Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Twenty-Nine: Me Time

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It’s a brilliant mid-April Tuesday. Waiting at the light over Highway 16, I can see Mt. Rainier as if it’s a pop-up in a gigantic children’s book. I notice another mountain in the distance past its southern shoulder, and realize that I have never seen this mountain before. That’s how clear it is. I take a mental note to look it up when I get to the library.

Exiting my truck in the library parking lot always gives me an olfactory thrill, until I realize that the cedar smell comes from the neighboring lot, where a dozen trees have been cut down for a new office building. Across the street, an entire forest has disappeared for the sake of some ginormous retail outlet. Such is the steady encroachment of success – and the new Narrows Bridge taking form next to the old one, promising to bring more commuters from Seattle and Tacoma. I suppose I should be excited for the greening of my tip jar, but I am beginning to mourn the old, modest Gig Harbor like a 70-year-old bench-sitting nostalgia whore.
It’s a few days before the tax deadline, so the foyer is still packed with forms. I pick up an automatic extension, because if someone’s offering free time, I’m taking.
The internet stations are lovely things, with sharp, thin monitors and keyboards that give out tasty popcorn clicks when you type on them. I also enjoy the printing policy, which operates entirely on trust. It’s ten cents a page, which you deposit in a clear plastic box. The bottom of the box is cushioned, to prevent the disruption of clacking quarters.
I find a corner cubicle, enter the number on my library card, and immediately have my answer – revealed by the news capsule on the search engine page: Soldiers Sentenced in Civilian Killings. I have learned to hate headlines; their brevity constantly misleads. This one makes it sound like Conrad and Kai carried out the killings themselves. The headline is technically correct, but it has a rotten soul.
I click the link, my heart tapdancing. Half a second into my download, I learn that Conrad got a year in prison – for the coverup, for being the commanding officer. For faking Harvey’s suicide. I scroll down until the second shoe drops: Kai, suspended sentence, regular psychiatric evaluations. Because his was a noble act. Because of his mental state after killing his best friend. Because he wasn’t the commanding officer.
In essence, Conrad has done what a good leader does – taken the brunt of it for an injured subordinate. I decide that I will track down Becky and see how she’s doing – and find out if I can visit him.

Naturally, I thought I might hear from Kai. It’s been a month since the trial. Becky hasn’t heard a thing about him; I feel guilty even asking, my ulteriors showing through like a cheap slip.
It’s May. The trees have dropped all their blossoms, are beginning to green up. Life is passing at the rate of freeway traffic, and I have arrived at Monday morning, on the shore of a four-day karaokeless ocean. I get up. Java has made no magical appearance. I manage to shower, and groom myself, and dress, just like a person who could be seen in public with other persons. I stare out my French windows at my too-familiar backyard: the Doug fir that leans in like a gambler peeking at his neighbor’s cards, the tiny hump of faraway ridgeline that rises over my fence. And ridiculous, overzealous sunshine, everywhere. Oh God oh God, it’s noon. I will remain here all day unless I can manage to kick my ass off this bed. There’s only one thing that will do the trick: drive, drive like crazy.
I traverse the Narrows, looking across at enormous sections of roadway dangling from what look like kite strings. Highway 16 doglegs to the asphalt Mississippi of I-5, heading south. But the roadside clutters up with bad memories: the Nisqually Delta keep driving the Olympia marina keep driving. I spot the ramp for 101, a binary sandwich of a number whispering promises of the Pacific Ocean, so that’s where we’re going.
An hour later, I’m cruising a long, lush valley past twin nuclear towers – coolers for a power plant that was never completed. I see a sign reading Ocean Shores. It sounds like a generic product: Toothpaste, Light Beer, Ocean Shores. So okay, I’m buying.
