Karao-kay!

So, here’s the thing—you don’t have to be a good singer!  You don’t even have to be a mediocre singer!  All you need is that you like to sing.

For some time now, as some of you know, I’ve blended my bass voice with mates on the risers of a large men’s chorus, the mighty Harbourtown Sound.  And it’s been a comfort to me to know that no one listening would actually be able to pick my voice out of the throng.  I mean, I do contribute to the wondrous wall of sound we produce collectively, but my solo voice is anonymous, much to my liking.

However, on my last birthday, which took me past my mid-mid-seventies, my wife and two daughters gifted me with a karaoke machine.  Never in my wildest imaginings would I have thought to ask for such a thing—although, in my younger years, I did take part in more than one karaoke session, usually after a few beers in the company of good friends whose critical faculties were undoubtedly somewhat impaired.  In fact, I think I remember stepping up in one or two open-mic sessions, as well.

As I recall, I was never asked back to the same venue twice.

Still, I’ve discovered I love my new machine.  The internet is chock-full of karaoke versions of popular songs, arranged exactly as the original artists sang them, with the correct lyrics scrolling on the screen.  Copyright restrictions apply only if one intends to use them for commercial purposes, which I most assuredly do not.  After all, if it were my intent to sell any of the songs I record, I’d need a buyer, right? 

‘Nuff said.

Ballads are my preferred genre, some of them even older than I.  A partial list of artists whose songs I have attempted includes Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Mathis, Willie Nelson, Jim Reeves, and Frank Sinatra.

Still to come, I hope:  Perry Como, Tennessee Ernie Ford, John Gary, perhaps even Pavarotti!  After all, I’m singing for an audience of one!

I’ve also essayed solo versions of songs by several different groups, including Abba, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, The Irish Rovers, and The Platters.  Still on the horizon: The Everly Brothers, The Lettermen, The Seekers, and probably others I haven’t yet contemplated.

If you have assumed by now that my wife and daughters have inadvertently created a monster, I could hardly gainsay you.  But I’m benign, I assure you.

My process is to sit with the machine, which is connected by Bluetooth to a song dialled up on my laptop.  I sing it through a couple of times, adjusting the volume of the instrumentals as needed, boosting the mic volume up or down accordingly.  There is a reverb feature, too, which enhances my voice on most of the songs.

If I manage at some point to sound okay to my own ears, I record the song and add it to my little library.  Some of the songs, as you might imagine, are never recorded!

I quickly discover which of the songs will take me beyond my somewhat limited vocal range, and discard them.  Even with my bass singing voice, I can manage a falsetto if not too high, so that helps a little.  Breath control is the biggest single problem I encounter—running out of air before a phrase ends is never good, resulting in a cracked whimper that brings no joy to anyone ever.

Pitch problems are a concern, too, and I sometimes hear myself landing just short of the intended note—what a layperson might call singing flat.  That’s also associated with running short of breath, and can be corrected with proper breathing intervals.  I have yet to record even one song, however, without at least one pitchy problem.

But who cares!

I mentioned earlier that I sing for an audience of one.  That’s not entirely true, though, because I do send along those songs I’ve recorded to my wife and daughters—it’s they, after all, who unleashed the monster.  I also forward the recordings to my three long-suffering sisters, together with a plea that they resist the urge to tell me to stop.  I suggest to them they have three choices—

  1. enjoy the song,
  2. endure the song, or
  3. DELETE.

I implore them not to laugh as they listen (though I’ll never know if they do), nor compare me to the original artist.  Rather, I ask that they think of this as one, perhaps forlorn, attempt to make music with only a modicum of talent, for no other reason than the sheer joy of making music. 

And you, dear reader, might even try it yourself—in the shower, in your car—or, if you’re lucky, on your very own karaoke machine.

Karao-kay!

The Best In These Worst of Times

Almost no one during the past several months of pandemic restrictions would consider these the best of times.  Indeed, for many people these are the worst times they have ever experienced.  Lockdown, loss of employment, illness, even death are the unfortunate lot of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.

Nevertheless, a gentleman of my acquaintance is managing to cope with the current hardships fairly well.  He has been retired for almost one-third of his life and—thanks to prudent financial decisions made during his earning years—lives, not extravagantly, but comfortably on his investment income.  His children are grown and gone, raising families of their own, and he visits with them a couple of times a week on social media.  Never an overly-gregarious sort, though not a hermit by any means, he has always enjoyed time alone, so the isolation wrought by stay-at-home orders has not unduly affected him.

He has a relationship with a younger woman, some fifteen years his junior.  She, too, has grown children, all of whom live in far-distant cities, and it’s been more than two years since she’s seen them, or her grandchildren, in person.  Unlike the gentleman, however, she is not retired; she continues to ply her trade as a housecleaner, the very occupation that brought the two of them together.  She spends three hours in his home every Thursday afternoon, vacuuming floors, dusting furniture, polishing silver, cleaning bathtubs, and doing whatever other chores are required.

The gentleman cares about her, treats her respectfully, but never allows his fondness to cross bounds of propriety.  She, although mindful of the employer/employee relationship they have, is fond of him, too.  They generally spend five or ten minutes chatting when she first arrives, not just about the chores he has lined up, but a general catching-up on each other’s news.  While she’s working, he stays out of her way, then moves to one of the rooms she’s finished cleaning when asked.  Occasionally they call back-and-forth, each comfortable in the presence of the other.  Before she leaves, they chat again for a few minutes and wish each other good health until next time.

