Where I’m Calling From, originally appeared in The New Yorker and was later included in two of author Raymond Carver’s short story collections.
J.P. And the narrator are “drying out” from alcohol at a treatment facility called the “Frank Martin Center.”
“This has never happened to me before,” he says. He means the trembling. I tell him I sympathize. I tell him the shakes will idle down. And they will. But it takes time.
Another fellow, Tiny, tells a story of a drunken episode to the others at breakfast, laughing it off, then he falls to the floor in a withdraw seizure.
I was as the table but I wasn’t hungry. I had some coffee in front of me. Suddenly, Tiny wasn’t there anymore. He’d gone over in his chair with a big clatter. He was on his back, on the floor, with his eyes closed, his heels drumming the linoleum.
He’s okay, but the incident spooks the narrator. J.P and the Narrator are killing time on the front porch waiting for lunch. JP is telling a story about when he was twelve and fell into a dry well.
He’d suffered all kinds of terror in that well, hollering for help, waiting, and then hollering some more. He hollered himself hoarse before it was over. But he told me that being at the bottom of that well had made a lasting impression…In short, everything about his life was different for him at the bottom of that well.
He goes on to tell more about his life. A time when JP kissed a female chimney sweep who had cleaned his friend’s chimney. He decided then and there to become a chimney sweep too. They date and JP goes along on the girl’s jobs to learn the trade.
So she and JP saw some movies together. They went to a few dances. But mainly the courtship revolved around their cleaning chimneys together.
They marry and JP is a full partner in the family chimney business. They have kids, a house. He’s happy, there isn’t anything wrong with his life, there is no drama that pushes him away, but he starts to drink more.
He began stopping off after work for drinks before he went home to have more drinks. Then he began missing some dinners. He just wouldn’t show up. Or else, he’d show up, but he wouldn’t want anything to eat.
Drinking escalates to all day, and there are fights at home. They hit each other. She finds a boyfriend and JP finds out and goes wild, cutting up her wedding ring with bolt cutters. He’s arrested, drunk, on the way to work, which is okay cause he’d almost fallen off a roof the week before with his unsteady, drunk legs. We find out this is the narrator’s second trip to the center. The owner/operator of the center—Frank Martin—joins them on the porch. He tells them Jack London lived near there, and he died because he couldn’t control his need for alcohol, and they should just read Call of the Wild and think about that. The narrator says his wife took him to the center the first time, and his girlfriend brought him this time. His wife had kicked him out. The girlfriend had some troubling medical news that they decided to drown in alcohol, which is what he blames for falling off the wagon.
I had some soup and a hot roll. I drank a bottle of wine with the soup. She drank some wine, too. Then we started in on Bloody Marys. For the next couple of days, I didn’t eat anything except salted nuts. But I drank a lot of bourbon.
He is still at the center on New Year’s Eve. He tries to call his wife, but doesn’t get through. The center residents eat cake, drink Coke, JP hopes for a new start for the New Year. JP’s wife comes to visit the next day.
JP takes her by the arm and they come up the stairs. This woman broke a man’s nose once. She has had two kids, and much trouble, but she loves this man who has her by the arm. I get up from the chair.
They exchange pleasantries. The narrator asks for a kiss, for good luck, the way she and JP got acquainted. The narrator is reminded of a day when the old landlord came early to paint the house where he lived with his wife. The story ends as he is making up his mind to call his wife and his girlfriend. Or, maybe just his girlfriend.
This story was assigned as a reading for a lecture on “Object, Place, and Space in Fiction” which focused on the use of those three methods in creating the setting and pushing the story forward.
In this case, it is the “drying out facility” itself that helps propel the story. Carver is able to give us this setting in a magnificent way: he creates a place that is both cliche and unique. The rehab center is a setting that almost every reader is familiar with; some are familiar with first-hand experience, but almost everyone has seen a movie, watched a tv show, or read a book or article about a rehab facility. If you just say “rehab facility” to the average person, they can create a mental picture of what one “looks” like.
But Carver does something different; he helps us create a very specific rehab facility. And he does it without long, wandering detailed accounts of the tiles on the floor or the cracks in the porch concrete. He gives us a bit of physical description which sets this particular facility apart (the bits about the oval coal bucket used as an ashtray on the porch and the view of the hill behind which Jack London used to live, for example). But what makes a rehab facility unique is the people who are there, each one with a different story of self-destruction and the extenuating circumstances surrounding their addiction. Here we are given J.P., Tiny, the narrator, and even the facility operator, Frank Martin, himself. Their stories are told in the way they are as a result of their shared experience inside the center.
Carver once described himself as “inclined toward brevity and intensity” and that inclination shows in this work. There is much ground covered in a very brief burst of a story. There are whole lifetimes of these characters packed into a dozen or so pages, told with dramatic tension amid the various struggles to get clean.
Where I’m Calling From is an example of what can be accomplished in a properly crafted short story. We are able to see through a tiny little hole into another world, and in doing so, find a touch more understanding of the path we walk, and the paths of those around us.
You can find this story in Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories, by Raymond Carver, and you can browse many other items mentioned on this blog by heading over to my bookstore if you’re looking for a good read or two.