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The signals get too heavy. The circuits overload.
I’m descending the long pitch of Pioneer, a steady drizzle, eight o’clock. Exactly the time my first singer should be picking up the mic. The traffic on Highway 16 backed up like a sewer, splattering refuse into my path. The Narrows Bridge is a fragile conduit – one stalled Mini Cooper and you’ve got a parking lot all the way back to Bremerton. (I have always feared being the cog in this deviltry, the object of so much hatred. I spend each crossing holding my breath, casting prayers to the mystic regions beneath my hood.)
Nevertheless. Punctuality is the one absolute I demand of myself, and I have committed a sin against karaoke. In my frantic state, I become absolutely convinced that I have forgotten something. My brain, having turned into a shit-seeking missile, latches onto the worst of all possibilities: my CDs. If I have forgotten those, I may as well call it a night, because I would be forced to penetrate that 16 backup twice more. And I wouldn’t get paid. And my rent is due.
I steal a glance at the cab space behind me, and there’s the big silver case, swaddled in beach towels. Of course it’s there. Would the third king forget the myrrh? I bring my eyes forward to find a pearl-white bumper rearing up at me like a Hitchcock quick-zoom: brass trim, multicolored magnetic ribbons, personalized Washington license plate with a red registration sticker.
The last thing I see is a pair of brake lights. I don’t know when it is that I became a Hollywood stunt driver, but my extremities have taken over, fluxing into a ballet of navigational logic that simply should not be there. I tap the brakes, veer right as much as I dare, dodging the pearl-white bumper by three inches. My poor pickup is then forced to gallop the water-puddle ridges of the roadside, steamroller a couple of squat bushes and plunge into the Key Bank parking lot. When I spy level asphalt, I hit the brakes, bringing us to a skidding, hydroplaning halt.
For a half-minute, I am content to breathe heavily. Then I look around, and there’s just no one. I’m out here performing feats of Nobel Prize-winning proportions, and not a single eyewitness. I peer to the left and find the pearl-white car, shape of a wing, as it rolls to the intersection and turns.
For a second, I can recall the letters on the license plate. Then I cough, and they’re gone.
She enters the bar, plagued by shame (referring to herself in third person). When she apologizes to Hamster, he erupts in laughter.
“Ten minutes late, once every six months. What do you want me to do – send you to the principal’s office? Besides…” he nods at the big-screen TV. “The Seahawks got the Sunday night game. I was going to ask you to wait, anyway.”
She doesn’t feel right, getting away with things. She retreats to the corner and lines up her song-slip holders with extra precision, soldiers in their ranks, hoping to atone for her pedestrian sins. (The words atone and atonal mix unexpectedly in her head.) The Orange Blossom Special chugs into her personal siding with a brown drink on ice. The note says, Drink first, then read other side.
The taste is purely awful. She flips the card.
Root beer and gin. What do you think?
She turns to the bar and forces herself to smile. Hamster gives a USO salute, then she takes a boisterous swig and chokes it down.
This, she thinks, will be punishment enough.
Punishment number two is low attendance. My only regulars are Harry, Shari and Caroleen, although they’re sitting with a couple, Mark and Sandra, who turn out to be good singers. Harry tells me they’re dedicated karaokephiles, friends from Boise. Mark is partial to sixties rock: Doors, Who, Kinks. Sandra is entrenched in the sub-category of feminist disco: “I Will Survive,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “Gloria.”
We’re speeding into round three, each of us pulling heavy duty, when I hear these words: “Wanna try some suicide?”
It’s Harry. His meaning escapes me.
“Well, since it’s kinda slow,” he continues, “we thought it would be fun to… You do know suicide, right?”
I’ve got nothing. Harry seems to read my silence as disapproval. He’s fidgeting.
“Everybody puts a song into the hat, and you take one out, and you have to sing whatever you get.”
“Oh,” I say. “Yeah. Sure.”
“Cool! You’ll play too, right?”
