Abraham Lincoln Sings Karaoke
by Tim Bass
My love luck changed for the better on a Tuesday. That
afternoon, Patrice Karpanski parked a hip against my desk and leaned
over my stack of crash reports and asked me to take her to Herb
Swindell's retirement party. Take her as in date, not take her as in
just give her a ride. Patrice and me, together. Talk about a jackpot.
Between that unexpected moment on Tuesday when she asked and the next
Saturday night when the two of us, Patrice and me, claims-processing
co-workers and maybe more, walked elbow to elbow into Herb's recreation
room, where the party had already started and Patrice had some drinking
to do to catch up for the four whole days between then and then, my love
luck sparkled like crystal.
Patrice Karpanski: office goddess/office flooze, a simmering
caldron of desire. My brain buzzed as I told Patrice yeah, I'd take her
to Herb's party, no problem, and she gave me a quick nod to close the
deal and walked away from my desk—all five-foot-eleven-and-a-half of
her, those liquid hips swaying to some silent song with every step, her
untamed hair black as my Payment Denied ink stamp. I got nothing done
for the rest of the day. Patrice and me. Me and she. What fool wouldn't
have played with the possibilities?
But then, what fool would have? Like everybody else in the
Claims Department, I knew Patrice Karpanski and Herb Swindell were
ex-lovers yet again, fresh off their fourth breakup in six months and
their ninth since Herb decided to retire early. These numbers come
easily to all of us in Claims, because we are kept current on the
Patrice/Herb break-up news by Patrice and Herb themselves. Every time
they split, separately they find each of us—all of their co-workers, one
by one—at the copier or the coffee pot or anywhere else we happen to go
alone, and they pour their love troubles on us long and slow. Word
spreads fast whenever Patrice and Herb hit bottom in their endless
cycle, and the rest of us in the department switch into defense
mode—meaning we go to the bathroom sooner than absolutely necessary,
because when Patrice and Herb are on the outs they might catch you at a
critical moment and talk you until your bladder swells like a
volleyball. They don't care.
"Patrice and me, we're off for good," red-eyed Herb was
telling me the other day on the heels of the latest break. He had me
pinned against the snack machine. "Patrice says I don't put any energy
into the relationship. Can you believe that? I don't know what on earth
has gotten into her. I . . . just don't know."
Herb went on, but I stopped listening. I had heard it
before. We all had. Next Herb would say Patrice just wasn't herself
these days and he couldn't believe how much she was changing—but
changing into what, he couldn't put his finger on. And then he would say
how he had devoted himself to Patrice, given her all he had to give and
then some, and he told her he would marry her and how's that for putting
energy into the relationship, Herb would ask, but all Patrice ever said
about marriage was maybe but never definitely yes, so they stayed on
their roller coaster and that got them here, busted up but still working
in the same room, and it's awful that the company won't spring for
partitions—how, Herb would wonder, could anybody expect him to do his
job while he had to sit and look at Patrice all day every day? That's
torture, Herb would say. Torture, man. You hear me?
Then he would pause to catch his breath, and that is when,
as his friend, I should have reminded Herb that since he was about to
take early retirement he would have to face Patrice in the office just a
few more days, and he could stick it out that long, no doubt about it. I
should have reminded him furthermore that he had done his years with the
company and he was about to take his savings and walk out of this
partition-less building and into a great time in his life, and what was
he, only in his late fifties? Still some fire in the furnace, Herb. I
should have said he was headed for a world of wide-open possibilities
with new women-widows and divorcées and never-marrieds who would
appreciate him for the man he was and never doubt his energizing
abilities. Once those hungry honeys got their hands on him, Patrice
would not rate even a footnote in The Herb Swindell Book of Love.
I should have told Herb all of this to ease his suffering.
