In the novel Outro, Ruby Cohen gives up on a once-promising Broadway career to move to the Northwest and take care of her troubled brother. She takes her singing to the Karz Bar karaoke lounge in Gig Harbor Washington, where she befriends the hostess, Channy, and hooks up with one of the regulars, Harry. When she and Harry return from a Mexican cruise, she meets Channy for coffee and relates a remarkable story.
Everything on the ship had an artistic theme, and the karaoke took place in the Starry Night Lounge, before an enormous wallpaper re-creation of its title work. As you might have guessed, Harry and I went there every night. He had the chance to sic his well-drilled repertoire on a whole new crowd of swooning females, and I had the chance to explore an impressive selection of standards and showtunes. I developed an immediate following among the seniors, who enjoyed swinging and fox-trotting to my songs.
At the end of our first evening, our Australian hostess Lani asked me if I was going to try out for the Legends concert. For the next four evenings, passengers would come to the Starry Night and sing a song by a legendary performer. If the audience decided you were the best at that song, you would appear as that performer in a Vegas-style show before 1,500 of your fellow passengers.
I actually thought of opting out. The contest was obviously aimed at amateurs, and it wouldn’t be entirely fair for me to participate. That thought lasted about half a second. If my ship was gonna have a show, I was gonna be in it.
One problem: none of the female roles were from jazz or Broadway. I halfway thought of cross-dressing as Sinatra, but I chickened out. So began my journey through the popular music of the late 20th century.
The first night was Aretha, and the song was “Respect.” I assumed it was about the singing, and I thought I pretty much nailed it. But then, out comes this perky young Filipina, and she’s got choreography, for God’s sake. So much choreography, in fact, that she’s dropping notes right and left. No one seems to notice, and I’m out.
The next night is Madonna, “Like A Virgin.” I grew up on that song – hell, I think I lost my virginity to that song. But I’ve learned my lesson, so I throw in a couple of sexy moves when I can. However. The next contestant is this sexy Italian kindergarten teacher from Long Island, and she throws in the kind of moves that no kindergarten teacher should ever know. At one point, she pulls out a classic Madonna maneuver, lying with her back on the stage while she’s singing. So! Am I going to get the part? No way.
My third chance is Gloria Estefan, “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You.” I can totally pull off Gloria – I grew up in Florida, after all – and I prep myself with some salsa and rhumba moves before adjourning to the Starry Night. But then…
The rowdiest pack on the ship is this alumni group from Indiana University. They’re easy to spot, because they all wear red, all the time – massing down the fiesta deck, crowding the blackjack tables, doing the frug in the Warhol Club. In the swimming pools, they wear red bathing suits. Nice people, but loud, and the constant red-ness gives off an unsettling Nazi vibe.
I sing a couple of tropical warmups – “Jamaican Farewell,” “Girl from Ipanema” – but at nine, when the contest begins, there’s a rumbling like someone just lifted the gate at Pamplona. The wide front doors swing open and in rolls the Red Sea, filling every available nook. As you might expect, they’re here for a cause: a 50-year-old with dried-out smoker’s skin and frizzy hair with traces of several different red dye jobs. She actually seems quite nice, and she throws in some decent Cuban dance moves, but her voice is a creaky, smoked-out mess. Doesn’t matter. When the Red Sea explodes, she’s a winner.
I can’t be the good loser this time. I wait till the next singer takes the mic, then give Harry’s hand a squeeze and we make for the back exit. We’re halfway through the Internet café when a door opens, and out pops our KJ.
“Lani! How’d you…?”
“Every ship’s got its secret passageways,” she says. “Look. That sort of shit” – she nods back toward the club – “is a truly unfortunate part of my job. It happens at least once a cruise. But I want you to know, I know exactly how good you are, and I know this stuff is all beneath your talent, but I can’t stand the thought of you not being in that show, and I really want you to come back tomorrow night.”
“I’m… thanks, Lani. But I don’t even know the song.”
She hands me a rectangular object wrapped in wires. It’s an IPod. “You will, if you listen to that. We usually only give these to the winners, so they can practice for the show. But screw the rules! We’re in international waters, right?”