I wind through the harborside towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, then follow a road along the tidal flats – which right now contain about ten million pounds of hideous muck. Escape arrives on an evergreen ascent, which flattens out along a peninsula, and soon I’m turning left onto the main strip of Ocean Shores. An Irish pub hooks me with a sign reading Comfort Food; I wander in on road-stiff legs and order a potato chowder as thick as tapioca pudding, topped with starry flakes of parsley. The bread is dark, chewy and mysterious. I was so right to kick my ass off that bed.
Roundly fortified, I head into town, take an oceanward right and spy a municipal-looking restroom between two enormous hotels. I park there, trek a wide swath of dunes and discover a beach that runs a mile across and an eternity to right and left, composed of damp slate-brown sand. I’m a little alarmed when a car passes in front of me, a hybrid compact filled with gray-haired passengers. After a half-mile of northward walking, I come upon a college-age boy and girl, tossing a Frisbee, and give a smile as I pass. The sun is to the south, so my shadow precedes me on the sand. I hear the girl exclaim “Oh!” and then I find a small, dark oval hovering over my shadow. I raise my left arm, turn my hand so it faces behind me and close my fingers on the rim of the disc. I’m running a fingernail over its ribbed surface when the girl, an energetic lankiness of elbows and knees, rushes up.
“Holy shit! How did you do that?”
I guess I’m in a mood. I give her a perfectly serious look and say, “The secret is to let the Frisbee do what the Frisbee wants to do.”
Carye takes a second to consider my wisdom and then explodes in laughter. An hour later, we’re gathered at a driftwood fire – more for atmosphere than warmth – and I have just finished relating the Tragical History of Harvey.
“Shit!” says Joe. “Shit!” He brushes away a hank of hair that seems irresistibly drawn to his eyelashes, then takes another toke and passes it my way.
Carye says, “We came out here because Kurt Cobain grew up here.”
I’m looking for a segue – suicidal young men? – but then, we’re smoking. Segues are not required.
“Hoquiam or Aberdeen,” says Joe. “Depending on who you ask.”
“They seem to be having a debate about it,” says Carye.
“Come to the town that sucks so bad you’ll want to blow your head off,” says Joe.
Carye laughs wildly. “But not before writing some kickass rock.”
I can see why Joe and Carye are a couple. They speak in a tightly knit tandem, like relay runners passing a baton. Or perhaps it’s just the weed.
“We’re from Humboldt County,” says Carye. “In Northern California.”
Which is why this homegrown is so almighty powerful,” says Joe, with a wheezy laugh.
“It gets pretty cloudy there,” says Carye. “But we thought it would be cool to see how bad it gets in a place called the Rain Coast.”
“Absolute bullshit,” says Joe. “It’s been like Laguna Beach all week.”
“Where’s Laguna Beach?” asks Carye.
“No fuckin’ idea,” says Joe. “But it sounds sunny.”
“But your story,” says Carye. “God, Channy… What a great name that is: Channy. You are so strong to have gotten through that. You are a powerful woman.”
Carye’s admiring look – plus, probably, the weed – fills me up to bursting. As if to disprove her conclusion I start to cry, and soon find myself wrapped in a Joe and Carye sandwich.

When I wake up, the sun is threatening the horizon. I’m curled up on a Mexican blanket; Joe sits cross-legged next to me, trying to spin the Frisbee on the tip of his finger.
“Oh! Hey, Channy. Wow, I’ve seen the herb take some bad shit out of people, but you just sorta collapsed.”
I blink against the light and prop myself on an elbow. “How long was I out?”
Joe brushes his hair out of his eyes and squints in thought. “’Bout, oh, two hours.”
“Really? Fu-u-uck.”
“Ha! You talk like a stoner.”
“Haven’t smoked much lately. I’ve gone and turned into a lightweight. So where’s Carye?”
“Went to the water to look for sand dollars. She loves those things. Looks like she’s coming back, though.”
By the time she returns, I have managed to shake the sand from my clothes and the cobwebs from my head. I give them my phone number and demand that they come for karaoke if they get anywhere near Gig Harbor.
