This is Part One of a three part series about my early obsession and love for Karen Carpenter.
Before Karen Carpenter, I drew Dracula; I drew monsters. I drew the Wolf-man, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, copied from monster magazines. As I sketched, I would imagine them coming to life to torment the bullies who were tormenting me at school. Charcoal on snow, chalk on black paper. Each stroke, a slap or a slug. A blending of fears to wash over my enemies, like it washed over me, each morning when the bus swallowed me up. “Faggot,” or, “Big fat queer!” came with a shove or a smack on the head.
“Lunt the cunt,” stood on its own.
At the end of each class, I would stare at the second hand of the clock until the bell rang. I’d imagine my monster friends beside me as I darted out the door. This never prevented an attack; it just got me to the next class.
One Saturday, I was at the neighbourhood Seven-Eleven, buying some candy and a magazine. Brother Briggs from church, a handsome man, much younger than my Dad, saw me leaving the store.
“What have you got,” he asked, pointing at my rolled up magazine.
I proudly revealed my latest copy of Famous Monsters. After browsing a few pages he shook his head in revulsion.
“This is the work of Satan!” he said, handing it back to me. He examined his hands for signs of contamination. “You shouldn’t be looking at this filth. Get rid of it. Burn it!”
No one was going to burn the Mummy Madness issue, which I bought with my own lawn mowing money. I just stood there.
“See you at priesthood meeting?” he said, getting into his car.
“Yep,” I said, and bit a chunk off my red licorice rope.
Later that day, I was at the mall with my Mom and younger sister. A poster at the record store advertised the Carpenters in concert, at Brigham Young University. The tickets were only three dollars, so I bought two and invited my friend Pete.
On the day of the concert, my Mom dropped us off at BYU’s Marriott Centre. We took our seats which were on the second-to-the-last row. Pete brought his hunting binoculars and we watched the place fill up with BYU students wearing their Sunday best. After the opening prayer, the lights dimmed to black. Then, out of a drumroll, a voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Carpenters!” The music began and the stage lit up.
Long ago, and oh so far away,
She glided across the stage in mint green.
I fell in love with you/
Before the second show.
Graceful and flowing, but sometimes her movements were clumsy, as if to convey, “I’m a real person. I’m just like you.” Maybe she was like me. Maybe, somehow I could find some kind of value in my own life; discover a talent or gift that could outshine my imperfections. Her brother at the keyboards, in a suit white as pearls, dimmed in Karen’s radiant cast. The boys in the band, like cardboard props in a school play stood easy in their supporting roles. Nothing out shined Karen, except for the occasional flash of light reflected on a swaying saxophone. Her velvety low notes swirled around the arena like chocolate filigree, and found me on the eighty-ninth row, smitten, clutching the binoculars so tight the image shook. Song after song, she enthralled me. I wanted to be closer, on the front row and I didn’t want the concert to end.
We lingered after the lights turned on. BYU students, solemnly headed for the exits. Pete and I made our way down to the main floor and watched the roadies wind up cords and pack instruments. We sat in two empty front-row seats until BYU security came to clear out the stragglers. Pete and I evaded them by hiding behind a big piano case that had a Carpenter’s logo stenciled on it. From there, we saw a small crowd forming around a back-stage door. I had nothing but my ticket stub. Pete reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and a chewed up pen. I grabbed it and wiggled myself into the crowd. When the door finally opened, it was Karen, beautiful and radiant, as if the spotlights were still shining on her. The Homecoming Queen shook Karen’s hand and presented her with a gift; probably a Book of Mormon with her name engraved on it. Everyone was taller than me. I waved my crumpled paper in the air to get her attention. She reached over someone’s shoulder and took it from my hand. “Here you go,” she said, handing the paper back. She kept Pete’s chewed up pen to sign more autographs. I trembled with excitement.
Vampires and monster magazines faded into Karen Carpenter. Each day, after school, I’d play Carpenters records on a hand-me-down record player in my room. I would sing along as my freshly sharpened pencil struck the page in wispy, circular strokes, building layer upon layer of what would be Karen’s hair. I loved drawing hair. Time blurred out. I escaped into a fantasy world where I was tall, slender and had lots of friends. I pretended that I went to a school surrounded by palm trees, somewhere in California, where I could actually learn stuff; not just survive the day.
One Sunday after church, Brother Briggs confronted me in the foyer.
“We miss you at Scouts Bill,” he said.
“No you don’t,” I replied.
“We really do! Why haven’t you been coming?”
“I’m bad at sports, and I have more important things to do.”
“Like what,” he asked. “What could be more import than sports, I mean Scouts?”
Not getting called names, I thought.
“Drawing,” I said. “I like to draw.”
“What stuff?” He pressed.
“Umm, lately I’ve been drawing Karen Carpenter.”
He glared at me.
“She’s pretty,” I said, “and I like her voice.”
“Bill, you’re in the eighth grade. You’re much too young to be thinking about girls,” he said. “There’s plenty of time for that after your mission.”
“But she’s special,” I said, “She makes me feel good, she makes me feel like…” I couldn’t find the right words.
“But Karen Carpenter isn’t even a member of the church!”
“Maybe she’ll join,” I said. “She’s got a Book of Mormon.”
“But she’s not the Saviour, she didn’t die for your sins, and she can’t lead you to Heaven.”
“I don’t expect her to,” I said. “Thing is, she gets me out of Hell every day.”
Shocked that I said the word Hell in the Lord’s house, he looked around to see if anyone was in earshot.
“Idolatry can lead to more serious transgressions.” He fumbled in his scriptures, looking for the right verse.
“I gotta go.” I said. “My family’s waiting.”
“She’ll let you down some day.”
I pushed glass door open. “You wait and see,” he said, as the door behind me clicked shut.
I drew this long after the story took place. After obsessing on the hair, I’d rub graphite all over her face and erase highlights with my kneaded eraser.
Drawing Karen Part 2—The Portrait