Lynn E. Francis
It was an odd time, a time of contrasts, as those in-between years can be. I had graduated from college and had come to New York City from the north with only the vaguest of artistic ambitions. I found a place to sublet for the summer on the Lower East Side, on Eldridge Street, one block away from busy weekend drug trafficking but also next door to the most peaceful spot in Manhattan: a flower garden created in a deserted city lot. The brick walkway spiraled from the yin-yang symbol made of white and purple flowers all the way out to blueberry bushes and fruit trees. It was open to all; no one ever harmed the garden.
I introduced my roommate to someone I knew only slightly, making a match, and they, the happy couple, decided to return the favor. I had no interest in the young man they chose. He was a slender whippet of a boy. I hated the way he moved; I hated the way he talked. He was the kind of guy who wore belt buckles you were supposed to notice. But he was studying poetry. The idea of studying poetry somewhere within the gridded stamp that was Manhattan intrigued me. When he invited me to go with him to hear an author, someone by the name of Carver, read at a bookstore in the West Village, I surprised us both by saying yes.
We arrived at the bookstore a bit early, so he took me on a tour of the basement-level sex shop down the block. My reservations about my date hardened into a diamond of resolve: I would ditch him immediately after the reading. The bookstore was beautiful, with cherry bookshelves lining the walls and running down the center of the length of the store. At the far end was a small carpeted platform with a single chair. Like preschoolers at story-time, we sat at the foot of this chair, with the three others who had arrived before us, and we waited. I concentrated on being pleasant enough to my companion to be polite, while madly reviewing post-reading exit strategy scenarios in my mind, scenarios that escalated imaginatively from the courteous to the dramatic.
The platform was full with seated listeners and a crowd was standing around the periphery by the time a gentleman appeared and sat heavily onto the chair. He looked at the floor while the woman who owned the bookstore listed his accomplishments and described her gratitude and excitement. Without ceremony, he opened the book to the page he had thumbed and began to read a story called “Cathedral.” His voice was gravelly in a way that spoke of years of hard living, and he recited the short, declarative sentences without inflection. Ten words in, I felt trapped. We were sitting at the author’s feet. I had people at my elbows and at my back. The monotonous recitation continued, something about a blind man, visiting.
I was loose paper, back then. I was sitting next to a stranger, who other strangers had decided was a perfect match for me, in a room of strangers, in a city of more of the same. And I was cornered into listening to this voice, now describing a man and wife at odds, this voice that betrayed despondency with every syllable. Nothing was the way I wanted it to be. But this was my life. I gave up and listened. The narrator did not want to be alone in the living room with the blind man, that was clear, and when the blind man asked him to draw a cathedral, he wanted to be there even less. But he did it, he did it.
And as I listened, I was caught up in the rhythm of the syllables, the sentences, the rising drama that was born from the depths of that gravelly voice. In the last moments of the story, the narrator closes his eyes and resists opening them again. It was like that for me—by the end, I wanted the story to go on and on. When Raymond Carver closed the book, having inscribed into our imaginations the blind man’s hand covering the narrator’s hand as the narrator drew the arches and towers and spires of a cathedral, there was a silence, a silence of total attention. It was broken by the sound of clapping. I looked around as I put my hands together. The bookstore aisles were jammed with people all the way out the front door onto the sidewalk. And the bookshelves were hung with listeners who now loosed their hold on the topmost shelves in order to join in the applause.
I ditched my date right outside, despite the shared glory of hearing “Cathedral” at Raymond Carver’s feet, and my enduring gratitude. I moved upstate five years later, not long after I heard the news the Eldridge Street garden had been bulldozed by the city. I am bound, now, happily by marriage and family. Every year, in January, I build a cathedral out of gingerbread, and invite friends to help me make stain glass windows out of colored candy. It takes the whole month to make and at the end, we place candles inside and watch the windows glow. I’m often asked why. It lifts my spirits to have company in that cold, first month of the year, when gardens are dormant and spring is far away. But more, I like placing the ungainly rectangles of gingerbread, with window designs of all kinds, next to one another in rows, like words on a page, until something emerges from the ordinary materials, something earnest, something improbable, something grand.