Buy the book on Amazon.com
a novel by
Michael J. Vaughn
Image: Warmth, by Paula Grenside
Traditionally, when someone leaves my hometown, there’s drama. Big family arguments, occasional fistfights, two or three stabbings. I was the exception. We weren’t the closest of families, but my folks were elated that I had gotten through school without the common surrender to boredom and drugs. The reason for my success was largely a mystery. Whether instilled or innate, I possessed an iron sense of self-worth, and a horse-trader’s notion that I could swap the mediocrities of today for the glories of tomorrow. Once graduation arrived, a journey Outside (which is what Alaskans call anywhere not in Alaska) was seen by all as my just reward.
Because of my patience and choosiness – and the slapping away of several pairs of hands belonging to drooling jock lotharios – I earned a reputation as a prude. The few times I did give away the goodies, this served to elevate the pleasure and surprise of my happy recipients. Surprise was a natural reaction, anyway, because my candidates were not on the roster of Boys Who Get Laid. He had to be nice, he had to be someone I could control, and he absolutely had to use a condom, because my autobiography would not be titled Knocked Up in Anchorage. Most importantly, although some attraction was necessary, I didn’t want it to reach the narcotic level – because, the day after graduation, I had a date with the lower 48 (I used this phrase so often that my friends began to sing-song it back to me).
Looking back on my patterns (as more people should do), I realized that most of my boys were musicians. The last was James Kitagawa, who was also the best musician. He was a stocky Japanese boy with a broad Buddha-like face, skin the color of a toasted marshmallow, and a grin that could light up the whole quad.
The highlight of our graduation ceremonies came when the choir sang its commencement song. The song was chosen by a vote of the senior choir members, which always carried an element of suspense. After four years of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Brahms and madrigals, they were usually anxious to do something pop or rock, and I always expected some particularly squirrely class to do something like “Sympathy for the Devil.”
For the class of 2001, the choice seemed obvious: “Beautiful Day” by U2. It had an anthemic quality that seemed naturally choral – like Carmina Burana with guitars – and the hook was celebratory and hopeful. The bonus came in the verses, which contained all these references to being stuck somewhere, aching to get out – muddy roads, small towns. Because really, those were our hopes. Singing them out loud to our parents (knowing that most of it would go right over their heads) was the perfect gratuity to our teenage sense of rebellion.
Problem was, choral arrangements were not exactly on U2’s priority list, so we called on our resident Mozart (in fact, that was his nickname, “Mozart”). James had his own after-school jazz ensemble, so surfing this musical no-man’s land was right up his alley. He already had the basic rock ‘n’ roll lineup – drums, bass, guitar, himself on keyboards, so all he had to do was throw some of The Edge’s ringing guitar explosions to his horn section and then get to work on the vocals.
Bono’s one of those classic double-gear singers who likes to start low and then jump the octave when things get exciting (think Orbison, Isaak, Prince). James gave the low intro to the bass and alti, then handed the chorus sforzando (that’s “sudden forte”) to the tenors and soprani as the lower voices supplied echoing harmonies.
The master stroke arrived with the accelerated lines that Bono sings in the bridge (U2 always has these – they’re masters of construction). James worked these into a counterpoint fugue, like a damn Haydn in leather pants. From there, he built it to a climax by repeating the chorus with verse lines draped over the top, growing in volume and chaos until he cut us off, leaving the horns, drums and guitars to finish it off with three big crunchy chords, so like Don Giovanni that I figured it was James’ private joke, sort of a nickname signature to his high school thesis.
I’m sorry if I go on about this, but being a part of that performance, standing in the alto section in the middle of our football field on a bright spring afternoon, might have been the single event that hooked me on music for good. And I was screwing the arranger.
I almost got all the way through school without meeting him at all. I met him two months before, during Breakup (which refers to the ice in the rivers, not to relationships). I was lollygagging on the senior lawn, where underclassmen are allowed only by express invitation, when two ideas came into glorious collusion in my head: 1) the baseball-like hardness of the oranges that came in our lunch boxes, and 2) the inexplicably deep and dangerous hole that was drilled into the ground at the far end of the lawn. I sprang to my feet, struck a classic bowler’s pose and rolled my orange across the grass. It traveled thirty feet, took a slight left-to-right break, and dropped into the hole with a thud.
James, who was crouched over a chessboard directly behind the “green,” looked up from his bishop just in time to witness the entire thing. When he saw what happened, he jumped to his feet and yelled “Genius! Fucking genius!” Then fell to the lawn and disappeared most of his arm so he could retrieve my orange and roll it back. Thus are Olympic events and friendships born.
James was a classic nerd – all that much cooler because of the way he reveled in it – and extremely surprised, two weeks later, when I added a friendly crotch-rub to our makeout repertoire. I assumed he had heard the stories about Channy the Chaste (also Miss Tightzipper, which, I had to admit, was pretty clever).
“Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I am picky. But the kind of boy I pick is also the kind of boy who keeps a secret. Am I understood?”
“Small price,” he said, and smiled. I undid his buttonfly and removed my chewing gum.
After commencement, I waited for James at the senior lawn. He arrived in his gown, too rushed by loading his keyboard and accepting praise to bother changing. He strode my way exactly like a man with a freshly inflated ego, grabbed me by the waist and swung me in a circle, then planted me with a kiss. I don’t know if it was good hygiene or natural chemistry, but I could kiss that boy’s mouth for hours, he was like human candy. After a minute, though, he deflated a bit and gave me a sad look.
“You’re absolutely sure.”
“What did I tell you?”
“Yeah – ‘day after graduation.’”
“Don’t say I didn’t give you an expiration date.”
“Let me go with you! I’ll go home and pack right now.”
I kissed him on his broad nose.
“No way. It’s the trip of my life, and it’s strictly solo. Besides, you’ve got a muse to chase.”
“Yes.” He smiled. “And her name is Ann Arbor.”
“Does anyone from here ever go further south? Like, I don’t know – Arizona State?”
“You kiddin’ me? They’d melt!”
I ran a finger along James’ upper lip and finished it with a kiss.
“I see that you still have one punch left on your ticket, Herr Mozart. Is there anywhere you’ve always wanted to…?”
I stopped when my customary crotch-rub landed on something unexpected.
“God, Jimmy! Did you have an operation?”
After a spell of epileptic laughter, Jimmy reached under his gown and pulled out a pair of rock-hard oranges.
“That’s not all,” he said. “I also have the keys to the music room, which I neglected to return after our last rehearsal. I have heard that Mr. Paris’s grand piano is capable of supporting quite a bit of weight.”
“You know, Freud would have a field day with you, Maestro. And so would I.”
That’s the last time I saw him. Late that summer, a landscaper was driving the freeway outside Minneapolis. A rolled-up tarp fell out of his truck. Just behind him, a tow-truck driver pulling a transit bus swerved to miss it and jumped the meridian. James was driving the other direction, on his way to the University of Michigan. He never had a chance. “Beautiful Day” shows up on a song slip about once a month, and I still have a hard time listening.
I’m sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. The day after graduation (my personal Valhalla), the contiguous 48 called me from bed at six o’clock. My dad was already downstairs, drinking his coffee, and he helped me pile all my belongings into the truck. When I was all ready, he rousted my mother from sleep so she could anoint my jacket with tears. Perhaps we didn’t realize how close we were until that moment. I warmed up the engine and drove off, the two of them standing arm-in-arm on the porch, popping up in my rear-view like some misty coming-of-age movie.
Dad was a mechanic, and had given the truck a thorough check-up. He was well-acquainted with the damage that could be inflicted by the Alaskan Highway (what we call the Alcan), and had also prepared a large box of emergency supplies. By the second day, I had already made use of the spare fan belt and one of those epoxy hypodermics that keeps a windshield from crawling toward Juneau like a spiderweb.
By the fourth day, the damage was mostly to my exhausted body (which had started out sore to begin with, thanks to my Jamesean concerto). Lord knows, they had made lots of improvements to the old road (and still were, judging by all the construction delays), but there were still all those rollercoaster dips where the permafrost had given out, and long stretches of gravel that pik-pokked their way into my brain. I made a mental note to get some new shocks once I reached a city.
A couple hours past Teslin, Yukon, I was just enjoying my first glimpse of the Canadian Rockies when my view was rudely drowned out by a bombardment of fog. And not just any fog – freezing fog. As I slipped into the brief summer night, microscopic ice crystals danced across my headlight beams, creating a fairyland aura that was putting me right to sleep. I had sunk into the more desperate stages of Auto Wakefulness Therapy – self-slapping, knee-knocking, the occasional Fay Wray scream – when another set of fairies, orange and blinking, appeared on the shoulder. Hazard lights on sawhorses, leading me into a rest area that said Watson Lake.
This was the home of the Signpost Forest, something I had always thought of as an artful myth. Back in World War II, the U.S. had some real concerns about Japan attacking military outposts in Fairbanks and Anchorage, which were wholly dependent on air and sea for the delivery of supplies. (The Japanese actually did make some attacks on the Aleutian Islands in 1942.)
So they sent 27,000 workers – 11,000 of them soldiers – to work on the Alcan, and they built all 1500 miles in eight months, working non-stop in awful conditions. One day, an Illinois soldier named Carl K. Lindley expressed his homesickness by putting up a sign from his native state. There are now almost 50,000, from all over the world, covering a grove of telephone poles just off the highway.
I know. I sound like a freakin’ tour guide. But I was enjoying a free cup of coffee in the interpretive center, and I’m a compulsive reader. When I finally wandered outside, the freezing fog was snaking in and out of the signposts, which added to its mythic qualities. I touched a few of them, just to make sure. The variety was amazing. I found a single pole with signs from The Netherlands, Manitoba, Michigan, Switzerland and Yorba Linda, California. I was running my hand over a handmade sign from Bob and Mary Stetson of Texas when I heard footsteps, and turned to find a striking young man headed my way.
“Hi,” he said. “Have you decided on a destination?”
He was tall and lean, a classic Jimmy Stewart type, with dark, intense eyes like Gregory Peck (my whole senior year, I was on a classic-movies kick). In any case, he had read my mind so precisely that I had to laugh.
“I’ve been so occupied with getting out of Alaska, I hadn’t figured out where I was getting out to. Where are you headed?”
He smiled mischievously. “Wherever my next ride takes me.”
“You’re hitchhiking the Alcan? Are you insane?”
“My friends seem to think so.”
“And here I was thinking I was so reckless and brave.”
“You’re a girl. You get extra credit.”
We stood and talked for another hour, but it didn’t seem to matter what we said. We were locked in a mutual study. He spoke in clear, careful sentences – almost like an actor – and his voice was smooth and baritone, like a radio newsman. He had thick, jet-black hair, with a single renegade hank that would slip over his forehead when he laughed. He had a wide mouth, and generous lips that would almost seem girly but for a small scar on his right upper that set things fetchingly asymmetrical. When he told a story, he would insert little questions so I could take part (“So then we headed for Prudhoe Bay – have you been there?”).
In short, he had all those gentleman qualities that I had always screened for in high school, but he also seemed like a Boy Who Got Laid. This was a combination I had never encountered. The attraction was so strong and natural that I had to remind myself of the hard, external facts: strange boy, middle of nowhere, traveling alone…
His name was Harvey, which fit rather comically with the Jimmy Stewart vibe. Harvey Lebeque, son of Cajuns who left New Orleans to work on the Alyeska pipeline. His dad worked in maintenance, which meant constant travel, but also a comfy existence for his family. That was the part that drove him out.
“People who come from poor families, and then find themselves with money, they go all security crazy!” he said. “If I had to listen to one more of my dad’s pep talks about ‘doing the smart thing,’ I was going to have a freaking seizure. It’s my theory that the only way you ever learn is by doing the stupid things. So here I am – ha-haah!”
He seemed to save that laugh for things that really broke him up. The second syllable was open and joyous, a touch of a James Brown shriek. Only an hour, and I already knew that. Strange boy, middle of nowhere. I also knew that the one thing he needed the most had remained conspicuously absent from the conversation. I ran my hand along a license plate from Montreal.
“How do you rate as a driver, Harvey?”
“Four years, no tickets, no accidents.”
“No car,” I said, and laughed.
“No, I’ve got a car. I left it in Fairbanks.”
“Wait a minute. You’re hitchhiking by choice?”
“Stupid things? Learning? Besides, I wanted to break out of my shell. I’ve always been a little shy.”
“Shy?” I said. “Talking to strange girls in sign forests?”
“I’m not talking to strange girls. I’m talking to you.”
I was desperately fighting off a blush. Perhaps it was cold enough that he wouldn’t notice.
“Okay,” I said. “Here’s the deal. You drive, I sleep. And none of this macho crap about driving forever – you get tired, you let me know. And I’m reading you as a gentleman, so I’m trusting you to stay that way.”
“Can you chip in for gas?”
“I can pay for gas. I’m stupid, not broke. In fact, um…”
I don’t know if he was trying to prove his previous statement, but this seemed to be his shy side. He buried his hands in his jacket and looked groundward, like a soldier delivering bad news to his commanding officer.
“I hope you’ll take this the right way, but I already got a room at a hotel down the street, and I would be more than happy to sleep on the floor if you would share the room with me, because I’ve already paid for it, and because, frankly, you look exhausted.”
“Oh,” I said. This was getting trickier by the minute. I chewed on a thumbnail.
“Not to discount your attractions, Channy,” he said. “But a hitchhiker can hardly afford to lose a long-distance ride by making untoward advances. We can… buy some jingle bells and string them around your bed. You can handcuff me to the radiator. Provided… you have handcuffs.”
“Geez, Harvey, I just…”
“Did I mention that this room has a clawfoot bathtub? With hot running water?”
We walked to my car and drove half a block to the Watson Lake Hotel. When Harvey opened the door and waved me into his room, I realized I was in big trouble. There in the far corner, balanced across an easy chair, was an old, beat-up guitar case.
So here’s my thought on cover songs: if you’re not going to make the song your own, don’t bother. You’re just a hack with a record deal, looking to milk a twenty-year-old hit.
Pretty funny, coming from a KJ (that’s Karaoke Jock). But six months after someone records that cover song, the wake rolls into my bar. A few months ago, I started getting requests for “Drift Away.” Once a night, three times a night – when it hit six, I had to call a moratorium. One of my college kids informed me that the latest acoustic grinder hunk had covered it for a soundtrack -–probably with that grungy yarl that everybody ripped off from Cobain and Vedder.
I make my living through the good graces of pop culture, so I engineered a compromise. At the end of our third round, I take out all five of our mics, and anybody who’s up for it gets to sing along. Over the weeks, it has almost become a beautiful thing. Kevin the Cop contributes a high third, Harry Baritone constructs something mysterious but effective down below, and Shari Blues has come up with a full gospel descant. I turn down whatever mic Caroleen is on (poor old gal), and me, I’m strictly melody, ‘cause I’m the KJ, that’s my job. I call it the Karz Bar Korale, and we are occasionally magnificent – especially when the CD knocks off and we finish with a bonus a capella chorus. There are times when karaoke is downright spiritual, like church with cocktails.Whoever’s left in the audience (at least Alex, who’s only here to dance) gives us a nice round of applause, and I gather up mics like a teacher collecting homework. Except for Kevin, who waits as I line up his salsa track, a disc that he brings from home. I guess I’d get tired of the thing, except for the stimulating effect it has on the hips and buttocks of its listeners. It doesn’t hurt that it’s Kevin, of the sunny smile and brown sugar tenor – he who spends his days shaking down meth labs in Lakewood. You wouldn’t guess that he was half Puerto Rican – not with a name like Connaugh, and that Caucasian face. But a couple of rolled R’s and hip swivels and you can see where Mama’s genes had their way.
When the song hits the percussion break, the rhythm gets too much for me, and I escape the bonds of my station to join Alex and his latest hottie on the floor. My pelvis is just beginning to loosen up when I hear a rolling thump on the entranceway and turn to find Supersonic, human train wreck, reeling our way. Oh, man.
Super is the Kitsap Peninsula’s primary freak, a position he endows with a distinctive visual style. His name comes from his wardrobe, composed entirely of paraphernalia from Seattle’s basketball team. Tonight it’s a jersey with the number of Ray Allen, recently traded scoring machine. Super’s other outstanding feature is a head of outlandish Einstein hair, completely gray on one side, completely red on the other. You could draw a line down the middle.
Sadly, there’s no stopping him now. He reels up to Kevin’s mic and lets loose a string of crackles and grunts in a crude approximation of the melody. Kevin pivots, blocking Super with a shoulder, but I can tell this won’t hold him for long. I dig under the soundboard for the cheapest mic I’ve got and hand it to Super, let him babble for a few seconds and then fade out his volume. Once he figures out I’ve cut his sound, he protests with a trio of full-body stomps and hurls the mic across the room. It barely misses Doc Mendelssohn, but not his martini glass, which explodes in a shower of crystals. (Fortunately, Doc’s wearing a thick tweed coat, which deflects a couple of scary-looking shards.)
For Kevin, that cinches it. He tosses me his mic, whips Super into a headlock and rams him against the bar.
“Rule number one,” he says. “You do not impede an officer in the performance of his favorite tune.”
Super sputters an answer: “Fucking spic!” He kicks at the bar and convulses in a full-body shiver, forcing Kevin’s ribs into a barstool.
“Asshole!” cries Kevin. “You’ve done it now, buttboy.” He cranks down on the headlock and rides him toward the back deck, pushing the door open with Super’s flailing, scrawny frame and steering him outside. The dancers plug up the doorway to see what happens next, while everyone else gathers at the window.
Kevin brings Super to the railing and forces him to look.
“That’s some mighty cold water, Super. Now apologize, or you’re goin’ in!”
Super looks back over his shoulder, drooling with defiance. His next words come out like the quack of a duck, or maybe it’s just a similarity of consonants.
“Fuck you, cocksucker!”
Kevin smiles. It’s just the invitation he’s looking for. Keeping one arm on his headlock, he spins the other around the backs of Super’s legs and hurls him upward, like a Hefty bag headed for the Dumpster. Super phases through several hieroglyphic postures before striking the drink and sending up a long fishtail of water.
Even in August, the water of Gig Harbor will turn your testes to Popsicles, so it’s no surprise when the next sound is something like an old-school Michael Jackson yelp. Kevin peers over the railing and grins.
“You want out of there, Super?”
Super yodels back: “Yu-yu-yes!”
“All right. Grab onto this and shut the fuck up.”
He tosses a life ring, then fetches a dock ladder from the other end of the deck. Meanwhile, I figure I’d better coax the evening back to normal, so I call up Harry to do “Delilah.” As I turn back to my song slips, perched in business card holders on my table, I discover Engine #9 pulling in with a drink and a note: Thought you might need this. I turn to salute Hamster, beaming from the bar, and I bring the sweetness of rum and Coca-Cola to my lips as Tom Jones’ horn section blows forth.
It’s a pretty good crowd for a Sunday, thirteen singers, four full rounds. At the end of each round I allow myself a song, and then I ring this old sailing bell to signal another circuit. I can’t even remember where I got that thing – but we are on a harbor, after all. At the end of the fourth round we’re nearing one o’clock, so I finish with my usual, Marc Cohn’s “True Companion” – simple chords, simple thoughts, a nice reflective tune to send everyone out into the night.
My songbooks magically appear, neatly stacked, on my table (usually the work of Harry Baritone, if he isn’t fondling some young chickie), and all I have to do is pull on my dust covers and nudge my speakers against the wall. I’m a lucky girl. Most of my fellow KJs have to lug their stuff around to two or three bars a week. Me, it’s all Karz Bar, four nights a week. I am blessed. That’s what I tell myself on Sunday nights, when it all begins to hit home. I am blessed.
I’m not crazy, however, so I lug all one thousand CDs to my truck, in three large metallic cases. CDs are a KJ’s lifeblood, and a ten-thousand-plus songlist is nothing to sneeze at. Multiply that one thousand by fifteen bucks, and you’ve got enough for a new car.
I lean back in to give Hamster the high sign – he’s whipping chairs onto tabletops like a short-order cook flipping pancakes – then I take my weekly stroll down Harborview Drive. I turn at Jerisich Dock, past the bronze statue of Samuel Jerisich, catcher of fish, marrier of native women, founder of Gig Harbor. What was a Serbian boy doing here, halfway around the world?
The thing I especially like about Jerisich the Bronze is that he’s tossing a real net, tied down at strategic locales, replaced on an annual basis. In a more frivolous town, this would be an open invitation for buffoonery – I picture spiderwebs for Halloween, ensnared effigies of rival football players for homecoming. But the youth of Gig Harbor are not fishers of fun – they are fishers of SAT scores and university admissions. Princeton. Pepperdine. Purdue.
