Cement steps banged into metal railings as Robert Riley and I climbed to my second floor apartment. The key, newly cut, fit awkwardly in the lock. When I opened the door, I was confronted by the sudden smell of newly shampooed carpet and mildew, and dust motes floated in sunbeams that penetrated the single dirty window. In only five steps across the industrial grey carpeting, I traversed the full length of the room. I turned to Robert and held my arms out, palms up, as if to say, Isn’t this amazing?
He chuckled. “It certainly is…small.”
It was the fall of 1989. I was 18 and moving into my first apartment, a tiny studio in a complex where people carrying suitcases of beer marked disbursement day for welfare checks. A sign out front read “Student Pads Available.” After Robert waved goodbye and drove off in his father’s pickup, it took less than two hours for me to unpack the entirety of my possessions. As I placed books on a pressboard shelf held up by cinderblocks, the weather turned and a cool drizzle began to coat the pavement outside. The summer rain and wetness reminded me I was still in the Pacific Northwest, despite the hundred miles that now separated me from my family in Portland, Oregon. Olympia, Washington, a capitol city teeming with a curious mixture of hippies and politicians, sat an hour and a half due north of my hometown, close enough that I could go home when I wanted, but far enough away that almost no one would bother to visit in the three years I wound up stuck there.
I moved with little thought to logistics. Where I might work and how I might pay my rent and feed myself seemed inconsequential to my desire – my need – to leave the apartment I shared with my mother and older sister. Anything would be an improvement over the splintered home I’d lived in since my parents divorce the previous year, when my father had announced, after seventeen years of marriage, that he thought he’d “found someone else.” And so I left, enrolling in a college I knew nothing about – the hyper-liberal Evergreen State College (no tests, no grades, no majors) – because that’s where my friend, Tammy, was headed. Lacking my own compass, I followed her.
About the Writer
Tiffany Hauck is a native of the Pacific Northwest, was raised in Vancouver, Washington, and has spent much of her life explaining to others that she is not, in fact, Canadian. She moved to Los Angeles in 1994, where she spent a good deal of time working in film and television editing. After leaving the entertainment industry, she returned to college and completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in English at the University of Texas Arlington just shy of her fortieth birthday. Tiffany is a writer and graduate student at the Pacific University MFA program in writing where she is currently working on a creative thesis in creative nonfiction. She resides in Dallas, Texas with her husband, Charles, and their three dogs: Wally, Gracie, and Kraut. She enjoys playing hockey and snowboarding, and hopes to one day be called "professor."
No student housing remained by the time I enrolled and I had to scramble to locate an apartment I could afford. The studio had no kitchen, only a counter with two burners, and a tiny fridge with an ice-encrusted freezer too small to hold a frozen pizza. Also, as I would realize in the winter once temperatures dropped below freezing, the place had no heat control. But the rent was only $180 a month, and with the $415 my father still had to pay in child support (because I was enrolled in school), I could just cover the rent and my car payment, with enough left over for Top Ramen and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
I went to the mall to look for a job, desperate not to work in fast food as I had in high school. Since I had also worked at a small radio station during my senior year, I thought Musicland might appreciate my talents, but when the manager perused my application, he said only, “I see you have no sales experience,” before he thanked me and turned his back. This interaction repeated itself at the Waldenbooks, the Benetton, and a myriad of other little shops. Hungry and frustrated, I moseyed over to the food court and the ATM there. When I tried to withdraw twenty dollars, the machine beeped at me, the tiny monitor revealing my insufficient balance: $12.37.
A week later, still unemployed, I called my mother from the payphone in my apartment complex. I couldn’t afford the deposit on my own phone.
“Nobody wants to hire me,” I said. “What am I going to do?”
“Should I send you some money?” she asked. I knew she’d been struggling financially with my father out of the picture, and I immediately wished I could take back my complaint. She had finally begun to heal, to venture out of the dark confines of her apartment, and I didn’t want to give her something else to worry about.
