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“Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes!”
It’s a tiresome joke, no one really thinks it’s funny, but today – St. Patrick’s Day – it has done gone literal. I begin the long crawl up Soundview in a thick fog, pass through a brief hailstorm, and a minute later am sitting at a sunny intersection as dainty crystals of snow land and melt on my windshield.
I am headed for the library, which has become my morning destination since Harvey’s story went public. I scour the blogs and websites for revelations, and though the many analyses of Harvey’s massacre certainly interest me, I am mostly after glimpses of Conrad and Kai. There is talk of coverup and courtmartial, and pundits trying to squeeze it into their side of the debate: symptom of an unworkable cause or simply the everyday price of a noble war? I am selfish – I could care less whether it lands on the black field or the white field. I want the assurance that my bad taste in men will not cost one more soldier one more day of precious life. And whether or not it’s convenient, whether or not it’s wise, it’s clear that I am in love with Kai.
Today I strike gold: a video of Kai, Conrad and their lawyers getting out of a car. They’re heading for some impressive building surrounded by evergreen ridges. Around here that could be anywhere, but I’m guessing the military courthouse at Ft. Lewis. Their expressions are neutral – I’m sure they’ve been coached on this – but Kai spots someone in the crowd and lets out the smallest of smiles. I track the video back and forth, looking for the moment with the most teeth, and send it off to the printer. This is a treasure worth a week of surfing, an image of the Kai I knew, the Kai I want back. I slide him into a plastic sleeve, and I’m off to Susanne’s for Dutch crunch bread.
By the time I get my bread it’s sunny. I sit outside despite the cold, if only to harvest some UVs. I realize that I’m also looking for a sign – and I am not generally a sign-seeker. But what if I actually get one? What then? A murder of crows flies overhead – Kai and Conrad get the chair? A bald eagle buzzes the bakery and snatches my Dutch crunch – freedom for both?
The bird I end up with is a teenage chickie with a blonde plume, pulling up in a silver monstrosity of SUV. She parachutes down and is headed for the bakery door when she spots something and stops. A wiry skaterdude with a helmet of black hair is pushing up the sidewalk (no small feat – he’s on quite a hill). He spots Blondie and does that wondrous thing that teenagers do – leaps from his board to race toward his female target and lift her into a hug worthy of an amusement park ride, the both of them exclaiming superlatives. After a third spin, he sets her back on terra firma, looks downhill and discovers that his board has rolled two blocks, taken a left into a driveway and is now headed for the marina.
He does precisely the right thing: gives a surprised smile, exclaims “Dude!” and stays exactly where he is, laughing his head off. Because the board is going to do what the board is going to do, and that is simply the cost of true love.
Word of our celebration has traveled the capillaries of Puget Sound’s karaoke culture and brought back some interesting visitors. Floy and John Craig step into Karz for perhaps the first time in their lives. Sheila has come, and I am relieved to see that she has brought some tall dark man-candy so she can leave Harry the hell alone. It’s not unusual that Alex has come, except that he has come without a dance partner, which is downright unheard-of. We’ve even got a fellow professional – Erica, a KJ from California, and her husband Paul.
Ruby interrupts my prep-work to take me to her booth, where I meet the half-mythological Albert Camarelli, wearing a wild silk shirt of African siennas and reds, and Michael, the guy who sang Sinatra on the cruise. David’s there, too, and I can’t resist leaning over to whisper “Hi, Super.” He gives me a wink and says, “Shh! You want to get me thrown out?”
After a few more small touches (tightening a troublesome speaker stand), the time seems right, so I perch behind my soundboard and begin the ceremony.
“All right, all right. Settle down, people! As you all probably know, a couple of our irregulars went on a cruise recently and made public spectacles of themselves, and we’re here to assuage their superhuman egos so they’ll just get over it and leave us the hell alone.”
My decision to do this as a roast was not without some trepidation, so I’m relieved when my opening gets a laugh (much helped by Shari, who is the best laugher on the West Coast).
“Thanks to our lovely host, Hamster – who got his name from the rodents that he uses to power these goddamn annoying model trains – we have hooked the big screen up to a DVD player, so that we may all witness for ourselves the crime that was perpetrated on 1500 innocent passengers last month. Hammy!”
Hamster hits a button and we’re in at Ruby’s intro. I should have a pretty good idea of what we’re about to see, but it’s all much more glamorous than I expected: the lights, the skill of the dancers (the bodies of the dancers!), even the camerawork, which includes a double-image fade from a stage shot to a closeup. As for Ruby, she’s so good that it makes me uncomfortable. It’s hard to picture someone you know laying it all out on a stage like that. That’s for rock stars, actors, ballerinas – people who are only half-real to begin with.