I stand beneath Samuel’s determined stare and feel a coward - retreater from the frontier, refugee from my native Alaska. I lift the loose corner of his net and bring it to my lips. This is corny (and a little unsanitary), but Jerisich protects me from ghosts, and I am grateful.
I slide down the walkway to the long, narrow public dock, shiny new, lit with knee-high theater lamps like a high-fashion catwalk. A single small yacht, the Auntie Maim, is tied up midway, hailing from Ballard, forty miles north. It might be Peg and Bill, the uninspired fortysomethings who signed up for nothing but Eagles songs and doubled their crime by drinking nothing but tequila sunrises. They’d be just the type to live in Ballard.
Forty strides later, I reach my retreat, a dock-ending square with two wooden benches. During the day, you might see a family here – or a spouse, a girlfriend, a cousin – waiting for their true companion to return from the sea. It gets me, sometimes. Tonight, the water is black as crude oil, the dock lights stringing out cotton candy trails of red, yellow and white. I spend much of my time in blackness, and it’s not all that bad – even comfortable, if you resign yourself to it. Someday when I’m ready, I’ll grab onto those colored strings and yank myself out – but not yet, not now. I watch the darkness with steady eyes; the lapping of the water tickles my skin, the tender chink of metal as the boats jostle their moorings, thoroughbreds anxious for the starting bell. A truck whirrs into second gear, downshifting the incline of Pioneer Street.
When I have wrapped the dark around my shoulders, I reach for the inside pocket of my leather jacket and pull out a pack of Swisher Sweets cigarillos, the little ones with the wooden tips. I clamp one between my teeth, always a little surprised at the cherry-flavored coating, and light it up. I hold it in for a second, then I open my jaws and let the smoke find its way. It hovers in a scrum over the dock light, then lifts one finger after another into the blue-black ceiling.
Swisher Sweets. Super Sonic. The world is ripe with esses, full of steam, escaping in a hiss, and Sunday night the only time I peek beneath the curtains and chew the sadness in its raw form. The blackness wells up inside; I coach myself to breathe between the puffs. In, out, there you go, just like that.
Something landward begins to flash. The crosswalk across Harborview has yellow blinkers half-embedded in the asphalt. When you press the Walk button and those lights go off, it makes you feel like royalty. I do it sometimes even when I don’t need to cross. Then I wait a minute and come back the other direction. This time it’s a man, not too tall, clean lines. I can tell from his gait – light-footed, graceful – that it’s Kevin the Cop. Did he press the Walk button at two in the morning because he’s a cop, or because he, too, enjoys its Vegas dazzle? Three puffs later, he arrives at my little island.
“Hi Channy. Can a cop get a smoke?”
“Sorry, sailor. Last one.” I hate to lie to a guardian angel, but you do what you gotta.
“Sorry, sailor. Last one.” I hate to lie to a guardian angel, but you do what you gotta.
He joins me on the bench and sniffs the air. “Is that a cigar?”
“Cigarillo. That’s why I smoke ‘em out here.” More lies. One step closer to hell.
“Hope I didn’t make too much of a ruckus tonight. I hate to pull that off-duty-cop shit.”
I laugh, little walk-lights tickling my head. “Are you kidding me? I’ve been dying for someone to take care of that guy. I wish he’d get off whatever he’s on.”
Kevin slaps the side of the bench. “There’s your big surprise. Judging by those superhuman moves he was throwin’ at me, I was guessin’ PCP. Turns out Super is a schizo.”
“Yep. They took him off to Steilacoom for observation. You shall probably not see him hence.”
“I won’t miss him a bit.”
“It’s all for the best. I see too many wack jobs wandering the streets when they should be getting help somewhere. It’s also kind of refreshing to run into a case where the chemicals are internally produced.”
It occurs to me that cops probably care more about these problem children than we do – simply because they spend more time with them. I give Kevin a pat on the knee.
“You’re a good man, Kevin. One hell of a professional wrestler, too.”
He looks at me, but he doesn’t smile like I expect him to. Uh-oh. I’ve gone too far.
“You know, Channy, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d love to…”
“Kev. I’m sorry. You know how much I like you, and how much I enjoy having you at karaoke. But I’ve seen too many K-bars turn into pits of gossip, and Karz is the best place I’ve ever worked. I can’t be seen anywhere outside the bar with a regular.”
“What about right now?”
“This has an explanation. We had trouble tonight, you took care of it – you came by to tell me how it came out.”
He cocks his head and considers it. I mean, really considers it. He’s such a sweet boy. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I guess I knew that. But we all adore you, Channy.”
I am immensely grateful that he has chosen the words we all instead of I. Otherwise, I would now be doing an extremely chilly Australian crawl across the harbor.
“Thanks, Kevin. And thanks again for tonight. Come talk to me anytime at the bar, okay? I’d really like that.”
I’m overdoing it again. Shut up! Shut. Up.
“Okay,” he says, and stands up. “Well, I think I’ll get out while I’m behind. See you Thursday, Channy.”
“Good night, Kevin.”
He traverses the catwalk, much slower this time, hits the button and splits the magic flashers. My black, black heart swells in his direction. I’m not ready for cotton candy trails, and “True Companion” is a memory, not a wish.
Besides, he’s a hero. I don’t do heroes.
You can imagine how KJs are plagues by the Great American Songbook. The next morning, as I dangle my legs off the edge of my back deck, overlooking the Carr Inlet, my internal CD changer clicks automatically to “Dock of the Bay.” I’m soon into that whistling solo that my singers are chicken to try – and whistling guarantees the end of my solitude. The blackberry vines give out a rustle, and out from his tunnel pops Java, world’s tallest standard poodle. He lopes my way on basketball player limbs, and I put him through the standard drill.
“Sit Java! Okay. This hand. Now the other.”
He sits and whacks my palm with either paw. It’s a poor imitation of a proper handshake, but this is the only trick he’s got. I grab a hank of his coffee-colored dreadlocks and reach down to thump his ribcage like a ripe melon. Then I go for the look.
“Listen carefully, Java. If someone – say, a poodle – wanted to describe the mass of an object, what unit of measure would they use?”
He peers down his long snout, but refuses to take the bait.
“Why a newton, silly! Now, a lot of people think the newton was named after Isaac Newton, but I happen to know it was Wayne Newton. You know, ‘Danke Schoen’?”
I sing a few bars, but still, nothing.
“He also invented the fig newton.”
Ah, that did it. Java cocks his head to the right like he’s actually, humanly puzzled. I’m sure it’s a trick of evolution – a hundred canine generations figuring out that humans dig the tilted head thing – but I wouldn’t trade the illusion for the world.
“Good Java!” I yank his moptop, and he gives me that slightly fierce V-shaped grin.
Another rustling comes from the human entrance, a trellised archway covered in passionflowers. It’s Floy Craig, and naturally she’s got baked goods, a plateful of apple turnovers.
“Floy!” I complain. “How am I supposed to keep this weight off if you keep tempting me?”
“Ha!” says Floy. “‘This weight.’ she says. I am surrounded by skinny people who don’t realize they’re skinny.”
This is all ritual, of course. If Floy opened a bakery, I would be first in line. But female custom demands protestation before piggery.
All the interaction gets Java barking, a lyric “woof!” that sounds exactly like Lassie.
“Now Java,” says Floy. “Don’t even start. This is not your carbohydrate of choice. So cliché,” she tells me. “A poodle who loves French B-R-E-A-D.”
“Come on up,” I tell her. “Dangle your legs off my deck. I’ll get you some tea.”
“That’s a deal.” She engages the steps as I head inside for a mug.
Everybody needs a guardian presence in their life, and the Craigs are certainly mine. John’s a retired Navy pilot out of Whidbey Island who retains his military discipline, fighting off Floy’s baking with daily commutes to the Navy gym at Bremerton. He’s in ridiculously good shape. Floy works as a maternity nurse and is, by any standard, the first person you want your kid to see on her entrance into the world. She’s got curly gray-blonde hair that thickens and thins with the weather, and an animated face forever touched with pink, as if she’s been out sailing. I return to the deck and hand her a Ruby Mist.
“Thanks, Channy. You’re a doll.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“Oh! Another suitor?”
“Yeah. One of my regulars. Great guy, but I do have my rules.”
“That’s very smart of you. We’ve had some affairs at the hospital, and believe me – you may as well make a video and put it on the Internet. Still, it must be nice, surrounded by all those handsome crooners.”
That gets me laughing. “Most of them are just handsome drunks. But I guess they make a decent substitute.”
She flashes her pale blues in a thoughtful way. “Substitute for what?”
“Well, I, you know…” There is no way in hell I’m finishing this sentence.
She takes a long sip, giving my embarrassment time to vaporize. That’s one thing I love about Floy: she plays fair. Not that she’s letting me go scot-free.
“Well, Channy. You know John and I love having you here, but sometimes I feel like we’re hiding this great, beautiful secret from the world. And we worry about you. Especially…”
“Especially” is a word containing far too many newtons to leave dangling in the air, but Java is unhappy with the way this conversation has left him out of the loop. He pries his snout under Floy’s hand, demanding a head scratch.
“Well!” she says. “All right, sillydog. Um, well… the other night, Java started that nervous muttering of his…”
“I love that! He sounds like an old Jewish man.”
“Well, yes,” says Floy. “But then he worked into a howl, which he never does. So I went out on the balcony to check and, well… We try not to be nosy neighbors, Channy, but you are just below us, and I heard you moaning. It sounded painful – and believe me, I know pain. And then you let out sort of a half-scream, and I guess that’s what woke you up.”
“Oh.” Now I’m really embarrassed. I hold my mug higher, hoping it’ll hide my face.
“I’m sorry, Channy. We both understand that there’s something you can’t tell us about whatever it is that brought you our way. But if you’re having nightmares… well, we’re just concerned, is all. And you certainly don’t have to tell us about it, but I do know some excellent counselors at the hospital.”
Again, Floy knows when she’s made her point, and when to let off the gas.
“By the way, a little fair warning: the little terrors will be by this afternoon.”
“Thanks. I’ll make my usual foster aunt appearance, and then I’ll do a little boating.”
Floy’s like me – she loves the grandkids, but she also knows her limits. And today, mine are pretty low.
I take a back trail to the waterline, carrying visions of Kylie and Jo-Jo in their Cubs outfits (a family affliction). My visits to the boat shed became so regular last year that I concocted a deal – sort of my own season pass – with Manny, the teenage ranger. When I enter, he’s outfitting a couple of twelve-year-olds, so I nab a life jacket and paddle and head for the dock. My regular vessel is Blue Pistol, a sporty fiberglass number small enough for single-pilot navigation. I paddle backwards, swing around with a right-hand stop and head out. Halfway across the inlet I gaze into the clear water and find thousands of sand dollars, fuzzy purple Frisbees scattered along the blue-green stones. What they’re doing here, I have no idea, but then I could say the same about myself.
Two years ago, a young woman sails out of her shock across the the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, drives into Gig Harbor and finds a bakery called Susanne’s. Settling at the back table with green tea and a lemon scone, she looks across the harbor and discovers a bald eagle, sailing on enormous wings, his spiky white head slicing through the evergreen background. On a nearby bulletin board she finds two ads: an apartment on the Carr Inlet, a bar looking for a KJ, and she knows that she is part-way home.
I interviewed with Hamster the same day I spotted that ad on the bulletin board at Susanne’s. We got past the business part in ten minutes, and then I got his life story. Not as bad as it sounds; Hamster’s storytelling carries a pace than any Hollywood filmmaker would envy.
He grew up on the Texas panhandle and developed a profound fascination with trains. But a black man in a small town had to take any opportunity he got, so he took a job busing tables at his uncle’s saloon. Within a year, he was behind the bar, serving drinks.
“But that is where I got my break,” he said. “Bartending is a gateway job – you can do it almost anywhere, and it’s always in demand. A couple years later, when my cousin Gerald moved to Dallas, I went with him, with one goal in mind: to tend bar on a big cross-country train.”
He worked the southern line for ten years, running to one coast and then the other. The West Coast won out. He transferred to Los Angeles so he could work the Coast Starlight, an Amtrak line from LA to Vancouver, British Columbia.
“The money was excellent,” he said. “But that was the least of it. Being the bartender got me into late-night conversations with white businessmen – conversations that your average black man was not privy to. Place a man in a trainbound isolation, provide a steady flow of liquor, and you’d be surprised how much financial information comes out. Privileged information. So I started sending my tip money to Wall Street.”
Approaching fifty, Hamster had quietly become richer than most of his customers, and began to study alternatives to his ever-mobile occupation. This time, the battle was between north and south – and the north was winning.
“Texas panhandle to Los Angeles,” he said. “I had suffered enough heat for three lifetimes. In winter, I would step off the train in Vancouver, and that cold air would cut right through me. It was thrilling. I wanted more.”
Once he earned his pension, Hamster packed up his things and headed for Seattle. On his way there, however, he was sidetracked by an old curiosity.
“Almost ten miles north of Olympia,” he said, “the track enters into a dramatic squeeze. On the right, you’ve got these forested cliffs – a glacial cut from the Ice Age. On the left, there’s the Puget Sound, so close you could hook a salmon out the window. And just when you feel like you’re on the edge of a vast wilderness, here comes the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It’s a classic two-tower suspension, a cable draped over them like a loopy M. The tracks go directly underneath, crossing at a perpendicular. It’s a dramatic perspective, and I always wondered what was on the other side. It looked so dark and green and lovely.”
On his post-retirement drive, Hamster headed west off I-5 and finally crossed the bridge, spotting a long freight on the tracks below. He turned off as soon as he reached the other side and immediately got lost, following whatever bits of water he could sight through the evergreens. This took him, eventually, to a wide, beautiful harbor, and a sign that said Restaurant For Sale.
At this point in the story, Hamster let out a broad grin. “It was all so perfect. I halfway expected that sign to start talking to me.”
At the far end of a year-long renovation that depleted most of his savings and taught him more about building codes than he ever cared to know, Hamster paid a visit to the local model train society and hired two of their best craftsmen. These were Mack and Heath – both of them retirees from the Army Corps of Engineers – and they spent the next three months building the tracks that loop the interior, delivering drinks via HO-gauge locomotives. The trains exit the bar through a scale model of Mt. Rainier, suspiciously similar to those produced by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Hamster is one of the few owners I’ve seen who insists on tending bar himself. This might be because he’s the only one who can operate the complex track system without causing three-martini pileups. More likely, it’s because his presence is good for business. He exudes a lean, elegant bearing that has fueled more than a few Nat King Cole fantasies among his older female patrons.
Walking me to the door after that first interview, Hamster asked me for a suggestion.
“About what?” I asked.
“About anything. I became a successful man by knowing how to cultivate advice. So any time I meet someone who appears to have a head on their shoulders, I ask them for a thought. So, young lady – what do you have?”
“Well, I don’t…” I began, and immediately interrupted myself. “No. Actually, I do. Do your trains have names?”
“Not really. ‘Santa Fe,’ ‘Union Pacific.’”
“Well, since you are now going to be a karaoke bar, name them after songs. Like ‘Engine Number Nine.’”
Hamster snapped his fingers. “Roger Miller.”
He unleashed that smile again. Definitely Nat King Cole. “And that,” he said, “is why I ask for advice.”
Oh, and the name? Hamster? I have no freakin’ idea.
The City of New Orleans pulls in as I’m doing my sound check, hauling a Seven-and-Seven. I don’t know how I got on this high school booze-and-soda thing, but it’s thoughtful of Hamster to make them extra weak so I don’t get loopy.
“Harry, are you ready to kick us off?”
Harry is my prize pupil. He’s a high baritone, with a ballsy lower edge that you just can’t teach. (One night when he sang “It’s Not Unusual,” a pair of panties somehow ended up at his feet, though no one ever confessed to the deed.) The only item in his debit column is an absolute lack of adventure. Here we are, three paying customers in the joint, and still he’s doing “Suspicious Minds,” one of his twelve tried-and-trues. I’d bet he sings the same twelve in the shower.
About a year ago, I borrowed a recording system from a friend and we turned Thursday into Studio Night. Slip the KJ a five, walk away with a live cut of yourself on a CD. Harry refused to go anywhere near it. The idea of setting down something permanent just petrified him. One night his girlfriend, a hyper, sexy number named Sheila, slipped me a five and a wink. I thought for sure that Harry would find us out, but I managed to fake some technical difficulty as I lined up the levels, and four minutes later we had a note-perfect cut. When I called him back and handed over the CD, he broke into a flop sweat – after the fact. I’ll never fully understand the effects that singing in public can have on people.
Harry and Sheila didn’t last. Sheila was an attention whore, and dating a guy who gets panties thrown at him wasn’t cutting it. The breakup was ugly, and Harry had a bad reaction, lying in wait for college girls with father issues and snapping them up like a Mars flytrap. There’s a steady supply from across the Narrows (University of Puget Sound, Pacific Lutheran), and Harry is pretty powerful bait. He drives a tow truck, which has the triple effect of keeping him fit, supplying him with interesting stories, and endowing him with a white-knight aura. That and the manly beard, the surprisingly soft blue eyes.
Okay. I’m giving myself away. But I’ve seen too many of Harry’s shenanigans to answer that doorbell. And I’ll give him credit – he hasn’t been ringin’. Karaoke is therapy for many a mid-life crisis, and Harry knows better than to get involved with the psychiatrist. He’s happy to tip me excessively and collect all my books at closing time. A girl could do worse.
I note that Kevin’s not here, which makes me nervous. I don’t want Sunday’s offer and turndown to be an issue. I don’t want anything to be an issue. I got enough issues for a lifetime, bruddah.
Harry hits the big finish, receives a three-person ovation and makes way for Caroleen. She is nearing sixty, pleasantly gray and doughy, the way women used to age before we all got obsessed. When she first took the mic, a year ago, I thought the poor thing would have a heart attack. She had not the least idea of rhythm and tone, just sort of mumbled the words as they changed color on the lyric screen. I thought I’d never see her again, but she returned the next three nights, and each night she sang the same song: “Mama, He’s Crazy” by the Judds. A year later, she’s still singing it.
I know what you want to hear: that Caroleen has learned how to sing that one song beautifully. Sadly, no. She still sounds like a rusty gate – but a rusty gate that no longer mumbles. I think that’s all she really wanted, to tell people that yes, I go to this karaoke bar in Gig Harbor and I stand up in front of people and I sing.
Three months ago, Caroleen ordered up “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, and I nearly fainted. Not just because it wasn’t “Mama, He’s Crazy” or because it was so against type, but because it holds a special place in karaoke phenomenology as the Most Frequently Butchered Female Song. The male equivalent is “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, and in a real bass-ackwards way this is the highest of compliments. What Benatar and Morrison managed to do was to take difficult songs and make them seem easy – leading many a neophyte to think, “Oh, I can sing that!” I get a deeply guilty pleasure from this, and I work hard not to snicker as I call them to the mic.
Perhaps Caroleen understands this, because she insists that I sing along. Sometimes I give her a subtle nudge, backing off from the mic a half inch at a time, but I swear at exactly two-and-a-half inches she gets this look of vertigo panic and I have to dive back in.
It’s looking like a pretty routine Thursday. Shari Blues arrives to rip her way through a Bonnie Raitt tune (Shari is so Janis sometimes it scares me). Alex reels in with Sofia, a long-limbed Italian lady from tango class (the boy does know how to work it). But then, about ten o’clock, we’re interrupted by a bachelorette party, nine twentysomething chickies who ride in on a wave of giggles. This presents a slew of dissatisfactions for the regulars, but some serious monetary benefits for Hamster’s till and Channy’s tip jar.
The thing about this randy nonet – or for that matter, any sizable group of karaoke turista chicas – is that they’re here strictly for each other. They will sing horribly. They will giggle uncontrollably at the phallic possibilities of the microphone. They will sing four at a time, and no one will be close enough to the mic to be heard. When the girl who did high school musicals crawls her way through “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” they will scream and hoot as if they have just witnessed the second coming of Patti Lupone. Directly after, as Shari Blues is snaking her way through “White Rabbit” like the second coming of Grace Slick, they will chatter amongst themselves like mad raucous chipmunks until they work up to those awful Girls Gone Wild glissandos. Lastly, after they have consumed mass quantities of Hamster’s liquid assets, they will declare eminent domain on the stage and rub their bodily parts along each male performer until they have reduced his singing to mere accompaniment.
