Friday, March 7, 2014

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Twenty-Five: The Black Knight

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Judging by the things I’ve read, the part of a dream that we remember is the part that comes right before we wake up. That way, it’s still fresh on our short-term memories, like words spelled out in flour that have not yet blown away on the wind.
            If you picture my dream-world as a stage, the left half is a small apartment in which everything – furniture, draperies, appliances – has been fashioned from a pure, snow-white material. The right half is an identical apartment in which everything is pure black. (That bastard Scootie would call it mars black.) There is no wall between these two apartments, but there is a sort of clear, fluid separation. Viewed from either side, this divide resembles the surface of a swimming pool.
            The residents of these apartments are horses – a white horse in the black apartment, a black horse in the white. Both horses are made of polished stone, and both wear expressions of utter neutrality. Their sole occupation seems to be to stare at each other, and despite the blank expressions you can feel hostility rolling from the stage like heat from a furnace.
            When I wake, my eyes are fixed on a pencil-thick hole in the ceiling, previously occupied by a hook for hanging plants. Cottage cheese texturing spreads to all sides in a sparkly moonfield flecked with mica.
            And immediately, I have my answer. On a chessboard, the figure of a horse represents a knight. Knights in adjacent squares can do nothing to capture each other, since their moves are limited to a combination of one and two squares (for instance, two forward, one to the side). For these two, however, the stony, hateful faceoff has become their all-consuming occupation, so they’ve decided to set up permanent apartments.
            My epiphany arrives with the sound of panting. I look up to find an actual horse, sitting on its haunches in the center of my room.
            Java comes to my bedside and spatulas his long snout under my hand.
            “Young dog! What the hell are you doing here?”
            This is a muted call, coming through the hole in my ceiling. It sounds a lot like Floy. I take my phone from my nightstand, hit #1 on my speed dial and get Floy’s puzzled response.
            “Hi. I don’t know if there’s a drip in my ceiling, but there seems to be a big poodle in the middle of my floor.”
            “Oh, that’s hilarious!” says Floy. “But how the heck did he get there?”
            “Doggy dumbwaiter? Extra-terrestrials?”
            “I’m so sorry, Channy! I’ll come down and get him. If that’s okay?”
            “Yeah,” I say. “That’s fine.”
            A minute later, there’s a rap on my French doors, and Java rushes over to inspect. I slip on my robe and undo the lock.
            “Hi!” says Floy. I’m surprised to find her in her nursing uniform. Java pokes his head through the doorway, and she gives him a playful bop. “You goof! How did you get down here? Have you invented teletransportation?”
            “Going to work?” I ask.
            “Just got back.”
            “You are kidding me.”
            The ol’ Sunday morning six to ten. We call it Hell Shift. This morning, however, we delivered triplets.”
            “Wow! That’s gotta be rare.”
            “Only the second for me, and that’s forty years of maternity.”
            Something else is on Floy’s mind, but she’s not coming out with it. We sprawl into one of those awkward silences where the only option is to play the housepet card. I scratch Java on the neck and say, “So how do we get him to reveal his secret passage?”
            Floy runs a finger under her frosty-blonde bangs and rightfully ignores my question.
            “Is there anything the matter, Channy?”
            “No, everything’s fine. Since John fixed the garbage disposal, I…”
            “No, no. Not the apartment. I mean, with you.” She laughs, a nervous piece of birdsong. “I don’t know, all that time around the birth canal seems to have endowed me with gyno-radar, and you seem sort of… flat lately. Like you’re really not here. Boy trouble?”
            The housepet card is gone, so I hallucinate a piece of lint on my sleeve and pick at it.
            “Hard to have boy trouble when ya got no boy.”
            Floy’s expression is immediately swamped with disappointment. “You broke up with Kai?”
            “Well, I’m not… sure. It was weird – like, off-the-charts weird. And my pal Ruby’s off on a cruise, so I haven’t had a chance to… Well, you know, sometimes you really can’t process something until you tell a friend about it.”
            “Pancakes,” says Floy.
            In my fuzzy state, I take this as a synonym for “Pshaw!” or “Nonsense!”
            “No, really, I…”
            “No!” says Floy, snorting into her hand. “Why don’t you shower up, and I’ll make some gooseberry pancakes. John’s off to Bremerton to use the gym, so we’ll have a nice unhindered session of gyno-psychology.
            “Floy, I… Yes! I’ll be up in fifteen minutes.”