But by now I had tuned him out, as I always did in defense mode. My
brain shifted off Herb and instead fixed on Patrice, newly unattached
and apparently thirsting for passion. I hoped this presented me an
opportunity. In my own mental movie I played Patrice's leading man, just
as the other Claims Department guys did in theirs. Every time Patrice
and Herb fell to pieces, we collectively calculated the odds that this
one might be it—The Big Final Sure-Fire Back-Cracking Breakup—and we
individually reassessed our chances of becoming next in line for
Even as each of us stood in the dim light of the supply closet
with Herb and watched him wring the love blood from his jilted heart, we
imagined ourselves captaining a sailboat while Patrice sunned on the
deck, setting anchor at a distant island and clinking wine glasses with
Patrice in the sand, romping through a juniper forest with Patrice under
a waxing moon while our clothes flew in all directions. At least, that
was my movie. The other men in the department placed themselves and
Patrice on different sets—in a space capsule, at the city park monkey
bars, on a cattle drive across Wyoming, you name it. The point is, we
all carried visions of our lives with Patrice Karpanski in some happy,
Herb-less world that, incidentally, did not include the business of
deciding insurance claims. Of course, if any of this ever were to come
true it would not go over great with Herb, our friend and fellow worker
for all these years. But we would find a way to smooth things out with
him. For starters, he was retiring at the end of the week, and once he
was out the door he would not have to sit through the daily torture of
watching Patrice move on to better things. Getting straight with Herb
would not be a problem. We all had convinced ourselves of that, and we
didn't dwell on him. We dwelled on Patrice.
We had processed our own Patrice scenes so many times that
our wishful minds went to work automatically whenever we saw her
clutching a fistful of tissues and sliding the desktop five-by-seven of
her and Herb facedown into a drawer. Or when Herb slumped into the
office wearing a slept-in dress shirt and a two-day beard and not the
gold necklace that spelled P-A-T-R-I-C-E across his collarbone.
Immediately, we would know the U.S.S. Patrice & Herb had hit the rocks
again, and like laboratory dogs at the sound of the feeding bell, we
would salivate over the prospect of goodies coming our way. During those
muted mornings in the office after yet another breakup, each of us
guys—myself included—would glance at Herb and think If Patrice went for
him, surely she'd go for me, and we would stack hope upon hope that this
time, unlike all the other times, she would not go back to him and
finally the rest of us would have a shot.
But our hopes vanished when, inevitably, Patrice cornered us
to bend our ears about Herb.
"The man fires my rocket," she would say first off. She did
this to keep us guys in check while she pouted about what was wrong with
Herb and, thus, with their relationship.
"He's just lost his spark," Patrice would say next. "When I
first got together with Herb, we stayed on the move—clubs, parties,
dancing, skiing, hiking. Go, go, go, all the time. I'm not sure if you
know this, but I'm a little younger than Herb"—yes, a full twenty-one
years younger, which made the rest of us nervous that Patrice went for
father figures only—"and I could hardly keep up with him. Herb kept
things fresh, interesting. It was sexy. He was sexy."
At this point I always looked away to keep my mind from
freeze-framing Herb as a sexual being.
"But now," Patrice would continue, "his enthusiasm has run
out. Sure, we still do things together, but his heart isn't in it. Since
he's retiring from work, he thinks he's supposed to retire from
everything. He's not my fun boy anymore. Instead, he's like a leaky
tire." And then Patrice would sigh and add, "I'm just not sure Herb
knows what love is. I mean, where's the passion?"
By lunchtime Patrice would have buttonholed everybody in the
department to ask that same question, even though none of us could
answer it. Nor could we honestly respond to Herb's anxieties about
Patrice. We did not understand what either of them was complaining
about. To us, Patrice had not changed an ounce—she was the same
impulsive, hot-blooded woman we had known since the day she and Herb
became an item during a drunken make-out session at the company picnic.