Not that the guys seem to mind – like Harry, who finds himself at the center of a five-woman Bob Fosse choreography during “Delilah.” Kevin shows up soon after, and you can just imagine the Carnaval reception afforded his “Suavamente.” (The KJ offers secret thanks, but suffers a surge of irrational jealousy when the bride-to-be flashes her impressive breasts.)
Once the hubbub dies down (the flasher gone to the women’s room to puke her guts out), I’m on to my next song slip, which reads Amber. The song is “Little Girl Blue,” Rodgers and Hart, a tricky arrangement purloined from Nina Simone. Nina would play a spare, flowing “Good King Wenceslas” on the piano, then gather it into chords and reveal the way they matched up to the old jazz tune by singing the words on long, slow lines. I don’t even know what it’s doing on a karaoke disc. Karaoke’s supposed to be easy.
It’s hard to believe I didn’t spot Amber before. She’s a pageboy redhead, like something from the forties, wearing slinky silk pants of mustard yellow. The top is white cashmere, flecked with threads of gold and copper, a neckline just low enough for intrigue. Her name is in her jewelry, a chunky necklace of amber, dangly oval earrings of same. The face is a little hard to catch through all the glitz, but certain features stand out: plump cheeks, cushioned lips in a natural vee over perfect, showy teeth – she could kill you if she smiled. The eyes are round – liquid turquoise – the nose wide, with a playful lift at the tip. She has a stage face, and apparently she’s here to use it.
She slides a stool to the lyric screen and pulls the corded mic from the stand. (I can read these details like a gypsy reads tea leaves: freehand means you’re a performer; corded means you’re old-fashioned, a traditionalist.) She looks my way, expecting the music. I take a step to tell her but she waves me off.
“Wenceslas,” she says, flatly. “I know. Thanks.”
So I press play, and here’s another clue. To the average singer, I would say, You’ve got a long intro with no clear point of entry. Your best bet is to wait till the first lyric turns color, then swing a late entry (hell, Sinatra made a whole career swinging late entries). But Amber’s got her eyes closed, and she comes in perfectly.
The song is about torment, and crushing loneliness. The singer is talking about Little Girl Blue, but really about herself. And then, the neatest trick of all – to reveal searing anguish in quiet, half-whispered lines of music, and to do so in a bar filled with horny, drunk bachelorettes and the middle-aged men who lust after them. It’s a tremendous act of faith, and it’s working. The flashy outfit has the boys’ attentions, anyway, but now the girls are listening, too. A bridesmaid shushes her friend: “Listen! She’s really good.”
By the ending verse, the bar is a wall of anxious silence. Amber is inhabiting the song, eyes still shut, and, you would swear, on the verge of crying. She lets her last note die of its own accord, leaving a fragile void of sound hanging in the air. Harry breaks it with a throaty “Yeah!” and opens the door for everyone else. One of the bachelorettes is weeping.
“That’s Amber!” I say. Amber unleashes half of that smile, and replaces the mic on the stand. The next song is “Drift Away,” so I duck under the soundboard to dig out microphones. When I look up, the front door is clicking shut, a mustard cloud drifting up the stairs.
Harry leans over during the intro, one eye on the parking lot, and says, “What the hell was that?”
I’m too damn nice. I am the Good Samaritan, tractored by circumstance. But that’s a copout, and we all know it. What I lack is intestinal fortitude, an appetite for conflict. Huevos. (Can women have huevos?)
Wild Birds Unlimited sits way back between two old buildings on Harborview. The old brick walls shadow a lawn scattered with rockers and benches, birdbaths and topiary. As a late-night worker, it takes me till noon to catch the flow of the general populace, and in this case I wasn’t quite there yet. I stood before a propeller, transfixed by spiraling ribbons, sipping an herbal tea. Any reasonable person would’ve guessed I was high.
A crow floated by, drawing my vision to the left, and I landed on a swath of wide-ribbed corduroy, color of ketchup. In the passage of five seconds I realized that these were pants, worn by a woman on the porch above me, and that this woman had the finest ass I had ever seen – shape of an upside-down heart, endowed with recipes of line and circle known only to Michelangelo and a single family of Greek mathematicians. My Inner Lesbian understood, for a moment, how it is that the female body is capable of driving men to literal, clinical madness. I wanted to slither between those railings, a momentary python, and press my cheek to those luscious red apples.
She shifted to one side; the apples winked at me. From this one gluteus movement, I could extrapolate a dozen others above the railing. She wraps her right arm across her abdomen, supporting her left elbow. Her left hand cups her chin, three fingers folded at the knuckle, index finger tapping out thoughts beneath the left side of her left eye. She is window shopping, studying an object of desire. I peeked at the storefront window to confirm, and found myself looking at Sheila.
“Channy?” she said. “Is that you?”
I wanted to say “No,” but she flew down the stairs and assaulted me with a hug.
“Channy! Oh my Gawd! It’s so good to see you. God, I so miss my karaoke fixes. I’m up in Redmond now, and it’s such a drive – but I had the day off, so I thought, what the hell. And here you are! Is this kizmet or what?”
“Yes,” I said. I was still trying to get over lusting at her derriere. All sorts of unwelcome cinematography.
She came closer, meaning to evoke confidentiality. “Do you think it would be okay if I came by tonight? I mean, assuming you’re still at Karz – you are, aren’t you? And, you know, I mean… if you think Harry would be okay with it.”
I’m not hosting anymore. Harry would be really uncomfortable if you showed up. You’re a conniving little bitch, and if I hear you sing that fucking song again I will have to stuff those goddamn boots down your throat.
“Sure. That would be terrific. I’m sure everybody would love to see you.”
She attacked me with another hug. Yikes.
“That’s fantastic! God, I can’t wait to see the old place. Well listen, I gotta meet someone at the Tides for lunch, but we’ll catch up tonight, okay?”
She squeezed me on the elbow and shifted all that jitterbug energy down the garden path, rolling a Minnie Mouse finger-wave as she rounded the corner. I held up a limp hand.
Yeah, the girl’s got a nice ass. Perhaps someday I’ll have a chance to kick it.
Which leaves me standing here, looking up that familiar disc as Shari Blues masticates a Stevie Ray tune (this is my only complaint about Shari: she needs to occasionally sing something as if her life doesn’t depend on it).
I do not, as a rule, dislike “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.” In fact, I like it quite a lot. With its low range and half-spoken lines, it’s a great beginner piece, and its vengeful, kiss-my-ass lyrics carry a special appeal for the bitterly divorced female market (the one that keeps karaoke bars in business). But Sheila ruined it for me, by singing it night after night, and then ruthlessly acting it out, leaving my favorite singer in its wake.
At the moment, I’m not even sure where she is. She came in early to sign up, swore me to secrecy, and went off to hide in some corner booth. I put in a mental order for Harry to arrive with the waitstaff from the local Hooters, but no such luck; he waltzed in stag, a half hour after Sheila. I’ve been too busy with microphone batteries and needy singers to send him a warning. What’s worse, it’s really busy, which means that Little Miss Bitch will have a huge audience.
The moment is here – the fifth singer on my list. I am condemned by the KJ code to shoot down one of my best friends. I hate this job.
“All right. We’ve got a little surprise for you. Would you please welcome our next singer: Nancy!”
I start the disc, per instructions, and Sheila vamps across the dance floor. I recognize the outfit immediately. It’s the very getup from Nancy Sinatra’s album cover: the ribbed black-and-gray hose, the tight gray sweater, the blood-red go-go boots and miniskirt. She whips the microphone from the stand, right on time, and punches the first line. I remember why the song is such a good match. Sheila’s voice is no prizewinner, but the girl can act – and that’s what the song is about. I can’t see Harry, but I know where he is – sitting in a booth with Shari and Caroleen – and that’s precisely where Sheila is aiming her words.
I’m trying to stay cool, but I’m also wondering, What is the fucking message here? I dumped your sorry ass, and now I’ve come back to pound my go-go boots into your testicles?
There are women, I know, who are capable of carrying their spite this far. Who are bent on destruction. But this is vulgar, and I’m pissed. I need to do something to save Harry, but nothing that makes it look like he needs saving. I’m running my hands along the gain levels (Sheila’s close enough to swallow the mic – insert your own joke here), when I spot my team of second-hand mics, lined up in an old wine box.
The horns kick into their groovy finish – sounding all the world like a surf band – and Sheila does the Pony all the way across the floor. Those who don’t know any better give a rousing applause; those who do give a polite applause. I try to lend a gracious commentary as I polish the plan in my head.
“That is Nancy! Also known as Sheila, to you Karz Bar veterans. And you know what this means. From now on, I will expect thematic attire from everyone. Dark glasses for Roy Orbison songs. A Burmese python for Alice Cooper. Miscolored eyeballs for Marilyn Manson. But seriously, I don’t know how late Sheila will be here tonight, so I wanted her to see one of our new traditions. Harry, get up here and lead us.”
Harry heads across, looking like a high wind has blown out most of his brain cells. But the music seems to kick him into focus. He gears into the first verse of “Drift Away” as I dole out mics to the Korale. I flip on all my tracks, and the singalong chorus comes off with nary a hitch.
During the second verse, however, something unexpected. People are coming to join us who don’t usually sing: talky barfly Bob, Alex and his latest Ginger Rogers, a sultry Irish redhead – and, unless I’m hallucinating, Hamster, who has never shown the least interest in singing. This motivates a second wave, folks who have no idea what’s going on but can’t resist the gravitational pull: a yachtload of Norwegians from Port Angeles, a trio of seminarring lawyers from Seattle, and some guy who was just delivering a load of Budweisers. Just guessing, I’d say we’ve got forty singers. It’s like a friggin’ “We Are the World.”
Come the repeat, Harry’s in top form, throwing a Tom Jones ripple, busting a porkchop growl at the lower end. I am mighty proud. As we near the fadeout, I snatch a conductor’s baton from my prop box and race out in front to pull us into the final chord. There’s really no audience left, so we content ourselves with hoots and backslaps as we migrate back to our places. Harry’s getting high fives all around, working the crowd like a politician. A minute later, I’m finally back at my station, throwing switches, harvesting microphones, getting back to business.
“Wow! Was that a trip, or was that a trip? I…”
I can usually talk my way through anything – but not the ghost of Nancy Sinatra, standing on my dance floor, streams of mascara tracking either cheek. She holds her arms out to her sides like a condemned woman pleading with her captors. I assume that it’s me – that she’s read the bitchslap intentions behind my little show – but then I see Harry, still on stage, frozen by the sight of her.
I’m feeling the need to break up this little melodrama, but I know what the next song is, and it’s killing me. Still, I have to do something, so I return to the mic and speak in a half-voice: “Doc? It’s your turn.”
Doc Mendelssohn comes to the mic, nudging his way past Harry, who still doesn’t know what to do. The music begins. Nancy raises her arms, beckoning Harry forward, and forward he comes. They begin to dance, cutting slow circles in the half-light as Doc sings “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You.” Alex brings out his redhead, perhaps to siphon off some of Harry’s embarrassment, but it doesn’t matter, because a second later he and Sheila cross the floor, stop at Sheila’s table to collect her purse, and slip out the back door.
A minute later, as Doc takes his applause from a distracted audience, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo pulls in with a ginger ale and vodka. Hamster’s note reads, You know I’m not one to traffic in gossip, but I’m dying to know what just happened.
Despite a later-morning drizzle, I am out on the back deck with Java and a cup of same. We’re playing fetch, but with Java it’s never that simple. He fancies himself a wide receiver, and is ruthlessly devoted to the offsides rule, refusing to leave my side until the “ball” (a bone-shaped pillow) has departed the quarterback’s hand. This leaves me with two options: lift a lame popup, giving him a chance to run beneath it; or give him the classic pump-fake, wait till he runs ten feet and looks back, then left a pass further downfield. The latter is much more satisfying, much more You, too, can be Peyton Manning.
Sadly, he only buys this trick a handful of times. Then he stays there on his haunches, giving me a look that says, Come on! I’m a poodle, remember? I’m not that dumb. So now I’m standing, hoping to add some leverage to my popups, while my coffee sits on a statue of Artemis, going cold. From this new vantage, I can see the distinct track that Java has burned into my lawn. Perhaps I spend too much time at this.
I reach way back for a good, high throw, but I louse up the release, sending the bone pillow too far. I fear that Java will end up in the brambles, but instead he veers right and bullets the passionflower archway, barking like crazy. I can swear I hear another dog barking back – and I’m close. Harry Baritone steps up the trail, Java leaping at him with joyous abandon. Once they clear the archway, Harry grabs him around the chest, leaving his head and front legs squirting out the other side of Harry’s looped arms.
“I remember this one,” he says. “Loves to wrassle.” He lets Java go and thumps him on the back. “Macho poodle.” Java’s all worked up now, panting in a half-growl, but Harry grabs his collar and smooths his mop-top. “There now, Mister LeBark. Settle down. Mom and Harry need to talk.”
I’m suddenly self-conscious, hoping my lounging clothes don’t look as grubby as they feel. “Wow, Harry. So weird, seeing you out of context. Um… want some coffee?”
“Yeah. That would be great.”
“Have a seat. I mean, an edge of the deck. Dangle your feet.”
I cheat my grubbiness by trading my sweatshirt for a clean windbreaker. I return to find Harry and Java playing tug-of-war with the bone pillow.
“This dog is tenacious.”
“Yep. And if you like your coffee warm, you’ll just have to give up.”
Harry looses his grip. Java takes his pillow to the lawn for a light-but-thorough chewing.
“I hope I’m not being invasive,” says Harry. “But I had an hour’s break – and I remembered your house from that tow I gave you last spring.”
“No, not at all. I was just easing into my morning lollygag.”
“I hate to butt in on people. But I thought I owed you an explanation.”
My own response surprises me: “Why?”
“Well, because it was nice, what you were trying to do for me. And I’m assuming it turned out a little differently than you expected.”
“But here’s why. And you’re a singer, so I think you’ll understand this. If you take ‘Boots’ literally, it looked like Sheila was rubbing it in my face – especially the way she was putting the goods on display with that getup. But what you don’t know is this: the first time I ever saw Sheila – in a Mexican restaurant in Tacoma – she was singing ‘Boots.’ And she sang it every single time we went out for karaoke.”
“Well, look at it this way. ‘Mack the Knife’ – song about a homicidal thief, right? But how much you wanna bet that some couple, somewhere, thinks of it as ‘their song’?”
“So Sheila’s message wasn’t ‘Fuck you…’”
“It was ‘Fuck me.’ Less crudely, it was ‘I miss you and I’m lonely.’”
I’m feeling overexposed and awkward, so I get up and practice some evasive pacing. Harry’s not letting me; he stands to join me, forcing me to stop.
“Look. I’ve already told you too much. But what you did last night… it was the nicest damn thing anyone’s ever done for me, and I didn’t want you to think I was ungrateful. In fact, this morning, when Sheila started spinning all this shit about us getting back together, it was you who gave me the power to say no.”
I turn, and he’s smiling. With his blue service shirt, he looks like one of those over-happy plumbers in a commercial for drain opener.
“Go Harry!” I say quietly.
He kisses me on the cheek; the whiskers tickle.
“I gotta go.”
Harry bounds off the deck and through the archway, shouting over his shoulder.
“See you tonight!”
Java runs after, barking. I pick up Harry’s coffee, barely touched, and give it a slow sip.
My proscription of improper behavior barely made it out of Canada. Taking my first-ever step into the lower 48, the aura of adventure lit me up like a Roman candle. We booked a motel in Bellingham, Washington, and I just plain jumped him.
This I was used to. I had made a high school career of being the aggressor, the stealth riot grrrl. But this time, the boy aggressed right back. The meeting of two such electric forces sent me to place I didn’t know existed. Animal places. It was true: sex in the contiguous United States was much better.
At the denouement of our third mutual assault, I found myself in a position better suited to Cirque de Soleil, not certain which limbs were mine. When I located Harvey’s face, somewhere near my left foot, we both burst out laughing, which caused intense pain in my left elbow. It was true: sex was better with Boys Who Got Laid.
The next morning, I drove us toward Seattle, enjoying all the little scratches and bruises that tickled when I moved. As we approached the center of town, I thought there must be some mistake – I-5 was headed directly into a huddle of skyscrapers. What a trip when it shot beneath them, a mile-long stretch ceilinged by a web of city streets and overpasses. I felt like a space probe digging into a concrete planet, and I kept having to merge left in order to keep going south. I was thinking, also, that I should wake Harvey, but when I looked over he was up, dark eyes reaching into the vista.
“Is this it?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Way too much. We need to do this ‘civilization’ thing a little bit at a time. Keep going.”
“Are you going… the same place I’m going?”
He smiled and put a hand on my knee. “I guess so.”
That was our big talk – and, as it turns out, the offramp to the rest of my life. Soon after came the tiny alchemies that turn sex into love. He started to call me darlin and honey, took my hand as we walked into a restaurant, rested an arm on my shoulder as I slipped a hand into his back pocket. Our momentum was building.
But first, we climbed a long hill, bore to the right, and discovered a luminescent presence.
“There,” said Harvey. “Let’s go there.”
Such was our youth and alien status that we didn’t know what this presence was. But we trusted in signs. Rolling past a roadside amusement park, we saw the words Enchanted Parkway/Mt. Rainier and exclaimed the last word in unison.
A half hour later, we were headed right for it, splitting a long, semi-peopled valley bracketed by high treepicket ridges. We were nearing the foot of one of these ridges when Harvey slapped the dash and said, “Hey! Pull over. Take this ramp.”
I was looking forward to an explanation, but getting only directions. Left under the freeway. Left at the light. Left into a turnout. He got out and beckoned me to follow. I caught up to him at a tall wire fence and followed his gaze to the center of a wide pasture, where stood two haystacks with legs.
“Bessie and Ben,” said Harvey.
“Brown, boisterous bison. Bessie and Ben.”
“You know their names?”
He took my hand and guided it, as you would a blind person’s, to the sign against which we were leaning. The one that said, Bessie and Ben Bison – Please Do Not Feed.
Once we had enough of watching two bison who refused to move, I turned and saw another sign, For Rent, in front of a small clapboard house across the street.
“There,” I said. “Let’s go there.”
Two days later, we were in. I yanked open the chimney flue and brought in some logs from a woodpile behind the house. As I wadded up pieces of newspaper and stuffed them under the grate, I spotted an article.
“Hey, honey!” I said (enjoying the sound of honey in my mouth).
He called from the next room: “What?!”
“We’re on a mudflow!”
He peered around the corner. “What?”
“The last time the mountain collapsed, it left a mudflow that was thirty feet thick. And we are sitting right on top of it.”
“Well thanks!” he said. “I feel much safer now.”
“Says if we live here thirty years, there’s a one-in-seven chance we’ll be buried alive.”
Soon after the word “alive,” I found myself drifting over the earth. Piecing it together afterward, it appears that Harvey hit me with a flying tackle, wrapped his arms around my midsection, then spun himself beneath me so he could take the brunt of the impact. I landed on top of him and went about reinitiating my lungs to the concept of taking in oxygen. Then I swatted him on the head.
“Are you nuts?”
He spoke between snorts of laughter. “A demonstration… of the everpresent dangers… of living.”
I straddled him and delivered a theatrical kiss. (Why was I rewarding bad behavior?)
“So when are you going to play for me?”
“Guitar?” A cloud of puzzlement passed over his face. “Oh! Guitar!”
He rolled me to the floor (gently this time) and dashed into the bedroom, then returned with his guitar case. He opened it to reveal rubber-banded bundles of plastic cassettes, padded at the perimeters by rolled-up socks.
“Video games,” he said. “I figured I would get the console once I settled someplace. But these… these are a major investment.”
As much as I tried to hide it, I couldn’t help feeling deceived. Harvey wasn’t one of my nice nerd-boys at all – he had proved that much in Bellingham. And now he wasn’t a musician. I pictured the molten vaults of magma miles beneath us, ready to break enormous chunks of Rainier and hurl them down the slope. Then I lit a match.
The signals get too heavy. The circuits overload.
I’m descending the long pitch of Pioneer, a steady drizzle, eight o’clock. Exactly the time my first singer should be picking up the mic. The traffic on Highway 16 backed up like a sewer, splattering refuse into my path. The Narrows Bridge is a fragile conduit – one stalled Mini Cooper and you’ve got a parking lot all the way back to Bremerton. (I have always feared being the cog in this deviltry, the object of so much hatred. I spend each crossing holding my breath, casting prayers to the mystic regions beneath my hood.)
