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I’m in a familiar position, fighting to kick my ass out of bed. But at least the bed is moving – coasting slowly westward along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The departure from Seattle was spectacular; I don’t know a city in the world that looks better from the water. After that, however, the long afternoon of lining up, checking baggage and presenting documents finally got to me. I managed to sleepwalk through the lifeboat drill, but after that it was back to the cabin. I turned on the TV to check out all the day excursions – kayaking in Ketchikan, whale-watching in Juneau – and immediately collapsed bedward in a blurry ball. I awake two hours later to the roar of a glacier shedding ice chunks, and peer out my window to see a land mass that’s probably Vancouver Island.
It’s seven o’clock. I’m supposed to meet Ruby at eight. I have no idea how this is supposed to occur, since my limbs have lost the ability to initiate motion. Through much grunting and lamentation, I manage to drag myself all five feet to the shower. The fluorescents reveal a basket filled with sampler-size toiletries. I pick out a shampoo, a conditioner, and a bar of ocean-scent soap that claims to contain actual sea kelp (and smells, thank God, more like the idea of ocean than the ocean itself). The shower heats up remarkably well, and soon I am swaying under the sprinkle, praying for the washing away of my anguish.
Yeah, that’s what I said: anguish. Anyone who’s been through my particular brand of hell deserves a pot of gold, a certificate of merit, a Nobel Pity Prize. I have spent so much time harking back to that weekend in Ocean Shores that it’s getting pathetic – because I haven’t done anything in the interceding month that’s even worth mentioning. I try to find pleasure in the small things – fresh bread at Susanne’s, a starfish under the Jerisich Dock. But it’s too late for small things, dammit. I’m looking for something huge. Thank God for the cruise, but even here there’s a downside. I’m all alone, not even Harry Baritone to hang with, and the singles game is as treacherous as oceanfront property on a glacier. That and the unsettling feeling of returning to my home state; no matter how temporary the stay, it feels like backtracking, and I hate backtracking.
Okay. Let’s focus. Tonight you get to see Ruby’s show. That is SO worth the effort. Now get it together, ya big baby.
Ruby was so excited about me coming that she took me to downtown Seattle and made me her own personal Barbie doll. The result is a little red dress with spaghetti straps and a neckline that reveals cleavage I didn’t know I had. She also got me a pair of red Italian pumps trimmed in black, and loaned me her prize necklace, a gold serpentine with a teardrop pendant of her namesake gemstone. I should have a bodyguard just to put the thing on. (I think she got it from Scootie, but I didn’t think I should ask.)
An hour after the process began, I stand on my bed in order to get a full-length reflection in my cabin mirror. I like what I see. If I met myself in a bar, I might even jump my own bones. And now I better go, before I lose this feeling. I grab my black Spanish wrap and head for the halls.
The ship is Uncle Al’s main girl, evidenced by the super-size faces of Louis, Ella and Miles loomingon the wallpaper. Between the elevators I find a Leroy Neiman of the Manhattan Transfer at the Monterey Jazz Festival, an explosion of fluorescent paints. As I’m waiting, a trio of college-age boys passes, trying hard to conceal their sidelong glances, then bursting into exclamations as they round the corner. I’m getting hotter by the minute.
I arrive at the second deck and try to recall Ruby’s directions: right at the espresso counter, the windows filling up with an icy pink sunset. A straightaway through the slot machines (switched on the minute we enter international waters), then a right at the photo shop and proceed to the silver doors.
And what silver doors! A pair of them, each ten feet high and four feet wide. I begin to see figures, and I realize it’s a frieze of a classic Cotton Club gathering: dozens of characters blowing trumpets, tapdancing, smoking cigarettes. The top of the doors form an arch, and in the swing of the arch are light-bulb letters spelling out ASTAIRE’S.
“So ya gonna go in or what?”
I turn to find Ruby done up in a long sheath dress of gold lamé. A slit runs the length of one entire leg.
