She said good days ain’t got no rain
She said bad days are when I lie in bed
and think of things that might have been.
I don’t remember what the disagreement was about. It wasn’t even an argument, just three fifteen year old girls talking after gym class. There was Maxi—open and popular, knowing when to show her cards or hold them close. She usually had aces until later on when the drugs took hold (but she made it through). Mel didn’t have aces but she took what she could get. That day it was drama. About a boy—what else? Mel had had him and now she didn’t. But she wanted to tell us that it was more than that, more complex, and of course, it was. Because life usually is.
Mel told her story from a place of deep focus that was in high contrast to the soft spring day around us. But she held Maxi’s attention, and mine, to a point. I had arrived late to the conversation and didn’t yet understand what the sorrow was all about. I mean, why so serious?
My insights on the matter of Mel’s failed romance lacked gravitas but I offered an opinion anyway and hoped for a little levity. Instead, without warning, Mel reached out and struck me in my left breast. I say “struck” but “slugged” is more like it. The feeling wasn’t unlike the time when, as a child, I had maneuvered the wrong way around my mother’s new coffee table and tripped, belly flopping against its side.
“Got the wind knocked out of you,” my dad told me as I gasped for air that threatened to come a terrifying second too late. “You’ll be okay.” And as dads often are, he was right.
But Mel’s fist against my breast was even more of a surprise than the result of that long ago afternoon tumble. I didn’t see Mel’s fist coming because I didn’t know I was falling.
“Uh…ha.” Maxi’s uncomfortable laugh brought me back to myself. A response was required but all I could do was look at Maxi in the way one does when seeking rescue from acute embarrassment. This was the the moment for me to stand up. To look Mel in the eye and let her know she had crossed the line.
Instead I filled my mouth, still gaping wide, with my own awkward chuckle and didn’t do a damn thing.
Looking back, I realize that worse than the act of physical violence was Mel’s cool self-assurance that there would be no negative repercussions. Mel knew I wouldn’t protest because she recognized bone deep approval seeking when she saw it. And as was the tradition of all doormats, I had lain down in the dirt and allowed her not just to wipe her feet but to kick me when she was finished.
I was reminded of this the other day while searching eBay, hoping to find an album my sisters used to play when I was a kid. It was the era of acoustic Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary. But I was looking for a group far less well known—the Chad Mitchell Trio. The trio had gone through various incarnations (Jim McGuinn aka Roger McGuinn who later founded the Byrds, played banjo for the trio; and John Denver replaced Chad Mitchell, namesake of the group, before he eventually left to pursue his solo career) but it was the early days of the CMT I preferred. Particularly, their Best of 1963 collection which was interspersed with live and studio recordings. I loved that album and, along with listening to it, Peter, Paul and Mary and Meet the Beatles, learned to sing. When my sisters left home to find careers in a bigger city, I inherited the CMT album (along with some first edition Elvis Presley and Everly Brothers 45s) and I tossed aside my Popeye the Sailor Man discs and began my first real music collection.
Afternoons when I got home from school, I threw the trio on the hi-fi, singing along to songs about the John Birch Society and Billie Sol Estes*. Now I had no clue that these songs were political satire but I learned the lyrics and and sang with conviction (I credit the trio for subliminally making me the proud liberal I am today). But there was more than just jabs at current events on the record. The lovely 19th century Irish folk ballad, Green Grow the Lilacs, Woody Guthrie’s Great Historical Bum and even a square dance song—Hello Susan Brown—provided me with hours to flex my vocal chords and pique my growing interest in all things lyrical. So it was with a special mixture of carelessness, naïve trust, and stupidity that not quite a decade later I loaned this prized possession to a girlfriend who hoped to expand her repertoire as an up and coming singer/ piano player. You guessed correctly. It was Mel, or as I fondly remember her, Slugger.
*Billy Sol Estes was a businessman from Abilene who went to prison for bilking millions of dollars from Texas finance companies and farmers by conning them into paying for nonexistent tanks of fertilizer. This wasn’t particularly happy news for his friend Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson when Congress held investigative hearings about the scheme.
Now I honestly don’t recall if I allowed Mel to borrow the CMT album before or after her fist made contact with my left breast but I admit it could have been afterwards. I was gullible and anyway, forget and forgive, right? The times they had-a-changed, and Mel left my house also carrying with her the hackneyed Doors’ album, The Soft Parade, Spirit’s debut record , and Grand Funk Live (one of my adolescent blips on the good taste screen). Chad and the boys didn’t quite fit with the rest of the hard rock crew but I liked to think of myself as a rock music aficionado with eclectic tastes.
Mel assured me she would get the records back to me the next weekend.
“That’s okay,” I told her, maintaining my role as suck-up, “take your time.”
And she did. About four years worth.
