Why Don’t You Dance?
Raymond Carver, 1938 – 1988
In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way they had in the bedroom— nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.
His side, her side.
He considered this as he sipped the whiskey.
The chiffonier stood a few feet from the foot of the bed. He had emptied the drawers into cartons that morning, and the cartons were in the living room. A portable heater was next to the chiffonier. A rattan chair with a decorator pillow stood at the foot of the bed.
The buffed aluminium kitchen set took up a part of the driveway. A yellow muslin cloth, much too large, a gift, covered the table and hung down over the sides. A potted fern was on the table, and a few feet away from this stood a sofa and chair and a floor lamp. The desk was pushed against the garage door. A few utensils were on the desk, along with a wall clock and two framed prints. There was also in the driveway a carton with cups, glasses, and plates, each object wrapped in newspaper. That morning he had cleared out the closets, and except for the three cartons in the living room, all the stuff was out of the home. He had run an extension cord on out there and everything was connected. Things worked, no different from how it was when they were inside.
Now and then a car slowed and people stared. But no one stopped. It occurred to him that he wouldn’t, either.
“It must be a yard sale,” the girl said to the boy.
This girl and this boy were furnishing a little apartment.
“Let’s see what they want for the bed,” the girl said.
“And for the TV,” the boy said.
The boy pulled into the driveway and stopped in front of the kitchen table.
They got out of the car and began to examine things, the girl touching the muslin cloth, the boy plugging in the blender and turning the dial to MINCE, the girl picking up a chafing dish, the boy turning on the television set and making little adjustments.
He sat down on the sofa to watch. He lit a cigarette, looked around, flipped the match into the grass.
The girl sat on the bed. She pushed off her shoes and lay back. She thought she could see a star.
“Come here, Jack. Try this bed. Bring one of those pillows,” she said.
“How is it?” he said.
“Try it,” she said.
He looked around. The house was dark.
“I feel funny,” he said. “Better see if anybody’s home.”
She bounced on the bed.
“Try it first,” she said.
He lay down on the bed and put the pillow under his head.
“How does it feel?” she said.
“It feels firm,” he said.
She turned on her side and put her hand to his face.
“Kiss me,” she said.
“Let’s get up,” he said.
“Kiss me,” she said.
She closed her eyes. She held him.
He said, “I’ll see if anybody’s home.”
But he just sat up and stayed where he was, making believe he was watching the television.
Lights came on in the houses up and down the street.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if,” the girl said and grinned and didn’t finish.
The boy laughed, but for no good reason. For no good reason, he switched the reading lamp on.
The girl brushed away a mosquito, whereupon the boy stood up and tucked in his shirt.
“I’ll see if anybody’s home,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s home. But if anybody is, I’ll see what things are going for.”
“Whatever they ask, offer ten dollars less. It’s always a good idea,” she said.
“And, besides, they must be desperate or something.”
“It’s a pretty good TV,” the boy said.
“Ask them how much,” the girl said.
The man came down the sidewalk with a sack from the market. He had sandwiches, beer, whiskey. He saw the car in the driveway and the girl on the bed. He saw the television set going and the boy on the porch.
“Hello,” the man said to the girl. “You found the bed. That’s good.”
“Hello,” the girl said, and got up. “I was just trying it out.” She patted the bed.
“It’s a pretty good bed.”
“It’s a good bed,” the man said, and put down the sack and took out the beer and the whiskey.
“We thought nobody was here,” the boy said. “We’re interested in the bed and maybe in the TV. Also maybe the desk. How much do you want for the bed?”
“I was thinking fifty dollars for the bed,” the man said.
“Would you take forty?” the girl asked.
“I’ll take forty,” the man said.
He took a glass out of the carton. He took the newspaper off the glass. He broke the seal on the whiskey.
“How about the TV?” the boy said.
“Would you take fifteen?” the girl said.
“Fifteen’s okay. I could take fifteen,” the man said.
The girl looked at the boy.
“You kids, you’ll want a drink,” the man said. “Glasses in that box. I’m going to sit down. I’m going to sit down on the sofa.”
The man sat on the sofa, leaned back, and stared at the boy and the girl.
The boy found two glasses and poured whiskey.
“That’s enough,” the girl said. “I think I want water in mine.”
She pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table.
“There’s water in that spigot over there,” the man said. “Turn on that spigot.”
