The Karaoke Bet

Adam Berlin

Me. Jack. Standing in the breakdown lane, hands in pockets, like a couple of morons out in the cold. We didn’t even have gloves.

One car had passed us, one car in the last twenty minutes, an old Plymouth Valiant, and when we waved it down we saw an old man looking straight ahead so intently that we knew he’d never stop. He saw us, but he didn’t want to see us. Which was precisely why we’d driven this road in the first place, going north. We’d gone to see someone who didn’t want to see us. Now we were coming back. And we were stuck.

“Where the fuck are we?”

“Upstate,” Jack said. “We’re freaking upstate. We’re practically in freaking Canada.”

Freaking was Jack’s favorite adjective and he used it too much. One of his small idiosyncrasies, much safer than his larger idiosyncrasies.

“I know where we are,” I said. “But how far upstate? We were driving for a while before this piece of shit broke down.”

“It just seemed like a while.”

“No. We were driving for two hours.”

“It just seemed like two freaking hours.”

I kicked the rental car’s door. It was a piece of shit door. It dented that easily.

Jack looked at me like I was the bigger moron in our own private moron club. He was physically bigger and if I had to put money on it, I’d bet that he was the bigger moron, but he was also calm under pressure, which made him a good guy to work with. It really felt like we’d been driving for two hours. But with the straight roads, the cold looking countryside, the need to put in some quick miles, it was hard to tell. We were city kids, modern day Bowery boys, and in the East Village time moved differently, especially after the sun set behind the Hudson. And I didn’t need to know the time or the miles. Those numbers meant nothing to me. I didn’t need to clutter my head.

“It’s getting dark,” Jack said.

“It’s freezing. It’s the middle of May and it’s freezing.”

“Winter ends late upstate,” Jack said and then he started laughing. “Did you hear that? Winter ends late upstate. I’ve got a way with freaking words. I’m hitting the poetry slam at the NuYorican next week. I’m going to clean up against all those phony artists.”

“Hertz can kiss my ass. This two door piece of shit felt weak as soon as we pulled out of the garage.”

“I told you we should have taken an upgrade.”

“The upgrade would have been shit too.”

“I’ve never even heard of a freaking rental breaking down.”

“Where the fuck are we?” I said.

Jack looked north, where we’d come from. He walked into the middle of the road and stood there. He was built low to the ground like an old time middleweight and when he squared up, he looked like he’d actually have a shot at an oncoming car. I was taller, more of a welterweight, and even if I had quick hands and a hard right, I wouldn’t want to take on Jack. I’d seen him fight twice in my life and both fights had been quick, the way real fights are, and more brutal than the movies. Real broken teeth on the curb always look more yellow than white and real blood is thicker than the ketchup they use in Hollywood.

Jack straddled the road’s white line and waited. I just stood there, hands in my pockets. There was a scarecrow in a field that looked just planted. There was a barn with a silver silo. There were no cars in sight. Jack stayed there, right in the middle of the road.

“What are you doing?”

Jack didn’t say anything.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

Jack didn’t say anything.

“I say we ditch the rental. Fuck Hertz, giving us this piece of shit. What the fuck are you doing in the middle of the road?”

“Why don’t you shut the freak up? I’m listening for cars.”

“You’re listening for cars?”

“I’m feeling for vibrations.”

“You’re so full of shit.”

“You want to put money on that?”

“Let’s stop fucking around and figure out what to do.”

“You want to put money on it? I say a car comes by in two minutes.”
 
I looked down the road. It curved out of sight just ahead and I didn’t see or hear any cars approaching.

“How much?”

“One hundred bucks,” he said.

“It’s a stupid bet.”

“Fifty bucks.”

“No.”

“Ten bucks. Ten freaking bucks. Come on, you cheap shit. Ten bucks.”

“You’re on,” I said.

I started counting to one hundred and twenty, out loud. I was the counter. He was the muscle. At ninety three a silver BMW ap-proached. Jack walked to the side of the road, stood next to me and we both stuck our thumbs out. When the car slowed, I put a ten dollar bill into Jack’s hand and we got into the backseat.

