Here’s the deal. You go to a baseball game. You’re a spectator so you sit, you eat hotdogs, drink beer and you watch. You clap, you scream, rally for your team, rage on the other team, whatever. You’re there to have a good time. You don’t get on the field and pretend that you can play!
Well, that’s what we contend with night after night when we sing. The damn half-wits screeching and bellowing out drunken babblings, butting in on our time and space. Yeah, I know you’ll tell me it is amateur night. It’s called Karaoke and that’s what the name entails. It’s singing for every horse’s ass who needs a little extra attention.
I’ve got some theories I wish someone would finally put into practice. I’ve always believed in sterilization. I believe in leaving the work to the pros. A plumber doesn’t ask an electrician to get in that septic tank and clean out the pipes. Too many goddamn people on this planet wreaking havoc and just plain reeking. Too many artists pretending to be artists. Too many politicians, period. Too many Walmarts and too many performance artists who all rake themselves into the same category because there’s nowhere else to go. We need more of you to just sit your fat carcasses on the couch and watch. Or not watch. Just don’t participate. That’s all I’m saying.
We are the MeloMosh Mavericks. We have done our time. We have been blasting it out in my garage with the karaoke machine set up for years. It’s like goddamn Juilliard in there. We meet up every Tuesday night for karaoke night at The Cowbell and Saturday nights at Slim’s Bar and Grill. We don’t drink. We sing what melds in with our range. My name’s Mazurka. I sing Abba, Prince and Elvis. Those are my particular specialties. We each have our favorites and don’t stray far from them. And we never miss a competition. Tonight’s the biggest one of the year. The MeloMosh Mavericks are up against The Shakespearean Sonics. Those bastards won the trophy last year and we’ve been working it day and night for the last few weeks to get ready to snatch it from their overwrought vocal chords.
All four of us are sitting at our designated table near Deejay Babyback, who will also be one of the judges. Across from us on the other side of the bar are The Shakespearean Sonics dressed in their glistening sparkle and glitter trash. We had already done our vocal warm-ups and popped some Xanax before we left for the bar. We are as ready as we’ll ever be.
We gather around the big black book first thing, and write down five songs a piece. We know to get there early enough to warm up the audience, get them to like us. I’ve been practicing a couple new songs all week, any chance I can get – in my car, in my office with the door closed, in the shower. Mazurka has agreed on a duet with me, a little “Love Shack.” I’ve always wanted to sing it and tonight is just the night for it. I’ve also decided to sing some Pat Benatar, even though most of the regulars will try to sing it. I figure there is no harm in stealing someone else’s song as long as I do it better.
The four of us sit down and flip through the big black book, turning in paper after paper to DJ Babyback. We have a system – the more songs you sign up for, the more stage time you get, the more likely you are to impress the judges. We want that trophy. We’ve been working toward this all year.
When Ben walks in, I know immediately he is there. I can smell him. My ex-boyfriend always smells like he’s showered in motor oil and soap. My group members cringe in their seats. When I was with Ben, I’d had laryngitis 14 times. The doctor had even said it was some kind of strange phenomenon – a laryngitis cluster. It was similar to headache clusters or cycles where you basically just had to live through them. My group had to find another singer every once in a while and on other nights, I’d only been able to sing along with others. I was horrified when my voice cracked on stage in front of people – singing was kind of therapeutic and without it, I’d been a bit more depressed. It had to have been Ben’s hell, our fighting, my yelling at him at three in the morning, the way he made me cry over dinner. Of course, we could never really prove the laryngitis was his fault, but ever since we’d broken up, I’d been able to be on stage every night, no problem. He’d probably only heard me sing four songs in our entire two year relationship.
“Just ignore him,” Mazurka says, squeezing my wrist. “Pretend he doesn’t exist. Remember, he smells like your dad, anyway. That’s creepy.”
I nod, checking my watch. My dad had been a mechanic like Ben. It had always weirded me out a little. No wonder I could smell him from this far away. Babyback is setting up. The bar lights dim so everything goes quiet, hushes with a soft purple hue. My cheeks feel warm.
A bartender stops at our table and sets four martinis down. “Pomegranate,” she says. “From the dude in the brown jacket.” She points to Ben who is sitting at the bar talking to the short blond member of the Shakespearean Sonics. He doesn’t look back at us.