            The Craigs’ living room is bright and playful, a canvas of beige carpeting and ivory tiles underpinning shelves and windowsills of beach objects: driftwood, seashells, a vase filled with frosted glass. They spend a lot of weekends cruising the Oregon coast, hunting new pieces for Floy’s assemblage. The item that always gets my attention is a brass pendulum that swings over a shallow pit filled with sand. When you pull it to one side and let go, it inscribes a Celtic flower of close-knit lines, drawing closer to the center with each small dose of gravity.
            “Ah!” says Floy. “You found our favorite toy. Java managed to topple that over once. We had to search every shop in Northwest Oregon to find the right kind of sand for it.”
            “He’s a rambunctious critter,” I say.
            “Too long-limbed for his own good. He’s also just crazy for French B-R-E-A-D, which I think is just painfully cliché.”
            Java cocks his head, which in this case means, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but at least you’re paying attention to me. When I turn back to the table, Floy has loaded me up with a steaming stack of pancakes, spotted here and there with igneous burstings of gooseberry.
            “Oh Floy! I can’t tell you how many different parts of my body appreciate this.”
            Floy runs a gob of butter along her cakes like she’s waxing a surfboard. “Ha-HA! What makes you think I’m doing this for you?” She cuts out a triangle and forks it into her mouth. “Mmph! Oh! So how did karaoke go last night?”
            “Well. Much as I appreciate all the care and concern being tossed my way, the whole fleeing-boyfriend thing was way too public, and I guess I’m feeling the scorch of the microscope.”
            “Yes, my family does that to me all the time. Which is endearing, when it isn’t utterly annoying. So how did this little spectacle come about?”
            It takes me a whole stack of pancakes to fill her in. She follows with great interest – this, after all, being the woman who lives beneath her floor. But I forget some of the things I haven’t told her.
            “…so I can’t figure out if this is coming from a run-of-the-mill relationship thing, or a post-traumatic thing – or if it has something to do with Harvey’s suicide.”
            Floy holds up a hand. “Wait a minute. Who’s Harvey?”
            “My husband. Kai’s best friend. Who died in Iraq.”
            Floy’s expressions freezes into place.
            “Oh God,” I say. “Oh God. I never told you this.”
            Floy reaches a hand to mine on the tabletop. Her fingers are shaking.
            “Channy! So that’s… All this time. God, I’m so sorry.”
            I’ve had almost a year and a half to deal with Harvey’s death. For Floy, he has just appeared and then died within a paragraph.
            “It’s just that… Well, I wasn’t able to talk about it for the longest time. The last few months, I finally found someone – Ruby – to listen to the whole miserable story. And now – God, look at me, blurting out suicides over breakfast. I’m so sorry.”
            Floy seems to recover a bit, but her eyes are still damp.
            “I don’t mean to be dramatic, honey. But you don’t know how many times I’ve imagined this kind of thing with John. There was this one night, terribly late, when he got a call, rushed into his flight suit and headed off – and he couldn’t tell me what it was. We all knew what it was – it was the October Missile Crisis, and John was flying a P-3 Orion over the Atlantic to look for Russian subs – but I played along, kissed him goodbye, wished him luck. And then spent the night torturing myself with every possible scenario, up to and including nuclear holocaust. At daybreak, he woke me on the couch, still in uniform, and the feeling of relief was so overwhelming that I went a little delirious. I think I cried for an hour straight.”
            “Floy, I’m so sor…”
            “Stop apologizing!” She’s crying now, too. “God, honey. I just wish I could have been there to help you.”
            “But Floy – you were.”
            These are the words that send her into speechlessness. She holds up a hand, excusing herself, and goes to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. She takes a long time to stir the sugar and cream, and then returns to the table, ready to deliver her summation.
            “You need to find Kai. You cannot afford to let this hang. He probably needs to get some therapy. And you need to figure out if you’re up for this kind of drama. You’ve already had enough for someone three times your age.”
            It almost seems like I’m getting a homework assignment from a stern-but-caring teacher. So I say, “Yes, ma’am.” And I get back to my pancakes.

Photo by MJV

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