With Harry, it’s different. No quantum leap, just sorta what you would expect if you took this guy we all knew, gave him a cool white jumpsuit and stuck him on a big stage. I’m probably more impressed by the girls in the Capri pants, a six-pack of pure Day-Glo cutesy sex doing the pony behind him.
We keep the DVD rolling through Michael’s “My Way” and the variety-show finale, and I’m back to my MC duties.
“Fortunately for us, Harry and Ruby didn’t do their usual job of alienating everybody they meet” – Man! I hope I’m not overdoing this – “and they invited their Sinatra, Michael, to come down from Seattle. Michael?”
Michael looks like he wants to say something, so I hold off on the music.
“This was really a pleasure, I can’t tell you,” he says. “Getting to play my hero, meeting such talented and friendly people. The funny thing is, I really hate ‘My Way.’ It’s butchered on a regular basis by middle-aged men the world over, and it’s so antithetical to the swinging, playful style that typifies so much of Frank’s music. That said, here’s a song that I much prefer.”
It’s “Witchcraft,” and I can quickly hear what Ruby was talking about. Michael’s voice has a distinct Sinatra timbre that you simply have to be born with; the beverage equivalent would be a Guinness ale -–a creamy, stout glass of black-brown baritone. He’s also got the loosey-goosey sense of pitch and phrasing, making casually late entrances and scooping up to the notes on the chorus.
“I’m sure you’ve heard this before,” I tell him, “but you really do sound like him. It’s eerie.” Breath. “Speaking of eerie, our next singer is Harry.” I wait a beat for the laugh (I think I’m getting the hang of this!). “Harry used to be a tow-truck driver, but lately he’s been spotted in electronics stores, shooting out entire aisles of TV sets, and hitting up pharmacies for what he likes to call ‘leftovers.' You’ve seen the Thin Elvis, the Fat Elvis. I give you the Paunchy Elvis – Gig Harbor’s own Harry Schmidt!”
I switch on “It’s Now or Never” and Harry runs onstage, in a mockup of that skin-tight black leather bodysuit from Elvis’s comeback TV special. I mean to say, it’s like he’s wearing a coat of black paint. He’s also got big silver motorcycle sunglasses with portholes coming down the sides and a wig of jet-black hair with long sideburns.
After a quick “Thankyou,” he’s into the song. It takes me till midway through the first verse to realize that something’s amiss. Either the Elvis mumble is sloppier than usual or Harry’s singing in Italian! Lest there be any doubt, he finishes by mumbling “Grotsy, Millygrotsy,” then performs a karate kick before returning to his table.
“Damn you, Harry!” I say. “Here I am, trying to be insulting, and you go and do something impressive. In case you’re wondering, ‘It’s Now or Never’ is based on the traditional Neapolitan song ‘O Sole Mio,’ and Harry just sang it in the original Italian.”
Harry waits for just the right moment to answer with a classic Presleyan “Uh-uh-huh,” which wins a well-deserved laugh.
I lose my place, and Shari begins the traditional chant of “Dead air! Dead air!” The room joins in, and I have to wave them all down.
“Back, you animals! Hyaw! Geez – the pressure! Forgive the hesitation, but I realize that I’m going to have to give up the roast entirely because I’m about to get all sentimental on your ass.”
The room quiets down, and everybody’s sneaking peeks at Ruby. She’s dolled up in her Irish green dress, the one she wore for her dining-hall applause, and that first memorable appearance at Karz.
“Even in the beginning, when we didn’t think terribly much of her attitude,” (laugh beat, one… two…) “we knew that Ruby had extraordinary talent, talent that could not be contained by our humble bar. After a few months in her company, I can tell you that she’s also an extraordinary friend. There were times when I simply could not have made it without her. Now…”
I have to stop for a breath. I feel the emotion rising in my voice, and I am determined to get this out straight.
“Huh-hem! Now, after suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous Broadway, our little girl will spend her evenings under the Northern Lights, trolling the Great American Songbook for thousands of lucky passengers. Would you please strike together your appendages for our own… Ruby! Cohen!”
Our modest assembly erupts like a squad of Japanese tourists as Ruby takes the stage and gives me a hug. She whispers “Ready?” and I give her a squeeze of affirmation. I’m sure she would have preferred to surprise me, but I am the KJ, so I at least have to know the song.
She takes the mic as if she’s accepting a bouquet of roses.