“No, no,” I said, suddenly backpedaling. “I’ll be fine, mom. I’ll find something.”
The next day, I took a job delivering pizza for Dominos because they hired me on the spot and the job included free pizza on the nights that I worked. I would have preferred not to work in food service, but I couldn’t take hearing the worry in my mother’s voice one more time. Classes started the following Monday, and before I knew it, I became caught up in a never-ending cycle of school-work-sleep.
When I finally got a weekend off, I went to the dorms to hang out with Tammy and her three roommates – beautiful girls I grew instantly jealous of because I saw the way my life could have been if I’d planned better. Their rooms – clean and private – shared a common living area bathed in natural light that streamed through tall windows. The place looked more properly carefree and youthful than my dark apartment.
“You live off campus?” one of them asked. Her nose scrunched up in distaste.
When I said I delivered for Dominos, they snickered. For the most destitute of them, “work” meant nine hours a week at a Work Study job checking in library books.
As we sat in the spacious living room, with appropriately retro Doors music blaring from stereo speakers, one of Tammy’s roommates brought a bottle of vodka over to us.
“Here’s to Friday night,” she said. She dealt out a round of shot glasses, and everyone downed their drinks quickly. Though I’d never drank before, I didn’t want to stick out. The booze burnt my throat and the indescribable taste overwhelmed me. I must have made a strange sound as I grit my teeth because one of the girls hooted and Tammy slapped me on the back. After weeks of not fitting in with the kids like these who lived encapsulated campus lives, I finally felt a momentary acceptance. Fueled by their encouragement, I matched them shot for shot, then my competitive nature rose to the surface and I exceeded their pace.
“Skäl!” I exclaimed as I slammed down my seventh shot in less than half an hour (I’d been reading some fantasy based in Norse mythology). I tipped over in my excitement and fell off the couch, much to the amusement of Tammy and her friends.
“I’ll take another,” I said from the floor.
“You sure?” asked the girl with the bottle. Tammy reached out and pulled me off the ground.
I nodded, and the whole room shook. The world jump cut, and I had another shot in my hand. When I threw the liquid down my throat, something went wrong and the vodka retaliated. I felt it begin to crawl up my esophagus and rushed into the bathroom. I threw up, the clear liquid and the pepperoni pizza I ate for lunch escaping through my fingers before splatting into the toilet. When I came out, the front of my shirt covered in vomit, the girls laughed. I saw the way Tammy smirked – the same smirk she and I once reserved for people we thought beneath us.
Not long after, the leaves on the long road to campus began to morph into the reds and oranges of fall. The evergreens molted a blanket of needles. When I traveled home for Thanksgiving, my mother and sisters asked about college. Since I was the first in my family to have a post-secondary education, they wanted to hear about university life.
“It’s fine,” I said, then tried to steer the conversation elsewhere.
Disappointment arose on their faces. I averted my eyes and played with the turkey on my plate. “There’s a lot of reading and stuff,” I eventually mumbled before taking a bite.
“I bet you’ve made a lot of new friends,” said my mother, and I shrugged. I’d made no real friends because I was only on campus a few hours a week.
My sister said, “At least Tammy’s there, right?”
I nodded, not wanting to explain I rarely saw Tammy since the vodka incident because my life no longer meshed with the campus culture she embraced.
When the conversation shifted to my sister and my toddler nephews, I slunk away to the kitchen where I leaned against the counter, feeling like a fraud. Though I was still enrolled in classes, I rarely showed up. With nothing to intellectually stimulate me but Dominos, I became so bored I could hear my thoughts crash around in my head like ball bearings in a tin can. Every time I stepped into my Dominos Pizza uniform and donned their bright blue baseball cap, I could feel my hair, once highly coiffed by Aquanet and hair gel, resist the conformity of corporate America.