* * *
The couple looked all American healthy, clean-cut, successful. The woman was the kind of hot I liked. Like she’d been educated in the best schools. Like she’d been eating off silver platters her whole life. Like she’d never sucked her husband’s dick, but I already saw her sucking mine. Her husband was the kind I didn’t like. He had that private school, silver platter thing going too, which never looked good on men, and I would have bet big money that he’d had a cock or two in his own mouth. Their names were Robert and Courtney and they were driving back to Manhattan from a weekend in Montreal. They’d taken a detour to look at some old houses. That’s why they were on this country road, lucky for us, Robert said. Jack was asking them about Montreal. He said he had some French Canadian blood in his veins, so he wanted to hear all about it. Jack was as French Canadian as I was Bengali. Courtney was focusing on him, her neck craned all the way over the front seat. She was hardly looking at me. “Ever been to Paris?” I said. My voice sounded too loud in this car. BMWs were quiet. “Once,” Robert said. “Why? Have you traveled there?” “I was just wondering how you thought it stacked up against Montreal.” “Paris is great,” Robert said. Courtney smiled at Jack, then turned back around in her seat. Jack knew what I was thinking and elbowed my rib. He stayed looking at the rearview mirror, gauging when Robert was looking at the road and when he was looking at us. I elbowed him back, hard, but he was all muscle. In his gut. In his arms. It was tough to get in on a guy like Jack. He kept looking into the rearview mirror, watching Robert’s eyes. “So how were the croissants?” Jack said. “I hear they have great croissants.” “They were delicious,” Courtney said. “We found a wonderful place right near McGill University. I think we ate there every morning, didn’t we, hon?” “We did,” Robert said. “I’ve got to try a Montreal croissant before I die,” Jack said. “That’s an easy life dream,” Robert said. “You think?” “Sure. It’s not like you want to fly to the moon.” “I’d like to do that too.” “One dream per person,” Courtney said and laughed. She had a very aristocratic laugh. Like she’d been taught not to show too much teeth. I bet she gave a great blow job. “What’s your dream, Robert?” Jack said like he was really inter-ested. Jack was a good actor. He could make a guy believe he was off the hook, even as he held a hammer in his thick hand. They always seemed surprised when the steel cracked their bones. It was a sick thing he did. When I broke people’s hands, I gave them a little preparation, let them grit their teeth. “My dream?” Robert said. “I’d like to fly to the moon.” “Answer him,” Courtney said. “I don’t know what my dream is. I’d like to make a fortune and retire young.” “How young?” Jack said. “Tomorrow. Since we’re dreaming, what the hell? I’d like to retire tomorrow.” “And just be done with life?” “I’ll be living the good life when I retire.” “You’re living the good life now.” “I also have to be at work tomorrow morning.” “So if you had a choice, you wouldn’t go to work tomorrow?” I said. “Of course not.” I made a note of that. I was looking at Courtney who was looking at her manicured nails, perfect pink polish. “And what’s your dream, Courtney?” Jack said. “That’s easy. I’d like to be a singer. I’d love to be on MTV, in my own video, singing a hit song and traveling around the country with my own band. I think that would be wild.” “You’re a wild one,” Jack said. “And you’re a croissant eater,” Courtney said and laughed her laugh. No one was interested in my dream so I didn’t say anything. I just leaned back into the BMW’s leather seat and looked out the window, at the sky getting dark, at the snow that looked hard and cold and almost blue in the evening light. “Can you turn on the news?” I said. “The news?” Robert said. “I want to hear the sports. I want to hear if Sprewell is playing tonight. He has the flu.” “A basketball fan.” “No. I’m just interested if Sprewell is playing.” “But you’re not a fan?” “I’m interested in the scores of the games, not the game itself. It’s what I do.” “You’re a bookie?” Robert said. “My dream come true.” “Cool,” Robert said. “Are you a bookie too, Jack?” Courtney said. “We’re partners,” Jack said. “He crunches the numbers. I keep the office running smoothly. It’s a small operation, but we make enough to get by.” “Who would have thought we’d pick up a couple of bookies driving home from Montreal?” Courtney said. “Robert didn’t want to pull over, but I said we should.” “You’re a good woman,” Jack said. “And your husband, well, he’s a bad man.” Jack started cracking up and so did Courtney. Jack kept his eyes on the rearview mirror the whole time. “Did you know they have a casino in Montreal?” Courtney said. “We went to the casino one night and I won twenty dollars at the slot machine. I put in a quarter and twenty dollars spilled out.” “I lost