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Ruby takes a deep drag and lets it out on a “Phew!”
“That is one nasty smoke, girlfriend!”
I fondle my last box, reviewing the six soldiers lined up inside. “They’ve been through a lot.”
“Where are they from?”
“Iraq.” I give a glance around the pier. Halfway down, there’s a mid-sized yacht – an old one, lots of lovely wooden trim. The Scuttlebutt, Port Angeles. One of the mast lines is draped in white Christmas lights – which is either way too early for the holidays or simply a year-round decoration.
“I can’t tell you more than that,” I say. “It’s part of the story. I usually perform this little ritual after karaoke, but I assume you’ll be heading out with your boyfriend.”
Ruby performs a smoke-take. “Phew! ‘Boyfriend’? God, that is so high school.”
“High school never ends, Ruby.”
“You’re tellin’ me. Check out the theater scene sometime. Well, my goodness!”
She’s reacting to the snow, which is falling in wet, wet flakes that seem to melt inches from the ground. It’s a bracing sight. Through the thickening flurry I see the flashing crosswalk on Harborview, which provides a poor man’s catwalk for a tall model with a mane of white hair. But it’s really blonde, and it’s really Shari. She arrives at the near sidewalk, pauses to look our way, then turns toward Karz.
“How come you never hooked up with one of your singers, Channy? I mean, I understand the grieving process, but sex can be a powerful healing force. How about Kevin the Cop? He’s got a thing for you, honey. I can tell by the way he wrestled me into those handcuffs. He was avenging his lady’s honor. Hell, I might let him slap those cuffs on me again sometime.”
I try my best to take a meaningful, Bogart-style pull on my cigar. (Ruby’s so naturally theatrical, she makes you want to play along.)
“Karz has one hell of a gossip distribution network. That would be one whole mess of trouble. Nah. I need a non-singer.”
“No!” says Ruby (she’s one impulse away from holding up a vampire cross). “Singers are the only people with souls. Maybe you just need a singer from somewhere else.”
“Maybe.” I take my Swisher Sweet to the last bit of tobacco (where it’s anything but sweet) and toss the wooden tip into the water.
“Is that part of the ritual?” asks Ruby.
She finishes hers and tosses it in. “I’m picturing a salmon with one of those tips in his mouth, tellin’ all his friends, ‘Try it, man – it’ll make you look cool.”
It’s funny, but I’m not laughing.
I’m just about ready to start when Ruby brings up a large cardboard box.
“Is it time for Girl Scout cookies already?”
“Time for fun,” she says. “Ya got yer maracas, a cowbell, claves, two extraordinarily chintzy tambourines, and le piece de resistance…”
She extracts a plastic toy guitar, the color of spoiled tangerines. It appears to have strings – tuning pegs, even – but I can’t imagine that it produces actual music.
“I’m not sure I get it.”
“It’s an air guitar!” she says. “Only… without the air. Imagine all the fun our grownup little boys will have with this.”
Ruby waits for a reaction, but it doesn’t seem to be coming.
“What is the matter with you, Channy? Showtime! Time to bury your real feelings and pretend you’re happy!”
I take the guitar and run a hand over the strings. “Sorry, Ruby. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps I have released too many ghosts.”
She pats me on the knee. “That’s all right. Soon we’ll have music.”
I adjust one of the pegs and hand it back to her.
“Your G-string was loose.”
She smiles. “Straight lines will get you nowhere.”
The toys are an enormous hit. But first I’m careful to set some ground rules. No joining in on percussion unless you’re invited. I am ever-cognizant of singers’ rights, and I’ve seen what a tambourine can do in the wrong hands.
In a case of utter ethnic stereotype, it turns out that Kevin the Cop and his Puerto Rican hands have the best rhythm. He plays the tam as I sing Melissa Etheridge’s “I Want to Come Over” – spare and tasty in the verses, loud and broad in the chorus. It really does add a lively acoustic edge to the prefab sound.
Our supreme guitarist is Harry Baritone – who, as it turns out, used to be in a garage band, so really, that’s cheating. Ruby keeps ordering up Led Zeppelin songs just to keep him occupied. When she does “Back in Black” by AC/DC, he’s on the floor, on his knees, literally bending over backwards.
“You’ll notice,” I say, “that although we singers make little mistakes all the time, Harry never misses a note on guitar.”
Our finale is Harry singing (and pseudo-playing) “Smooth” by Santana, which naturally brings out the entire percussion section: Kevin on cowbell, Shari and Caroleen on tams, me on maracas and Alex on claves. We’ve got a whole damn band, really, and our noisy finish earns a rousing applause from the Petersons, elderly captain and captain’s wife of the Scuttlebutt.
Ruby gives me a wink and a smile as she and Harry make for the exit (no doubt about it, those two are having crazy, nasty sex tonight). Hamster brings me a cup of coffee, and I begin the process of sorting song slips into envelopes (a new “archiving” service I have begun for my singers). I’m just about done when I feel a large presence behind me, and turn to find Shari, wearing a friendly but anxious expression.
“Hi,” I say.
She kneels next to me, bringing our eyes level, and dives right in.
“The thing is, I thought I was your confidante. Maybe it sounds weird, but shit… it was important to me. And now you’re always with Ruby – and it’s a little hard to figure out how that happened. So now, this evening, you’re out there smoking cigars with her on the pier. I guess I’m feeling all, out of the loop. I’m sorry…”
She stands and turns away, embarrassed by her feelings. I’m utterly at a loss – maybe because I had no idea how much it meant to her; maybe because now I’m feeling really stupid.
“God, Shari. I’m sorry; you’re absolutely right. I guess it doesn’t make much sense – but I’m getting some really shitty stuff out of my system right now, and it’s just easier to tell Ruby. You’re too close; you’re too… nice.”
She turns back, her eyes growing damp. “You know you can tell me anything, right?”
“I know I’m allowed to tell you anything. And I will, I’m sure. But… I guess this is like psychotherapy on the cheap, and before I go telling anyone besides Ruby, I need to figure it out for myself. Hey, let me buy you a drink. Then we’ll go to the pier and smoke a couple more.”
She laughs, just a little. “What kind of fool am I? I just talked myself into a ragweed cigar.”
“Hey, Ham!” I yell. “Set up my pal Shari with a vodka gimlet.”
“Yes, ma’am!” he says.
So here I am, back at the pier. Is this really catharsis, or am I just chasing pneumonia? It’s much colder than before, but at least it’s not snowing. I light up Shari, then me, and study my little tobacco soldiers, down to a quartet.
“God! I’m such a Needy Nancy,” says Shari. “It’s all so… high school.”
“High school never ends,” I say. Being a guru is easy – you just find a few good phrases and keep repeating them. “Anyway, Shari, I’m glad you told me. Because tonight I have some very special business to attend to, and I can’t do it alone.”
I reach into my bag and pull out Kai’s metallic care package.
“Oh God,” says Shari. “It’s Pandora’s cashbox.”
“Yes,” I say. “But it’s also one object away from empty, so – just keep me from jumping in the water, okay?”
I take a deep breath and push the metal tab, then reach into the lower compartment and extract a jeweler’s box, covered in dark blue velvet. I click it open, revealing something shiny and military. I’m scared, so I hand it to Shari, who dangles it in front of her face so she can study it in the far-off light from the waterfront.
“My God, honey. It’s a purple heart.”
I take another breath and look for the words embossed on the inside of the box: Kai Sharwa. I toss my cigar into the water. It lands with a hiss.
Photo by MJV