“Jean fucking Harlowe!” I say.
She feigns disappointment. “I was going for Rita Hayworth.”
“Hell, Scarlett Johannssen, Jessica Rabbit – I’ll give you any sexbomb you want.” I wrap her in a hug. “I can’t wait to see your show!”
“Well – let’s begin by entering Oz.” She swipes a card through a reader and the doors click open.
“Gracious!” I say.
Inside, it’s a Cab Calloway paradise. Little music stands for the players, baby blue with silver treble clefs. A stage in three semicircle tiers, spilling onto a dance floor of gray marble with swirling streaks of snow white. The whole spread is backed by a proscenium arch with Greek columns and gauzy white curtains, and stage left plays host to an enormous white grand piano. As I drift over to inspect, I spy a silver star on the floor and quickly cover it with my red pumps.
“Always hit a mark,” I recite.
Ruby laughs, then indulges my fantasy by delivering a stand with one of those old-fashioned squarish radio mics. I cup one side of it, try my best to channel Marlene Dietrich and gaze out at the tables, done up with silver lamps and backed by a velvet curtain along the back wall.
“Roo-bee? Why am I experiencing déjà vu?”
Ruby wanders to the piano and plays two rising chords, as if to say “Ta-dah!”
“Have you seen Shall We Dance?”
“Astaire and Rogers?”
“You remember the nightclub?”
“Omigod! So this is like an exact replica?”
“No. But have you seen Top Hat? Flying Down to Rio?”
“Those movies too!”
I take a slow stroll and join Ruby on the piano bench.
“Honey? What the fuck are you talking about?”
She giggles with satisfaction at having screwed with my head.
“Well. When Al got the idea for this cabaret, he and the designer sat through all ten Astaire and Rogers movies, and then came up with this… Well, let’s call it an evocation.”
“How freakin’ cool! So you’re like… Ginger Rogers?”
“Let’s hope I can sing better than that.”
“Hey, she ain’t a singer, I ain’t a dancer. All’s fair.” She points an accusing finger. “And stop using my word.”
A bartender comes out to greet us, equipped with mutton chops and a black tuxedo. His name is MacLiver, which sounds like a horribly misdirected fast-food entrée. He brings us a pair of lemon-drop martinis, and Ruby fills me in on her brief seafaring career.
“It’s nearly a religious experience sometimes. These folks grew up on this music – and they’re already close to rapture just being on this cruise. When you plug into their memories with a favorite tune, this radiance comes over them. I get regular offers to stay at people’s houses – I could string it into a national tour if I wanted. And so far, three proposals of marriage.”
“Although the youngest was sixty-two. Although he was loaded.”
“Would a good girl dress like this?”
We’re interrupted by “The Lady in Red” chiming from Ruby’s bag.
“Oh! ‘Scuse me a second. This is almost certainly a business call.”
She answers her cell, then stands and walks away as she speaks. I could swear I hear her say, “The fish are running.” She returns a minute later.
“Sorry. The downside to being Uncle Al’s pet project is the constant check-ins. It’s sorta like having a jealous Mafia boyfriend.”
“‘The fish are running?’”
“Oh yes!” she laughs. “Isn’t that a gas? It’s some kind of maritime lingo for ‘Everything’s A-OK.”
It’s MacLiver (he used to be a butler, which explains the formality).
“I’ll be opening up now.”
“Okay. Thanks.” She turns to me. “Part of the mystique. They like me out of sight during happy hour. Will you be able to entertain yourself?”
I smile. “The fish are running. Break a leg, sweetie.”
Ruby immediately starts busting up.
“It’s a theater expression,” I say. “Isn’t it?”
“Sorry. You reminded me of… Well, I was talking to one of the showgirls. She used to be in a ballet troupe, and what they used to say, right before they went onstage, was ‘Merde.’”
“Umm, my French is a little rusty, but doesn’t that mean ‘shit’?”