“Oh Lani, I…”
“Oh Lani nothing! Do your homework, young lady. Whoops! Song’s over. Bye.”
She’s back through the door and I’m left floating in flattery. We retreat to the arcade, where Harry and I work out our frustrations on a combination jukebox/electronic drum set (mostly Led Zeppelin) then on to the Matisse jazz lounge for martinis. When we get back to our cabin, I find a mysterious package on my bed. It’s a DVD of the Legends concert from a previous cruise. Somebody really wants me to get this part.
Which is Britney Spears – “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” I never liked it much, but the next morning, when I strapped on the IPod and tried it out, I was surprised to find out how well it suited me. Britney has this deep, low pocket that she slides into, and it seemed to wrap around my voice like a form-fitting dress. After it scratched a few grooves into my synapses, I tried out the DVD and studied the moves of the ship’s dancers. (I ignored their Britney, who was Aunt-Zelda-sings-at-your-wedding awful.) If I could work a little of the choreography into my audition, it would give me a nice edge. I pushed our bed to the cabin wall and put myself through some paces. It was pretty sexy stuff; I caught Harry peeking from the bathroom as he shaved.
The costume was a cinch. I picked out a short pleated skirt (intended for some imaginary night of dancing), shiny black shoes that might pass for patent leather, and white knee-high stockings. Then I stole Harry’s white dress shirt and tied it above my bare midriff. Voila! The classic parochial slut, and we were off to the bar.
Little do I know, I have become a cause celebre. The regulars are pretty cheesed off about the Red Sea incident, and impressed that I am now risking four-time loserdom. A group of Japanese tourists has migrated to the front row for the sole purpose of cheering me on. I am the 1980 U.S. hockey team, the 1969 Jets. When I begin with Peggy Lee’s “Fever” (designed to work up my “sexy”), the crowd lets out a practice uproar.
Come audition time, I’m up first, and I guess I’m better than I expected. I have wisely inserted my dance moves into the generous spaces between the vocal lines, so I can concentrate on one task at a time. Rolling into the ending, I strike a pose at each of four beats, raking a hand along my skirt and over my hair as I arch my back. The place goes nuts.
But then, out comes my competition, and I have every right to be nervous. If you didn’t tell me otherwise, I’d say it is Britney, this 19-year-old chicklet with legs up to Canada, an utterly fantastic ass, nice rack, big Hollywood lips and a head of hair that rains down in thick ribbons of blondeness. She’s a fucking shampoo commercial. The music begins, she vamps to the front of the stage and out comes this voice like an LP played with a concrete needle.
Game over, right? Don’t bet on it. Because Britney II has an entourage of fratboys, and it’s almost as if she’s offered a night of carnal pleasures to whoever yells the loudest. On the first vote, in fact, the ovations are too close to call. But this only serves to piss off my fans even more. A short, bespectacled man jumps in front of his Japanese peers to cheerlead, and when Lani’s hand pops open over my head I am blown backward by the loudest, scariest sound I’ve heard since a Navy air show on Whidbey Island. I am deafened, I am adored, and even a pack of horny fratboys cannot match it. Lani brings the mic to her mouth, declares “I think it’s Ruby!” and my fans burst forth in a fugue of coyote yips. My life-long dream of playing Britney Spears has come to pass.
By now you’re probably wondering about my talented boyfriend. Unlike me, Harry was no slut for every passing star. He wanted only to be the King. Even though the part of Elvis was the final male audition, making this an all-or-nothing attempt, he would consider no other. As it turned out, his loyalty was richly rewarded – because nobody else tried out. Harry was summarily crowned, and asked to sing “Hound Dog” as proof of his prowess. He was excellent, of course, but I gave him a whack on the butt nonetheless, for the gross inequity of our respective situations.
