Saturday, March 8, 2014

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Twenty-Six: Spy Games

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            I have a powerful fetish for the rosetta figures etched into lattes by Northwest baristas. My knowledge of the process is limited to stolen counterside glances, but here’s my understanding of the basic steps: you lay down two shots of espresso, suffuse them with milk foam to create a dirty sienna canvas, and then pour a narrow stream of hot milk in a zig-zag weave, creating a ski trail of white that is then seamed into a rough symmetricality by a quick pour down the center. The result is an ivory sword fern, often with branches into the teens. And then you get to destroy the poor thing (philistine!) by drinking it.
            I’m lying to you. None of this is important. I am seated in a corner of the Caffe Vita in downtown Olympia, and I am stalling. After staring at my ten-limbed rosetta for ten minutes, I move on to a chessboard balanced on the windowsill. The knights are staring at each other. I turn them so they’re back-to-back, pacing off a duel.
            “Hello. Is there a guy named Kong in the mountaineering department?”
            “Oh, you mean Kai. He’s not in today. Would you like someone else from that department?”
            “Um, no. It has to be Kai.”
            “Steve’s back there. Steve knows everything about…”
            “Nope. Has to be Kai. He’s a Sherpa, you know…”
            The man laughed. “I swear, that guy has more groupies than the Foo Fighters. Well, listen. He’ll be in tomorrow afternoon, um…” – sound of shuffling papers – “noon to six. So call back then, I guess.”
            “Thanks. Thank you.”
            “No prob.”
            That’s how I found him. Apparently, he transferred from Tacoma to Olympia as a way of staying out of my sights. As if I were some kind of threat. It’s three-thirty-five, and I’m running a mental preview of every possible confrontation, like an improv group doing the same sketch over and over in different theatrical styles. Tennessee Williams. Shakespeare. Gilbert & Sullivan. None of them have the tiniest relationship to reality.
            The weather has decided to directly contradict my mood. The air is laced with a brilliant lemon-sorbet sharpness. A bevy of college students, clothed in the latest thrift-store fashions, are cavorting on the sidewalk, taking in the UV rays like they’re spoonfuls of caviar. My foamy rosetta has completed its elevator ride to the bottom of my cup. It’s go time. I dig out the last bit of foam with my finger and lick it off, and then I fight off years of parental training and leave my cup and saucer on the table for somebody else to pick up.
            The sidewalk rolls away before me. I cross the intersection and pass the old State Theater. On the far side, an old-fashioned storefront space plays host to Jenalyn Sports, the windows covered in red banners declaring fifty percent off cleats. Lest I lose my nerve, I keep right on, through the double glass doors, past the cashiers, gun counter, baseball gloves, and then I look up to find spools of rope in fluorescent colors. Kai, my ghost, is demonstrating a locking carabiner for a tall man in a business suit.
            “See, you lock that in, pull it tight just to double-check, and there’s no way in the world that…”
            He stops when he sees me, and our eyes lock in for a long time. Those dark irises are hard to read. I imagine him bolting like a frightened buck, three giant leaps into the stockroom.
            “Excuse me a moment, would you?” He leaves the businessman with a dozen carabiners and comes to take my hands.
            “Hi. I’ve got a lunch break right after this customer. Can I buy you a latte?”
            There’s no reason to say no. And I’m back at Caffe Vita, deflating another rosetta. Kai is five times more calm than he should be.
            “I’m sorry, Channy. I’m sorry for the way I took off like that. And I’m sorry I haven’t called you. I’ve been meaning to, but the more I put it off, the harder it gets to pick up that phone.”
            “You can always talk to me, Kai. I’ve been through everything. Nothing’s going to kill me.”
            He glances outside at the college kids, as if he’s looking for spies.
            “The thing is, after that weirdness at the bar, I had to talk to my therapist. Army guy. Sal. Unbelievably cool dude. The thing is, I can’t see you anymore.”
