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He has sighted the torpedo making for the boat, but he has no idea what to do. He is angry at Derek, but for what? Being too keen an observer? Too masterful a writer? It’s his own damn fault – the kid was raised on the First Amendment. How could a Constitutional scholar introduce censorship into his own house? What he needed was a deeper understanding, and there was one obvious place to get it.
“Hi. What’s up?”
“It’s about this poem.”
“I hope I didn’t overexpose you on that. But I think most of the kids know you play bass, and it’s really a funny poem.”
“No. The other one.”
“Oh. The Caterpillars?”
“It’s about my wife.”
“Oh.” Silence. The flipping of pages. “Oh geez. Oh. I am so sorry. I get so much of this fairy-tale stuff. You would think an English teacher would be better at sniffing out an allegory.”
“It’s okay,” says David. “I mean, shit, you can’t tell a kid not to write about his own family. I’m just trying to figure out how to handle it.”
“Can you meet me tonight?”
“Is that a good idea?”
“Oh stop it, you moron. Just trust me on this. Meet me at McKenzie’s at eleven-thirty.”
McKenzie’s is a pretty standard neighborhood bar, but it affords certain advantages that attract some of the better karaoke singers. The low ceiling and modest surroundings provide a comfortable setting and excellent acoustics. The host, Captain Kirk, is good with a soundboard and not given to radio-DJ yakking – a rare combination. The singers perform in a cave-like room slightly separated from the main area and bathed in red light. This creates an impression that you’re watching the singers on a very large television, but the performers seem to find it reassuring, like an acoustic womb.
David crosses the parking lot, full of doubts. His late-night constitutionals have provided a certain window for covert operations, but in such a small town the slightest whiff of teacherly hanky-panky is bound to cover the peninsula like a fast-moving fog. He finds Abbey at a back table and gives her a hug before heading off for a beer. Mrs. Lorenson from the post office is giving a reasonable approximation of “Black Velvet.”
“Are you a participant?”
“I try.” She’s twirling a strand of hair, a teenage move that makes him nervous. “I sorta stick to the eighties – the music of my generation.”
“Good stuff. Any thoughts on my brilliant kid?”
She pulls out a copy of the anthology and opens it to Derek’s poems.
“First point. The Orca is a large mammal, but also a beautiful one. ‘…clothed in dazzling lava-lamp patterns of black and white.’ Best line in the poem. The swallowtail is also beautiful – with markings that mimic the Orca’s. The poet admires his parents, and understands the deep connections between them, but he also sees this troublesome gap threatening to break them up. He doesn’t need punishment; he needs reassurance.”
David takes a moment to gather this in. Captain Kirk introduces Johnny Q, who works in the produce section at Sav-Mor. He wiggles his way into “Heartbreak Hotel.”
“So why do I still feel like giving him a kick in the ass?”
“Because he has placed you in a precarious situation, and pushed you toward a round of truth-telling with your wife that you have been putting off. Because you feel guilty and superficial for even bringing it up.”
“Jesus! Slow down. All this insight is freakin’ me out.”
“Sorry. I call it my Inner Parthenia.”
She holds up her remaining hand. “Oh yeah. Not much need for psychotherapy here.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ll soon be a client myself. Hey, one other thing. Is this really a poem?”
“Good question. We got short-shorts, flash fiction, microfiction… Derek opted for prose poetry, which carries the elevated tone and compression of poetry without the usual stanzas and line breaks. Oh! I’m up.”
She sings “Allison” by Elvis Costello. Her voice is solid but pedestrian, marked by the usual amateur lack of breath support. She returns to the table looking sheepish.
“Oh God I hope I didn’t suck.”
“Beat hell out of most of our auditioners.”
She takes a sip from her whiskey sour. A large man gets up to sing “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”
“By the way,” she says. “I consider your son’s poems the best in the anthology. He is remarkably gifted, and he manages to entirely avoid the teenage love of abstractions.”
“Non-specific words – words that don’t deliver an image. ‘Sadness.’ ‘Abomination.’ ‘Loyalty.’ Notice the difference if I say ‘hydrangea,’ ‘pancake,’ ‘blaxploitation soundtrack.’”
“So I’ll have a starving poet to go with my agoraphobic pizza manager.”
“Maybe he’ll get a job as an English teacher.”
“Oh! Like there’s any future in that.”
She delivers a backhand to his biceps. He rubs it dramatically.
“Yow! Remind me not to give you any more weightlifting tips. One-armed monster.”
She smiles. “So refreshing to be openly abused for my handicap.”
“Oh! So now we’re using the H-word?”
“Can I drive a stick? No. That’s a handicap.” She looks to the red room. “Ah. You’re about to see the real reason I dragged you here.”
Captain Kirk introduces a singer named Billy, a bearded man dressed all in denim. Unlike the other singers, Billy uses the stand, loosening the midgrip before adjusting the height and pressing the mic into the clip. The KJ brings up the screen: “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” a Sinatra arrangement.
The song begins with one of those Tin Pan Alley preludes. The accompaniment is spare but Billy’s right on it, a rich, unforced baritone, handling the high skips with ease. He’s got that Sinatran quality of convincing you that he’s just a guy in a bar, telling a story. But then the strings kick in and he’s painting a banner of coffee-colored torment; the tone rises and ebbs like a wave, falling back to the conversation.
David is not entirely surprised to find that it’s the man behind the hotel – but here he’s unrestricted, amplified, and taking full advantage. He softshoes the minor intervals of the bridge, giving it the feel of a man perched in the clouds, contemplating his life. The strings well up and he’s back on the ground, a searing double forte, leaning away from the mic so he doesn’t blow out the speakers. He cuts the sound so drastically that it sends a shock through the room; he issues the final restatement at a groomed whisper, then opts for the kind of unresolved end-note that Mel Torme favored, spelling it out till it dissolves in the air. The quiet hangs thick, till it’s cut through with applause.
David finds Abbey grinning at him.
“You’re like a hawk studying a mouse.”
“He’s awesome. Does he need work?”
“Honey, I got nothin’. And that is so much more than nothin’.”
“Okay. Um, listen. I better go get him. He disappears pretty quickly. So I’ll see you at school.”
“Shouldn’t I meet him?”
“Look. I won’t B.S. you. Billy’s a little… okay, a lot weird. He doesn’t respond well to direct approaches.”
“Like a feral cat.”
“Exactly. And you probably won’t get him for a rehearsal, either. But he’s good, and you’re desperate.”
“Marriage made in heaven.”
Abbey grabs her purse and gives David a kiss on the cheek. “Bye, hon.” Then she looks around at the crowded bar. “Whoops!”
A man in a black cowboy hat gets up to sing “Walking in Memphis.” David takes it as a sign, downs his last swallow and starts for home. He sees his jacket in the window – black with a yellow collar. Like a swallowtail butterfly.
Photo by MJV