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“So what is this place?”
“The Russell House.”
“Chanson,” says Shari, as Frenchly as possible. “Zees most clearly eez nut a house.”
“More of a building. Private offices.”
Shari scans the general area. “Where?”
I point a thumb at the ground. “Down thar. We’re on the roof. It’s a family foundation eco-thing. Those wooden arches there? With the black iron fittings?”
“Nothing but windfall, not a single tree chopped down. The garden out front uses drought-resistant plants. These cement blocks beneath our tootsies have gaps between them – no sand, no mortar – so the rainfall can seep directly into the soil, and not into the drainage system.”
Shari flicks away a strand of hair – more golden than ever in the light of day.
“So how come we get to sit here and eat sammiches on their roof like we own the place?”
“’Cause they want us to. And they want to give back to the community.”
Shari narrows her eyes. “That is suspiciously nice.”
“Honey, in case you ain’t looked back there lately, I am anything but…”
“Baby Got Back!” I shout. It’s a peril of KJ’ing: you find yourself talking in song titles. But Shari seems to enjoy it.
I take a big crunchy bite of my sandwich and let the overripe flavor of the meat smoosh onto my taste buds. I forget where I picked up this thing for braunschweiger, but it seems to soothe a rough patch deep in my being. So much that I have missed Shari’s question.
“Honey? Did you hear me?”
“Oh.” Smack-smack. “No. What was that?”
“Where were you born?”
I scout the question for dangers; it comes out clean.
“Anchorage, Alaska. Well, a town just south of there. Tiny, tiny place. When we got a Fred Meyer’s, it was like the high school science club had landed a rocket on the moon. Boh-ring. Boring! Did I mention boring? The only recreation in town was recreational drugs. Heroin, acid. Suicide. Suicide was the favorite. I went to thirty funerals before I graduated. Had three different outfits, just for funerals.”
Shari looks captivated; more tragedy.
“Is that why you left?”
Another fork in the road: fabrication or vagueness. I’m going for vagueness.
“I couldn’t see becoming anything up there. It was leave or stay exactly the same, forever. How ‘bout you?”
“How ‘bout me what?”
“Where ya from?”
She smiles. “Iowa. I was a big ol’ corn-fed jockette – pitcher on the softball squad. Then I went to college to learn how to crunch numbers. Married the college sweetheart, turned out to be a cheatin’ son-of-a-B. We divorced after four years. I figured a financial analyst could work any damn place she wanted, and we didn’t have any kids, so I headed west.”
She waves her cherry red fingernails at the harbor. “Water! Big, fat, oceanic stretches of water. Why do you think I live on Soundview?”
“I’m gonna take a flyer here, but, so you can view the sound?”
“You’re a smart chick, girlfriend.”
Girlfriend. I like the sound of that. Shari runs her gaze along a high stone wall bisecting us from a private garden. The wall is constructed from thousands of thinly hewn stones, like sugar wafers.
“I know I should be happy with this lovely public area, but why do I have such a desire to see what’s on the other side of that wall?”
“I’m gonna take another flyer here, but, because you’re human?”
(A Karz Publication)
1. Don’t ask the KJ to start the song over. If you miss the first line, just come in on the second. No one will care. Also, if you discover that you have ordered up the wrong song (say, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” when you wanted the 4 Non-Blondes’ “What’s Up?”), you’d better just fake it, because you’re not getting a do-over.
2. Don’t hang out on the back deck until your name’s called. Hey, I’m sure it really is all about you, but could you at least pretend to care about the other singers?
3. Don’t scream into the mic. As you pack your lungs with oxygen for the jungle yell on “Immigrant Song,” back that puppy up a couple inches. You’ll save everyone a lot of pain.
4. Don’t get falling-down drunk. Remember how great you were, singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” after six tequila poppers? Neither does anybody else.
5. Don’t hassle the KJ. It’s hard enough keeping all those raging egos in check without you coming up to bitch about the lack of Neil Diamond selections. KJs are the sacred priests of music – treat them accordingly.
6. Do not horn in. Perhaps your backing vocal to “Sex and Candy” really is God’s gift to harmonics, but you pick up that second mic without prior permission and you will die a terrible death. (This is not to discourage a planned harmony jam, which can be a beautiful thing.)
7. Don’t milk the applause. Even if you deserve it – especially if you deserve it – nothing looks cooler than a humble “thanks” and a quick departure. If you are offered a high-five, however, slap away. Also, if you have just performed an Elvis tune, you are required by law to mumble “Thankyouvermuch.”
8. Do not change your song selection within three singers of your turn, unless you’re willing to add substantially to the tip jar.
9. Try to avoid singing a song that has already been performed that evening. If you sing it badly, your effort will look that much worse in comparison. If you sing it well, you will appear to be showing up your predecessor, who will then be entitled to throw a baseball at your head in the following inning.
When I report to Karz, Hamster is standing at the bar with a songbook, reading my Karao-Courtesies yet again.