            I’m not surprised, but it sounds a little too much like Scootie’s breakup with Ruby. I’m imagining what a bottle of crème de menthe Torani syrup would look like, emptied over Kai’s head.
            “I know he’s… gone, Channy. I know he shouldn’t play into this. But he does. He was my best friend. I let him down. I should have seen it coming. The sight of you will always remind me of what happened, of how I failed. There is a real, concrete limit to how much I can recover from that, of how far I can get back to normal. It’s just not realistic to carry around this living reminder of…”
            He runs out of words, but I get the idea. I’m the reminder. I am Kai’s souvenir from Iraq. He buys a little time by taking a drink from his latte, then sets down his cup as a marker.
            “I can’t do it. I can’t see you any more. I’m sorry.”
            I’m fairly sick of my emotions playing dogpile with me, so I’m holding firmly to my rational demeanor. I glance at the chessboard and find that someone has turned the knights back around. I speak at them so I don’t have to look at Kai.
            “I think you and I are missing out on something pretty great, and frankly I’m pissed off at Harvey for taking this away from me, too. I think he’s done enough fucking damage. But there’s no way I’m going to talk you into anything. I can’t begin to imagine the things you’ve gone through, the things you might have seen. But Kai, I do want you to consider one other thing. We were friends before all of this, and I know it might take you a while to straighten things out, but if you come out on the other end, I’d like to think we can be friends again.. You don’t even have to call, just… show up at Karz some night.”
            He waits for more, but that’s all I’ve got. I watch a skateboarder with dreadlocks grinding a curb. I’m feeling suddenly exhausted, and I can’t understand why this man cares about my dead husband more than I do.
            “Kai? Could you just… go? I’m not up to all the niceties.”
            He’s gentleman enough to not say another word. He seems to think it’s a good idea to take my hand from the table and give it a squeeze, and I’m too tired not to let him. And then he’s gone, the front door swinging in his wake. I stare at my caffeine rosetta for a long, long time. When I get around to my next sip, I’m surprised to find that it’s cold.
            “Okay, this might seem a little odd, but please don’t turn around. I need you to play a little game with me. I’m going to leave the coffeehouse and take a right down the sidewalk. I’d like you to count to twenty and follow me, but I want you to stay a block behind me until we get to the Harbor Walk.”
            The voice is coming over my left shoulder. At first, I suspect ventriloquism. But I am a dedicated follower of instructions, so I face forward until I see the back of a tall man with a blond buzz-cut, headed for the door. Everyone is so eager to leave me. Rousting the molecules in my brain, I realize that this is Conrad, captain of our ski squad, manager of the Olympia branch of Jenalyn Sports.
            Spy games. Why not? I have absolutely nothing better to do. I head outside and look around to find him on the far corner, looking casual, waiting to confirm that I’m “tailing” him. I’m fully invested now, so I make no signal before starting down the sidewalk, working up a backstory as I go. Recently divorced mom with a free hour, looking for the downtown spa with the great handmade soaps. Keeping an occasional eye on Conrad turns out to be pretty easy, because he’s taking a straight shot down Fourth, crossing a bridge in front of the loopy capital-city fountain then heading for a grocery store next to the marina. He takes a sudden right and stops two blocks later on a wide path constructed of clean, baked-out timbers. This must be the Harbor Walk; I know this because I am a brilliant detective, and also because I can read the words on the large, gray municipal sign that says Harbor Walk.
            I join Conrad at a railing overlooking the water. Our near horizon is a field of ship’s masts that reminds me, for the most transparent of reasons, of a signpost forest. Even now, when I am ready to change my mailing address to End of Her Rope, WA, I cannot resist an attempt at humor.
            “The ship sails at midnight.”
            “The albatross is a mighty bird,” he recites back. Conrad is a helpful playmate. He gives me a chuckle. “Didn’t mean to go all James Bond on your ass, but Kai’s pretty fragile right now, and it’s a real bitch these days finding replacement Sherpas.”
