Saturday, February 15, 2014

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Nine: Slippery Truth

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The pivot point of Tacoma’s Stadium District is a triangular sliver of park where the avenues of Tacoma and St. Helens meet. Further on, the two roads are connected by what have to be the shortest streets in the city: First St. N and Second St. N, the former of which stretches all of twenty feet. Ruby is cutting figure-eights through all of them, looking for a parking spot. She drives an ancient blue Corolla with a bad carburetor, which forces her to pump the gas whenever we strike an uphill. All the aerobics makes her laugh with embarrassment.
            “This is my stealth car,” she says. “Looks like shit, but she got me here from New York with nary a hiccup. Once she hits an interstate, she tracks in on seventy and just stays there. Damn! It’s the Rotarians, that’s why.”
            A Masonic temple rises over St. Helens Avenue like a concrete King Kong peeking over the hillside. Bland businessmen in bland suits funnel beneath a marquee reading WELCOME TACOMA ROTARY. Ruby cuts a right onto Second, spots a car-size rectangle of dirt and seizes it with piratical zeal. We’re soon clip-clopping the sidewalk along window-size wedding portraits as Ruby gives me the neighborhood spiel.
            “Call it a sickness, but all these old buildings remind me of New York. Check the crazy church across the street. Presbyterian congregation, Eastern Orthodox spire, Romanesque pillars and good ol’ Northwestern brick. I think the architect was a closet Unitarian. And now, on your right, the soulless white high-rise apartment building.”
            The lobby and front garden are actually pretty inviting, but a glance upward illustrates Ruby’s point: flat windowfront fields devoid of ornament. The sidewalk holds something more interesting: a shrine of flowers and candles around a bus stop sign. I think of inquiring, but Ruby’s on to the next attraction.
            “And this is my stealth apartment building.”
            It’s a squat building of dark bricks, surrounded by a low wrought-iron fence. Ruby leads me into a lobby of mustard walls and floral green carpeting, the kind you might see in an old hotel. We board a flight of stairs that leads to a narrow hallway.
            “Would you believe this was built in 1896?”
            The hallway comes to a back stairwell. Ruby stops at a door to the right and pulls out her keys.
            “This is actually two separate buildings,” she says. “That little hall is part of the center section that joins them. And, even though my mailing address is St. Helens, technically I live on Broadway, which is perfectly suited to my sick, undying dreams of glory.”
            This is Ruby’s primary shtick, the heart-piercing sentiment delivered in an offhand manner. Perhaps this is therapeutic, perhaps it’s just a built-in part of an actor’s armor. Whichever, you can still feel the pain behind the words.
            We stop in the entryway to remove our coats. Ruby takes off a black cap to reveal her shock of red hair, then takes my hand and leads me into the living room, wearing an expectant, close-lipped expression.
            What strikes me is not the room itself but the view framed by the wide center window: the port of Tacoma, lit up like the largest auto sales lot in the universe, a trio of mill stacks billowing steam into the frigid night air. Ruby drinks up my surprise with a satisfied grin.
            “Stealth car, stealth apartment – stealth view.” She runs a hand along the sill. “All in all, I’m almost invisible. The natives seem wholly unaware of it, but that is the most beautiful fucking port in the country. It took me about five seconds to sign the lease.”
            “You have got to have a party up here!” I say, sounding exactly like a gay impresario.
            Ruby gives me a sad smile. Sad smile, tragic jokes – she is the middle child, bastard daughter of the comedy and tragedy masks.
            “Give me some time to get some friends first,” she says. “Perhaps I’ll put out a casting call. But hey! Let’s have a party for two. Set that puppy on the coffee table, and I’ll get some wine.”
            The “puppy” is a pizza called The Hipster, loaded with trendy toppings: sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese, capers. Ruby sets out plates, forks, napkins and Pinot Grigio, and we embark on some much-needed consumption. It’s our longest stretch of wordlessness in the past two hours (she is a talker with remarkable stamina).
            Ruby polishes off her first slice, takes a swallow of pinot and studies me with those unsettling stage-size features.
            “Do you think the folks at Karz will ever forgive me?”
            “I’m the KJ, Ruby. If I forgive you, they forgive you.”
            “You’re that powerful, eh?”
            “Yes,” I reply, and can’t help snickering. “Besides, there’s nothing the karaoyokels enjoy more than a good old-fashioned soap opera – and you certainly supplied that.”
            Ruby snickers in return. “And I certainly got my comeuppance. Which was inevitable, by the way. I was so full of juice, I wasn’t going to stop until someone smacked me down good. Picture Ruby standing in line at the Safeway, eleven o’clock, Halloween, holding six dozen eggs. Could my intentions have been any more blatant? And I’ll tell ya, if your cop friend hadn’t wrassled me away, I would have stood there in that parking lot and chucked all seventy-two.”
            “It actually worked out well,” I say. “You supplied all the necessary ammunition for your own eggs-ecution.”
            “You’re a bad, bad girl,” says Ruby.
            “Do you know how long I held on to that pun?”
            “Well,” she says in a mothering voice. “Perhaps you should have buried it somewhere, honey.”
            Her expression turns abruptly serious. For the first time tonight, I feel like I’m getting the real Ruby.
            “There was nothing wrong with that CD at all. I was just picking a fight. And before, when I pulled that apocalyptic bitch session in the parking lot. My God, honey – why didn’t you just shoot me?”
            “I was in shock. It was so far out of my experience that someone could be that… mean.”
            The memory brings an awkward silence. I pretend to show some interest in my pizza. Ruby reaches under the coffee table and pulls out a small box.
            “Would you like some herb with your meal?”
            Her meaning escapes me, but then she takes out a plastic bag and a large ceramic pipe.
