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Ruby’s not five minutes done with her story when her brother walks into the coffeehouse – a retro-funky place in Tacoma called the Blackwater. Steve looks like a run-down house that someone has painted over in the hope of hiding all the cracks. Neat, shortcut hair, spiffy indigo-new jeans, tightly tucked button-down shirt and bright white sneakers. His features, however, are all shaky around the margins – as if, at any moment, he could be sucked into a wormhole.
I’m cheating, of course. I know from Ruby’s frequent references that Steve has had trouble, that he’s just now working his way out of it. Even as I’m being introduced, I’m running his face through my interior rap sheet: drugs? petty larceny?
“Hi! It’s great to finally meet you. Ruby talks about you a lot.”
He unlocks a smile, rising in a wave from left to right. “I hope, um… I hope she’s been kind.”
“Oh! Always,” I say.
“I’ve never been to karaoke before. I hear it’s fun.”
“Oh it is!” says Ruby. “Especially with Channy hosting. She’s the best.”
“I will not sit here and be flattered!” I complain.
“Well fine then!” says Ruby. “Let’s go!”
“Fine!” says I.
“Fine!” says Ruby.
We stride out the door, waving to Luna at the counter. Steve trails behind, shaking his shaky head.
“Man! You two are nuts.”
It’s a rainy, brooding night, and stormclouds bear down on the Narrows, buffeting my pickup. This does not bode well for my tip jar. People only need two reasons for skipping karaoke, and on Thursday they’ve already got that Friday morning alarm clock.
I delay our start-time by a half hour, hoping to work up a quorum. To operate at a smooth pace, you need at least three singers. This gives each participant one song to take a breather and one song to pick the next song. Steve’s not going to be much help. Actually singing in front of people would likely give him a heart attack, and he’s already disappeared twice on smoke breaks. (Ruby says this is his first night out in a while, and it seems to be making him very anxious.)
Fortunately, Harry arrives, still in uniform, grabbing armfuls of Ruby as he enters. Five minutes later, we get a trio of newbies – although they’re certainly not new to karaoke. You can tell by the way they scoop up the songbooks and rifle the pages.
Turns out they’re also good. The first is John, a tall fortyish white guy who sings R & B ballads with a sirloin-steak baritone. The second is Paul, a bald black guy who’s interested in things further up, whipping out some falsetto doo-wop from the fifties. The blonde centerpiece is Kim, an attractive thirty-year-old who navigates Annie Lennox and Melissa Etheridge with a consummately pitched voice – almost as good as Ruby’s. She comes up for a little side-bar as Harry works his way through “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
“It’s a little deal I’ve got with my husband,” she says. “In order to avoid The Horror That is Dancing with Your Wife, he takes the kids once a week while I go for a trot with my dirty old men. Once we’ve worn out our feet, we hunt down a karaoke bar.”
“So are John and Paul gay, or just well-mannered?”
Kim bursts out laughing. “They are my caballeros. I gotta watch it, though. Sometimes they get too comfortable, and start making racy comments about the other chicks in the bar.”
“Well,” I say. “Even when they’re well-trained, they’re still dogs. So what’s with this gorgeous voice of yours?”
Kim looks away, a little knocked aside by my flattery. “Tell you a secret: I actually had a full ride to Julliard. Some scout came to my high school for a choir concert. Like I was a quarterback or something. I was pretty blown away. But they wanted me to sing opera and nothing else. I just wasn’t into it. Then I met a guy, had some babies. Old story.”
“Sounds like you made the right decision. Ruby’s been telling me about life in the performing arts, and it sounds like you’d best be really into it before you enlist.”
“I knew it!” says Kim. “I knew she was a pro. She’s amazing.”
“She’s my hero,” I say, only half-joking.
“So the Mod Squad and I were thinking, if you guys were into it, maybe we could play a little game. First singer does something by an ‘A’ artist, second singer does ‘B,’ and so on.”
“Tonight I’ll try anything. I’ll make an announcement after Harry, um, gets to Phoenix.”
Kim smiles and hands me a song slip: “Fernando” by ABBA.
In actual practice, the alphabet game turns out to be quite fun. Except that yours truly gets all the problematic letters. Q, naturally, which almost always calls for Queen – which, in the world of karaoke, means “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I’m no fool, however – I get Ruby, Kim and John to help out with the goofy opera parts, while Harry throws down some wicked toy guitar.
A half-hour later comes X, and there’s only one choice: some ‘80s R & B group called Xscape. I vaguely vaguely vaguely recall the song, but it’s not like not knowing what the hell I’m doing ever stopped me before, so I claw my way through, tossing out some Whitney Houston embellishments that may or may not be on-key. I’m much relieved to hand the mic to Harry for “Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young.
Ruby’s working her way through “Lawyers, Guns and Money” by Warren Zevon (how does she know this stuff?) when I hear the door and the familiar high-pitched laugh that belongs to Kevin the Cop. And another that doesn’t.
