Category: My Art

Talking to Ravens

The Canadian Rockies aren’t just mountains. They’re jarring. They shake you. I was on my way there after emigrating from California. I was looking for ravens, which I’d heard flew among the trees and tumbled through the wide-open sky.

We were heading East towards Banff and the National Parks. The mountains became increasingly more majestic, more immediate, and intoxicating. Growing up in Utah, I’d seen plenty of mountains, but nothing like these. The Trans-Canadian Highway snaked through the pass beside rivers, dense with glacial silt, that glistened like strands of aquamarine. It was Summer Solstice. The Winter runoff was still cascading down the jagged slopes in fractured streams and waterfalls.

At a gas station, the first raven appeared. It landed on the pump and stared at me. I’d assumed that ravens were the size of crows, only with larger beaks. This Raven was more than twice that size.  A row of tiny feathers on the top of his head flared up in a crooked mohawk. His wing and tail were tattered and coal black, with an opalescent sheen. He let out a full-throated squawk. The pump shut off and spit out a receipt. I reached in the car for my camera and tossed a cheese puff on the pavement. The raven looked at it, then looked back at me with an expression that said, “That’s the best you can do?” It was all I had in reach. I tossed another, farther away. He snatched up both, and returned to the pump. Orange crumbs flew like sparks from his beak and scattered around him like embers. When I aimed my camera, the Raven spit up the cheese puffs in a big orange glob. He defiantly glared at me with his head slightly tilted, wings halfway spread. After another guttural squawk, he flew across the street and landed on table outside a Tim Horton’s. My eyes were locked on him. I almost didn’t notice the second raven scoop up the orange mound, and join him. They shared my chewed-up offering. They’re a couple.

My friend Jonas, who volunteered at a bird sanctuary, told me that both ravens and crows mate for life. He told me that a group of crows was called a murder; a group of ravens, an unkindness. I knew ravens were once thought to be bad omens—harbingers of death and war.  Jonas told me it was because they were often seen on ancient battlefields, enthusiastically gorging themselves on the flesh and bone of the fallen. He went on about how a raven’s brain was bigger than a crows.

“Ravens have a much bigger vocabulary too and can learn human words and phrases, they mimic the sounds they hear.”

“I had no idea,” I said.

“We had a raven at the sanctuary named Elvira. She would make the sound of the squeaky cupboard door where the feed was kept. Taunting the other birds with false hope was her guilty pleasure. Their memories are keen. They never forget anyone that does them wrong or shows them kindness.”

I thought of the crows in my old neighbourhood. I was sure they held a grudge on me. We had a bird-bath fountain in our back yard. It attracted robins, blue jays, and finches. Crows showed up one Spring and the other birds stayed away. I noticed the water in the fountain had become milky with a greasy film on the water’s surface. After noticing an unpleasant smell, I decided to drain and change the water. I routed the pump to spill over onto the grass. Minutes later, the water had drained from the basin, exposing a macabre collection of decomposing chicken heads. Dead eyes stared up at me and a jolt of horror passed through me in a silent scream. Leo, my next-door neighbour, saw me jump back.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“Chicken heads,” I said, pointing to the fountain.

“Damn processing plant!” he said. “They’ve left their dumpsters open to the crows again. I’m reporting this to the City.”

Leo offered me the use of his power washer. When the crows caught me cleaning out their treasure-trove they squawked with fury. From then on, whenever I took my dog for a walk, a chorus of abrasive vengeance followed. They never singled out my partner; only me.

***

After finishing their snack at Tim Hortons, the raven couple flew into the trees. Our journey continued. Ice covered mountains jutted up on either side of the Icefields Parkway that stretched for miles towards the Athabaska Glacier. Cottony clouds tumbled swiftly over the taller peaks, causing shafts of sunlight to dance on the ice and snow. We stopped at a vibrant turquoise lake that mirrored the mountains behind it. Sight-seeing tourists like us stood in awe, trying to capture splendour with their cameras.  A small grey bird with black wings perched on a bear-proof garbage can beside the car. I took a picture, wishing it were my old raven friend.

“Turn around,” my partner said in a whisper.

A raven was hopping through the dandelions and grass. The top of his head was shiny and slicked back. I aimed my camera. A second raven appeared in my viewfinder. Two ravens in one shot! I pushed the shutter button at the perfect moment. Then a notification on my camera said, “out of memory.”

“No!” I yelled.

Both ravens fluttered into the air, leaving shrill kaws echoing in their wake.

“Come back! Please, come back!” I shouted.

