“Letter,” by Raymond Carver

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“Letter,” by Raymond Carver, appeared in the Winter 1989 issue of MQR.

Sweetheart, please send me the notebook I left
on the bedside table. If it isn’t on the table
look under the table. Or even under the bed! It’s
somewhere. If it isn’t a notebook it’s just
a few lines scribbled on some scraps
of paper. But I know it’s there. It has to do
with what we heard that time from our friend, Dr. R. —
about the old woman (eighty-some years old),
“dirty and caked with grime” — Dr. R’s words — so lacking
in concern for herself her clothes had stuck
to her body and had to be peeled
from her in the Emergency Room. “I’m so
ashamed. I’m sorry,” she kept saying. The smell
of the clothing burned Ruth’s eyes! The old woman’s fingernails
had grown out and begun to curl in
toward her fingers. She was fighting for breath, her eyes
rolled back in her fright. But she was able, even so, to give
some of her story to Ruth. She’d been a Madison Avenue
debutante, but her father disowned her after
she went to Paris to dance in the Folies Bergère.
Ruth and some of the other Emergency Room  staff thought she was
hallucinating. But she gave them the name of her estranged son who
was gay and who ran a gay bar in that same city. He confirmed
everything. Everything the old woman said was true.
Then she suffered a heart attack and died in Ruth’s arms.

But I want to see what else I noted from all I heard.
I want to see if it’s possible to recreate what it was like
sixty years ago when this young woman stepped off the boat
in Le Havre, beautiful, poised, determined to make it
on the stage at the Folies Bergère, able
to kick over her head and hop at the same time, to wear feathers
and net stockings, to dance and dance, her arms linked with
the arms of other young women at the Folies Bergère, to high-step it
at the Folies Bergère. Maybe it’s
in that notebook with the blue cloth cover, the one
you gave me when we came home from Brazil. I can see
my handwriting next to the name of my winning horse at the track
near the hotel: LORD BYRON. But the woman, not the dirt, that
doesn’t matter, nor even that she weighed nearly 300 pounds.
Memory doesn’t care where it lives and mocks
the body. “I understood something about identity once,” Ruth
said, recalling her training days, “all of us young medical students
gaping at the hands of a corpse. That’s
where the humanness
stays longest — the hands.” And the woman’s hands. I made a
note at the time, as if I could see them anchored on her
slim hips, the same hands
Ruth let go of, then couldn’t forget.

Image: 1890s poster for dancer Loïe Fuller, a performer at the Folies Bergère in Paris.

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