Saturday, February 8, 2014

Outro, the Karaoke Novel: Chapter Two: Sonic Boom

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So here’s my thought on cover songs: if you’re not going to make the song your own, don’t bother. You’re just a hack with a record deal, looking to milk a twenty-year-old hit.
            Pretty funny, coming from a KJ (that’s Karaoke Jock). But six months after someone records that cover song, the wake rolls into my bar. A few months ago, I started getting requests for “Drift Away.” Once a night, three times a night – when it hit six, I had to call a moratorium. One of my college kids informed me that the latest acoustic grinder hunk had covered it for a soundtrack -–probably with that grungy yarl that everybody ripped off from Cobain and Vedder.
            I make my living through the good graces of pop culture, so I engineered a compromise. At the end of our third round, I take out all five of our mics, and anybody who’s up for it gets to sing along. Over the weeks, it has almost become a beautiful thing. Kevin the Cop contributes a high third, Harry Baritone constructs something mysterious but effective down below, and Shari Blues has come up with a full gospel descant. I turn down whatever mic Caroleen is on (poor old gal), and me, I’m strictly melody, ‘cause I’m the KJ, that’s my job. I call it the Karz Bar Korale, and we are occasionally magnificent – especially when the CD knocks off and we finish with a bonus a capella chorus. There are times when karaoke is downright spiritual, like church with cocktails.Whoever’s left in the audience (at least Alex, who’s only here to dance) gives us a nice round of applause, and I gather up mics like a teacher collecting homework. Except for Kevin, who waits as I line up his salsa track, a disc that he brings from home. I guess I’d get tired of the thing, except for the stimulating effect it has on the hips and buttocks of its listeners. It doesn’t hurt that it’s Kevin, of the sunny smile and brown sugar tenor – he who spends his days shaking down meth labs in Lakewood. You wouldn’t guess that he was half Puerto Rican – not with a name like Connaugh, and that Caucasian face. But a couple of rolled R’s and hip swivels and you can see where Mama’s genes had their way.
            When the song hits the percussion break, the rhythm gets too much for me, and I escape the bonds of my station to join Alex and his latest hottie on the floor. My pelvis is just beginning to loosen up when I hear a rolling thump on the entranceway and turn to find Supersonic, human train wreck, reeling our way. Oh, man.
            Super is the Kitsap Peninsula’s primary freak, a position he endows with a distinctive visual style. His name comes from his wardrobe, composed entirely of paraphernalia from Seattle’s basketball team. Tonight it’s a jersey with the number of Ray Allen, recently traded scoring machine. Super’s other outstanding feature is a head of outlandish Einstein hair, completely gray on one side, completely red on the other. You could draw a line down the middle.
            Sadly, there’s no stopping him now. He reels up to Kevin’s mic and lets loose a string of crackles and grunts in a crude approximation of the melody. Kevin pivots, blocking Super with a shoulder, but I can tell this won’t hold him for long. I dig under the soundboard for the cheapest mic I’ve got and hand it to Super, let him babble for a few seconds and then fade out his volume. Once he figures out I’ve cut his sound, he protests with a trio of full-body stomps and hurls the mic across the room. It barely misses Doc Mendelssohn, but not his martini glass, which explodes in a shower of crystals. (Fortunately, Doc’s wearing a thick tweed coat, which deflects a couple of scary-looking shards.)
            For Kevin, that cinches it. He tosses me his mic, whips Super into a headlock and rams him against the bar.
            “Rule number one,” he says. “You do not impede an officer in the performance of his favorite tune.”
            Super sputters an answer: “Fucking spic!” He kicks at the bar and convulses in a full-body shiver, forcing Kevin’s ribs into a barstool.
            “Asshole!” cries Kevin. “You’ve done it now, buttboy.” He cranks down on the headlock and rides him toward the back deck, pushing the door open with Super’s flailing, scrawny frame and steering him outside. The dancers plug up the doorway to see what happens next, while everyone else gathers at the window.
            Kevin brings Super to the railing and forces him to look.
            “That’s some mighty cold water, Super. Now apologize, or you’re goin’ in!”
            Super looks back over his shoulder, drooling with defiance. His next words come out like the quack of a duck, or maybe it’s just a similarity of consonants.
            “Fuck you, cocksucker!”
            Kevin smiles. It’s just the invitation he’s looking for. Keeping one arm on his headlock, he spins the other around the backs of Super’s legs and hurls him upward, like a Hefty bag headed for the Dumpster. Super phases through several hieroglyphic postures before striking the drink and sending up a long fishtail of water.
            Even in August, the water of Gig Harbor will turn your testes to Popsicles, so it’s no surprise when the next sound is something like an old-school Michael Jackson yelp. Kevin peers over the railing and grins.
            “You want out of there, Super?”
            Super yodels back: “Yu-yu-yes!”
            “You’ll behave?”
            “Yes! Yes!”
            “All right. Grab onto this and shut the fuck up.”
            “Yes sir!”
            He tosses a life ring, then fetches a dock ladder from the other end of the deck. Meanwhile, I figure I’d better coax the evening back to normal, so I call up Harry to do “Delilah.” As I turn back to my song slips, perched in business card holders on my table, I discover Engine #9 pulling in with a drink and a note: Thought you might need this. I turn to salute Hamster, beaming from the bar, and I bring the sweetness of rum and Coca-Cola to my lips as Tom Jones’ horn section blows forth.