“It’s all true,” she says. “I will soon be continuing my pursuit of the great musical beasts of America: the great horned Porter, the duck-billed Gershwin, the white-tailed Ellington. But before I embark on that glorious safari, I’d like to pay tribute to my roots, and the talented young lady who got me here. Alex!”
Alex dashes out in a black tango outfit, Zorro minus the accessories, and, much to the amazement of all, unzips Ruby’s dress. She steps out to reveal cherry red vinyl pants and bra, then completes the ensemble by reaching behind my speaker for a jacket of the same material.
As she zips it up, I hit play, and I recall this same outfit from Britney’s second music video. The song, however, is “Toxic,” which rises from a snaky vamp that I just adore.
Ruby sings from a largely static position – a pose here, a pelvic dip there – but once they hit the instrumental she and Alex perform one of those whirling interweaves where you lose track of which limbs are whose. Ruby breaks out and kicks a leg up over Alex’s shoulder, he slides her trailing foot across the floor like a paintbrush, then spins her away so she can repeat the chorus. Alex disappears for a few measures, then slides across on his knees, assuming a position like a human table as Ruby places a cherry-red boot atop his back. As she hits the final note, she pushes down and Alex sprawls out on the floor.
He remains in this position as the place simply goes haywire, then rolls onto his side and flashes a big grin. I know an impending dance party when I see one, so I slap on “Play That Funky Music” and watch as my patrons fill the floor.
Late in the evening, Erica from California comes up to sing “The Rose,” and invites me and Shari to sing harmonies. I use a low harmony that I learned from Kevin the Cop (who has been strangely absent of late), and Shari take the upper, launching herself into a gospel descant before the quiet finish. I’m exchanging singerly hugs with both of them when Al comes up to ask if he can say something.
“Of course, Al. You’re my hero.”
Al turns to address the room. You can tell he’s done this many times before.
“Hi. My name’s Albert Camarelli, but starting next week you can refer to me as Ruby’s Boss.”
This brings automatic applause, which Al damn well knew it would before he said it.
“If you’ll forgive the pun, I want to thank you for ‘harboring’ such a wonderful talent and sending her my way. It’s my understanding that our Elvis met Ruby on these very grounds – and it was Harry, of course, who took her on that fateful cruise. As a reward, we’ve invited him to join Ruby on one free cruise per year. As long as he behaves himself, that is. As it turns out, however, our Ruby drives a hard bargain, so I would like to offer an additional free cruise – one time only, mind you – to your charming talent director, Channy.”
My reaction is pure and lovely shock. I find myself kissing Al on the cheek and meeting Ruby for a helicopter hug, both of us screaming unintelligible syllables of delight. I make my way slowly back to the mic.
“I’m so embarrassed! Thank you so much, Al. That is incredibly sweet of you. Now, to save us all from utter chaos, let’s get Ruby up here to sing.”
Ruby drifts our way like a large disembodied smile and takes the mic.
“I think by now you realize that we’ve spent most of an Irish holiday celebrating a Mexican cruise. And with a name like Ruby O’Cohen, I feel it’s up to me to set this matter right, so I would now like to sing the song that will be utterly massacred tonight by Celts and non-Celts the world ‘round.
She pauses, like she’s trying to piece something together.
“I also think that there is an unacknowledged… presence in the room tonight. If you’ve read the papers lately, you know that Channy has been having a rough time of it, and although she is not as apt as I am to blurt out her feelings, I know for a fact that she needs you people and your angelic voices as much as you might need her. And I want to thank you, on her behalf.”
She looks my way, and I recover myself long enough to press the play button. In comes a fiddle, an Irish flute, and already I know that this music will perforate my heart. Perhaps we forget this amidst all the green beer and hullabaloo, but “Danny Boy” is a song sung to a child who is leaving for foreign lands, and the singer knows that he will never see him again.
I’m shrinking into the shadows behind my soundboard, ready for the melody to swallow me alive, when I feel a hand on mine. It’s Alex, and he’s pulling me onto the dance floor. His hands are divine instruments, as if there are beautiful movements inscribed on my palms, and all he has to do is touch this button, and that, and I am sweeping across the floor like Cyd Charisse. Toward the finish, as our Irish ancestor names his mourning like a shepherd calling his flock, we join hands, loop them around each other’s necks and walk slowly in a circle, gazing at each other like dancers at an Irish wake. I’d never realized how beautiful his eyes were.
An hour later, I’m all packed up, conducting a post-party review with Shari, who’s radiating excitement.