“Y’got any Nirvana?”
“Let’s see – ‘Teen Spirit’ and ‘Come As You Are.’”
“Rockin’! I’m there.”
I hug them both, and give them the look of an adoring aunt.
I’m so lucky that you two were here.”
“When you have the Jedi Frisbee Trick,” says Carye, “luck you do not need.”
“Ha! Well, thanks anyways. I feel much better. Bye, guys.”
“Bye!” they say, in unison.
I walk toward the sun, stopping once for a final turn-and-wave. By the time I reach the parking lot, the sun has ducked under the horizon, which in Washington time means somewhere between 8:30 and 9. I’m about to get into my truck when I hear a jangle of sounds that resembles “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. It seems to be live. I scan the hotel behind me and find a stairway leading to a well-lit pair of glass doors. I have just found where the action is, and so, like a good Jedi princess, I go there.
The doors bring me to a high-ceilinged hall, ringed with mirrored posts and mauve upholstery. The back is a long rectangle of booths, the near square a cocktail lounge with an open fireplace, a marbletop bar and a perimeter of small tables at the beachfront windows.
The afterglow paints the barback mirrors in salmon hues, and blasting away from a corner of the dance floor is a trio of upright piano, electric bass and green drums. The players are all big, like they really ought to be playing football.
The bassist stands about six-four, wearing a do-rag better suited to a biker bar. The pianist has a clean-shaven pate, in the modern rocker style, with a bandage over one temple. He’s pounding a solo like a ham-fisted Fats Waller, then lifts up, studies his field and dances into a Mozartean flurry. How he does this all in 5/4 is far removed from the scope of my knowledge.
In the midst of my musical trance, I find a short, plump brunette walking my way, and feel a sudden need to ask a question. Any question. I lean into the fringe of her path.
“Excuse me, umm… Who are these guys?”
Who are these guys? What’re you, high?
The brunette gives me a compact smile. “I don’t think they have a name. But if you’d like an audience with the bassist, I’m on intimate terms.
I give her a puzzled look.
“Okay, he’s my husband. And he’s having a heck of a time faking his way through this one.”
“Sounds fine to me.”
“Yes, but he’s scowling. Anyways, he’s Jon, the pianist is Paul, and the drummer is Mark.”
I laugh, a little too loud. “Aren’t they supposed to have names like ‘Razz’ and ‘Speed’?”
She puts a hand on my shoulder. “I think someone’s been watching gangster movies. Hey, would you like to sit with me? I’m a lonely band widow.”
“Sure. But let me buy you a drink.”
“I will just let you do that. I’ll have a chablis.”
I’m low on decision-making abilities, so I get a chablis as well. We’re soon back at Pam’s table, yacking like sorority sisters. It’s easy to see why she struck me as approachable – she has large eyes and round, doll-like features. You’d expect a squeaky Betty Boop voice, but she speaks with a calm alto.
“So,” she says. “What’s your story?”
I can’t help laughing. “That’s a little complicated. Why don’t you tell me yours?”
“Sure! We’re from California, Silicon Valley. Jon wrote code for a high-tech firm that very rudely laid him off. He had a tough go with the job-hunting, so the guitar became a full-time pursuit: blues band, funk band, surf band. That definitely wasn’t cutting it money-wise, though, so we sold our overvalued house and moved up here. I’m a CPA, so I can work anywhere. Then he met the guys, so now he’s playing jazz. Paul’s an English teacher, which puzzles me because he ought to be playing in New York or something.”
“My thought exactly.”
“And Mark is in real estate. He’s getting over his divorce by singing Tony Bennett songs.”
“Oh! He sings from the drums?”
“He says it’s a matter of simple beats and good posture.”
“So does he sound like Tony?”
“Not tonight. Poor dear, he’s fighting some nasty bug.”
Paul concludes a lengthy exploration of “The In Crowd” and takes the group into a wrap. The twenty folks scattered around the lounge respond with warm applause. Mark attaches a sheet of paper to the shaft of his hi-hat with a binder clip.
