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Moving to a new state, meeting a boy, shacking up. Lots of people do these things, they’re downright ordinary – but I couldn’t believe they had happened to me, and in such a short time. I was also lost in the particulars of the boy – the boy who gloried in slaying imaginary beings, who obsessed over military equipment, who brought me flowers at the least-expected moments and made love more tenderly than I knew a boy could. I pictured myself driving a tractor through the long valley of Harvey – this field with soy beans, that with weeds, tulips followed by brambles, wheat, hard-baked pan. Were all men such checkerboards?
His first weekend away came at the end of August. I woke to a soldier in my doorway, dressed in jungle fatigues. It repelled me; it excited me. I wanted to run in claustrophobic terror. I wanted to adopt a foreign accent and proceed directly to role-playing. Oh, American soldier boy. Save me from the Cossacks!
He grinned rather loopily. “I’m off to the front, baby. Tonight we take Tacoma.”
“You look handsome.”
“I feel like I’m going to a freakin’ costume party.”
“You’ll be fine.” I rolled out of bed and slipped my arms around his waist. “One thing, though. That smartass sense of humor that I so absolutely adore?”
“You might want to suppress that.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He gave me a kiss, his breath strong with mouthwash. I would have preferred more Harvey, less Listerine.
“Well! I’m running late. Have a good weekend, darlin’. I’ve instructed the third division to keep an eye on the place.”
He was off before I could ask. I flopped back to bed for a much-deserved sleep-in. At noon, I drifted into the living room to find two hundred green plastic army men lined up on the mantelpiece.
It was a beautiful, beautiful day. The cap of Rainier poked over the ridge like a monster bicuspid. I felt small and lonely – and what was that about? Had I not left Alaska precisely to be alone? Independent? Reckless? I employed this thought to whip myself into action, scrubbing the kitchen and bathroom till they shone, mopping the hardwood floors, beating the rugs, and generally enjoying the free space left by the absence of one sprawling male anatomy.
Still, it was a small house, and I didn’t kill half the time that I needed to, so I crossed the street to the bison field, trying for the twenty-third time to tempt them with wads of freshly picked grass. Not that grass was hard to come by, but I was hoping that presentation would count for something. Bessie and Ben moved not an inch from the exact geographical center of the field, and considering the sad history of American-bison relations, I could not blame them.
I was wandering in the direction of the strip mall when I noticed a man shuttling between Kerby’s Café and a burgundy SUV, toting various large black objects. He had a thick shank of white hair, and wore large, thick glasses that reminded me of Dr. Steinwitz, my pediatrician in Anchorage.
I had a rather dim view of Kerby’s. The patrons were a rough bunch, and they often kept Harvey and me awake, yelling to their buddies across the parking lot. At closing time, a parade of headlights flashed across our windows.
But I was bored, so I crossed the parking lot to investigate.
“Hi! Whatcha loadin’ up for?”
He gave me a studied look, absolutely nonplussed.
“Ever try it?”
“Once. At a birthday party. They only had thirty songs, though.”
“Ha! We’ve got seventeen thousand. All on a computer.”
“God! Are there seventeen thousand songs in the world?”
“I still get complaints about the ones we don’t have. You should sing tonight. We start at nine.”
“Oh, well… I’m only eighteen.”
“No problem. If you bring those mic stands in, I’ll make you my official roadie.”
“Strictly Coca-Cola, mind you.”
His name was J.B., which I later found out stood for James Brown. He was about the whitest-looking man I’d ever seen, so I didn’t really see the need for the initials. (One day he met Bobby Vinton at a party and said, “Wow! You’re Bobby Vinton.” Vinton said, “Well what’s it like, meeting Bobby Vinton?” And J.B. said, “I don’t know. What’s it like meeting James Brown?”)