“I read once that the devil tempted Eve with a pomegranate, not an apple,” I say to my group. They laugh. Even still, I feel tempted to drink the martini. This had been one of my weaknesses when Ben and I had been together. Two or three of these, and I’d be the easiest girl in the bar, willing to flash the first person who asked just to prove I had the best boobs in the place.
Ben still chats with the short blond girl, and I notice her perfect calf muscles. He loves the athletic ones. Instinctively, I sip the martini in front of me. Shrug. One couldn’t hurt, could it?
Babyback finally gets the music started. He always sings first to get the crowd a little tipsy – most people can’t get up the nerve to sing unless they’ve had a few drinks. Our group doesn’t need alcohol to perform. I’ve been in choir since I was in the third grade, and most of us have even been in some kind of church choir. We aren’t any American Idol or anything, but we can sing. It is as if we were born to do it.
The martini mixed with xanax makes my limbs feel lighter. I giggle and watch the people in the bar. One of my group members tells me to be careful – we made a deal a long time ago not to get drunk and tonight is huge. I promise I’ll be good. Ben stops talking to the blond girl and when she walks by our table, someone in our group hisses, “Slut,” with a dark growl in their voice. I kick my foot out and trip her. She flies forward, catching herself on a nearby table.
The rest of her group stands up and crowds around her. Our group giggles and flips through the black book as if nothing has happened. I can’t believe I tripped her, could barely remember if that’s what I’d done at all, if I’d imagined it. I am not one to play dirty. But there is Ben on the other side of the bar, looking at this blond girl with something that resembles sympathy. I want to sing a mean song, something that will make him listen to me, for once.
The bar’s bouncer, Marcus, walks up to our table. “No trouble tonight,” he says. “I’ll pretend I didn’t see that, Margo.”
“We didn’t do a damn thing,” I say. “We’re here to have fun.”
My group members nod. Yep. We are here to sing, I think. To sing and to kick those asses. I imagine pulling her blond hair, how it would feel in my fist. I know it would be silky. And while Marcus isn’t a big man, he’d carried me out of this bar before. That was back then, though.
Now, I am different.
Babyback’s song ends. He pulls a white slip of paper from his stack. We know that the other judges are sitting around the bar, randomly, sipping on Jack and Cokes, waiting for our group to blow their minds. DJ calls the first name – it is a Shakespearean Sonic. A male. The one who always sings Nickelback. We groan at our table. I start sucking down another martini. I am here to have fun as well as kick some ass.
How I feel is: shitty. Guilty. A Goth. A nerd. A fraud. A slut. Dominated. Empowered. Slippery. In control. All of it. Right here at the table. Right here with the other girls. Right now at karaoke.
What I know about Ben: he has Peyronie’s Disease. It sounds awful—guys always shudder—but it isn’t really anything. Boys are all squeamish. Weak. Queasy stomachs. They wouldn’t last one day walking in our shoes. Stirrups, speculums, pelvic exams…you know the twice-a-year drill. The thing is, Peyronie is pretty normal for lots of boys. President Clinton has it, if you believe Monica. It’s nothing big (excuse the pun). It’s a curvature of the penis. The erect penis.
So…what I know about Ben: he has a bent dick. What else I know about Ben: he likes to have his nipples squeezed hard as he comes. He likes his morning coffee black. He hates the way Margo sings.
What Margo doesn’t know: I know all this. What else Margo doesn’t know: I love Ben’s weight on me; I love his smell of motor oil and soap; I love his tongue exploring me. Finding me. And I don’t care about all the others. I don’t care if they’re blond, or what. Maybe they love the same things about him. Maybe they don’t. They probably don’t. Most girls don’t like anything I like. It’s okay.
Nobody really knows anybody.
The Nickleback guy finishes out his usual “How You Remind Me,” and the crowd goes nuts. It’s total bullshit. The guy’s a one-trick pony. Everybody’s a bullshitter. An ass licker. It’s the same over and over. Everyone’s a Nickleback knock off at a karaoke bar.
The judges and Babyback write down some shit for a little bit. Then, Babyback moves up to the stage. Ben watches the blond, Margo watches Ben, and Marcus—the eye in the sky—watches everyone. Babyback fiddles with his stack of papers, re-arranges it, and pulls off the slip.
“Next up we got Melanie Quirke from the MeloMosh Mavericks,” he says into the mic.
Mazurka pinches my ass when I get up and Margo laughs for the first time tonight. I clear my throat and stretch out my fingers, like some piano maestro or something. The crowd laughs.
