Carl is a good friend and a good storyteller. His tales, stories that get better with each telling, are nominally about him — he was there, after all. But mostly these stories are about the spaces he’s lived and the characters placed upon those stages and the intersections of person, place and things. There’s always a “something” in his story of significance. Ask him about the CB radio or a tail lamp or the pack of cigarettes. Or about how to pour milk after returning from graduate school or interactions of Mormon missionaries with Pittsburgh nuns. I also enjoy the stories I’ve lived with Carl, like the time he had to interrupt telling me he was arranging for me to interview a poet laureate to tell a drive-through cashier he needed a 12-pack of PBR. And then there was the time when he begged out of a dinner plan because, “well, I’m probably going to be getting married.” Within all these there’s a story you’ll want to hear. Sit down and enjoy.
I tell Carl he needs to write these down, whether they become essays or memoirs or fiction, as they would all tell the truth in his careful hands. One story, one that will follow the one explaining the unfinished pack of cigarettes on his shelf, is about cognac. But it isn’t really about the cognac, even though the bottle, too, sits on his shelf. And it isn’t about Normal Mailer, even though that’s who the cognac belongs to in some sense. The story, for me, is about hope.
Carl may write it differently in the end. It could be the more-or-less autobiographical account of how he bought the cognac for Mailer for a conversation during a writing gathering, and how the bottle was barely tapped even at the end of the evening. Nostalgic and appreciating a good drink, Carl made sure he salvaged the bottle and its contents; and today it remains in his home, adjacent to other prized possessions such as the pack of cigarettes and the tail light. The tale could evolve into a story about the writer who owns the bottle that really belongs to a Pulitzer winner, but how the occasional nip of the spirit invokes writing of genius. The problem and plot both thicken as the bottle continues to drain at the same rate that words fill the page. Which happens first: the consumption of the liquor or the telling of the tale?
I’m struck by the promise of this story and the bottle that inspires it because I have my own bottle of a hard-to-come-by Irish whiskey, still half full, in my own cabinet. Bought to share during the writing retreat by my co-author, I had to bring it home. So be it — I shall be responsible for the caretaking of this fine peated single malt. I shared it with Karyn, but once we realized that she didn’t like it I promptly took the glass away from her. The stuff is expensive; it’s hard for me to find in the first place; it’s a souvenir of a good trip and good conversations and productive writing. It is the same elixir, in spirit, that I think Carl has on his own shelf.
We can and preserve lots of things. There are the beets that my friend is going to need to pickle and save in a food pantry. There are the strawberries that our friends picked with us and then shared with us as jam. Scotch and whiskey can last, as far as I can tell, infinitely long on a shelf and only get better with time. Yet, as I’m just realizing, the bottles on the shelf of Carl and myself aren’t meant to be preserved. They signify some memory, some time of productivity or connection with our fellow man, and as much as I want the liquor and the memory to last forever, I realize it’s pointless. We think we can bottle up hope, but in reality I need to pop the cork and pour it in a glass. Like our ambitions and dreams, it needs to be opened up and consumed, even shared.
Eventually, Carl’s story may be completely different — and I can’t wait to read it — because his stories really are all about hope, condensing upon themes of dreams and despair and everything in between. For now, for me, I think I’ll pour myself a drink.