It was on a visit to my mom those four years later that I decided to get in touch with Mel and retrieve my records. I’d been in my old room, looking through belongings I had left behind while I attended college. Just like my sisters, I had abandoned those things I felt I had outgrown. But as I flipped through what remained of my orphaned music collection, I realized I missed my Doors album and especially the Chad Mitchell Trio. I looked up Mel’s name in the phone book, took a deep breath and dialed her number.
“Hello?” Mel’s voice sounded the same.
“Hi, Mel. This is a friend from your past,” I joked, trying to keep it light. After spending a minute catching up–married? Kids? How’s school going—I got to the point.
“Mel, remember those records I loaned you before we graduated? I’d really like them back. Could I come over and get them?”
“Records? I don’t remember…”
“You know that Doors album and—“
“Oh yeah. Well (heavy sigh), I’ll have to look around for them. I just moved, ya know.”
Uh, no, I didn’t know. Why would I?
“I’d really like them back,” I persisted (you’re doing great, I told myself, keep it up).
“Okay. I’ll be home Friday night.”
She gave me her address then added, “It will be good to see you.” Really? Wow. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Dressed in my new black cords and ribbed Steel blue shirt, I sat on Mel’s couch. Her boyfriend and a couple of her teenaged cousins were there. The television was blaring some stupid sitcom and Mel was laughing and carrying on, enjoying being the center of attention. But mostly she enjoyed ignoring me.
After an appropriate amount of time had passed, I asked for my records.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ll get them,” Mel said sinking further into her recliner and starting up a new round of laughter with her cousins
An hour went by.
“Uh, Mel. I’ve got to get going. I really need to get my records.”
“Oh, all right.” Clearly put out, Mel pushed herself out of her comfy chair and headed for what I assumed was her bedroom. A minute later she emerged holding some worn looking albums.
She handed me the stack. “Thanks, Mel!” I was so relieved. There was my Doors album right on top. I glanced through them—Grand Funk was there and Spirit but wait a minute—where was the Chad Mitchell Trio?
Mel was back in her recliner, smoking a Marlboro, focused on her “real” company.
“Yeah, yeah, just a second. I want to see this part of the show.”
And so I sat for another fifteen minutes. Finally the program ended. Mel reached for the TV Guide.
“Hey, Mel. I think there’s a record missing.”
“Yeah, my Chad Mitchell Trio album—“
Not even looking in my direction Mel shrugged. “Oh, probably. I don’t know where it is. Somewhere around here.”
“Well, can you get it?”
“Oh, its just too much of a hassle. It’s in a box somewhere.”
I didn’t yet know what passive aggression was but my gut told me that it wasn’t unlike that day when Mel had slugged me on the tennis court. Only this time it was something more underhanded.
My corduroy pants began to feel much too tight. It didn’t make sense. Not when I was feeling so small.
I had to go home. I couldn’t wait to get out of those cords.
“I’m taking off,” I told Mel and stood up. “Thanks for the albums.”
Mel stayed put in her recliner. “Yeah, well, maybe I’ll find the other record and give you a call.”
“Okay, that would be great. Bye, Mel. Thanks, again.”
I think she said goodbye but I don’t remember. I just wanted to get back to my mother’s house so I could rip off my cords and take a shower. It wasn’t until I was in bed that I allowed myself to face what I had realized as I sat paralyzed on Mel’s couch: Not only had Mel known exactly where the CMT record was but I had once again failed to stand up to her. To stand up to a bully. And more importantly, to stand up for myself.
A few years ago, visiting a friend up north, I found the 1963 CMT album in a local library. My friend checked it out for me and we made a copy. It’s barely listenable due to all of the skips, scratches, and bumps from who knows how many years of wear and tear. I’ve since been able to download a few individual songs from the internet but the album in its entirety remains out of print and apparently has never been converted to a digital format.
I don’t always think of Mel when I listen to those old folk songs. But music can spark memories like little else can so she occasionally comes to mind. For a long time I’ve imagined myself reacting differently on the tennis court that day. At times I wish I had hit her back or at the very least, told her to back off. What is it they say about standing up to a bully? The bully often backs down (I have since learned, sadly, that this is not always the case). Would Mel have backed down? But another question comes to mind. If I had stood up to Mel that spring day, would she have, four years later, still refused to give me my CMT album? Would I have even loaned those records to her? I might have gained much more insight into her character—and mine—had I stood my ground. All of those (mostly) fruitless internet searches would have been unnecessary because I would still have that album.
Yeah, I know, the proverbial “what if?” But it was a lesson that the actions we take—or don’t take—even as kids—can create a mold that’s harder to break as we grow older. I like to think I’ve learned well how to assert myself since those experiences with Mel. But I wonder. If I had stood up on that tennis court all those years ago, maybe it would be just a little bit easier now.