Inspired by the life of Karen Carpenter and her love of the drums.
Karen heard The End of the World on the radio at least once every other day the year they moved. The first time, they’d all been in the living room late one night after dinner. It was March and still cold in New Haven. Richard was in the midst of a conversation with their Mother and Father about all of the musical opportunities he’d have in Los Angeles. She, invisible, read Seventeen a few feet away. They’d had the radio on, but no one was really listening. Two days before, they’d been informed of the move. “Just think,” Richard said to her later, “it’s warm and sunny there all the time.” Still, Karen did not want to go. She liked New Haven. She had a life in New Haven.
The song that had been on the radio before “And now, Miss Skeeter Davis,” said the radio host.
A soft female voice began to sing.
Why does the sun go on shining?
Why does the sea rush to shore?
Don’t they know, it’s the end of the world,
‘cause you don’t love me anymore.
A nice song, but Karen didn’t pay much attention. She continued reading the magazine, her mind in a million directions. There was an article about summer fashions, and the model was impossibly beautiful. Her figure was perfect, her clothes flawless, and looking at her made Karen feel uncomfortable in her own skin. She didn’t understand why some people got to be attractive, and she was stuck with her with her crooked smile, flat hair and plump face.
That night, she laid in bed and cried.
She heard it a few more times after that, but the first time she really listened, they were driving cross country, somewhere in Nebraska. Dusk. A half hour before, they’d resolved to stop for dinner at a the nearest place they saw, but there was scarcely anything out on the roads. Karen examined her brother, sitting beside her in the back seat, dozing off. He was seventeen, already so sure of himself. She wanted to be more like him. She often listened to him play the piano, and wished she could be as good at something.
Their mother turned on the radio, and it came on, mid verse.
I wake up in the morning and I wonder
Why everything’s the same as it was
Karen had never been in love. She had only just turned thirteen, after all, but something inside of her stirred. The emotion in the singer’s voice was consuming, and Karen felt everything that she did.
As the song ended, they pulled up at a Friendly’s. Karen wasn’t as hungry as she thought she’d be, and only ate half her burger.
Once they settled into their new house in Downey, everything more or less became routine. The End of the World played many more times on the radio that year, and whenever it did, Karen was always transported. She’d begun singing it to herself too. Once, she was in her bedroom, and her mother called to her from the hallway. “Karen?”
“What?” she responded, annoyed that she’d been interrupted.
“Is that you?”
“Yes.” Her mother didn’t say anything further, and she didn’t think much of it.
That summer, Karen spent a lot of time on their front lawn with a few neighbor boys. That afternoon, they were playing baseball. Running for the ball, Karen tripped, falling flat on her face. She was all right, but her jeans were stained with grass. She didn’t know her mother was watching.
She told the other boys that it was getting late, that they’d best go home, and ushered Karen inside. Once she changed into clean clothes and her mother had put her jeans in the wash, she was free for an hour until dinner. The sound of the piano in the basement called to her.
Richard didn’t notice her come in right away. Finally, she loudly announced her presence with a “hi”. He turned. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“I dunno,” he responded. “Just practicing.”
They were surrounded by a massive record collection. There was everything from the classical musicians their parents loved to Bobby Vee and their new favorites, The Beatles. “Let’s listen to The Beatles,” she said. “Please please please.”
Richard smiled tiredly. He put on their record, and they listened to it and just talked. What called her most about the album wasn’t Paul’s vocals or George’s guitar riffs, but Ringo’s drumming. She tapped along with her hands as it played, but nonetheless kept this feeling to herself.
The next year, she started high school. At registration she was informed that she could avoid gym class if she joined the band. She started as a percussionist, but spent every practice eying her friend Frankie and his drum. Eventually, they’d convinced the director to let them switch.
From then on, everything was the drums.
It took awhile to convince Richard to let her play. All of this time, he’d continued his daily practice in their basement. He’d become quite good himself, but as he’d reflect on later, there was something missing. Something he’d find in his own home.
Ever since she started playing the drums in band, she brought her drumsticks home and played them and the tables and the furniture. She listened to The Beatles records over and over, trying to copy Ringo’s drumming. Within months she’d taught herself complicated rhythms and beats. When her parents told her to stop, she begged them to buy her a drum kit. They said no, it was too expensive. So she continued when they weren’t looking. Because it took her to another place. One where she didn’t think about any of her problems. One where she actually felt like she had something to contribute to the world. One where she was just as good, if not better, than Richard.
And then one day, she came home from school, and her parents, smiling, told her that they had a surprise for her in the basement.“What is it?” Karen asked.
“Just follow us,” they said.
She screamed when she saw the drum kit sitting there. Not only was it a drum kit, it was a Ludwig drum kit. The same kind Ringo played. Richard sat at the piano, smiling as he watched the scene unfold.
“How did you ever…”
“Enjoy,” said her father. She hugged her parents both tightly. Though they rarely, if ever, showed any kind of emotion, seeing their daughter so happy, they couldn’t help but smile. She leapt to the drum kit, in awe, and couldn’t help but touch it. She was actually sitting behind a Ludwig drum kit.
They turned to both their children. “Don’t be too loud,” they said before ascending the stairs.
“Should we play?” Richard asked.
Karen nodded, her whole body shaking with excitement.
Of late, their favorite song had been The Night Has A Thousand Eyes. So when Richard played the first few keys, she followed.
In that moment, something happened. They weren’t quite in sync. Richard’s vocals were shaky. Karen was still overwhelmed and missed a few beats. But there was something there. They stopped after a few beats, and started over. They exchanged a smile. Something about this felt so right. They’d created something. Something that would take them to a place they never dreamed they could go.