We spent the next day kayaking – and perhaps that’s another reason I got so attached to it. We paddled within the glow of victory, and I could barely hear the sounds of frigate birds, motorboats or waves on rocks with “Hit Me Baby One More Time” playing interminably through my head (without, I might add, the assistance of an IPod). That afternoon, I discovered what a small, magnified community is a cruise ship, and how quickly word of my travails had spread. My biggest fans were the seniors, who relished the fact that someone who sang their songs could beat a teenybopper at her own generation’s music. Strangers would shout to me in the corridors – “Hey Britney!” “Karaoke girl!” “Go get ‘em, Ruby!” – and whenever we came upon my Japanese posse, they weren’t happy until I hugged each and every one of them. That night’s dinner was a formal-dress affair, and when I entered the hall in my jade-green sequin gown, they applauded me. It felt like some wacky Fred Astaire musical, and I ate it up like crème brulee.
You might expect Harry to be taken aback by all of this, perhaps even a little jealous – he was Elvis, after all. But Harry was precisely the opposite, confident enough in his own talent to understand that my four-part battle had become something extraordinary. He had a permanent goofy grin plastered to his mug, and he never tired of telling everybody that he was sleeping with Britney Spears. I think he was also proud that everybody else was finding out about his talented girlfriend, and excited that he would finally get to see me in my element. It didn’t hurt when the Japanese contingent would bow down in mock worship and chant “Ellll-vis! Ellll-vis!”
The show was actually pretty easy. They had done it cruise after cruise for God knows how long, and had it carefully programmed for shaky amateurs. After donning our costumes (available in three different sizes), we adjourned to the “green room,” which was really just a small landing next to this metallic, Navy-looking stairwell. Harry’s Elvis costume – the white Vegas jumpsuit – seemed to turn him into the class cutup, and he went around punching holes in the tension. He turned to Melanie, in her early-Madonna see-through dress, and said, “I hate to mention this, honey, but we can see your underwear!” I also remember our lead showgirl, Holly – she of the perfect six-foot body – using the stairway rails to stretch in ways that would probably send the rest of us to the hospital.
Playing the youngest of the icons, I had to wait an interminable amount of time before my escort, a lovely gay dancer named Geoffrey, came to whisk me away. We braced ourselves beside the entrance, elbows coupled, listening for the cue in Britney’s intro (I believe it was the word “vixen”), and then he gives me a tug and leads me to a star at center stage. My job is to sing the song without straying from that star, lest I trip up one of the schoolgirls in my “posse,” but of course I’m after brownie points. Britney II and her fratboys have every right to be suspicious about the way the same moves I used in my audition are matching up with those of the dancers. The audience just knows, instinctively, that something about my performance is “tighter” than the others. I jolt into that same four-pose ending and freeze with my troupe, taking a loofah shower in the sound of 3,000 hands. It is indescribably sweet.
Geoffrey comes to fetch me back, and we stand in the wings as Harry does his stuff. He definitely has the best production values in the show: the classic 2001: Space Odyssey intro, followed by a verse of “Hound Dog,” followed by “Jailhouse Rock” with a half-dozen twirling babes in Ray-bans and Capri pants. He throws in a couple of leg-waggles and sings his usual excellence, eliding one forgotten phrase with what he calls the Elvis Mumble.
Holly Perfectbody comes to lead him off, and then comes a surprisingly touching elegy: a spotlight on an empty stool as we listen to clips of Sinatra talking about his life. Michael, a journalist from Seattle, comes out in a tux and short-brimmed fedora to sing “My Way” in a voice eerily similar to the original. As the orchestra wells up, the rest of the legends return, and our escorts walk us through a simple choreography. We take our final bows (more loofah, pass the shampoo) and run up the aisle to a nearby lounge for photos. I was tugged away by Harry, who continued talking like Elvis as he kissed away a major portion of my makeup.
“Hey Priscilla, wanna celebrate?”
“And what do you call what you just did?”
“That’s just preliminaries, bebe.”
“Well first we’d better return these getups.”
He ran a hand under the hem of my plaid skirt. “Sure they wouldn’t let you keep this just a little longer?”
I had no choice but to squeak like a Mouseketeer. “Mr. Presley! You bad, bad man. I’m gonna tell Colonel Parker on you.”
“I’m pretty sure he’d be on my side. Meet me in the Mattress Lounge?”
“That’s Matisse, you pedophile.”
“Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Harry held my shoulders, keeping me still with those blue eyes, and spoke like Harry again.
“Seriously, Ruby. You were incredible up there. I never dreamed you were that good.”