And Herb showed no sign of giving up on life—he had the bruised muscles
and sore bones to prove he was pushing himself to keep pace with
When Patrice asked me to take her to Herb's retirement
party, she appeared at my desk out of nowhere and started talking as I
sat buried in a stack of claims from an interstate pileup. She finished
asking and I said yes and she disappeared before I understood what was
going on. I'd had no time to think, no time to sympathetically mention
the awkwardness of Patrice's situation with Herb, no time to selflessly
say I would never want to interfere, especially since this was Herb's
own retirement party and it was to be at his own house. Of course, if I
had said any of that I might have come off sounding as if I didn't mean
it, and indeed I wouldn't have meant it, so my silence served me well
What I might have asked Patrice, though, was why she was
here, at my desk of all the desks in the department, anointing me as her
man-in-waiting and, consequently, setting me up to be at once revered
and loathed by most of my fellow workers, and just plain loathed by
Herb. But I already knew why: Patrice needed an accommodation. She did
not want to ruin Herb's big night by skipping his party, but she needed
to show up with someone in order to shield herself from raw exposure—the
recent ex—on her return to the newly built house where we were all sure
she and Herb had chased each other naked on those nights before he lost
his spark and she started changing into whatever he couldn't put his
finger on. But why me? No special reason. Most likely, I just happened
to be in Patrice's eyeline as she scanned the room for candidates. The
fact is, she could have slung a cat in that office and hit a willing
accommodation. I was just happy it was me, even though, like all the
others, I had no idea where the passion was.
As I drove Patrice to the party that Saturday night, the
atmosphere in my car felt unfamiliar, like I had hustled out of bed and
left home half-asleep. I fumbled with the radio volume, going from too
soft to too loud. Then I somehow switched on the hazard lights for the
first time ever, and I drove the next two miles trying to look
nonchalant as I groped the controls to make the blinking stop. Finally,
my breathing eased to near normal as Patrice and I made our way out of
town and toward Herb's new place.
Herb's name came up only once, when I finally remembered to
ask why he was hosting his own retirement party. Patrice explained that
since the company puts up a lump sum to send off its retirees in style,
Herb stood to pocket a few hundred bucks by saving the cost of a banquet
room. Plus, she said, the party gave Herb a chance to show off his new
house, which included a basement recreation room big enough for our
whole department to gather in and drink, commiserate about work, and try
out the karaoke machine Patrice had bought him as a house-warming gift
just before Breakup No. 9, the latest in the series.
Of the many Patrice/Herb dating addictions, karaoke was
their current favorite, replacing community theater, salsa dancing,
group massages, cruising with the classic car club, and something they
called Strip Bingo, which ended in Breakup No. 6. Patrice and Herb's
relationship was hooked on staying busy in the nightlife. For Patrice,
it patched Herb's leaky tire tendency. For Herb, it held Patrice in a
predictable routine so she would not change without his noticing.
Patrice and Herb enlisted our whole department in their fun-with the
exception of the mysterious Strip Bingo, the only activity that
interested me. None of us had anything better to do with our nights, so
we quietly tagged along with Patrice and Herb through fad after fad. I
was in one of my many dead-end romances during their salsa-dancing
phase, so I took my girlfriend and promptly lost her to some guy with
rubber joints and a Latin accent. Herb, meanwhile, tried to dip Patrice
and threw out his back. This ushered in the group massages, during which
Patrice, dazzled by Herb's reckless fervor on the dance floor, worked
her oily hands into his aching muscles and moaned in unison with him
while the rest of us made small talk and pretended not to notice. The
classic car period had the entire Claims Department huddled on a
sidewalk for the Fourth of July parade and waving patriotically as
Patrice, glorious in her star-spangled swimsuit, and Herb, in a matching
rayon shirt, rumbled by in their jointly owned Corvette convertible.
Months later, Herb totaled the car when he rammed a parking deck pillar
after one beer too many to dull the pain of yet another breakup with
Patrice. That time Herb cracked an ankle, which electrified Patrice. She
went back to him in a flash and they moved on to karaoke, with the rest
of us from Claims in tow.
I declined Patrice and Herb's early invitations to karaoke,
because at the time I did not know what karaoke was. I suspected it was
an Asian cooking craze, and since I was allergic to soy I opted
out-breaking into hives was simply too high a price to pay for the
chance of seeing Patrice in a kimono. Eventually, though, I caught on
and showed up for a handful of karaoke nights at the Barracuda Lounge,
where Patrice and Herb, both pretty much tanked, sang some duets
remarkably well. Herb's singing voice sounded nothing like his speaking
voice, which reminded me of a radio announcer wheezing through a tin
can. In song he became a solid baritone, round and full, a fitting
complement to Patrice's breathy, beer-marinated alto. On those karaoke
nights, Patrice and Herb exuded harmony in their love as well as in
their music, and their faces burned as they both leaned into the
microphone and gave it all they had.
