The narrator of this typically short, sparely written tale is expecting an old, blind friend of his wife’s to come to visit them for a few days. She hasn’t seen him in ten years, since she worked for him one summer, and she is very excited about it. The friend has recently lost his wife to cancer. His dead wife had been her replacement the following summer, nine years ago, and the job of both women had been to read and talk to him. He’d obviously made a deep impression, as the second assistant had married him, and the first had kept in constant touch over the intervening years.
It seems clear from page one that her husband, the narrator of the story, is something of a bigot and a loner, insensitive and intolerant, and that their marriage is a strained one. He drinks and smokes alone in the evenings, and they go to bed separately. She is more artistic, writing poetry and sharing her deepest thoughts with Robert, her blind friend, through tape recordings. He must have been filling a gap in her life that her husband has been unable, or unwilling, to fill. Her husband is not looking forward to the visit, and has prejudices about what blind people are like.
The blind man turns out to be ebullient, adventurous, and open-minded – everything the narrator is not. Neither does he use a white stick, nor wear dark glasses as expected. After the first uncomfortable few hours, during which she croons and fusses over him, and her husband attempts unenthusiastically to contribute to the small talk, and after they all rather self-consciously over-indulge silently in a meal and drink a lot, they finally settle down for the evening in front of the TV. She goes upstairs to change, then returns to share a joint with them before falling asleep between the two men on the sofa.
On the TV is a documentary about the Middle Ages and Cathedrals, and perhaps under the influence of the drink and grass her husband begins speculating about what Robert’s idea of a cathedral can possibly be, and he asks him. Robert is open to all things (‘Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn something tonight. I got ears), but the other man cannot convey adequately in words what a cathedral looks like, no matter how he tries.
Robert tells him to fetch paper and pencil, and as they both slide onto the floor he holds the other’s hand as it traces the form of a cathedral.
The narrator cannot stop adding walls, buttresses and arched windows; his mind opens up as he engages in the drawing, Robert all the while encouraging him. The wife wakes up and wants to know what they’re doing but is ignored by the two men, who seem to be sharing some profound emotional and even spiritual experience. The narrator, at the end, breathes ‘It’s really something’. Something new has awakened in him and taken him out of himself, and he’s no longer the man he was a few pages back as he awaited his unwelcome guest.
This is a story operating on many levels - Carver has been described as ‘the American Chekhov’. Clearly, it is about the overcoming of prejudice and ignorance, but it also touches on the religious experience and relationships in the deftest and most economical way. It seems significant to me, for example, that the wife at the beginning of the story is the more sympathetic personality in the marriage, but by the end – when she sleeps between the two men who are sharing an almost mystical experience – she has somehow slipped into third place.
Maybe it has more to do with her prejudices towards her husband and less with his prejudices towards the disabled and his apparent lack of sensitivity. From seeming initially something of a red-neck, you are left thinking that his solitary drinking and dope smoking, his lack of friends and his cynicism are indicators of a more profound artistic personality than his wife’s flaunted (and bad) poetry and condescension towards her husband. The tables are thus turned completely on our own preconceptionsas we started reading the story.