“Yeah. Isn’t that funny? And I asked her why they say that, and she said, ‘I have no idea.’ Well, I better go.”
Ruby sashays away (which in that dress is her only option). I yell, “Merde!” She yells “Merci!” and gives me a Jedi Frisbee wave.
I turn to find MacLiver hovering over me (these retired butlers have ninja stealth).
“Excuse me, Miss Channy. Once I open the door, I’ll have to charge you for the drinks.”
He waits patiently until I manage to process his meaning. “Oh!” I raise my glass. “I’ll have another of these. Thanks.”
After delivering my lemon drop redux, MacLiver opens the great silver doors and a long train of elderly passengers scurries to the tables like ‘49ers staking out claims. I harvest a few phrases out of the chatter, and gather that the evening meal was exquisite (I’m feeling stupid and hungry for missing it). When I turn back to my drink, I find that another ninja has stolen up on me. He looks about forty, with sharp light-brown eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles.
“Pardon me but… I’m here by myself, and I’m wondering if I could sit with you? I hate to use a whole table just for myself.”
“Oh, um… Sure. Have a seat. I’m Channy.”
He takes my hand and sits. “I’m Donald. Donald O’Connor.”
“Yes, yes. Singin’ in the Rain. ‘Make ‘em Laugh.’”
“I guess you get that a lot.”
“It’s okay. Be worse if I was Ronald McDonald.” He gives me a nice smile, and I catch a bit of his cologne, which is spicy but subtle. Donald O’Connor has possibilities.
“So where do you hail from?” he asks.
“Gig Harbor. It’s near…”
“Yes! That new Tacoma bridge. You know, they’re talking about installing low-level lights along the suspension cables. They would be powered completely by solar, and create an outline of the bridge at night. It’s a marvelous idea. Lord knows, Tacoma could use some civic identity.”
“I’ll say! All it’s got now is that Steve Miller song – and he probably only used it so he could rhyme ‘Arizona.’”
“Actually,” says Donald, “I think Miller lives in the Northwest, so it might have been vice-versa. You know the theme from Hawaii Five-Oh? The Ventures? They’re from Tacoma, too. How does a band from Tacoma end up writing surf tunes?”
This might seem like a normal conversation between two strangers, but after ten minutes I realize that trivia is Donald’s only mode. The more I try to steer us in another direction, the more he staples factoids to the ends of my sentences, and soon this good-looking, nice-smelling man – who sat down with even odds at bedding a desperately horny, down-on-her-luck widow – has utterly blown his chance. Fortunately, we’re interrupted by MacLiver, who is evidently pulling double duty as an emcee.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Astaire’s, the finest floating nightclub on the seven seas!” He reaches under the bar to adjust the sound. “And now, would you please welcome your chanteuse for the evening, the siren of the Inside Passage, our very own Ruby Cohen!”
A spotlight lands on the gauzy curtains, and Ruby flings them apart, vamping down the three-tiered stage with a brilliant smile. The horns and piano kick into a bouncy swing, and arrive at a big fat stop just as Ruby nears the microphone. She waits a couple beats, then hits the opening of “All of Me.” It’s a perfect welcome, a way of offering herself, parts and all, to her audience.
And Donald’s only a step behind. “Did you see that movie, All of Me? That was so brilliant, the way Steve Martin was able to divide his body into male and female sides like that.”
“Uh-huh,” I say, as flatly as possible. My aim is to discourage further commentary – and it seems to work, but I can feel his frustration across the table, the stupid prick. And now I have to silence this irritating monologue running through my own head.
Ruby perches on a stool for a medley of Rodgers and Hart: “Lover,” “Let’s Fall in Love” and “A Small Hotel.” It’s great that she gets to include lesser-known songs; I suspect this is the work of her jazzophile boss.