During the two hour drive back to Olympia at the end of the holiday, as I hydroplaned up the I-5 corridor in the deluge of a winter storm, I thought back on the time I’d spent working at KSWB radio at the end of high school. Though the small AM station on the Oregon Coast turned off at midnight, and the antique equipment reminded me of my distance from the popular stations in Portland, I loved working there, spinning records on the turntables and listening to music all night. The broadcast booth, located in an old cinderblock building directly beneath the radio tower, smelled of salt water and vinyl. Stacks of 45s jammed an entire wall, some of them thirty years old, sleeves worn to varying degrees depending on how often each made the playlist. Though I knew small-town radio paid next to nothing, those memories romanced me during that drive, and by the time I pulled up to my apartment in Olympia, I’d decided to look into the local radio scene.
Before I had time to think of the consequences, I got hired at KQ92, an AM station that played everything from Strawberry Alarm Clock to Bruce Springsteen. I worked as a sort of gofer on the morning show, where they let me report traffic conditions on air, and picked up overnight shifts as a disc jockey on the weekends. I did whatever anyone asked of me, whether I got paid or not. I hung out in the control booth with the regular DJs and listened to their stories. The one I became most fascinated with, the one I could listen to all day long if he’d let me, was Carl Cook.
Everyone in Olympia knew Carl. His voice - a wolfish, tremulous growl - had made him a fixture in local broadcasting for over ten years. Strands of grey ran through thick black hair that hung defiantly in his eyes, and his moustache grew beyond the border of his upper lip like an overgrown hedge. An unshaven shadow covered the rest of his face, the whole package making him look older than his 48 years. In contrast to the salesmen who breezed in and out of the office, wearing power ties too bright to comfortably blend with their pinstriped suits, Carl arrived at work in faded Levi's and a worn-out tee under an unbuttoned flannel shirt. He reminded me of WKRP’s Johnny Fever, but with a mortgage, a family, and a military pension. He grew up in San Francisco in the early 1960s, falling into a circle of musicians and artists in Haight Ashbury, dropping acid and going to Janis Joplin concerts in the park. He grew up on The Beatles, on Bob Dylan, on Vietnam.
Though Carl made his money as a disc jockey, he was actually a photographer who realized years earlier that art doesn’t pay, and working in radio would cover his bills and leave him plenty of time to pursue his craft. I'd seen his portfolio. Most of the photos stemmed from the time before he left San Francisco, through his military tour in Japan during the Vietnam War, and onto his new life in the Northwest. The rich images of hippies, soldiers, and wilderness rivaled those in Life Magazine.
The first time we met, Carl asked, “What do you do for fun?”
“I play guitar and bass,” I said. “I write stories.”
“Ah, you’re an artist.”
I shook my head, confused. “But I don’t paint or draw.”
Later, after reading some short stories I wrote, he handed me back the sheaf of papers with a smile.
“I told you,” he said. “You’re an artist. Just like me.”
For the first time, someone other than my family and friends validated my creativity, and the word artist floated around in my head, finally embedding itself into my being. With these perfunctory sentences, Carl gave me permission to own my talent.
On December 18th, Carl and I stood outside a busy entrance at the South Sound Mall in Lacey. I wore a blue satin jacket with the KQ92 logo silkscreened on the back in neon pink and my first name embroidered on the chest. Carl refused to wear his, despite the policy that required us to wear the new jackets whenever we represented the station.
“Ron can kiss my ass,” he muttered, referring to our station manager.
We manned a Salvation Army bucket, the red kind usually attended to by various shape and sizes of Santas during the holidays. I rang a bell and greeted harried parents as they passed on their way to Christmas shopping.
“Hi, there. Care to donate to the Salvation Army for families in need?” I asked. I couldn’t get the whole phrase out before my target rushed by, the end of my sentence trailing into disappointment as I faced shaking heads and retreating backs. The tops of my ears went numb, the satin jacket too thin to keep me warm in the frigid night. The wind picked up and blew up the legs of my acid-washed jeans, despite the way I rolled and tacked them tight around my ankles. I shoved the bell into one of my armpits to rub my exposed hands together.
