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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 Patrice.

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 Patrice.

*


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 there.

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 in Administration.

"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 the stovepipe.

"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 bottom.

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 clue."

She held her eyes on the balcony. I could think of nothing to say.

"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 the line.

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 partner.

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 engulfed us.

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 glassy eyes.

"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 last time.

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.

 

 

 

© 2007 prickofthespindle.com

 

 

 

Tim Bass teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. You can find his work in Small Spiral Notebook, The Oklahoma Review, and Fugue.