It’s a pretty good crowd for a Sunday, thirteen singers, four full rounds. At the end of each round I allow myself a song, and then I ring this old sailing bell to signal another circuit. I can’t even remember where I got that thing – but we are on a harbor, after all. At the end of the fourth round we’re nearing one o’clock, so I finish with my usual, Marc Cohn’s “True Companion” – simple chords, simple thoughts, a nice reflective tune to send everyone out into the night.
            My songbooks magically appear, neatly stacked, on my table (usually the work of Harry Baritone, if he isn’t fondling some young chickie), and all I have to do is pull on my dust covers and nudge my speakers against the wall. I’m a lucky girl. Most of my fellow KJs have to lug their stuff around to two or three bars a week. Me, it’s all Karz Bar, four nights a week. I am blessed. That’s what I tell myself on Sunday nights, when it all begins to hit home. I am blessed.
            I’m not crazy, however, so I lug all one thousand CDs to my truck, in three large metallic cases. CDs are a KJ’s lifeblood, and a ten-thousand-plus songlist is nothing to sneeze at. Multiply that one thousand by fifteen bucks, and you’ve got enough for a new car.
            I lean back in to give Hamster the high sign – he’s whipping chairs onto tabletops like a short-order cook flipping pancakes – then I take my weekly stroll down Harborview Drive. I turn at Jerisich Dock, past the bronze statue of Samuel Jerisich, catcher of fish, marrier of native women, founder of Gig Harbor. What was a Serbian boy doing here, halfway around the world?
            The thing I especially like about Jerisich the Bronze is that he’s tossing a real net, tied down at strategic locales, replaced on an annual basis. In a more frivolous town, this would be an open invitation for buffoonery – I picture spiderwebs for Halloween, ensnared effigies of rival football players for homecoming. But the youth of Gig Harbor are not fishers of fun – they are fishers of SAT scores and university admissions. Princeton. Pepperdine. Purdue.
            I stand beneath Samuel’s determined stare and feel a coward - retreater from the frontier, refugee from my native Alaska. I lift the loose corner of his net and bring it to my lips. This is corny (and a little unsanitary), but Jerisich protects me from ghosts, and I am grateful.
            I slide down the walkway to the long, narrow public dock, shiny new, lit with knee-high theater lamps like a high-fashion catwalk. A single small yacht, the Auntie Maim, is tied up midway, hailing from Ballard, forty miles north. It might be Peg and Bill, the uninspired fortysomethings who signed up for nothing but Eagles songs and doubled their crime by drinking nothing but tequila sunrises. They’d be just the type to live in Ballard.
            Forty strides later, I reach my retreat, a dock-ending square with two wooden benches. During the day, you might see a family here – or a spouse, a girlfriend, a cousin – waiting for their true companion to return from the sea. It gets me, sometimes. Tonight, the water is black as crude oil, the dock lights stringing out cotton candy trails of red, yellow and white. I spend much of my time in blackness, and it’s not all that bad – even comfortable, if you resign yourself to it. Someday when I’m ready, I’ll grab onto those colored strings and yank myself out – but not yet, not now. I watch the darkness with steady eyes; the lapping of the water tickles my skin, the tender chink of metal as the boats jostle their moorings, thoroughbreds anxious for the starting bell. A truck whirrs into second gear, downshifting the incline of Pioneer Street.
            When I have wrapped the dark around my shoulders, I reach for the inside pocket of my leather jacket and pull out a pack of Swisher Sweets cigarillos, the little ones with the wooden tips. I clamp one between my teeth, always a little surprised at the cherry-flavored coating, and light it up. I hold it in for a second, then I open my jaws and let the smoke find its way. It hovers in a scrum over the dock light, then lifts one finger after another into the blue-black ceiling.