a hundred at the blackjack tables,” Robert said. Jack put his hand on Robert’s shoulder like they were old buddies. “Don’t worry about it. You’re supposed to lose. Las Vegas was built on losers and I’m sure Montreal’s no different.” “Put on the sports,” I said. “Whose car is this?” Robert said. “It’s just a simple request.” “Pretty please with a cherry on top,” Courtney said. The three of them were getting on my nerves. Robert found 1010 WINS. A lot of static, but clear enough to hear. It was fourteen minutes after the hour. One more minute to sports time. The voice over described the benefits of laser surgery on the retina. Then sports came on. Sprewell would be playing despite the flu. “Does that help you or hurt you?” Robert said. “It helps me.” “How? I mean how exactly?” “You read The Wall Street Journal, right?” “Every morning.” “Same concept. The more you know, the easier it is to predict how things will turn out.” “How did you factor in Sprewell?” “I figured him into the spread. I figured him playing sick into the spread. He matches up well with the Wizard forwards when he’s healthy, but they have a shot if he’s weak.” “How many points did the spread change?” “One.” “Cool,” Robert said. “Sometimes one point makes all the difference.” “Very cool.” “It is very cool,” I said and waited for Courtney to say something, to at least glance up from her nails. She didn’t. It turned dark fast. I saw a sign for the highway. Eleven miles to the exit to be exact.
* * *
There was traffic on the highway. Robert drove like a pro, gently pushing the left-lane drivers to switch lanes and, if they didn’t, cutting right, speeding forward, cutting back into the left lane. He was making good time. The BMW moved smooth, fast, built for fun on the Autobahn. Jack had been talking nonstop to Courtney and she’d already revealed too much about herself. Where she’d gone to school. Barnard. Where she worked. Arcadia Gallery. Where she and Robert lived. Park Avenue and 78th Street. Information divulged was vulnerability. In life. In betting. The more I knew, the easier it was to predict the perfect spread and collect the money. She was too trusting for a Manhattan bred kid, for all her schooling and pretend savvy. “If you see a rest area let me know,” Robert said. “I need to fill up.” “My eyes are peeled,” Jack said. “You’re funny,” Courtney said. “Why am I funny?” “You just are. You seem like you’re from another time. I haven’t heard someone say My eyes are peeled for years.” “I happen to like that expression,” Jack said. “And you said From the get-go before.” “I happen to like that expression too.” “You know what my favorite expression is?” “What?” “I made it up. The early worm is caught by the bird.” “I like that too,” Jack said. “The early bird is wise, but the early worm is foolish.” “It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” Robert said. “That’s my favorite expression. When it’s a bear market, it’s a dog-eat-dog world.” “There’s gas at the next exit,” I said. “His eyes were peeled,” Courtney said and laughed. Jack turned off at the exit. The arrows for gas pointed right. Robert took the right and then, like a dream, the sleeping kind of dream, where coincidences just happen, the neon sign promised the desire kind of dream. KARAOKE spelled in bold letters, a garish pink neon in the night. The gas station was just past it, but I yelled “Pull in” so quickly, so firmly, that Robert’s hands just followed my command and he pulled his BMW into the gravel lot. “What?” he said when he slowed to a stop. “What is it?” “Your wife,” I said. “She wants to sing.” “Why would she want to sing?” “It’s her dream,” I said. “Didn’t you hear her before? That was her dream.” Courtney was looking at me. It was about time, but I wasn’t surprised. “Honey?” Robert said to his wife. “Well,” she said and started to laugh. “Well. It might be fun. Maybe it’s time to move out of the shower and onto the stage.” The lot was full. We wouldn’t be the only ones in the audience. “I’ve got a full day tomorrow,” Robert said. “That’s your dream,” Jack said, trying to recapture Courtney’s undivided attention. He wasn’t that much of a moron. He hadn’t said freaking the whole freaking ride. “What’s my dream?” Robert said. “To work hard and retire early,” I said. “But there’s nothing here that has to do with your dream except that gas station so you can fill up and get back to the city for your full day. And that gas station will be here when we’re done. But we’re not done yet. There’s a reason for things. Like your driving by at the precise time our car broke down. Like talking about dreams and then finding a karaoke bar.” “I thought you were strictly a numbers man,” Robert said. “I am a numbers man, but I also believe in mystery. Einstein understood the laws of the universe, but he also believed in God.” “Deep,” Robert said. “Too rich for my blood,” Jack said. “There you go again,” Courtney said and smiled. “I