Thursday Night Karaoke by Trevor Corkum

They arrived alone, mostly, or in ragged twos and threes, stumbling in from the late winter cold in their oversized cotton hoodies and bought-on-credit Canada Goose parkas, past the out-of-order ATM in the lonely wood-panelled foyer, and the corner where the cigarette machine used to stand; skirting the Thursday evening dart league in the fluorescent-lit adjacent lounge where somebody’s bawdy grandma was drinking double shots of rye and the teary-eyed break-up dramas were unfolding loudly and unsurprisingly near the bar—slurry-worded confessions and wounded shrieks of rage, all of it competing admirably with the late-season Leafs game up on the big screen TV and the aching bluesy B chords of some long-forgotten country band piped in from hidden speakers.

Still they did not pause.

They marched on, past the counter where thick home-cut fries and Best of the City ninety-nine cent wings, sauced in honey-garlic, slid through a narrow window like something wanted and contraband; and where a charismatic, dreadlocked chef bobbed his head agreeably, in recognition of some secret melody, or coked up on Colombian gold, it was really too hard to decipher.

At last they stepped into the warm back room, the half-walled, cordoned-off show lounge where pyramid-shaped billiards trophies and faded yellow competition ribbons from long decades past hung without apology alongside dusty Shriners’ hats, and they deposited their bones wearily into booths, or at long sticky tables without removing their coats (like dining room castaways, eyes slightly aglow), ordering discount pitchers of Moosehead, plates of all-dressed poutine, and extra large onion rings, quietly awaiting their turn.

Meanwhile, at the front of that particular section, the host—a mullet-headed, athletically-fit fortysomething with a ZZ-Top concert T—expertly set up the stage, unpacking a pair of giant speakers and the borrowed VocoPro amp; unloading three, four, then five quality mics from an oversized Bauer hockey bag, and multi-coloured milk crates of beer-stained playbooks below a makeshift mini-library (with the helpful phrase PLAYBOOKS stenciled above it in bold), then the partitions that served as a dais, setting everything up into a unit, a kind of ready-made studio, a pop-up make-believe stadium, where dreams of fortune and glory—for a few blurry hours—might finally come true.

“Testing,” he whispered, softly, once or twice under his breath.

He conducted his work without pause, without any hint of shame or any evidence of self-consciousness.

“Beer?” a server asked, in a slightly bored voice, cocking her hip to one side, and the host, without looking up, nodded, said he’d have a pint of Keith’s with a Jägerbomb on the side.

No other voice could be heard at that particular moment in time: no idle conversations under the piped-in music or the hockey game still unfolding on every last TV. Only the sound, the echo—however real or imagined—of privately rehearsed lyrics unfurling in a roomful of brains.

They waited a few minutes more and finished the greasy food and chugged back their mugs of draught and made jokes about the weather, trying to be polite. And when they could stand it no longer they studied the songbooks in a vaguely Biblical way—as if they were lost apocryphal hymnals—and they jotted down their selections on scraps of coloured paper, wrote them out with unsharpened pencils as if making lists of wishes, until the wheezy hands of the cuckoo clock arrived with an expert tick.

The host, at nine, precisely, approached one of the stand-up mics, tested it again with a few raspy hisses, and then surveyed the assorted crowd who had gathered in the room for his musical evening Eucharist.

“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, welcome to Thursday night karaoke!”

The mulletted man, whom they all knew as Pokey, picked up an acoustic guitar, expertly tuned in advance, and began to sing a heartbreaking song from the early catalogue of Johnny Cash. They all knew Pokey in the way you know your favourite counsellor at a 12-step recovery program, the earnestness and charisma; and they knew the Johnny Cash tune too (you could see it in how they nodded, or how they tapped their nicotine fingers on rims of invisible ashtrays) and yet they did not look at him directly, did not acknowledge in any way that the evening’s show had begun, by clapping or hooting or celebrating, like groupies or devoted fans. Yet something deep inside, something marked and true and chemical at the bottom of each of their hearts, unfurled its game-day flag.

As the song whimpered to an end, the crowd came marching forward, acolyte by acolyte, to deposit their folded slips into oversized sweaty hands. The host engaged in the usual banter before introducing a blond-headed gentleman in a Finding Nemo T-shirt up to centre stage, upon which the young man proceeded, with remarkable gusto, to launch into a rousing number by Eminem, and you, for the first time ever, quietly found your nerve, palming a half-gnawed Bowlerama pencil to jot down your own request.

You huddled inside your hoodie, biting your bottom lip, and regarded the jagged edge of your cuticle and the indented finger where a ring used to be and the hollow curve of your wrist, which you sometimes liked held down by a man who would never love you; and you took another swig of warm Coors Lite and tried to summon up the courage to make fun of the current singer, in order to make yourself feel strong.

But all you could feel in your heart was a stab of bleak comradeship.

It was the same with the next performer. A woman named Kathy, the announcer said, who belted out the lyrics to a ballad by Dolly Parton, ragged and off-key, shaking some invisible tambourine in her puffy, upturned hand; swaying her chunky hips, steeling her smoke-ravaged voice against the years of humiliation and the indignities of her age and the cold bloated remains of the many sweet dreams of her youth, the shipwrecks of her loves and of her sorrows. Kathy, a plump woman with too much make-up, but with a tough jib of the cheek, with a ballsy stake in life, grabbed that song by the throat and throttled it like an assassin. And so you clapped a bit for Kathy, and a little for the man after her, a big guy named Gurwinder, morbidly obese, and slow, who shuffled up to take his place and then rattled off a cheesy number from the Lion King, stopping halfway through the song to stare out shyly into the lights, smiling like a little girl, like a small ballerina, overcome; finally taking a dramatic bow. While the rest of the crowd, the college kids and office workers, the country boys and the housewives, the unemployed and unencumbered, pounded their filthy tables and whistled very gamely to carry him across the finish line.

And then your name, announced without any fanfare, read aloud and without warning, in a honey-hued baritone, like the soothing voice of Jesus you’d heard so many times in your dreams. You were powerless to deny it—a servant to its call. So you swallowed all your courage and sashayed up to the front, through the labyrinth of chairs and tables, around the jungle of curious eyes, the droopy half-drunk stares. You noticed out one of the windows, past a collection of Victorian photos showing women in many-skirted dresses and men with antique snowshoes, that the snow had begun to fall. It was beautiful, that evening, the snow. The flakes draped the beat-up cars, softened cracked Toyota windshields and rudely dented fenders; fluttered like lost sea monkeys under murky rays of streetlamp light and settled onto the world like something holy and pure.

And so, like the others, like all those who had come before you, you took your place on the stage.

You thought: is this what it means, to truly be alive?

Is this what it’s supposed to feel like?

You stood behind the equipment, heart pounding, and studied the miniature screen with its scroll of magical notes, and you peered out at the faces of the disenchanted and the lonely, who, in the stink of frying food, under the glare of jittery neon, seemed charmed somehow, and sad, their lives complex and profound.

(You remembered how as a child you’d gaze into your paint-flecked mirror in a strangely similar manner, imitating a rock star’s motions, imagining this sort of crowd, the buzz and hopeful light, the love and careless affection.)

And then, as the music started up, as the first long chord announced itself, as it ushered in its promise and the lyrics flashed one by one across the glorious screen, you parted your chapped lips—only ever so slightly, swallowing quick and hard—and let the lonesome bird in your half-parched throat find its own way home.

© 2015 Trevor Corkum

Next Chapter: Analogue (excerpt) by Jay Hosking