“Fuck,” I said, drawing the word out into a long exhalation. I realized Carl was smart to wear his own down jacket. The red scarf wrapped around his neck made him look inadvertently Christmassy.
“There’s a coffee shop in the mall,” he reminded me. “Why don’t you go get yourself a cocoa?”
I shook my head. “I’m ok.”
The truth was I’d like nothing better than to have a hot cup of cocoa in my hands, but I had no money. I quit my job delivering pizzas and had been scraping by. I spent most of my time at the station, but got paid for very few hours. My rent and car payment ate up my miniscule paycheck and left almost nothing for food. I had dropped forty pounds since I’d left home only a few months earlier, and my clothes hung off me. My jeans touched skin only at ankle and waist, where a belt I’d punched extra holes into cinched them in place. And so, I found it ironic that I was standing there trying to collect money for poor people when I knew I’d go to bed hungry that night, wrapped in layers of clothes and blankets because I had no heat in my apartment.
I rang the bell again, absentmindedly matching the cadence of the holiday music that blared from the mall’s loudspeakers, Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” Now that Carl had mentioned the coffee shop, my mind fixated on the thought of hot cocoa. I imagined how warm the cup would feel in my hands, how the steam would escape the plastic lid and thaw my nose before I took a sip. I thought of the whipped cream and the chocolate, and my tongue burning a little when I drank it. I was so lost in thought Carl had to poke me to get my attention.
“Hey,” he said, pointing at the ground. “Someone dropped a fiver.”
I saw the bill sitting on the wet ground, bent over, and picked it up. I looked at Carl. I knew he knew I was broke. I also knew he knew I was too proud to take a handout. The five-dollar bill felt warm, as if recently housed in someone’s pocket. I cocked my head a little, looked at Carl, then slowly handed the bill back to him.
“It’s not mine,” he insisted, holding out his two hands, palms facing me as if pushing the money away.
I raised an eyebrow. Our eyes met. We both knew the money belonged to Carl. We both knew I wanted it. We both knew the only situation in which I’d accept was if it really was found money. And so we played this game, this dance. I followed Carl’s lead, and he made me amenable to the situation.
He tilted his head toward the coffee shop again. “Get yourself a cocoa.”
My shoulders slumped. I rubbed the bill between my right thumb and forefinger and thought of all the things I could do with five dollars. Then I thought of Carl and how little he earned, of his wife and his two sons and the little house they lived in. It seemed unfair he had to give me this money and unfair I had to take it, because he had people who needed it and I had no one but myself.
I sighed, then handed the bell to Carl and headed off toward the warm mall. I returned with the hot cup wrapped in my hands, a spring in my step despite the cold.
“Thanks, Carl,” I said quietly. He rang the bell half-heartedly.
“Don’t thank me,” he said. “Thank the universe.”
As the electricity of the New Year waned, I discovered emptiness in my life away from the station. I felt I’d waited a lifetime to live on my own and make my move toward greatness, but the stars in my eyes dissipated when I took stock of my surroundings. Growing up, I’d been able to see bright red ribbons of energy connecting each decision I made with what would undoubtedly become my successful future. When I got my first electric guitar at the age of twelve, it seemed obvious I would become famous. Being editor of the school paper seemed a natural stepping-stone to my life as a best-selling novelist. Now, I looked at the work I did and the dismal paychecks I received and saw nothing but years of being trapped in a job that masqueraded as something it wasn’t. I no longer envisioned taking over Rick Dees’ job or becoming the next Martha Quinn.
In February, I dropped out of college without telling my family, which meant my father had no obligations to continue with child support. Because I didn’t tell him, the checks kept coming. I would have liked nothing better than to be able to support myself, but I knew I couldn’t survive without his $415 a month. I felt traitorous when I cashed his checks, the child support like blood money that made me somehow complicit in his extra-marital affair.
In the meantime, my mother told me she’d started seeing someone.
“I met him in a dance class,” she said, then clarified, “Ballroom dancing.” I didn’t know this mother, the one who went to classes and danced with strange men. I only knew the one who ferried me to soccer practices and band recitals, the one who fell apart when my father left, the one who drifted away in a noxious cloud of depression.