By day, J.B. ran a computer shop, and he took great pleasure in showing me his high-tech karaoke system. He could hunt for a song using a keyword, then play it with a mouse-click. A window to the left kept a running roster of singers, along with the songs they had picked that night – and, for the regulars, every song they had ever sung. At the bottom was a list of filler songs that came on whenever a karaoke song was over, and he could also play canned applause – or, for the end of the night, the Warner Brothers’ “Th-th-that’s all, folks!”
“I actually helped design this,” said J.B. “I was in a test group for the software developers, and they used a lot of my suggestions. That’s why I like it so much.”
“Is he boring you with his technobabble?”
This came from a woman behind me, wearing big glasses just like J.B.’s. She was short and squat, a bundle of curves with a round, pleasant face. And, evidently, a wry sense of humor.
“He’s more in love with that program than with me. So who are you?”
“Oh, hi. I’m Channy.”
“She’s my summer intern,” said J.B.
“J.B.! Is she underage? You’re gonna get us into trouble.”
“Oh, nonsense. I checked her in with Laura. Nothing but Shirley Temples and Roy Rogerses.”
“Well, okay. Why don’t you sit up here with me, then? I get bored when Mr. Man’s making out with his computer.”
Her name was Debbie – wife and emcee, which meant she had plenty of time to chat between singer intros. You could tell, also, that she took a lot of pleasure in the characters who populated the bar. There was Diana, the archetypal brassy broad, who sang bawdy country tunes like “You Can Eat Crackers in My Bed.” And Cowboy, who wore an old hat covered in patches and pins, and sang nothing but Lynyrd Skynyrd, curled up in the corner with a cordless mic. A plentifully soused blonde named Jolene took great pleasure in singing “Jolene.” And skinny, bald Rory kept trying to do ‘70s rock anthems that were too high for him.
I was really enjoying this – all of it. The way the songs drew instant connections between people. The way the old guy in the beret showed his approval by yelling “Sing that shit!” The feeling of deep history, friendships that had survived decades, perhaps broken apart by crises and fights, but brought back together by the same gravity that created them. And Debbie, who took her husband’s recklessness as a license to be my foster mother for the evening.
“So what’s the story, Channy? Everybody’s got a story.”
“I came down from Alaska last month, and… I met a boy.”
“Oh! She met a boy. I sure know that story.”
“It’s so… unsettling sometimes. Actually, that’s how I ended up here tonight. He’s in the Army National Guard, and this was his first weekend away. I was feeling pretty isolated.”
“Well! I’m glad you found us. Are you gonna sing something?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this for real before.”
“Well.” She gave my knee a pat. “Here’s what I tell all my beginners. Pick a song that you know frontwards and back. The song you know best in the world. It’s very important to have a good experience the first time out. Kinda like sex. Omigod! Did I say that?”
The way she put it, my choice was pretty obvious: “Beautiful Day,” my graduation song. The only problem was staying on the melody. I kept wandering to the alto harmonies that James had written (James who just then was headed off to meet his death in Minnesota). But Debbie smiled at me like I’d hit one out of the park.
“That was great!” She spoke into my ear as Rory did battle against Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” “I like those new parts you threw in. Where’d you learn that?”
“Well, it’s a long story.”
She patted my knee again. “I’ve got all the time in the world, honey.”
Sunday evening, I sat at the kitchen table with a plate of cold pork chops and asparagus, watching the sun slanting over the bison-field in tangerine stripes. I was interrupted by my pickup truck, dragging into the driveway with my own soldier-boy at the wheel. He edged up the walk with a limp and gave me a weak smile, his face smudged here and there with camo makeup. I wrapped him in a hug.
“How was it?”
“You remember what you said about my smartass sense of humor?”
“A hundred pushups.”
I couldn’t help but giggle.
“Oh! She mocks my injuries.”
“Sorry, darlin’. But I did tell you.”
“You did. But a hundred pushups tends to drill the point home.”
I ran a finger across his dirty, sweaty brow and down his cute nose.
“Poor baby. Take a shower, and I’ll heat up this food.”
He slogged off to the bathroom, pausing at the mantelpiece to salute the third division. I felt bad for him, but it felt good to be needed.
Photo by MJV