Raymond Carver (1938-1988) is widely regarded to have been one of America’s greatest practitioners of the short-story form, and justifiably so. His tales of doomed blue-collar yearning and marital disconnection remain as biting, truthful, and vital as they were upon their first publication decades ago. As it turns out, his distinctive style was established surprisingly early, as this recently-discovered story — found among the yellowing papers of his third-grade teacher at Yakima Elementary School — will attest.
“Pick a Card, Any Card”
My mother pulled up to the house and put the Hudson in park. “Well, here we are,” she said, looking at me in the rearview mirror. After a moment of silence, she said, “Go on now, Raymond. Go on and have a good time.”
I peered out my window. A cluster of red balloons were tied to the mailbox, swaying in the wind, and a faint clamor was issuing from within the small grey-green house. “Get going now,” my mother said. “I’ll pick you up at three o’ clock.”
I stood at the curb with the present under my arm and I watched her go, the Hudson cresting a rise, then disappearing from view. I took out a pack of Lucky Stripes, shook out one of the candy cigarettes, and put it in my mouth. The sounds of the children in the house came to me clearly now, their laughter and screams. I inhaled and puffed forth a cloud of powdered sugar.
I walked up and knocked on the door. Wayne’s mother answered it and smiled, as though she were pleased to see me. There were deep lines in her face, and her hair had come askew. “Oh, hello, Raymond. Wayne was so glad you could come.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. I gave her the present and stood there looking into the house. Children swarmed around the living room, beating on each other. In the far corner, a slack-faced man in a cape and magician’s hat was draping a black velvet cloth over a small raised table.
“Oh Wayne, Raymond’s here,” she said in a singsong voice, and Wayne, a towheaded boy who was in my class, gave me a distracted wave. I gestured with my cigarette and stepped inside. Wayne’s mother leaned in to me. “Come on in and make yourself comfortable. The magician is about to begin.”
I thanked her and stood against the wall, watching the chaos. The boys were playing Tarzan, leaping off the couch and pounding their chests. The girls stood in a cluster, eyeing the ape-boys warily. Occasionally they would huddle, look at one boy or another, and laugh in unison. There was an ice-filled tub full of Nehi bottles near the door, and I helped myself to one. I twisted off the cap and took a drink. It was good and cold. I looked out at the room again. Through the swarm, I spotted Wanda. I looked away, but she saw me and came over.
“Hello, Raymond,” she said. She was holding a bright red drink in a paper cup. “Quite a shindig, don’t you think?”
“Sure,” I said. I felt uneasy, but I tried to not let it show. “What’s that you’re drinking?”
“Some kind of berry punch. It’s not bad. I’ve had too many already.” She laughed gaily and nodded at my cigarette. “Can I have one?”
I shook one out of the pack and she took it. Pretty soon she had the powdered sugar going and we stood there, watching the party.
A thick-faced kid saw us and pointed with a stubby finger. “O-o-o-o-o-h! Raymond and Wanda, up a tree!” He sang it out, laughing. “K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”
“Oh, you’re a regular Bob Hope, aren’t you, Larry?” Wanda glared at the boy. “Ooh, I’ll sock you one! I mean it, you crumb!”
Larry kept laughing, then snatched a pillow from the couch and heaved it across the room. It knocked a bowl of corn chips off an end table, but nobody seemed to notice.
“Listen, Raymond,” Wanda said, holding the cigarette between two fingers like an adult. She was suddenly serious, or trying to be serious. Her lips were stained red from the punch. “It’s about what happened in phys ed.” She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice was low, almost inaudible. “How was I supposed to know I had the cooties?”
I kept my eyes fixed on a dark smear on the wall. It looked like a Devil Dog had hit there and exploded.
“Are you going to say anything?” she said. She sounded anxious and annoyed. “I feel bad enough about it without you not saying anything.”
I looked at the magician. He seemed ready to perform, and he was turning his head slowly from side to side, waiting for a lull.
“I don’t know,” I said, then took a drink. “Circle circle dot dot, right? I mean, it’s not so hard.”
Wanda rolled her eyes and shook her head, then took a sip of her punch. The pale light filtered in through the window, and I got a good look at her. She looked tired, and she seemed older in the light. Eleven, maybe 12 years old.
“Children, please gather ‘round,” said the magician, almost reluctantly. His mustache drooped at the corners, and there were dark circles under his eyes. “I need you to gather ‘round, please.”
After a time, the mob shifted to the magician’s corner of the room. We sat on the worn wooden floor looking up at him. He smiled at us with pursed lips and produced a wand. With a sullen flourish he forced a bouquet of red cloth flowers to bloom at its tip.
Wanda put the cigarette in the corner of her mouth and clapped dutifully. She leaned in to me and spoke low as she clapped. “Damn you, Raymond. Damn you to hell.”
Her breath smelled like berries and sugar. I took a drink from my bottle.
The magician put the wand aside, then took out a deck of cards. “I’ll need a volunteer,” he said. “Any volunteers?”
Hands shot up from the floor, sounds of desperation. “Me!” “Me!” “Ooh, pick me!”
The magician looked us over with exaggerated interest. “Let’s see now,” he said, stroking his chin. “Let us see.”
As he seemed to near his choice, Wanda stood, punch sloshing over the rim of her cup. “Raymond wants to do it,” she said with a smirk. She took a drink. “Raymond loves tricks. Don’t you, Raymond?”
A titter rose from the crowd as the magician called me forth. I flicked my candy cigarette aside and threaded my way up to him. “Come, now, Raymond — your name is Raymond, yes?”
I allowed that it was. The small faces looking up at me were expectant and full of malice. Wanda was over at the punch bowl, filling her cup. “Pick a card, Raymond,” she yelled across the room, standing with her hand on her hip. It was the way her mother stood. “Pick any card.”
The magician fanned the cards out on his little table. “That’s right, son. Pick a card, any card.”
I looked at the red-and-white pattern on the backs of the cards and took a drink. I frowned, then looked up at the magician. Something was coming to me. There was an understanding in the magician’s eyes, as if he knew what I was about to do and wished that he could join me in doing it.
Without a word, I picked my way through the children and back towards the entrance. I finished my Nehi and laid the empty bottle atop the ice, then pulled a fresh one from the tub. “Where are you going, Raymond?” Wanda said, still hovering by the punch. “Yeah, where you going, Raymond?” Larry said. “You gonna rob a bank with the Two-Gun Kid?” The other children joined in, but I ignored them. A nearby table was piled high with Wayne’s gifts, and I moved to it and found the one my mother had bought for him. I picked it up and tucked it under my arm. Wayne let out a shriek of protest as I turned and pushed open the front door.
The air outside had cooled since my mother had dropped me off just a few minutes before. Grey clouds hung over the trees. I walked down to the curb and twisted off the Nehi cap. I looked up and down the street, feeling the bulk of the present under my arm. My house was up the road a couple of miles to the right. I wasn’t quite sure what was to the left. I shifted the present from arm to arm. Then I started walking.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.