“This uniform’s about to itch my skin right off of my body,” whispered Carrie, leaning so that her words reached Janice’s ear. “You kids in the choir are so-o-o lucky not to have to wear these old wool tunics.”
Janice smiled at her friend’s complaint. When it came time for the Christmas concert in the square, Carrie would be complaining about band members not being able to wear mittens like the choir. That was Carrie, always looking for that greener grass.
As they stepped into the bandstand, the lines separated, band going to one side and choir to the other. Carrie gave Janice a subtle “thumbs up” as they parted. With a minimum of shuffling and noise, the young people took their positions. Mr. Troxler, the band director, tapped his baton for attention and the annual Labor Day concert began, opening with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The choir sat down as the townspeople filled the air with enthusiastic applause, a benefit of an audience filled with family members of the band and choir. During the instrumental numbers following, Janice looked around the park. She hoped to spot her family before her big solo so that she could sing directly to them.
“Everybody in town must be here,” she thought. “There’s hardly an open place to throw down a blanket. What a great turn out!”
Finally she spotted them, her parents and three brothers gathered on one of her mother’s quilts. Ben, the oldest brother, held hands with Trudy Forest, his fiancée of two months. Janice’s next brother, John, was busy chewing on a blade of grass and making eyes at Bethany Crane, sitting several yards away with her own family. Charlie, the only one younger than Janice, had his head buried in a magazine, probably an automotive one.
The picnic basket looked neglected beside Mrs. Wilmon, although Janice knew it was being protected from the ravages of three hungry young men. Mama would serve dinner after the concert, when Janice could join her family. They could all divert their attention from the regular roster of political orators to cold fried chicken and potato salad as they waited for the fireworks display later in the evening.
The annual Granite Valley Labor Day Picnic had been part of the town’s life for as long as anyone could remember. The crowd on the Memorial Park grass waxed and waned through the years but the picnic went on regardless.
The band worked through its program of Sousa marches and California-inspired melodies. When at last choir director Melanie Robbins stood and signaled for the choir’s attention, Janice felt a surge of adrenalin lift her frame. This was the moment the choir had rehearsed for all summer.
Drummer Jimmy Ferrara began a rhythmic tattoo on the rim of his drum. Male voices began a sing-song recitation, a rewording of John Denver’s “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy” to reflect ranching rather than farming. John Martin Summers original lyrics notwithstanding, the new words evoked laughter from the crowd. By the time the rest of the band and choir joined in, the audience began clapping time.
The next offering, Mac McAnally’s “Back Where I Come From,” brought the audience into the chorus with enthusiasm.
Janice loved the feeling of being a part of this talented choir. Blending her soprano voice with others brought satisfaction to her. She could shut out the crowd and focus on Miss Robbins. She belonged.
Each senior in the choir had a brief solo on the program, by longstanding tradition. One by one, each sang his or her heart out to family and friends-a momentary star of one last Labor Day picnic.
Too soon, the director was signaling for Janice to come forward. This was the moment she dreaded. As a part of the choir, she was fine. As a soloist, she was terrified. She stepped up in front of the choir, her heart started pounding wildly and she felt as though her lungs wouldn’t work. She looked over the crowd, hoping to catch her mother’s eye. Even at this distance, she could see the love and confidence in her mother’s face as she smiled broadly.
Miss Robbins sounded a pitch pipe. Janice hummed the note softly and began an a cappella intro.
“Here in Granite Valley, life travels to the beat of God’s four seasons.
We love and grow and learn of all the reasons
For family and home and faith, when to go and when to wait.
Daddy said to keep the path I follow straight.”
The audience sat in rapt attention, listening to the heartfelt words she sang. Without a pause, a handful of band members added their instruments. Janice launched into Loretta Lynn’s “They Don’t Make Them Like My Daddy Anymore.” Sarah Wilmon gave a whoop as her daughter sang, and punched her husband playfully on the arm.
Buoyed by her mother’s glee, Janice relaxed enough to finish the song. Although she was trembling and weak by the last note, she finished without letting the audience see her fear. Giving a little bow in acknowledgment of the applause she received, Janice slipped back to her seat for the finale.
She closed her eyes for a moment in relief that the solo was over. Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes again and found herself gazing into the gray depths of Clint’s eyes. They were warm and filled with joy at her success. They promised “Later.”
Janice smiled back at him, her hazel eyes twinkling with happiness that he had seen her moment. Then Miss Robbins signaled the last song and Janice sent a quick kiss to Clint with her lips before she opened them to sing.
Choir and band exited the bandstand after the finale in the same decorous march they had used to enter it. All the way back across the park to the Town Hall, they kept a proud silence. Once back in the lunch room of the Town Hall, the pent-up excitement exploded in a storm of chatter. Choir robes were hung on the rolling garment rack on one side while band tunics were hung on another across the room. Instruments were dismantled and packed in record time.
