A guy whose wife has asked an old friend to visit their home narrates “Cathedral.” The narrator points out that Robert’s blindness is what sets him apart from his old friend. The narrator is anxious about the upcoming visit at the start of the novel for reasons he can’t fully explain, though he blames Robert’s condition for it.
The narrator adds that Robert was visiting his wife’s family in Connecticut because she had lately passed away. Robert planned a visit because he and his wife reside close by and is currently en route. The wife had done a little bit of work for Robert in Seattle ten years before. Mailing each other tapes on which each gave a detailed account of their lives has allowed them to stay in touch.
When looking for someone to read to him, Robert’s wife, who was living on the West coast with a man she was getting married to, came across his ad. Robert (whom the narrator refers to as “the blind man”) requested to touch her face on the final day she worked there, and she consented. His wife, who aspires to be a poet and has attempted to remember his touch, was deeply moved by the experience as he delicately ran his hands over her face and neck. When the narrator and she first started dating, she showed him it, but he didn’t like it. He concedes he might not comprehend poetry.
More of his wife’s backstory is revealed by the narrator. She had been waiting for her “childhood sweetheart” in Seattle, and after they got married, they lived a military lifestyle as he was moved around to bases. One year after leaving Seattle, she got in touch with Robert, and they started trading the tapes on which they would share their darkest secrets.
She tried to kill herself with pills at one point, but they kept exchanging cassettes as her life as an Air Force wife grew increasingly lonely. Despite the fact that she ultimately puked them up, she took advantage of the situation to get a divorce, after which she started dating the narrator.
Once, she requested that he listen to one of Robert’s tapes. It was an odd experience for him to hear his own name being said on it. Someone knocking disturbed them, which he found to be a welcome interruption.
As the wife is finishing up dinner, the narrator glibly offers to bring Robert bowling before the story gets into its main scene. She begs him to accept Robert while criticizing him for having no friends at all. She informs him that Robert’s deceased wife’s name was Beulah, which he finds odd. She becomes irate when he asks if Beulah was “a Negro,” but she also opens up more about Robert’s past as a result.
The summer after she had left, Beulah started reading to Robert, and they soon got married. Beulah was given a cancer diagnosis and passed away eight years after they were married. Beulah is “a woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved,” he says, “and I feel sad for her.” He envisions her existence as being unhappy.
He settles down with a drink in front of the TV while his wife heads out to pick up Robert from the depot before hearing his wife’s laughter and the sounds of the parking lot. Robert is being helped out of the car and down the drive as he observes from the window. He is shocked to see Robert sporting a thick beard. He finishes the drink and turns off the TV before extending a warm welcome to them. When she introduces them, his wife is “beaming.”
After shaking hands, she invites him over to the sofa. Instead of engaging in small chat, the narrator only inquires about Robert’s seat on the train. Robert responds to the wife’s somewhat odd query by saying that, given how long it had been, he had “almost forgotten the experience” of riding a train. When his wife eventually turned to face him, the narrator had “the impression” that she didn’t like what she saw.
Robert looks very little like a stereotyped blind man (dark glasses, cane), which impresses the narrator. Robert’s eyes are unsettling up close in a variety of ways, he does notice that. “Bub, I’m a scotch man myself,” Robert responds when the narrator offers to fix drinks. The phrase “Bub” is used by Robert throughout the story, which makes the narrator amused. She then fixes the drinks.
They have numerous drinks and converse for a while, mainly about Robert’s vacation. Robert smoking cigarettes surprises the narrator since he assumed that the blind did not smoke. After some time, they sat down to a substantial dinner that the wife had made. The narrator offers to lead prayer before they begin, which baffles his wife until he adds, “hope the phone won’t ring and the meal doesn’t become cold.”
They eat quietly and heartily while the narrator compliments Robert on his dexterity with utensils and his willingness to occasionally use his fingers. All of us are full after dinner. With more cocktails in hand, they return to the living room and continue their discussion of the last ten years.
The narrator doesn’t say much most of the time—he figures it’s about what happened “to them,” not him—but he does chime in now and then to make sure Robert doesn’t think he’s left the room. He describes Robert as a “real blind jack-of-all-trades” who “had done a little of everything.” The narrator occasionally answers questions Robert poses with a lack of conviction.
He finally switches on the TV after a time. Robert’s wife, who is irritated, spins the question to see if he has a TV. Robert responds that he has two, one in color and the other in black and white, and is aware of the differences. There is “no view” from the narrator on this. The wife admits to being exhausted and goes upstairs to put on her robe.
The narrator feels embarrassed since they spend some time alone. When he asks Robert if he wants to use marijuana, he pours them another drink. Robert smokes a little awkwardly because he seems to have never done it before, but he agrees.
The narrator pulls out narcotics, and when his wife comes back, she gives him a “savage look,” but Robert appears to like it. They continue to smoke until the wife informs Robert that his bed has been mended upstairs, at which point she passes out on the couch. Robert can’t see, so he doesn’t bother to fix the fact that her robe is open on her thigh.
Once more feeling uncomfortable, he offers to walk Robert to bed, but Robert declines, saying he’ll “stay up till you’re ready to turn in” because they hadn’t really talked much that day. The narrator declares that he is “happy for the company,” and he quickly discovers that he is. He admits to the reader that he frequently has terrifying dreams and stays up later than his wife does every night when high.
The only worthwhile program, despite their channel switching, is “something about the church and the Middle Ages.” That’s good, according to Robert, who claims to be “always learning something,” and right now may be one of those times.
They remain silent for some time while Robert turns his ear toward the TV, which jars the narrator somewhat. The narrator starts by explaining the vision to Robert when the program cuts to a scene of working medieval monks. The narrator attempts to explain a church that is seen on television. Robert inquires as to whether the paintings are frescoes, but the narrator is unable to define a fresco.
The narrator had an epiphany: Robert could not even know what a cathedral looks like. Robert doesn’t really know what they look like; all he knows is that they took decades to create. When trying to describe them, the narrator is only able to come up with the following cliché: “They’re really tall…they reach high up.” Although Robert is encouraging, he keeps attempting despite his knowledge of his bad performance.
The narrator claims that men constructed them high because they “wanted to be close to God.” Robert eventually queries the narrator’s lack of religious affiliation. As the narrator admits, “I suppose I don’t have faith in it. in everything.” He adds that cathedrals represent nothing to him and are just something he sees on TV because he realizes his descriptions are inadequate.
After clearing his throat, Robert requests a favor from the narrator: locate some paper and a pen so that they can draw a church together. He grabs some things and goes upstairs because his legs “felt like they didn’t have any strength in them.” Robert closes his hand over the narrator’s and encourages him to draw while they both sit close to one another.
He starts to sketch slowly and crudely, with Robert’s hand following his own. He continues to add to a “box that looked like a house” that “might have been the house [he] lived in.” Robert praises the writing and asserts that the narrator never anticipated a unique encounter like this. The narrator continues, “I couldn’t stop,” even after the TV station stops broadcasting. Even as his wife awakes and wonders what is going on, he continues to draw. Robert keeps praising the narrator and advises the narrator to include more of the cathedral’s attendees.
The narrator is instructed by Robert to close his eyes, which he does, and is then encouraged to draw in that manner. The event is “unlike anything else in [his life up to this point],” the narrator concedes. After some time, Robert tells the narrator that he believes it is finished and invites him to take a look.
He closes his eyes instead of opening them because he feels obliged to do so. Although he is aware that he is in his home, he claims not to feel “like [he] was within anything.” Without even lifting his eyes to see, the narrator responds, “It’s truly something,” when Robert asks how it looks.
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