As the Tide

Eduardo Halfon was born in 1971 in Guatemala City. In 2011 he will publish his tenth book of fiction. His work has been translated into Serbian, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, French, and English. He has won the Café Bretón, Bodegas Olarra and the José María de Perera Novella prizes, and was named one of the 39 best young Latin American writers by the 2007 Hay Festival of Bogotá. He is currently a Guggenheim Fellow. "As the Tide" will appear in The Llterary Angel, a collection in which Halfon speculates on the beginnings of notorious literary careers.

What I like about "As the Tide" is how it toys with the best-known and most cited case of authorial influence in the modern American canon: Raymond Carver, in his capacity as the "American Chekhov." Carver seems uncommonly doomed to questions about how authentic and/or derivative his work was. When people aren't trying to isolate Gordon Lish's editorial effect on his developing style, they raise Carver's love of Chekhov. It is as if the strength of Carver's stories demand a lineage, a house--they could not have arisen out of the environment they depict. And Carver himself, in one final stroke of beautiful modesty, reinforced the association: his last published (and, ironically, least Carveresque) story, "Errand" (1987) depicts Chekhov's descent into illness in 1904, and subsequent death. Eduardo Halfon now playfully inserts himself into this genealogy by giving us a portrait of the young Raymond Carver in Iowa City in 1964, doing laundry with a copy of Chekhov under his arm. Is it a Chekhovian story? A Carveresque story? Yes and yes, and lovingly so. But in the mirrors it erects on the real and the fictional, and in the questions it poses to the reader, "Tide" distinctly belongs to Halfon.

                                                                                          -- Hugh Ferrer

Influences are forces–-circumstances, personalities, irresistible as the tide.
—Raymond Carver


He was in a laundromat in Iowa City, reading a short story by Chekhov while his kids’ clothes tumbled and spun in four different washers. He had to lean against the wall; all three chairs were occupied. A ceiling fan whisked the heat of summer with that of the dryers. It was the end of August, 1964. He was sweating. He was still dizzy. Over the loud noise of the machines, he could hear music in the background. Standing in front of him, a woman was complaining that he was using four washers at once. He yelled something back and she left, mumbling obscenities, her dirty clothes tossed up in an old cardboard box.

Every now and then he would take out the pencil he kept behind his ear and jot down a few words on the first blank page of the book: lost thoughts, phrases, scenes, ideas to work on later. He couldn’t remember exactly when he had decided to become a writer. Or why. Without realizing it, he’d already taken novels off his list. Besides not being able to concentrate for long stretches of time, he believed novelists lived in a world that made sense to them. His world, on the other hand, was senseless. He’d spend the entire month worrying about paying the rent and feeding the kids. There was no time for long narratives. He would only write pieces that took one or two sittings. Poems. Short stories. Then, during the following weeks, he would be content to rewrite them ten, fifteen, twenty times.

He’d been in Iowa City for over a year. Thanks to what he had managed to get published in magazines and journals, the university had offered him a grant for the writers’ workshop. Tucked away in the corner of a classroom, he had been participating in silence for over a year.

The first washer stopped.

He placed the red plastic basket under the little round door and with Chekhov under his arm, kneeling, took out the wet clothes. He did the same thing at the three other washing machines, until he had accumulated a small mountain of children’s underwear, socks and t-shirts. They gave off a pungent odor of humidity and cheap soap.

All the dryers were busy. He remained standing, reading, sweating, the red basket between his legs. He had to pick up the kids in less than an hour.


That morning, her hand on the doorknob, his wife had reminded him that the children had been wearing dirty clothes all week. Frying eggs and bacon, he ignored her. Maryann was right. If she was the only one holding a steady job, during the day Christine and Vance where his responsibility: bathing, dressing, feeding, taking, bringing.

They had gotten married prematurely, Raymond at nineteen, Maryann at sixteen. In less than two years, without money, without a plan, without formal education, they already had two kids.

“Ray, the laundry, please. I’ve been telling you all week”, she kept saying with the door open, looking tired. She had not slept well. She had not had time to shower. On the run, she breakfasted a sip of her husband’s coffee and two drags of his cigarette. Her waitress uniform needed washing as well.

The toaster popped two pieces of toast.

“Maybe you can take them out for lunch. We’re out of milk and sugar. Vance needs a new toothbrush”, she said, looking up at the ceiling, thinking about what else there was. Then added: “Oh, yeah, don’t forget to pay the electricity.”

He kept cooking in silence, the cigarette dangling precariously from his lips. The long gray ash tip was about to fall on the kids’ breakfast.

“You have any money?”

Raymond turned around, abandoning for a moment the frying pan. He saw a round speck of pale skin shining through the small hole in one of her stockings. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to work. In the last few years, he’d been a janitor, a delivery man, a gas station mechanic, a stockroom boy and at one time a tulip picker during the day and a drive-in restaurant cleaner during the night. Anything to put food on the table. For a short while he had even considered becoming a bill collector. But with or without a steady job, he was always too busy to write. He longed for Sundays. He felt content if he was able to jot down a story or a poem on Sundays. Once in a while, when there were a few dollars left over, he would rent a motel room and escape to write for two or three days, uninterrupted.

“Well then, I guess I’ll see you guys tonight”, she said to her children. They were busy playing with the salt and pepper shakers and ignored her.

“Say goodbye to your mother”, he said as she slammed the door.

He took a last drag and flicked the cigarette butt into the remains of his coffee. He placed an egg, two strips of bacon, and a piece of toast on each plate.

“It’s still raw”, Vance complained as he poked at the runny yolk with his fork.

“Drink water, there’s no milk”, he told them and, sitting down, lit another cigarette. Last night’s drinks weighed heavy.

