The Ashtray by Raymond Carver

you could write a story about this 
ashtray, for example, and a man and a
woman. But the man and the woman are
always the two poles of your story.
The North Pole and the South. Every
story has these two poles - he and she.
-A.P. Chekhov

They're alone at the kitchen table in her friend's apartment. They'll be
alone for another hour, and then her friend will be back. Outside, it's
raining - the rain coming down like needles, melting last week's snow.
They're smoking and using the ashtray. Maybe just one of them is smoking.
He's smoking! Never mind. Anyway, the ashtray is filling up with cigarettes
and ashes.

She's ready to break into tears any minute. To plead with him, in fact, 
though she's proud and has never asked for anything in her life. He sees
what's coming, recognizes the signs - a catch in her voice as she brings
her fingers to her locket, the one her mother left her. He pushes back
his chair, gets up, goes over to the window. He wishes it were tomorrow
and he were at the races. He wishes he were out walking, using his umbrella.
He strokes his mustache and wishes he were anywhere but here. But he doesn't
have any choice in the matter. He's got to put on a good face for 
everybody's sake. God knows, he never meant for things to come to this.
But it's sink or swim now. A wrong move and he stands to lose her friend,
too.

Her breathing slows. She watches him but doesn't say anything. She knows,
or thinks she knows, where this is leading. She passes a hand over her 
eyes, leans forward and puts her head in her hands. She's done this a few
times before, but has no idea it's something that drives him wild. He looks
away and grinds his teeth. He lights a cigarette, shakes out the match,
stands a minute longer at the window.

Then walks back to the table and sits down with a sigh. He drops the match
in the ashtray. She reaches for his hand, and he lets her take it. Why not?
Where's the harm? Let her. His mind's made up. She covers his fingers with
kisses, tears fall on to his wrist.

He draws on his cigarette and looks at her as a man would look indifferently
on a cloud, a tree, or a field of oats at sunset. He narrows his eyes
against the smoke. From time to time he uses the ashtray as he waits for her
to finish weeping.
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