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karaoket.jpgPhoto by Whistling in the Dark
When I worked in the store next to the Lantzville pub, I used to sell cigarettes to the bar girls who came in on Saturday nights. The ones who would stand poised in their eye makeup, staring at the rows of cigarettes, occasionally wrenching a sports bra back into position on a shoulder, hands full of folded two-dollar bills. “Pack of Player’s Light,” they would say through their absolute and blinding bar girl beauty—which, unbeknownst to me then, was fleeting: it would move over them quickly, only to disappear years later or at least become diluted in the gallons of Molson Canadian they poured. “Pack of Player’s Plain, pack of Benson and Hedges Gold, and two DuMaurier Special Mild. And put them on our tab.” I would stack them on the counter.
This was the first pub I entered when I finally said goodbye to vomiting on local beaches because I could drink legally. And it’s the first pub I’ve come to since I’ve been home. Now it’s Tuesday night, Karaoke Night. Four people are present. The blonde hostess near the speakers is holding up an oversized CD. She’s making eye contact, telling a couple that if they want to sing while sitting in their chairs, well, she can arrange that, definitely arrange that. The only other person is an elderly man in a baseball cap, who sits in the darkness next to the pool table, twisting a cane in his palm. There’s a black Lab at his feet.
The video screens above show young women cavorting on beaches while the words “It’s just another Manic Monday” scroll overtop. On the table is the list of songs, printed out by someone known as The Town Rocker. There’s a jar on the counter collecting money to help rescue the feral cats of Lantzville. Someone’s dropped a golf ball in.
The hostess unfurls her microphone cable till it reaches the couple’s table. The male half, a wide-shouldered man in grey jogging pants, finally, and after much prodding from his wife, stands up and starts the karaoke evening in earnest, though he’s decided to speak-sing. “It’s not unusual,” he says, as if instructing a first aid workshop, “to fall in love with anyone. It’s not unusual.” He looks across at his wife. “To see me cry.”
Wednesday is pasta night, Thursday rib night. When I worked at the store next to this pub I would sometimes haul garbage down the alley, past men urinating against the wall. This is a small town where everyone knows everyone else, so they greeted me, and I said hello and stepped over the stream trickling along the concrete.
The old man has come in from the pool room and is talking to the hostess. His dog remains curled by his chair.
“What would you like to sing tonight?” the hostess says in her friendly voice. “What would you like to rock to?” Her hands always seem to be holding one of those giant laser discs, turning it over, fondling it.
“I just want to make comments,” the man replies.
“What do you mean, you just want to make comments?”
“I can’t read. So I just want to. . .” He makes a few slow circles with his hand. “I just want to talk along with a song.”
She puts a hand on her hip and cocks her head. The things you see on karaoke night, I think for her. Someone has strung cotton cobwebs across the window and hung two plastic skeletons in the doorway in preparation for the Halloween party on Saturday.
“Well, all right then,” she says cheerfully. “It’s your night. These are your songs, after all.” She spins the giant disc on her finger and turns toward the console with a smile. “Would you mind if I sang along with you?”
“Not at all, darling.”
There’s never silence in karaoke because silence is the enemy, the point of realization, like when the lights come up in a nightclub and we all see how ugly and untalented we really are. The man sits there under the video screen, which is now showing highways and tumbleweed and men who look like Randy Travis. He’s nodding his head, eyes closed, tapping his knees while his dog, which has waddled over, fiddles on the floor and tries to get its front leg in the right position. The hostess takes up her stance beside the old man, performing the hips-back-and-forth dance movements of a seasoned karaokess. When the song starts, her timing is better than perfect. Even before the letters scroll she’s singing “On the Road Again” with a jauntiness never imagined by Willie Nelson. “Just can’t wait to be on the road again.”
When her chorus ends, the beats bop on, the first verse begins and the man’s voice fills the room, overamplified, gravelly and rough. It’s not a singer’s voice, not even a talker’s voice.
“We’ll be back travelling again,” he says into the microphone as the song plays underneath. “Me and my black dog / We might hit the road up to Port Alberni at some point / We’ll be seeing you / Maybe . . .”
But the verse has ended, and before he can say anything else she’s there, charging in with the chorus, an amphetamined Tammy Wynette. The words drift across the monitor in white and turn blood red as their moment comes and goes.
“Your turn,” she says after the chorus is done. But the man’s got his head down, dropped into his chest, and he’s tapping his hands on his knees to the beat.
“Your turn,” she says again. Her pinched face, her karaoke professionalism, is starting to infringe on the moment. The couple watch expectantly. The bopping rhythms of synthesized Willie play on.
Finally the old man lifts his head. His cap has a logging company logo on it and from the angle I’m watching him I can see out beyond the brim to the street lamp, the curve of Dickinson Road, the ocean down the hill. The words move defiantly across the screen, but he can’t read them.
“Your turn,” she says.
After a pause, his voice comes out of the speakers. “We’ll all travel together / We’ll need some gas / We’ll have to stop for some food at some point / Perhaps we’ll stop at some sort of rest stop / Pick us up if you see us by the side of the road / I’m on the road again.”
With a tap-tappity-tap drum roll, the song ends. The karaokess dips down into the same ornate bow she gives after each of her songs until a sharp squeal of feedback interrupts her. The couple’s hands leap from their chicken fingers to their ears and stay there until the bar is quiet, or almost quiet. There’s a sound coming from the speakers unlike any other tonight. It’s loud and wet, like waves from the ferry wake pounding the beach in quick succession. The old man is nodding his head to the kitchen staff in acknowledgement of their applause. He’s dropped his microphone to his side and his black Lab, now propped on one leg, is tenderly licking its metallic head. For a few moments, his amplified tongue is all we can hear at the Lantzville.