I had lost so much after that May night in 1978 — my summer on the Cape, the college man with whom I had fallen in love, my spleen and part of my liver, and three days of consciousness. Above all of these, I had lost the youthful cloak of invincibility that had seen me through countless daring escapades, mostly fueled by alcohol. I was left raw and vulnerable
I almost lost my life the night my car crashed into the side of a barn after a night of drinking. My forehead was etched in a puzzle pattern from lacerations; my abdomen sported an angry scar that ran from stem to stern. I had healed quickly, thanks to the vigor of youth, but was left with a psychological wound that was much slower to heal. The car accident left me suddenly exposed, aware of how the body, even a young and strong one, could suffer crippling injury or death in an instant. I vowed I was finished taking risks. No more drinking.
By mid-summer, I was sufficiently healed to venture plans with my friends. In July, Karen, Susan, and I rented a cabin for several nights in nearby Green Lakes State Park. The cabin was without TV or phone, but had electricity; we brought a stereo and a supply of albums for a soundtrack to our evenings. Karen and Susan had summer jobs during the day, but we came together every evening. For our last night at the cabin, we planned a special dinner celebration — a barbecue and a campfire.
Late that last afternoon, Susan arrived at the cabin laden with dinner supplies. We fixed our salad and prepared the burger patties as we waited for Karen. When the salad was ready, and the burgers were ready to grill, Karen had not yet returned from work. We decided to wait.
As the sun sank below the treetops and the late evening sky filled with glowing amber, Karen was still not there. Dinner time was long past. We were certain she would not miss our last night at the cabin. Wonder turned to worry.
“Where is Karen? She was excited about this dinner,” I said, pacing around the cabin.
“I know. It’s not like her to blow us off,” Susan replied.
“I wish I knew some of the people at her job. I don’t even know the name of the company. Do you?” I asked.
“No, I feel bad I never asked her,” Susan said.
“Maybe we should go ahead and eat. We can save a plate for her,” I suggested.
Twilight descended, quickly followed by the enveloping pitch-black of night time in the woods. We stared into the crackling fire and listened to the cheeping crickets. I stood up to rearrange logs on the fire, stirring up sparks, red floaters that melted into inky blackness. Our worry was starting to morph into panic.
“What are we going to do? I’m getting really worried,” I said. “Something bad must have happened to Kar. No way would she miss this. We have to call someone.”
“Maybe we can go use the pay phone and start calling around,” Susan offered.
“Yeah, I think the closest pay phone is in Fayetteville. Let’s go call Danny and Michael. Come on,” I said.
None of our friends knew where Karen was; no one had heard from her. My belly burned, a churning knot of anxiety. There was no one else to call but her mother, a decision we knew to take only as a last resort.
“Susan, we have to call her mother. We don’t have a choice. She has to know about this,” I said gravely.
“I know,” Susan said. “If she’s been in an accident, her mother may have heard something. Who knows, maybe she had to go home for something.”
We looked at each other with grim faces. We knew the chances of her being home were remote.
“I don’t want to scare her mother, but we have to do it. We’re going to get her in lots of trouble if she’s just out somewhere,” I added with a weak laugh. I doubted she was out socializing. We had already spoken to most of our friends.
Our fear for Karen’s safety outweighed these concerns. We called her mother. Karen’s mother had no more information than we did. We arranged to call back in two hours to give her mother time to call the police and the local hospitals. Vague panic gave way to sharply-focused fear;something bad had happened to Karen. I was sure of it.
The follow-up phone call yielded no results. There were no reported accidents. Karen was not in any of the hospitals. It was as if she had vanished.
“The police don’t consider her a ‘missing person’ for 24 hours,” her mother told us with a weary voice. “We just have to wait. You girls go back to your place. There’s nothing we can do about it right now.”
We returned to the cabin in heartbroken silence, numbed by the possibility that our worst fears were coming true. Susan retired to bed,while I began an all-night vigil, hoping for the miraculous return of my friend. Surely she would have an explanation for this whole nightmare.