Nevertheless. Punctuality is the one absolute I demand of myself, and I have committed a sin against karaoke. In my frantic state, I become absolutely convinced that I have forgotten something. My brain, having turned into a shit-seeking missile, latches onto the worst of all possibilities: my CDs. If I have forgotten those, I may as well call it a night, because I would be forced to penetrate that 16 backup twice more. And I wouldn’t get paid. And my rent is due.
I steal a glance at the cab space behind me, and there’s the big silver case, swaddled in beach towels. Of course it’s there. Would the third king forget the myrrh? I bring my eyes forward to find a pearl-white bumper rearing up at me like a Hitchcock quick-zoom: brass trim, multicolored magnetic ribbons, personalized Washington license plate with a red registration sticker.
The last thing I see is a pair of brake lights. I don’t know when it is that I became a Hollywood stunt driver, but my extremities have taken over, fluxing into a ballet of navigational logic that simply should not be there. I tap the brakes, veer right as much as I dare, dodging the pearl-white bumper by three inches. My poor pickup is then forced to gallop the water-puddle ridges of the roadside, steamroller a couple of squat bushes and plunge into the Key Bank parking lot. When I spy level asphalt, I hit the brakes, bringing us to a skidding, hydroplaning halt.
For a half-minute, I am content to breathe heavily. Then I look around, and there’s just no one. I’m out here performing feats of Nobel Prize-winning proportions, and not a single eyewitness. I peer to the left and find the pearl-white car, shape of a wing, as it rolls to the intersection and turns.
For a second, I can recall the letters on the license plate. Then I cough, and they’re gone.
She enters the bar, plagued by shame (referring to herself in third person). When she apologizes to Hamster, he erupts in laughter.
“Ten minutes late, once every six months. What do you want me to do – send you to the principal’s office? Besides…” he nods at the big-screen TV. “The Seahawks got the Sunday night game. I was going to ask you to wait, anyway.”
She doesn’t feel right, getting away with things. She retreats to the corner and lines up her song-slip holders with extra precision, soldiers in their ranks, hoping to atone for her pedestrian sins. (The words atone and atonal mix unexpectedly in her head.) The Orange Blossom Special chugs into her personal siding with a brown drink on ice. The note says, Drink first, then read other side.
The taste is purely awful. She flips the card.
Root beer and gin. What do you think?
She turns to the bar and forces herself to smile. Hamster gives a USO salute, then she takes a boisterous swig and chokes it down.
This, she thinks, will be punishment enough.
Punishment number two is low attendance. My only regulars are Harry, Shari and Caroleen, although they’re sitting with a couple, Mark and Sandra, who turn out to be good singers. Harry tells me they’re dedicated karaokephiles, friends from Boise. Mark is partial to sixties rock: Doors, Who, Kinks. Sandra is entrenched in the sub-category of feminist disco: “I Will Survive,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “Gloria.”
We’re speeding into round three, each of us pulling heavy duty, when I hear these words: “Wanna try some suicide?”
It’s Harry. His meaning escapes me.
“Well, since it’s kinda slow,” he continues, “we thought it would be fun to… You do know suicide, right?”
I’ve got nothing. Harry seems to read my silence as disapproval. He’s fidgeting.
“Everybody puts a song into the hat, and you take one out, and you have to sing whatever you get.”
“Oh,” I say. “Yeah. Sure.”
“Cool! You’ll play too, right?”
Mark’s got a baseball cap, so we dump in the song slips and go by the order we’ve already established. Which means I’m first. I draw “Only the Lonely,” one of my favorite songs and (thanks to Roy’s supernatural pipes) directly in my range. Not very challenging, but amusement is right on my heels, as Harry pulls out “I Feel Like a Woman,” by Shania Twain.
“Caroleen!” he complains. “This has your fingerprints all over it.”
Caroleen confesses her guilt by giggling, but Harry hams it up nonetheless, playing the a capella hook as gayly as possible. Then it’s Caroleen’s turn: “It’s Now or Never,” which comes out more spoken than sung. I help her out by loaning her my Elvis sideburn sunglasses. Sandra pulls out her own song, so she has to put it back. She gets “My Sharona” instead, another guy song in a girl range, and does pretty well, especially with the jungle screams.
Mark seems real hesitant, and I think it’s because he’s done the math. The only slips remaining are his and Sandra’s, so feminist disco it is: “What a Feelin’,” from the movie Flashdance. He gets a little lost picking an octave – trying and failing with a Mickey Mouse falsetto – but for a Boise boy he certainly shakes that booty. Sandra gets up at the instrumental break and threatens him with a glass of water, but the dangers of electrocution hold her back.
“Sha-ree,” I say, tauntingly. “Only one slip leh-eft.”
Shari takes a look at the slip and smiles. “No sweat.”
She hands it to me. “All Along the Watchtower.” My hand tightens up. Mark is leaning over the soundboard, holding a CD.
“I didn’t see it in your book, but I had one in my personal stash. Track seven.”
I take it, praying for Dylan, but the silver surface is etched with a ‘fro and a buccaneer headband. Hendrix. I manage to center it on the changer, and bring up the track, but then I’m stuck. Shari looks up from the lyric screen, puzzled. The pearl-white bumper charges me like a rhino.
I step to the stage, take Shari’s mic and pretend to inspect the battery as I speak sotto voce.
“Feminine difficulties. Need a bathroom break. Could you wait ten seconds, and then press play?”
“Sure, hon. I gotcha.”
I hand her the mic and hurry off, afraid to look up lest I meet someone’s eyes. When I get to the restroom, I head for a stall and start flushing. Jimi’s guitar finds a seam in the rushing water, crackling through like a roadside bomb. So I flush with one hand, clap the other over my left ear, and press my right ear to the side of the tank. The car was a Thunderbird.
When I return, it’s much too quiet, but perhaps this is a consequence of my ruse. The suicide gang is constructively ignoring me, replaying the cross-gender comedies of their little game. I’m stuck by the vision of Harry, my least adventurous singer, mimicking Shania Twain. What’s gotten into everybody? I load up the Sheryl Crow
that I was going to sing before, and I work through it carefully, tiptoeing the higher passages lest they trip a lever.
Singers talk about a “break” in the voice. This is where the point of production, the spot through which the tone resonates, switches from the throat to the sinal cavity (you’ll hear the phrases “chest voice” and “head voice,” but the former is more metaphorical than accurate). The break is a real trouble spot – a choral reef, difficult to navigate. A singer is likely to have a harder time with a melody that hovers along her break than one that operates a third or even a fifth above it.
But there’s a second break point – an emotional break point. This one hovers near the top – the highest note you can sing without feeling undue stress on your throat. This places you in such a free, untethered stratosphere that it leaves you vulnerable, literally sticking your neck out. Given the right lilt, the right set of heartbreaking lyrics (anything by Patsy Cline), the proper minor-chord progression, this note will yank a wire in your lachrymal glands, and there you are, Pagliacci, mid-aria. Singing is either speech emancipated or sobbing controlled.
Fortunately, “Every Day is a Winding Road” is no “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” so I’m safe. Harry follows with “You Make Me So Very Happy,” and we’re back to a normal evening.
Two rounds later, still an hour from closing, we’re joined by a band of 16th century villagers. I am back to my thin grasp on reality until I flash on a poster at Susanne’s Bakery: the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, just over the hill at somebody’s farm. Damsels with bubbly cleavage and raucous hairy men in pantaloons dive into my songbooks. This could be very good for my tip jar.
“Zounds!” I say. It’s the only bit of archaic English I can muster. “What’s going… on here, fellows? What… say you?”
A young man in hunting leathers and a Robin Hood cap is about to produce a snappy Shakespearean reply when he meets my eyes.
I’m back at the wheel of my pickup. I ease myself to the mic, and when I speak I feel an odd vibration at the back of my throat.
“Hey, um… Since we’ve been fooling around tonight, and the, um, revelers need some time to pick out their songs, I’ve always wanted to try something. I’m going to put on “Miss American Pie,” and I’d like my regulars to do the whole thing, one singer to a verse.
At eight minutes, 37 seconds (?), Don McLean’s epic tune is the longest selection in the catalog, and I keep it in a special slot in my CD case for just such an occasion. I slip it out, jam it on the changer and hit play. Harry’s already there, ready for the first verse.
I hop off the stage and meet Kai near the entrance. He goes to hug me but I grab his arm, pulling him through the front door and into the parking lot. The first thing I see is the Thunderbird, license plate STRYKER2. I brace myself and turn around.
“Channy!” he says. “God! I heard you went back to Alaska. I was just… well, I guess it’s obvious what I was doing. For God’s sake, don’t tell the guys about this or I’m dead meat. I can’t tell you how much grief I would catch for the tights alone! But I was heavy into theater back in high school and…”
Bunches of Kai are coming back to me as I try to follow his chirpy, mile-a-minute digressions. The burnt brown sheen of his skin, the fierce beauty of his white teeth, cheekbones like Mayan carvings. He’s a Sherpa – the tribe, not the occupation, though I have a hard time not picturing him on a snowy peak somewhere, one hand on a flagpole. He’s second-generation American, and his parents have taken great pains to remove him from the stereotype. In fact, that’s what he’s talking about.
“…and I thought, first thing back in the States, I’m climbing Rainier. That’ll cheese ‘em off. I mean, we’re the greatest climbers in the world, born and raised at ten thousand feet! Is that something to be ashamed of?” He laughs, and then pauses. “God, Channy.”
Uh-oh. He’s giving me that look.
“Are you okay? Are you doing all right?”
At which point, voice control once more becomes an issue.
“Just okay. Nothing special.”
He grips my shoulder, a clumsy attempt at reassurance.
“I understand. I’ve got some things in my head right now that I’d rather… weren’t there.”
He seems to recover, and his eyes flash.
“Channy! My God! I’ve got something for you. I’ve been saving it like, forever. Ya got two minutes?”
I cock an ear toward the bar. They haven’t hit the slow part yet.
“Yes. But hurry.”
He jogs to the T-bird, then reaches in and shuffles a hand under the passenger seat. The car is one of those new retro models, more bulk in front than the back, like a cross-section of a wing. A gift from his parents for graduating college. He paces back and hands me an aluminum box, one of those little cash boxes you might see at a bake sale. I accept it, but I hold it at arm’s length. Kai looks fidgety, un-Sherpa-like.
“I’m thinking you shouldn’t open it… until I’m gone,” he says. “I’m thinking that would be best.”
My voice is a whisper: “Okay.”
“I’m… I’m really sorry, Channy. And I’m sorry if my being here, well, you know…”
He looks inside, where Shari is handling the final verse – naturally, the one about Janis.
“I better let you get back,” says Kai. “But, I’m in the book, okay? Spanaway. Look me up.”
I pat him on the shoulder, one awkward gesture for another.
“You’re a dashing Robin Hood.”
“Thanks!” And the shocking white smile.
We break through the doors just as the choral ending is trailing away. The Elizabethans have littered my tray with song-slips.
The Ren-Faire folks are drunk but good; probably they’re all drama clubbers like Kai. A willowy damsel, complete with conical hat and dangling veil, does “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols. A bulky, long-haired gentleman in a purple cape and silk doublet does “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” (a buxom serving wench filling in for Karla Bonoff).
Singing is apparently not on Kai’s resume, because the next time I see him he’s sending me a courtly bow before he troops out with the others. We don’t need any more words.
But then there’s the box. It sits beneath my soundboard, a radioactive presence. I try to ignore it as I slip on all my dust covers, but I know if I don’t open it the night will be sleepless.
A half hour later, I wave off Shari, my final regular, as she strolls across the lot. She lives a few blocks up the hill, which gives her the option of getting drunk if she pleases. Hamster has burrowed into his office, conducting his cashing-out before he gets to the cleaning. I’ve never known an owner who scrubs his own floors, but maybe it gives him peace of mind when the inspector comes.
I open the door to my pickup and hoist my CD case inside, wrapping it with the beach towels and bracing it against the back of the passenger seat. Then I open the driver’s side door, center my danger box on the seat and click the metal tab that releases the lid.
The first item feels like a life sentence. It’s a box of Swisher Sweets, sealed in a plastic bag. The second item is a small cloth sack, blue fabric worn at the edges. The object inside is a polygon, solid and smooth. I feel a vague recollection, like the first hint of a familiar cologne, but it takes too long to set down roots. The string comes loose, the polygon hits the seat, and a flash of silver buckles my legs.
The wet asphalt bites into my knees. I grab onto the steering wheel, and cry and cry. I hear footsteps, far away then closer, quicker. Long-nailed fingers rub my shoulders, strands of wheat-colored hair sweep across my forehead. I hear a voice like Etta James after a long night, saying something about everything’s gonna be okay.
“I’m really sorry, Shari. Really sorry.”
“Nonsense,” she says. “Tell me why we’re here?”
Here is the end of the Jerisich Dock, my waterborne synagogue. The drizzle has returned, and we’re huddled beneath a huge umbrella that I keep in the truck.
“We’re here to smoke really bad cigars,” I say. “And, to forget.”
“Amen, sister,” says Shari. I hand her the first of the new Swisher Sweets. The last of the old is for me. I extract the silver polygon and fire it up with a roll of my thumb. First time, like magic. Shari’s first drag fills the dome of the umbrella.
“Whew! Nasty. Nice lighter, though. Whatcha call that flowery thing?”
“A fleur de lis.” I give myself a light and breathe in the familiar toxins. Raindrops smack the cloth above us.
“So hey,” she says. “I understand if maybe… you don’t want to tell me about…”
“Good,” I say, then I laugh, so I can pretend I’m joking. “Honestly, Shari, it’s just a bunch of little things, piling up all day long.”
“A straw/camel’s back situation?”
“Exactly.” (She has purchased the fabrication.)
“Okay,” she says. “But Channy. Could you tell me something else about yourself? I feel sometimes like I don’t know the least thing about you.”
I consider my options, watching the little spits of water jumping from the harbor surface.
I say this: “Chanson.”
Shari looks puzzled.
“That’s my name.”
“Song,” says Shari. “Wow. That’s beautiful. Can I tell?”
“Ain’t no state secret. But it was the reason I got beat up in third grade.”
“Aren’t kids awful?”
“Yeah. But they got theirs. I grew six inches that summer.”
Shari lets out a raspy Janis cackle, wrapped in tobacco.
Tell me something, Shari. Sometimes when you sing, I feel like you’re just gonna bust. Is there something behind that?”
She cackles again. “Absolutely nothin’. But I get that a lot. ‘Why, that girl musta had a turrible life. Just turrible.”
“Exactly,” I say.
She smiles. “In truth, I have had a mundanely happy existence. I think I seek out weepy, heart-wrenching ballads so I can balance things out. I think our emotions are like our skills. Use ‘em or lose ‘em, right? When I found you back there casting tears all over your parking brake, I was actually a little envious. I mean, ya feel better now, right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess so.”
“I’ve got this friend who gets real bad PMS. And she decided to scour her CDs for sad songs, and listen to them, one after another, till she made herself cry. ‘Cause she knew it would make her feel better. After a while, she went ahead and made a PMS mix tape.”
“That is fucking beautiful,” I say. We laugh at my sudden obscenity, and I’m thinking, It would be so good to have a sister.
But there’s something else in that box. And it might be years before I look at it.
“So what is this place?”
“The Russell House.”
“Chanson,” says Shari, as Frenchly as possible. “Zees most clearly eez nut a house.”
“More of a building. Private offices.”
Shari scans the general area. “Where?”
I point a thumb at the ground. “Down thar. We’re on the roof. It’s a family foundation eco-thing. Those wooden arches there? With the black iron fittings?”
“Nothing but windfall, not a single tree chopped down. The garden out front uses drought-resistant plants. These cement blocks beneath our tootsies have gaps between them – no sand, no mortar – so the rainfall can seep directly into the soil, and not into the drainage system.”
Shari flicks away a strand of hair – more golden than ever in the light of day.
“So how come we get to sit here and eat sammiches on their roof like we own the place?”
“’Cause they want us to. And they want to give back to the community.”
Shari narrows her eyes. “That is suspiciously nice.”
“Honey, in case you ain’t looked back there lately, I am anything but…”
“Baby Got Back!” I shout. It’s a peril of KJ’ing: you find yourself talking in song titles. But Shari seems to enjoy it.
I take a big crunchy bite of my sandwich and let the overripe flavor of the meat smoosh onto my taste buds. I forget where I picked up this thing for braunschweiger, but it seems to soothe a rough patch deep in my being. So much that I have missed Shari’s question.
“Honey? Did you hear me?”
“Oh.” Smack-smack. “No. What was that?”
“Where were you born?”
I scout the question for dangers; it comes out clean.
“Anchorage, Alaska. Well, a town just south of there. Tiny, tiny place. When we got a Fred Meyer’s, it was like the high school science club had landed a rocket on the moon. Boh-ring. Boring! Did I mention boring? The only recreation in town was recreational drugs. Heroin, acid. Suicide. Suicide was the favorite. I went to thirty funerals before I graduated. Had three different outfits, just for funerals.”
Shari looks captivated; more tragedy.
“Is that why you left?”
Another fork in the road: fabrication or vagueness. I’m going for vagueness.
“I couldn’t see becoming anything up there. It was leave or stay exactly the same, forever. How ‘bout you?”
“How ‘bout me what?”
“Where ya from?”
She smiles. “Iowa. I was a big ol’ corn-fed jockette – pitcher on the softball squad. Then I went to college to learn how to crunch numbers. Married the college sweetheart, turned out to be a cheatin’ son-of-a-B. We divorced after four years. I figured a financial analyst could work any damn place she wanted, and we didn’t have any kids, so I headed west.”
She waves her cherry red fingernails at the harbor. “Water! Big, fat, oceanic stretches of water. Why do you think I live on Soundview?”
“I’m gonna take a flyer here, but, so you can view the sound?”
“You’re a smart chick, girlfriend.”
Girlfriend. I like the sound of that. Shari runs her gaze along a high stone wall bisecting us from a private garden. The wall is constructed from thousands of thinly hewn stones, like sugar wafers.
“I know I should be happy with this lovely public area, but why do I have such a desire to see what’s on the other side of that wall?”
“I’m gonna take another flyer here, but, because you’re human?”
(A Karz Publication)
1. Don’t ask the KJ to start the song over. If you miss the first line, just come in on the second. No one will care. Also, if you discover that you have ordered up the wrong song (say, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” when you wanted the 4 Non-Blondes’ “What’s Up?”), you’d better just fake it, because you’re not getting a do-over.
2. Don’t hang out on the back deck until your name’s called. Hey, I’m sure it really is all about you, but could you at least pretend to care about the other singers?
3. Don’t scream into the mic. As you pack your lungs with oxygen for the jungle yell on “Immigrant Song,” back that puppy up a couple inches. You’ll save everyone a lot of pain.
4. Don’t get falling-down drunk. Remember how great you were, singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” after six tequila poppers? Neither does anybody else.
5. Don’t hassle the KJ. It’s hard enough keeping all those raging egos in check without you coming up to bitch about the lack of Neil Diamond selections. KJs are the sacred priests of music – treat them accordingly.
6. Do not horn in. Perhaps your backing vocal to “Sex and Candy” really is God’s gift to harmonics, but you pick up that second mic without prior permission and you will die a terrible death. (This is not to discourage a planned harmony jam, which can be a beautiful thing.)
7. Don’t milk the applause. Even if you deserve it – especially if you deserve it – nothing looks cooler than a humble “thanks” and a quick departure. If you are offered a high-five, however, slap away. Also, if you have just performed an Elvis tune, you are required by law to mumble “Thankyouvermuch.”
8. Do not change your song selection within three singers of your turn, unless you’re willing to add substantially to the tip jar.
9. Try to avoid singing a song that has already been performed that evening. If you sing it badly, your effort will look that much worse in comparison. If you sing it well, you will appear to be showing up your predecessor, who will then be entitled to throw a baseball at your head in the following inning.
When I report to Karz, Hamster is standing at the bar with a songbook, reading my Karao-Courtesies yet again.
“Don’t you ever get tired of that thing?”
“It’s not just that it’s funny,” he says. “It’s that it’s so completely out of character. It’s so…edgy!
I take a stool across from him. “I never would have written it for the customers. I did it for a KJ newsletter out of Spokane. Strictly in-house. Somehow Harry got a hold of it, passed it all around the bar, and they loved it. And do you know why? Because they think it’s about everybody else. And five minutes later, they’re up on stage, saying, ‘Damn! Can I start over?’”
