People never think of entertainers as being human. When you walk out on stage the audience thinks, “Nothing can go wrong with them.” We get sick and we have headaches just like they do. When we are cut, we bleed. — Karen Carpenter
Weeknights, I sang and played piano at Mark Twain restaurant in Salt Lake City. It was run by Fundamentalist Mormon polygamists. Alice Knudsen was one of Willard T. Knudsen’s many wives. She managed the restaurant with her oldest son. She wasn’t like the polygamist women I’d seen in St. George where I attended Junior College. Those women wore long-sleeved, ankle-length prairie dresses cut from the same homely pattern They rarely spoke to anyone, always looking at the ground. Alice held her head high. She wore a white ruffled blouse with a cameo broach at the collar. Her dark hair was stylishly twisted into a bun on the top of her head. The day I auditioned for the gig, she looked regal standing against swagged jacquard curtains next to the piano.
“I’m not supposed to ask this,” she said. “But, are you Mormon?”
“Yes,” I said, confidently, leaning against the piano which rested under a heavy crystal chandelier. I didn’t tell her that I no longer believed.
“Oh good,” she said, smiling. “Serve a mission?”
“Indiana. I’ve been back two years.”
“And you’re not married?” Alice said, looking surprised at my ringless hand.
She was impressed that I could fill two hours without repeating a song. After hearing my rendition of “Somewhere in Time,” she hired me on the spot.
“Wear black slacks and a white dress-shirt. We’ll provide you with a vest and a bow tie.”
Of course, I played a lot of Carpenters songs.
After my last set on Friday nights, I’d go back to my apartment only to change my clothes. Then I’d head to the gay dance club where I could celebrate who I was, at least until midnight. I had to be up early Saturdays. The Mark Twain didn’t pay enough to cover my rent or feed my gas-guzzling car, so I worked weekends as a security guard at a pipe factory.
One Saturday morning, groggy and hungover on my commute, The Carpenters, “Road Ode,” played on the radio. It was unusual for a top 40 station to play an obscure album cut, but it was one of my favourites. Karen’s vocals, like a magical drug, could soothe any kind of ache or discomfort. Something in her voice acknowledged the pain of the world, but at the same time, pointed towards hope and acceptance. I pulled my rust-coloured Oldsmobile into the vast empty lot and parked by the front gate. I stayed in the car until the song ended. The other guard glared at me through the window, urgently pointing to his watch.
“I’m coming,” I said, as if he could hear me.
When I came through the door, he said, “You’re late!”
“By thirty seconds,” I said.
“Late is late!”
“Sorry,” I said, as he slammed the door.
I turned up the heat and tuned the radio to KOVO—Provo’s all-hit station. Another Carpenters song was playing. Two in a row? Then the phone rang.
“Billy?” It was my thirteen-year-old sister, Kimberly. “Did you hear?”
“Hear what?” I said.
“Karen Carpenter, she died. She had that disease. Mom, what’s it called?” In the background I heard my Mother’s voice whisper, “Anorexia Nervosa.”
All the years of useless search/
Have finally reached an end/
Loneliness and empty days will be my only friend/
From this day love is forgotten/
I’ll go on as best I can.
“Billy?” Kim said.
“I’m still here.”
“We thought you probably knew. We wanted to see if you’re okay.” Kimberly said, holding back her tears.
“Kim, I’ve got to make my rounds. I’ll talk to you later.”
“I love you,” she said.
I hung up the phone as the song ended.
“Folks, that was the late Karen Carpenter singing her 1972 hit, “Goodbye to Love.” What a voice! We’ll be taking your Carpenters requests all day long until midnight. A-sides, B-sides, we’ll try to play them all.”
The radio news confirmed that Karen Carpenter, 32 years old, was found unconscious on the floor of her bedroom closet, at her parents’ home in Downey, California. Cardiac arrest. The Carpenters kept playing.
The Pacific States Cast Iron Pipe Company was a sprawling complex of gritty industrial buildings, surrounded by swampland. Every hour, I made my rounds which took me twenty-five minutes to complete. Except for the occasional lone worker doing overtime, the entire place was void of life and too bleak to be haunted. Dressed in a navy-blue polyester uniform, I usually walked around the plant belting out show tunes, but not that day.
In the afternoon, the phone rang again. It was my Mother.
“How are you doing?” She said, gingerly.
“I wish that I didn’t have to be here.”
“People have been calling all morning, asking about you.”
“Oh, relatives mainly. Your cousin Verleen said it felt like a death in the family. Everyone knows how much you loved her.”
“That’s really sweet,” I said. “Kind of embarrassing too.”
“Where on earth did she get the silly idea that she was fat?” There was silence. “Billy, I worry about you. Are you spending the night with us? I’m making funeral potatoes.”
“Because of Karen?”
“I don’t know. I guess.”
“I’ll come home,” I said.
“Oh, your old missionary companion called.”
“What’s-his-name? The one that sounds like the voice of God—in church movies.”