I wasn’t sure why I had this obsession to take raven pictures. Ravens weren’t on my radar until I moved to Vancouver. I’d never seen any real ravens, but I kept noticing them everywhere in the indigenous art.

According to the Haida, a raven hatched the first humans from a cockle shell—after the great flood waters receded. A raven spotted a shell rocking back and forth on the beach. With his strong beak, he pried it open and found tiny creatures, huddled together inside. The raven decided not to swallow them, because he was lonely and wanted company. The timid humans refused to leave their vessel, but with his trickster ways, the raven eventually coaxed them out.  Artist Bill Reid carved out this ancient story from a four-and-a-half-ton block of golden cedar. His magnificent sculpture lives beneath a domed skylight at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. I remember sitting in the museum rotunda,  gazing up at the enormous raven, perched on the shell with his wings half spread. Inside the shell, six human forms are suspended in reluctance. It evoked in me the familiar chord of apprehension that comes right before laying a stroke of paint on a blank canvass, or typing the first sentence of an essay. The Raven with his strange wisdom and appetite for mischief is like a guardian of divine discontent; that gnawing spark that eventually pulls me out of myself.

***

Before heading back to the cabin, we decided to hike to a waterfall. Being this far North made the longest day of the year even longer.  At 9:30pm the sun shined with afternoon brilliance, gracing the waterfall mist with a rainbow. On the trail, we passed a Mennonite family. The Father, tall and stern, gripped a walking stick, and nodded with a furrowed brow. His wife smiled. All the kids, in single file, wore brightly coloured running shoes that clashed with their old-fashioned attire.

At the car, I was tucking my camera away when several ravens descended and landed around us. I tossed a hand-full of cheese puffs into the air. The ravens devoured them in a fluttering frenzy. Of course I took pictures.

“Maybe you’ll remember when I come back this way,” I said. I tossed another handful of cheese puffs. “Next time, I’ll bring healthier snacks.”

The Mennonite Family had returned from the falls and gathered by an old school bus. A little girl in a white bonnet said, “Look Mommy, that man is talking to the birds.”

The Father started the loud engine. Then, without leaving a single orange crumb behind, the unkindness of ravens rose up and shattered the sky.

Solstice Raven

18″ x 24″ Acrylic on Canvas
I painted this experimental piece as I was writing and editing this essay. I was curious how the painting would influence the writing and vise versa. I plan to do more ravens in the future which I will post here.

Drawing Karen Part 3—I’ll Say Goodbye to Love

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 The Mark Twain in Salt Lake City, run by 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 and rarely spoke to anyone, always looking at the ground. Alice held her head high. She wore ruffled blouses and a cameo broach. Her dark hair was stylishly twisted into a bun on the top of her head. On the day of my audition, she looked regal standing against the swagged jacquard curtains.

“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.

“Not yet.”

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.

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 all of the pain, but at the same time, pointed towards acceptance and hope. 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.”

“Really? Who?”

“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.”

“Which one?”

“What’s-his-name? The one that sounds like 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 Liza Minelli, so he didn’t mind that I put a Carpenters poster on the wall of our apartment next to Joseph Smith. He took a picture of me standing next to it. It looked like I was standing right next to Karen. img_2187

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 Karen and Liza 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 spiritual 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 pervaded. Inside an enormous open 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.

“Lumberjack!”

“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 Liza, 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 place like this hires you to work security.”

“I’m hoping it’s 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 believed in 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 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.”

“Thanks Jack.”

“And I know the Guy Upstairs has your back too.” He looked up.

I looked up too. There were 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. And it hurts.”

“Thanks Mom.”

 

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.

img_2330

I made this chalk pastel portrait a few weeks later. It hung on my wall for years.

Drawing Karen Part One—Monsters End

Drawing Karen Part Two—The Portrait

 

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

 

 

 

Drawing Karen Part 2—The Portrait

IMG_2249

Part two.

At the start of my Senior year, I thought having a mall job was cool, even though it was washing dishes at the food court. On my lunch break, I’d browse the record store and meander through Hickory Farms to get cheese samples. I’d drop by the fabric store to see my friend Tricia. She was slender girl with thick brown hair that fell to her shoulders in bouncy curls. She had an olive complexion and green eyes that sparkled when she smiled. Even though I was secretly attracted to guys, I liked Tricia a lot.

“Hey Trish, how’s everything at the Fabric Barn?” I said.

“Busy! Girls are getting their formals ready for the Homecoming dance at BYU. That reminds me.” She paused and priced a remnant of lavender gingham. “Are you taking me to see the Carpenters?”