happen to like that expression too,” Jack said. “Here’s another one. Bottoms up! Let’s go. Drinks are on us.” We had enough cash in our pockets to buy the whole bar drinks the whole night. Cash. Cash money. We’d both shelled out big bucks for women who didn’t look half as good as Courtney. Getting her up on stage, giving her some of her dream, would make her glow like the girls uptown at Scores who pretended to dance in their own private music videos. Dreaming like that, I figured, made the lap dances easier, even though the bills stuck into their panties had to make it easy enough. Jack and I didn’t go to strip clubs all the time, but we went sometimes. It was tough to date regular women after feeling the flawless bodies that pressed into our laps. And we’d never been interested in regular women, anyway. When you did what we did, when you lived in a faster lane, speed had to be everywhere. And that had been my dream, or part of my dream, if I could articulate it. I wanted to live fast. I wanted to feel the speed, but forever and ever, without age to slow me down, without numbers catching up to me. Lately, the numbers were getting closer, the year numbers, not the number numbers. The number numbers were getting further away. I wasn’t as sharp as I used to be. I had lapses in concentration. I would read the sports, go over my baseball charts, my football charts, my basketball charts, but sometimes I’d blank out, catch myself staring at my notes and wondering where I’d been. And I’d been a better judge of character once too. I could peg a person as a runner, what I called them, the ones who bet and lost and ran. I never took bets from runners. But we were upstate because a loser had run. He’d run to his parents and they’d paid up, but only after Jack had made the guy feel falsely comfortable. I looked away just before he brought down the hammer. I looked away and thought how there had to be another kind of life. “I can’t drink,” Robert said. “I’m driving.” “I’ll need a drink if I’m going to sing,” Courtney said and she opened her car door. All Robert could do was kill the ignition, take out the key.
The karaoke bar was dark, smoky, and crowded. There was a stage. Above the stage hung a banner. Sunday night was karaoke contest night. FIRST PRIZE: ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS AND A PITCHER OF BEER. I walked to a table in the back like I owned the place, a trick of my trade, and they followed me. I sat down first and, just as I figured, Courtney sat next to me facing the stage. Her husband sat next to her, protective little shit, and Jack took the last chair. A blond waitress came over, her tits squeezed together in an obscene push up bra, and asked what we wanted. Courtney ordered a martini with three olives. Robert ordered a ginger ale. Jack and I each ordered a shot of Wild Turkey and a beer back. “What’s the deal with the karaoke contest?” I asked the waitress. “Where do we sign up?” “I can take your name,” she said. “Don’t take my name. I’m about as melodic as a frog. But you can put down my friend Courtney. I’m betting the house she wins first prize.” “I need a new house,” the waitress said. “Who’s the ringer? Who’s the best singer here?” “That one,” the waitress said and pointed to a frail-looking Asian man. “You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he’s got a big voice.” “I still bet the house,” I said. The waitress shook her head and walked off. “You’re very confident in me,” Courtney said. “You look the part.” “I do?” “She looks like a star, don’t you think so, Jack?” “A starlet,” Jack said. “You married a starlet,” I told Robert. Robert smiled. He had a winning smile, two cute dimples and straight white teeth. I bet he lit up whatever boardroom he entered. But we were in a seedy karaoke bar and his wife was feeling adventurous. That was a danger sign even if he didn’t see it. Adventurous feelings led to big bets and big bets led to big losses. It was one of those rules of the universe that kept me in business. An older man, thinning hair, tired eyes, wearing a green velvet jacket walked out on stage and took the microphone. He looked ridiculous. He welcomed the ladies and gentlemen. He announced the beginning of the karaoke competition. He went over the rules. The louder the applause, the higher the score for each singer. The two competitors with the most applause would have a sing off to decide the winner. “Can you handle the pressure?” I said to Courtney. “You’re the odds maker.” The MC cleared his throat, read the names off the list and one by one the karaoke singers stood. Courtney was the last on the list. When she stood everyone went quiet. The MC called the first competitor to the stage and the rest of the singers sat down. “Five to two you take home the gold,” I said. “You look confident and you already have the crowd.” “But you’ve never heard me sing.” “I don’t have to. You look the part and it’s what you want to