            Swisher Sweets. Super Sonic. The world is ripe with esses, full of steam, escaping in a hiss, and Sunday night the only time I peek beneath the curtains and chew the sadness in its raw form. The blackness wells up inside; I coach myself to breathe between the puffs. In, out, there you go, just like that.
            Something landward begins to flash. The crosswalk across Harborview has yellow blinkers half-embedded in the asphalt. When you press the Walk button and those lights go off, it makes you feel like royalty. I do it sometimes even when I don’t need to cross. Then I wait a minute and come back the other direction. This time it’s a man, not too tall, clean lines. I can tell from his gait – light-footed, graceful – that it’s Kevin the Cop. Did he press the Walk button at two in the morning because he’s a cop, or because he, too, enjoys its Vegas dazzle? Three puffs later, he arrives at my little island.
            “Hi Kevin.”
            “Hi Channy. Can a cop get a smoke?”
            “Sorry, sailor. Last one.” I hate to lie to a guardian angel, but you do what you gotta.
            He joins me on the bench and sniffs the air. “Is that a cigar?”
            “Cigarillo. That’s why I smoke ‘em out here.” More lies. One step closer to hell.
            “Hope I didn’t make too much of a ruckus tonight. I hate to pull that off-duty-cop shit.”
            I laugh, little walk-lights tickling my head. “Are you kidding me? I’ve been dying for someone to take care of that guy. I wish he’d get off whatever he’s on.”
            Kevin slaps the side of the bench. “There’s your big surprise. Judging by those superhuman moves he was throwin’ at me, I was guessin’ PCP. Turns out Super is a schizo.”
            “No shit!”
            “Yep. They took him off to Steilacoom for observation. You shall probably not see him hence.”
            “I won’t miss him a bit.”
            “It’s all for the best. I see too many wack jobs wandering the streets when they should be getting help somewhere. It’s also kind of refreshing to run into a case where the chemicals are internally produced.”
            It occurs to me that cops probably care more about these problem children than we do – simply because they spend more time with them. I give Kevin a pat on the knee.
            “You’re a good man, Kevin. One hell of a professional wrestler, too.”
            He looks at me, but he doesn’t smile like I expect him to. Uh-oh. I’ve gone too far.
            “You know, Channy, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d love to…”
            “Kev. I’m sorry. You know how much I like you, and how much I enjoy having you at karaoke. But I’ve seen too many K-bars turn into pits of gossip, and Karz is the best place I’ve ever worked. I can’t be seen anywhere outside the bar with a regular.”
            “What about right now?”
            This has an explanation. We had trouble tonight, you took care of it – you came by to tell me how it came out.”
            He cocks his head and considers it. I mean, really considers it. He’s such a sweet boy. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I guess I knew that. But we all adore you, Channy.”
            I am immensely grateful that he has chosen the words we all instead of I. Otherwise, I would now be doing an extremely chilly Australian crawl across the harbor.
            “Thanks, Kevin. And thanks again for tonight. Come talk to me anytime at the bar, okay? I’d really like that.”
            I’m overdoing it again. Shut up! Shut. Up.
            “Okay,” he says, and stands up. “Well, I think I’ll get out while I’m behind. See you Thursday, Channy.”
            “Good night, Kevin.”
            He traverses the catwalk, much slower this time, hits the button and splits the magic flashers. My black, black heart swells in his direction. I’m not ready for cotton candy trails, and “True Companion” is a memory, not a wish.
            Besides, he’s a hero. I don’t do heroes.