            “What? He’ll think we’re having an affair? As of about a half hour ago, it doesn’t really fucking matter.” The f-word feels good on my teeth, and my heart is frosty with abandon. Hell, I would take Conrad right now; it would be a nice, vengeful screw. But Conrad is shaking his head.
            “Oh, man. I was hoping he would hold off on that. But that’s Kai – he’s got this overwhelming affection for a clean slate.”
            Conrad is still talking in code, but I guess I knew from the espionage that this would take a while.
            “We got the word yesterday: they’ve started the investigation. We’re all pretty jumpy. Kai thought that this might all pass over, that life would go on. Tough warrior, that one. Not me. I always knew the shit would come down, and here it is, every gory fucking chapter, ready to fall. I think he also thought that we were doing this to protect you, but it’s better you hear it from me than some anchorman. Oh Jesus, now I’m just freaking you out. Why don’t I just shut up and tell you the fucking story?”



            Harvey was out on patrol with Bucksy – I’m sure Harvey mentioned him. Man’s man, soldier’s soldier. Gave his orders straight out, undiluted, but you never felt like you were being jacked around, because he’d always paint the whole picture: reasons, danger, overall strategy. I mean, it’s the Army – when it comes down to it, you just do what you’re told. But Bucksy figured if he took the time to explain things, he could get ten percent more out of each of his men – and in combat, ten percent is life minus death.
            Physically, he had your attention anyway. Six-five, 250, built like a freakin’ linebacker. And you know what he did as a civilian? Hairstylist. Fuckin’ hairstylist. I always had a hard time mashing that together as a concept. I imagine he didn’t get too many complaints about his work.
            I used to call him “Captain Glue,” because I’ll tell you, it is an absolute pile of shit over there, and all the flies buzzing around that pile of shit have explosives strapped to their chests. You’re trying to save those people from their own damn selves, and they’d just as soon blow you to pieces as make you coffee. We had a lot of soldiers who were in danger of just plain losin’ it, but Bucksy had that magic way of knowing who needed a kick in the ass, who needed a dirty joke, who needed a good old-fashioned verbal takedown and who needed to be left alone. Bullseye, every time.

Conrad turns from the railing and looks at me, as if he wants me to get this next part, not as some colorful abstraction but as a physical object, something you can hold and feel.

Bucksy’s dead. Worse than dead. He was blown into two discrete pieces. Made me think of the Black Dahlia. I go to horror movies now and I laugh. They have no fucking idea.
It was your husband who drove that Humvee over that explosive. It was also your husband who escaped with a couple of scratches on his right elbow. Goddamnedest thing I’ve ever seen. Not that I actually saw it. I only saw the remains.
We were destroyed, useless. We spent the day either crying like babies or punching holes in the walls. All except Harvey. Harvey spent the day sitting straight-backed on his bunk, staring into space. He had this huge bottle of water, and every few minutes he would take a swig, and then go back to staring. It seemed like some kind of internal strategy session, like he was working something out. I cannot conceive of the visual information that must have registered on his brain that day, or what happens when something like that starts tunneling around in your head. I’m thinking there also had to be guilt. Nothing rational – there wasn’t a damn thing he could have done about it. But maybe the irrational kind is harder, because you have to keep wrestling with it. Especially when you’re the one who got away scot-free.
We didn’t have much time for grieving. We were desperately short on personnel, the new division wasn’t due for two weeks, and the insurgents in the village were getting bolder. There were rumors about an attack on the local mosque. So there we were, two days later, walking around like zombies, a squadron that had literally had its head cut off. The command came down to me, but frankly Harvey would have been better suited. I was off my nut. I envisioned an IED under my every step, and you just can’t operate that way.
We had a lead through one of our translators that a house in the northern sector might be serving as a hideout for insurgents. I was still setting up my men around the perimeter when Harvey bolted past me and busted through the front door. Really threw me – for all I knew he had just barged in on a room full of armed terrorists. He could be gunned down any second. But then I heard him inside, yelling things in Arabic. Stay down. Hands behind your head. That sort of thing. Then I heard a shot, so I told Kai to cover me as I went in after Harvey. From the entryway, I had only a narrow slice of vision into the main room. There were men, maybe thirty of them, all ages, kneeling on prayer mats. This made sense – they were avoiding the mosque, because of the rumors. But what the hell was Harvey doing?