My little monologue earns a chuckle, but I can tell Hamster’s anxious about something. His gaze shifts to the end of the bar, where a squad of gray-haired men are gathered around Mt. Rainier.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
He curls a lip. “My distribution system appears to be on the fritz.”
“Yikes! You may have to deliver drinks by hand.”
“Perish the thought. You think the singers will come to the bar for their drinks?”
“Sure. I’ll make an announcement. I don’t know, Hamster. You sure this thing isn’t an Amtrak?”
“Ouch! Thou doth smacketh me with barbs of truth. If those Union Pacific freights would just give us a right-of-way once in a while. Can’t tell you how much of my soul I sent down the chipper telling some passenger ‘This hardly ever happens.’”
“Seems to me that bored, frustrated passengers might naturally turn to drink.”
“Paid for this restaurant,” he says. “But I still hate lying to people.”
I feel a quiet presence behind me, accompanied by the smell of old-style after-shave. It’s a trio of codgers. One is wearing an engineer cap. I’m trying not to laugh.
“Bad news,” says the tallest. He’s a rangy retired-officer type, owner of a bushy moustache straight out of a horse opera. “It’s definitely the transformer. Now, you know what we told you when we put this in, Ham. Y’got an enormous system here, with an unusually powerful transformer. You need to keep a backup at all times.”
Hamster covers his face. “Oh, God. If I give you another pitcher of beer, could you please not say ‘I told you so’?”
Moustache-man smiles. “I’ll try – but I was really looking forward to that.”
“How long to find another?”
He inevitably rubs his ‘stache as a thinking device. “Tell you what. I got a pretty free weekend. I’d bet I could get you two by Monday.”
“Two? But we only need…”
“Two,” says Moustache.
Hamster laughs and gives a military salute. “Two it is. Thanks, George.”
“No prob, Cap’n.”
That’s enough engineering for me. I’m off to deal with my own equipment. This being Thursday, I’m expecting a humble crowd, but of course I’m entirely wrong. Within the first hour, I’ve got two birthday parties (thirtysomething and fiftysomething, respectively), a small battalion of mom’s-night-outers (one of them dancing rather naughtily for the engineers on an AC/DC song), and a dozen college karaokeans bent on a future with American Idol. The personnel management is like a New York Times crossword. I’ve got forty-eight singers, and I’m running out of business card holders, farming the extras to a windowsill behind my station.
Somewhere in the chaos I notice Kevin the Cop, wearing a tropical shirt that is anything but Octoberish. He’s got the skin for it, though – and, in fact, is looking rather fetching all over. He drops “Suavamente” for “La Bamba” – the first time I’ve heard it sung by someone who actually knows Spanish. Then he flashes a grin and returns to his friends.
It is often at moments like this, when I’m clamped in a non-stop rush, that my thoughts come through with alarming clarity. They have to – murkiness takes too much time. I have precisely two ideas on this renewed attraction. One: a month and a half ago, I asked Kevin to back off – and he did. Two: having tapped into such a torrent of sadness on Sunday, it could be that I have opened up my other emotions as well. Like lust. I am stealing this from Shari’s hypothesis, the emotional tool belt, use ‘em or lose ‘em.
After Kevin, I’ve got yet another singer I’ve never heard of, but the selection stands out: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” by Roberta Flack. It’s a gorgeous song, but excruciatingly slow. The entrances arrive at long, long intervals. I have yet to see someone make it all the way through without coming in early at least once. I line up track five on the disc, right after “Killing Me Softly,” and then I reach for the mic.
“We have yet another newcomer! Please welcome Jade.”
Jade is quite a sight. She wears a dark, pleated schoolgirl skirt, a blouse of emerald silk with small white specks of Chinese calligraphy, and black pumps with stiletto heels. Her round Caucasian eyes are shadowed in layers of black and green, and her thick jet hair hangs in a long braid down her back. She wears a necklace of black string holding a circle of jade. I seem to remember they call this a blessing disc.
She perches on a stool and crosses her legs, content to wait out the long intro, then closes her eye on the opening phrase and sings almost to herself, tasting the words. This is something I have noticed about performance: if you are involved with the song, the audience will be involved with you. We don’t get Jade’s blue eyes until the third long phrase, and even then she doesn’t seem overly concerned with us. She’s concerned with the first time ever she saw his face. It’s a matter of theater – you can feel the fourth wall sealing her off, making it safe for us to watch.
With “Little Girl Blue,” she had to win us over – the bachelorettes, the horny men. This time, she has us within seconds. Something about the song, the long reaches of quietude. Church. I’m eating her sustenatos, great fields of tone that carry a drive and a shape, without ever seeming forced. I am so envious.
She climbs the last ladder of chromatics and leaves us dangling. Again the bank of silence, broken again by Harry’s happy woof – and again, she’s headed for a slippery exit. I do something I’ve never done. I hit the play button on a Joan Osborne song and let Shari figure it out for herself. I am fixed on my target, following Jade out the door like a teeny-bopper chasing a Beatle.
“Hey! Jade! Amber!”
She stops but doesn’t turn, holding a pose like a figure in film noir. She’s not about to get away – not in those heels – so she turns and faces me with folded arms.
I feel breathless, silly.
“You’re so… good! You’re extraordinary.”
She stares at me and blinks her eyes, once.
“You think I need someone like you to tell me that?”
“No… no. But I was just wondering…”
“Why I don’t stay? Why the fuck would I stay? To poison my ears with your so-called singers? Or that pile of shit you call a sound system? I’d be better off with a fucking megaphone.”
I’m absolutely stunned. She turns to go, then comes back for another volley.
“You’re lucky I come at all. You’re lucky that I’m crazy about singing. But one song is all I can take.”
She’s gone, clicking across the lot, calves tightening at each step. I follow my feet into the bar, where Shari is asking if God is one of us. I hold my ribs, feeling all the world like I’ve been punched.
If I were you, I would take the rest of this with a grain of salt, because I am looped. Faced with record numbers of singers, deprived of the assistance of toy locomotives, I have nonetheless managed to slam enough rum and cokes to souse a baseball team. I’m at the bar, trying to snap the lid on my CD case – a project I’ve been working on for some time now. Hamster appears over my shoulder, humming like a disapproving clergyman.
“I have never seen you like this.” I brace myself for the sound that follows: “Tch, tch.”
“Do my singers suck, Hammy? Does my sound system suck? Do I suck?”
He’s trying really hard not to laugh.
“What is your problem?” he says. “Everybody loves you, Channy! Your singers worship you. Your sound system is great! Why are you letting one person’s opinion drive you into a ditch?”
Now I seem to be standing, slapping my hands on the bar.
“Did you hear her? She sings like a fucking angel! She knows, Hamster! She knows I’m a big fucking phony with a… with a Salvation Army PA! God I suck so much!”
I get the feeling I’m being very loud. Hamster is laughing now, big baritone peals of laughter. The fucker.
“S’not funny! S’not funny!”
“Is too!” he squeals. “I just… I just didn’t know you had this in you, Channy.”
“Chanson,” I say. “From now on, the fucking name is fucking Chanson.”
I take a slug from my glass and get nothing but ice. Hamster takes it, and wraps a big hand around my shoulder. “All right, Chanson. Come on, let’s go.”
“My place. You are certainly not driving home.”
“I knew it!” I say. “You’ve been waiting for this chance ever since you hired me, you dirty old lech.”
I’m swatting him on the shoulder. He’s still laughing. God that’s annoying.
“You’re a very attractive woman, Channy – about five drinks ago. Now, come on. I locked your CDs in the office.”
I’m surprised to find myself boarding a small boat. The jiggle of my first step sends a small wave of nausea through my stomach.
“What the hell is this?”
“This,” he says, “is the best damn commute in Washington state.” He revs the engine and backs away from the dock. “This,” he yells, “is Hamster stickin’ it to the man!”
Hamster kicks it forward into the wind, looking like a goddamn cigarette ad.
“You know, Hammie?” I shout. “For a second there, you actually sounded like a black man!”
I wake to a gray light seeping through the windows. I am wearing every stitch from the night before, flat-out on a white quilt. I stumble to the blinds and peer through to see the public dock, directly across the harbor. That means we’re in the white house with the green trim – the one I’ve been lusting after for six months. I feel the need to express this thought out loud.
“Shoulda invited myself over sooner.”
Yikes. I sound like Stevie Nicks with strep throat. I also have a tongue made of shoe leather, an indescribable amount of thirst and an urgent need to pee. I catch a sliver of porcelain through the door and I head in that direction.
Cupping my hands to drink, I find in the mirror a fruit salad of colors, and turn to discover a jumble of plastic pipes soaking in the tub.
“What the hell?” I croak. I follow another door into the hall, where I find neat lines of similar pipes lining either wall, carefully framed around the door jambs. When I put my eye to a section of baby blue, I find a fuzzy, toothy face staring back, and squeal accordingly.
My boss leans into the far end of the hallway, holding a cup of coffee, wearing a red silk bathrobe like a black Hugh Hefner. It hits me all at once.
“Hamster!” I yell. “Hamster! Hamster!”
He lets out a grand and sheepish smile.
“Yes, damn you: Hamster. You want some coffee?”
It’s been a rough, rough week, but things are beginning to look better. Friday night at Karz was freakishly normal; Saturday morning is freakishly abnormal – as in sunny. In Washington, in October, you don’t expect this. The logical response is to visit my sand dollars.
I take the trail at the back of the Craigs’ lot and follow its snaky curves down to the Y-camp. The sugar maples make a fiery yellow ring around the basketball court. I stop at the free-throw line to wallow in a slice of sunlight.
It’s off-season now, but the ranger was nice enough to give me the combination to the boathouse. Ten minutes later, I am shadowing the spine of the inlet, peering through preternaturally clear water to my jumbled colony of dollars.
I’m betting there are lots of folks who don’t get to see them in their natural environment, so let me clarify something about sand dollars. Those white things that you find at the beach are skeletons. Imagine the same item with a coating of coarse purple-green fur, and you’ve got the real live deal.
I am startled landward by the distinctive bark of TV’s Lassie, and I look up to find Java, wide-stanced on a boulder, delighted at his discovery. John Craig pops from the trees ten feet behind, at the end of one of those fishing-reel leashes, dressed in sweat pants, a T-shirt and a headband. John treats everything like a workout, and it shows. At seventy, he’s in better shape than most people my age (and is trying for better, preparing for a reunion of his old Navy squadron).
“Hey!” I shout. I wince at the volume, but then I remember that, for most people, 11 a.m. is not early.
“Oh!” John spies me and waves. “I thought Java was after another seagull.”
“Training for VP-21?”
“I ain’t goin’ for Mister Congeniality!”
“You’re going to make those old Navy guys feel bad!”
Java performs a time-step on the boulder and lets out a stutter of half-yelps, overstimulated by all the hollering.
“Hold on a second!” says John. “I’ll be right there!”
Dog and master disappear around the corner, and I feel like I’ve been abandoned – until I find a rowboat tracing the shore, afro silhouette at the prow. John pulls his way to my spot and plants his oar in the water for a brake. Java is stiff on his haunches, a perfect triangle of dog. John grabs an oar by the blade and extends the handle to me.
“Hold on to this. It’ll keep us from drifting apart.”
“Does Floy know you’ve got a boat?”
“I don’t. This belongs to Jerry Flores, my VP at the homeowners’ association. He’s got a private dock just around the corner. It’s a great upper-body workout.”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah yeah. Everything’s a workout. Your dog is exceptionally calm.”
John lets out a husky laugh. “More like petrified. He lost his balance once and found out just how cold the Puget Sound is.”
I’ve never quite been able to figure it out, but John’s face carries trace elements of several multi-ethnic celebrities. The soulful brown eyes belong to Desi Arnaz, the oval face and prominent nose to Bill Cosby, the swept-back widow’s peak to Jerry Lee Lewis, the broad forehead to Harry Belafonte. I wonder sometimes if I have just made all this up.
“Is the water heater behaving?” I ask. (This is the latest of many home-ownership challenges.)
“Sadly, no,” he says. “I’m having a plumber come out tomorrow. It’s pretty old, so it might be time to get a new one, regardless.”
“I haven’t had a problem at all,” I say. “But then, I guess I shower at odd hours.”
“You’re also downhill from the heater. We’re at the point where gravity makes a difference.” He looks around and reaches over to ruffle Java’s mop-top. “Pretty amazing day we’ve got going.”
“Yeah, it’s great,” I say, but my thoughts are elsewhere. There’s some question I’ve been meaning to ask John. It escapes my mouth of its own accord.
“John, were there times in your Navy days when you thought you might… die?”
“Hmmm…” He rubs the back of his neck, giving the question a good going-over. “Most of the time, in a crisis situation, you’re too busy troubleshooting to fully comprehend the danger. On the other hand, if you had danger, and a lot of time to think about it – there’s your devil’s brew.”
“So the hardest part,” I say, “is the waiting.”
“When we were stationed in Maine, I was sent out on the October Missile Crisis. Flew a P-3 Orion over the Atlantic, looking for Russian subs. The strange part was kissing Floy goodnight, telling her I couldn’t tell her anything – when of course she knew exactly what was going on. We were surrounded by it. It all turned out so well, in the end, I think we all forget what a powder keg that was.”
“Amen.” I’m suddenly more impressed with John, knowing that he was a small part of history.
“Another time, also in Maine, I was in a much more specific danger. We were out on a routine patrol when the entire Eastern Seaboard was socked in by a blizzard. They kept telling me to stay put up there, and I kept watching my fuel gauges get lower and lower. I wasn’t scared so much as intensely anxious. They finally had to bring us down or we were coming down on parachutes. I had quite a reputation for my landings, for making them as smooth as possible, but I needed some luck on that one, because we were working entirely on instruments. May as well have had Ray Charles flying that plane. But I remember thinking of something my commander told me: ‘Life demands every bit of our strength, so we give it. Then it demands more, so we give that, too.’ There’s no decision up there – you just do what you have to do.
“Well. I didn’t mean to go on. But inactivity, loss of control – there’s your big scary monsters. When my eyes went bad, and they took away my flight time, that’s when I had to call it quits. I can still navigate a rowboat, though.”
“Thanks to Ensign Java.” I give our friend an awkward slap to the ribcage. Java’s still too anxious to move, but his eyes get big at the sound of his name. And by now I’ve forgotten why I needed to ask that question.
I love being a flapper. I love my grandma’s old dress; it’s a tight-fitting cocoon, draping down in overlapping tiers, giving me a beautiful, lean silhouette. After that it’s a goofy-long string of fake pearls, a pageboy wig from a costume shop, and entirely too much makeup, like Mary Pickford in a silent movie. I picture myself draped over a piano, whispering Gershwin tunes to a roomful of men with slicked-back hair and spats.
Yeah, yeah. Silly. But it’s Halloween – I’m allowed. Perhaps this masquerade is just what the doctor ordered. Lord knows, it hasn’t been much fun being me lately. Let’s just hope they don’t notice I wore this same dress last year.
My regulars are dressing to type. Harry’s a dashing mafioso, pinstripe suit, dark shirt, white tie, rakish fedora. Shari’s a Blues Brother: dark shades, black suit, skinny tie, white shirt. Caroleen’s a full-on hippie chick: tie-dyed shirt, hiphugger jeans, fringy leather vest and round purple Lennon spectacles. Kevin’s a Keystone Kop: high bobbie hat, long coat, gigantically wide belt and a Charlie Chaplin mustache. (Hamster’s taken a rare night off for a party in Federal Way. I imagine him dressed as an actual hamster, but I doubt he’d ever do it.)
It’s also fun to watch the song selections. I kick things off with “Superstition,” Harry does “Spooky,” and then (because somebody has to) Kevin tries out “Monster Mash.” Then Caroleen does “Mama, He’s Crazy,” which actually sort of fits. A quartet of guys from Pacific Lutheran University kick in with “Werewolves of London,” “Thriller” (complete with zombie dance and Vincent Price monologue), “Dead Man’s Party” and “Godzilla.” It’s amazing how many songs fit into the Halloween genre.
Which is why the next seems grossly out of place. I’m also having a hard time making out the name.
“Al? Al Lofus?” I’m surprised to find Harry, Kevin, Shari, Caroleen and Alex heading my way. Harry takes the mic.
“All of us,” he says. “We wanted to make a little presentation. We know, Channy, that you’ve been having sort of a tough time lately, and we thought this might be a good time” - he drops into a Tony Soprano accent – “to let you know exactly what we think of you.”
Caroleen snickers. Harry hands the mic to Shari.
“You see,” she says, “we just come here three, four times a week, and we’re the ones who get to have all the fun – and the whole time you’re working. And yes, we know it’s your job, but you’re so good at it – so good at making each one of us feel so special and cared for, and we really appreciate that.”
She hands the mic to Kevin. “So we got you a gift,” he says. “Something to go with that sexy flapper’s outfit. Here.”
He pulls an arm from behind his back and offers a long, thin gift box, wrapped in silver foil. I unwrap it and pull out a long black cigarette holder. I clamp it between my teeth like FDR.
“So what you’re saying is, I’m in a costume rut.”
“It’s not a rut when it works,” says Harry, all Skye Masterson (what’s next, Robert Deniro?). “We got you this, too.”
This box is small and square, containing a silver necklace with a treble-clef pendant.
“Oh guys,” I say. “It’s gorgeous!”
“Now,” says Kevin, slapping a nightstick against his palm. “Put on the damn CD so we can sing to ya.”
“Yessir!” I reply.
I spend the next five minutes at an elevation far above sea level, soaring over Gig Harbor like a figure in a Chagall painting as my regulars take turns singing “You Are So Beautiful.” I study my silver clef, radiant in the stage light, and think, This must be what a teacher feels like on the last day of school, when her students surprise her with a present.
Still, the attention is a bit much for me, so I’m almost glad when it’s over. We exchange hugs all around and then I pick out “H-E-L-L” by the Squirrel Nut Zippers and slap it on the CD changer.
Our esprit de corps is short-lived. There is a song slip in my lineup that bears the name “Ruby.” I have learned to detest gemstones, and I can’t believe that she’s come back, she who performed such a handy little female castration. Why does the world produce such people?
So I dread the passing of singers, I dread how she works her way to the top. I also dread her choice, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” which is dreadfully clever, and I dread the unwritten KJ code that keeps me from taking a match to her song slip.
When I call her name, she’s a flapper. My exact dress, in red. A goofy-long string of black pearls, a black cigarette holder, and, oh gosh, a gold serpentine necklace with a teardrop ruby pendant. The two of us are like a very small production of Chicago. I try hard not to notice her – which is easy, because she’s ignoring me, taking her usual torch-singer perch on the stool.
The arrangement is lush, orchestral. It’s from a collection of standards that don’t get too many requests. Very few have the talent to sing them. Ruby closes her eyes and gives voice to the first line as if she’s thinking out loud, minor-chord intervals shifting like a thin fog through trees. It makes me wish I were in love.
Something’s wrong. She disconnects, manages to finish the second verse but then she folds her hands, takes a huffy breath and levels a stare in my direction.
“What the hell is this? This is not the arrangement I asked for. Fucking incompetent. I can’t believe…”
The she stops, because it’s hard to talk when someone slaps your face. And there I am, standing in front of her, screaming a little speech I’ve been practicing since Thursday.
“If you hate this place so much then WHY DO YOU KEEP COMING BACK!? No one treats me like this and no one talks shit about my singers. And, for you information, I put on exactly the CD that you asked for, because unlike other people I am not an EVIL FUCKING BITCH!”
My performance sets her back a bit. Perhaps she thought the injured lamb was the only act in my repertoire. But I’ll give her this much – she recovers quickly.
“It won’t be hard to find a better place than this backwoods shithole. Fuck… you… all.”
And she makes a grand exit, like she always does. My regulars, who have finally recovered from hearing animal shrieks out of sweet Channy’s mouth, give her a round of boos and hisses worthy of a melodrama villain. After she’s gone, they break into a rousing applause. It takes quite a while before I realize it’s for me. I put on my best Academy Award smile.
“Thank you! Thanks evah so much. I love you all, truly I do. Now, can we sing some songs? Eric, get your ass up here before I rip you a new one!”
Eric catches the gag and races to the mic. Sliding his choice, “Hard to Handle,” into the changer, I consider the damage that a public shouting match can do to an evening of karaoke, and decide to go on with my “bit.”
“So,” I say. “I suppose you think that just because this is by the Black Crowes, it qualifies as a Halloween song?”
Eric cowers like the Scarecrow before Oz. Bless the boy, he’s got stage sense.
“Y-yes, Mistress KJ?”