“We have to be at the birthday party by three”, Christine warned him.

He had his eyes shut and his head leaned back. He pretended not to have heard. A wave of queasiness almost pushed him off the chair. For some reason his mood always got worse on Saturdays.

“You idiot”, Vance yelled at his older sister who had just swiped half of his bacon strip. Christine stuck out her tongue at him. Vance began to cry.

“Chris, enough!” Raymond ordered, got up and put out his cigarette on the floor, “I’m going to lie down. Clean up when you’re finished.”

From a distance he could still hear them saying something to him but didn’t understand what. He didn’t care. He needed to rest for a few hours to work through the hangover. He closed the bedroom door and, without taking off his slippers, dove into bed. Before falling asleep, the smell made him notice he was lying on Maryann’s pillow.


He was dreaming about horses when Christine woke him up. Standing at the foot of the bed, she looked anxious. She said that it was late, that she’d been trying to wake him up for the last ten minutes, that they needed to go get lunch. With difficulty, he sat up against the headboard. He was still thinking about horses. Again he felt a slight dizziness. Holding his head with both hands as if trying to prevent it from exploding, he wanted to yell at his daughter to leave him alone. He took a cigarette from his nightstand.

“Dad, it’s one o’clock.”

He coughed-up a couple of breaths of smoke.


“I have to shower”, he whispered and saw his daughter sigh and cross her arms. She didn’t move. She wouldn’t move until he was out of bed.

Under the lukewarm shower, he could hear his son screaming and whining. He thought that it would be better not to leave the apartment and stay in writing all afternoon, next to a full pot of fresh coffee. He saw himself alone, in silence, narrating with ease page after page. While that image lasted, he was happy.

The weather was hot and muggy. There were no clouds in the sky to shield him from the blaring noon sun. A few steps behind his kids he walked slowly toward the diner. He was tired. Dispirited. He didn’t want to go anywhere.

He barely had enough money to pay for three burgers. They drank water. He knew he needed to save some dollars for the errands. Every time his kids raised their voices he could feel the pulse of each syllable in his right temple. But yelling back at them would surely hurt more. Quietly, listening to their bickering, he smoked three cigarettes in a hurry. He smiled only once during lunch, when Vance wanted to prove to his sister that he could drink water from two glasses at the same time, then realized he had to stay in a wet shirt the rest of the afternoon.

They went into a convenience store. Raymond calculated how much money he needed for later and decided to only get the sugar. He knew Maryann had asked him for something else but couldn’t remember what.

At three-thirty he and the kids arrived at the birthday party of one of their little friends. He didn’t know who it was; he only had his home address, scribbled down by Maryann on a stray sheet of paper. Without saying goodbye Christine and Vance ran inside. He wasn’t sure at what time to pick them up, but assumed not before seven.

He headed home. He needed to pick up the laundry basket full of dirty clothes. Walking with the bag of sugar in hand, he noticed that on the other side of the paper sheet was a poem he’d written a few weeks before and thought he had lost. He read it out loud a few times. Crumpling it in his fist, he threw it as far as he could. He felt regret. As the streets passed, he began to forget it.


Immersed in Chekhov, he hadn’t noticed that a dryer had become available until he saw an old man filling it.

He closed the book and kept it closed for a while, watching the dryers with exasperation. He was thirsty. He wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. He looked down at the mountain of wet rags between his legs and shuddered at the thought of coming back again with his own clothes, Maryann’s clothes, and then again with those of his kids. He got up and walked over to the window. He wanted to smoke but had no cigarettes left. As the sun was going down, he realized that the long days of summer were ending. Fall was coming, and then winter, and spring, and another unbearable summer. With sorrow, he grabbed the pencil and wrote down a phrase he had just read: “and suddenly everything became clear to him.”

He could see, in the reflection on the glass, that the old man had gotten hold of another dryer. Without turning around, he kept his eyes on the old man’s mirrored image, watching how he bent over with difficulty, how he helplessly shook out some white t-shirts. He saw his grayish hair, his trembling hands. Pathetic, he thought. He didn’t notice at what point he started thinking about his own father. The last time he’d been with him, just after Christine’s birth, his father didn’t look like his father. He was thin, weak, depressed, and had to be hospitalized. He had been sick for years. Maryann gave birth in the same hospital, one floor down. When Raymond went to see him, his father was on the sofa, his mouth half open, his eyes lost, an old and dirty wool blanket over his legs. He sat next to him. They talked about fishing. His father always liked to talk about fishing. They fell silent. He announced to him that he was now a grandfather. After a minute, without looking up, his father had said: “I feel like a grandfather.”

Another dryer stopped.

He quickly moved over to the machine, pushing along the heavy basket with his foot. Worried, he thought that now it was too quiet, too calm. He had to wait thirty seconds: that was the rule. If nobody removed the clothes by then, he could take them out himself. He didn’t want to look around. He raised his hand and felt the dampness of his cheeks. He was dying for a cigarette. He heard the swishing of somebody’s approach. It was a large woman. The fat lady, he thought. Bending down, she opened the little door and stuck her hand inside the drum. He watched her grab two or three rags, drop them, stand up and place another dime in the machine; her clothes were still wet.

In a sort of trance, with Chekhov under his arm, he dragged the red basket back to his place next to the wall. He didn’t notice the pair of small white socks he had dropped along the way. A bead of sweat landed on his chest. He felt like writing, but had lost the pencil. Outside it was dark. It was past eight o’clock. He knew his kids were waiting for him, that they would always be waiting for him. He covered his face with his hands.


Hugh Ferrer is the associate director of the International Writing Program, a senior editor at The Iowa Review, and a lecturer at the University of Iowa.