Monday, February 10, 2014

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Four: Little Miss Bitch

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I’m too damn nice. I am the Good Samaritan, tractored by circumstance. But that’s a copout, and we all know it. What I lack is intestinal fortitude, an appetite for conflict. Huevos. (Can women have huevos?)
            Wild Birds Unlimited sits way back between two old buildings on Harborview. The old brick walls shadow a lawn scattered with rockers and benches, birdbaths and topiary. As a late-night worker, it takes me till noon to catch the flow of the general populace, and in this case I wasn’t quite there yet. I stood before a propeller, transfixed by spiraling ribbons, sipping an herbal tea. Any reasonable person would’ve guessed I was high.
            A crow floated by, drawing my vision to the left, and I landed on a swath of wide-ribbed corduroy, color of ketchup. In the passage of five seconds I realized that these were pants, worn by a woman on the porch above me, and that this woman had the finest ass I had ever seen – shape of an upside-down heart, endowed with recipes of line and circle known only to Michelangelo and a single family of Greek mathematicians. My Inner Lesbian understood, for a moment, how it is that the female body is capable of driving men to literal, clinical madness. I wanted to slither between those railings, a momentary python, and press my cheek to those luscious red apples.
            She shifted to one side; the apples winked at me. From this one gluteus movement, I could extrapolate a dozen others above the railing. She wraps her right arm across her abdomen, supporting her left elbow. Her left hand cups her chin, three fingers folded at the knuckle, index finger tapping out thoughts beneath the left side of her left eye. She is window shopping, studying an object of desire. I peeked at the storefront window to confirm, and found myself looking at Sheila.
            “Channy?” she said. “Is that you?”
            I wanted to say “No,” but she flew down the stairs and assaulted me with a hug.
            “Channy! Oh my Gawd! It’s so good to see you. God, I so miss my karaoke fixes. I’m up in Redmond now, and it’s such a drive – but I had the day off, so I thought, what the hell. And here you are! Is this kizmet or what?”
            “Yes,” I said. I was still trying to get over lusting at her derriere. All sorts of unwelcome cinematography.
            She came closer, meaning to evoke confidentiality. “Do you think it would be okay if I came by tonight? I mean, assuming you’re still at Karz – you are, aren’t you? And, you know, I mean… if you think Harry would be okay with it.”
            I’m not hosting anymore. Harry would be really uncomfortable if you showed up. You’re a conniving little bitch, and if I hear you sing that fucking song again I will have to stuff those goddamn boots down your throat.
            Blink. Blink.
            “Sure. That would be terrific. I’m sure everybody would love to see you.”
            She attacked me with another hug. Yikes.
            “That’s fantastic! God, I can’t wait to see the old place. Well listen, I gotta meet someone at the Tides for lunch, but we’ll catch up tonight, okay?”
            She squeezed me on the elbow and shifted all that jitterbug energy down the garden path, rolling a Minnie Mouse finger-wave as she rounded the corner. I held up a limp hand.
            Yeah, the girl’s got a nice ass. Perhaps someday I’ll have a chance to kick it.