Then I saw their faces. They were terrified, breathing hard. There was another shot, and the sound of a body falling to the floor. A man who was kneeling near the opening tried to stand and run. Another shot. He fell into the hallway in front of me, a hole in his throat. It was then that I realized what was happening.
“Lebeque!” I shouted. “It’s Conrad! Listen to me! It’s the wrong house! These are not insurgents!”
Harvey’s response was belligerent but strangely calm. “The hell they’re not! If ya hadn’t noticed, Dixon, these people are not too particular about who they kill. Well, neither am I! What about you, pal? Kill any Americans today? Did ya kill my friend? Huh?”
Another shot. Another body.
“Sergeant! You must cease firing! That’s an order!”
I leaned into the opening to see him raising the muzzle of his rifle to the head of an old man. He looked at me and said, “I only take orders from Bucksy, and Bucksy’s gone. This ain’t no fucking Zero Squadron. Zero Squadron has rules. No rules in this fucking country. Alice in fucking Wonderland out here.”
He fired. The old man slumped forward.
My teachers had told me how a military mind operates in extreme situations, but this was the first time I really felt it. My thoughts were dividing, half of them scattered and shocked, the other half remarkably calm and rational. The calm half noticed that Harvey was being methodical. He was working his way down the line, front row first. The next was a young boy, maybe nine, ten years old, and this meant that I was about to come to a crisis point. I wasn’t going to let him kill that kid.
It was then that Kai stepped into the back of the room.
“Harvey,” he said. “You can’t do this.”
“I can do this all day long,” said Harvey. “Motherfuckers blew my friend in half. In half! This is a pleasure.”
“Fuck them!” said Kai. “It’s not about them. I’m with you. But if you can stop right now, we can get you out of here, cover our tracks and everything’s fine, okay? You get a couple kills, get your payback, couple more weeks you go back to the States, back to Channy, everything’s fine. But you gotta stop right now, Harve. It won’t work unless you stop right now.”
Harvey stood there for a second, staring at the back of that little boy’s head, and he seemed to calm down. Thank God, I thought. He’s talked him out of it.
“No,” he said, and raised his rifle to the boy’s head. Another shot, and Harvey fell to the floor.
When I looked back toward Kai, I had this fanciful idea that he had just turned himself into a statue, his rifle still on his shoulder, his eyes getting bigger and bigger. I walked slowly toward him and spoke in my calmest military voice.
“Soldier, hand me your weapon.”
I took it from him and continued giving orders. I didn’t want him to think about what had just happened. I was afraid of what he might do to himself. I put a hand on his shoulder and shook him a little to get his attention. His face was just wide open with fear.
“Soldier! Go outside right now. Get O’Reilly and Benson.” Then I lowered my voice. “Kai, you are not to say a word about this. Let me handle it.”
I guess if I had to justify what I did next, I would say that your husband did commit suicide. He gave Kai no choice, and I’m sorry, but every time Kai has a week like this one, I wish Harvey had killed himself. We carried the body back to the base and reported that Harvey had gotten separated from the squad, that we found him in that eucalyptus grove. The story made sense; it was an American bullet, Harvey’s weapon had been fired – his feelings about Bucksy were well-known. Any cursory forensics investigation would have proved us all a bunch of liars, but we were counting on chaos, and we won – no one had the luxury of looking into it any further. And, thank God, those Iraquis were evidently too scared to report the killings.
I got a call yesterday from CID, and I agreed to tell them the whole story. Politically speaking, they’ll probably have to release this to the press. And… well, especially with you and Kai being… a couple, I figured I better tell you. I’m very sorry about all of this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone over that day in my head and tried to figure out something I could have done to prevent it. But reliving it, it’s all pretty fucking useless.