“That’s his cheat for new songs,” says Pam. “Although I always wonder how he can read when the words are bouncing up and down like that.”
Paul nods them into a slow, bluesy intro, and then Mark comes in on “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”
“Wow!” I say. “He does a wicked Louis Armstrong.”
“He’s not doing Louis Armstrong,” says Pam. “That’s what he sounds like tonight.”
“Hey!” Pam spots a couple at the door and waves them over. One’s a burly, balding man with a thick mustache (Ocean Shores apparently breeds nothing but offensive linemen), the other is a fiftyish woman with a broad, generous face and a thick head of frosted blonde hair. They seem inordinately happy, or perhaps just drunk. After a round of hugs and greetings, they join us at the table.
“Channy, this is my brother Allen and his wife Sarah. They’re winos.”
“Please,” Allen objects. “Connoisseurs.”
“Okay, Mister Hoit du Toit,” Pam says exactly like a sister. “Where have you been? The gig started two hours ago!”
Allen and Sarah look at each other and smile. Allen says, “We can’t tell you yet. Not till the appetizers get here.”
“Better be a good story,” says Pam.
“Oh it is,” says Allen.
The song ends rather abruptly, and we give the band an applause laden with question marks. The players bend toward each other, conferring, then Jon takes the mic from Mark’s boom stand. He holds it awkwardly, as if it’s about to go off.
“Um, hi. I’m Jon, your bass player.”
The relatives at my table shout, “Hi, Jon!”
“Um, yeah, hi. Our vocalist has given his all tonight, and by that I mean he’s got nothin’ left. The thing is, we promised the ladies from the dance class that we would play ‘Mustang Sally,’ and if we don’t we might not make it out of here alive. Would anyone in the audience like to sing it with us? Because you really don’t want to hear me or Paulie try it.”
And I’m on my feet, walking across the floor. I don’t know what’s come over me. Maybe it’s the pot; maybe it’s being at the western edge of an entire continent, or the Jedi Frisbee Trick – but obviously I’m the one to sing this song. I take the mic from Jon and say, “Whenever you’re ready, boys.”
The surprising thing is, this is easier than karaoke, because in karaoke there’s no give to the music. At one point, I’m pretty sure I’m way early on the chorus, but the band performs a quick shift and everything’s cool. Plus, I’ve got a baker’s dozen of seniors shaking their booties in front of me, breathing hard and utterly delighted by my rescue act. This, I think, is why Ruby loves this so much. After a bass solo from Jon, I repeat the call-and-response, and Mark marches us into a drum-break finish. Sweet.
Jon sneaks up to my shoulder and says, “That was great! Y’know anything else?”
I turn to Paul and say, “What about ‘Great Balls of Fire’?” Which is like asking a dog if he likes steak.
“Oh, I am all over that,” says Paul with a grin. “Just watch me for the start.”
He gives a three-count, plays the four-step launch and I’m off. Somewhere in the midst of all that karaoke, I have learned how to front a band. The seniors are jitterbugging as Paul draws out his solo to Herculean proportions, kicking out a leg to play a few notes with his wingtips. He nods me back into the bridge, then to a chorus repeat, then a big fat splatter of an ending. Suddenly, I’m a Vegas emcee.
“Paul! Lee! Lewis! on the piano. Liquid Jonny on the bass! Frogman Mark on the drums!”
“How do you know all our names?” asks Jon.
“I’ve been talking to your wife.”
“Ah! So what’s your name?”
“Oh,” I say, and turn back to the mic. “And I’m Channy from Gig Harbor, your emergency fill-in.”
“Hey Channy!” says Paul. “Last song. You know something jazzy and slow?”
That one’s easy.