Which leaves me standing here, looking up that familiar disc as Shari Blues masticates a Stevie Ray tune (this is my only complaint about Shari: she needs to occasionally sing something as if her life doesn’t depend on it).
            I do not, as a rule, dislike “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.” In fact, I like it quite a lot. With its low range and half-spoken lines, it’s a great beginner piece, and its vengeful, kiss-my-ass lyrics carry a special appeal for the bitterly divorced female market (the one that keeps karaoke bars in business). But Sheila ruined it for me, by singing it night after night, and then ruthlessly acting it out, leaving my favorite singer in its wake.
            At the moment, I’m not even sure where she is. She came in early to sign up, swore me to secrecy, and went off to hide in some corner booth. I put in a mental order for Harry to arrive with the waitstaff from the local Hooters, but no such luck; he waltzed in stag, a half hour after Sheila. I’ve been too busy with microphone batteries and needy singers to send him a warning. What’s worse, it’s really busy, which means that Little Miss Bitch will have a huge audience.
            The moment is here – the fifth singer on my list. I am condemned by the KJ code to shoot down one of my best friends. I hate this job.
            “All right. We’ve got a little surprise for you. Would you please welcome our next singer: Nancy!”
            I start the disc, per instructions, and Sheila vamps across the dance floor. I recognize the outfit immediately. It’s the very getup from Nancy Sinatra’s album cover: the ribbed black-and-gray hose, the tight gray sweater, the blood-red go-go boots and miniskirt. She whips the microphone from the stand, right on time, and punches the first line. I remember why the song is such a good match. Sheila’s voice is no prizewinner, but the girl can act – and that’s what the song is about. I can’t see Harry, but I know where he is – sitting in a booth with Shari and Caroleen – and that’s precisely where Sheila is aiming her words.
            I’m trying to stay cool, but I’m also wondering, What is the fucking message here? I dumped your sorry ass, and now I’ve come back to pound my go-go boots into your testicles?
            There are women, I know, who are capable of carrying their spite this far. Who are bent on destruction. But this is vulgar, and I’m pissed. I need to do something to save Harry, but nothing that makes it look like he needs saving. I’m running my hands along the gain levels (Sheila’s close enough to swallow the mic – insert your own joke here), when I spot my team of second-hand mics, lined up in an old wine box.
            The horns kick into their groovy finish – sounding all the world like a surf band – and Sheila does the Pony all the way across the floor. Those who don’t know any better give a rousing applause; those who do give a polite applause. I try to lend a gracious commentary as I polish the plan in my head.
            “That is Nancy! Also known as Sheila, to you Karz Bar veterans. And you know what this means. From now on, I will expect thematic attire from everyone. Dark glasses for Roy Orbison songs. A Burmese python for Alice Cooper. Miscolored eyeballs for Marilyn Manson. But seriously, I don’t know how late Sheila will be here tonight, so I wanted her to see one of our new traditions. Harry, get up here and lead us.”
            Harry heads across, looking like a high wind has blown out most of his brain cells. But the music seems to kick him into focus. He gears into the first verse of “Drift Away” as I dole out mics to the Korale. I flip on all my tracks, and the singalong chorus comes off with nary a hitch.
            During the second verse, however, something unexpected. People are coming to join us who don’t usually sing: talky barfly Bob, Alex and his latest Ginger Rogers, a sultry Irish redhead – and, unless I’m hallucinating, Hamster, who has never shown the least interest in singing. This motivates a second wave, folks who have no idea what’s going on but can’t resist the gravitational pull: a yachtload of Norwegians from Port Angeles, a trio of seminarring lawyers from Seattle, and some guy who was just delivering a load of Budweisers. Just guessing, I’d say we’ve got forty singers. It’s like a friggin’ “We Are the World.”
            Come the repeat, Harry’s in top form, throwing a Tom Jones ripple, busting a porkchop growl at the lower end. I am mighty proud. As we near the fadeout, I snatch a conductor’s baton from my prop box and race out in front to pull us into the final chord. There’s really no audience left, so we content ourselves with hoots and backslaps as we migrate back to our places. Harry’s getting high fives all around, working the crowd like a politician. A minute later, I’m finally back at my station, throwing switches, harvesting microphones, getting back to business.
            “Wow! Was that a trip, or was that a trip? I…”
            I can usually talk my way through anything – but not the ghost of Nancy Sinatra, standing on my dance floor, streams of mascara tracking either cheek. She holds her arms out to her sides like a condemned woman pleading with her captors. I assume that it’s me – that she’s read the bitchslap intentions behind my little show – but then I see Harry, still on stage, frozen by the sight of her.
            I’m feeling the need to break up this little melodrama, but I know what the next song is, and it’s killing me. Still, I have to do something, so I return to the mic and speak in a half-voice: “Doc? It’s your turn.”
            Doc Mendelssohn comes to the mic, nudging his way past Harry, who still doesn’t know what to do. The music begins. Nancy raises her arms, beckoning Harry forward, and forward he comes. They begin to dance, cutting slow circles in the half-light as Doc sings “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You.” Alex brings out his redhead, perhaps to siphon off some of Harry’s embarrassment, but it doesn’t matter, because a second later he and Sheila cross the floor, stop at Sheila’s table to collect her purse, and slip out the back door.
            A minute later, as Doc takes his applause from a distracted audience, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo pulls in with a ginger ale and vodka. Hamster’s note reads, You know I’m not one to traffic in gossip, but I’m dying to know what just happened.

