Friday, February 14, 2014

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Eight: Human Omelet

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It’s been a rough, rough week, but things are beginning to look better. Friday night at Karz was freakishly normal; Saturday morning is freakishly abnormal – as in sunny. In Washington, in October, you don’t expect this. The logical response is to visit my sand dollars.
            I take the trail at the back of the Craigs’ lot and follow its snaky curves down to the Y-camp. The sugar maples make a fiery yellow ring around the basketball court. I stop at the free-throw line to wallow in a slice of sunlight.
            It’s off-season now, but the ranger was nice enough to give me the combination to the boathouse. Ten minutes later, I am shadowing the spine of the inlet, peering through preternaturally clear water to my jumbled colony of dollars.
            I’m betting there are lots of folks who don’t get to see them in their natural environment, so let me clarify something about sand dollars. Those white things that you find at the beach are skeletons. Imagine the same item with a coating of coarse purple-green fur, and you’ve got the real live deal.
            I am startled landward by the distinctive bark of TV’s Lassie, and I look up to find Java, wide-stanced on a boulder, delighted at his discovery. John Craig pops from the trees ten feet behind, at the end of one of those fishing-reel leashes, dressed in sweat pants, a T-shirt and a headband. John treats everything like a workout, and it shows. At seventy, he’s in better shape than most people my age (and is trying for better, preparing for a reunion of his old Navy squadron).
            “Hey!” I shout. I wince at the volume, but then I remember that, for most people, 11 a.m. is not early.
            “Oh!” John spies me and waves. “I thought Java was after another seagull.”
            “Training for VP-21?”
            “I ain’t goin’ for Mister Congeniality!”
            “You’re going to make those old Navy guys feel bad!”
            Java performs a time-step on the boulder and lets out a stutter of half-yelps, overstimulated by all the hollering.
            “Hold on a second!” says John. “I’ll be right there!”
            “You will?”
            Dog and master disappear around the corner, and I feel like I’ve been abandoned – until I find a rowboat tracing the shore, afro silhouette at the prow. John pulls his way to my spot and plants his oar in the water for a brake. Java is stiff on his haunches, a perfect triangle of dog. John grabs an oar by the blade and extends the handle to me.
            “Hold on to this. It’ll keep us from drifting apart.”
            “Does Floy know you’ve got a boat?”
            “I don’t. This belongs to Jerry Flores, my VP at the homeowners’ association. He’s got a private dock just around the corner. It’s a great upper-body workout.”
            I roll my eyes. “Yeah yeah. Everything’s a workout. Your dog is exceptionally calm.”
            John lets out a husky laugh. “More like petrified. He lost his balance once and found out just how cold the Puget Sound is.”
            I’ve never quite been able to figure it out, but John’s face carries trace elements of several multi-ethnic celebrities. The soulful brown eyes belong to Desi Arnaz, the oval face and prominent nose to Bill Cosby, the swept-back widow’s peak to Jerry Lee Lewis, the broad forehead to Harry Belafonte. I wonder sometimes if I have just made all this up.
            “Is the water heater behaving?” I ask. (This is the latest of many home-ownership challenges.)
            “Sadly, no,” he says. “I’m having a plumber come out tomorrow. It’s pretty old, so it might be time to get a new one, regardless.”
            “I haven’t had a problem at all,” I say. “But then, I guess I shower at odd hours.”
            “You’re also downhill from the heater. We’re at the point where gravity makes a difference.” He looks around and reaches over to ruffle Java’s mop-top. “Pretty amazing day we’ve got going.”
            “Yeah, it’s great,” I say, but my thoughts are elsewhere. There’s some question I’ve been meaning to ask John. It escapes my mouth of its own accord.
            “John, were there times in your Navy days when you thought you might… die?”
            “Hmmm…” He rubs the back of his neck, giving the question a good going-over. “Most of the time, in a crisis situation, you’re too busy troubleshooting to fully comprehend the danger. On the other hand, if you had danger, and a lot of time to think about it – there’s your devil’s brew.”
            “So the hardest part,” I say, “is the waiting.”
            “When we were stationed in Maine, I was sent out on the October Missile Crisis. Flew a P-3 Orion over the Atlantic, looking for Russian subs. The strange part was kissing Floy goodnight, telling her I couldn’t tell her anything – when of course she knew exactly what was going on. We were surrounded by it. It all turned out so well, in the end, I think we all forget what a powder keg that was.”
            “Amen.” I’m suddenly more impressed with John, knowing that he was a small part of history.
            “Another time, also in Maine, I was in a much more specific danger. We were out on a routine patrol when the entire Eastern Seaboard was socked in by a blizzard. They kept telling me to stay put up there, and I kept watching my fuel gauges get lower and lower. I wasn’t scared so much as intensely anxious. They finally had to bring us down or we were coming down on parachutes. I had quite a reputation for my landings, for making them as smooth as possible, but I needed some luck on that one, because we were working entirely on instruments. May as well have had Ray Charles flying that plane. But I remember thinking of something my commander told me: ‘Life demands every bit of our strength, so we give it. Then it demands more, so we give that, too.’ There’s no decision up there – you just do what you have to do.
            “Well. I didn’t mean to go on. But inactivity, loss of control – there’s your big scary monsters. When my eyes went bad, and they took away my flight time, that’s when I had to call it quits. I can still navigate a rowboat, though.”
            “Thanks to Ensign Java.” I give our friend an awkward slap to the ribcage. Java’s still too anxious to move, but his eyes get big at the sound of his name. And by now I’ve forgotten why I needed to ask that question.