I could not sing. This nagged me in the days before Herb's
party, because I wanted to impress Patrice with something. I wanted her
to see Social Me as so different than Office Me that she would wonder
why she ever wasted time with Herb. I admit I didn't have much going for
me. I fixed washing machines as a hobby, but I knew that wasn't first
date material. I could suck air through a drinking straw to make a sound
like a hyena, but that had not worked with girls since third grade.
Anyway, these were mere gimmicks, far too cheap to earn me the lasting
affection of Patrice Karpanski. I needed more. I needed sex appeal. I
needed to smell good. Herb always wore a heavy cologne that I thought
made him reek like a shopping mall mannequin, but I had never heard a
complaint about it from Patrice or, for that matter, from any of the
other women in Claims. Maybe my nose just didn't know a classy aroma
when it smelled one. And maybe the fragrance that surrounded Herb like a
cloud was his magic mating scent—repelling us guys and at the same time
intoxicating Patrice and drawing her to him, purring, time after time.
Since I could not sing, I needed that seductive wind.
I dug into a cabinet and found the only cologne I had ever
owned—a blue-green potion that came in a bottle shaped like a medieval
warrior on horseback. It was called Cool Knight. My teen-age nephew had
given it to me upon the demise of one of my dead-end romances, and since
I could not tell whether he meant it as a healing gesture or a
thoughtless joke, I had stashed it, unopened, under the bathroom sink.
On Saturday night, just before leaving home to pick up Patrice, I broke
the seal on the bottle, doused my hands, and slapped puddles of Cool
Knight on my neck, forehead, and freshly shaven face. The alcohol's
sting blurred my vision, and my head still burned as I knocked on
Patrice's door and waited, nervous and hopeful. I smelled like a fir
tree full of spiced apples.
Patrice had dated off the Herb reservation before, but she
always kept it inside the company. She and the mailroom guy got
something going after one of her breakups with Herb, and after another
she had a fling with an assistant vice president. When Herb found out
about the mailroom guy, he retaliated by sending a dozen pink
roses—Patrice's favorite—to a receptionist who was temping in our
department and looked a decade younger than Patrice. Breakup No. 2 ended
in Make Up No. 2. As for Patrice and the assistant vice president, it
was a chicken-and-egg situation: We never knew if their fling came
before or after Herb announced he had reconciled with one of his
ex-wives. Herb made a big show of it, telling us how he sealed the deal
by returning the ex-wife's missing diamond ring—even though, in their
divorce papers, he had sworn the ring was destroyed in a grease fire on
the night she left him. Somewhere in all this, Patrice made her move on
the assistant vice president. Within days, though, the ex-wife saw
through Herb, the assistant vice president's wife saw through the
assistant vice president, and Breakup No. 5 ended in Make Up No. 5 for
Patrice and Herb. A breakup and a make up. Hit the wall and spring back
together. Each time Patrice and Herb suffered through the sequence, they
rediscovered each other, overlooked the mess they had made, and picked
up their song again as if the music had never stopped playing.
Now Patrice was once more on the rebound, and this time her
game included me. I welcomed it. Only a few nights before, my latest
short-term, nowhere romance had ended in an all-night pancake house with
the words "Hey...gotta run" scrawled in eyeliner on a paper napkin and
left for me on top of my buckwheat short stack. I had gone to wash my
hands, and when I came back my date had disappeared. I imagined her
scrambling out of the booth like a convict making a run for it, pausing
only to drop the note onto my syrupy plate before she rushed outside,
stole a car, and sped away into freedom. I ate my pancakes, then her
french toast, and I walked out of that restaurant with the broad,
detached perspective of a freshly rejected man who had no options of his
own making. I was on the rebound, just like Patrice. Now, as she and I
rolled toward Herb's party, I saw opportunity floating between the two
of us like a basketball on an odd bounce off the rim. I told myself to
jump for it—reach, stretch, strain for it. With any luck, I would pull a
muscle and thrill Patrice's heart.
