Hot, dry days. Cicadas chirring. The corn stands tall with its tassels and silks. The soybean plants bush out, nearly knee-high or better. Pickers snap cantaloupes and watermelons from the vines. Peaches, peaches, peaches.
Here in southeastern Illinois, these are the dog days, the moment of pause before we make the turn toward autumn. Life moves a little more slowly, gathering itself for the work soon to come—the start of school, the harvest, the hunkering down for winter. For now, though, it’s a lazy Sunday full of bright sunshine, a gentle breeze moving through the leaves of the maples and oaks, twilight coming just a tad earlier each evening.
On August Sundays, when I was a boy, my father napped, a St. Louis Cardinals game playing on the radio. My mother, the noon meal served and the dishes washed and dried, put her feet up on the ottoman in front of her chair in the living room and read the Sunday newspapers. An oscillating fan ruffled the pages. We had no air conditioning. We had a front porch with lawn chairs where we sat and enjoyed the cool of the evening. We had a box fan we put on a kitchen chair in front of the back screen door to help suck the hot air out of the house at night and draw in a breeze through the bedroom windows. I slept with my head at the foot of the bed, facing my window. When my pillow felt too hot, I laid it on the hardwood floor to cool before taking it up again.
Our town was a town of about a thousand people. We had four grocery stores, all family owned. A television repair shop, three gas stations, a Laundromat, a café, two hardware stores, two sundry stores, a barber shop, a grain elevator, a welding shop, a railroad salvage store, a pool hall, an insurance agency, a savings and loan, a newspaper office, a bank. On Sundays, nearly everything was closed. Only the sundry stores opened for a few hours, so people could buy the Sunday papers from Evansville, Vincennes, Decatur, Chicago. This was our day of rest.
Each year at this time, I feel this slowing down the way I often feel the deceleration at the end of a good piece of writing. Yes, we’re almost at the end. Yes, we feel the conflict escalating. Yes, we know resolution is right around the corner. The heart of the narrative beats at a rapid rate. Hold it still for a moment. Find that moment of rest. Then take it on to the end.
In Raymond Carver’s story, “Cathedral,” our narrator’s wife comes downstairs to find him drawing a cathedral for their visitor, a blind man who has no idea what one looks like. Here’s the final scene:
My wife said, “What’s going on? Robert, what are you doing? What’s going on?”
“It’s all right,” he said to her. “Close your eyes now,” the blind man said to me.
I did it. I closed them just like he said.
“Are they closed?” he said. “Don’t fudge.”
“They’re closed,” I said.
“Keep them that way,” he said. He said, “Don’t stop now. Draw.”
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”
But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.
“It’s really something,” I said.
Notice how Carver slows down just before the penultimate moment and the closing moment. The blind man asks him what he thinks. Carver refuses to let the narrator answer right away. He writes four declarative sentences, each of them slowing the pace of the narrative. Then the blind man asks him whether he’s looking at the drawing. Again, before the narrator answers, Carver writes four more declarative sentences, again slowing the pace, finding that moment of rest, before we accelerate to the end. “It’s really something,” I said.
It’s the pause before the final line that helps create the tonal resonance.
Our town was, for the most part, a quiet town those Sunday nights. We lived next door to the man who owned the welding shop. Monday mornings, he came out to his truck early. The air was cool then. The birds were singing. I was yet to get out of bed. I heard the welder’s front door open and the screen door slap against the frame as it closed behind him. I heard his footsteps on the gravel drive just outside my bedroom window. I smelled the tobacco smoke from his pipe. I heard the door of his truck open. I kept my eyes closed. I knew what was coming, but always there were those seconds of quiet, the sum of which I couldn’t predict. Then the truck would start with a roar, and like that, the day would begin.