“It’s nothing serious,” she said, but I could tell by her tone, by this simple confession, that this relationship meant something.
Sure enough, when we spoke again two months later, she told me she and this man, Manuel, were getting married. I jotted down the time and date of the coming nuptials, only two weeks away.
“I’d love it if you’d come,” she said. I told her I’d probably have to work, though I think we both knew this wasn’t true.
I knew my parents’ divorce hadn’t been my mother’s fault, but I couldn’t believe she was marrying again so soon. She married my father after being separated from my sisters’ father only a short time, and I was convinced she would be better off by herself for a while. Though I didn’t want to think badly of her, I saw my mother’s dependence on men as a weakness, and I made a mental note never to follow her lead. I listened to her tell me how happy she was, and became more resentful as each minute of the phone call ticked by, knowing that when she remarried, my safety net – a home to return to, a place to be taken care of – would disappear.
After I hung up, I stomped into the broadcast booth and slid onto the stool across from Carl. He looked up from the newspaper as Tommy James sang in the background.
He took one look at me and said, “What’s wrong with you?” meaning, what now? This tiring woe-is-me attitude had become my trademark as I tried to find my footing in life. I glared at him.
“I’m just giving you a hard time,” he said, setting the newspaper down to show I had his full attention. “What’s up?”
“My mother is remarrying,” I said, as if this explained everything.
“Good for her!” His voice was too cheery. “She deserves it.”
“You don’t think she deserves to be happy?”
“Of course, I just….” I stopped when I realized I couldn’t put my feelings into words without sounding self-centered. I wanted her to be happy, but only if I could be happy, too.
In Carl’s steady gaze I saw myself momentarily through his eyes. I sensed his disapproval.
“Well, I’m not going,” I said, crossing my arms across my chest.
Carl shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
We sat there a moment while the light in the studio blinked to signal the end of the current song. Carl pressed a button on the controls, seamlessly segueing to the next tune. The Temptations sang, I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go. I got up to leave, but before the door sealed shut behind me, I heard Carl call, “You’d better at least send flowers, or you’re gonna regret it.” I clenched my fists and walked away, only to spend $30 I didn’t have on a delivery of wildflowers the very next day.
The cool northwest sun began to thaw our gloomy winter days. I was at the station, in the bullpen where the jocks had their desks, reclining in a beat-up chair orphaned in the middle of the room. Carl finished his shift and was re-filing LPs in a cabinet behind his desk. He slid them into place, a smooth and reverent motion, careful not to bang the corners of the sleeves.
“I ran into Mary the other day,” said Dale, the evening guy, from across the room. The spiky hair of his mullet bounced above his forehead as he spoke.
“Oh yeah?” said Carl. “What’s she up to?”
“She quit radio. She’s working in marketing now.”
“Good for her,” said Carl.
“That’s crazy,” I interrupted, even though I didn’t know Mary. “Why would she quit radio?”
Dale laughed. “Well for one thing, it pays for shit.”
“Yeah, but don’t you do it because you love it?”
“Sure, I do. But it would be nice to not feel raped when I get my paycheck every week, too.”
I told Dale I chose to work in radio because I couldn’t imagine life any other way, that you had to stick with things until they rewarded you. I told him I had tried to live a traditional life, telling him about my semester in college and how it hadn’t worked out.
“It’s stupid to change who you are because you can’t hack the rough times,” I concluded.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Tiffany,” said Carl. He’d been cleaning up paperwork on his desk during the conversation, only half-listening, I thought, though I noticed his eyes roll on occasion.
“What? Because I’m 19?” I asked. I felt Carl lorded his 48 years over me, that he believed Vietnam, Haight-Ashbury, and having friends who overdosed gave him insight I could not possibly have achieved during my short time on earth. I wanted my life to matter. I wanted to have had world-class adventures like Carl. I secretly wished I had a friend who’d OD’d.
