[Author’s Note: Some years ago, or decades rather, Larry McCaffery bemoaned the fact that while pop songs were subject to “covers” by a variety of performers, there was no literary equivalent. Larry planned to assemble a collection of covers of Raymond Carver stories, and solicited work from a number of writers to create a cover version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The project was eventually nixed or otherwise cancelled, and I have no idea who else wrote stories for it, but I was assigned Carver’s story “Viewfinder”…and had forgotten all about the piece until I found it last week, among the scraps in a salvaged 5.25” floppy. Offered here merely as a curiosity. But if you read it, please don’t stop here. Go read the real thing. Go read all the Carver.]
(a “cover” of the story by Raymond Carver)
A boy with no hands came to my door to sell me a messed-up picture of my house. Except for the cool chrome hooks he was just a regular kid, about my age.
“What happened to you?” I wanted to know.
“Don’t ask. Are you going to buy this picture or not? Have you even got any money?”
“I just made green Jell-O,” I said. “You want some?”
There was a pot of coffee, too, but I didn’t tell him that. It was all I could find in the way of breakfast, and I’d been nursing it all morning. The Jell-O was for lunch. I’d found the package in the back of a cupboard.
“Well, I do have to go to the bathroom.”
I wanted to see those hooks in action.
I already knew how he worked the camera. It was a big Polaroid jobbie, strapped to his chest with bungee cords that looped over his shoulders, with a special viewfinder so he could look down into the thing instead of having to lift it to his face. He’d stand out front of people’s houses, look down in that viewfinder, and push the lever with one of his hooks. When the picture popped out, he’d do some other stuff to it, scratching it like.
I’d watched him do it all the way up the street, spying on him out the front window. Our TV was long gone.
“Where’s your crapper again?”
“First door to the right.”
I helped him get the bungee cords off. He put the camera on the sofa and tugged down his sweater.
“You look at this while I’m gone.”
I took the picture from his hook.
You could sort of see the lawn, the driveway, the carport, front steps, and the picture window where I had been peeping through the curtain. Everything was smeary and weird, like a nightmare where the world melts, everything hard and familiar turns to mush.
It was weird but I liked it. It looked like my house felt.
I didn’t have any money though.
I tried to see my face, but there was just a little dark slit between the curtains. I was hidden. That made me feel better. I shouldn’t even have answered the door.
I heard the toilet flush. He came down the hall, tightening his belt. I tried to see if there was maybe any toilet paper caught in the hooks.
“What do you think?” he said. “Pretty neat, huh? Bet you wonder how I do it.”
I noticed him drying his hooks on his sweater.
“How about that Jell-O?” I said.
He said, “Where’s your folks?”
He looked at the living room with its one couch and the beat-up end table. He shook his head.
“Sucks,” he said.
He sat down by his camera and gave me this know-it-all grin.
“She leave you here alone all day?”
“I’ll get the Jell-O,” I said.
I was trying to think of some way to keep him.
“I saw a lady in front of our house this morning. She drove up and took pictures. She’s nothing to do with you, is she?”
He was having trouble picking up the green cubes of Jell-O since they weren’t quite solid. I wasn’t sure myself exactly what I meant.
“I don’t know any lady in a car,” he said. “I come out here on my own. My mother doesn’t drive. What’re you talking about?”
“I don’t know. All these pictures.”
I had a stomach ache from too much coffee. I hoped the Jell-O would take care of it. I got the Polaroid back from him; it had little flecks of rubbery green on it now.
“I was watching you,” I said. “I was in the living room. Usually I’m downstairs.”
“You think you’re the only one?” he said. “So she leaves you alone–goes to work or wherever? And your dad, I don’t even have to ask, do I? That’s why all this. You should at least keep a picture of it to hold onto.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“So…even trade. For the Jell-O.”
I picked up his bowl.
“I want you to have it,” he said. “Now my mother, she’s in a room downtown. She does all right off me. I take a bus out, and after I do each neighborhood, we go on to another downtown. See what I mean? Hey, my father–he’s gone too. Just like yours.”
I stood there with the Jell-O bowls and watched him try to get up off the couch.
He said, “He did this to me.”
I stared hard at those hooks.
“Things could be worse,” he said. “Believe me.”
He raised and lowered his hooks.
“Yeah?” I said. “Show me how you make those pictures. Take pictures of me and mess them up.”
“What you want,” he said, “is good clear pictures. The kind you could put on a milk carton.”
I wrapped him up in bungee cords again.
“This film’s expensive,” he said. “Costs me a buck a shot.”
“How’re you going to pay for more?”
He said, “If I come home a dime short, she beats the shit out of me.”
We went out back, where the fence hid us. He put me in the sun and we got down to it.
He had a system. After every shot, he would take the milky looking Polaroid, push the camera forward so he had a flat surface to work on, then rub all over the picture with one of his hooks. I’d see myself start to appear, but he’d be rubbing and polishing away so hard that just when you might recognize me, my face would sort of explode and leak out past the edges, smearing into the background. The streaky sky and the runny walls of the house would blur into my skin. Sometimes I’d look sideways for a profile shot, and he’d rub and tweak my flesh until it was floating across the lawn. Sometimes I’d be looking straight ahead in the picture, and he’d press his hooks on my eyes till they burst.
“Good,” I’d say. “That’s good,” I’d say. “It looks just like me.”
“I’ve done enough now. I can’t waste film.”
“No,” I said. “Let’s go inside.”
“There must be stuff in your mother’s room I can take for trade. Jewelry and stuff? She must have kept something.”
“Later,” I said. “Now the basement.”
“Jesus,” he said, looking out through the carport. “Sure,” he said. “That’s cool.”
I said, “The whole mess. You’ll see it all.”
“I already have!” the boy said, and again held up his hooks.
I went inside and opened the door to the basement. I went down first. He didn’t want to follow. So I turned on a light and finally he did.
It was okay down there in the basement.
I stood in the middle of the floor and turned around. I looked down at where I was standing. It was all dirt and rocks there, chunks of broken cement.
“Ready?” I said, and I leaned over with my hand on a rock, and I waited until he had me in his viewfinder.
“Okay,” he said.
I pulled back the rock and I shouted, “Now!” I threw that son of a bitch aside and the flash burned white on the face that looked like he’d already worked it over with his hooks.
“I don’t know,” I heard him whimper. “Who is that down there?”
“Look again!” I screamed, and took up another rock.