            I love being a flapper. I love my grandma’s old dress; it’s a tight-fitting cocoon, draping down in overlapping tiers, giving me a beautiful, lean silhouette. After that it’s a goofy-long string of fake pearls, a pageboy wig from a costume shop, and entirely too much makeup, like Mary Pickford in a silent movie. I picture myself draped over a piano, whispering Gershwin tunes to a roomful of men with slicked-back hair and spats.
            Yeah, yeah. Silly. But it’s Halloween – I’m allowed. Perhaps this masquerade is just what the doctor ordered. Lord knows, it hasn’t been much fun being me lately. Let’s just hope they don’t notice I wore this same dress last year.
            My regulars are dressing to type. Harry’s a dashing mafioso, pinstripe suit, dark shirt, white tie, rakish fedora. Shari’s a Blues Brother: dark shades, black suit, skinny tie, white shirt. Caroleen’s a full-on hippie chick: tie-dyed shirt, hiphugger jeans, fringy leather vest and round purple Lennon spectacles. Kevin’s a Keystone Kop: high bobbie hat, long coat, gigantically wide belt and a Charlie Chaplin mustache. (Hamster’s taken a rare night off for a party in Federal Way. I imagine him dressed as an actual hamster, but I doubt he’d ever do it.)
            It’s also fun to watch the song selections. I kick things off with “Superstition,” Harry does “Spooky,” and then (because somebody has to) Kevin tries out “Monster Mash.” Then Caroleen does “Mama, He’s Crazy,” which actually sort of fits. A quartet of guys from Pacific Lutheran University kick in with “Werewolves of London,” “Thriller” (complete with zombie dance and Vincent Price monologue), “Dead Man’s Party” and “Godzilla.” It’s amazing how many songs fit into the Halloween genre.
            Which is why the next seems grossly out of place. I’m also having a hard time making out the name.
            “Al? Al Lofus?” I’m surprised to find Harry, Kevin, Shari, Caroleen and Alex heading my way. Harry takes the mic.
            “All of us,” he says. “We wanted to make a little presentation. We know, Channy, that you’ve been having sort of a tough time lately, and we thought this might be a good time” - he drops into a Tony Soprano accent – “to let you know exactly what we think of you.”
            Caroleen snickers. Harry hands the mic to Shari.
            “You see,” she says, “we just come here three, four times a week, and we’re the ones who get to have all the fun – and the whole time you’re working. And yes, we know it’s your job, but you’re so good at it – so good at making each one of us feel so special and cared for, and we really appreciate that.”
            She hands the mic to Kevin. “So we got you a gift,” he says. “Something to go with that sexy flapper’s outfit. Here.”
            He pulls an arm from behind his back and offers a long, thin gift box, wrapped in silver foil. I unwrap it and pull out a long black cigarette holder. I clamp it between my teeth like FDR.
            “So what you’re saying is, I’m in a costume rut.”
            “It’s not a rut when it works,” says Harry, all Skye Masterson (what’s next, Robert Deniro?). “We got you this, too.”
            This box is small and square, containing a silver necklace with a treble-clef pendant.
            “Oh guys,” I say. “It’s gorgeous!”
            “Now,” says Kevin, slapping a nightstick against his palm. “Put on the damn CD so we can sing to ya.”
            “Yessir!” I reply.
            I spend the next five minutes at an elevation far above sea level, soaring over Gig Harbor like a figure in a Chagall painting as my regulars take turns singing “You Are So Beautiful.” I study my silver clef, radiant in the stage light, and think, This must be what a teacher feels like on the last day of school, when her students surprise her with a present.
            Still, the attention is a bit much for me, so I’m almost glad when it’s over. We exchange hugs all around and then I pick out “H-E-L-L” by the Squirrel Nut Zippers and slap it on the CD changer.