I’m always having a love affair with one song or another, and this one arrived on the lips of Ruby Cohen. It’s a lovely, joy-laced melody, like a falling leaf that keeps nearing the ground only to be swept back up by one gust of wind and another. It’s also got a shadowy undercarriage, which certainly matches my romantic life. Ruby ran me through it after a handful of karaoke nights, supremely patient, because I think she knew what a stretch I was making.
Paul gives me a lilting, rubato intro. I scan the old couples dancing before me, close my eyes and lift the mic. The words come out of me like colored breath.
Toward the end, I already know I’ve captured it. Ruby calls it “inner applause” – the outer applause that follows feels like an echo. I turn to thank the trio, then head for my table as they begin breaking down their equipment. I find Pam and kin beaming at me over a tray of oysters and a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket.
“Well didn’t I find a diamond in the rough!” says Pam.
“Thanks! I run a karaoke bar, so I guess I developed some skills.”
“I’ll say!” says Allen. He hands me a glass. “We saved the last for ya.”
I take a sip. “Damn!”
“No,” he says. “Dom!”
To perform a spit-take would be downright criminal, so I force down a fizzy swallow. “Perignon?”
“My little surprise,” he says. “We went to the Quinault Casino this afternoon, and I won ten thousand dollars at the blackjack table.”
“Holy shit!”
“He’s taking us all to the Ocean Crest tomorrow for dinner,” says Pam. “It’s a five-star restaurant.”
“Wow! What fun. Could you take me too?” I realize immediately what a presumptuous question this is, and I cover my mouth in embarrassment.
Allen, God bless him, lets out a broad laugh and says, “Sure! Why not? I think you’ve sung for your supper.”
And now, I’m glad I asked. Because really, I need all the pleasure I can get.

I spend the night four blocks away, at Jon and Pam’s. The bed in their guest room is extraordinarily comfortable; it’s the best night of sleep I’ve had in months. I wake to the ching of pots and pans in the kitchen, and wander down the hall to find a plate of bacon, eggs and waffles waiting at the kitchen table. It almost makes me want to cry. I marvel at the power of strangers to take me in like this – a thought that is due to return a dozen times over the course of the day.
Once we’re all bathed and dressed, I follow Pam’s Toyota along a golf course to Allen and Sarah’s house, adorned with the latest accoutrements of new housing: sienna-colored stucco, ceramic roofing and variegated windows with bay, porthole and archway frames. To the right of the driveway is their apparent cash cow, a spotless mocha-colored truck cab. The interior offers every imaginable variation of wine art: a photo of cabernet grapes, a poster from a Yakima Valley wine festival, a cartoonish sommelier constructed of corks and corkscrews. The back window affords a view across Grays Harbor to the snub-nose pyramid of Mt. Rainier.
Allen and Sarah are still radiant from their Monday jackpot, although I’m beginning to suspect that their sunniness is a permanent condition. They pile into Pam’s back seat and we caravan up the coast. Twenty miles along, we pull through a town called Moclips and turn into what looks like a modest motel court.
“We’re a little early,” says Allen, “so Sarah and I were thinking of walking down to the beach.”
We all join in descending an impressively lengthy set of stairs to another limitless slate-brown beach. Pam and I are the only ones wearing casual shoes, so we leave the others on the viewing deck and take off across the sand. The findings are modest – crab shell here, half a sand dollar there – but interesting enough to spur a conversation.
“I was just thinking,” says Pam. “You never told me your story. What brought you out to the coast?”
“Hard to beat a story with a ten-thousand-dollar jackpot,” I say, knowing full well that I can. “But maybe I can shorthand it for you. Have you seen the stories about that soldier who went nuts and shot all those Iraqi civilians?”
“Oh! The trials at Ft. Lewis? Just recently?”
“Yes. Well. I’m the widow.”
Pam stops and puts a hand to her solar plexus. “God! I… really? I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right,” I say. “I’m sure it’s hard to know how to respond. But believe me, he was sane when I married him. He might even have been nice. So please don’t think of me as a victim.”