Mark’s got a baseball cap, so we dump in the song slips and go by the order we’ve already established. Which means I’m first. I draw “Only the Lonely,” one of my favorite songs and (thanks to Roy’s supernatural pipes) directly in my range. Not very challenging, but amusement is right on my heels, as Harry pulls out “I Feel Like a Woman,” by Shania Twain.
“Caroleen!” he complains. “This has your fingerprints all over it.”
Caroleen confesses her guilt by giggling, but Harry hams it up nonetheless, playing the a capella hook as gayly as possible. Then it’s Caroleen’s turn: “It’s Now or Never,” which comes out more spoken than sung. I help her out by loaning her my Elvis sideburn sunglasses. Sandra pulls out her own song, so she has to put it back. She gets “My Sharona” instead, another guy song in a girl range, and does pretty well, especially with the jungle screams.
Mark seems real hesitant, and I think it’s because he’s done the math. The only slips remaining are his and Sandra’s, so feminist disco it is: “What a Feelin’,” from the movie Flashdance. He gets a little lost picking an octave – trying and failing with a Mickey Mouse falsetto – but for a Boise boy he certainly shakes that booty. Sandra gets up at the instrumental break and threatens him with a glass of water, but the dangers of electrocution hold her back.
“Sha-ree,” I say, tauntingly. “Only one slip leh-eft.”
Shari takes a look at the slip and smiles. “No sweat.”
She hands it to me. “All Along the Watchtower.” My hand tightens up. Mark is leaning over the soundboard, holding a CD.
“I didn’t see it in your book, but I had one in my personal stash. Track seven.”
I take it, praying for Dylan, but the silver surface is etched with a ‘fro and a buccaneer headband. Hendrix. I manage to center it on the changer, and bring up the track, but then I’m stuck. Shari looks up from the lyric screen, puzzled. The pearl-white bumper charges me like a rhino.
I step to the stage, take Shari’s mic and pretend to inspect the battery as I speak sotto voce.
“Feminine difficulties. Need a bathroom break. Could you wait ten seconds, and then press play?”
“Sure, hon. I gotcha.”
I hand her the mic and hurry off, afraid to look up lest I meet someone’s eyes. When I get to the restroom, I head for a stall and start flushing. Jimi’s guitar finds a seam in the rushing water, crackling through like a roadside bomb. So I flush with one hand, clap the other over my left ear, and press my right ear to the side of the tank. The car was a Thunderbird.
When I return, it’s much too quiet, but perhaps this is a consequence of my ruse. The suicide gang is constructively ignoring me, replaying the cross-gender comedies of their little game. I’m stuck by the vision of Harry, my least adventurous singer, mimicking Shania Twain. What’s gotten into everybody? I load up the Sheryl Crow
that I was going to sing before, and I work through it carefully, tiptoeing the higher passages lest they trip a lever.
Singers talk about a “break” in the voice. This is where the point of production, the spot through which the tone resonates, switches from the throat to the sinal cavity (you’ll hear the phrases “chest voice” and “head voice,” but the former is more metaphorical than accurate). The break is a real trouble spot – a choral reef, difficult to navigate. A singer is likely to have a harder time with a melody that hovers along her break than one that operates a third or even a fifth above it.
But there’s a second break point – an emotional break point. This one hovers near the top – the highest note you can sing without feeling undue stress on your throat. This places you in such a free, untethered stratosphere that it leaves you vulnerable, literally sticking your neck out. Given the right lilt, the right set of heartbreaking lyrics (anything by Patsy Cline), the proper minor-chord progression, this note will yank a wire in your lachrymal glands, and there you are, Pagliacci, mid-aria. Singing is either speech emancipated or sobbing controlled.
Fortunately, “Every Day is a Winding Road” is no “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” so I’m safe. Harry follows with “You Make Me So Very Happy,” and we’re back to a normal evening.
Two rounds later, still an hour from closing, we’re joined by a band of 16th century villagers. I am back to my thin grasp on reality until I flash on a poster at Susanne’s Bakery: the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, just over the hill at somebody’s farm. Damsels with bubbly cleavage and raucous hairy men in pantaloons dive into my songbooks. This could be very good for my tip jar.
