A karaoke junkie story

Vince Breslin on stage at Bearly’s, one of the first performers of the night. Photo: Kate Howell

Bartenders and waitresses stock quarts and count beer. A bouncer looks for the sugar. It’s wherever Vince is, jokes a bartender.
“Vince puts enough sugar in his coffee to feed the country.”
Vince Breslin is in his spot, perched on a stool by the coffee pots in a corner of Cheers, hunched over a crossword puzzle. He isn’t here every day. Only Mondays. He isn’t on the payroll, just part of the furniture. In a bar named Cheers, you could call him Norm.
“Drink all the coffee you want,” the night manager jokes. “Just as long as you keep the pot full.”
Later, he is on stage wailing a falsetto so close to the real thing you have to look twice to make sure it isn’t Franki Valli himself.
Sherry, baby, Sherry,
Can you come out tonight?
His boyish blue eyes are glued to the screen displaying the lyrics, despite singing those same lines for half his life. You wonder whether he’s looking at the words, or seeing something else.
A face smiling right back at him.
• • • • •
“Holly would like to meet you.”
Breslin was 18 when he started taking courses at Northern Lights Community College in Fort St. John, B.C. A few years later, a woman approached him.
Holly had scoliosis, epilepsy and cerebral palsy, and was in a wheelchair. She couldn’t speak, though her blue eyes could articulate volumes.
Before her, Breslin was bitter. A misdiagnosed stroke resulted in the partial paralysis of his left arm when he was just 12 years old.
Holly, a woman whose handicap surpassed his by miles yet could seldom be found without a smile, changed his outlook on life.
Those eyes could be so convincing.
That’s how it started. It was 1992.
• • • • •
Breslin strolls into McDonald’s on Spring Garden Road like he does every evening.
“A medium coffee, two cream, five sugar”—his usual.
When he’s not singing karaoke (which is every Monday at Cheers, Wednesday at Bearly’s and Thursday at Oasis,) Breslin is usually here or at his North End apartment with his cat, a white creature named Spooks.
Since moving to Nova Scotia 16 years ago, he’s worked a few jobs, call centres mostly, but a business makeover last summer left Vince unemployed. He’s a prototype away from completing the children’s game he designed to help kids multitask. The idea sparked a few years ago whilst bored out of his tree watching his parents play Scrabble.
In 2013, he made the resolution to finally fix his “buggered up arm.” Since then, he’s received plastic surgery on his thumb and begins 2014 with the optimism of his next two surgeries on the horizon: his fingers and wrist. Perhaps when it’s all done, he says, he’ll celebrate by singing The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” That’s big for someone who still performs the same songs after 20 years.
It started with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
• • • • •
Those blue eyes stared at him.
Holly persuaded him to sing karaoke at
the Child Development Centre’s annual fundraiser. She requested “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Teddy Bear.”
When Breslin began practicing at karaoke night at Micci’s pub in Fort St. John to gain some courage, something inside the shy young man sparked. A platform void of interruption. Singing old songs, making people smile.
Making Holly smile. That’s really what it boiled down to.
Soon, his nights at Micci’s weren’t just practice.
“The usual?”
He continues past the bar at Bearly’s House of Blues on Barrington Street, past the stage where a brunette cracks a joke about Saskatchewan. Amateur comedy night is wrapping up.
He sits where he always sits: by the pool table, where a window-sized hole in the brick provides a perfect view of the stage from the second floor. His “usual” arrives: fries, gravy and a glass of orange juice, no ice; he doesn’t care for alcohol.

Vince shoots some pool with other patrons while he waits for his next turn on the mike. Photo: Kate Howell

Vince shoots some pool with other patrons while he waits for his next turn on the mike. Photo: Kate Howell

Here, it’s more than karaoke. Breslin’s days at Micci’s got him hooked on pool; he quickly learned how to one-arm shoot. Today, he joins in the rotation, making small talk. His good friend, Koji Watanabe, pops in once in a while. He met Koji back in his early days at Cheers, where Koji was already a regular. Koji introduced him to more karaoke joints, including this one and Oasis.
Later, he cocks his chin and “What A Wonderful World” flows out like thunder from his grin. A blonde sings along, smiling like it was her parents’ wedding song.
Vince rarely goes outside his four-song repertoire; two chipper falsettos and two in his deeper range—this one and “Mack The Knife.”
A table of 20somethings demand the falsetto tune he’s best known for in this town.
“Sing ‘Sherry’ next!”
• • • • •
It was August 12, 2012, a month after losing his job at the call centre. Miriam, Holly’s sister, commented on his Facebook status. Breslin hadn’t heard from Holly’s family in years. He asked how everyone was doing.
Breslin had relocated to Nova Scotia with his parents in 1996. Leaving B.C. was easy, Holly not so much. “You’ll always be my gal, and I’ll always be your guy,” he said.” Until we meet again.”
Those big blue eyes had locked on him. He’d meant every word.
There was another comment from Miriam. It was long. Describing the way Holly’s health had declined rapidly. Stomach cancer. She’d died July 12. Miriam wanted to make sure he knew.
His gal was gone. He never dated anyone in Nova Scotia. He couldn’t break his promise. Could he now? No, he says he’s too old for dating.
There’s always karaoke.
• • • • •
His favourite table at Oasis is empty—the first booth past the shuffleboard table. Sliding in, resting his back against the wall, his legs propped up, he orders 10 honey garlic wings. Soon, he’s up on stage. Back home.
The music starts slow, then the drums. Cue the iconic croons.
In the jungle, the mighty jungle,
The lion sleeps tonight…
People change cities, jobs, social circles. But parts of you carry on and sometimes you don’t know why. We keep habits because we don’t know how we’d function without them.
Breslin stares at the screen. Is he looking at the lyrics, or seeing something else?
A face smiling right back at him.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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