I was driving And I saw a man.
Not just any man, but a man who looked like my friend Carl. He had the right shades, right hair, and the right Carhart jacket. I wanted to pull my car over and run up and hug him. Instead, I pulled over on the side of the road and cried. I cried so hard, for I wished so much this man could be Carl. For if it was then he would be alive. They would both be alive.
Carleton, or Carl, was my best friend’s husband. He holds a special place in my heart, not because he was Cheryl’s husband, he was my friend as well. I didn’t get to know Carl right off. In the early days of my friendship with Cheryl, I was still raising my sons. She and my time together was limited to work, or racing home to watch our favorite, recorded TV shows at lunch. It was during lunchtime that Carl would pop in and grab lunch, but he wouldn’t say much.
In 2013, I moved on my own to Concord. Cheryl and Carl were right there to help me move into my new place, down the road from them. I was living on a shoestring, and they would ask me to do small computer or electronic projects for them. These projects would always turn out to be unspoken dinner invites. Nothing was said, but they didn’t want me to go hungry. Carl was an incredible cook! For a while though, he would sit quietly while we girls chatted away.
One Friday night, Cheryl and I were chatting away on the couch and Carl was making pizza. This would become our first “Friday night Pizza night”. The house was always a work project. In as well as he could cook, he was a fantastic carpenter as well. The living room and master bedroom at this time did not have sheetrock up. He had reinsulated the walls, and they were covered in plastic. Much to her dislike, squirrels and other little critters had decided that it was fun to run around behind the plastic. Occasionally, one would bust through and Sophie (cat) would run in one direction as Kiddin (cat) would try to catch it. This particular night the cats were sleeping on the job.
As we were chatting, a baby squirrel came flying across the living room floor. Cheryl let out a stream of colorful expressions. I just sat and watched. Carl, who was up to his elbows in pizza dough, calmly picked up a broom, walked out of the kitchen, and bopped the poor squirrel on the head. He then turned picked up the dustpan, scooped up said the squirrel, opened the slider, and placed (not tossed) it on the ground. Luckily it appeared to be only stunned and no squirrels were killed in this story.
He walked to the kitchen, washed his hands, and addressed me: “so what do you like on your pizza?” Without skipping a beat, I replied: “squirrel brains would be nice.”
Both of them were quiet. Then Cheryl let loose her belly laugh and I looked up to see Carl grinning from ear to ear. He looked at me and said: “you, I am going to like having you around”. He accepted me. My quirkiness, my insecurities, my photo ideas. Everything Cheryl and I did as best friends, he would watch, sometimes shake his head, but never criticize us.
After that night we were bonded.
Carl had the most amazing voice. And the first time I ever heard him sing, they were dragging me and a friend of ours to a “drunken barn dance”. It was a singles dance, but they liked going. On route to the dance, Meatloaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Lights came on the radio. Carl and our friend started singing at the top of their lungs. They were good. Cheryl and I loved to sing along too, but normally the cats would go running when we did. He was amazing!
When I first heard him sing “The Dance” to her at Karaoke. My heart melted. When he looked at her, there was nothing else in the room. You could feel the love and emotion in his voice. I turned to her and said, “you are the luckiest woman in the world to have a man so devoted to you. I hope someday to find a man, who can love like Carl.”
Once again, in 2014, they moved me again. It was a freezing, cold day and we were expecting a blizzard. But I was in an unsafe situation and they both wanted me out of it as soon as possible. So we loaded up 2 trucks and a car (which looked like the Clampetts) and drove 20 miles north to my new digs. We started at 6 am and by 2 pm, my furniture was all in place and put together. We still had our Friday nights, and many nights during the week.
On weekend shopping excursions, Cheryl and I would come back to the house with our bargains. Carl and I would banter back and forth about “savings and deals”. He was under the impression that if you bought $400 worth of stuff and got it for $150 because you had Kohl’s bucks and 30% off, it wasn’t a deal. Because “you had to spend the money in the first place.” How silly is that thought? All women know you saved $250.
The hot rod
When he retired, he decided he was going to build a hot rod. Because Carl wasn’t just a dreamer, he was a doer. I admired him for it. Such a project to undertake at 70. He also devoted himself to finishing all the projects around the house they still wanted to get done. Yes, the walls were up long before this, shortly after the squirrel. The kitchen, the roof (we won’t go there, but damn it looks good!), and building her the custom bathroom with special shelving for her shoes and pocketbook closet.
Every Friday night during COVID and beyond became our special time. I would come in and the first thing I would do was ask him about his latest projects. Update me on the Hot Rod and show me everything he had done. The pride would show in his face and he would animate, a far change from his normal modesty.
The final night
The universe has its way of making things work the way they should. February 4th brought an ice storm. I stayed home from work that night and my karate class was canceled. Pizza night was not going to happen, because they were heading to their daughter’s birthday party. I drove down to do their taxes that night and joined them at the party. On the way over, we took my car. My windshield wiper had shredded on the way down to their house and I was planning on replacing it the next day. Carl said to pull over at O’Rielly’s. We did and he jumped out of the car. I opened my door to follow and he said, nope stay in there.
In the parking lot of O’Rielly’s in the sleet, he changed out my wipers. As he got back in the car he said, “you do so much for us, I just want to be able to sleep tonight, knowing you are safe”. His last gesture of friendship to me on earth was to make sure I was safe. That is who Carl was.
One final unearthly act
I believe that those who love us, protect us from beyond the grave. A day shy of 3 weeks after their deaths, I decided that I was going to go to the Karate studio and help with the kids’ classes. David was staying at the house, and I was going to come back and take my class via zoom. It started to snow, shortly before I left the studio. I was already nervous about driving in the snow. Their accident, plus my own was creating some PTSD. Three miles from home and my car hit some black ice. How the guy behind me and oncoming traffic did not stop, nor hit me is beyond me.
My car spun into the oncoming lane and then back into my lane. I was panicked but still knew what to do. In an instant, I felt arms holding me tight, Cheryl said, “I’m holding on to you.” My hands somehow straightened the wheel and Carl calmly said “I’ve got this”. The rest of the way home, there was a warmth in the car. I knew they were getting me home safely.
And now, I’m glad I didn’t know. The way it all would end. The way it all would go. Our lives are better left to chance. I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance. Garth Brooks, The Dance