“When you get older, your priorities will change. You think I ever wanted to work some place like this?” He gestured around the office at the cheap wood paneling and dirty, paper-thin carpets, at the mismatched desks and chairs. While I hung onto the hope that KQ92 would propel me someplace greater, he viewed it as a prison.
“Someday, you will change so much you won’t even recognize yourself,” he said.
“Bullshit. I may live more comfortably, I may make more money, but who I am will never change.”
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Let’s make a date. You and me on your fortieth birthday. We’ll go out to dinner, eat a nice big steak, and I guarantee you’ll look at yourself then and you won’t believe you were once the person you are today.”
“Deal,” I said, and we shook hands. I took the bet because I was sure I’d win. Even though my life wasn’t going as planned, I felt proud of who I was. Though they were harder to see now, I remembered the red ribbons that would lead me to something great, something more. Besides, my fortieth birthday seemed so far away I couldn’t even conceive of it. But I felt confident I would never change, not for anyone or anything.
Over time, the pitfalls of life ground those red ribbons and my dreams into dull gray dust. I came to realize my talent as a broadcaster lacked the luster of those who could succeed in the industry. Two years after I made my deal with Carl, I grew out of my radio phase, tired of the poverty and the thankless work. I returned to Portland, took a regular job in an office, and enrolled in classes at a community college. For a while, Carl and I wrote nearly every week. He wrote long, handwritten letters that lit up my day when I found one in my mailbox.
Before long, I discovered I was as miserable in Portland as I had been in Olympia. The last thing I wanted to acknowledge was that the common denominator of my misery was me. Geography and jobs had little to do with it.
I phoned Carl because I wanted to vent, and I knew I could reach him at the station in the middle of the day.
“How you doing?” he said, an accent on the second word, his familiar greeting.
I vomited a long list of complaints into the phone. When I asked, “Can you believe that?” or “You know what I mean?” I gave him no time to speak before my rapid-fire stream of self-pity began anew.
After a pause he said, “You know, Tiffany, you’ve actually had things pretty easy,” and I exploded. The phrase “broken home” actually passed my lips.
“How long do you think you’re going to keep playing that card?” he asked. I slammed the phone down, feeling betrayed.
After this argument, the letters ceased. We didn’t speak again for over a year.
Then, one day, I showed up in Olympia to visit Dale and some other friends. I didn’t want to deal with Carl, but I went to the station anyway.
I climbed the back stairs and hovered before opening the door because I knew Carl’s cluttered desk sat just around the corner. My watch told me his shift had just ended, and I imagined him leaving the control room, a half filled coffee mug in one hand, a stack of dusty LPs from the 50s and 60s balanced precariously on the fingertips of the other.
I pushed the door slowly open with my foot, then poked my head around the corner. Carl sat behind a desk cluttered with records and paperwork, the blotter barely visible beneath the mess. On the wall next to the desk hung a collage of photos, most of which he took himself. I made out images of wolves and owls, their wild forms clear and distinct in arty black and white. One other picture, far to the side, showed a Carl twenty years younger, hair gathered in a ponytail that cascaded down the middle of his back. Hip huggers with bell-bottoms clung to his body, and a shirt with a long, pointed collar hung from his shoulders. He leaned against a beat-up Volkswagen bus, a row of evergreens towering behind him. I stood there a moment, my eyes flickering across this scene. I compared the seated Carl to the one in the photograph, noticing the wrinkles around his eyes and a world-weary fatigue.
"Hey," he said when he saw me. He raised his eyebrows as always, not smiling, not frowning. "How you doing?" It was as if I’d never left, like not a moment had passed since the day I angrily hung up on him.
We drove to the waterfront to walk on the boardwalk like we used to. The cool March air, clean and crisp, ruffled our hair. I could smell the salt water of Puget Sound, its tendrils spidering under the edge of downtown. I kept my eyes to the ground as we walked, watching the water under my feet between the wooden planks of the pier. I’d walked this path a hundred times before with Carl, but somehow, my footfalls sounded hollow on this march.
