Month of the Shorties: “Preservation” by Raymond Carver

By Melanie Yarbrough

Sometimes when I have difficulty writing and spend more of my time staring at my notebook than actually writing in it, I justify my time spent by reading. The other night, faced with this same daunting blankness, I pulled out Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. His stories have served as a place of calm and reflection for me before, and they were once again.

“Preservation” seems to be a fitting story for many Americans’ economic situations: Sandy’s husband is laid off. He takes to the couch while she continues working. She feels helpless observing her husband’s newfound helplessness. Several moments throughout struck me as crucial to the story’s themes: Sandy always waiting for her husband to say something; Sandy always watching her husband’s feet; spoiled food; and things that leak and cannot be contained.

The husband is not immediately useless upon losing his job. It is after time spent on the couch, staring at the television or the same spot in a book called Mysteries of the Past, that he begins to lose his identity and his ability to function. He stares at the same spot in the book, unable to move forward or pinpoint what in his past has brought him where he is.

Carver is at his best when everything falls apart, which happens when Sandy comes home to a broken fridge and nearly all of their food spoiled. Ice cream leaks from the freezer into the refrigerator, getting all over everything. Sandy soaks in the loss, but it isn’t until she realizes the yogurt is spoiled that she loses it and screams at her husband. She is resilient throughout the story, observant and patient, but Carver reminds us that she, too, will have a tipping point and it will not necessarily be monumental in anything other than its ability to push her over the edge.

As someone who tries to deal with broken relationships and the near impossibility of communication in my own writing, I read Carver for a reminder that the normal can be extraordinary and that the mundane can move a reader just as much as anything.

What I Wish I’d Written:

She opened the door to the freezer compartment. An awful smell puffed out at her that made her want to gag. Ice cream covered the bottom of the compartment and puddled around a three-pound package of hamburger. She pressed her finger into the cellophane wrapper covering the meat, and her finger sank into the package. The pork chops had thawed, too. Everything had thawed, including some more fish sticks, a package of Steak-ums, and two Chef Sammy Chinese food dinners. The hot dogs and homemade spaghetti sauce had thawed. She closed the door to the freezer and reached into the fridge for her carton of yogurt. She raised the lid on the yogurt and sniffed. That’s when she yelled at her husband.

Carver, Raymond. “Preservation.” Cathedral. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Pages 35 – 46.

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