I kissed him thoroughly and sent him off to the men’s dressing room with a slap to the hindquarters. He gave me a pistolshot with his fingers, said, “Thankyou. Thankyouvermuch,” and joined James Brown in a march backstage.
Between chit-chatting with Aretha and Gloria (silently forgiving them for beating me), receiving my compliments from Geoffrey (“I had you picked out as a pro from square one”) and swapping back into my civilian clothes, I was the last one out of the dressing room. When I came back out on stage, the theater was profoundly empty. I have a superstition that goes, Any time you see a mark, hit it, so I ambled up to the star and buried its east and west points under my pumps. A burst of short-term memory washes over me, but it flutters away like a riverbank of butterflies and I arrive at a wall of sadness, as if my veins have all gone indigo. A surge of gravity yanks me seaward, but I fight it, pressing down on that star and turning my legs into treetrunks, letting the tears do what they may.
You could forgive me for thinking it’s God – a gruff, booming baritone emanating from stage left. I twist from my star to discover a large man in a double-breasted navy suit. He seems to be in his mid-fifties, balding, with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, but he exudes a virile energy – executive bouncer, high-class Mafioso.
“Stage blues,” he says. “You’ve hit an emotional peak, and now the moment’s gone. It’s all downhill from here – but at least it’s a tall hill.”
I perform a few eye rubs to clean the slate.
“No offense, but who the hell are you?”
He lets out a guffaw on a single note, like the ones produced by opera singers during party scenes. “Haw! I’m Albert Camarelli, and I’m quite a fan. You are a marvelous singer.”
“Thank you, Mr. Camarelli.”
“Please. You can call me Al.”
“Al.” I take a second to scan the empty seats, trying to put a name to my symptoms. “But you’re wrong, Al. I’m familiar with stage blues. I’m a… professional. And I’m wondering why I had to work so fucking hard to get this stupid, shitty little part.”
“There are no small parts, just…”
“Oh save it, Al!” And here I am, crying again. Al comes over and places a hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry. Shouldn’t throw cliches at a pro. Would you like to take a walk with me on deck? Just for a few minutes?”
This seems a little forward, but Al’s aura emanates benevolence.
“You should know,” I say, “I’m already taken.”
He smiles. “Everybody knows that. You and Elvis are the golden couple. He’s pretty good, too. Nowhere near as good as you.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Honey, there’s jazz and then there’s the easy stuff. You’re a jazz singer.”
I turn and do a little squeegee job on my face.
“You’ve heard me sing jazz?”
“And I’m a jazz singer?”
“Okay, Al. Let’s go for a walk.”
I take a last, doleful look at my star before following Al up the aisle. The elevator opens on the forward pool area, populated by a few late-night drinkers and a chain-smoking teen in a Ramones T-shirt.
“Britney! You are hot, honey.”
“Thanks,” I say.
We walk a few feet more and Al says, “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
I flash him a secret grin. “A teenage boy just called me ‘hot,’ Al. What do you think?”
“Haw! Mind if I puff a stogie? It’s a Cuban, so it’s now or never.”
“Nah. Go ahead.”
Al turns away from the breeze, cups his hand and lights up. I wander toward the railing, eyeing the low strip of Baja California, a handful of lights popping from the darkness. Al joins me, proffering his prize.
“Care for a puff?”
“Sure.” I twirl the tip in my mouth and take a drag. The smoke carries a rich coffee edge, plus something unexpectedly sweet, like a good port.
“That is lovely,” I say.
“You’ve done this before.”
“I’ve got a friend who smokes Swisher Sweets.”
“Egad! On purpose?” He takes it back, tips the ash into a designated container (installed after balcony passengers down below found themselves being attacked by flurries of gray snow), then works the end into an orange glow.
“So! Ruby. Would you play some word association with me?”
“But Not For Me.”
“Straighten Up and Fly Right.”
“Nat King Cole. The trio years.”
“Take a famous instrumental solo and apply lyrics to it. Created by Lambert, Hendricks and the incomparable Ross.”
“Ooh! Billy Eckstine. Smokey stuff.”
Al stops and turns because he thinks he’s got a meaty one.
“Mack the Knife.”