We stopped at the Dancing Goat, ordered cups of hot chocolate, and sat at a small table in a corner of the crowded café. I leaned back in my chair, looked at Carl, then glanced down the exposed brick wall where a small collection of his wilderness photographs hung neatly on display. A simple placard credited him, though in this town, it was hardly necessary. Any Olympian who saw those pictures, those black and white photographs of beautiful beasts in the wild, would recognize Carl’s work.
We went through the motions of a friendship we once knew, our dialogue forced. Lengthy discussions on the meaning of life turned to small talk.
"So. How's life?" he asked.
"Going to school?"
He tapped his right foot under the table, looked out the window to the traffic moving slowly by on State Street. I felt apprehensive, uneasy. We had stretched our friendship to the limits, and it was hesitant to snap back to its old familiar shape. Still, I had hope.
"You still got the studio?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, nodding, a little enthusiasm showing through. "Got a concert coming up this Friday. The jazz group, you know."
None of Carl's artist friends had names. Neither did the bands. Like Carl, his friends felt themselves beyond commercialism. To put a name to something was to try and sell it, and god forbid they should ever benefit from their talent. Thus, a band was simply "the jazz group" or "the steel drums," and someone else would be "the girl who paints barns" or "that guy who plays bass with Jimmie." A group of them joined together to rent a building next to the railroad tracks, where they erected a stage and surrounded it with private artist studios. Carl’s darkroom was there. The studio, located at 321 Jefferson, was simply called Studio 321.
Before I knew it, before the ice that froze our relationship could begin to melt, our time together expired. I had showed up unexpectedly; Carl had other commitments. I had other friends, other towns to move on to before the day was done. I left him at Studio 321 that day. He retreated into the depths of his darkroom like a wolf into a cave, his glittering eyes, deep, dark, and penetrating, the last thing I saw as the door clicked shut. I imagined his lupine form moving carefully between vats of fixer in a wilderness he knew well enough to brave in complete darkness.
Over the next seven months, I thought of Carl on occasion, especially on my birthday, as I slouched slowly toward forty and our steak dinner. Sometimes I forgot about him for weeks, months. Then I'd see a photograph of a wolf in National Geographic, smell hot chocolate coming off the table next to me in a cafe, and wonder what he was doing. During this time, I laid awake nights composing letters to him in my head, convinced I'd found some way to repair the misfiring mechanisms of our friendship, only to wake the next morning and tell myself I would be wiser to leave things as they were. But deep down, I didn’t want to leave things as they were, a friendship forgotten and left to die.
Finally, I sat down and wrote a letter. The ink rolled easily from pen to paper. I didn’t try to recount my life or place blame. I didn’t try to solve the mystery of our stalled relationship. I simply told him I missed him. I said I’d done a lot of growing up. I said I considered him a second father, a brother, a friend. I sealed it, stamped it, and threw the letter in the mail.
After a month passed, I figured Carl had made his decision. I began to forget about him, or I tried to. Then one day I opened my mailbox to discover an envelope marked with his deliberate pen stroke. Inside was a three-page letter, written by Carl with a familiar ease. It was as if the letters had never stopped coming. It was like the way he greeted me that day in Olympia: "How you doing?" And I had Carl back, once again.
Not too long after this, my life shifted gears again. I dropped out of college for the second time and headed to Los Angeles. Portland had begun to feel claustrophobic and I itched to go somewhere I thought would harness my potential. I told people my job had transferred me to L.A., afraid to tell them I’d really gone there to write, to live in a city filled with artists where I believed I might finally feel at home.
Before long, the lengthy letters between Carl and me trickle to short, disjointed emails. Without understanding why, I had broken away from him as I became responsible for my own life. My mundane job took up more time than I expected, and I began to drink and party too much. My creative writing stalled.
I’d submitted a handful of stories to literary magazines and most of my manuscripts were returned unread.