do. I’m betting you’re good.” “Bet the house,” she said. The first singer had an entourage. She was a middle aged woman with a Southern twang. Her rendition of “Stand By Your Man” was overly sentimental, but her supporters gave her a loud round of applause. “How sweet it is,” the MC said. The Wild Turkey warmed me. Jack was eating fistfuls of popcorn from a bowl the waitress had put on the table. Salt equaled a bigger bar tab equaled a bigger tip. Everyone played the numbers. This afternoon we’d been collecting money and this evening we were at a sing along. It was an unexpected twist, the kind of twist that could kill a spread if a spread could be figured for life. I ordered another shot of Wild Turkey. My life had a predictable spread even if it wasn’t punching clock pedestrian. I would continue to make book for the rest of my life. I was too old to start over. I was too young to quit. And the spread was good that I’d continue to make book without getting caught because the United States hated monetary losers. That’s why broken hands were never reported. Nothing would be done. If you were foolish enough to owe money like that to people like me, you were too foolish to be protected by the criminal justice system. I sometimes envied the men who went to work and didn’t have to use physical force to ensure their paydays. I’d actually hated breaking hands. That’s when I brought Jack into the business. He was one of those who drifted around the Lower East Side’s alphabetized avenues. I’d gone out drinking with him a couple of times and everyone knew Jack. When I asked Jack what he felt about collecting money, he said he felt good about it. It turned out his resume included two stints working for bookies. A hammer had become his tool of choice. And he was reliable. Competence was a rare trait these days, and one I admired. The second, third, and fourth singers sang. They were less than mediocre, as was their applause. When they sat down, they knew they were sitting down for good. The fifth singer, a burly man wearing a plaid shirt, sang Elvis’s “Return to Sender,” but he seemed more interested in gyrating his hips than getting the song right. The sixth singer had the same last name as the fifth singer, probably the man’s wife. She sang another Elvis tune, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” I drank down my shot. I looked at Courtney. She was eating the last olive in her martini. “The odds are looking good,” I said. “I’m a little nervous,” Courtney said. Robert smirked. “There’s no reason to be nervous. It’s just a stupid contest in the middle of nowhere.” “Then why don’t you sing?” I said to Robert. “Really,” Jack said, his mouth full of popcorn. “Get up there and strut your stuff. Pick another Elvis number and belt it out like you’re the next King.” “No thanks,” Robert said. “I’ve got better things to do with my time.” “Time,” I said. Robert was still smirking. “MBA,” I said. “What?” Robert said. “I bet you have an MBA.” “How much do you want to bet?” “I’ll bet the house.” “Okay. You’re right. I have an MBA.” “Harvard or Wharton. Don’t tell me.” “I won’t.” “Harvard,” I said. “Very impressive.” “I bet that diploma looks good in your office,” I said. “It doesn’t hurt.” “I bet it doesn’t.” Seven and eight sang. “I’m Not the Man I Used to Be” by the Fine Young Cannibals and Diana Ross’s “Last Time I Saw Him.” Decent voices, but uninspiring. The MC took the mike. He introduced the house champion, the small Asian man the waitress had pointed out. The man walked through the room. He was so unassuming he could blend in any-where. But when he took the stage, his hand sliding calmly over the microphone like an old pro, I knew Courtney would have more than a run for her money. It was all in the details. When he sang the first note of “Me and Mrs. Jones,” the room stopped. After a while I stopped judging him and just sat back and enjoyed the song. When he was done, the place erupted. “Freaking A,” Jack yelled. “Not bad,” Robert said. Courtney didn’t say anything. She looked at me. She was looking at me. She knew I was the one who’d brought us here, me and fate. The Asian man walked off the stage. The MC called Courtney’s name. “Just sing like you’re in the shower,” I said to her, making my voice as gentle as it could go so she’d believe I believed. I wanted her to get to the next round. She nodded just for me, a slow, almost imperceptible nod. Then she stood up and walked across the bar floor, cool and casual but practiced casual. She was nervous. The odds were clicking into place. “What do you think?” I said to Robert. “She can sing.” “Better than the Asian guy? Be honest.” “The guy’s got a great voice.” “So if you were to make a bet, you’d bet against your wife?” I didn’t let him answer. I started laughing to cover any possible answer. The MC welcomed Courtney, told the audience she was a fine-looking first-timer and some of the men whooped it up. The MC asked what