For one whole day, my co-workers did not know Patrice had
asked me to take her to the party. I didn't tell anyone because I hoped
to spark things up quietly with Patrice and avoid inflaming Herb—as if
he would not notice on Saturday night when I strolled into his new
house, took the grand tour, and complimented his taste in lighting
fixtures, all while keeping an arm slung around his girlfriend's waist.
But at least by then I would have had a chance to get some footing with
Patrice, establish myself, and at that point inflaming Herb would not
matter. Perhaps on the way to the party I would say something clever to
Patrice, or give her a smile that she found mysterious and alluring, or,
when reaching to shift gears, accidentally brush her leg on the precise,
ultra-sensitive spot that ignites her erotic fire. If the moon and the
stars favored me, maybe I would do all three—speak the words, flash the
smile, provide the touch that heretofore Patrice thought could come only
from Herb, and once she knew better she would put me at Mission Control
and then I, not Herb, would be the one who fired her rocket.
Even if none of that happened—and as we pulled into Herb's
driveway, it in fact had not—I saw another reason to keep mum at the
office about my date with Patrice: I didn't want her to think twice and
change her mind. I hoped a low profile would get me safely through the
rest of the week, and Saturday would arrive before Patrice knew it. At
that point, even if she had forgotten I was alive, nothing could change
the fact that I was on her doorstep at her suggestion, and for this one
night, minimum, she and I would be an item. I was not about to jinx my
chance by yakking to the rest of the Claims Department, as much as the
impulse tempted me. I was finally flying in Patrice's airspace, and if I
stayed below her radar for a few days she might not spot me again until
it was too late to reconsider and shoot me down.
Nevertheless, word circulated through the office. This was
Patrice's fault—when she suddenly stopped snaring people to report her
problems with Herb, my co-workers grew suspicious about her silence and
asked around. They soon got to me, and I told the truth about Patrice
and our plans for the party. I couldn't lie to them—not now, after all
the peaks and valleys we had endured together in Patrice and Herb's
journey through the Land of On Again/Off Again Romance. As soon as I
told my Claims Department associates about Patrice and me, they returned
my honesty with their own by passing judgment on me for what I was
getting myself into. The women said they had always figured I was a
fool, and becoming involved with Patrice proved it. They liked Patrice
well enough, but none of them respected her ways with men, and their
harsh words told me that they wanted to protect me from her. I
appreciated their thoughtfulness, and ignored it. The Claims men, whom I
had expected to begrudge my new love luck, simply grinned about it. They
raised their hands and bowed in mock worship of me, for I was one of
their own, and they now considered me heir to the insurance industry's
throne of love.
Herb heard the news through the pipeline and immediately
quit cornering me to talk about his troubles with Patrice. He fired back
at us by letting everyone know he had issued a personal party invitation
to Cammi, the pink rose temp receptionist, who now worked full-time up
"She says she wouldn't miss my big night for a million
bucks," Herb said, loud and often.
Herb had hatched his retirement nest egg on a two-story
A-frame in a new pseudo-rural subdivision that backed up to a wooded
buffer zone, on the other side of which lay another, identical
subdivision. His house sat on a small hill, with the top floor standing
at ground level and the recreation room spreading out below as the lot
dipped away to a neighborhood lake.
Herb opened the front door clutching a mixed drink and
wearing a smut-black stovepipe hat, which he probably swiped from the
community theater during his and Patrice's drama dating phase. Herb's
shirt, one of those bright orange Hawaiian styles with palm trees and
dolphins, stood unbuttoned to the sternum and revealed a sunburned chest
and no sign of his gold P-A-T-R-I-C-E necklace. From the look of Herb's
flush, tight face, I knew the drink was not his first of the night.
"Nice place, Herb," I said.
"I like it," he wheezed and gave me a firmer-than-necessary
handshake. His cologne overpowered mine.
Herb avoided eye contact with Patrice and motioned us inside
with a nod of his head.
"You look like Abe Lincoln," Patrice said, and she reached
down—she was a head taller than Herb—and ran a finger over the brim of
"Uh-huh," Herb said and paused, lost for words. Then he
caught on and said with a full-faced grin, "That's right-tonight I'm
celebrating freedom. My freedom. From work."