            Our esprit de corps is short-lived. There is a song slip in my lineup that bears the name “Ruby.” I have learned to detest gemstones, and I can’t believe that she’s come back, she who performed such a handy little female castration. Why does the world produce such people?
            So I dread the passing of singers, I dread how she works her way to the top. I also dread her choice, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” which is dreadfully clever, and I dread the unwritten KJ code that keeps me from taking a match to her song slip.
            When I call her name, she’s a flapper. My exact dress, in red. A goofy-long string of black pearls, a black cigarette holder, and, oh gosh, a gold serpentine necklace with a teardrop ruby pendant. The two of us are like a very small production of Chicago. I try hard not to notice her – which is easy, because she’s ignoring me, taking her usual torch-singer perch on the stool.
            The arrangement is lush, orchestral. It’s from a collection of standards that don’t get too many requests. Very few have the talent to sing them. Ruby closes her eyes and gives voice to the first line as if she’s thinking out loud, minor-chord intervals shifting like a thin fog through trees. It makes me wish I were in love.
            Something’s wrong. She disconnects, manages to finish the second verse but then she folds her hands, takes a huffy breath and levels a stare in my direction.
            “What the hell is this? This is not the arrangement I asked for. Fucking incompetent. I can’t believe…”
            The she stops, because it’s hard to talk when someone slaps your face. And there I am, standing in front of her, screaming a little speech I’ve been practicing since Thursday.
            “If you hate this place so much then WHY DO YOU KEEP COMING BACK!? No one treats me like this and no one talks shit about my singers. And, for you information, I put on exactly the CD that you asked for, because unlike other people I am not an EVIL FUCKING BITCH!”
            My performance sets her back a bit. Perhaps she thought the injured lamb was the only act in my repertoire. But I’ll give her this much – she recovers quickly.
            “It won’t be hard to find a better place than this backwoods shithole. Fuck… you… all.”
            And she makes a grand exit, like she always does. My regulars, who have finally recovered from hearing animal shrieks out of sweet Channy’s mouth, give her a round of boos and hisses worthy of a melodrama villain. After she’s gone, they break into a rousing applause. It takes quite a while before I realize it’s for me. I put on my best Academy Award smile.
            “Thank you! Thanks evah so much. I love you all, truly I do. Now, can we sing some songs? Eric, get your ass up here before I rip you a new one!”
            Eric catches the gag and races to the mic. Sliding his choice, “Hard to Handle,” into the changer, I consider the damage that a public shouting match can do to an evening of karaoke, and decide to go on with my “bit.”
            “So,” I say. “I suppose you think that just because this is by the Black Crowes, it qualifies as a Halloween song?”
            Eric cowers like the Scarecrow before Oz. Bless the boy, he’s got stage sense.
            “Y-yes, Mistress KJ?”
            “See me after class, young man! I’ve got some erasers you can… bang together.”
            It gets a laugh – that’s enough. I start the song and leave my post, heading to my regulars for some much-needed social affirmation. Shari greets me with a big Oprah hug.
            “Honey,” she says. “I’ve never been prouder.”
            “Thanks. I hope that scares the little witch away. Helluva singer, though.”
            Shari holds me at a bemused arm’s length. “Your musical objectivity knows no bounds.”

