The Karaoke Singer

Winston Church tightened the thin jacket about his shoulders, turned up the collar and stepped out the alley door of his office building. A sharp, cold wind, the kind that blows in off the Pacific and turns the streets of the financial district into arctic wind tunnels, slammed into him. “Frickin July in San Francisco,” he said under his breath and began the long walk home.

A SamTrans bus nearly ran him down as he crossed Mission. After a brief exchange of one-finger salutes, he continued to walk up First, fuming now and thinking about the Fast Pass card he’d lost earlier in the week. Winston didn’t mind the walk on a nice day but on one like this, a quick, warm ride on the 10 Townsend would have been welcome. Problem was, if he spent money on bus fare today, he’d come up short for lunch money tomorrow and Advanced Diddling didn’t pass out paychecks until the end of the day. You’d think a high-tech, dot-com start-up like AD, creators of the top virtual porn games Debbie Does Cyberspace, Behind the CyberDoor and Deep CyberThroat, would at least have direct deposit.

Winston hated computer games in general and hated working at AD in particular, but he especially hated the Twinkie-eating, Jolt-swilling Brad Starling, wunderkind programming star of AD. The pimple-faced little geek was every cliche a code pounder could be. Annoying to a fault, Starling got a kick out of riffing off Winston’s name with an absurd and not very well done British accent, always coming around with an ‘old chap’ this and ‘jolly good’ that and telling Winston ‘there was nothing to fear but fear itself’. Didn’t the twerp know it was FDR who said that, not Churchill? And if the dweeb was such a genius, why hadn’t he come up with original titles for his stupid games?

Winston kicked at a soda can in the gutter, smashing his toe against the curb. Howling in pain, he hopped onto the sidewalk and around the corner that led to the rear door of his apartment house. Waste Management had missed the Dumpster again and garbage spilled out onto the alleyway. Great, he thought, now the misfits who lived in this dump would just set their garbage out in the hallway, making the whole place smell like a landfill. Not that it smelled all that great to begin with.

As Winston limped down the hall, the anger high he’d been on since the SamTrans incident began to slip down the slope into depression. Fumbling with his key in the lock, he step inside his apartment and there on the floor were the scattered pieces of the nearly complete jigsaw puzzle he’d spent the last month trying to put together. He turned the corner into the livingroom and there on the table where the puzzle had once been were the three peacefully sleeping kittens he’d rescued from the alley the day before.

‘This is not my beautiful house’, he thought, as he sat heavily in the only soft chair he owned. A broken spring poked him and he shifted uncomfortably. Not my beautiful life. Certainly not where he’d thought he’d be when he’d graduated from college. He’d been on top of the world then, hell-fired and ready to scramble up that ladder. And now, here he was twenty years later working as a copy boy/gopher at an Anime porn shop for just over minimum wage, living in a dingy dump of a flophouse apartment with three kittens he couldn’t afford to feed. As he reached out to pet them, they woke, jumped from their perch and raced away from him across the floor.

This would be his fate, he thought, watching them as they disappeared into the shadows, to end up one of those old guys living in a one room apartment eating liver and onions and hoarding old toasters and bicycle seats scrounged from the streets. The only mail he’d receive would be store circulars and pre-approved credit card applications which he would pile neatly on a table by the door using the phone that never rang as a paperweight. His tiny room would become a maze of stacked newspapers and magazines and he’d spend his days wandering that maze, muttering to himself while a hundred cats swept in and out between his shuffling feet.

The kittens began to scatter the puzzle pieces.

Winston hung his head and began to cry.

A chime sounded from somewhere in the kitchen.

Winston’s head came up and the tears stopped.

It was Thursday.

How could he have forgotten it was Thursday? He glanced at his wrist, remembering with a pang of regret that he’d had to pawn the Seiko again, the watch his father had given him for graduation. Leaping from his chair, he ran to the kitchen just as the chime sounded again. Six o’clock. It was Karaoke night at the Minna Street Bar and if he hurried he could get his selections to the DJ and find a quiet single seat.

After a quick shower, he hurriedly dressed in his Thursday only outfit; a pair of neatly pressed 501s, a western shirt with pearl buttons and the blindingly polished, silver toed Justin boots. Fifteen minutes later he was standing outside the grubby little pizza-by-the-slice place that was the front third of the Minna Street Bar. Most everyone entered the bar from Minna but Winston had learned long ago that one could also enter through the pizza place that fronted on Mission. This way he could come up from behind the stage and avoid running into any early arriving patrons.

It wasn’t that he was afraid of people, it was just that people made him nervous. The short, meaningless ‘hi, how’s it going, have a good day’ kind of conversations were no problem. It was when they became more complicated that he ran into trouble. The perfect sentences he would form in his head would become like puppies at play, running and jumping and rolling in the dirt so that when they emerged from his mouth they were all rumpled and twisted and his tongue would wag in embarrassment.

The evening passed, the bar filled and after enough drinks were consumed the first tentative warblers made their way to the stage, crucifying such popular songs as Seger’s Night Moves, Browne’s Tender is the Night and a particularly horrid rendition of Little Richard’s Good Golly Miss Molly. Winston sat through it all, alone, sipping the single Beck’s Dark he would allow himself that evening.

As the hands of the clock moved inexorably toward closing time, a restlessness began to ripple through the crowd. It was Thursday, after all. A couple of drinks, a little socializing, some good natured ribbing of friends over a few butchered ballads was all fine and dandy but tomorrow was another work day and it was nearing time to call it a night. The DJ, sensing this, looked over at Winston and nodded. Winston swallowed the last swallow of his Beck’s, stood and walked to the stage.

Some of the non-regulars in the crowd were paying their tab and getting ready to leave when the first notes of the Grateful Dead’s Friend of the Devil began to play and Winston began to sing. He sang it slower, more in the style Lyle Lovett had sung it than the original Dead, and by the time the devil had loaned him twenty bills, those who’d been leaving had sat down, their mouths agape with wonder, and the only sound in the place was the music and Winston’s voice.

He had planned to do Seger’s Night Moves himself but it had been botched several times that night so he switched over to Steve Earle’s Fort Worth Blues instead. The waitresses stood transfixed about the room, laden trays in hand. No one took a drink of anything.

The DJ did a sweet job of segueing from Earle to Harry Chapin’s Mr. Tanner and Winston didn’t miss a beat. There came barely a pause between Chapin and the last song of his set, Tom Waits’ On The Nickle. As he sang, an earthquake would have gone unnoticed in the room. Waits himself would have been impressed.

As the last notes faded, Winston, his head bowed, sweat streaming down his face, took a deep breath and blew it out, set the microphone in its stand and walked through the silent crowd to the Minna Street exit. He was half way down the street before the muffled sound of explosive applause reached his ears.

The night was warm and fresh, the tangy scent of the ocean heavy in the air. The distant sound of the applause faded and became the sound of the city at night. The fog had blown out and the dark sky was filled with stars. Winston stared at the configurations, tracing the constellations he knew and vowing to learn the ones he didn’t.

Turning up the alleyway behind his apartment, he noticed that Waste Management had emptied the Dumpster. He took a last, deep breath of the sweet sea air and stepped inside the building. Someone had mopped the floor and the hallway smelled of pine trees. He unlocked the door to his apartment and pushed the door aside. There, waiting for him in a semicircle of multi-colored fur on the far side of the welcome mat were the three kittens.

He hesitated, smiled, and reached down to scratch their heads. As he lifted the smallest of the three, its claw hooked the mat and moved it aside. There, a little dusty but none the worse for wear, was his Fast Pass.

Albuquerque, New Mexico
September, 2008

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