by Amy Dennis
Running, I turned onto the sidewalk along John King Boulevard. I cover this route a lot. It’s my only focused time outside, so I really should unplug and tune in to what’s happening around me: the sweet smell of cedars in the local park; gray rabbits scuttling under a brick wall as I trot toward them; school kids released to the wilds of a fenced playground for brief recess. These are the pretty little details of my otherwise cookie cutter neighborhood, and I appreciate their earthiness. But this whole running thing isn’t just about sucking up fresh air and spinning off calories. It’s my therapy time, think time, idea time. Sure, it looks like I’m just jogging along, but I may be mentally rearranging my living room, trying to remember how old my parents are, or praying (again) for courage. Almost always, though, on every run, I bring along the nearest set of cheap ear buds. I plug in, and most of the time, I let the music take me away somewhere else completely.
The tunes pouring through those wires never fail to chip away at old memories, sending them up to the surface. They’re a mainline to the history files inside my head. At any moment, a song may send me back a year, or ten, or thirty. Better than a Polaroid, these flashbacks have life and movement and plenty of emotion. Sometimes I’ll time warp with a “seasonal” song, like Ebony and Ivory. If you spent any time at the Abilene Swim Club during the 80s, then you certainly heard that odd mash up of superstardom wafting from the tinny speaker wired to the clubhouse. You also heard Van Halen’s Jump and probably even jumped in off the side of the pool during the chorus. I mean, if you were a dork like me, then you would have done that, I think.
Other songs bring back not just general memories but a clear and specific scene, person, or experience. Our brains are made to work this way, really, weaving various senses together to create unique memories that we can revisit anytime we want. But every once in a while, some minor detail will pick the lock on our mental file cabinets, causing the ever-accommodating brain to open its treasure chest and fling out a gold coin or two. Music is especially adept at this kind of trickery. Funkytown? Oh, that’s Girl Scout day camp in Rose Park. The soundtrack to Grease? That’s my friend Laura’s bedroom, with her big ruffled bed and white furniture. And so on.
This week, I threaded my way along the usual running route past houses and basketball courts, schools and 7-11s. A few musical gems popped up. I thought a little about my brother (thanks to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts). After a pause, the familiar bomp-bomp-bomp bass line of Hall and Oates’ Maneater sent me back… way back. Back to Ronnie Miles, one of the quietest, most introverted, least earth-shaking people I’ve ever known. In truth, I wouldn’t even have remembered him if not for this particular song. What was he doing in my head? Who was Ronnie Miles? Even now, I can’t really say.
Blond, slight, gentle Ronnie faded into the background of our noisy fourth grade classroom. He was average. As far as I know, he wasn’t bullied, though my friends and I probably did our part to ignore him, which is really just its own passive kind of bullying. I didn’t understand that when I was nine years old. Now, I cringe inside at the thought of all those little wounds I’ve inflicted on others (at nine years old, or nineteen, or twenty-nine). Ronnie seemed harmless but unexciting. I wouldn’t grow to appreciate harmless for many years. In retrospect, Ronnie had a jump on all of us. He kept to himself, but he never had a harsh word for anyone. Well done, sir.
For kids like Ronnie, the annual talent show in music class must have been a special kind of torture. There were plenty of us who weren’t necessarily born with the performing gene, but we usually had some kind of an out: our parents had ponied up for piano lessons, or we could hold a handstand for thirty seconds, or we’d spent time as preschoolers at Patty Harper Dance Studio. We had something, we could do something. Then there were kids like Ronnie. He wasn’t especially athletic, he didn’t play an instrument, and he didn’t have any buddies willing to jump in on a skit with him. What could he do?
As Ronnie approached the front of Mrs. Petty’s music room, I think we all wondered just that: “What is Ronnie going to do?” As was his way, he didn’t make a big production of setting up the tape player. He avoided eye contact with anyone in the room but instead concentrated on cueing up the cassette to just the right spot. Soon, he moved to the center of our makeshift performance area, turned his back on all of us, and waited in silence. “What is Ronnie going to do?!”
It turns out that Ronnie–quiet, even demure– had the biggest cojones of any kid in school. The music began, and the bomp-bomp-bomp bass line rattled Mrs. Petty’s tape player. He knew exactly what he was doing, but we were all still curious. For thirty seconds or more Ronnie snapped to the beat, his back still turned. I have to admit, I think we were all a little weirded out at this point. Just when his classmates had begun to cast curious sideways glances at each other, Ronnie whirled around to face us all.
She’ll only come out at night; the lean and hungry type.
Ronnie’s round blue eyes were on fire. I’d never seen him look so… alive. He strutted, danced, and lip-synced the words to this unquestionably inappropriate song the way we had all done a thousand times in the privacy of our own middle class bedrooms. But he let us all see him, even grinning as if he knew a secret that we didn’t.
So many have paid to see; what you think you’re gettin’ for free.
He knew every word of the whole, delicious, lascivious song, and his energy never lagged. He never looked like he just wanted it to be over. He was electric. Today, we’d equate his performance with that of the inimitable Napoleon Dynamite, but it turns out that Ronnie was the inimitable one. Napoleon wouldn’t come along until 2004, but he’d have been no match for Ronnie anyway.
When Ronnie had danced and lip-synced his way through the entire tawdry narrative, he calmly strolled over to the tape player, pressed the stop button, and ejected his cassette. The room was silent. We were stunned. Ronnie had one-upped each of us, individually. He didn’t have to play a Beethoven piece, perform a tap routine, or juggle tennis balls. Ronnie was braver than that. Ronnie just did what he always did, what we all always did when we had time to do just what we wanted. Ronnie did what he wanted right in front of us all. He shined.
We clapped for him. He sat down. I stared at the red cover of the John Thompson’s piano book clutched in my hands. I had a piece picked out, and I was pretty confident I could pull it off from behind the solid protection of Mrs. Petty’s piano. But before I ever sat down at the bench, I already knew that no matter how technically perfect my performance was (it wasn’t), no matter how much feeling I put into it (I didn’t), I’d never touch Ronnie. Even now, I’m jealous of gentle, placid Ronnie Miles. I’m a grown-up now, but I still can’t do what Ronnie did at age nine. Any electricity I feel when the bass line of my favorite song begins is a current that’s still short-circuited by the fear inside me. My best routines are still confined within the walls of my home. Even if I knew every word of Maneater (I don’t), no one would ever know.
When I reached the 7-11, the halfway point of the day’s run, Maneater faded off back into the 80s. I turned around to head for home and realized I’d been smiling for the last few minutes, revisiting the courage of a skinny little blond kid in Texas. I don’t remember much else about Ronnie, but I can’t possibly forget the day he put us all in our places without ever uttering a word. Who is Ronnie Miles? Wherever he is, I bet he still knows all the lyrics to Maneater. And I hope I’m not the only one who remembers one of his finest performances. He’s the bravest and best of us all.
One day soon, Amy Dennis will finish her Masters degree at Texas Christian University. Her research interests include survival literature, American roots music, and the relationship between oral culture and print based learning. She teaches Developmental English at Eastfield College in Mesquite, TX, and she’s the faculty liaison for the Writing Center there. Amy is also the curator of Eastfield’s faculty and staff literary blog, thirtyseventhirtyseven.com, the mother of two fine young men, and the Bananagrams champion of her household. Sometimes she sings in the shower.