Patrice pointed fast at Herb and said, "You got your
Emancipation Proclamation, that's what you got."
"Yeah," Herb said with a chuckle. "That's what I got.
Emancipation Proclamation from the ol' nine-to-five. No more
hump-busting for me."
Then Herb tipped his hat to us and turned away. I watched as
he slunk down a set of stairs leading to loud laughter, the thump of
music, and ice cubes pouring into a cooler. When I looked back to
Patrice, she was coming from the dining room with a drink of her own.
Obviously, she knew where Herb kept the upstairs liquor.
"Come on," she said to me. "I'll show you the house."
We made the usual rounds: wallpapered kitchen, paneled den,
empty guest bedroom, beige bathrooms with beige towels—everything
unblemished and smelling of fresh paint.
"And this is the master suite," Patrice said. She waved me
into a giant room with a king bed and a dresser covered in Herb's
wrinkled work clothes for the past week, from Friday on top to Monday on
Patrice pointed toward a sliding glass door. I made out a
wooden structure on the other side of it.
"That's the balcony," she said. "It's got solid walls,
plenty of privacy. Somebody could go out there naked—stripped bare to
the bone—and sunbathe, or whatever, and the neighbors would never have a
She held her eyes on the balcony. I could think of nothing
"I mean," Patrice said after a moment, "somebody could do
that. If they wanted to."
As soon as we got downstairs, Patrice peeled off to find her
second drink while I took a solo walk around Herb's recreation room. In
one corner, the Claims Department women occupied a giant sectional sofa.
Their heads turned my way in unison, and they looked at me like good
sisters watching a kid brother fall in with the wrong crowd. Nearby, the
Claims guys hovered around a pool table. They grinned like goofballs and
waved their cue sticks as they gave me the worship motion again. Like a
goofball, I grinned back. Big patio doors formed an entire wall of the
room and opened out to the neighborhood lake. On the opposite wall a
Good Luck, Herb banner hung above a row of tables piled with
food-baskets of burgers, bowls of potato salad, and mismatched plates
and pans from the office faithful who had read Herb's party flier that
suggested everyone bring a dish from home. No doubt, this saved the
catering expense and netted Herb a little more walking-around money as
he entered retirement.
At the end of the food line, next to a card table that
sagged under mounds of desserts and a massive vase of pink roses, Herb
had built a short stage. On it rested his karaoke machine—a console of
lights, dials, buttons, and wires sitting on a podium and flanked by two
speakers the size of ovens. Though no one was singing yet, the music
played anyway, and Herb cranked up the volume to a Fifties love song as
a crowd gathered to reserve a place at the microphone. Patrice, swaying
to the noise that blared from Herb's speakers, edged toward the front of
I spotted Cammi at the drink table, playing bartender. She
looked even younger than I had remembered, in her early twenties at
most. The guests who did not know better must have thought Herb had
brought in his granddaughter from college to help with the party.
By the time the karaoke started, Herb's basement was packed
with Claims agents, new neighbors, and die-hard friends from the
long-gone dating days of salsa dancing, group massage, and classic
cars—everyone drunk beyond hope and self-delusional about their singing
abilities. I had learned at the Barracuda Lounge that drunkenness is
essential to the karaoke experience. It loosens up those who are shy
about performing, and it dulls the senses for those who have to listen.
Each of the sloshed volunteers took the microphone,
announced "This song goes out to Herb," and then mauled the karaoke
catalog-jazz standards, Eighties pop, Motown classics, bubble gum hits,
even a trucker's ballad. Herb was loaded, too, and with every song
dedication he raised his glass high in acknowledgement, then ducked his
stovepiped head and danced through the room, making everyone his
By now Patrice was on drink who-knows-how-many, and her hand
felt damp and warm as she pulled me out to dance. At the moment, I was
yucking it up with the guys from Claims, who had huddled around me as if
to share the spotlight, like extras in my mental movie starring Patrice
and me. They had not noticed that for a fellow having a dream date with
Patrice, I was spending precious little time with her. The fact is, I
had lost track of Patrice at the karaoke sign-up and wasted twenty
minutes milling around the potato salad before the Claims guys came
over. Now she caught me off guard and dragged me onto the indoor-outdoor
carpet, and before I knew it an inebriated wave of pulsating bodies
I decided it was time to make my move. I wanted to pull
Patrice in, to close the gap between us once and for all—draw her near
enough to taste my Cool Knight cologne and throw my arms around her
waist for some serious pelvis-to-pelvis passion action. But it was a
fast R&B song, and Patrice was wired to the rhythm and churning in all
directions. I couldn't possibly get my hands on her without also getting
them on places that I should not be touching, at least not here, in the
middle of the dance floor at a party in her ex-boyfriend's house. That
could ruin a first date. The best I could do was shimmy in toward
Patrice and yell the only words that came to mind.