Lines formed outside each of the washrooms as students hurried to change into clothing more suited for the heat of the day. Janice took her place with her tote bag containing denim shorts and a moss green T-shirt, along with her sneakers. Nylons and patent leather pumps might look nice under a choir robe, but they were lousy for a picnic!
“Janice, could you come over here a moment, please?” called Miss Robbins.
She hated to lose her place in line, but answered her teacher’s summons anyway.
“Yes, ma’am?” she said politely.
“There’s someone I’d like you to meet. This is my old friend, Seth Mangum. He and I went to college together. I asked him to come to the Labor Day concert as a favor to me.”
Judging from the smile on the faces of Miss Robbins and her friend, Janice didn’t figure it had taken much asking to get him there. She kept her thought to herself, and extended her hand toward the man.
“How do you do, Mr. Mangum? It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Trust me, little lady, the pleasure is all mine. You know, Melanie has been bragging to me on how talented the members of her choir are, but she didn’t tell the half of it.” His handshake felt firm and energetic. “I wonder if you would do something for me. Do you know ‘Sweet Dreams’?”
“You mean Patsy Cline’s song? Sure, I’ve known that since I was a kid.”
Mangum and Robbins exchanged a look that plainly said they didn’t think she was much more than that now before he nodded.
“Could you sing it for me?”
“Now? In here? I mean, the acoustics are lousy and I don’t have any music.”
“Just a little bit of it. Please? I’d just like to hear you sing a little of it.”
“You can do it, Janice. I promise he won’t bite.”
Janice shrugged as if to say “why not.” She closed her eyes for a moment to concentrate on the words. A deep breath, an exhalation and another deep breath, then she began to sing the plaintive song. One by one, the conversations around the room faded as her voice drew them all into the tragedy being related by their classmate.
Caught up in the song, Janice didn’t stop until she was through the entire song. When she did, there was silence in the lunch room, suddenly broken by her fellow musicians cheering and clapping. She jumped, as though coming out of a sleep.
Mangum reached for her hand and kissed her knuckles.
“Miss Wilmon, that was stunning. I’ve seldom seen anyone so young able to convey emotion so honestly with such a pure voice.”
“Well, thank you, but it really isn’t anything. I guess I’ve seen every movie about her life, so it’s not hard to get the feelings in it.”
“Janice, you’re selling yourself short. Seth knows what he’s talking about. He’s a talent scout for a record company.” Miss Robbins seemed in earnest, even as what she was saying struck Janice as a little nuts.
“Miss Wilmon, you have a great talent. Melanie is right. This is my profession, to identify talented people and bring them to the attention of the right people. I’d like your permission to do that for you.”
“You can’t do anything like that! I have to finish high school and get into college. My folks wou…”
“Why don’t we let your parents speak for themselves?” Mangum interrupted. “Melanie and I will call for an appointment to meet with them.”
“If you want to waste your time, go ahead. I just don’t think you’ll get anywhere with them.” Janice shook her head.
“Think about this: unless something changes, you’ve just sung your last Labor Day concert,” Mangum said. “But I can give you a chance at Labor Day concerts, and any other day you want to name, for a long time to come. Just think about that until we meet again.” He shook her hand, and then leaned over to give Miss Robbins a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll call you later.” And he was gone.
“Go on and get changed, Janice. We’ve all put in a big day today. Join your family.” Miss Robbins patted Janice on the back and smiled as if the preceding conversation had been nothing more unusual than asking what was on the school lunch menu for today.
Clint was waiting by the outer door of the Hall when she exited. He took her tote bag in one hand and wrapped the other around her waist.
“How’s the most beautiful songbird in Granite Valley?” he asked as he lifted her off the ground and spun with her, ending up in the alley alongside the building.
“You are insane,” she laughed. “Put me down. My folks are waiting for me.”
“What took you so long? I was beginning to think you weren’t ever going to come out.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Try me, honey.”
She related the conversation with Melanie Robbins and Seth Mangum, still somewhat amazed at what had transpired. The look on Clint’s face told her he wasn’t very happy about the incident.
“You’re not seriously considering it, are you? You hate singing alone. You said you get downright sick when you have to do it.”
“I know. He just made it all sound like a done deal, like he could make it all happen with a snap of his fingers. I’m just hoping my folks will shut him down so I don’t have to be the one to disappoint Miss Robbins.” She brushed a kiss across his lips.
“Don’t listen to them, Janice. Don’t let them take you away from me.” Clint whispered his plea into her ear. “I love you, you know that.”
“And I love you. There’s nothing to worry about. I’m not going anywhere, except over to my family for dinner.”
They kissed again, a hotter kiss than before. Her hands reached up around his neck as she stood on tiptoe. After a breathless minute, she drew back and released her hold on him. She reclaimed her tote bag and slipped out of the alley. As she hurried across the street and through the park, she wondered one thing. What would it be like to have one more Labor Day concert?