.
The three men stood without speaking. They were all thinking of that photograph of them together after a reading in London, the photograph where they stood with their arms interlocked, holding Carver firmly in the centre of the frame. They were remembering those days together and what Carver had written about it after. How much it meant for them all to be friends, and how Carver had written that, at a time like that, at the reading in London, death was the furthest thing from their minds. They were remembering how Carver had gone on to write about the likelihood, the certainty, that two of the three friends in the picture would, when the time came, have to one day look upon the remains of the third friend. They each knew that the only inevitability of life was death, and that the only alternative to burying your friends was that they would have to bury you.
The three friends stood without moving. Carver looked down at where Ford and Wolff stood in the middle of his yard. He saw the inroads they’d made into the grass and he moved his mouth to speak but made no sound. He closed his mouth and ran his tongue across his lips.
‘How many fucking times do I have to tell you boys to keep off my lawn?’ Carver called down to them and laughed, and then his laugh gave on to a series of short, barking coughs which ran themselves out. And Ford and Wolff waded through the long grass together, their faces lapsing into awe as they ascended the concrete steps and made their way toward Carver, who waited with his arms held loosely out toward them like he might have been their father, a lesser saint, or some sort of benign ghost.