“See me after class, young man! I’ve got some erasers you can… bang together.”
It gets a laugh – that’s enough. I start the song and leave my post, heading to my regulars for some much-needed social affirmation. Shari greets me with a big Oprah hug.
“Honey,” she says. “I’ve never been prouder.”
“Thanks. I hope that scares the little witch away. Helluva singer, though.”
Shari holds me at a bemused arm’s length. “Your musical objectivity knows no bounds.”
A half hour later, we’re nearing the bottom of the barrel. Harry does “Rock Lobster” just for the Munsters organ music, then Sergio, one of the college boys, takes on “Jeremy,” that Pearl Jam song about the high school kid who shoots all his classmates.
Followed by a gunshot, which startles Sergio out of his song. He spins around as a second shot spatters the window with a phlegmy sunburst.
Kevin the Keystone Kop, fully inflated by a half-dozen brewskis, stumbles to his feet to declare the obvious.
“Eggs! Evidently some sort of Halloween…” (wait for it, wait for it) “Prank! This! is a job for a. Constabulary!”
“Yeh!” says Harry, all Sly Stallone. “Do we got wonna dose?”
Kevin’s on his way to the door, nighstick at the ready.
“Kevin!” I shout. “Take it easy. It’s just kids.”
My plea for mercy is answered by a trio of eggs, striking the window in a yolky constellation.
“Give ‘em hell, Kevin!”
Kevin dashes outside, suddenly coordinated. We hear shouting, and the scuffling of footsteps. A minute later, in comes Kevin trailing a red flapper in handcuffs. I guess I’m not entirely surprised.
“I have apprehended this prostitute in the parking lot,” Kevin announces. (He seems to think he’s in a Vaudeville melodrama.) “From her attire, I’d say she was trolling for senior citizens.”
I walk over and stand at a safe distance to give my appraisal. Gem-girl is ready to claw and/or bite anything that comes close. It’s a good thing we’ve got a genuine cop holding her back.
“Helly, Ruby.” I throw in as much sneer as possible. “If that’s your real name.”
“Let me fucking go!” she hisses. “Let me go or I’ll call the cops.”
Kevin almost buckles laughing. Harry comes up to assess the situation, flipping a silver dollar as he speaks.
“She does have a point. According to habeus corpus subjiciendum polly wolly doodle, we really can’t hold her without a charge. But perhaps we could solve the problem by jumping directly to the punishment.”
Kevin uses a foot to nudge forward Ruby’s grocery bag, which still contains four dozen eggs. “And why not make the punishment fit the crime?”
This is how ten otherwise normal adults find themselves tying Zelda Fitzgerald to a deck railing and lining up a firing squad, armed entirely with eggs. It’s utterly logical in design – overshots will land harmlessly in the water (though I’m not sure the Russell Foundation would approve). I have given Ruby a certain level of eye protection with the Elvis sideburn sunglasses, and duct-taped her mouth to keep her screams from attracting any non-Keystone cops.
I’m beginning to think that we have wandered into something criminal, or at least barbaric. These thoughts disappear, however, as Kevin kneels at my feet and presents me with a perfect white ovoid.
“First offended, first avenged,” he says.
I approach the railing with deliberate steps, running the cool enamel skin across my lips. I stop and hold the egg to her face, savoring the look of anger and anxiety beneath her sunglasses.
“You… are a lovely singer, Ruby. As a human being, however, you suck eggs. And that’s why we’re here.”
I tear off Ruby’s pageboy wig, revealing short pinned-back hair. I hold the egg at the top of her head, cover it with the wig, and press down on the whole assemblage with a delicious crack. Trails of yolk descend her forehead. I smile, walk to the side – well out of range – and I declare “Gentlemen! You may fire when ready!”
What follows is hard to describe. The public execution of a transvestite Elvis – were Elvis’s blood composed of a viscous yellow-white fluid. Ruby’s body bursts forth in splatter after splatter. After thirty seconds, the flapper dress is caked with goo. I am utterly enjoying myself.
Schadenfreude, however, has its limits. After taking the first barrage with a defiant posture, Ruby curls to one side and slowly sinks to the deck, dangling from her handcuffs. She’s sobbing, which is entirely unfair. But alas, I do have a conscience. I take a step into the firing zone and hold up a hand.
“Hold it, guys! That’s enough. Harry, can you get me some damp towels?”
Eric the college dramatist complains: “But we’ve still got a dozen left! What’ll we do with ‘em?”
Eric’s chums immediately savage him with eggs. He runs inside, squealing “Assholes! Assholes!”
Kevin undoes Ruby’s cuffs, as Harry returns with a towel. I remove the Elvis glasses and start with Ruby’s forehead, making sure that nothing drips into her eyes, which are closed and flooding with tears. I’ll be damned, but I’m beginning to feel sorry for her.
“Ruby, Ruby. How can you sing so beautifully and still be such a raving bitch?”
“Try…” she chokes, and stops to sniffle. I hand her a fresh towel so she can wipe her nose. “Try putting yourself in front of every fucking director in New York for eleven fucking years, and being rejected by each and every one. Try doing that when you know exactly how good you are.”
I peel off the pageboy wig and run a towel across her hair
“Oh yeah?” I say. “Try having your husband put a bullet through his head.”
So this is what finally brings it out. A pity contest with a human omelet. We compare tragedies. I win.
The pivot point of Tacoma’s Stadium District is a triangular sliver of park where the avenues of Tacoma and St. Helens meet. Further on, the two roads are connected by what have to be the shortest streets in the city: First St. N and Second St. N, the former of which stretches all of twenty feet. Ruby is cutting figure-eights through all of them, looking for a parking spot. She drives an ancient blue Corolla with a bad carburetor, which forces her to pump the gas whenever we strike an uphill. All the aerobics makes her laugh with embarrassment.
“This is my stealth car,” she says. “Looks like shit, but she got me here from New York with nary a hiccup. Once she hits an interstate, she tracks in on seventy and just stays there. Damn! It’s the Rotarians, that’s why.”
A Masonic temple rises over St. Helens Avenue like a concrete King Kong peeking over the hillside. Bland businessmen in bland suits funnel beneath a marquee reading WELCOME TACOMA ROTARY. Ruby cuts a right onto Second, spots a car-size rectangle of dirt and seizes it with piratical zeal. We’re soon clip-clopping the sidewalk along window-size wedding portraits as Ruby gives me the neighborhood spiel.
“Call it a sickness, but all these old buildings remind me of New York. Check the crazy church across the street. Presbyterian congregation, Eastern Orthodox spire, Romanesque pillars and good ol’ Northwestern brick. I think the architect was a closet Unitarian. And now, on your right, the soulless white high-rise apartment building.”
The lobby and front garden are actually pretty inviting, but a glance upward illustrates Ruby’s point: flat windowfront fields devoid of ornament. The sidewalk holds something more interesting: a shrine of flowers and candles around a bus stop sign. I think of inquiring, but Ruby’s on to the next attraction.
“And this is my stealth apartment building.”
It’s a squat building of dark bricks, surrounded by a low wrought-iron fence. Ruby leads me into a lobby of mustard walls and floral green carpeting, the kind you might see in an old hotel. We board a flight of stairs that leads to a narrow hallway.
“Would you believe this was built in 1896?”
The hallway comes to a back stairwell. Ruby stops at a door to the right and pulls out her keys.
“This is actually two separate buildings,” she says. “That little hall is part of the center section that joins them. And, even though my mailing address is St. Helens, technically I live on Broadway, which is perfectly suited to my sick, undying dreams of glory.”
This is Ruby’s primary shtick, the heart-piercing sentiment delivered in an offhand manner. Perhaps this is therapeutic, perhaps it’s just a built-in part of an actor’s armor. Whichever, you can still feel the pain behind the words.
We stop in the entryway to remove our coats. Ruby takes off a black cap to reveal her shock of red hair, then takes my hand and leads me into the living room, wearing an expectant, close-lipped expression.
What strikes me is not the room itself but the view framed by the wide center window: the port of Tacoma, lit up like the largest auto sales lot in the universe, a trio of mill stacks billowing steam into the frigid night air. Ruby drinks up my surprise with a satisfied grin.
“Stealth car, stealth apartment – stealth view.” She runs a hand along the sill. “All in all, I’m almost invisible. The natives seem wholly unaware of it, but that is the most beautiful fucking port in the country. It took me about five seconds to sign the lease.”
“You have got to have a party up here!” I say, sounding exactly like a gay impresario.
Ruby gives me a sad smile. Sad smile, tragic jokes – she is the middle child, bastard daughter of the comedy and tragedy masks.
“Give me some time to get some friends first,” she says. “Perhaps I’ll put out a casting call. But hey! Let’s have a party for two. Set that puppy on the coffee table, and I’ll get some wine.”
The “puppy” is a pizza called The Hipster, loaded with trendy toppings: sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese, capers. Ruby sets out plates, forks, napkins and Pinot Grigio, and we embark on some much-needed consumption. It’s our longest stretch of wordlessness in the past two hours (she is a talker with remarkable stamina).
Ruby polishes off her first slice, takes a swallow of pinot and studies me with those unsettling stage-size features.
“Do you think the folks at Karz will ever forgive me?”
“I’m the KJ, Ruby. If I forgive you, they forgive you.”
“You’re that powerful, eh?”
“Yes,” I reply, and can’t help snickering. “Besides, there’s nothing the karaoyokels enjoy more than a good old-fashioned soap opera – and you certainly supplied that.”
Ruby snickers in return. “And I certainly got my comeuppance. Which was inevitable, by the way. I was so full of juice, I wasn’t going to stop until someone smacked me down good. Picture Ruby standing in line at the Safeway, eleven o’clock, Halloween, holding six dozen eggs. Could my intentions have been any more blatant? And I’ll tell ya, if your cop friend hadn’t wrassled me away, I would have stood there in that parking lot and chucked all seventy-two.”
“It actually worked out well,” I say. “You supplied all the necessary ammunition for your own eggs-ecution.”
“You’re a bad, bad girl,” says Ruby.
“Do you know how long I held on to that pun?”
“Well,” she says in a mothering voice. “Perhaps you should have buried it somewhere, honey.”
Her expression turns abruptly serious. For the first time tonight, I feel like I’m getting the real Ruby.
“There was nothing wrong with that CD at all. I was just picking a fight. And before, when I pulled that apocalyptic bitch session in the parking lot. My God, honey – why didn’t you just shoot me?”
“I was in shock. It was so far out of my experience that someone could be that… mean.”
The memory brings an awkward silence. I pretend to show some interest in my pizza. Ruby reaches under the coffee table and pulls out a small box.
“Would you like some herb with your meal?”
Her meaning escapes me, but then she takes out a plastic bag and a large ceramic pipe.
“Oh! Yeah, sure.”
“Such a relief,” she says. “Hauling out the ganja is so fraught with politics.”
“Where I grew up, pot was considered about as racy as chewing gum. I’m not a huge fan, but if someone offers a bowl – why not?”
She hands me the pipe and a lighter, and shows me where the carb is. I take a lungful, hold it in, then pass the pipe to Ruby. When I speak, my throat is already scratchy (and there’s the reason I’m not a huge fan).
“What’s up with that shrine at the bus stop?”
Ruby’s conducting a deep inhale, producing little snorting sounds that, in any other context, would be considered quite rude. She turns red and coughs it out.
“Oh God, that. Some guy fell out of his apartment. Ten floors.”
The thought of it is like a nail in my chest. All I can do is gasp.
“Can I tell you the story?” she says. “Let me tell it to you, just the way I heard it.”
This seems like a curious preface, but what the hell do I care?
“Yeah, sure,” I say. “Go for it.”
“I was coming home from karaoke – this was Jade, that little bitch. When I pulled up, there were four cop cars, all the lights flashing. They had roped off the entire street in front of the building. As I walked up, there was this one big cop – Asian guy – walking back to his car. He was shaking his head, like he had something in there and he was afraid of letting it settle. Over his shoulder, about thirty feet away, I could see a yellow emergency blanket spread out over something on the sidewalk. And I began to make connections.
“When the cop finally noticed me, I felt the need to justify my presence. ‘I live next door,’ I said. The cop looked at me like he really wasn’t seeing me and said, ‘I can’t tell you anything right now.’ And I took that as my cue to disappear.
“I was back two nights later – in fact, on Halloween – when I saw the shrine. There was a Xeroxed photo of this young, young, guy with his girlfriend, and a note that read, I met you once in the laundry room. You seemed very nice. I went to the grocery store to buy some flowers – alstroemeria, they were called – and I was setting them down when this big linebacker-looking dude came out from the lobby. It seemed like he was the apartment manager or something, he had that air about him. And this is what he said:
“‘It was a freak. That safety glass is just about foolproof, but once in a great while someone hits that single wrong spot at that single wrong angle – and when safety glass goes, I mean it disappears. Gerald was talking on the phone with a friend, maybe sitting on the top of his couch, maybe leaning against the glass. He swings an elbow, hits that single wrong spot and the gravity takes him right out.’
“Linebacker dude came over and and sat on the bus stop bench. He pulled off his baseball cap and scratched his bald head. I think he could picture exactly what was going through my mind: that awful split second when Gerald found himself airborne.
“‘There’s more,’ he said. ‘You know that nutcase who pulled out an AK-47 at the Tacoma Mall, shot all those people, then took hostages in the music store?’
“‘Sure,’ I say.
“‘That shooting took place the day after Gerald fell. And that was the very morning that Gerald was supposed to report for his first day of work at that same music store.’”
“No!” I say.
“Exactly what I said,” says Ruby. “Our friend Gerald was headed down a dark tunnel, with two trains coming the other direction.”
Ruby punctuates her conclusion by taking a luxurious drink of wine. I’m beginning to understand the power of her theatrical skills (Exhibit A, endowing the apartment manager with just the right gruffness of tone to set him apart in the narrative). She smacks her lips, places her glass carefully on the table and shoots me an expectant look.
“So. What do you think?”
“Awful!” I say. “Awful. Horrible.”
“Is it the truth?”
“Why… wouldn’t it be?”
She ruffles her hair, as if she’s wiping the slate clean.
“Let me tell you a second story. Gerald is hopped up on ‘shrooms, desperately depressed, surrounded by personal crises. He calls 911, tells them he’s going to kill himself. They tell him someone’s on the way, but no one comes, so Gerald takes a run at that window and smashes right through. That shrine is not just a shrine – it’s a landing spot. Notice the distance from the building. No way he gets there on a dead fall.”
I feel like a mouse nibbling on spring-loaded cheese. But a woman’s gotta eat.
“Who’s your source?”
“Inge, the manager of my apartment building – and close friend of Gerald’s ex-girlfriend.”
I give it a careful study. “Could Gerald have struck the building early in his fall and… bounced?”
“Not likely, but possible. However, that’s not the point I’m selling. Notice how these stories cross over on themselves – how the sources seem to flout their own self-interests. The apartment manager confesses the danger of his own windows. Friends of the dead doing nothing to protect his reputation. And the connection with the mall shooting – added for dramatic effect? Useful distraction? Comforting apologia for the hand of fate?
“Private lives being private, I don’t think you or I will ever know. See how slippery the truth is? How like a moray eel covered in Vaseline?”
This is much more thought than I had bargained for. I feel the need to move, so I pick up my glass and wander to Ruby’s window, which feels much safer than poor Gerald’s. Landward from the gray freighters and the blue loading cranes, toward the flatlands of Fife, fifty sawhorses line the highway, blinking their hazard lights in patterns that never seem to sort out.
Ruby knows the question that comes next, but she also knows it’s flammable, so she speaks it to the air without turning.
“Are you going to tell me about your husband?”
All I can conjure is a long exhale, but alas, she waits me out.
“That seems to be the reason you were sent my way, Ruby. To leach the poison out of my system. But it’s not gonna be easy, and it is gonna be messy.”
“Start out slowly,” she says. “Tell me how you met.”
When I was an infant, my mother held me by the ankles and dipped me in the river Competence, bestowing upon my person the glow of professionalism. Let’s let Ruby handle this. If we put Ruby in charge, then the rest of us can be flakes. It began in preschool, at the end of coloring time. I was the one who gathered all the crayons, and the only ones I missed were those that had been ingested.
Myth number one about being an artist. You can only be creative if you’re flaky. Truth is, flaky artists are only flaky because they know they can get away with it. It’s very convenient, and it even adds to the aura. As far as the actual artistic product, it makes not one iota of difference – other than pissing off all the artists who have to work with you.
Competence was a trap, but I had no choice. I was a good Jewish girl, progeny of solid-minded intellectuals – the kind of girl who uses progeny in a sentence. The kind of girl who takes pride in her competence, who enjoys being a leader, and thus lacks the capacity to see the trap for what it is.
When I went for my theater arts degree at Florida State, I had one minor role in Lysistrata and then whammo! the director’s chair, ever after. Directing is another trap, because it allows you to be creative and in control at the same time. Even the most detailed of playscripts are just blueprints. Shakespeare’s are thumbnail sketches, filled up with perfect words. The director stands before a stage-wide canvas, equipped with a palette of movements, an assortment of brushes she calls actors, and has at it. The level of responsibility and respect is intoxicating; you begin to understand why so many generals turn into dictators.
I directed a dozen shows: Godot, West Side Story, Lear, Earnest, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Equus. By the time I graduated, I had the resume of a 30-year-old man, and magna cum laude, and all that other impressive crap. A month later, I got an interview at a film studio. I got it because of my dad – old college pal, that sort of thing – but when I got the job, that was different. Competent daughter of a competent father; the guy was hedging his bets, playing the DNA exacta. And he was right, I was so bloody competent.
The job was assistant to a casting director. Riding herd on extras, filing head shots – pretty mundane stuff, but every once in a while the casting director, Stacey, would turn to me and say, “So what do you think of our Mr. Davenport? Does he have the right mojo for Second Waiter?” Stacey called me Little Miss Binary, because I always answered yes or no. I had memorized the script, and I knew exactly the paintbrush we were looking for.
Within a year, I began to see my name in the credits of major motion pictures. Movies that were based on best-sellers, with stars that you didn’t have to describe as “the guy on that doctor show.” The kind of names you were sorely tempted to whip out at cocktail parties – but you never did, because you were too fond of being the consummate professional. I had college classmates who might work their entire lives, might give incredible, heart-rending performances – but who will never find the letters of their names mingling in such lofty constellations.
Three years into my personal Xanadu, my father came out west for a business trip and took me out to dinner. It was a ritzy new Italian place – Stelle, which means “stars.” In case you didn’t get the translation, there were stars everywhere: floating glass stars in the fountain, star-shaped napkin holders, whole galaxies etched into the plasterwork.
All through the meal, we could hear piano music in the lounge. Afterwards, we walked in to check it out, and found an old-fashioned piano bar – a massive grand piano with a counter around the edge for drinks. Daddy grabbed a couple of seats, ordered two champagne sours, then leaned over and said, “I think if a father buys his daughter dinner, the least she can do is sing him a song.”
Not that I needed much persuasion. I flipped through the little book on the piano and found the song I sang at my high school graduation party: “It Could Happen To You.” Sinatra recorded it. Also Robert Palmer, the rock singer.
So I waited my turn, finished my drink. It was different than karaoke; the singer had to provide the pianist with actual musical info: a key, a tempo. You could tell that some of them had been coming for years, working up their small repertoires. I had spent so much of the previous three years attached to a clipboard, I was actually a little nervous.
When I got up there, though, it was like firing up this alternate circuitry that I’d forgotten was there. I checked in with the pianist – this hip-looking grandfather type, wearing an old tuxedo with burgundy lapels – and asked him to play it slow and moody, so I could stretch out that fetching melody. It’s a restless old tune; each line is like a snaky staircase that winds around the next, you never know where you’re steppin’.
I didn’t expect much from the audience; they were Angelenos, after all, accustomed to world-class talents on every streetcorner. But they began to hush down as I sculpted the first verse – especially the older ones, who probably knew the song but hadn’t heard it for years. I, too, was busy with remembering -–that sense of attention and connection, the liquid light going out through my mouth, in through my fingertips. All those years ago, before I became a child genius. Heroin has nothing on a good stage buzz.
I got a huge applause, and was surprised when Daddy handed me my coat and led me out to the parking lot.
I laughed. “Are you in a rush, Mr. Cohen?”
“It’s always best to beat your applause to the door.”
“Ha! I thought I was the theater major.”
“I use the same principle for business meetings.”
A few miles later, as I drove him to his hotel near the airport, he said, “Honey, I still marvel that a product of my DNA can sing a song the way you do.”