“Merry little tune about a serial killer. Kurt Weill, for The Threepenny Opera with Bertolt Brecht. They told him the show needed a prologue to explain the main character; on the way home, he heard a trolley playing that familiar three-note motif: doo doo doo doo. Famously recorded by Louis, Ella, Frank and of course Bobby D. Weill also wrote Moon of Alabama, recorded by the Doors, and September Song.”
“Um, uh…” Al is running out of steam. “A Small Hotel?”
“Rodgers and Hart. Al? Are we playing Jeopardy?”
He comes to some kind of decision and snaps his fingers. “No. You’re it, Ruby.”
“So we’re playing tag? Yaknow, I’ve really got to meet Elvis in the Matisse…”
“No!” We’ve arrived at the aft swimming pool. He waves me into a chair. “Just two more minutes, I swear.”
I take a seat as Al heads for the bar. He takes out a key and opens a cabinet, then returns with two glasses and a bottle of champagne.
“Al! You’re gonna get in trouble.”
He gives me a wink. “It’s all right. I’ve got connections.” He pops the cork, fills us up and raises a toast. “May you never have to sing Britney Spears ever again.”
“You devil! You have come up with something I cannot refuse to drink to.”
Al sits down and arranges his legs until he’s comfortable, then he leans forward and laces his fingers.
“I’ve been watching you all week, Ruby. It takes a real connoisseur to know how good you are, and I knew it after three seconds. I spent the rest of the week making sure that I wasn’t hallucinating. You have this ability with a song, to mold it, craft it like a fine sculptor – and God forbid, have a little fun with it. What you don’t have is this godawful need to flatten out the tone and sap out all the warmth.”
“Like Diana Krall?” I ask.
He laughs. “As in, makes my skin Krall. No. You have this marvelous old-fashioned sensibility that never, ever should have gone out of style. Actual vibrato, actual phrasing – call it torch singing, or vocal acting. The seniors appreciate it, because they grew up with it, but only two people on this fucking ship understand precisely what makes it work, and they’re both sitting at this table.”
I smile and take another sip of Al’s very good champagne. “You know, Al? As long as you’re not some highly articulate stalker, I could get to like you.”
“Haw! That’s good, because you might be seeing a lot of me.”
“Um… Okay. Why?”
“I’m the vice president of this cruise line, Ruby. I’m also the entertainment director. We get a lot of older passengers on our Alaskan cruises – people who still know and love the great songs. For that and my own purely selfish reasons, I’ve decided to set up an old-fashioned jazz club, just like the ones you would see in one of those old Astaire movies, and fit it out with a small orchestra and a singer. And I want you to be the singer.”
That’s about the time I lose it. I slam the table with both hands and yell “No!” spilling half my coffee and alarming the couple at the next table.
“Yes!” says Ruby. “I start next month.”
“That is incredible! That is… Oh! Oh Ruby!” I circle the table to give her a hug, and then I grab a handful of napkins to sop up my coffee. It’s amazing how quickly my thoughts revert to my own selfish needs.
“But… Does this mean you’re leaving?”
“Not at all. The cruises are out of Seattle. A week on/week off kind of thing.”
I feel a little dizzy, awash with joy. It’s true – empathy is a workable drug. But I’ve got one more doubt.
“Is this… Is this enough for you?”
Ruby tents her fingers. “I believe the quote was, I will no longer chase a dream that doesn’t chase me. Well honey, this particular dream stalked me for a week and then toasted me with champagne and Cuban cigars! And I think by now I’ve got a handle on my basic needs. I need to stand in front of people and sing to them. If it’s on a cruise ship, an entire country away from Times Square, then so be it!”
We both relax into our chairs, chewing our perfect bread. Ruby lets out little aspirations of wonder left over from the Mexican Pacific. Then she snaps to and raps her knuckles on the table.
“Oh, Channy. Me me me! I completely forgot – did you hear anything about Kai?”
Don’t think I’m not tempted. I have huge, carnivorous creatures crawling inside of me, and if I don’t expose them to the light of day they will eat me alive. But I am not about to rain on such a spectacular parade.
“Nope,” I say. “Haven’t heard a thing.”
Photo by MJV