            A half hour later, we’re nearing the bottom of the barrel. Harry does “Rock Lobster” just for the Munsters organ music, then Sergio, one of the college boys, takes on “Jeremy,” that Pearl Jam song about the high school kid who shoots all his classmates.
            Followed by a gunshot, which startles Sergio out of his song. He spins around as a second shot spatters the window with a phlegmy sunburst.
            Kevin the Keystone Kop, fully inflated by a half-dozen brewskis, stumbles to his feet to declare the obvious.
            “Eggs! Evidently some sort of Halloween…” (wait for it, wait for it) “Prank! This! is a job for a. Constabulary!”
            “Yeh!” says Harry, all Sly Stallone. “Do we got wonna dose?”
            Kevin’s on his way to the door, nighstick at the ready.
            “Kevin!” I shout. “Take it easy. It’s just kids.”
            My plea for mercy is answered by a trio of eggs, striking the window in a yolky constellation.
            “Give ‘em hell, Kevin!”
            Kevin dashes outside, suddenly coordinated. We hear shouting, and the scuffling of footsteps. A minute later, in comes Kevin trailing a red flapper in handcuffs. I guess I’m not entirely surprised.
            “I have apprehended this prostitute in the parking lot,” Kevin announces. (He seems to think he’s in a Vaudeville melodrama.) “From her attire, I’d say she was trolling for senior citizens.”
            I walk over and stand at a safe distance to give my appraisal. Gem-girl is ready to claw and/or bite anything that comes close. It’s a good thing we’ve got a genuine cop holding her back.
            “Helly, Ruby.” I throw in as much sneer as possible. “If that’s your real name.”
            “Let me fucking go!” she hisses. “Let me go or I’ll call the cops.”
            Kevin almost buckles laughing. Harry comes up to assess the situation, flipping a silver dollar as he speaks.
            “She does have a point. According to habeus corpus subjiciendum polly wolly doodle, we really can’t hold her without a charge. But perhaps we could solve the problem by jumping directly to the punishment.”
            Kevin uses a foot to nudge forward Ruby’s grocery bag, which still contains four dozen eggs. “And why not make the punishment fit the crime?”
            This is how ten otherwise normal adults find themselves tying Zelda Fitzgerald to a deck railing and lining up a firing squad, armed entirely with eggs. It’s utterly logical in design – overshots will land harmlessly in the water (though I’m not sure the Russell Foundation would approve). I have given Ruby a certain level of eye protection with the Elvis sideburn sunglasses, and duct-taped her mouth to keep her screams from attracting any non-Keystone cops.
            I’m beginning to think that we have wandered into something criminal, or at least barbaric. These thoughts disappear, however, as Kevin kneels at my feet and presents me with a perfect white ovoid.
            “First offended, first avenged,” he says.
            I approach the railing with deliberate steps, running the cool enamel skin across my lips. I stop and hold the egg to her face, savoring the look of anger and anxiety beneath her sunglasses.
            You… are a lovely singer, Ruby. As a human being, however, you suck eggs. And that’s why we’re here.”
            I tear off Ruby’s pageboy wig, revealing short pinned-back hair. I hold the egg at the top of her head, cover it with the wig, and press down on the whole assemblage with a delicious crack. Trails of yolk descend her forehead. I smile, walk to the side – well out of range – and I declare “Gentlemen! You may fire when ready!”
            What follows is hard to describe. The public execution of a transvestite Elvis – were Elvis’s blood composed of a viscous yellow-white fluid. Ruby’s body bursts forth in splatter after splatter. After thirty seconds, the flapper dress is caked with goo. I am utterly enjoying myself.
            Schadenfreude, however, has its limits. After taking the first barrage with a defiant posture, Ruby curls to one side and slowly sinks to the deck, dangling from her handcuffs. She’s sobbing, which is entirely unfair. But alas, I do have a conscience. I take a step into the firing zone and hold up a hand.
            “Hold it, guys! That’s enough. Harry, can you get me some damp towels?”
            Eric the college dramatist complains: “But we’ve still got a dozen left! What’ll we do with ‘em?”
            Eric’s chums immediately savage him with eggs. He runs inside, squealing “Assholes! Assholes!”
            Kevin undoes Ruby’s cuffs, as Harry returns with a towel. I remove the Elvis glasses and start with Ruby’s forehead, making sure that nothing drips into her eyes, which are closed and flooding with tears. I’ll be damned, but I’m beginning to feel sorry for her.
            “Ruby, Ruby. How can you sing so beautifully and still be such a raving bitch?”
            “Try…” she chokes, and stops to sniffle. I hand her a fresh towel so she can wipe her nose. “Try putting yourself in front of every fucking director in New York for eleven fucking years, and being rejected by each and every one. Try doing that when you know exactly how good you are.”
            I peel off the pageboy wig and run a towel across her hair
            “Oh yeah?” I say. “Try having your husband put a bullet through his head.”
            So this is what finally brings it out. A pity contest with a human omelet. We compare tragedies. I win.

Photo by MJV

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