“I’d almost forgotten I could.”
“Which makes me wonder. Are you happy out here? Are you happy doing what you’re doing?”
Just then, we were passing one of those monster billboards, the kind you only see in Los Angeles or Times Square. It was for a movie that I had worked on.
“I’m living out a dream, Daddy. I’m in Wonderland.”
“But are you Alice?”
His persistence made me laugh. Once Daddy landed on a notion, he was like a labrador with a rawhide chew.
“Mr. Cohen, why do you ask such silly questions?”
“Why are you crying?”
We pulled up to a red light. I put a finger to my cheek, and found that it was wet.
It seems impossible that we have told our stories (mine about meeting Harvey in the Signpost Forest), eaten our pizza and still have an evening of karaoke ahead of us, but that’s the nature of Northwest Novembers. The darkness stretches, on and on, and it’s your job to fill it up. We’re driving the Narrows Bridge in Ruby’s beat-up Toyota, and we’re not even running late. I’m hoping Ruby isn’t as stoned as I am – but then, I’m such an infrequent toker, it was bound to knock me around a little.
My misty vision makes it easier to marvel at the construction on the New Narrows Bridge. They’ve extended hanging footbridges from tower to tower so the workers can spin the cables, and strung it with white lights. The result is a luminous foreshadow of the bridge to come, lasered against the dark Sound. And you would never, ever get me up there.
It’s awfully nice to have my own roadie – much easier to lug the CD cases and set up the PA. I get the feeling, also, that for Ruby this is good therapy – a tiny vaccine of showbiz to fight off the gloom. I grab an extra chair and set it next to my station, just to make it clear that she doesn’t have to brave the general assembly.
I’m setting out my business card holders, and Ruby’s scouring a songbook, when Shari, Alex and Alex’s latest partner – a tempestuous-looking Russian lady in a leather skirt – walk through the door in a cloud of laughter. When they spot Ruby, they don’t exactly do the cliché stunned silence, but they do seem to make a subtle adjustment. Shari skips the usual huggy greeting for a friendly wave as they head for their usual table, just across the dance floor. Ten minutes later, they’re joined by Harry and Kevin the Cop, who have lately become quite the duo, and, a minute behind, Caroleen, looking unusually chic in a leopard coat.
I can tell that Ruby is taking careful notes (she is, after all, a student of audiences), and I sense something simmering just beneath the surface. Just as I’m about to tell her something reassuring, she’s up, clomping across the dance floor with a determined expression. She stops before my regulars (who are now exhibiting the aforementioned stunned silence), plants a hand on either hip, and turns into Streisand in Funny Girl.
“Boy! Do I have egg on my face!”
With an opener like that, the ice breaks all over the place. I’m having a hard time tracing the exact discourse, but the hills of verbiage have the shape of excessive mutual apology and good-natured jokes (“You should’ve seen the look on your face!”). She returns ten minutes later as if nothing has happened and goes back to her songbook.
I pick out a CD for sound check and give Ruby a stage aside: “You are a magician.”
“No,” she sotto voces. “I’m an actress.”
When I return to adjust the levels, the Choo Choo Ch’Boogie tootles in on its newly revamped track with two eggnog-and-vodkas. And a note.
Don’t think I don’t know what happens when I’m away. You’re grounded! –H
When I look to the bar, Hamster is whittling one index finger with the other, the universal gesture for Naughty, naughty.
The evening is odd in several other ways, as well. People keep arriving in groups of three or four, hanging out for one round and then leaving, disappointed at the lack of a crowd. If they had all stayed, we’d have a crowd.
Two that do stay are a tall Latin beauty and her thin, very gay guyfriend. She looks like Bizet’s Carmen as a supermodel, and sings in Spanish, from a Mexican CD I keep around. But she holds the mic away from her mouth like it’s a live rattlesnake, and we can’t hear a thing. So she’s a shy Carmen supermodel. Her name is Mariposa, which I believe means “butterfly.”
The guy, Jamie, has big black-framed glasses, sort of Buddy Holly as a mad professor. He also has a good upper range, handling some tough Bowie and Prince songs, but then making faces afterward like he really sucked. I’ve never understood that – it’s like some people think it’s uncool to think you might actually be good at something.
Mariposa and Jamie are also resoundingly drunk. Between songs, she sits on his lap, and they conduct full-blown makeout sessions. This little sideshow can not pass by without comment, so I turn off my mic and lean toward Ruby.
“You watchin’ Will and Grace over there?”
“How can I not?” she says.
“Two possibilities,” I say. “Either my gay-dar is way off, or they’re both suffering lengthy dry spells and trying to keep in practice.”
Ruby snorts into her hand. “Perhaps Jamie is… bi-curious?”
I slap her on the arm. “You’re bad! Bad I say!” But then I realize we’re distracting from Shari’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” so I try to regain my composure. Anyway, Ruby’s next.
“She’s doing “Mama Look a Boo-Boo” by Harry Belafonte. Last time she did “Mambo No. 5” by Lou Bega. Our little control freak, who took such care shepherding each note of her first two Gig Harbor sorties, has now decided to try every novelty song she can find. And still, every note out of that mouth is golden. I am pathetically envious.
And then the luau hits. No kidding. In the middle of Ruby’s calypso, a long train of youngsters spills into the bar, adorned in grass skirts, leis and aloha shirts. I scamper over to hijack a hula girl.
“What the hell’s going on?” I ask.
“Hi,” she says, half-crocked. “Luau party! UPS! Neighbors called the cops, so we said screw it! Let’s kay-ray-OH-kay! Whoo!”
UPS is the University of Puget Sound, across the Narrows in Tacoma.
“How’d you get here?” I ask.
She opens her sweet, perfectly betoothed mouth and says, “I have no fucking idea!”
“Okay, honey,” I say. “Sorry to keep you.”
There’s only one way to handle a drunken college party. I turn to Hamster at the bar and flash my middle finger, our little joke signal for Get me a fucking drink! What arrives on the Metro, two singers later, is a big bowl-shaped glass holding a lime-green drink with a stripe of raspberry red syrup. It’s mightily delicious. I take a long draught, then turn to find a dozen singers lined up at my station, song slips in hand. The first is “Tiny Bubbles.”
After that, I can’t tell you. It’s like driving a long ramp into a hurricane, and somewhere along the line you forget where you came in. The world is walled off at the bar windows, a swirling sherbet of color and noise, blurred like a slow-shutter photograph. When the bus rolls into the station I am screaming “Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Led Zeppelin as youthful bodies bump their parts around me (so clever how this generation has turned simulated sex into choreography). Just as I reach the tough part, I feel a hand gripping my left nether cheek. I turn to find Shari, wearing a Little Mary Sunshine smile.
“Oh!” she says. “Was that you?”
I pat her on the left (upper) cheek and return to my wailing. Zeppelin crunches to a finish, and the room explodes. I call up Kevin for “Suavamente,” wait till he gathers the inevitable salsa mob, reach into squeeze that firm constabulary butt and scuttle away like a cockroach.
I wake up on the floor. I can’t move my arms, and I feel something smooth and plasticky against my face. When I open my eyes, the ceiling is a maze of color and slowly moving dots. And a large brown blob with a single white stripe. And a shower of green confetti.
“Hamster?” God. I sound like Tom Waits doing a Louis Armstrong impression.
“Good morning, my little cash cow. This is your bonus for last night.”
I’m surrounded by presidents: Washington, Lincoln – Franklin?
“Jesus. What’d I do? Sleep with you?”
He laughs entirely too much. “Now that would be funny!”
I go to give him a playful slap, and discover why it is I can’t move. I’m wrapped up tight in a sleeping bag.
Hamster grins. “I don’t know what major corporations those kids’ parents own, but last night we separated them from large chunks of their trust funds. The biggest night in Karz Bar hiss-tow-ree!”
Hamster kisses me on the cheek – for him, an exceptional gesture. He claps his hands together and gives them a robber-baron rub.
“Now! What does my prize employee wish for breakfast? Sausages? I’ve got kielbasa.”
Just the word “kielbasa” makes my stomach gurgle. “Ooh! Can I start with a glass of Sprite? By the way, what was that evil drink you gave me last night?”
“Hamstah Hooch. Its exact ingredients shall remain a secret.”
“But probably include tequila.”
He hops to his feet like a Ukrainian dancer and heads for the kitchen. “Sprite followed by coffee!” he declaims.
I snake my hand up next to my throat and locate a zipper pull.
“Hey!” I croak. “What happened to Ruby?”
Hamster leans into the room with a salacious expression. “Ruby was last seen leaving the bar with Harry Baritone.”
“Oh,” I say. Ten seconds later, the information arrives at my brain. “Really?!”
I’m out on the back deck, but feeling like I’m somewhere else. Snow comes to the Puget Sound only two or three times a year, and last night’s was exceptional, painting my evergreen view with a vanilla frost. I sit with my third coffee on a thick-timbered picnic table and imagine myself at a long-ago trip to Tahoe. I’m nestled into the corner of a deck overlooking the intermediate runs, sharing a sourdough bowl with a handsome, dark-eyed devil of a man.
The present calls to me in a jangle of metal, and I know what’s coming: a merry flight of chocolate fur and a resounding “Woof!” I can almost parse the letters: W-O-O-F.
Java bursts through the trellised archway and takes a mighty leap onto the deck. He is completely unprepared for the effects of snow on a hard surface. When his paws fail to make purchase, he performs a four-footed Astaire routine and collapses, legs flying out like the poles of a wrecked pup tent as he slides on his belly, drops off the end of the deck and lands with a whump! During the entire stunt, he wears an expression that is both puzzled and ridiculously calm – and that’s the part that sets me off. When Floy Craig pops her blonde curls around the trellis, she finds me nearly suffocating with laughter.
“What the hell was that?”
“Oh!” I squeak. “Hard to… Can’t…”
She wipes off the opposite bench, takes a seat and watches me with much amusement. Then she sees the long swipe leading to Java, who’s standing in the yard, shaking himself dry.
“Ah! I can picture it now. He’s got the same problem with the tiling in the kitchen. Does that cartoon thing where his feet are just swishing around like a propeller. If we could only get one of these on tape, we could make some serious money. Can you talk now?”
I’m not going to take the chance, so I shake my head.
“I was going to ask you what the hell you’re doing out here, but then I saw this view. Must remind you of Alaska.” She takes a panoramic scan, then turns back to me and rests her chin on her hand.
“Are you doing better, Channy? Because… you seem like you are.”
Floy’s caring expression succeeds in disabling my funny bone, but I swallow a couple of times before answering.
“Yes. Yes,” I say. “Things are better. There are some things I needed to get out of my system.”
“Oh,” she says. “Well you know you can talk to me whenever you want, right?”
“Yes, I know. But this one thing, I needed someone a little, I don’t know, farther away? It’s hard to explain.”
Floy looks the slightest bit hurt. People do love the role of therapist, I think. But I can see her flipping my answer over in her mind, and her features relax.
“No, I understand. The things people tell me at the hospital… Well there you are! Are you done with your extreme sports?”
Java has found a safe route to the deck and is nudging Floy’s hand with his snout, trying to jump-start a petting session. He barely gets a response before he’s off again, streaking through the arch at full bark.
“Oh!” I say. “That’s probably my friend. I’d better grab Java so she can get out of her car.”
“Can you hang on to him?” says Floy. I’ll fetch the leash so I can take him for a walk.”
I arrive at the driveway to find Java on his hind legs, front paws planted on the hood of Ruby’s Toyota. Ruby’s inside, laughing hysterically. She rolls down her window to greet me.
“He looks like this director I knew in New York. Very gay and very fierce.”
I grab Java by the collar and pull him down. “Java is on a comic roll this morning.”
Floy trots out the front door and hooks a leash to Java’s collar as I reel off the introductions.
“Floy, Ruby. Ruby, Floy. RubyJavaJavaRuby.”
Ruby gets out and waggles a hand over Java’s floopy head.
“That covers all the combinations. Nice to meet you, Floy.”
“I’ll take this monster far away,” she says, “so you two can have a nice quiet talk.”
“Thanks,” I say. Ruby and I watch as Java drags her around the bend.
“Well,” says Ruby. “Where shall we take our story-swap?”
I can’t stand it. She’s wearing this long, lovely scarlet coat, and she has all this color in her cheeks, and her eyes are so full of energy. I have so carefully tended this garden, only to give it away to a houseguest.
“Like to freeze on my deck?”
“Hmm,” she says, sucking on a fingertip (what’s that about?). “No offense to your Northwest sensibilities, but I’ve had enough snow to last a lifetime. All right if we walk somewhere? Keep the blood pumping?”
“Sure.” The logical route is the loop trail – the opposite direction from Floy and Java – no artful landmarks, but lots of fir and cedar to hold the snow. “Want me to fill a thermos with coffee?”
“No, that’s all right,” she says. “Let’s walk unfettered.” She smiles much too widely.
“Okey-doke. Walk this way.”
We take a right at the end of the driveway, follow Water Drive for a block, then duck into the forest at the trailhead, onto a wide path covered in woodsy mulch.
“Pastoral,” says Ruby.
“Yeah, it’s nice. I could swear someone’s been tending it. It seems too neat to be natural. So I never though to ask, but what brought you here, exactly? To the Northwest.”
“A geopsychologist would say it’s the logical fourth corner: Florida, LA, New York – Washington. However, as a wise woman once said, that would be too neat to be natural. In actuality, I have a brother out here. He’s been having some trouble, so I thought some sibling-time was in order. Hey Channy, do you mind that I’m going out with Harry?”
Damn! I hadn’t expected her to bring it up first.
“I’m okay,” I say, not terribly convincingly. “He’s sort of like a big brother, mostly. He’s very sweet. He’s been through a lot.”
“So he says.”
In a pathway conversation, you can measure awkward silences in feet. This one takes thirty.
“So what’s he… like?” I ask.
Ruby laughs. “Well, you know what he’s like.”
Yikes. “No, I’ve never slept with Harry.”
Ruby stops and looks at me. “Neither have I.”
Twenty feet. The pressure gets too much, and I have to laugh at my presumption.
“Oh shit! Should I just shut up now? I think I’ll just shut up now.”
“No,” she says. “I’ve had too many cautious fucking friendships in my life. You say whatever you feel like, Channy. And I promise you I won’t get upset.”
“So what did you guys do?”
“Went to a Shari’s in Tacoma. Had a two a.m. breakfast. Don’t you love those?”
“Yeah. I do.”
“I was pretty toasty.”
“Harry. Or maybe he just holds it well. He drove me home, gave me a courtly goodnight kiss, and then – get this: the next day, he tows my car home. Knocks on my door, hands me my car keys – which I didn’t even remember giving him. Is this guy for real?”
“Yes,” I say. “He is.”
“Well, that kind of freakishly anachronistic chivalry demanded a reward so, that night, I took him to this place in Seattle. The Kingfisher. All painted up inside like a Louisiana roadhouse. And there’s some kind of unwritten code that only thee most gorgeous black people work there – and eat there. It’s like a casting call for Ain’t Misbehavin’. Hamster would fit right in.
“After that, we went to this play about a gay man who falls in love with a shark at the aquarium. And when the gay man is kissing the man who plays the shark, I peek at Harry to check the squirm factor, and he’s just laughing his head off, like everyone else. And I’m thinking, Damn! Is this guy for real?”
“Yes,” I say. “He is.”
Ruby stops for a second, reading my repetition, then shakes it off.
“And again, a goodnight kiss. Well, a long one. Yesterday, he had to work. I’m meeting him tonight at karaoke. I think we’re both rather covetous of Channy’s Sanatorium for Wayward Singers, so we’re circling each other rather carefully. But… well, I don’t want to turn you into a double agent, Channy, but I’m feeling a little dizzy. Can you toss me a couple of clues?”
I yank a handful of needles from a Scotch fir and hold them to my nose.
“‘Bout a year ago, Harry had his heart drawn and quartered. I think he’s okay now. Just…”
I stop, because I don’t like the quaver that’s working into my voice. But Ruby doesn’t miss much.
“Let it fly, girlfriend.” She slaps me on the back, like I’m choking on something.
I stop walking, and place a hand on her fuzzy scarlet shoulder.
“Don’t go underestimating him just because he’s nice.”
She looks at me for a second, then turns to walk. As I pull alongside, I swear I can feel the sadness pouring off of her. It’s no wonder she’s an actress, I think. Her emotions turn on a toggle switch.
We enter a long, flat stretch of trail beneath a high tunnel of Douglas fir. Fifty feet. When she speaks, it’s barely audible.
“Don’t worry. That’s a lesson I’ve learned.”
My endgame was Broadway – or off-Broadway – but I knew I couldn’t go there directly. I needed to go to some third place, so I could reinvent myself, rewire my circuitry. The first item on the scrap heap would be that nasty director’s omniscience; the first purchase would be a brand new suit of flakiness.
Things began with my old college chum, Shelley, who lived in San Francisco, in the Ocean District. Shelley was a singer-songwriter, trying to figure out how to work the music scene. The day I called, she had just discovered that one of her roommates was moving out. This served to further confirm my instincts – the fates were intervening on my behalf. My production company was between projects, so I really didn’t even have to quit – just let them know I wouldn’t be around for the next film. Stacey was pretty sad to see me go (all that competence out the window), but it’s not the general policy of the Dream Machine to step on an aspiration.
I was moved in in a matter of a week. The place was a cool old Arts & Crafts – the living room a dark hardwood plain covered by an enormous Persian rug, several guitars and every percussion instrument known to humankind. I expected Carlos Santana to walk in any second. Maybe Jefferson Airplane. I found an acting conservatory that operated out of Fort Mason, and signed up for a beginner’s class. I wanted to go right back to the roots.
The classroom was a dance studio – miles of floor, lots of mirrors, a barre for stretching. The teacher, Mr. Burman, was a playwright-director with a gruff, blue-collar exterior: rumbling voice, big Polish nose, thinning hair. It became readily apparent, however, that he was also kind, and the owner of a guerrilla sense of humor. (His actual humor was brilliant and twisted, a discovery I made at a performance of his satirical skits. In one of them he took the Catholic molestation scandal to its logical extreme: the priests were now eating the children.)
On the first night, we started with a few standard warmups – acting games I had done in college – then he gathered us for the night’s central activity, something he called “one-minute wanders.”
“This is largely for my own evil purposes,” he said. “I want to know how your little thespian minds work – what level of raw material we’re working with. This here cowboy hat is filled with slips of paper. Each is the beginning of a monologue: ‘The last time I went to London, I…’ ‘I have never been able to tapdance because I…’ Your job is to improvise from there – fact, fiction, doesn’t matter – for whatever seems like a minute. You are to speak as continuously as possible, and to avoid stall words like um, er, yaknow. The main thing is, don’t think too much. Thinking is our enemy. And I’m thinking I should begin with this eager young lady in the front, or else she will burst from her shoes. Um… damn! What was your alias?”
(This from the evening icebreaker, a name game.)
“Red slippers,” I said.
“Dorothy. No – Ruby!”
I extracted a slip and got I hate peanut butter because… And here’s what I said:
“I hate peanut butter because I once read that you could put it on the roof of your dog’s mouth, and it would take him, like, hours to lick it off? Now, I know this sounds really cruel, but what was even more cruel was the way that our dog Sputter, who was a Shih-Tzu (isn’t it fun to say ‘Shih-Tzu’? It’s like you’re swearing but really you’re not). Well anyway, that fucking dog would yip and yap and yop all day long, and one day I just got fed up, so I loaded a spatula with peanut butter and spackled the roof of that furball bitch’s mouth. It worked so well that she spent the next three days licking, and the problem was, her doggie bed was right next to my human bed? And all night long: licklicklicklicklicklicklicklicklick! Finally I put her outside, and she snuck under the gate, wandered into the road and – sniff! – got ran over by a garbage truck. The driver told us he didn’t see her until it was too late, and Sputter didn’t move a muscle, she was too busy licking the roof of her mouth. And that – sniff! – is why – sniff! – I hate peanut butter.”
A director’s note here: for comic effect, I actually spoke the word “sniff!” instead of actually sniffing. I had the class laughing pretty hard, but they stopped when they saw Mr. Burman glaring at me. I knew exactly what he was up to, however, so I glared right back until he broke.
“There is nothing more rude,” he said, “than a student who gets more laughs than her teacher.”
And then I got my applause.
The nice thing about going first was that now I could relax and study my classmates. All in all, they were a remarkably quick-witted bunch, and I was feeling more and more certain that San Francisco was exactly the right place for me.
