I think I liked Melanie because her hair had a slight bit of curl which I might have envied although this was the era of slick, stick-straight, part-down-the-center, the-longer-the-better 1970s hair. Melanie showed up in the middle of Beowulf one day in English class. No, she wasn’t monster hunting, she brought me from the midst of the tale wondering about feasts, Danes, and funeral pyres.
“I like that skirt. Come to my house later. My room is so keen,” she said.
It was the 1970s, but Melanie was the first free spirit I had ever met, wearing small flowers interwoven into her hair. Her parents were bonafide hippies, younger and cooler than mine. Her world was filled with colors of the 70s, avocado green, harvest gold, orange and purple, beaded curtains and rugs shaped like feet. Melanie had a brown guitar that she had learned to play from her dad. He used to laugh and say, “I’ll be your manager someday.”
The 1973 Jr. High Talent Show competition advertisement captured vibrant Melanie’s attention on an ordinary Friday afternoon. She found me at the bike rack, unchaining my bike, getting ready to go home after school.
“Hey you, look at this!” she said.
She shoved the flyer at me. Melanie might have been Stevie Nicks if the stars had been aligned properly, you know the timing and all that. I could see that she loved the spotlight.
“So we can do something, right? I’ll play the guitar,” she said.
“Um, I don’t play anything,” I replied.
“It’s fine, you can sing,” said Melanie.
“What songs do you know besides Proud Mary?” I asked.
“Well I know that one, and…well, we’ll see,” she said.
Proud Mary. This was back when Ike and Tina Turner had the Revue. Melanie apparently liked the idea of floating away on a river, so she got out her guitar, and I hauled out every apprehensive nerve in my body then we met with her dad, the Music Man. She strummed. He interjected. “Timing a little off…better transition there….no, that’s a B minor for sure.” Then the focus went to me. “Alright, we’re ready for you to sing,” he said.
After learning what an intro was, I tried to channel my inner Tina. “Left a good job in the city….” and started out strong. Melanie strumming. Manager Dad humming. I was like a Book Nerd masquerading as a blonde Cher. “Workin’ for the man…” then all of a sudden I actually heard myself singing. And I sounded WEIRD. So I stopped.
“What?” asked Melanie.
“Yeah?” asked Music Dad.
“I ummm…. does it sound…?”
“No, go on,” said her dad.
“Left a good job in the CitEEE, workin’ for the man every night and day….”
“Now what?” asked Melanie.
“Keep going!” said Music Dad.
“Uh, I think I might need to go home now. I just remembered something I needed to do,” I said.
“Ok then, let’s shoot for tomorrow,” said Melanie’s dad.
Next day we tried to pick it up at least to the point of where I could finally get rolling on the river, but somehow I could never even make it to cleaning those plates in Memphis or pumping any pane because every single time after that first stanza when my brain heard the voice coming from my mouth, the trauma was too much to go on.
“Oh come on!” Melanie would admonish me looking like she was born to do this in those flared bell bottoms.
“Je…SUS, just keep going,” her dad would say before he finally lost patience over us taking that gold medal in the junior high talent show.
I couldn’t quite figure out the problem. I guess I actually expected Tina’s strong vibes would spill out of my mouth just like on the radio. Then I had a vision of people actually looking at me. I wanted to ask Melanie if I could stand behind a screen or something, but her patience was running thin with me, so she picked up her guitar and learned to play Yesterday Once More, but without the vocals.
We soon got past her musical aspirations and on to riding bikes, giggling over boys and playing crazy long games of tennis.
Junior high was alive with possibilities, seething with young teens navigating the social order, and me with a friend who was way too cool. Then just like that, one day in the middle of The Count of Monte Cristo, Melanie vanished in that hippy-drifter sort of way. She was not at school. As I meticulously read of Dantes meting out his revenge, kids were saying that Melanie had checked out of school. She had mentioned casually one time that her family might move, but never really clarified it.
I went by her house on my bike after school. Everything was dark within, no cars, no lights, bare driveway. Nobody was there, day after day. I didn’t have a best friend for a long time after Melanie left, and for a while, Proud Mary rolled right out of my thoughts. Then, later on, I would hear: “If you go down to the river, bet you’re gonna find some people who live….” and I would think of Melanie and how she tried to bestow upon me self-confidence belted out in the form of a leggy Tina Turner. Then I would wonder just where Melanie went with that brown guitar and if she thinks of me when Proud Mary blasts the airwaves and Tina reaches out, first easy, then rough, like that crazy river of life that sometimes drowns us and it rolls onward.