She is a blonde, in jeans, jacket and a crisp white blouse. She has sly, dreamy eyes that remind me of Lauren Bacall. Something about her entrance has knocked the room off-kilter: troubled brothers, newbie trios, Q’s and X’s sliding around like ping-pong balls in a Bingo basket. Kevin comes up for his usual hug, and I regain my balance long enough to fill him in on the alphabet game.
“So, if my calculations are correct, you’re ‘F.’ Is your, um, friend gonna sing?”
Kevin smiles, glances at the blonde and launches into a completely unrequested explanation: “I went to a reading for this ‘how-to’ dating book. Figured I could use all the help I could get. So now I’m dating the author! Diane. She is so funny! I never knew how sexy that was.”
Kevin finally notices that I’m still waiting for my answer.
“Oh! No – she’s just here to listen. I’ll go find some effin’ song to sing. Ha!”
And then he’s off.
The second time around, we decide that a reprise of Xscape is unnecessary, but the subsequent shuffle lands me on Z. I perform a decent rendering of “Tush” by ZZ Top, and am halfway through loading up when I remember something I have to check with Ruby. She’s still at her table, mooning over Harry. They’ve decided to sleep in their own beds tonight, so they’re extending the evening as long as they can.
“Hi guys. That was fun, wasn’t it?”
“Shore was,” says Harry. “Next time, we go numerical!”
“Three Dog Night,” says Ruby.
“Four Non-Blondes,” says Harry.
“10,000 Maniacs,” I say. “Where’s Steve?”
“Smoke break,” says Ruby.
“Your brother’s a chimney,” I say.
“Yes,” says Ruby. “But a functioning chimney.”
I make a mental note to someday figure out what’s going on with that boy.
“So Rubbayat,” I say.
“I’ve got a KJ gig for a holiday office party, and I need a soloist to do a couple of the CEO’s favorite tunes.”
“What’re you? Braunschweiger?”
“I don’t need a singer. I need a performer.”
Ruby purses her lips in a way that probably drives Harry crazy with lust. “Name the songs.”
“‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and ‘Christmas Song.’”
“Sold!” says Ruby, slapping the table. “And I also want to marry the CEO.”
“Hey!” says Harry. “I might have picked the same songs.”
“My ass! You woulda picked that hip-swingin’ lip curlin’ trailer trash you’re so in love with.”
“I’m sorry,” says Harry. “I didn’t hear a word after you mentioned your ass.”
“We’ll discuss my dairy-air tomorrow night, Bubba.” She crawls up his chest for a lingering kiss, then she looks back at me and her face winds down like a clock.
“Um… Channy? Could I talk to you outside? It’s a feminine matter.”
“Oh. Yeah, sure.”
Harry, being Harry, has to throw his two cents at our departure.
“Don’t tell her any of my secrets!”
I have no idea which one of us he’s addressing, but I guess that’s part of the joke. We pass Steve just outside the entrance, puffing away, and Ruby says, “Fifteen minutes, hermano mio.”
“Grassy-ass,” he mumbles.
The rain has passed, leaving the asphalt clean and slick. Ruby takes me to a seawall overlooking the harbor. Our distance from the bar makes me wonder about the radioactivity of her subject matter. She stops and turns, her breath puffing in the cold air.
“Okay. I don’t know if my surging hormones are tripping my gyno-radar, but you are transmitting this aurora borealis of sadness that is deeper than Billie Freakin’ Holiday.”
Little did I know about the hot button lurking beneath my skin, waiting to be pressed in just this fashion.
“Why are guys such dicks? Showing off their catches like they just landed a marlin off the Florida Keys… What the fuck is that?”
Ruby reaches to touch me, and I whack her hand away. I’m poison ivy, I’m cactus – no one should touch me. Then I see a line of blood where I’ve scratched her wrist.
“Oh! Shit, Ruby. My bracelet.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s nothing.”
“God, I’m being an idiot. Why am I being an idiot?”
Ruby pulls out a tissue and dabs at her wrist. “I’ve got a theory,” she says.
We stop to watch a small boat chug past, a large gray-bearded man standing at the wheel.
“So,” I say. “What’s your theory?”
“I’ll tell you if you let me touch you.”
“Sure,” I say, but her caring tone is sending me deeper into my funk. I set my elbows on the seawall and prop my weary head on my hands. Ruby rubs the back of my neck. It feels good.
“A guy likes a woman; a woman likes a guy. He asks her out, but she’s too wounded to say yes. Still, she’s kinda hopin’ he’ll be there at the hospital entrance when she finally checks out. But she looks out her window one night and finds him at a restaurant across the street, having dinner with some fucking blonde best-seller.”
I find my face sinking deeper into my hands. The only way to keep from crying is to continue being a smartass.
“Put another bullet through my heart, why dontcha?”
Ruby laughs, and sings a quiet recitative into my ear. “Isn’t that why you gave me the bullets in the first place?”
Photo by MJV