"You having fun?"
Patrice kept moving to the music and looked at me through
"Gooood," she yelled back. "Goooo-uuuud."
I leaned closer and yelled louder.
"Are you having fun?"
This time Patrice did not answer. She just threw back her
head, raised her arms, and bent her body into a long, fluid S-curve. I
could have said anything—"I love you," "I'm an ax murderer," "I'm moving
to Manitoba"—and she would have had the same reaction: None. She danced
on, her body in perpetual motion. She shook. She quivered. I had never
seen anyone undulate, but Patrice undulated.
The corner of my eye detected a neon orange movement, and in
an instant Hawaiian-shirted Herb joined us, head down, throwing his hips
in one direction while his stomach rolled in another. He clenched his
hands into fists and punched the air in time with the drumbeat. I
watched Herb warily—I didn't know what else he might do with those
fists—as he and Patrice acknowledged each other through the tight timing
of their bodies to the music. Without so much as a word or a glance,
they shook their shoulders and thrust their thighs in synchronized
precision, natural and effortless. So the three of us danced—Patrice and
Herb lost in the song, me standing virtually still and staring as they
submitted to the pull of an invisible hand. And then Herb moved on,
going as suddenly as he came, floating away from us and swimming out
through the crowd, his back bent and his stovepipe pointing the way.
When the time came for Patrice to sing, she knocked back
another drink and strode onstage with the casual air of a veteran
performer—the payoff for all those karaoke nights practicing at the
Barracuda. She paused to soak up her audience's attention, then raised
the microphone to her lips.
"Honest Abe," she murmured, "this one's for you."
The speakers screeched with a twangy guitar backed by a loud
band and topped with a fiddle—a generic tune for contemporary country
radio. I had never heard this one but everybody else in the room had,
and on the first beats they let out an intoxicated cheer and fell into a
weaving line dance. Patrice sang in a slow, muggy voice of a love gone
sour and a loneliness too big to bear. Her forlorn lines spoke for all
the broken hearts in the darkened bars on the empty highways to no
place, where trusted trucks break down, loyal hunting dogs die, bad men
cheat on good women, cheated women shoot cheating men, and true romance
is just a faded memory.
The tempo picked up, and from my place back at the potato
salad I watched Patrice prowl the stage as the wobbly line dancers
stepped faster to keep pace. Herb, sweating and unsteady on his feet,
broke from the middle of the crowd and turned the karaoke volume even
louder, then shoogled to the foot of the stage and gazed up at Patrice.
He mopped his forehead with one of the beige bath towels from upstairs.
Patrice pranced toward him, as if drawn by a magnet, and held his stare
as she gave her waist a quick twist to bring on the next verse. She sang
of a heart aching for relief and clinging to the belief that there's
hope for a healing and a return to the feeling, that old familiar
feeling of love. Herb swung the towel over his head to keep the beat.
"Go, go, go!" he yelled to Patrice.
She threw Herb a smile and pointed fast at him, just as she
had done upstairs when he let us in. She sang on but I didn't hear any
more of her words because Herb took over, slinging the towel in the air
and roaring above the music. He stood transfixed on Patrice.
"I'm Aaaaabe Lincoln, and I've got your Emancipation
Proclamation!" he shouted to her. "Karaoke me, baby. Karaoke me!"
Herb bellowed and swayed as Patrice belted into another
verse and hoolaed to the whirling of his towel, around and around. The
dolphins on Herb's shirt jumped in all directions.