“Don’t you ever get tired of that thing?”
“It’s not just that it’s funny,” he says. “It’s that it’s so completely out of character. It’s so…edgy!
I take a stool across from him. “I never would have written it for the customers. I did it for a KJ newsletter out of Spokane. Strictly in-house. Somehow Harry got a hold of it, passed it all around the bar, and they loved it. And do you know why? Because they think it’s about everybody else. And five minutes later, they’re up on stage, saying, ‘Damn! Can I start over?’”
My little monologue earns a chuckle, but I can tell Hamster’s anxious about something. His gaze shifts to the end of the bar, where a squad of gray-haired men are gathered around Mt. Rainier.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
He curls a lip. “My distribution system appears to be on the fritz.”
“Yikes! You may have to deliver drinks by hand.”
“Perish the thought. You think the singers will come to the bar for their drinks?”
“Sure. I’ll make an announcement. I don’t know, Hamster. You sure this thing isn’t an Amtrak?”
“Ouch! Thou doth smacketh me with barbs of truth. If those Union Pacific freights would just give us a right-of-way once in a while. Can’t tell you how much of my soul I sent down the chipper telling some passenger ‘This hardly ever happens.’”
“Seems to me that bored, frustrated passengers might naturally turn to drink.”
“Paid for this restaurant,” he says. “But I still hate lying to people.”
I feel a quiet presence behind me, accompanied by the smell of old-style after-shave. It’s a trio of codgers. One is wearing an engineer cap. I’m trying not to laugh.
“Bad news,” says the tallest. He’s a rangy retired-officer type, owner of a bushy moustache straight out of a horse opera. “It’s definitely the transformer. Now, you know what we told you when we put this in, Ham. Y’got an enormous system here, with an unusually powerful transformer. You need to keep a backup at all times.”
Hamster covers his face. “Oh, God. If I give you another pitcher of beer, could you please not say ‘I told you so’?”
Moustache-man smiles. “I’ll try – but I was really looking forward to that.”
“How long to find another?”
He inevitably rubs his ‘stache as a thinking device. “Tell you what. I got a pretty free weekend. I’d bet I could get you two by Monday.”
“Two? But we only need…”
“Two,” says Moustache.
Hamster laughs and gives a military salute. “Two it is. Thanks, George.”
“No prob, Cap’n.”
That’s enough engineering for me. I’m off to deal with my own equipment. This being Thursday, I’m expecting a humble crowd, but of course I’m entirely wrong. Within the first hour, I’ve got two birthday parties (thirtysomething and fiftysomething, respectively), a small battalion of mom’s-night-outers (one of them dancing rather naughtily for the engineers on an AC/DC song), and a dozen college karaokeans bent on a future with American Idol. The personnel management is like a New York Times crossword. I’ve got forty-eight singers, and I’m running out of business card holders, farming the extras to a windowsill behind my station.
Somewhere in the chaos I notice Kevin the Cop, wearing a tropical shirt that is anything but Octoberish. He’s got the skin for it, though – and, in fact, is looking rather fetching all over. He drops “Suavamente” for “La Bamba” – the first time I’ve heard it sung by someone who actually knows Spanish. Then he flashes a grin and returns to his friends.
It is often at moments like this, when I’m clamped in a non-stop rush, that my thoughts come through with alarming clarity. They have to – murkiness takes too much time. I have precisely two ideas on this renewed attraction. One: a month and a half ago, I asked Kevin to back off – and he did. Two: having tapped into such a torrent of sadness on Sunday, it could be that I have opened up my other emotions as well. Like lust. I am stealing this from Shari’s hypothesis, the emotional tool belt, use ‘em or lose ‘em.
After Kevin, I’ve got yet another singer I’ve never heard of, but the selection stands out: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” by Roberta Flack. It’s a gorgeous song, but excruciatingly slow. The entrances arrive at long, long intervals. I have yet to see someone make it all the way through without coming in early at least once. I line up track five on the disc, right after “Killing Me Softly,” and then I reach for the mic.
“We have yet another newcomer! Please welcome Jade.”
Jade is quite a sight. She wears a dark, pleated schoolgirl skirt, a blouse of emerald silk with small white specks of Chinese calligraphy, and black pumps with stiletto heels. Her round Caucasian eyes are shadowed in layers of black and green, and her thick jet hair hangs in a long braid down her back. She wears a necklace of black string holding a circle of jade. I seem to remember they call this a blessing disc.
She perches on a stool and crosses her legs, content to wait out the long intro, then closes her eye on the opening phrase and sings almost to herself, tasting the words. This is something I have noticed about performance: if you are involved with the song, the audience will be involved with you. We don’t get Jade’s blue eyes until the third long phrase, and even then she doesn’t seem overly concerned with us. She’s concerned with the first time ever she saw his face. It’s a matter of theater – you can feel the fourth wall sealing her off, making it safe for us to watch.