I thought of Carl often, mostly because, as I stumbled into adulthood, I began to realize he might have been right about changing. I thought of him when I gave up writing and threw myself into a job I hated, and when I became the other woman (the first time), something I said I would never do. I thought of Carl a year after I quit drinking, when I celebrated twelve months of sobriety by telling a roomful of alcoholics how my life had evolved from destructive to constructive. I thought of him when I realized life is too short to hate your job, and I made a rocky transition to a career in the entertainment industry. In short, I thought of Carl every single time I realized I’d changed into someone I never thought I’d be, not with disappointment, but with awe.
I emailed him on occasion – when I got married, when I got divorced – and though he tended not to respond, I didn’t let this upset me. I knew Carl would remember our date, which grew closer and closer with each passing year.
In 2007, I got a call from Dale, the old night guy from KQ92. I hadn’t talked to him in over a decade, and I smiled when I heard his voice. He asked how I was and we shared a laugh about the old control room microphone that reeked of cigarette smoke. For the briefest moment, I felt nineteen again. Then Dale cleared his throat.
“Hey, kiddo,” he began, using the nickname he’d given me when we first met.
“I’ve got bad news.”
I held my breath.
“Carl’s dead,” he said.
I couldn’t exhale, couldn’t think.
“He had throat cancer. I guess he’d been sick for awhile.”
“Wow,” is all I could say. I thought of the times I’d meant to call Carl and the times I’d put it off, thinking we’d always have that dinner on my fortieth birthday to catch up. I’d thought many times of how proud he would be to see the matured and responsible adult I’d become. I thought of how I would gladly admit he had been so very, very right when he’d told me I would change so much I wouldn’t be able to recognize myself. But he was gone. I was only 36 years old, four years shy of turning forty.
My breath came hard and shallow as if I’d had the air knocked out of me, which, in a way, I had. I told Dale I’d talk to him soon then hung up, expelling all the air from my lungs until I felt empty. When I could no longer suppress my quivering jaw and the burning in my throat, I gave in to the tears that I shed for
Carl, and for all the lost time I wished I had back.
I was unable to make it up north for Carl’s funeral. My job was too demanding, and I felt guilty that even now, I could not make time. Dale told me about the ceremony later, about all the photographs on display at the reception afterwards, and how he saw a photo of me on the wall, the photo of me in Carl’s chair.
In the 1980s, some photographer shot a series featuring an old, beat-up couch. He hauled the couch all over the world and photographed it in interesting places. The couch travelled to the Eiffel Tower, to the Berlin Wall, to Ayers Rock. Carl couldn’t afford to travel, but he had a big, funky, upholstered armchair in his studio. He invited artist friends over – radio personalities, musicians, writers, local celebrities – and photographed them sitting in the chair. Some lay across it, some turned their backs to the camera. Some sat upside down, their laughter caught by Carl’s lens. Each photograph had as much personality as the subject.
One day, while hanging out with Carl at the station, he said to me, “I want you to come down to my studio. I’ll take a picture of you in the chair.”
I felt honored. Most of the people in the chair photos were locally famous, and I was nobody. Even at the radio station, I ranked barely above the receptionist.
He told me to bring my bass guitar, so I lugged it down there, a black Fender Precision bass. Carl knew how much I missed playing, and what it meant to me to be seen as a musician.
He readied his camera and the lights and told me to sit down. I felt small in the chair, insignificant.
“What should I do?” I asked.
“You’ve got a bass,” he said. “How ‘bout playing it?”
I pressed the meaty part of my fingertips to the strings. Once calloused, my fingers had become tender, and I could feel the stout bass strings bite my flesh. The worn sole of my shoe tapped the floor of the studio as I began to play a walking bass line. I felt the corners of my mouth rise slowly, my hands getting back into the groove of playing. I looked up at him and smiled. I felt happy and good for the first time since I don’t know when, perhaps since before my parents split up.
A flash exploded. I heard the shutter of Carl’s camera click, then the ratcheting sound of film advancing.
“See,” said Carl. “You’re a natural.”
In that moment, I believed him.