I’m feeling grateful for the way the human body operates, the way everything numbs up, because otherwise this would kill me. I stare at the masts, bobbing in the wind like a leafless forest. Then I feel Conrad’s hand around my shoulder.
“What can I do for you, Channy? Are you gonna be okay – I mean, right now? You want to call someone? Could I drive you home? It’s no problem – I’m the boss.”
I’m surprised at the clarity of my own voice. “No. That’s okay. I’ve got a place to go. A thinking place.”
He nudges my face toward his and gives me a teacherly scrutiny.
“Nothing foolish?”
“Nothing foolish,” I say. “I don’t operate that way. Besides, I’ve got a job tonight.”
“You sure you’re up to it?”
I realize I never knew his last name before, and I feel the need to speak it. “This is what you do, Sergeant Dixon. You keep going.”
“Good girl.”
“And you – you keep a watch on Kai.”
“Always,” he says. “That’s my job.”

The week we moved into Sumner, I found a box of books in the basement with a note from the previous tenant: Sorry! Didn’t have enough room for this in the van – thought you might like something to read.
At the top was a book of Northwest hiking trails. I opened it to the bookmark and found a listing circled with a highlighter: the Nisqually Delta Bird Sanctuary. I had a profound itch to explore our new region, and this certainly fit into the category of Sign from God.
That Saturday, we had a lot of chores to catch up on – we were still hunting up shower curtains and a microwave oven – so by the time we found the sanctuary parking lot the sun was getting low in the west. We walked straight into it, down a wide gravel path bordered by tall wetland grasses the color of dried bamboo.
“Look,” I said. I gestured above us, where the swallows were swirling from one field to the next, a haphazard, aerial tennis match. But Harvey’s gaze was fixed on the long trail. Always the distance with this one. I had to take him by the shoulders and nearly put him into a headlock to get him to look. When he saw the swallows, though, I could feel his muscles relax.
“Absolutely stunning,” he said.
Harvey the human dichotomy. He was a tough climb, but there was something about the challenge of the ascent that made the view that much sweeter when you got to the top. But. This could be the last kind memory I have of him. Because he snapped. Because he killed people. To that dichotomy, there is no bright side.
I am back in that very spot, the swallows of yesteryear weaving circles above me. The tall grasses are now a milky green. The sun is low in the west, but setting much further south.
He stood right here. The hands that massaged my neck at the end of a long day were used to separate five innocent men from their lives. There are no birds in this sanctuary, and the sky is brewing up a football team of icy-looking clouds.
I watch my steps carefully, as if I will be asked to describe them in a deposition. I have begun yet another process – that of deciding if my so-called life partner was inherently evil, or just inherently weak. A violent streak waiting for an invitation, or an average man too harshly squeezed by mortality and frustration? Are we all just one exploded comrade from taking lives? I picture Hamster bisected by an orange burst, and try to channel my reaction.
I am angry at Harvey, I am terribly sorry for him. I will love him forever, I will never ever forgive him. And I am most sorry for myself, who will have to live with these fucking what-ifs for the rest of my life, who will never have a joy that is not cut in half by the sulfuric acid percolating from my memory banks.
Somewhere in there, I should have some anger for Kai. The man killed my husband. Justifiably, yes, nobly, yes – but there ought to be something. Instead I find only sorrow, so deep I can’t get my hands around it. I don’t know if I will ever have the strength to be his lover, to handle these explosive chemicals he carries around in his brain, but I want to hold him and say, You did the right thing. You did what your own humanity demanded of you. The beauty of friendship is its forfeitability, and Harvey gave up Kai’s the instant he pulled that trigger.
Oh, God. The world is too gray, too empty of wings and song. I crave a bald eagle, a blue heron, some shocking stroke of color to empty my thoughts for the smallest second, but all I have are workaday seagulls rioting over the marsh. I am grateful for my job, which even on the dreariest of days carries the possibility of beauty: a bent note from a blues guitar, a cascade of horns, the apple-ish bite of a hi-hat at the end of a phrase.