One student who really caught my eye was Eddy (whose alias was “whirlpool”). His monologue wasn’t actually all that good, but he was such a character to begin with. His face was all sharp angles – sharp chin, generous sharp nose, and small, quick eyes. Very coyote-like. Plus an improbable pile of curly brown hair that reminded me of Lyle Lovett, or a young Bob Dylan. He spoke in a rapid London accent, very clipped and (here we go again) sharp. The rapid speech, in fact, was his prime handicap, forcing his brain to improvise at an untenable pace and dragging “erms” and “ehs” into his monologue (which began, The last time I played golf with John Travolta…).
I had no need of seeking him out after class, because I looked up and there he was.
“Hey, that peanut butter. That was fucking brilliant.”
He said “fucking” in that particular British way, verging on “fawking,” that made it seem much friendlier.
“And condolences on poor Sputter. Such a loss!”
“Eh!” I said. “She was expendable.”
“Oh!” He feigned shock. “Heartless. Say, would you let me buy you a drink and simultaneously interrogate you? I know a fabulous microbrew on Columbus. They have every ale known to mankind.”
How could I say no? After taking ten minutes to pick a pear cider from Rhode Island, I sat as Eddy regaled me with the story of his brother’s wedding, which ended with the groom swimming across a small pond in nothing but his top hat. The story was terribly long, but never boring – a rare combination.
“No offense, Eddy, but where was all this storytelling talent during your one-minute wander?”
“Oh God yes, I know!” He beat himself on the forehead for full effect. “I was thinking too much – precisely what he told us not to do. Halfway through, I was thinking, ‘Where the hell is this story going, Eddy?’ And that mucked me up even worse. I think that’s why I’m taking this class, actually. I need to rid myself of that internal critic, learn to dive out and stretch my boundaries.”
“So you’re not on the acting track?” I asked.
“Nope. Strictly for funsies. Although I can’t figure out what that Bear, Fish, Mosquito nonsense was all about.”
“Just silliness, I’m sure. I’d guess almost the entirety of most acting classes is just to give you license to do things you wouldn’t dream of doing in everyday life. How long did you last?”
“Three seconds,” he said, laughing. “I went for the bloody obvious Bear, and a cute little Asian Mosquito gave me the malaria.”
(He pronounced it “malari-er,” in that peculiar British fashion.)
“Ha! Good thing I didn’t run into you. I went straight for the fish. But then, I’m a good swimmer.”
“Rrowr!” he said, swatting a hand. “Not good enough to avoid my enormous claws!”
As it turned out, Eddy was an inventor. His latest pursuit was a hydrofoil wakeboard that would lift waterskiers above the water. He spent most of his summer weekends performing test runs on the lakes of the Central Valley (and most of his summer Mondays recovering from the bruises).
The acting class was one of a long series of endeavors that he pursued just for the hell of it. He referred to this as the NUP, or No Ulteriors Program. I found this aspect of his personality most endearing, and vowed that I would pursue a few NUP activities of my own.
He lived in an open space preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains, forty miles south of The City, in one of a cluster of cabins at the end of a mile-long dirt road. They were originally constructed as a family hideaway for an early Silicon Valley industrialist, and “grandfathered” in after the open space purchase. The road was hell on my shocks, but I came to regard Eddy’s place as my own private retreat, whenever my packed schedule of classes and clerical day-job allowed a bit of sunlight.
Eddy maintained his tinker’s independence by running a one-man deck-staining business; he billed himself as the Deck Doctor. Once in a while I tagged along, and was always amazed at the places where he did his work: grand rustic palaces that overlooked miles of redwood forest, the Pacific a thin blue promise at the horizon. He invited me to become an employee, but I could see the amazing amount of abuse he piled on that wiry body of his, and I doubted it would gibe with my dance classes.
Once or twice a month, we would shimmy downhill to a bar in Menlo Park, to pursue this new thing called “karaoke.” I suppose I could rationalize it as another chance to work on my singing and stage presence, but for Eddy it was pure NUP – particularly because he had not one iota of talent. In the bizarro world of karaoke, however, he probably had more of a following than I did, because he was absolutely fearless. His one sure bet was “Another Brick in the Wall,” which matched his accent and chutzpah, but anything with much of a melody sent him into the William Shatner zone, where he was content to declare the lyrics with much enthusiasm and little regard for the music.
All this admiration might sound like the prelude to a romantic venture, but who can figure the roadmaps of chemistry, the crapshoot of two human frames of mind? For one thing, I had no capacity for it. I was determined to treat San Francisco as a way station – to tap a little syrup from her trunk and and head to New York in search of pancakes.
Or, it might have been Eddy. I had such affection for him, but compared to my serious-minded endeavors, his pursuits seemed inambitious, almost childlike. Or maybe he was just too bloody nice. Once, when my day-job fell prey to a round of layoffs, I was having a hard time coming up with the rent. When Eddy heard about this, he insisted on giving me a loan. But as he began to think out loud about all the fiduciary machinations he’d have to go through to come up with the cash, I stopped him and said, “Eddy, I have this thing called a father? I think it’s time to call him.”
Earnest generosity is not necessarily an aphrodisiac. It often makes it seem like the man is trying too hard. I think women prefer a certain level of self-centeredness, because that’s a quality we can trust.
In any case, Eddy never made a move, so it was easy to place him in that innocent big-brother category. We were great friends, and we had great fun – so no loss, right?
I did, however, take him up on a couple of pressure-washing assignments, which were really quite enjoyable. Each pass of the spraying wand took an impressive amount of grime out of the wood, which provided a pleasing sense of productivity. At the same time, the constant halo of mist kept the August heat nicely at bay. Soon after, I got some assignments from a temp clerical service, and my little cash crisis was averted.
Come October, my year – and my classes – had come to an end, and I was ready for the Big Apple. I had also managed, through my dear sweet casting director, Stacey, to find a year-long sublet on the Upper West Side. Nicely timed with my departure was a big blowout at Eddy’s cabin.
Not that the party was for me. Eddy was up to his elbows with Burning Man, a late-summer festival in the Nevada desert. It was simultaneously a brazen sex party, dustblown survival camp, artistic Carnaval and pagan hippie rite – centered on the immolation of a humongous man-like statue. The network of “burners” was broad and vigorous – almost like a new generation of Deadheads – and they conducted regional gatherings throughout the year. Eddy decided that his cluster of cabins was the perfect destination for one of these, and thus was born Burning Jam, an all-night music party.
With the musician network afforded by roommate Shelley, I was instantly a crucial cog, and happy to contribute before I abandoned the Bay Area. Eddy invited fifty people – three hundred showed up. But burners are great at this stuff; they’ve been trained by the Nevada desert to bring their own necessities, and to readily adapt to the unexpected. Almost instantaneously, the retired orchard next to the cabins became a campground.
The center of activity was Eddy’s deck (the rehabilitation of which was the genesis of his staining biz). Shelley kept the lineup of musicians rolling on- and offstage, owing largely to the use of a “community” drumset and PA system. This was also my first chance to see the end product of all those rehearsals in my living room. Shelley’s band, Slippery Sisters, was definitely pursuing a Lisa Loeb/Natalie Merchant vibe, with Shelley on acoustic guitar and spritely vocals. (Half of the Sisters were actually brothers, but no one seemed to care.)
There was no shortage of dancers, in various phases of exotic dress and undress. The invitation had expressly forbidden dour colors, which opened the door for burner standards like the feather boa, candy-colored spandex, dominatrix leather and various illumination devices that kept them from getting run over on dark festival nights. I went for a retro lime-green pantsuit and a pink British garden hat, plus an Irish brooch of amber-colored glass.
As the roster of official bands gave way to an all-out jam, Shelley proclaimed her duties fulfilled and grabbed me by the elbow. We proceeded to Eddy’s art-car, a chopped-off Honda Accord outfitted with a boat-like deck and pirate sails. He used it to conduct revelers around Burning Man at parade-float speed, and had fitted it with twin outboard margarita blenders. He had spent the whole afternoon there, dutifully sousing his patrons. I felt sorry for him, working so hard at his own party -–but then it was probably the most efficient way to get face-time with each and every guest. I had been to the well thrice already, and Shelley seemed eager to catch up.
Like everyone else who ever met Eddy, she was much impressed, and gave me the kind of glance that said, So what’s he, chopped liver? We assisted with his blending for an hour, then excused ourselves to drift across to a small barn outfitted as a disco, complete with spinning lights and a ‘70s-‘80s soundtrack. The old floorboards were not exactly conducive to dancing, but the crush of bodies seemed to prevent any falls. Shelley and I used this to our advantage, faking several stumbles so we could land on various hunky males.
We were pretty crocked, to be sure, but not half so gone as this one blonde girl, who was basically being propped up by the crowd. She looked about twenty, with the baby fat that a twenty-year-old can get away with, plus an impressive display of cleavage, threatening to escape the confines of a blouse that she must have purchased when she was twelve. She took plentiful opportunities to rub against neighboring physiques – be they male or female – and ended each song by lifting a fist to the sky and screaming “Fuck yeah!”
Shelley bopped over to me during “Rock the Casbah.” “Damn, woman! Have I ever behaved like that in my life?”
I laughed very loudly (because, why the hell not?). “You’ve come pretty close, Mother Teresa.”
She punched my shoulder, very boy-like. “No! I have not!”
“Okay!” I complained. “You have never screamed ‘Fuck yeah!’ in quite that fashion.”
“Nor have your tits ever been close to that size. Ow! Quit it!”
A few songs later, we wandered outside to find a man and woman dressed like gypsies, spinning illuminated crystals at the ends of strings. Then we noticed a crowd gathering at the music-deck. I tapped on a broad, black-clothed shoulder and got a pirate: fake parrot, hoop earring, eyepatch – a pretty thorough job.
“Ahrr!” he inquired.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“My girlfriend… I mean, me wench, she’s got this fantasy about doing a public striptease – so hey, we’re here to push the envelope, right?”
“Groovy!” I said, feeling instantly that I had lost my moral compass and was quite happy to be rid of it. Shelley and I sat on a rug over the dirt as a thin Asian girl pranced about between two redwoods. The jammers served up a slow, chewy blues entirely appropriate to the occasion. The pirate, meanwhile, began giving me a neckrub, which might have been his way of releasing sexual tension – but I didn’t care, because he was good.
His girlfriend, however, was a dud. She took forever to take off her top and skirt, revealing a set of very unimaginative underthings. Then she sashayed around in her panties and bra for frickin’ ever, leaving all the guys waiting for more and not getting it. In both the British and American senses of the word, I was pissed.
“Come on!” I shouted. “I can see this much at the beach! Give us a freakin’ nipple!” I gave Shelley a hearty nudge, but she was involved in a liplock with her drummer. (Uh-oh, I thought. There goes that band.) Then the pirate abandoned his duties as my personal masseuse to wrap his girlfriend with a blanket. It seemed like a good time for a pee-break.
I climbed the steps to Eddy’s cabin and found a long line of women at the bathroom door (I assumed the guys were lined up at redwood trees). Every last one of them was snickering uncontrollably, and I soon understood why. Behind Eddy’s bedroom door, two or more someones were going at it like dogs in heat. The moaning and slapping built to a pitch until a successful O was punctuated with a cry of “Fuck yeah!” So the blonde from the barn had finally found her release. The girls in line were performing a kind of knock-kneed Rockettes routine, trying to keep from laughing lest they literally pee their pants. As the line inched forward, I came even with the bedroom door, and I could hear the clipped tenor of her partner: “Fawkin’ great, baby.”
I can’t quite recall my movements after that, but I do remember coming out on the orchard as the moon climbed over the trees, turning the brown California grass to silver pasta. I managed to find Shelley’s tent and crawl through the flaps, the air crackling with chips of laughter and conversation. I was deathly intent on sleep, but I heard another pair of lovers – this from the tent next door – and suddenly I couldn’t remember how to breathe. I imagined dying alone, surrounded by all this humanity, simply because I had forgotten how to let my body pursue its mindless occupations. But my body raised a coup d’etat. My lungs let go like an untied balloon, and the breath came out, turning to tears, turning to sobs.
I awoke to a street gang of Stellar’s jays and a far-off call that I couldn’t quite place. It gradually took on human syllables.
The tent flaps made a papery ruckus, and in popped Eddy’s face, bearing a goofed-up smile and bloodshot eyes.
“Hello! I’m the morning cock! Time to wake the fuck up! I’ve got a shitload of blueberry pancakes for you morning lovelies.”
Shelley kept right on snoring, I shook out my hair, which felt like it had been stored for months in a musty attic, and managed to produce a bleary smile.
“You look awfully happy,” I said. “Or happily awful. Any blonde, big-titted reason for that?”
“Ah yes, the lovely De-bor-ah. Anything but De-boh-ring. Recently thrown to the dustbin by her brutish boyfriend, eager to seek vengeance by grabbing the first penis she could find and having her way with it. And imagine my surprise when it turned out to be mine!”
I laughed, and reached up to pat his whiskered cheek.
“Good for you, Eddy. I’ll be right out.”
“Lovely!” He vanished into the outside world, continuing his duties as town crier. “Fuck-a-doodle-doo! Fuck-a-doodle-fucking-doo!”
I was ready for New York, because I had become an excellent actress.
Ruby takes a deep drag and lets it out on a “Phew!”
“That is one nasty smoke, girlfriend!”
I fondle my last box, reviewing the six soldiers lined up inside. “They’ve been through a lot.”
“Where are they from?”
“Iraq.” I give a glance around the pier. Halfway down, there’s a mid-sized yacht – an old one, lots of lovely wooden trim. The Scuttlebutt, Port Angeles. One of the mast lines is draped in white Christmas lights – which is either way too early for the holidays or simply a year-round decoration.
“I can’t tell you more than that,” I say. “It’s part of the story. I usually perform this little ritual after karaoke, but I assume you’ll be heading out with your boyfriend.”
Ruby performs a smoke-take. “Phew! ‘Boyfriend’? God, that is so high school.”
“High school never ends, Ruby.”
“You’re tellin’ me. Check out the theater scene sometime. Well, my goodness!”
She’s reacting to the snow, which is falling in wet, wet flakes that seem to melt inches from the ground. It’s a bracing sight. Through the thickening flurry I see the flashing crosswalk on Harborview, which provides a poor man’s catwalk for a tall model with a mane of white hair. But it’s really blonde, and it’s really Shari. She arrives at the near sidewalk, pauses to look our way, then turns toward Karz.
“How come you never hooked up with one of your singers, Channy? I mean, I understand the grieving process, but sex can be a powerful healing force. How about Kevin the Cop? He’s got a thing for you, honey. I can tell by the way he wrestled me into those handcuffs. He was avenging his lady’s honor. Hell, I might let him slap those cuffs on me again sometime.”
I try my best to take a meaningful, Bogart-style pull on my cigar. (Ruby’s so naturally theatrical, she makes you want to play along.)
“Karz has one hell of a gossip distribution network. That would be one whole mess of trouble. Nah. I need a non-singer.”
“No!” says Ruby (she’s one impulse away from holding up a vampire cross). “Singers are the only people with souls. Maybe you just need a singer from somewhere else.”
“Maybe.” I take my Swisher Sweet to the last bit of tobacco (where it’s anything but sweet) and toss the wooden tip into the water.
“Is that part of the ritual?” asks Ruby.
She finishes hers and tosses it in. “I’m picturing a salmon with one of those tips in his mouth, tellin’ all his friends, ‘Try it, man – it’ll make you look cool.”
It’s funny, but I’m not laughing.
I’m just about ready to start when Ruby brings up a large cardboard box.
“Is it time for Girl Scout cookies already?”
“Time for fun,” she says. “Ya got yer maracas, a cowbell, claves, two extraordinarily chintzy tambourines, and le piece de resistance…”
She extracts a plastic toy guitar, the color of spoiled tangerines. It appears to have strings – tuning pegs, even – but I can’t imagine that it produces actual music.
“I’m not sure I get it.”
“It’s an air guitar!” she says. “Only… without the air. Imagine all the fun our grownup little boys will have with this.”
Ruby waits for a reaction, but it doesn’t seem to be coming.
“What is the matter with you, Channy? Showtime! Time to bury your real feelings and pretend you’re happy!”
I take the guitar and run a hand over the strings. “Sorry, Ruby. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps I have released too many ghosts.”
She pats me on the knee. “That’s all right. Soon we’ll have music.”
I adjust one of the pegs and hand it back to her.
“Your G-string was loose.”
She smiles. “Straight lines will get you nowhere.”
The toys are an enormous hit. But first I’m careful to set some ground rules. No joining in on percussion unless you’re invited. I am ever-cognizant of singers’ rights, and I’ve seen what a tambourine can do in the wrong hands.
In a case of utter ethnic stereotype, it turns out that Kevin the Cop and his Puerto Rican hands have the best rhythm. He plays the tam as I sing Melissa Etheridge’s “I Want to Come Over” – spare and tasty in the verses, loud and broad in the chorus. It really does add a lively acoustic edge to the prefab sound.
Our supreme guitarist is Harry Baritone – who, as it turns out, used to be in a garage band, so really, that’s cheating. Ruby keeps ordering up Led Zeppelin songs just to keep him occupied. When she does “Back in Black” by AC/DC, he’s on the floor, on his knees, literally bending over backwards.
“You’ll notice,” I say, “that although we singers make little mistakes all the time, Harry never misses a note on guitar.”
Our finale is Harry singing (and pseudo-playing) “Smooth” by Santana, which naturally brings out the entire percussion section: Kevin on cowbell, Shari and Caroleen on tams, me on maracas and Alex on claves. We’ve got a whole damn band, really, and our noisy finish earns a rousing applause from the Petersons, elderly captain and captain’s wife of the Scuttlebutt.
Ruby gives me a wink and a smile as she and Harry make for the exit (no doubt about it, those two are having crazy, nasty sex tonight). Hamster brings me a cup of coffee, and I begin the process of sorting song slips into envelopes (a new “archiving” service I have begun for my singers). I’m just about done when I feel a large presence behind me, and turn to find Shari, wearing a friendly but anxious expression.
“Hi,” I say.
She kneels next to me, bringing our eyes level, and dives right in.
“The thing is, I thought I was your confidante. Maybe it sounds weird, but shit… it was important to me. And now you’re always with Ruby – and it’s a little hard to figure out how that happened. So now, this evening, you’re out there smoking cigars with her on the pier. I guess I’m feeling all, out of the loop. I’m sorry…”
She stands and turns away, embarrassed by her feelings. I’m utterly at a loss – maybe because I had no idea how much it meant to her; maybe because now I’m feeling really stupid.
“God, Shari. I’m sorry; you’re absolutely right. I guess it doesn’t make much sense – but I’m getting some really shitty stuff out of my system right now, and it’s just easier to tell Ruby. You’re too close; you’re too… nice.”
She turns back, her eyes growing damp. “You know you can tell me anything, right?”
“I know I’m allowed to tell you anything. And I will, I’m sure. But… I guess this is like psychotherapy on the cheap, and before I go telling anyone besides Ruby, I need to figure it out for myself. Hey, let me buy you a drink. Then we’ll go to the pier and smoke a couple more.”
She laughs, just a little. “What kind of fool am I? I just talked myself into a ragweed cigar.”
“Hey, Ham!” I yell. “Set up my pal Shari with a vodka gimlet.”
“Yes, ma’am!” he says.
So here I am, back at the pier. Is this really catharsis, or am I just chasing pneumonia? It’s much colder than before, but at least it’s not snowing. I light up Shari, then me, and study my little tobacco soldiers, down to a quartet.
“God! I’m such a Needy Nancy,” says Shari. “It’s all so… high school.”
“High school never ends,” I say. Being a guru is easy – you just find a few good phrases and keep repeating them. “Anyway, Shari, I’m glad you told me. Because tonight I have some very special business to attend to, and I can’t do it alone.”
I reach into my bag and pull out Kai’s metallic care package.
“Oh God,” says Shari. “It’s Pandora’s cashbox.”
“Yes,” I say. “But it’s also one object away from empty, so – just keep me from jumping in the water, okay?”
I take a deep breath and push the metal tab, then reach into the lower compartment and extract a jeweler’s box, covered in dark blue velvet. I click it open, revealing something shiny and military. I’m scared, so I hand it to Shari, who dangles it in front of her face so she can study it in the far-off light from the waterfront.
“My God, honey. It’s a purple heart.”
I take another breath and look for the words embossed on the inside of the box: Kai Sharwa. I toss my cigar into the water. It lands with a hiss.
(Continued in Part 2)