“Get ’em chica.”
Ben watches as I snake around the tables and take the stage. Babyback pulls me to him, into the light.
“What’re you doing for us tonight, Mel?”
I watch Margo as she starts to become restless. Her eyes seek out the latest object of affection. I see her make eye contact with Jeff, the muscleman with the crew cut. Jeff has the look of a man who shits where he eats. Before we know it Margo is up dancing, drunk and flashing her boobs at the crew cut. Shit.
Deejay Babyback with his shifty eyes and his yellow polyester shirt is the biggest caricature of a man who can make the sun shine for any of us in the middle of the night. He’s too busy checking out Mel’s breasts move underneath her low-cut blouse to notice Margo flashing her’s before Mazurka pulls Margo off the dance floor. Babyback imagines Mel singing to him, and only him, Aimee Mann’s “You Could Make A Killing.”
Mel is completely full of shit. She’s loves being Margo’s confidante while she’s having sex with Ben on the side. But she sings better than Aimee Mann any day of the week. She’s letting it all rip tonight.
Mazurka is popping xanax with her diet coke and making an attempt to mouth the lyrics with Mel. Her frumpy polka dot skirt down to the knees just finished gyrating to Prince’s “Get Off” taking the whole house down with her. You’d never know what was lurking beneath that skirt by looking at her. Damn, she rocked it.
My name’s Maxine, the youngest member of the MeloMosh Mavericks. I’ve got no claim on anyone, but Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Oh yeah. I sucked the marrow out of those judges with my growling lows and my towering highs. One of them even spilled his lemon drop and got up to dance. We’ve been waiting for this night. The most important karaoke night of the year, belting out fears, loves, cruelties. It’s more than just beating The Shakespearean Sonics. It’s our fucking lives at stake here.
We are the MeloMosh Mavericks. We have done our time. We don’t drink. We sing what melds in with our range.
Here we are. Bloated with wants, squat with emptiness, constricted like the M of our first names. And you know what happens? We win it! The whole place goes crazy and we’re ready to celebrate. The Sonics actually come over and hug each of us and that short little blonde thing, Shelby, grabs my ass when she congratulates me.
All I know is after we pound down a few martinis and some cuervo shots each, Margo is going home with the crew cut, Babyback has his hands all over Mel and Mazurka is sneaking out the door with Ben. And me? Shit. That short little blonde named Shelby can sing a good tune, but man, what she can do with her tongue. I had no idea. Damn!
We’ll put the trophy on top of the rotting refrigerator in Mazurka’s garage. Maybe take a week off from practice.
This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet are:
Mary Stone Dockery, whose first poetry collection, Mythology of Touch, will be released by Woodley Press in 2012. She is the author of Aching Buttons (Dancing Girl Press) and Blink Finch (Kattywompus Press) both forthcoming in 2012. Her poetry and prose has appeared in many fine journals, including Gargoyle, Weave Magazine, South Dakota Review, Midwestern Gothic and others. She lives in Lawrence, KS where she co-edits Stone Highway Review and Blue Island Review.
Alex Pruteanu, who emigrated to the United States from Romania in 1980. He has worked as a day laborer, a film projectionist, a music store clerk, a journalist/news writer for the U.S. Information Agency (Voice of America English Broadcasts), a TV Director for MSNBC and CNBC, and a freelance writer. Currently he is the Managing Editor of an education assessment software system at North Carolina State University. He is also a staff writer for The Lit Pub. Alex has published fiction in BRICKrhetoric, Airplane Reading, The Legendary, Camroc Press Review, Girls With Insurance, Trick With a Knife, , The Monarch Review, Connotation Press, Slingshot Litareview, Specter Literary Magazine, Thunderclap Press, and Pank Magazine. He is the author of the novella, Short Lean Cuts, available as an e-book at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and in paperback at Amazon.
Kristine Ong Muslim, author of the forthcoming short fiction collection We Bury the Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press, April 2012) and of several books and chapbooks, most recently Insomnia (Medulla Publishing). Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications, from Boston Review to Southword. Her online home and blog: http://kristinemuslim.weebly.com.
Meg Tuite, whose writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Valparaiso Literary Review, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel Domestic Apparition (2011) is available through San Francisco Bay Press and her chapbook, Disparate Pathos is forthcoming (2012) through Monkey Puzzle Press. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.