“They’re coming?”

Tricia nodded. “Tickets go on sale Saturday morning.”

“Yes, I’m taking you!”I jumped and down. “Shoot, I have to get back to work. See you tomorrow at school.” My hand grazed the bolts of tulle, and taffeta as I dashed out of the store.

 

That night, I stormed in the house. “Mom! Mom, guess what?”

“You didn’t wreck the car, did you?”

“Of course not.”

“What?”

“The Carpenters are coming, and I’m taking Tricia as my date. I’m going to camp overnight if I have to, and I’m going to need the car!”

“Lower your voice. Daddy’s asleep,” she scolded in a whisper. “Have you been smoking something?”

“No!”

“Who’s this Tricia?”

“Tricia Thomas. You remember, her parents teach at BYU.”

“Oh yeah, but aren’t they Democrats?”

“What if they are?”

Mom clutched her chest, and let out a heavy sigh—as if she’d learned that Tricia was a stripper, or a Catholic. “Billy, haven’t we taught you anything?”

“Mom, she’s nice. She even told me that she likes guys that are artsy.”

“I’m just teasing,” she said. “What’s this about camping?”

“I want to be the first in line, so I can get front-row seats.”

“Can’t you just go early in the morning?”

“Not if people are lining up the night before.”

Mom shook her head. “It seems so silly—spending good money on a concert. You can listen to records at home.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I am serious,” she said. “You know they’re going to play the same old songs.”

“Mom, they’re called hits, besides, it’s Karen!”

 

I did camp out all night—with a parking lot full BYU students who got there first. They had tents, blankets, and sleeping bags. I brought a pillow to sit on, a bag of Jolly Ranchers, and a Coke I’d smuggled in a root beer bottle. At that time, caffeinated beverages were strictly forbidden at Brigham Young University. I sat on my pillow at the end of the line. Scattered laughter, ghost stories, and Mormon hymns, echoed through the parking lot until 10:00 pm when the Campus Cops told everyone to shut up.

Hours of silent boredom. Green apple, grape or cherry. What if I drew a portrait of Karen Carpenter, and gave it to her after the show?  Maybe it would be a way to get backstage. Whoever is in charge might be impressed with my labour of love, or feel sorry for me—I didn’t care. The thought of meeting Karen Carpenter made me too giddy to rest my eyes. The hours passed and the students slept soundly. I gradually scooted myself closer to the front of the line. At the first hint of dawn, the asphalt became speckled with dots of rain. The sleepers woke as the rain turned into a downpour. Many were prepared with umbrellas. Some crowded into tents, and others gave up; giving me the opportunity to move even closer up the line. My pillow had become a burdensome sponge. I was soaked, shivering, and needed to pee. I popped my last Jolly Rancher and reminded myself that Karen was worth it. When the ticket office finally opened, I handed the cashier a wet twenty, and scored two third-row seats.

A week before the concert, I purchased some Canson paper and fresh chalk pastels from the BYU bookstore. Then I sequestered myself to my bedroom until the portrait was finished. I pushed aside all my homework and even missed an episode of The Waltons.

“Look Mom, what do you think?”

“It’s the smart one from Charley’s Angels—Kate Something-or-other,” she said, looking over her reading glasses.

“It’s supposed to be Karen Carpenter!”

“Why don’t you draw someone else for a change? Marie Osmond is pretty, and she’s right here in Provo.”

I realized that my imperfect portrait would have to do since I didn’t have time to make another one.

 

IMG_2251Tricia and I took our seats early. I stored the rolled up portrait under my seat.

Tricia was studying her ticket stub. “Who is Steve Martin?”

“Who?” I said.

“The guy that’s opening the show?”

“I’ve never heard of him,” I said.

Steve Martin, a goofy man with salt and pepper hair, took the stage and made us laugh non-stop for forty minutes. The audience gave him a standing ovation. We had no idea that two weeks later, he’d host Saturday Night Live, and become a huge star.

Richard Carpenter was the next to appear on the stage. He thanked everyone for enduring the rain, and then he took his place at the keyboards and started to play. Then suddenly, as if a cosmic portal had opened, Karen appeared like a heavenly apparition. Dressed in all white, she sparkled in the spotlight. The audience cheered.

“It’s her!” I said. “She looks amazing!”

“She’s thinner than me!” Tricia said.

