A Small Good Thing
Reading Raymond Carver
For most of my son’s first few years of elementary school here in the Atlanta neighborhood where we live, we’ve been putting him on the school bus early in the morning — very early in the morning — and sending him on his way.
The school bus stops right in front of our house, where my wife and I wait with our son and our golden retriever, named Twix. It’s often cold and dark, especially in the late fall and winter months. Only when the spring comes is it light enough to see outside without the help of streetlights.
To get him ready in time for the bus, which arrives at 6:50 a.m., we need to wake him up around 6:00 or 6:15 at the latest to have time enough to get some breakfast in him, get him dressed, teeth brushed, with shoes and socks on, his water bottle filled and his homework in his backpack — all before we head outside.
So you can imagine his delight when he learned a few weeks ago that I could drive him to school myself. Then he wouldn’t need to wake up so early, could laze about for a bit, and take his morning routine a little easier.
Now, every day, I drop him off at his school. I wait in the carpool line, which often snakes around the block. We inch forward, our taillights all glowing bright red, one behind the other, until we slow down and stop to let our kids out. The teachers are out there waiting — talking, sometimes laughing, sometimes deep in conversation — as each of the kids gets out of their cars, and they shepherd them inside.
I love this part of my day. I get to start my morning with a hundred or more other people, adults in a hurry to get to work and tiny kids wearing huge backpacks, all going inside, where their teacher is waiting. I see the kids see each other, smile at each other, put their arm around each other as they walk inside.
When I can, when the car behind me isn’t pressuring me to go ahead, I hold off driving away until I can see that my son has made it inside. I know he’ll be in good hands there, until it’s time to come home.
After that, I head back home to get started on work for the day. As the day goes on, I’ll talk with my co-workers. I’ll scroll social media. I’ll turn on the TV here and there, to see what’s happening on the news. Inevitably, of course, the world will intrude; something terrible will have happened somewhere in the world. I’ll be emotionally gripped by it, trying to process it.
But, even though all that happens on more days than any of us would like, I get to experience dropping off my son at school — one small, good thing.
When I was younger, I remember having big dreams. I’d watched movies like “The Paper” and “All the President’s Men,” and I wanted to write for a big newspaper like the Washington Post or the New York Times. I studied their most famous reporters’ work like a Ph.D. student might study medieval literature, trying to uncover their secrets.
I don’t have dreams like that anymore. Not that I think no one else should — I believe everyone should follow their dreams and passions wherever they want to go. It’s just that I don’t feel those particular dreams anymore.
What I want now is for this small, good thing that I have to stay together, to hold together. For our family to get to have more moments like the ones we’ve had over the past ten years. To go to more soccer games, plays, concerts and graduations. Many, many more, for as long as possible.
If you’re familiar with the American short story writer Raymond Carver, you may remember a story he wrote, back in the early 1980s, called “A Small, Good Thing.” It’s a few thousand words, so I won’t try to summarize it too much here, but it’s an achingly beautiful and affecting story about a couple whose son Scotty is hit by a car while walking to school with a friend.
The couple spends the next few days hovering over Scotty in the hospital, beseeching his doctor for some bit of information, however small, that might give them hope. At first, Scotty appears to be doing better, so his father goes home to get some rest.
While he’s there, he takes a call from the man who runs their local bakery, where his wife had placed an order for a cake for Scotty’s birthday — but, in the rush of the accident, had forgotten to pick up.
On the phone, the baker is agitated; he has no idea what has happened. He yells, thinking he’s being taken advantage of. But Scotty’s father hangs up, because he needs to get back to the hospital.
There, the couple wait for a couple more days. Scotty appears to get better; he wakes up, looks at his parents, and then… is gone.
When the couple, inconsolable, returns home and walks inside, the phone rings. It’s the baker (again). Scotty’s mother answers, only to hear the baker ask her, “Have you forgotten about Scotty?”
At that moment, her sadness and shock coalesce into rage, and both she and her husband go to the bakery to give the baker a piece of their minds. (And perhaps a lot more than that.) They’re unsure what they’re about to do — they’re simply so emotional they can’t think.
When they get there, they have an exchange with the baker in which he realizes what has happened, and the enormity of their loss, the unbearable grief they’re feeling, sinks in. It’s at this moment that the story turns, when the baker responds this way:
"Let me say how sorry I am," the baker said, putting his elbows on the table. "God alone knows how sorry. Listen to me. I'm just a baker. I don't claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I've forgotten, I don't know for sure. But I'm not any longer, if I ever was. Now I'm just a baker. that don't excuse my doing what I did, I know. But I'm deeply sorry. I'm sorry for your son, and sorry for my part in this," the baker said. He spread his palms. "I don't have any children myself, so I can only imagine what you must be feeling. All I can say to you now is that I'm sorry. Forgive me, if you can," the baker said. "I'm not an evil man, I don't think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please," the man said, "let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me?"
There is something profoundly moving to me about this moment in the story. When the baker, instead of reacting with indifference or hostility, reaches across the chasm that separates him from Scotty’s parents, to try to form some kind of connection. Even in this terrible, sad moment, to find something good.
The story goes on:
"You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said.
He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. "It's good to eat something," he said, watching them. "There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here."
They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
Like you, no doubt, I became emotional when I read about yesterday’s terrible news. It’s unbearable beyond anything I can possibly imagine. I hesitated even writing about it here, but there are some things that are just too big to push aside.
Carver’s story is only fiction; it’s not real life, I know. But there is something so moving, so inspirational about the way his characters responded to such a terrible thing — reaching out, however imperfectly — that is inspiring in its own way, and offers a ray of hope.
My thoughts and prayers are with the families in Texas, as I’m sure yours are. I’m hugging my loved ones tonight, and I’m profoundly grateful for all of you and the connections we’ve built here over the years.
We’ll return to our regular topics here next time, but I wanted to share with you what was in my heart tonight.
Thanks for listening.