            “Oh! Yeah, sure.”
            “Such a relief,” she says. “Hauling out the ganja is so fraught with politics.”
            “Where I grew up, pot was considered about as racy as chewing gum. I’m not a huge fan, but if someone offers a bowl – why not?”
            She hands me the pipe and a lighter, and shows me where the carb is. I take a lungful, hold it in, then pass the pipe to Ruby. When I speak, my throat is already scratchy (and there’s the reason I’m not a huge fan).
            “What’s up with that shrine at the bus stop?”
            Ruby’s conducting a deep inhale, producing little snorting sounds that, in any other context, would be considered quite rude. She turns red and coughs it out.
            “Oh God, that. Some guy fell out of his apartment. Ten floors.”
            The thought of it is like a nail in my chest. All I can do is gasp.
            “Can I tell you the story?” she says. “Let me tell it to you, just the way I heard it.”
            This seems like a curious preface, but what the hell do I care?
            “Yeah, sure,” I say. “Go for it.”
            “I was coming home from karaoke – this was Jade, that little bitch. When I pulled up, there were four cop cars, all the lights flashing. They had roped off the entire street in front of the building. As I walked up, there was this one big cop – Asian guy – walking back to his car. He was shaking his head, like he had something in there and he was afraid of letting it settle. Over his shoulder, about thirty feet away, I could see a yellow emergency blanket spread out over something on the sidewalk. And I began to make connections.
            “When the cop finally noticed me, I felt the need to justify my presence. ‘I live next door,’ I said. The cop looked at me like he really wasn’t seeing me and said, ‘I can’t tell you anything right now.’ And I took that as my cue to disappear.
            “I was back two nights later – in fact, on Halloween – when I saw the shrine. There was a Xeroxed photo of this young, young, guy with his girlfriend, and a note that read, I met you once in the laundry room. You seemed very nice. I went to the grocery store to buy some flowers – alstroemeria, they were called – and I was setting them down when this big linebacker-looking dude came out from the lobby. It seemed like he was the apartment manager or something, he had that air about him. And this is what he said:
            “‘It was a freak. That safety glass is just about foolproof, but once in a great while someone hits that single wrong spot at that single wrong angle – and when safety glass goes, I mean it disappears. Gerald was talking on the phone with a friend, maybe sitting on the top of his couch, maybe leaning against the glass. He swings an elbow, hits that single wrong spot and the gravity takes him right out.’
            “Linebacker dude came over and and sat on the bus stop bench. He pulled off his baseball cap and scratched his bald head. I think he could picture exactly what was going through my mind: that awful split second when Gerald found himself airborne.
            “‘There’s more,’ he said. ‘You know that nutcase who pulled out an AK-47 at the Tacoma Mall, shot all those people, then took hostages in the music store?’
            “‘Sure,’ I say.
            “‘That shooting took place the day after Gerald fell. And that was the very morning that Gerald was supposed to report for his first day of work at that same music store.’”
            “No!” I say.
            “Exactly what I said,” says Ruby. “Our friend Gerald was headed down a dark tunnel, with two trains coming the other direction.”
            Ruby punctuates her conclusion by taking a luxurious drink of wine. I’m beginning to understand the power of her theatrical skills (Exhibit A, endowing the apartment manager with just the right gruffness of tone to set him apart in the narrative). She smacks her lips, places her glass carefully on the table and shoots me an expectant look.
            “So. What do you think?”
            “Awful!” I say. “Awful. Horrible.”
            “Is it the truth?”
            “Why… wouldn’t it be?”
            She ruffles her hair, as if she’s wiping the slate clean.
            “Let me tell you a second story. Gerald is hopped up on ‘shrooms, desperately depressed, surrounded by personal crises. He calls 911, tells them he’s going to kill himself. They tell him someone’s on the way, but no one comes, so Gerald takes a run at that window and smashes right through. That shrine is not just a shrine – it’s a landing spot. Notice the distance from the building. No way he gets there on a dead fall.”
            I feel like a mouse nibbling on spring-loaded cheese. But a woman’s gotta eat.
            “Who’s your source?”
            “Inge, the manager of my apartment building – and close friend of Gerald’s ex-girlfriend.”
            I give it a careful study. “Could Gerald have struck the building early in his fall and… bounced?”
            “Not likely, but possible. However, that’s not the point I’m selling. Notice how these stories cross over on themselves – how the sources seem to flout their own self-interests. The apartment manager confesses the danger of his own windows. Friends of the dead doing nothing to protect his reputation. And the connection with the mall shooting – added for dramatic effect? Useful distraction? Comforting apologia for the hand of fate?
            “Private lives being private, I don’t think you or I will ever know. See how slippery the truth is? How like a moray eel covered in Vaseline?”
            This is much more thought than I had bargained for. I feel the need to move, so I pick up my glass and wander to Ruby’s window, which feels much safer than poor Gerald’s. Landward from the gray freighters and the blue loading cranes, toward the flatlands of Fife, fifty sawhorses line the highway, blinking their hazard lights in patterns that never seem to sort out.
            Ruby knows the question that comes next, but she also knows it’s flammable, so she speaks it to the air without turning.
            “Are you going to tell me about your husband?”
            All I can conjure is a long exhale, but alas, she waits me out.
            “That seems to be the reason you were sent my way, Ruby. To leach the poison out of my system. But it’s not gonna be easy, and it is gonna be messy.”
            “Start out slowly,” she says. “Tell me how you met.”
            Hazard lights.

Photo by MJV


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