Monday, March 3, 2014

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Twenty-One: One Filthy Habit

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I was covering a Sunday shift at the Red Apple, so I wasn’t there when Harvey returned from his Guard weekend. Not that I minded. When people asked me, I said he was “having one of his weekends,” which was not necessarily a term of affection. Since 9/11, my signpost prince had become increasingly “butch,” and it ran strongest on Sundays, when I could still smell the camo makeup on his face.
            I had my theories. The Zero Squadron video battles centered on an enemy that was incontrovertibly evil, and drilled the point home with their military liturgies. For a man of Harvey’s generation, raised in the murky shadows of Vietnam, the clear-cut moral crusade of WWII must have held a tremendous appeal (and don’t think Star Wars didn’t play right into this).
            The modern, educated human is expected to process a thousand gradations of good and evil, but the brain carries a strong survival instinct regarding its own capacity, so it streamlines matters by shuffling some of these issues into the black-and-white, one-or-zero auxiliary drive.
            Thus, when a bona fide monster invaded our country and took out a few thousand civilians, Harvey was hard-wired to become a patriot. Osama bin Laden removed all the shadows from Harvey’s life, made his joining of the Guard a matter of prescient destiny, and afforded a military mission more justified than anything since Pearl Harbor.
            And suddenly, this talk of Saddam Hussein. The Guard was no longer a corps of professional bystanders. If we went to Baghdad – with so many of our career soldiers still in Afghanistan – there was a good chance that Harvey would be among them. I spent a lot of time feeling absolutely terrified. To Harvey, I’m sure it all looked like a big mother lode of glory, the Luke Skywalker fantasy come to life. But he didn’t seem to understand that the bullets were real, that their express purpose was to penetrate human flesh.
            On Sunday evenings, he spoke to me in blunt, government-issue sentences, and moved around on stiff, graceless limbs. He gave no response to humor or affection. I was afraid to hug him, for fear of cutting myself on his sharp edges. But I knew if I was patient, and held out till Monday, things would be okay.
            I turned off the freeway and realized I was pressing my left foot against the floorboards, so much that my calf was twitching. When I got to our street, I found a strange, beautiful car in my driveway – gleaming white, with gold trim and sexy, long-torsoed lines, like something from an art-deco mural. A dark-skinned man peered over the roof and smiled at me. Harvey, standing near a headlight, followed his friend’s gaze and released a puff of smoke from his mouth.
            I parked at the curb and crossed the yard. “Harvey? What are you doing?”
            Harvey, still in his desert fatigues, held out a small cigar with a wooden tip.
            “Sort of a Clint Eastwood thing. The guys in the Guard are crazy about ‘em. Gets you in the proper frame of mind for blowin’ up shit.”
            “And gives you terrible breath,” said the dark man.
            “This is Kai,” said Harvey. “He’s a Sherpa.”
            Kai put his hands on his hips like a disgruntled housewife. “Would you stop introducing me like that?”
            “Why? I think it’s damn interesting. And you can introduce me as Harvey the Cajun. Two of the world’s more interesting ethnic groups, y’ask me.”
            “Hi Kai,” I said, wincing at the rhyme.
            “Hi Channy. I know plenty about you. In between blowin’ up stuff, Harvey talks about nothing but.”
            I allowed myself a smile. “I’m glad to hear that.”
            “Oh and sorry for blocking your driveway. I thought I was just doing a drop-off, but my Cajun friend forced a beer on me.”
            “The post-Guard beer is the sweetest you will ever drink,” said Harvey. He punctuated his point with a long drag on his cigar.
            I couldn’t help noticing the way that Kai’s presence had softened up my boyfriend, and I decided that this was a friendship I needed to encourage.
            “Would you like to join us for dinner, Kai? I made off with some lovely pork chops from work.”
            Kai glanced at Harvey. “Long as I’m not… infringing?”
            Harvey shook his head. “You kiddin’ me? Come on in.”