            Despite a later-morning drizzle, I am out on the back deck with Java and a cup of same. We’re playing fetch, but with Java it’s never that simple. He fancies himself a wide receiver, and is ruthlessly devoted to the offsides rule, refusing to leave my side until the “ball” (a bone-shaped pillow) has departed the quarterback’s hand. This leaves me with two options: lift a lame popup, giving him a chance to run beneath it; or give him the classic pump-fake, wait till he runs ten feet and looks back, then left a pass further downfield. The latter is much more satisfying, much more You, too, can be Peyton Manning.
            Sadly, he only buys this trick a handful of times. Then he stays there on his haunches, giving me a look that says, Come on! I’m a poodle, remember? I’m not that dumb. So now I’m standing, hoping to add some leverage to my popups, while my coffee sits on a statue of Artemis, going cold. From this new vantage, I can see the distinct track that Java has burned into my lawn. Perhaps I spend too much time at this.
            I reach way back for a good, high throw, but I louse up the release, sending the bone pillow too far. I fear that Java will end up in the brambles, but instead he veers right and bullets the passionflower archway, barking like crazy. I can swear I hear another dog barking back – and I’m close. Harry Baritone steps up the trail, Java leaping at him with joyous abandon. Once they clear the archway, Harry grabs him around the chest, leaving his head and front legs squirting out the other side of Harry’s looped arms.
            “I remember this one,” he says. “Loves to wrassle.” He lets Java go and thumps him on the back. “Macho poodle.” Java’s all worked up now, panting in a half-growl, but Harry grabs his collar and smooths his mop-top. “There now, Mister LeBark. Settle down. Mom and Harry need to talk.”
            I’m suddenly self-conscious, hoping my lounging clothes don’t look as grubby as they feel. “Wow, Harry. So weird, seeing you out of context. Um… want some coffee?”
            “Yeah. That would be great.”
            “Have a seat. I mean, an edge of the deck. Dangle your feet.”
            I cheat my grubbiness by trading my sweatshirt for a clean windbreaker. I return to find Harry and Java playing tug-of-war with the bone pillow.
            “This dog is tenacious.”
            “Yep. And if you like your coffee warm, you’ll just have to give up.”
            Harry looses his grip. Java takes his pillow to the lawn for a light-but-thorough chewing.
            “I hope I’m not being invasive,” says Harry. “But I had an hour’s break – and I remembered your house from that tow I gave you last spring.”
            “No, not at all. I was just easing into my morning lollygag.”
            “I hate to butt in on people. But I thought I owed you an explanation.”
            My own response surprises me: “Why?”
            “Well, because it was nice, what you were trying to do for me. And I’m assuming it turned out a little differently than you expected.”
            Oh yeah.”
            “But here’s why. And you’re a singer, so I think you’ll understand this. If you take ‘Boots’ literally, it looked like Sheila was rubbing it in my face – especially the way she was putting the goods on display with that getup. But what you don’t know is this: the first time I ever saw Sheila – in a Mexican restaurant in Tacoma – she was singing ‘Boots.’ And she sang it every single time we went out for karaoke.”
            “I know.”
            “Well, look at it this way. ‘Mack the Knife’ – song about a homicidal thief, right? But how much you wanna bet that some couple, somewhere, thinks of it as ‘their song’?”
            “So Sheila’s message wasn’t ‘Fuck you…’”
            “It was ‘Fuck me.’ Less crudely, it was ‘I miss you and I’m lonely.’”
            I’m feeling overexposed and awkward, so I get up and practice some evasive pacing. Harry’s not letting me; he stands to join me, forcing me to stop.
            “Look. I’ve already told you too much. But what you did last night… it was the nicest damn thing anyone’s ever done for me, and I didn’t want you to think I was ungrateful. In fact, this morning, when Sheila started spinning all this shit about us getting back together, it was you who gave me the power to say no.”
            I turn, and he’s smiling. With his blue service shirt, he looks like one of those over-happy plumbers in a commercial for drain opener.
            “Go Harry!” I say quietly.
            He kisses me on the cheek; the whiskers tickle.
            “I gotta go.”
            Harry bounds off the deck and through the archway, shouting over his shoulder.
            “See you tonight!”
            Java runs after, barking. I pick up Harry’s coffee, barely touched, and give it a slow sip.

Photo by MJV

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