Paging through Tom Nissley’s recent (and wonderful) A Reader’s Book of Days, I’m reminded that March 22 marks the start of the action in “Errand,” the last story that Raymond Carver published before his untimely death in 1988. The story, which I’ve loved for years, is a tribute to Russia’s greatest short-story writer. “I thought I saw an opportunity to pay homage—if I could bring it off, do it rightly and honorably—to Chekhov, the writer who has meant so much to me for such a long time,” Carver wrote in a contributor’s note to The Best American Short Stories 1988. A photograph of Chekhov, bundled up in a wool overcoat and cradling a black dog, had hung in Carver’s study for years; a three-by-five index card, with a line from Chekhov (“and suddenly everything became clear to him”), sat on his desk. Here’s how “Errand” begins:
Chekhov. On the evening of March 22, 1897, he went to dinner in Moscow with his friend and confidant Alexei Suvorin. This Suvorin was a very rich newspaper and book publisher, a reactionary, a self-made man whose father was a private at the battle of Borodino. Like Chekhov, he was the grandson of a serf. They had that in common: each had peasant’s blood in his veins. Otherwise, politically and temperamentally, they were miles apart. Nevertheless, Suvorin was one of Chekhov’s few intimates, and Chekhov enjoyed his company.
Chekhov is soon coughing up blood; his death spiral has started. Still, the story finds time for a visit from Tolstoy (in bearskin coat), a consultation with Chekhov’s doctor (“Dr. Ewald was furious with himself for not being able to work miracles, and with Chekhov for being so ill”), and the delivery of a bottle of Moët to Chekhov’s hotel room in Badenweiler. (Chekhov’s last words, in “Errand” and in Henri Troyat’s biography: “It’s been so long since I’ve had champagne.”)
And of course there’s the waiter—a young nameless man, invented by Carver—who, with unexpected grace, ends the story by reaching for the fallen champagne cork:
To retrieve it he would have to bend over, still gripping the vase. He would do this. He leaned over. Without looking down, he reached out and closed it into his hand.
The waiter’s concentration, his desire to do the small, right thing, brought me nearly to tears as I reread the story, thirty minutes ago, in this much-too-public Panera café. From Tess Gallagher’s introduction to Carver’s poetry collection A New Path to the Waterfall: “It is the ordinary moment which illuminates the most extraordinary things.”
I’ve taught “Errand” many times, and about a dozen years ago I wrote an essay about the story for a textbook company. Since the essay doesn’t seem to exist online, I’ll quote from it here:
While Carver was fashioning his tale about the death of Chekhov, the man the British press would soon elegize as “the American Chekhov” was dying himself. Carver suffered pulmonary hemorrhages in September of 1987; a month later doctors removed 2/3 of his cancerous left lung. Brain cancer followed; Carver died in August of 1988. In “Errand,” Carver describes a fading Chekhov telling his sister Maria “that he was ‘getting fat’ and felt much better now that he was in Badenweiler.” He tells his mother that he’ll be cured in a week. He reads railway timetables; he asks for sailing schedules. “What could he have been thinking?” Carver asks.
Jump to 1988, around the time of Carver’s fiftieth birthday. The man who once described himself as a body attached to a cigarette tells The New York Times, “I’m going to make it. I’ve got fish to catch and stories and poems to write.”