With “Little Girl Blue,” she had to win us over – the bachelorettes, the horny men. This time, she has us within seconds. Something about the song, the long reaches of quietude. Church. I’m eating her sustenatos, great fields of tone that carry a drive and a shape, without ever seeming forced. I am so envious.
She climbs the last ladder of chromatics and leaves us dangling. Again the bank of silence, broken again by Harry’s happy woof – and again, she’s headed for a slippery exit. I do something I’ve never done. I hit the play button on a Joan Osborne song and let Shari figure it out for herself. I am fixed on my target, following Jade out the door like a teeny-bopper chasing a Beatle.
“Hey! Jade! Amber!”
She stops but doesn’t turn, holding a pose like a figure in film noir. She’s not about to get away – not in those heels – so she turns and faces me with folded arms.
I feel breathless, silly.
“You’re so… good! You’re extraordinary.”
She stares at me and blinks her eyes, once.
“You think I need someone like you to tell me that?”
“No… no. But I was just wondering…”
“Why I don’t stay? Why the fuck would I stay? To poison my ears with your so-called singers? Or that pile of shit you call a sound system? I’d be better off with a fucking megaphone.”
I’m absolutely stunned. She turns to go, then comes back for another volley.
“You’re lucky I come at all. You’re lucky that I’m crazy about singing. But one song is all I can take.”
She’s gone, clicking across the lot, calves tightening at each step. I follow my feet into the bar, where Shari is asking if God is one of us. I hold my ribs, feeling all the world like I’ve been punched.
If I were you, I would take the rest of this with a grain of salt, because I am looped. Faced with record numbers of singers, deprived of the assistance of toy locomotives, I have nonetheless managed to slam enough rum and cokes to souse a baseball team. I’m at the bar, trying to snap the lid on my CD case – a project I’ve been working on for some time now. Hamster appears over my shoulder, humming like a disapproving clergyman.
“I have never seen you like this.” I brace myself for the sound that follows: “Tch, tch.”
“Do my singers suck, Hammy? Does my sound system suck? Do I suck?”
He’s trying really hard not to laugh.
“What is your problem?” he says. “Everybody loves you, Channy! Your singers worship you. Your sound system is great! Why are you letting one person’s opinion drive you into a ditch?”
Now I seem to be standing, slapping my hands on the bar.
“Did you hear her? She sings like a fucking angel! She knows, Hamster! She knows I’m a big fucking phony with a… with a Salvation Army PA! God I suck so much!”
I get the feeling I’m being very loud. Hamster is laughing now, big baritone peals of laughter. The fucker.
“S’not funny! S’not funny!”
“Is too!” he squeals. “I just… I just didn’t know you had this in you, Channy.”
“Chanson,” I say. “From now on, the fucking name is fucking Chanson.”
I take a slug from my glass and get nothing but ice. Hamster takes it, and wraps a big hand around my shoulder. “All right, Chanson. Come on, let’s go.”
“My place. You are certainly not driving home.”
“I knew it!” I say. “You’ve been waiting for this chance ever since you hired me, you dirty old lech.”
I’m swatting him on the shoulder. He’s still laughing. God that’s annoying.
“You’re a very attractive woman, Channy – about five drinks ago. Now, come on. I locked your CDs in the office.”
I’m surprised to find myself boarding a small boat. The jiggle of my first step sends a small wave of nausea through my stomach.
“What the hell is this?”
“This,” he says, “is the best damn commute in Washington state.” He revs the engine and backs away from the dock. “This,” he yells, “is Hamster stickin’ it to the man!”
Hamster kicks it forward into the wind, looking like a goddamn cigarette ad.
“You know, Hammie?” I shout. “For a second there, you actually sounded like a black man!”
I wake to a gray light seeping through the windows. I am wearing every stitch from the night before, flat-out on a white quilt. I stumble to the blinds and peer through to see the public dock, directly across the harbor. That means we’re in the white house with the green trim – the one I’ve been lusting after for six months. I feel the need to express this thought out loud.
“Shoulda invited myself over sooner.”
Yikes. I sound like Stevie Nicks with strep throat. I also have a tongue made of shoe leather, an indescribable amount of thirst and an urgent need to pee. I catch a sliver of porcelain through the door and I head in that direction.
Cupping my hands to drink, I find in the mirror a fruit salad of colors, and turn to discover a jumble of plastic pipes soaking in the tub.
“What the hell?” I croak. I follow another door into the hall, where I find neat lines of similar pipes lining either wall, carefully framed around the door jambs. When I put my eye to a section of baby blue, I find a fuzzy, toothy face staring back, and squeal accordingly.
My boss leans into the far end of the hallway, holding a cup of coffee, wearing a red silk bathrobe like a black Hugh Hefner. It hits me all at once.
“Hamster!” I yell. “Hamster! Hamster!”
He lets out a grand and sheepish smile.
“Yes, damn you: Hamster. You want some coffee?”
Photo by MJV