song she’d be singing. Courtney chose “I Fall to Pieces.” There were different ways to fall. I sat back and watched. She was good. She was better than anyone except the Asian man. She sang sweetly. A little too softly at first, but as the song went on she got braver and belted out her notes. And she was great to look at, a natural beauty maintained beautifully. When she finished she was holding the microphone like a pro. The applause was enthusi-astic and it was easy to figure out the two finalists. The Asian man and Courtney. One on one. And those were the only bets I took. One on one. One team against one team. One fighter against one fighter. That’s how I figured out the odds. “So what’s the bet?” I said. “I don’t know,” Robert said. Jack was eating popcorn and watching Courtney walk off the stage. “Who do you take?” “I don’t know,” Robert said. “So you’re thinking of betting against your wife?” “I can’t do that.” “But you’re thinking about it. What kind of man are you?” “Don’t question my manhood.” “Then make the man’s bet.” “What are we betting?” “Your degree. The piece of paper that says you went to Harvard.” “That’s crazy.” “That’s the only thing you have I really want. Almost the only thing.” “What are you saying?” “I want your degree.” “The degree means nothing if you didn’t actually go to Harvard.” “It means something to me.” “And what do I get?” Robert said. “Two thousand dollars.” “I make two thousand dollars in a second.” “It’s cash. I know you rich people never carry cash, but you like the feel of it. And it will give you a good story. You can tell all your Park Avenue friends how you won two thousand bucks off a bookie.” “You have two thousand dollars cash on you?” “I do.” And I did. “How would you get my degree?” “I’ll get it. Don’t worry. I collect all my debts.” “It means nothing.” “Your wife is going to be here in a second. Are you going to be a man and bet on her or not?” “I am a man.” “Then be a man.” “Fine,” Robert said. “I’ll bet.” “Good.” And I extended my hand across the table for the bullshit handshake. “It’s official.” And with that Courtney sat down. She was beaming. “You have a great voice,” I said. “Did I do well?” “You sang wonderfully, hon,” Robert said. “You’re a regular crooner,” Jack said, laying on the old time expression since that was their connection. “Stop,” Courtney said and laughed, but she didn’t want him to stop, didn’t want any of this to stop. She was feeling like a star. She was confident. I wanted that Harvard degree. “Did you fall to pieces?” I said. “When?” “When you met your husband? You seemed to be singing that song with real feeling.” “Sure I did.” “How long after you met Robert did you get engaged?” “Why?” “Because you’re a woman who gets what she wants and Robert’s a successful man. I can smell it on him. Those Harvard degrees have that sweet smell of success. It’s almost the opposite of the smell we have. Me and Jack. I don’t understand why your husband listened to you and picked up a couple of hitchhikers in the middle of nowhere, but maybe he was trying to prove to his wife that he’s a man.” “What are you talking about?” Robert said. “Just going over the scenario in my head. Am I right?” “Are you right about what?” he said. “About money and love.” “They’re two different things,” Robert said. “Really?” “My wife loves me.” “My guess is you don’t cut it in the bedroom.” “Fuck you.” “Easy,” Jack said and started laughing. He scooped up another fistful of popcorn and shoved it in his mouth. “That’s what I’m talking about,” I said to Robert. “The fucking. I bet you don’t cut it in that department.” “What department do you cut it in?” Courtney said. She was looking at me like a dare. She’d taken her own dare and walked onstage. I just smiled. The kind of smile I got when some sucker bet on a long shot. “The numbers department,” I said and I didn’t make my voice go gentle. “I cut it in the numbers department.” “That’s easy,” she said. “You’d be surprised.” I took my empty shot glass, turned it upside down, slapped it flat on the table. “We’re leaving,” Robert said. “I’ve had enough of your shit.” “You’re not leaving,” I said. “She has one more song.” “She’ll leave if I tell her to.” “I’d bet on that too. Put up some money.” I took a wad of cash from my pocket and held it in front of him. I knew it would scare Robert. He was used to dealing with big numbers, but a digital printout and a thick set of bills were apples and freaking oranges, as Jack would say. “Do you want to bet?” I said. Robert was looking at the money. “Do you?” I said. “Do you want to take the chance of humiliating yourself like that?” Robert looked at me. He looked at Courtney. She wanted to sing. She wanted to win. “Do you?” I said. “Do you want to stay?” Robert said to his wife. She didn’t say no. Robert sat back in his chair. The MC announced the two winners and called up the Asian man and Courtney. They walked to the stage, their walks as different