The Origin of
Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”
A Short Memoir
by TOM JENKS

I first met Ray Carver in New York in early September 1984, at a publishing dinner to launch Gary Fisketjon’s Vintage Contemporary paperback series. Many of the new VC authors and their friends were there: Richard Ford, Toby Wolff, Jay McInerney, Tom McGuane, Jim Crumley, and Ralph Beer—a distinctly male crowd, and what struck me most was that, as we geared up to move to a nightclub, Ray, amid teasing about running off somewhere to see a woman, put himself in a taxi and headed for his hotel room alone. By the ginger way he got himself into the cab and laughingly ducked the barbs all around him, there was no doubt he meant to keep himself out of trouble.

But he was fair game for the friendly taunts that followed him into the cab. We were witnessing the Good Ray, but we all knew about the Bad Ray, the one who used to be Lord Misrule himself.

Reformed, Ray was fast becoming the most famous short story writer in the world, and the facts of his life were well known, partly because they were often the stuff of his writing and partly because fame brings a peculiar public intimacy.

At the time, I was an editor of Esquire and had made Ray’s acquaintance through the mail and on the phone. I had published some of his work and knew him somewhat, and as I watched him slip away into the cab, I imagined him going back to his hotel room (it was early yet—ten o’clock) and telephoning Tess Gallagher at their home in Syracuse. Each evening they set aside the hours beyond ten o’clock to spend with each other. He was, in a sense, running off to see a woman.

A year and a half later, I visited them in Syracuse. During the days, Ray and I read stories for a book we were working on and at night we watched TV. One night, we were watching a PBS version of Wuthering Heights, and Ray began to tell about another night of TV: the night the blind man for whom Tess once worked had come to visit. Tess told her side too—how Ray was uneasy about the man’s visit, uncomfortable with his blindness and his familiarity with Tess, a mild jealousy rising in Ray. Their evening was slow and tedious, and ended with the three of them watching PBS, just as we were. But on the night the blind man was visiting, Tess had fallen asleep, and then a program about cathedrals came on. The blind man had no idea what a cathedral looked like, and, in the end, Ray sat on the floor with him, holding his hands, drawing a cathedral so the blind man could sense the miracle of the shape.

Ray had written this story and titled it “Cathedral.” Tess, who with Ray’s encouragement had recently begun writing stories, had her own version, titled “The Harvest.” She gave me a copy, humorously telling Ray, “Watch out, I’m nipping at your heels.” Their good-natured competition and openness was rare in my experience of writers, many of whom are cagey about the intimate, personal connections in their work.


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