His name was Jack, but we called him Lumberjack because he was six feet, seven inches of solid muscle. Loud, outspoken, and irreverent, he made me laugh so hard I’d forget to be depressed. Jack had a thing for Barbara Streisand, so he didn’t mind that I put a Carpenters poster on the wall of our apartment between a picture Joseph Smith and the Salt Lake Temple. He took a picture of me standing next to it. It looked like I was standing right next to Karen.
Out of all the guys I was paired up with, over my two-year mission, he was my favourite. Instead of tediously going door to door, trying to get converts, we visited the elderly and volunteered at the YMCA. It was an easier way to meet people, and it felt like we were making a difference. We followed the strict mission rules, except for the time we checked out Carpenters and Streisand records from the library. We weren’t supposed to listen to anything but the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
“What if someone finds out?”
“Elder Lunt,” Jack said authoritatively. “There’s nothing more spiritually enriching than listening to the voices of angels sing.”
Pacific States had twenty-one security checkpoints. Some were outside in the cold, some down stairs, up ladders, and through dark cement tunnels. A layer of soot covered everything. The smelting furnaces were always hot, and an acrid chemical smell hung in the air. Inside an enormous enclosure, a giant magnet dangled over two-story mound of scrap metal. Tons of metallic waste would be melted down into a molten liquid, and formed into sewage pipe. I felt minuscule, standing at the base of the rusty apocalyptic heap.
“She’s gone.” I said, to the emptiness. I screamed towards the magnet as loud as I could. It felt good. I screamed again. My yells echoed through the enclosure and dozens of pigeons fluttered about and scattered. A feather fell and spun circles in the rising heat of the furnace.
Frozen snow crunched under my feet and the sky darkened as I made my way back to the office. When I turned a corner, l saw a tall hooded figure rattling the front gate. My instinct was to hide, and I did for a few moments. Then I timidly approached the padlocked gate.
“Are you going to let me in, or do I have to rip a hole in this thing?” He roared.
“Through here,” I said, pointing to the turnstile.
“I heard about your woman and I had to see if you were okay.” He put his arms around me and squeezed the air out of my lungs. I sobbed against his chest.
“Man, if anything ever happened to Barbara, I’d tie myself to the train tracks or jump off a cliff. My luck, I’d survive the fall, and end up dying from the hospital food.”
My sobs turned into laughter. He slapped me hard on the back as he followed me into the office.
“You know the world is going to Hell in a handcart when a guy like you gets hired to be a security guard. I saw you hiding.”
“I’m hoping that this is temporary,” I said.
“Are you going to finish college?”
“I was accepted at the University of Utah, but my parents won’t help me out unless I go to BYU, where I won’t get exposed to any more liberal ideas. Mom flipped out when I told her I respected the theory of evolution.”
“That’s not a liberal idea; it’s science.”
“Even if I wanted to attend BYU, I wouldn’t pass the Bishop’s interview.”
“Your Mom said you’ve been avoiding church.” I was irked that she told him. I didn’t want to be anyone’s project.
“She can’t look at me without breaking into tears. It’s uncomfortable.”
“She’s just worried. What does your Dad say?”
“Not much,” I said. “He treats me about the same.”
“So, what’s going on?”
“I fell into a dark depression last Spring. A bad one,” I added. “Church made it worse. The longer I stayed away, the better I felt.” I wasn’t ready to tell him I was gay.
“Hmmm,” Jack said.
“I don’t fit the mold, Jack. I never did. I was pressured to go on the mission, and now I’m being pressured go to BYU, find a wife, and start a family. Like it’s as simple as going to the mall and picking out a tie.”
“People at church look at me like I’m a menace to society, especially with this beard,” he said, stroking his chin.
“It suits you.”
“I want you to understand something,” he said, slapping his big hand on my knee. “Church or not, I’ve got your back. I’m here if you need me.”
“And I know the Guy Upstairs has your back too.” He looked up.
I looked up too, only to see cobwebs and a fluorescent light.
When my twelve-hour shift finally ended, I was relieved that I didn’t have to drive back to Salt Lake. My Mom hugged me when I came through the door.
“You smell like someone’s science project backfired. Go change and I’ll toss that in the washer.”
I changed into sweatpants and an old t-shirt. Kimberly came out of her room.
“I’m going to miss her too,” she said. “I’ve been listening to your old records.”
My Dad didn’t say anything, but he was there. That’s how he was.
The chime rang and Mom pulled a plate of funeral potatoes, a slice of ham, and some green beans out of the microwave. I sat at the table.
“All day I’ve tried to think of something comforting to say,” Mom said. “Things people usually say at funerals seem so silly and trite. Like Verleen said, it feels like a death in the family.”
Monday night at The Mark Twain, Alice was fluffing the napkins and lighting the votive candles. She smiled when I entered the dining room.
“I’m so glad you’re back. All weekend guests were requesting Carpenters songs. How are you?” She reached out and squeezed my hand.
“Glad to be here.”
That night, I sang Karen’s songs, inwardly dedicating each one of them to her. Maybe her own words could comfort her now.
Above me, the chandelier was sparkling.
I made this chalk pastel portrait a few weeks later. It hung on my wall for years.
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.