“Zounds!” I say. It’s the only bit of archaic English I can muster. “What’s going… on here, fellows? What… say you?”
A young man in hunting leathers and a Robin Hood cap is about to produce a snappy Shakespearean reply when he meets my eyes.
I’m back at the wheel of my pickup. I ease myself to the mic, and when I speak I feel an odd vibration at the back of my throat.
“Hey, um… Since we’ve been fooling around tonight, and the, um, revelers need some time to pick out their songs, I’ve always wanted to try something. I’m going to put on “Miss American Pie,” and I’d like my regulars to do the whole thing, one singer to a verse.
At eight minutes, 37 seconds, Don McLean’s epic tune is the longest selection in the catalog, and I keep it in a special slot in my CD case for just such an occasion. I slip it out, jam it on the changer and hit play. Harry’s already there, ready for the first verse.
I hop off the stage and meet Kai near the entrance. He goes to hug me but I grab his arm, pulling him through the front door and into the parking lot. The first thing I see is the Thunderbird, license plate STRYKER2. I brace myself and turn around.
“Channy!” he says. “God! I heard you went back to Alaska. I was just… well, I guess it’s obvious what I was doing. For God’s sake, don’t tell the guys about this or I’m dead meat. I can’t tell you how much grief I would catch for the tights alone! But I was heavy into theater back in high school and…”
Bunches of Kai are coming back to me as I try to follow his chirpy, mile-a-minute digressions. The burnt brown sheen of his skin, the fierce beauty of his white teeth, cheekbones like Mayan carvings. He’s a Sherpa – the tribe, not the occupation, though I have a hard time not picturing him on a snowy peak somewhere, one hand on a flagpole. He’s second-generation American, and his parents have taken great pains to remove him from the stereotype. In fact, that’s what he’s talking about.
“…and I thought, first thing back in the States, I’m climbing Rainier. That’ll cheese ‘em off. I mean, we’re the greatest climbers in the world, born and raised at ten thousand feet! Is that something to be ashamed of?” He laughs, and then pauses. “God, Channy.”
Uh-oh. He’s giving me that look.
“Are you okay? Are you doing all right?”
At which point, voice control once more becomes an issue.
“Just okay. Nothing special.”
He grips my shoulder, a clumsy attempt at reassurance.
“I understand. I’ve got some things in my head right now that I’d rather… weren’t there.”
He seems to recover, and his eyes flash.
“Channy! My God! I’ve got something for you. I’ve been saving it like, forever. Ya got two minutes?”
I cock an ear toward the bar. They haven’t hit the slow part yet.
“Yes. But hurry.”
He jogs to the T-bird, then reaches in and shuffles a hand under the passenger seat. The car is one of those new retro models, more bulk in front than the back, like a cross-section of a wing. A gift from his parents for graduating college. He paces back and hands me an aluminum box, one of those little cash boxes you might see at a bake sale. I accept it, but I hold it at arm’s length. Kai looks fidgety, un-Sherpa-like.
“I’m thinking you shouldn’t open it… until I’m gone,” he says. “I’m thinking that would be best.”
My voice is a whisper: “Okay.”
“I’m… I’m really sorry, Channy. And I’m sorry if my being here, well, you know…”
He looks inside, where Shari is handling the final verse – naturally, the one about Janis.
“I better let you get back,” says Kai. “But, I’m in the book, okay? Spanaway. Look me up.”
I pat him on the shoulder, one awkward gesture for another.
“You’re a dashing Robin Hood.”
“Thanks!” And the shocking white smile.
We break through the doors just as the choral ending is trailing away. The Elizabethans have littered my tray with song-slips.
The Ren-Faire folks are drunk but good; probably they’re all drama clubbers like Kai. A willowy damsel, complete with conical hat and dangling veil, does “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols. A bulky, long-haired gentleman in a purple cape and silk doublet does “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” (a buxom serving wench filling in for Karla Bonoff).
Singing is apparently not on Kai’s resume, because the next time I see him he’s sending me a courtly bow before he troops out with the others. We don’t need any more words.