I turn and look back at the parking lot. I have covered, at most, a city block. I can still read the numbers on my license plate. It’s time to go to that job.

The evening is utterly rote. I’m not even certain who’s here but I sense that it’s a healthy crowd. I sit next to the pond as a familiar face rises to the surface, sings a song and then sinks back down. I do a lot of smiling and nodding.
But the songs stay with me. “Name,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “The Sweater Song,” “It’s All Right With Me,” “Beyond the Sea,” “Smooth,” “Chasing Cars,” “Tender When I Want to Be,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The words drift in and out like a dream before dawn. I try to piece them together, looking for some clue on how a life is supposed to be lived. It’s not simply that nothing makes sense to me, it’s that I am now beyond sense.
There is a word in karaoke that I’ve never seen anywhere else: “Outro.” It’s basically a made-up antonym of “intro.” It comes up on the lyric screen to let you know that the singing’s over, but the music’s going to go on a little longer. You’re free to stay at the mic and wait it out, but you’re also free to leave. Either way, the music goes on without you.
Big blonde hair, like Joan Osborne in that “One of Us” video. I think this is Shari.
“I think you’ve got the wrong track, honey. It’s track twelve.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Smile, nod – nudge the track to twelve. An acoustic guitar comes in like a rowboat in gentle water. It’s called “Fade Into You” by a group called Mazzy Star. This must be one of Shari’s CDs, because the song is sad and otherworldly, and if I had ever heard it I would remember it. Shari’s whiskey voice could squeeze tears from “The Hokey-Pokey,” and now she’s throwing in this drowsy Patsy Cline lift that grabs at the fraying ends of my heartstrings. I am able to hit the escape valve just in time, and I turn to face my little squad of business card holders. Busywork. Busywork. Ah, that’s better – a wide gravel path full of trivia.

The end of the night comes quickly, and before I’m even aware that I’ve begun, I am piling my last CD case into the truck. It could be that I can sneak away quietly and continue ceasing to exist.
But then there’s my paycheck, and the rent that’s coming due, so I trudge back in. Hamster is leaning against the bar in a rascally fashion as he nurses an Irish coffee. He’s a sipper; that’s how he keeps from becoming a drunk in a trade that breeds them by the millions. He lends me a rakish smile, a little bit higher on the right, the one he uses on his bevy of barfly Mrs. Robinsons.
“Hey dollface. Good night tonight.”
“Yes.” I smile and nod, but I can hear how flat my voice is. “Can I get my check?”
“Sure.” He reaches into the cash register and pulls out a brown envelope. “Here ya go.”
“Thanks.” I start for the door, feeling suddenly panicky.
“Channy? Are you okay? You seem a little…”
Oh God. That tone of courtly concern, it’s much too fatherly, avuncular, the vice principal, the elder psychologist, the softball coach, and it’s precisely this quality that snips the frayed ends of my heartstrings – the ones that held up the marionette. I sink to my knees and it all comes pouring out of me, a sobbing so deep that it sounds like some large, gray animal at the zoo. I’m melting into the freshly mopped ammonia-smelling floor, and then I’m aloft on a cloud of musky, old-fashioned cologne, Hamster’s day-old beard scratching my cheek. I land on the cold vinyl of a bar booth, where my strange new song just keeps spilling and spilling out.

In the great Northwest, gray is our color of choice, the raincloud our team mascot. Precipitation is such a dominant presence that we have invented a term for its temporary cessation: sunbreak. This morning is my sunbreak, ten minutes of slick beauty during which I have forgotten whatever it was that was plaguing me.
I follow the sunbreak across the room, where it lands on three fuzzy balls making their way along tubes of yellow, red and green. I quickly designate the lightswitch as their finish line and place my money on red. The second I do so, my steed is off, as if someone has turned a faucet and shot him forward on a rush of water. He reaches the switch and disappears around the corner, leaving his rivals to choke on his primary-colored dust.