I lit a fire in the stone hearth and put “Sailin’ Shoes,” one of my favorite albums by Little Feat, on the turntable. Only music could loosen the grip of the dark thoughts taking hold of me.
The title track’s lyrical nonsense began to penetrate my perception; some central lines felt like an anthem for this experience:
Doctor, doctor, I feel so bad
This is the worst day, I ever had
The long night was spent in a continuous loop of songs from this album. I was struck by how different these same songs sounded from before all of this horror. I attended to each note, each lyric, as if they offered some sort of message. Each song took-on special meaning. The song “Cold,Cold, Cold,” described the ache in my bones in the middle of the night, as I was wracked with worry:
Cold, cold, cold,
Freezing, it was freezing cold in that hotel
I had no money, my special friend was gone…
Each time the album finished, I stood to lift-up the arm of the turntable and return the needle to the beginning groove of the LP. My eyes burned from a combination of fatigue, worry, and wood smoke. I rubbed them as I studied the lyrics of “Trouble,” which seemed to mirror how I felt in those moments. It was as if the song was written for me:
Well mama lay your head down in the shade
‘Cause your eyes are tired, and your feat (sic) are too
And you wish the world was as tired as you, whoa
Well I’ll write a letter, and I’ll send it away
And put all the trouble in it you had today
As skies lightened and song birds chirped to signal the predawn hour, I was still immersed in the sounds of Little Feat’s Lowell George; the plaintive strains of “Willin'” filled my mind:
If you give me weed, whites, and wine,
and you show me a sign,
I’ll be willin’, to be movin’.
I begged Lowell to send me a sign, to give me back my friend. I would do anything to have Karen back safe.
The rays of pale yellow dawn streamed through the window in a beam of rectangular light, illuminating thousands of dust motes suspended in a silent march. I listlessly stared at the beam of dust. Now I understand how my mother felt those nights when I was out partying, I thought.I pictured her, who on so many nights had kept vigil in the Queen Anne armchair in the living room — how she had sat long hours and prayed for my safe return.How selfish I had been.
The driving guitar strums at the beginning of “Easy to Slip” captured my attention again, the lyrics mirroring my fatigue and resignation:
Well the whole world seems so cold today
All the magic’s gone away
And our time together melts away
Like the sad melody I play
It’s so easy to slip
It’s so easy to fall
And you let your memory drift
And do nothing at all
All the love that you missed
All the people that you can’t recall
Do they really exist at all
Lost in my drifting reverie of loss, I heard the door knob rattle. I watched, disconnected, as the door opened. As if in a dream, Karen stepped into the cabin wearing a halo of sunshine. I stood, stunned, looking in wonder at the friend I had spent the night believing was lost to me. I burst into tears, sobbed with relief.
“Oh, my God!”, Karen exclaimed. “What have I done? What have I done?”
“We th-thought something b-bad had happened to you!”, I cried. “I th-thought you were d-dead! You didn’t sh-show up for the dinner we planned….”
“Oh, my God! I’m so sorry,” Karen said as she hugged me.”I forgot all about our dinner! I went to a party with the people from work. I had too much to drink — I stayed overnight. I’m so sorry that I worried you guys! I can’t believe I missed dinner. I’m so sorry!”
I cried with relief that this whole night had been the result of a careless indiscretion, and that my friend was alive and whole. I had not lost Karen. Life could be cut short so easily. More than anyone else in my circle of friends, I knew the truth behind the lyrics of the songs I had listened to in the darkest hours of that long night: It’s so easy to slip, it’s so easy to fall. At least Karen’s slip had only led to a night of worry for her friends and her mother — my slip had led to my own near-death and to another person’s grave injuries.
Yes, it was easy to slip. I knew that I had slipped, badly, but I had not fallen — at least not yet.
*Published in Memoir Mixtapes, Vol.2, Track 20, January 8th, 2018.