But then there’s the box. It sits beneath my soundboard, a radioactive presence. I try to ignore it as I slip on all my dust covers, but I know if I don’t open it the night will be sleepless.
A half hour later, I wave off Shari, my final regular, as she strolls across the lot. She lives a few blocks up the hill, which gives her the option of getting drunk if she pleases. Hamster has burrowed into his office, conducting his cashing-out before he gets to the cleaning. I’ve never known an owner who scrubs his own floors, but maybe it gives him peace of mind when the inspector comes.
I open the door to my pickup and hoist my CD case inside, wrapping it with the beach towels and bracing it against the back of the passenger seat. Then I open the driver’s side door, center my danger box on the seat and click the metal tab that releases the lid.
The first item feels like a life sentence. It’s a box of Swisher Sweets, sealed in a plastic bag. The second item is a small cloth sack, blue fabric worn at the edges. The object inside is a polygon, solid and smooth. I feel a vague recollection, like the first hint of a familiar cologne, but it takes too long to set down roots. The string comes loose, the polygon hits the seat, and a flash of silver buckles my legs.
The wet asphalt bites into my knees. I grab onto the steering wheel, and cry and cry. I hear footsteps, far away then closer, quicker. Long-nailed fingers rub my shoulders, strands of wheat-colored hair sweep across my forehead. I hear a voice like Etta James after a long night, saying something about everything’s gonna be okay.
“I’m really sorry, Shari. Really sorry.”
“Nonsense,” she says. “Tell me why we’re here?”
Here is the end of the Jerisich Dock, my waterborne synagogue. The drizzle has returned, and we’re huddled beneath a huge umbrella that I keep in the truck.
“We’re here to smoke really bad cigars,” I say. “And, to forget.”
“Amen, sister,” says Shari. I hand her the first of the new Swisher Sweets. The last of the old is for me. I extract the silver polygon and fire it up with a roll of my thumb. First time, like magic. Shari’s first drag fills the dome of the umbrella.
“Whew! Nasty. Nice lighter, though. Whatcha call that flowery thing?”
“A fleur de lis.” I give myself a light and breathe in the familiar toxins. Raindrops smack the cloth above us.
“So hey,” she says. “I understand if maybe… you don’t want to tell me about…”
“Good,” I say, then I laugh, so I can pretend I’m joking. “Honestly, Shari, it’s just a bunch of little things, piling up all day long.”
“A straw/camel’s back situation?”
“Exactly.” (She has purchased the fabrication.)
“Okay,” she says. “But Channy. Could you tell me something else about yourself? I feel sometimes like I don’t know the least thing about you.”
I consider my options, watching the little spits of water jumping from the harbor surface.
I say this: “Chanson.”
Shari looks puzzled.
“That’s my name.”
“Song,” says Shari. “Wow. That’s beautiful. Can I tell?”
“Ain’t no state secret. But it was the reason I got beat up in third grade.”
“Aren’t kids awful?”
“Yeah. But they got theirs. I grew six inches that summer.”
Shari lets out a raspy Janis cackle, wrapped in tobacco.
Tell me something, Shari. Sometimes when you sing, I feel like you’re just gonna bust. Is there something behind that?”
She cackles again. “Absolutely nothin’. But I get that a lot. ‘Why, that girl musta had a turrible life. Just turrible.”
“Exactly,” I say.
She smiles. “In truth, I have had a mundanely happy existence. I think I seek out weepy, heart-wrenching ballads so I can balance things out. I think our emotions are like our skills. Use ‘em or lose ‘em, right? When I found you back there casting tears all over your parking brake, I was actually a little envious. I mean, ya feel better now, right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess so.”
“I’ve got this friend who gets real bad PMS. And she decided to scour her CDs for sad songs, and listen to them, one after another, till she made herself cry. ‘Cause she knew it would make her feel better. After a while, she went ahead and made a PMS mix tape.”
“That is fucking beautiful,” I say. We laugh at my sudden obscenity, and I’m thinking, It would be so good to have a sister.
But there’s something else in that box. And it might be years before I look at it.
Photo by MJV