            After the meal, Harvey stood from the table. “I don’t want to go into details, but I need to go sit for a while. Can you two maintain the high level of discourse?”
            I gave him a sideways squint. “I never should have gotten you that thesaurus.”
            “I’ll take that as a yes,” he said, and disappeared down the hall. I immediately went for the beverage option.
            “Can I get you another beer?”
            “How ‘bout a coffee? I’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of me.”
            I went to the kitchen and spoke to Kai over the counter. “Where do you live?”
            “Fife,” he said. “The flatlands of industry. And cheap apartments.”
            “Wow! You mean people actually live down there?”
            He laughed. “I get that a lot.”
            “You wouldn’t know from that car you’re driving.”
            “My parents promised me a new car if I graduated college. I’m guessing they didn’t think I’d actually do it. The day before commencement, I’m sitting in front of a place in Ballard that sells coffee and cupcakes when a snow-white retro Thunderbird pulls to the curb right in front of me. Then this impossibly tall and gorgeous blonde gets out, and she’s wearing a white sun dress. And I tell her, ‘That is the most beautiful car I have ever seen.’ And she says, ‘Thanks. I just bought it.’ And I say ‘Oh! How long have you had it?’ And she says ‘Ten minutes.’ So you see I had no choice. I had to have a car just like that one.”
            I punched the button on the coffeemaker and returned to the table. “You know? Everything in life should happen exactly like that.”
            “Yes!” said Kai, with surprising enthusiasm. “Life should be one long fairy tale. Was that how it was when you met Harvey?”
            “Yeah. A Dickensian waif wandering in a signpost forest. Somewhere between a ragamuffin and a studamuffin.”
            “More of the latter, probably. He’s an amazing soldier.”
            I glanced down the hallway. “Maybe that’s why he’s such a butthead when he gets home.”
            Kai smiled and folded his hands behind his head. “Forty-eight hours of stuff exploding and men freely farting can have its effect.”
            “Well,” I said. “I think you’re a good influence, and I’d like you to join us for dinner every Guard Sunday.”
            “I’d love to. As long as Harvey…”
            “Oh the hell with Harvey. This is my invitation. You’re coming.”
            We indulged in quiet laughter, which drifted into a silence packed with thoughts.
            “Are you going to Iraq?”
            Kai blinked his dark eyes. “I think so. We’ve been told to be ready. Adjusted our training to desert and urban warfare. Learning phrases of Arabic. I don’t see any way around it. 9/11 changed all the rules, and we’re going to need the manpower.”
            “It’s a scary, scary world,” I said. “Let me get you that coffee.”

            Six months later, at one of those very Guard dinners, Harvey told me about his orders – and then proposed to me. The kneeling, the diamond ring – everything. Kai being there made it all the sweeter.
            We were married a week later, at Kerby’s. It turned out that J.B. was an ordained minister – and, in fact, that we were his first wedding ceremony. That quiet man always had a way of surprising me. Harvey wore his full dress uniform, as did Kai, acting as best man. After the ceremony, we conducted an elevated rendition of the usual karaoke night. Debbie sang “True Companion” for our first dance, and the regulars sang every sappy love song they could think of. On the hundred-yard walk home, the sky over the ridge turning a robin’s-egg blue, I tried once more to feed the bison, but even the formal clothing couldn’t charm them.
            For the rest of the weekend, we stayed home and made love as if we’d just met. On Monday morning, I drove him to SeaTac airport. I always pictured soldiers flying off together in some huge olive-drab transport, but it seems the modern Army made plentiful use of commercial airlines.
            All the way there, we were very quiet, and I began to understand just how tough this was going to be. With the new approach to security, I could ostensibly hang around forever, waving at Harvey every five feet of the inspection line. One goodbye was torturous – seventy-five would kill me.
            The Seattle airport has large enclosed walkways from the parking garage to the terminal. Halfway across, watching the streams of traffic below, I stopped.
            “Harvey? I can’t do this.”
            He turned and chuckled. “It’s too late, honey. We’re already married.”
            “I mean… can I leave you right here? Can we say goodbye here?”
            He set down his duffel bag and smiled. “So you only have to do it once?”
            Women often have the unreasonable expectation that men should read their minds. But maybe that’s because once in a while they actually do, and it’s glorious. I attacked Harvey with a kiss.
            “Wow,” he said. “I’m guessing I was right?”
            “Oui, Monsieur Lebeque. Omigod! Do you realize my name is Chanson Lebeque?”
            “You sound like one of Pepe LePew’s girlfriends.”
            I should have laughed, but I cried instead. “Harvey, you’re going to duck, right? You’re going to come back to me, aren’t you?”
            He placed a hand on my cheek and thumbed away a tear. “It’s not really a matter of ducking, but yes, I’m coming back. But I’m also going to do my job, and serve my country. But you know I won’t do anything stupid, because God damn, look at what I’ve got to come home to.”
            He held me at arm’s length, as if he were memorizing my face. “We’re going to be all right, Mrs. Lebeque.”
            I held him for a long time, my face pressed into the rough khaki of his jacket, then I slipped a black box out of my pocket and handed it to him. He flipped it open and pulled out a silver lighter.
            “A fleur de lis! Now that’s French. So ma’amselle has decided to support my filthy habit?”
            “Everyone’s allowed one filthy habit. Especially if they’re saving the world for democracy.”
            “I will hand out Swisher Sweets in the streets of Baghdad, to win hearts and minds.”
            “That should finish them off.”
            We shared a relieved laugh, and then we were out of things to say.
            “Time for goodbye?” asked Harvey.
            I nodded.
            “I love you very much, Channy.”
            “I love you, Harvey. And I want you back.”
            He gave me a kiss, lifted his duffel and left, stopping at the door to give me a last wave. I fought off the urge to shout something, and waved back. Then I turned for the garage, a single married woman, and began the work of passing the months without him.

Photo by MJV

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