Then Herb's weight took a clumsy shift to one side, and he
lost his balance and fell against the dessert table. The folding legs
buckled and Herb went down hard, taking plates of cake, bowls of
pudding, and the vase of pink roses with him. They all smacked the floor
with a violence that even the karaoke machine could not drown out. Yet
the country song kept playing, and the crowd kept dancing. Herb lay
covered in frosting and rose water. He still wore his stovepipe hat, and
I noticed he had put on his gold P-A-T-R-I-C-E necklace, too. The fall
yanked one of his shoulders out of joint, forcing it forward at a
grotesque angle. From the stage, Patrice looked down at Herb's wrecked
frame, and her eyes flashed wide with the rekindled fire of shared pain
and animal lust. She plowed ahead with her singing, and Herb never
stopped moving to her music. He bounced on the carpet like an
over-inflated truck tire, bulging and out of control. Patrice sang from
the launch pad as her fun boy flipped the switch that once again fired
her rocket, sending her back into Herb orbit far, far over the moon.
Like my Claims co-workers, Herb's new neighbors, and the
gaggle of friends from the Patrice/Herb dating phases, I now knew the
answer to the question, "Where's the passion?" It stood on the karaoke
stage, warbling its lungs out. It sprawled on the soggy recreation room
floor, popping its dislocated shoulder back into place. As I processed
the scene and calculated the damage to my short-term prospects for love,
I felt useless and cold, like the wrecked cars our department settled on
and sent to scrap salvage every day. The night was a total loss. Now I
wanted only to escape that basement before anyone turned to see how I
had taken the impact, so I quickly and quietly slipped outside. Closing
the glass door behind myself, I caught the smell of Herb's cologne one
In the middle of the neighborhood lake, a fountain spewed
water and floodlights multi-colored the arching streams. The subdivision
air tasted like freshly sawn lumber. A wave of laughter and applause
swelled inside Herb's house, and another song burst from the karaoke
machine as Herb's voice joined Patrice's at the microphone. Make Up No.
9 was complete.
Alone in the back yard, I thought of calling Cammi at the
soonest opportunity and asking for a date. Since our co-humiliation gave
us something in common, and since we were both on the rebound now, I
figured it was worth a shot. Cammi and me. Me and she. With any luck,
her washing machine would need fixing and I could go to her rescue. And
if the moon and the stars favored us, maybe we would find in each other
what Patrice and Herb had never glimpsed in either of us, and Cammi and
I would make our own music together.
But what if I called and Cammi had to ask two or three times
who I was and how I knew her? Or what if she said I was too late,
because she already had it happening with the mailroom guy or the
assistant vice president or some other accommodation Patrice had found
during Breakup No. Whatever? Or what if Cammi were simply content to
remain Herb's default girlfriend—there for him when he and Patrice went
on the fritz, yet uninterested in any other man at any other time?
I just couldn't take that kind of gamble with my love luck
again, not for Cammi or anyone else. I cut my losses on the spot and
gave up the risky business of office romance forever.
As for Patrice and Herb, they got married. Then they
divorced, then remarried, and are now separated and dating each other.
Patrice still corners the Claims agents and complains that Herb is going
stale, and retiree Herb drops in from the suburbs every now and then to
wonder what on earth has gotten into Patrice. They, and thus the rest of
the Claims Department—minus me—have given up karaoke and moved on to
Friday Night Disco Bowling at Ten Pin Alley. Herb already has a sprained
wrist, and he lost a toenail when he dropped a ball on his foot. Love
could not be better for him and Patrice.
I could have predicted all of that as I stood in the dark
and surveyed the outline of Herb's new house against the night sky. I
knew if I waited out the party and stayed in that spot until the next
afternoon, I would see Patrice and Herb out on the master suite balcony,
her freshly smitten and him newly energized, both of them stripped bare
to the bone and getting all-over tans as the neighbors obliviously mowed
their lawns or barbecued ribs eighty feet away.
Inside the recreation room, Herb's big night wore on. The
karaoke music blasted along, and somebody flipped the light switch on
and off like a strobe. A breeze carried the stale odor of my Cool Knight
back into my nose, and in the reflection of the windows the hissing lake
fountain changed from red to blue.