All in all, the gentleman and the woman enjoy a pleasant relationship.  But deep down, they both know it is an unequal relationship.  He engages her services for reasons both pragmatic and personal, not because he has to, but because he wants to.  On the practical side, he can afford to pay the cost, and he does not want to do the work himself.  As a personal matter, he understands the woman must earn a living, and is more than happy to contribute to that in return for her labour.

To that end, he is generous, paying the woman more than double the minimum wage, but not as an act of charity he fears she might construe as condescending.  He truly values the work she does and the care with which she does it.  More importantly, he is not prepared to lose her services to a higher bidder; consequently, he is happy to reward her work commensurately.

The woman, for her part, is happy to accept the wage he pays.  She is proud of her work, looking after his home as if it were her own—as she does for all clients—and believes she gives full value for the money she earns.  She gazes pridefully around each room as she finishes—looking for anything she might have missed, yes—but also basking for a moment in the glow of a job well-done. 

Still and all, she doesn’t do this work because she wants to; she does it because she has to.  Retirement for her will not be early or voluntary, as it was for the gentleman; rather, it will be begrudging and financially unwelcome, even if ultimately necessary when age and health will have rendered her no longer able.  She appreciates the gentleman’s obvious satisfaction with the work she does, of course, and loves that he tells her so every week.  He enables her to look upon herself as not just a paid employee, but a valued one.

Nevertheless, the facts remain: the gentleman is the employer, the woman is the employee, and the relationship, no matter how personally pleasant, is unequal.  For him, the service she provides is beneficial; for her, the job is crucial.  The exchange of capital for labour is, for him, convenient; for her, it is critical.  Where he regards her as a respected employee, she sees herself as an essential worker.

The gentleman tells me he has no plans to alter the situation.  The woman, I suspect, also has no desire for a change.  Having found an optimal arrangement that addresses their respective needs, they have settled in for the long haul.  In this pandemic-assailed world, despite the baked-in inequalities of their situations, their relationship is estimable.

It marks the best in these worst of times.

Tonight!

Each week, my writers’ group issues a prompt for a piece of writing. This short tale is prompted by the song ‘Tonight, Tonight’ from West Side StoryIf you wish, you can listen to an audio clip of my men’s choral group singing the song as you read the story—

The ring burned a hole in Tony’s pocket all day, from the time he picked it up just before noon until he found his way to the roof of Maria’s apartment building shortly after dark.

She knew he was coming, of course, just as he had for several nights over the past few months.  It wasn’t easy because her brother and his friends—all members of the gang that fought Tony’s crew almost daily on the mean streets of the city—would make short work of him if they found out.

Tony’s Jets, unaware of his repeated visits to enemy territory, would avenge him if her brother’s Sharks harmed him, but they would never approve of, nor understand, his love for Maria.  The star-crossed lovers were on their own.

The ring itself wasn’t much, not on the salary Tony earned as a car-jockey at Smitty’s Garage, but it had sparkled and gleamed under the light in the pawn shop where he’d discovered it.  He hoped it would do the same under the full moon tonight.

The fact that it was probably stolen property being fenced through the pawnbroker bothered Tony not at all.  He’d had to shell out a good chunk of his hard-earned dollars for it, and that was all that mattered.  He didn’t think Maria would care, either, although he had no intention of telling her.

All he wished for as he made his way stealthily up the fire-escape ladder to the roof was that the ring-stone would reflect brightly in Maria’s eyes when he slipped it on her finger.

At the top, he slithered over the concrete abutment to crouch on the gravel rooftop, almost invisible in the dark, glancing furtively this way and that, hoping to see nothing amiss.  And then, after a few seconds, he spied the miss he had come for, practically indistinguishable in the moon-shadows by the stairwell door beside the elevator shaft.

Maria saw him at the same moment, and even in the darkness he saw her face light up.  He thought she must surely hear his heart pounding, despite the distance between them.  A few heartbeats later, they were entwined in each other’s arms, Tony’s face buried in her hair, its smell like sweet caramel and spice.  Their eager bodies radiated heat as they pressed against one another, softly proclaiming their love in English and Spanish.

O mi amor! Maria whispered.  La luz de mi vida!

I have something for you! Tony said, reaching into his pocket.

As he had hoped, the small stone atop the ring caught the moon’s light, seeming to release a small, silvery fire.  He knew he would never forget the small gasp that escaped Maria’s lips when she saw it, a heartfelt response to last a lifetime.

Marry me, Maria.  I love you more than life itself.  

Maria’s eyes shone wetly as she looked deeply into his.  Si mi amor, me casaré contigo!  Te amo más que la vida misma!

They moved out of the shadows, closer to the parapet, and Maria leaned against the abutment as Tony plucked the ring from the box.  Carefully, lovingly, he took her hand in his, lifted her finger, and…

Oh shit!  Shit!

The ring, rather than slipping onto her finger, slipped from his hand, bounced once on the concrete ledge, and disappeared into the blackness twelve storeys below.  Tony made a wild stab for it, balancing precariously over the edge, realizing too late he was going to fall.  Maria grabbed his arm, his shirt, but he was too heavy and she was pulled backwards with him into the void.

No one was in the dark, garbage-strewn alley when they landed.  They were discovered the next morning—two lifeless rag-dolls embracing each other, arms still intertwined.

A small, cheap rhinestone ring was lying on the pavement between them. It was quickly purloined.