as their voices. The Asian’s surprisingly deep and resonant. Courtney’s smooth and true. The Asian was the veteran, he’d been here before, and the thing about beautiful women was that less than beautiful women didn’t like them. I knew the Scores girls were ostracized by others. They’d told me so and I’d seen it. They were called stupid and cheap and trashy and whores by women who, had they the body and the face, would have jumped at the chance to lap-dance the night away for more money than they made in a week at the office. The MC took a coin from his pocket, Courtney chose tails, the coin went high into the air, turned and turned, and like a good card hand where you see the cards coming out before they do, I saw heads. Heads it was. The Asian man said he’d sing second. It was the smart move. The last song heard was the first song remembered. Courtney chose “Over the Rainbow.” “That’s my girl,” Jack yelled out. It was an oldie, and Jack liked the oldies. Jack was buzzed. His mouth had popcorn on it. Courtney heard Jack’s encouragement, but she was looking at me. I’d told her to sing like she was in the shower. I’d told her husband to stop at the karaoke bar. I was the reason she was here. And when she lost, I’d have a Harvard diploma hanging in my room. On nights when I came home drunk, with cash in my pocket from my cash business, with memories of hands getting broken, and memories of empty lap dances, I’d look at the diploma and read the elaborate script, the H falling into the A falling into the R falling all the way into the final calligraphied D and I’d pretend I’d taken another road until I fell asleep. I’d purposely insulted her husband, to rile her up, to make the odds shift in my favor, but she was looking at me. I didn’t give her anything back. My bet was on the Asian man. The lights dimmed. The music came on. Courtney started to sing. Somewhere over the rainbow... Everyone knew the song. Everyone had grown up with it. The Wizard of Oz televised every Easter, as if Dorothy’s rebirth mirrored Christ’s resurrection, but maybe that was too rich as Jack would say, too freaking rich. As Courtney sang, I heard the words for the first time. It wasn’t a kid’s song in her mouth. It was the song of a woman who really did have dreams once upon a time, who really did wish for happiness even if she knew, so deep it hurt, that there wasn’t such a thing, that mankind wasn’t bluebird-kind, that to get over the rainbow was just too much. The way Courtney sang, you wouldn’t know she lived on Park Avenue. The way she sang, her life was as empty as mine. I’d slept with a singer once. This is what she told me: If you sang the song like it was new, like you didn’t know the end, didn’t know the final words, the final note, but just sang, like it was part of you, part of the present you, then the song would have the surprise, the emotion, the power that a song should have. Why oh why can’t I? Courtney held the last note just long enough. Not so long that she was showing off. Just long enough. The song was over. She looked straight ahead. She wasn’t looking at anyone though. She was still in the song. No song had ever broken my heart before. The Asian man turned to Courtney, bowed his head and walked off the stage. He’d conceded. Then the applause started. The song’s sadness, its beautiful sadness, faded like a rainbow and I was back in a karaoke bar too far from the city. The winner’s check was handed over. The pitcher of beer was delivered to the table. Courtney walked across the room. I took two thousand dollars out of my pocket and put it in Robert’s hand. Courtney sat down. “Did you really think I would bet against my wife?” Robert said and took his wife’s hand. “Never bet against your freaking wife,” Jack said and laughed. Courtney looked at me, all her attention on me. “Did you really bet against me?” Courtney said. “I did. If you’d sung any other song I would have won.” “Are you so sure?” she said. “No,” I said. “I’m not so sure.” Courtney held my eyes just long enough. “So what were you going to do with my diploma?” Robert said. I wondered if he’d really heard the way his wife had sung her winning song. “I was going to hang it on my wall.” “And do what with it?” I had only seen one rainbow in New York City, but that had been a long time ago and in daylight. It was night. The sky was black. The broken down rental car seemed so far away, it could have been Canada. “And do what with it?” Robert said again. “What were you going to do with that piece of paper?” “Pretend.”
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro
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ADAM BERLIN teaches writing at Columbia University and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the author of Headlock: A Novel (Algonquin Books, 2000) and Belmondo Style, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press this spring. His stories and poems appear in numerous journals.