The boy came back with the watered whiskey. He cleared his throat and sat down at the kitchen table. He grinned. But he didn’t drink anything from his glass.
The man gazed at the television. He finished his drink and started another. He reached to turn on the floor lamp. It was then that his cigarette dropped from his fingers and fell between the cushions.
The girl got up to help him find it.
“So what do you want?” the boy said to the girl.
The boy took out the checkbook and held it to his lips as if thinking.
“I want the desk,” the girl said. “How much money is the desk?”
The man waved his hand at this preposterous question.
“Name a figure,” he said.
He looked at them as they sat at the table. In the lamplight, there was something about their faces. It was nice or it was nasty. There was no telling.
“I’m going to turn off this TV and put on a record,” the man said. “This record player is going, too. Cheap. Make me an offer.”
He poured more whiskey and opened a beer.
“Everything goes,” said the man.
The girl held out her glass and the man poured.
“Thank you,” she said. “You’re very nice,” she said.
“It goes to your head,” the boy said. “I’m getting it in the head.” He held up his glass and jiggled it.
The man finished his drink and poured another, and then he found the box with the records.
“Pick something,” the man said to the girl, and he held the records out to her.
The boy was writing the check.
“Here,” the girl said, picking something, picking anything, for she did not know the names on these labels. She got up from the table and sat down again. She did not want to sit still.
“I’m making it out to cash,” the boy said.
“Sure,” the man said.
They drank. They listened to the record. And then the man put on another.
Why don’t you kids dance? he decided to say, and then he said it. “Why don’t you
“I don’t think so,” the boy said.
“Go ahead,” the man said. “It’s my yard. You can dance if you want to.”
Arms about each other, their bodies pressed together, the boy and the girl moved up and down the driveway. They were dancing. And when the record was over, they did it again, and when that one ended, the boy said. “I’m drunk.”
The girl said, “You’re not drunk.”
“Well, I’m drunk,” the boy said.
The man turned the record over and the boy said, “I am.”
“Dance with me,” the girl said to the boy and then to the man, and when the man
stood up, she came to him with her arms wide open.
“Those people over there, they’re watching,” she said.
“It’s okay,” the man said. “It’s my place,” he said.
“Let them watch,” the girl said.
“That’s right,” the man said. “They thought they’d seen everything over here. But they haven’t seen this, have they?”
He felt her breath on his neck.
“I hope you like your bed,” he said.
The girl closed and then opened her eyes. She pushed her face into the man’s shoulder. She pulled the man closer.
“You must be desperate or something,” she said.
Weeks later, she said: “The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy give it to us. And all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?”
She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.
It’s the 1980s. Therein lies slivers of the distressed, suburban, American life. Unpleasant middle-aged men, twice-divorced, drinking themselves to death and completely abandoned to the drudgery of the working class existence. Linoleum kitchen floors, the air thick with the smell of Crisco & cigarettes & cheap whisky. Wives & mistresses, equally dissatisfied. Dirty motels and pools filled with green muck. Loneliness, loneliness, always loneliness.
Collections like these sadden & confuse & intrigue me all at the same time. Carver’s short stories remind me of Bukowski or Saunders because all of them induce the same feeling. I can’t quite put a finger on what that is, but I know it feels familiar – do you know what I mean? That hollow, empty sound that echoes throughout your body. It’s an education & sometimes, a reflection.
Anyway, Carver’s masterful short stories have kicked off this year’s reading list well. Here’s the rest of it:
- Fresh Complaint – Jeffrey Eugenides
- About Love & Other Stories – Anton Chekhov
- In Praise of Shadows – Junichiro Tanizaki
- Koel – Jen Crawford
- 32 Yolks – Eric Ripert
- The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything – James Martin
- The Unaccompanied – Simon Armitage
- Blood, Bones & Butter – Gabrielle Hamilton
- Love that Moves the Sun & Other Stars – Dante Alighieri
- The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood
- Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
- Pastoralia – George Saunders
I used to read 50 – 60 books a year but this number has dwindled drastically in the last few years. Adulting is tough, guys! So I’m setting the bar a little lower in terms of numbers but reading a little wider in terms of genre – Russian classics, chef biographies, religion & philosophy books, & a lot more American lit. I can’t wait.
Hope all of you are still finding time to read, no matter how busy you are.