For anybody who hasn’t read it, “Cathedral” (1982) is probably Raymond Carver’s most famous short story, and provides an endearing picture of what could be called a modern-day, suburban visitation from the upside-down world of grace. It begins, though, through the narrator’s lovable perspective, with the blatant understandability of such a thing to feel, well, “upside-down,” alien, creepy.
An unnamed narrator and his wife are expecting a visitor from out of town, a friend of the wife’s. Robert, the visitor, a blind, recent widower, has had a history of correspondence with the narrator’s wife, who had worked as Robert’s assistant in the past. The kind of correspondence—audiotapes sent back and forth for years (that sounds a lot like some uneasy introduction to prayer!)— makes the narrator queasy about the whole visit to begin with:
“Once she asked me if I’d like to hear the latest tape from the blind man. This was a year ago. I was on the tape, she said. So I said okay, I’d listen to it…The tape squeaked and someone began to talk in this loud voice. She lowered the volume. After a few minutes of harmless chitchat, I heard my own name in the mouth of this stranger, this blind man I didn’t even know! And then this: “From all you’ve said about him, I can only conclude—“ But we were interrupted, a knock at the door, something, and we didn’t ever get back to the tape. Maybe it was just as well. I’d heard all I wanted to.
It’s not just the absurdity of format of this communication that unsettles the narrator, but the intimacy with which that communication spoke to his wife. Though the narrator never really strays from his arms-length colloquialisms, his true discomfort with such intimacy comes through in his retelling of an almost conversion-like moment in his wife’s life.
“They’d become good friends, my wife and the blind man. How do I know these things? She told me. And she told me something else. On her last day in the office, the blind man asked if he could touch her face. She agreed to this. She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck! She never forgot it. She even tried to write a poem about it. She was always trying to write a poem. She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important happened to her…I can remember I didn’t think much of the poem. Of course, I didn’t tell her that. Maybe I just don’t understand poetry.”
The reader can understand, too, that the narrator is threatened by this blind man because of the perpetual, competitive self-justifications he tends to throw into his prior knowledge of this “alien”. He describes unfavorably the possibility of Robert’s marriage to a woman, having never seen her face. In her premature death, the narrator can only imagine that Robert “was left with a small insurance policy and half of a twenty-peso Mexican coin. The other half of the coin went into the box with her. Pathetic.” It seems that, before even encountering Robert, the narrator has checked out in disinterest and packed Robert’s bags for him. Protective, insecure, bored, dismissive, whatever, he’s not excited to meet someone so dear to his wife: “So when the time rolled around, my wife went to the depot to pick him up. With nothing to do but wait—sure, I blamed him for that—I was having a drink and watching the TV…”
Regardless of the reservations, with “nothing to do but wait,” Robert enters the scene.