She waits for the applause to die down, then says, “A couple of the dancers from the stage show – and I’d really suggest you check that out, they put on some amazing performances. Anyways, Marlena and Josh used to be in a Fred Astaire tribute show, and tonight they’d like to perform a number from that production. Give ‘em a hand!”
The orchestra breaks into a romping version of “Begin the Beguine” as our dancers stride in stage-left. Josh is clad in a white tux with top hat and tails, while Marlena wears a flowing, cream-colored gown with silver-sequin angels and smiling moons. Marlena has thick, wavy blonde hair like Ginger Rogers (or an excellent wig). They hop to the high tier and rip off a couple of tight spins, then swirl up and down the steps in that springy Fred-and-Ginger fashion. They return to the main floor and break off for a side-by-side tapdance. It’s absolutely top-notch, and I’m beginning to understand the religious fervor that Ruby was talking about.
Josh and Marlena take a couple of huge steps back to the top, where they negotiate a series of breathless in-and-out spins, Marlena’s dress wrapping Josh in a circle of cloth. Josh picks her up by waist and thigh and lifts her into an arcing flight from one end of the stage to the other. As the orchestra slows, he dips her till her hair brushes the floor, sweeps her once around at that level and pulls her up hard. She jumps into his arms, the classic honeymoon-threshold posture, and the orchestra slams to an end. The place goes nuts.
“Josh and Marlena!” Ruby shouts. “Aren’t they astounding? Aren’t they ridiculously young and energetic? Don’t you just hate them?”
She sits back on her stool and waits for things to quiet down, and then she gives a nod to her pianist, a tall black man, with enormous hands. He starts into a march of single notes that begins to take on a melody. It’s “Good King Wenceslas,” heading into the same Nina Simone “Little Girl Blue” that she sang that first night at Karz. I’m afraid I might cry, not just for the memory but because this song is exactly how I feel. Ruby gives me a knowing look as she draws out the final line, then accepts a quiet applause.
“That song was for my homegirl Channy, who is seeing my show for the first time tonight. Channy, give the people a wave.”
I hold up a stiff hand, like I’m answering a roll call.
“Don’t believe the shy act. Channy runs the best damn karaoke bar in the Northwest, and she gave me a place to sing when I was pretty close to giving up music entirely. I paid her back by being a complete bitch, but she was gracious enough to be my friend anyway. She has spent a lot of time lately being Little Girl Blue, but I’m hoping we can find a way for her to inhabit a universe more like the one in this next song.”
It’s “Misty.” The piano sends down these paired raindrops, followed from beneath by the cello and violin. Ruby sings the first verse with a quiet sensitivity that my Ocean Shores version could only guess at. As it nears the instrumental break, they kick it into an easy bop, and our five white-suited waiters stream to the stage, straw boaters riding low on their foreheads. They form a line at center stage, one of them gives a four-count and they break into a softshoe, all the more charming because it’s obvious that none of them are real dancers. The guy at the center seems to have a bit more elan than the others, so it’s no surprise when they back off and let him dive into a time-step. This is about the moment that Donald decides he can’t hold it in any longer.
“There was this short film on Saturday Night Live once where they shot seven different New York lounge singers doing ‘Misty,’ and then they strung them all together so that…”
“Donald! Would you just shut the fuck up?!”
There has got to be a name for that phenomenon where you say something highly embarrassing at the precise moment that everybody else in the room clams up. Even the music has stopped. Even Donald has stopped, and he’s looking at something over my shoulder. I turn to find two hands the color of burnt wood, palms up, and a pair of generous lips around a blinding white grin.
Kai tips back his boater and says, “The fish are running. If you want this song to go on, you’re going to have to dance with me.”
I square my feet beneath me so I don’t topple over, and I rise slowly, my gaze fixed on those dark, dark eyes. Kai kisses me on the cheek and says, “Just follow me. You’ll be fine.” He wraps a hand around my waist, I put a hand on his shoulder, and we take a step. The music begins.
Photo by MJV