You can imagine how KJs are plagues by the Great American Songbook. The next morning, as I dangle my legs off the edge of my back deck, overlooking the Carr Inlet, my internal CD changer clicks automatically to “Dock of the Bay.” I’m soon into that whistling solo that my singers are chicken to try – and whistling guarantees the end of my solitude. The blackberry vines give out a rustle, and out from his tunnel pops Java, world’s tallest standard poodle. He lopes my way on basketball player limbs, and I put him through the standard drill.
            “Sit Java! Okay. This hand. Now the other.”
            He sits and whacks my palm with either paw. It’s a poor imitation of a proper handshake, but this is the only trick he’s got. I grab a hank of his coffee-colored dreadlocks and reach down to thump his ribcage like a ripe melon. Then I go for the look.
            “Listen carefully, Java. If someone – say, a poodle – wanted to describe the mass of an object, what unit of measure would they use?”
            He peers down his long snout, but refuses to take the bait.
            “Why a newton, silly! Now, a lot of people think the newton was named after Isaac Newton, but I happen to know it was Wayne Newton. You know, ‘Danke Schoen’?”
            I sing a few bars, but still, nothing.
            “He also invented the fig newton.”
            Ah, that did it. Java cocks his head to the right like he’s actually, humanly puzzled. I’m sure it’s a trick of evolution – a hundred canine generations figuring out that humans dig the tilted head thing – but I wouldn’t trade the illusion for the world.
            “Good Java!” I yank his moptop, and he gives me that slightly fierce V-shaped grin.
            Another rustling comes from the human entrance, a trellised archway covered in passionflowers. It’s Floy Craig, and naturally she’s got baked goods, a plateful of apple turnovers.
            “Floy!” I complain. “How am I supposed to keep this weight off if you keep tempting me?”
            “Ha!” says Floy. “‘This weight.’ she says. I am surrounded by skinny people who don’t realize they’re skinny.”
            This is all ritual, of course. If Floy opened a bakery, I would be first in line. But female custom demands protestation before piggery.
            All the interaction gets Java barking, a lyric “woof!” that sounds exactly like Lassie.
            “Now Java,” says Floy. “Don’t even start. This is not your carbohydrate of choice. So cliché,” she tells me. “A poodle who loves French B-R-E-A-D.”
            “Come on up,” I tell her. “Dangle your legs off my deck. I’ll get you some tea.”
            “That’s a deal.” She engages the steps as I head inside for a mug.
            Everybody needs a guardian presence in their life, and the Craigs are certainly mine. John’s a retired Navy pilot out of Whidbey Island who retains his military discipline, fighting off Floy’s baking with daily commutes to the Navy gym at Bremerton. He’s in ridiculously good shape. Floy works as a maternity nurse and is, by any standard, the first person you want your kid to see on her entrance into the world. She’s got curly gray-blonde hair that thickens and thins with the weather, and an animated face forever touched with pink, as if she’s been out sailing. I return to the deck and hand her a Ruby Mist.
            “Thanks, Channy. You’re a doll.”
            “That’s what they tell me.”
            “Oh! Another suitor?”
            “Yeah. One of my regulars. Great guy, but I do have my rules.”
            “That’s very smart of you. We’ve had some affairs at the hospital, and believe me – you may as well make a video and put it on the Internet. Still, it must be nice, surrounded by all those handsome crooners.”
            That gets me laughing. “Most of them are just handsome drunks. But I guess they make a decent substitute.”
            She flashes her pale blues in a thoughtful way. “Substitute for what?”
            “Well, I, you know…” There is no way in hell I’m finishing this sentence.
            She takes a long sip, giving my embarrassment time to vaporize. That’s one thing I love about Floy: she plays fair. Not that she’s letting me go scot-free.
            “Well, Channy. You know John and I love having you here, but sometimes I feel like we’re hiding this great, beautiful secret from the world. And we worry about you. Especially…”
            “Especially” is a word containing far too many newtons to leave dangling in the air, but Java is unhappy with the way this conversation has left him out of the loop. He pries his snout under Floy’s hand, demanding a head scratch.
            “Well!” she says. “All right, sillydog. Um, well… the other night, Java started that nervous muttering of his…”
            “I love that! He sounds like an old Jewish man.”
            “Well, yes,” says Floy. “But then he worked into a howl, which he never does. So I went out on the balcony to check and, well… We try not to be nosy neighbors, Channy, but you are just below us, and I heard you moaning. It sounded painful – and believe me, I know pain. And then you let out sort of a half-scream, and I guess that’s what woke you up.”
            “Oh.” Now I’m really embarrassed. I hold my mug higher, hoping it’ll hide my face.
            “I’m sorry, Channy. We both understand that there’s something you can’t tell us about whatever it is that brought you our way. But if you’re having nightmares… well, we’re just concerned, is all. And you certainly don’t have to tell us about it, but I do know some excellent counselors at the hospital.”
            Again, Floy knows when she’s made her point, and when to let off the gas.
            “By the way, a little fair warning: the little terrors will be by this afternoon.”
            “Joey’s kids?”
            “Thanks. I’ll make my usual foster aunt appearance, and then I’ll do a little boating.”
            “Good plan.”
            Floy’s like me – she loves the grandkids, but she also knows her limits. And today, mine are pretty low.

            I take a back trail to the waterline, carrying visions of Kylie and Jo-Jo in their Cubs outfits (a family affliction). My visits to the boat shed became so regular last year that I concocted a deal – sort of my own season pass – with Manny, the teenage ranger. When I enter, he’s outfitting a couple of twelve-year-olds, so I nab a life jacket and paddle and head for the dock. My regular vessel is Blue Pistol, a sporty fiberglass number small enough for single-pilot navigation. I paddle backwards, swing around with a right-hand stop and head out. Halfway across the inlet I gaze into the clear water and find thousands of sand dollars, fuzzy purple Frisbees scattered along the blue-green stones. What they’re doing here, I have no idea, but then I could say the same about myself.
            Two years ago, a young woman sails out of her shock across the the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, drives into Gig Harbor and finds a bakery called Susanne’s. Settling at the back table with green tea and a lemon scone, she looks across the harbor and discovers a bald eagle, sailing on enormous wings, his spiky white head slicing through the evergreen background. On a nearby bulletin board she finds two ads: an apartment on the Carr Inlet, a bar looking for a KJ, and she knows that she is part-way home.

Photo: The original Java


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