Wearing a rhinestone-studded culotte suit, and white leather boots, Karen Carpenter moved confidently about the stage, singing her latest single, “A Kind of Hush.” Her stage presence was polished and elegant. The Carpenters performed their greatest hits flawlessly. Richard played the Warsaw Concerto. Karen performed an impressive drum solo, and had five costume changes, but it was over too soon.

We stayed in our seats after the lights came on.

“Tricia, see that guy on stage with the dark glasses and bushy sideburns?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll bet he’s in charge.”

I grabbed the portrait and approached the stage.

“Um, excuse me,” I said to the man on the stage.

“Yes.” He looked down at me suspiciously. “What’s up.”

“Are you part of the crew?”

“I’m the road manger,” he said.

I unrolled the portrait. “I was wondering if you could give this to Karen, or maybe let me give it to her.”

He rolled his eyes, looked at the portrait, and back at me.

“This way,” he said grumpily. “But only you!”

I motioned for Tricia to join me. Karen and Richard were already greeting VIPs and radio contest winners.  Richard turned to us and noticed my rolled up paper. I didn’t rehearse what I might say to to Richard Carpenter. It never occurred to me to draw him, let alone speak to him. My mouth hung open.

“Great show,” Tricia said, breaking the awkwardness. “That Warsaw Concerto was wonderful!”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” said Richard.

Karen finally turned to us.  Her silky brown hair fell loose and straight on her shoulders, as if all the curl and hairspray had been brushed out. A lock of hair fell in her face and she combed it back with her fingers.

“Hi, what’s your name?” she said, reaching for Tricia’s hand.

“I’m Tricia,”

“Nice to meet you, Trish. And you?” She reached for my hand and shook it firmly. I could feel her jewelry, loose on her slender fingers, almost sliding off as our hands parted.

“I’m Bill,” I said. “I made this for you.” I handed her the portrait and watched her unroll it.

“Wow Bill, this is really good.” She said my name. “You’re quite talented.”

“Thank you for being so amazing,” I said. “You’re so beautiful. I love your music. I loved your show.”

“Thanks! We have a lot of fun. Can I keep this?” She rolled up the portrait tightly and held it up like a diploma.

“Yes, it’s for you,” I said.

“My Mom will love it. She can put it in her collection portraitures.” She raised her brows dramatically and fluttered her lashes like a diva. Then she looked right at me with her big brown eyes and said, ‘Thank you, Bill. Thanks for being a fan.” I wanted to stay in that moment forever.

We said goodbye and backed away as Karen Carpenter was swallowed by the crowd.

Karen Sketch

The following week I made this sketch when I should have been studying for my Math test.

 Drawing Karen Part 3 — I’ll Say Goodbye to Love

Drawing Karen Part 1 — Monster’s End

 

 

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

 

 

 

 

 

My First Published Essay

ScanThe Portland Mercury News and The Stranger have both published my essay about Al Parker!

There is a link to the full story below. Here is an excerpt:

The first time I saw him was on a giant screen at a bathhouse in the summer of 1984. Sitting on a carpeted banquette, with a only white towel wrapped around me, I watched him climb a tree to rescue a skydiver, tangled in a parachute. He and the skydiver had sex in the tree, of course. The room filled with men, transfixed by the screen. Their faces, illuminated by the flickering light, looked up in awe, as if they were watching a mother ship land.

“Who is that?” I asked the guy sitting near me.

“That’s Al Parker,” he whispered. “He’s a fucking legend.”

Everyone’s focus was on the tan, ripped, bearded man on the screen. With his dark piercing eyes, and chiseled features, he emanated this unapologetic, raw, sexual charisma that I hadn’t seen that modelled before, not in movies or television, and certainly not in Utah, where I’d grown up. The spell in the room broke when the credits rolled. The other guys in towels returned to wandering the bathhouse.

“I’d love to paint him,” I remember thinking.

It wasn’t hard to find Al Parker videos. In many stores, he had his own section. I studied him, his expressions, the way he moved, the way he made sucking cock a religious experience. Maybe I thought that because he reminded me of Jesus. I wanted to be like him. I stopped bleaching my hair and got a shorter cut. I tried growing a beard, but it made me look Amish.

Almost everyone in the public eye—celebrities, politicians, were still in the closet. Gay culture had just entered the nightmare of the AIDS crisis. Living in LA, I worked at the Pleasure Chest, a store that sold biker jackets, leather chaps, boots, hankies (which came with a pocket-sized foldout hanky code), paddles, tit clamps, magazines, and videos. It was a different world back then. Hanky codes and most porn magazines have faded out of existence along with the stores that sold them.