“I guess that’s what war does to people.” She reaches for a sand dollar – a full one – and hands it to me. “I can see why you wanted to get away.”
“Yes. Little did I know the lovely distractions waiting for me in Ocean Shores.”
“Gateway to the Pacific Storm Front,” says Pam, then looks back toward our companions. “Uh-oh. Allen’s pointing at his watch. Guess we’d better head back.”
I study the long ribbon of stairs winding into the spruce trees. “Do you suppose they have an escalator?”
“I… get the feeling that burning a few calories right now might be a good idea.”
After a brisk uphill climb, the host takes us through a low-ceilinged hall into a woodsy side room. The west-facing wall is all window, affording a bird’s-nest view of the forest and beach below. A large pickup speeds by on the sand.
For a few minutes, I feel a distinct pressure to be on my best behavior, but once the appetizers arrive I lose myself in the raucous chatter all around me. Our carnivorous rapture begins with Alaskan king crablegs, continues with mushrooms, foraged in local forests, then proceeds to a cloth bag next to Allen’s chair. He reaches in and pulls out a weathered-looking bottle, then hands it to the sommelier and asks, “Would you do us the honor?”
The sommelier’s eyes get big (no small trick in a five-star restaurant) and he says, “I’d be delighted.”
I turn to Pam and ask, “What’s up with that?”
“It’s a 1969 Cab from Napa. Allen got it at an auction.”
The sommelier takes laborious care in removing the cork, then slowly pours it into a decanter, making certain to leave all the sediment in the bottle. He pours a small ration into each of our glasses, and we wait as Allen goes through the ritual of swirl, smell and sip. He breathes out, letting the flavor simmer on his tongue, then delivers a one-word review.
Being a neophyte, I’m not expecting much, but much is what I get. My first sip delivers a smoky, fruity wave of warmth, with just a hint of ripe Bing cherry. It is the most amazing substance that has ever touched my lips. Except for the roast venison that follows. And the pickled cabbage. And the huckleberry crisp. Our table is a madrigal of groans and sighs, verging on an epicurean orgy. Between courses, Allen regales us with trucking stories, like the retired Soviet tank they delivered to a military base in North Dakota, and fills in the details of his blackjack odyssey (“I absolutely could not lose; I must have taken twenty hands in a row”).
Much too soon, we’re waddling to the parking lot, and I‘m hugging all these near-strangers like a long-lost cousin.
“Thank you so much for letting me impose on you,” I say to Allen. “I really, really needed this.”
Allen gives me a lopsided smile. “Pam tells us you’ve been through some trauma. I just hope this takes the edge off a little.”
“Thank you for saving our butts last night,” says Jon. “I really wasn’t kidding about those blue-haired ladies and their Wilson Pickett. Maybe we’ll give you a call if Mark gets sick again.”
“Ha! I’ll work on my drumming.”
“You be careful driving back,” says Pam. “And take care of yourself, okay? Don’t think you have to wait till your next trip to the ocean to pamper yourself.”
Under Allen’s instructions, I head back into Moclips and take a landward left, on a road that claims to be headed for Kurt Cobain’s twin hometowns. I think about Pam’s phrase: Take care of yourself. It actually seems like that’s all I’ve been doing; it was nice to let someone else have the job for a while.
Halfway home, I have to pull into a rest stop. The garnish on my venison inspired a debate about a “Rosemary” song from the sixties (Simon and Garfunkel excluded) which quickly devolved into a group case of “songstipation.” As always happens, the answer arrives after I have stopped thinking about it. Our problem came from trying to mash two songs into one: “Smile a Little Smile For Me (Rosemarie)” and “Love Grows (Where my Rosemary Goes).” As the VFW guys who hand out free coffee cast curious looks in my direction, I stand at the pay phone and sing the two songs into Jon and Pam’s answering machine. Then I bundle into my truck and head for the darkening mountains, homeward bound.

Photo by MJV

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