“Channy, I swear this is one of the best nights of my life. I am surrounded by extraordinary people, and… it’s helped me make a decision. I saw an ad in the paper for a band that needs a female blues singer, and I’m gonna try out!”
“Omigod, Shari! I can so totally see you in a blues band. You’ll be like a really tall, Viking Janis Joplin.”
“Ha! Big Sister and the Holding Company. Well, anyways, thanks for the hundred and fifty-third time already, and I’ll let you know what happens. Bye! Enjoy that cruise!”
Ruby and Alex come strolling across the lot like a two-person laugh train.
“One beat off on that little stompdown, honey, and pop goes the vertebra.”
“Now, now. I was gentle.”
“You two!” I cut in. “Absolutely scandalous. Sexiest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”
Alex gives me an embarrassed grin. “I’ve been looking for a way to stretch my boundaries.”
“That leg-shoulder thing scared the hell out of me,” says Ruby. “I wasn’t sure vinyl could stretch like that.”
Harry rumbles up in his tow truck. “Hey, woman! Are we gonne get outta here by daybreak?”
“Whoops!” says Ruby. “We’re kayaking the Vaughn Inlet tomorrow. Thanks, Channy. It was a swell homecoming.”
She stands on Harry’s running board, blows us a kiss and vaults to the seat. Alex and I watch the taillights ascending Pioneer like twin red stars.
“Well,” he says. “I’d better…”
I grab his arm. I’m not sure why. “Alex, could I… could you stay just a minute?”
“Sure,” he says. “Anything.”
If he had said anything but anything, I might have lost my nerve. I rub my hand toward his elbow, looking for buttons.
“I think you know that… I’m a pretty fucked-up individual right now, and this is probably a one-time offer, but… could you please take me to your place?”
For once, my instincts are absolutely correct. The Alex who knows the buttons on my palms also knows the buttons everywhere else. I am spring-loaded with anxiety, and by the time Alex is finished with mouth, fingers and penis, I’m a five-time lottery winner, pleasurably destroyed, lying on his bed as the moon paints a skunk-stripe over the Sound. As it turns out, Alex lives in one of those pricey homes on Soundview, the ones I was passing this morning along my weather buffet. You could put a miniature golf course on his front lawn. I’m lying on my stomach, flagrantly naked; Alex runs a hand over my buttocks, as if they belong to a priceless Greek statue. I have decided that I merit just such treatment.
“I feel like I’ve discovered your secret, Alex. All those women, like a goddamn doctoral program.”
“I wouldn’t go too far with that,” he says. “It’s mostly about the dancing. But the dancing sometimes sets off triggers. Maybe a fifth of the time. What I like most is how surprised they are. It’s easy to overlook a guy like me.”
“Not when you dance.”
It’s odd when a man you’ve just had animal sex with gives you a shy look.
“Thanks. You know, the words to ‘Danny Boy’ were written in iambic pentameter. The song’s in four, but the contrast gives it this lovely meandering quality. You can’t just go hopping and skipping to it.”
I can hear the song as he speaks, and recall its meaning.
“I’m still in love with him.”
“I almost hate to ask,” says Alex, “but… who?”
“Oh. That I knew. And, believe it or not, when you said ‘one-time offer,’ I took you at your word.”
My gaze drifts to a charcoal sketch on the wall, Fred Astaire in coat and tails.
“So it’s… okay?”
He runs a finger along the valley of my spine – a gesture that almost answers my question.
“It’s not just okay, Channy. It’s marvelous. For years – decades, actually – I waited for that life-long love affair, denying anything that didn’t have the potential to meet that lofty standard. What foolishness. Some time or other, it finally happened, I finally figured out where I fit into the equation. I am Mr. In-Between, the guy who dresses the wounds and sends the women on their way. But meanwhile, I get to enjoy them, and feast on their lovely bodies, and the very brevity of these affairs affords a variety matched by few men that I know. I am one hell of a lucky guy.”
I smile. “Nothing but A-pluses here, fella.”
He slaps me affectionately on a butt-cheek. “That’s what a man likes to hear. Another satisfied customer.”
We laugh the laughter of the sexually spent. A minute later, I put on my clothes, give Alex a big smooch on the mouth, and show myself to the door.
True to the day, the weather has changed. I cross the lawn in an envelope of mist, leaving dewy footprints on the grass. As I near the streetlight next to my car, I discover a thousand tiny splinters of light. It’s freezing fog, just the kind that one might find in a signpost forest.
I believe it now: Harvey’s dead.
Photo by MJV