One day, I was holding a twenty-inch double dildo over my shoulder when I saw someone’s reflection in the glass case. “Can I help you?” I said.

I raised my head and it was him, Al Parker “Poppers and one of those cock rings,” he said.  His close-cropped beard revealed naturally rosy cheeks, and his tight jeans accentuated his crotch.

“Size?” I stammered.

“Large,” he said.

“Of course! I mean, coming right up,” I said, sounding like I was serving cheeseburgers. Maybe that’s how I remember it because later, after moving to San Francisco, I got to gaze into his dark, soulful eyes again, while waiting tables at a diner.

Orphan Andy’s was a classic greasy diner with two window tables, a row of booths, and a long counter. The tiffany lamps looked plastic and the fake potted plants looked thirsty. The jukebox played everything from Edith Piaf to the B-52s. Orphan Andy’s existed outside of time. Or in all eras at once. It filled up after the bars closed, sometimes with a line out the door. I worked the quiet afternoon shift. Regulars told me stories about the glory days—before the acronyms and dark diagnoses. Every Thursday, the gay paper was filled with pages of the faces of newly dead men. Ruby, a retired security guard abruptly announced one Thursday, “I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to know anymore—who died,” and slammed her paper down.

“I refuse to go another goddamned funeral,” said Gary, a 76-year-old leather man. “Just throw me over a fucking bridge.”

“Right now?” said Ruby.

“My ashes, you asshole!” Gary said.

Ruby cackled. “After you die old man, I’m not going to make any new friends. I refuse to watch another person wither.”

Grief hung over the city like smog. I hadn’t lost anyone close, but I grieved for how life had been—the smiles I used to get from men on the street, the lingering eye contact, the exchange of glances to the crotch. It was okay if didn’t lead to a hook-up, there was a connection, a mutual sense of “I see you,” a measure of validation. As men were dying, I’d come to feel invisible, like an out of focus extra on the set of someone else’s nightmare.

When the diner was slow, I’d watch the endless parade of strange and beautiful passersby. Sprinkled throughout were the walking sick: gaunt, frail, sallow-skinned men, unable to keep pace with the hurried throngs, sometimes escorted by a partner or caregiver, but mostly alone.

I got tested back in LA, but was too afraid get the results. I’d convinced myself that I was robustly healthy. I took vitamins and had a gym membership. Sometimes I even worked out.  I rarely got sick, except for that ear infection that put me in the emergency room, or those annoying night sweats, and that weird spot on my leg that I continually obsessed over.

In 1992, I turned away from a table of men who’d just placed drink orders. I froze when I realized that one of them was Al Parker. Just try to act normal, I told myself. Then I accidentally knocked down a tower of plastic glasses.

By the time their food was ready, I’d mustered enough courage to say, “Once I sold you a cock ring and a bottle of poppers.” He and his friends laughed.  Then Al Parker introduced himself by his real name—Drew.

Returning to the kitchen, I heard someone call “Shane! Come back Shane!”

Drew was holding up his empty glass for a refill.

“Come back Shane” became our running joke at Orphan Andy’s. When anyone else said it, I grimaced. But when Drew said it, I got goosebumps. He came to Orphan Andy’s often, though never alone. He was either with friends or his partner Keith, who had silver hair and serious crystal-blue eyes, like an Alaskan Husky.Scan

“Has anyone ever painted your portrait?” I asked Drew one day after taking his order.

He laughed. “Yes, as a matter of fact. Quite a few times.” I thought of him sucking dick in that tree. Then he said, “You want me to pose for you?”

In my shock, I didn’t know what to say. I’d never drawn from a live model before.

“I work from photographs,” I said, shyly. “I wondered if you had any pictures I could use, with your permission.”

He smiled and said, “Sure, I might have something,” and reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “Give me a call.”

Thunderstruck, I took his card.

Continue Reading in The Stranger

Continue Reading in Portland Mercury

 

If you don’t understand the humour of  “Shane! Come back,” this is what he was alluding to:

Dining Room Antlers

This painting was inspired by some wall decor I saw at a retail outlet. White antlers were stenciled on a wood pallet. I decided to replicate the idea on canvass.

IMG_2468

Back in 2004 when I was living in Sonoma County, California, I created a series of small fruit paintings for a gallery in Rhonert Park. What didn’t sell at the gallery, I sold at the Rio Nido Art Festival the following Spring. The two apples in the grass were a commission I did in 2003 when I was still using airbrush.

© 2020 William Lunt

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