Victory! Followed quickly by consciousness. I’m at Hamster’s. I’m at Hamster’s because…
Sunbreak over. But it’s followed by a slowly spreading smile that smells like coffee. I take a steaming mug that says, It Must Be Love (either that or this coffee is really strong!).
“Thanks, boss.”
“I forget how you like it,” he says.
The first sip goes right to my head, sweeping aside the autumn leaves, prodding me into untoward flirtation.
“I like my coffee like I like my employers,” I say. “Hot and black.”
That sends us both into titters, and I notice that Hamster is fully groomed and dressed: jeans, tennis shoes, golf shirt. Apparently, I have slept in. He leans an elbow against the doorjamb and gives me an appraising look.
“You know, you’ve really got to cut this out. You’re ruining both sides of my reputation.”
I’ve got to latch onto something, and this seems like a solid opening.
“Well now right there! See? Yet another of your enigmatic pronouncements. What the hell do you mean, ‘both sides’? And what the hell is your last name?”
“Don’t you read your paychecks?”
“Have you seen your signature lately? It’s a freakin’ Jackson Pollock.”
Hamster cups a hand around his chin, considering how much of himself to divulge.
“Jenner. Hamilton Beauregard Jenner.”
“You have got to be kidding me!” I am pounding the top of my sleeping bag in disbelief.
“As for the other bit of information, that is a great big fat secret that can only be traded for a secret of similar proportions. Such as, perhaps, whatever it was that liquified you all over my floor last night.”
I take an overlong sip that scalds my tongue. I rub a finger along the hot-spot.
“Well. It’s a whopper. But seeing how that bitch Ruby has absconded to Mexico, I guess I gotta tell someone.”
He beckons me down the hall. “Join me in my breakfast nook.”
I smile. “Said the spider to the fly.”
Hamster’s nook is a key lime pie of white tiles and yellow trim, with a small blondewood table, white chairs and a bay window that looks across the harbor to Karz. I picture him here each morning, nibbling a piece of toast, hamster-like, as he ponders his greatest possession. I sit down and launch into my work, spitting out the whole miniseries, chunk by grisly chunk. My conclusion turns Hamilton Beauregard Jenner into a Catholic.
“Jesus Mary Joseph and Richard Nixon,” he says. “Channy! You should be in a mental ward by now. Certainly not doling out pop music in Gig Harbor. Are you seeing someone?”
“Well I just… broke up to-…”
“Seeing a therapist, sweetheart. It’s fine telling a friend, but eventually you need a professional. This is some grade-A shit.”
I keep forcing my genteel boss to swear, which only adds to my feelings of guilt.
“You got someone in mind?”
He takes a bite from his scone – his first bite, such was his fascination with my story – and smiles.
“How about mine?”
I roll out a finger like I’m laying a tiny carpet. “Which you’re seeing for…?”
He proffers a pinkie. I recognize this from childhood. It’s a pledge of secrecy. I hook my pink pinkie around his mocha pinkie and we pull them away like we’re unplugging a bathtub.
“Just for clarity,” he says, “absolute confidentiality.”
“Your boss prefers men. And he got most of those stock tips during late-night rendezvouz on Amtrak.”
“Scandalous! So… why the closet?”
“Different times, honey. I didn’t need both races on my ass. So to speak. My youngers speak to me of rainbows, and Pride movements, but it’s just not my bag. Besides, I take great pleasure in the cash of all those Gig Harbor housewives who come to my bar to indulge their Harry Belafonte fantasies.”
I laugh out loud, which feels strange and lovely. “I was thinking Nat King Cole.”
Hamster lets out a sandpapery Belafonte laugh (I’ll be damned) and says “Nat King Cole! I’ll be damned.”
I stand from my chair, so touched by this long-delayed confidence that I must have an embrace.
“Mr. Jenner – Harry, Nat – give me a big, gay hug.”
“I will,” he says, and does. Wrapped in Hammie’s muscular limbs, I feel that perhaps the world will stop beating on me, at least for the duration of a sunbreak. A trio of cormorants slides by the window.

Photo by MJV

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