“Oil Slick Brady,” New Era, Oct. 1990, 41
She came down the hallway of Glenwood High with all the grace of a fire engine rushing toward a burning building. She commanded attention in the brightest green dress Melanie Brannon had ever seen, topped by a pointy yellow collar that drooped like a wilting flower over her shoulders. She nodded and gabbed at every student in the hallway. Most of them just stared back.
Please, not the locker next to mine, Melanie silently pleaded as the stranger glided closer. She was a little taller than Melanie, very thin, her hair coal black, straight, and hanging to her waist. As she drew closer, Melanie noticed that her fingernails were painted in the same bright yellow as her collar.
It’s Halloween in September, Melanie thought, sticking her head inside her locker. It was the first day of Melanie’s senior year. She knew the next ten months were brimming with challenges: maintaining high grades, starting a job, applying for scholarships, and her new Church calling. Only two weeks before, Bishop Jackson asked her to serve as the Laurel class president. Her life was filled. There was no time for extras, including making friends with some day-glowing stranger.
“You must be a ‘B.R.’ too,” Melanie heard a fluttery voice behind her say.
“A ‘B.R.’—your name must start with those letters. Aren’t the lockers assigned in alphabetical order? My last name is Brady. My first name is Arlene. I was named for my grandmother. She’s dead.”
“Oh—I’m sorry,” Melanie stammered.
“For the best. Grandmother was old and not well,” Arlene said vacantly. Then, she suddenly shifted gears. “Like my outfit? You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to put it together.”
“How nice,” Melanie mumbled, taking a few slow steps away from her locker. A school bell clattered. “I’ve got to go. It’s bad luck to be late on the first day.”
“How true,” squeaked Arlene. “One should never invite bad luck.”
Melanie darted down the hall but was stopped in her tracks by a familiar voice.
“Hey, Brannon! New friend of yours?” It was Craig Miller, probably the last person she wanted to hear from at that instant. “She’s great. Maybe she could help you with your wardrobe.”
“Funny, Craig. She has the locker next to mine, that’s all. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got to get to Mrs. Foreman’s class.”
“Mrs. Foreman? A drill sergeant masquerading as an English teacher,” teased Craig.
“I asked for Mrs. Foreman. She does more to help her students get ready for college than any other teacher.”
“Can I call you tonight?”
“Sure. But I’m starting at Taco Tommy’s. I won’t get home until late.” Melanie disappeared into Mrs. Foreman’s English class just before the door was pulled shut.
Fourteen hours later, Melanie quietly unlocked the front door to her home. She slipped inside, glancing at a hallway mirror. She saw the reflection of a tired young woman who had arisen near sunrise, put in a hectic first day at school, and started a new job.
You smell like a taco, she thought.
She turned and saw her mother coming down the stairs. “I waited up for you, honey. Everyone else has gone to bed. How was the first day on the job?”
“It was good motivation for college. I’ve decided my future isn’t in fast foods.”
“You look tired. Remember, seminary starts tomorrow. When are you getting up?”
Melanie groaned. “About 5:30.”
“You’d better get some sleep.”
“Can’t. Mrs. Foreman gave us a short story to read.”
“Good night then. Oh, Craig called. You know, under that cool exterior, I think he has a crush on you.”
Melanie yawned. “Sorry I missed him.” She dragged herself up to her room and was soon reading at a small desk. But it was difficult to concentrate on the story by Chekhov.
Tacos. Beef tacos, chicken tacos. What was it Mrs. Foreman said about Russian authors? Unrecognized for what reason? Bet that’ll be on a test. And then there was that weird new girl, Arlene Brady. Yellow nail polish.
Melanie’s eyes dropped and she laid her head on her desk.
Beatrice Foreman gazed across her classroom like a hawk scouting for a mouse. She was in her 50s, an imposing woman with dark, penetrating eyes and a facial expression that stopped just short of a scowl. Her wrath was readily kindled by students who came to class unprepared.
The young man next to Melanie stood nervously.
“You read the assignment, I presume. Chekhov’s short story ‘The Kiss.’ Tell us about it.”
“Let’s see, there is a young soldier.”
“He receives a kiss from a young woman, but it was by mistake.”
“Not the first of Cupid’s arrows to miss its mark,” intoned Mrs. Foreman. “The symbolism. Explain the meaning, Mr. Crandall.”
“Uh … I think it stands for how we as human beings can take small, insignificant things, maybe even things that happen by accident, and take them to mean something bigger in life than they really are.”
“Better,” boomed Mrs. Foreman. “Continue, Mr. Crandall.”
“The kiss in the story, the soldier took it to mean a whole better life, a brighter future,” Dan said, with somewhat more confidence. “Someone cared for him, he thought. But he was wrong.”
“Your speech lacks precision, Daniel, but I believe you have picked up the essential grain of the story. Thank you.”
After class, Melanie and a friend, Gretchen Hunter, walked down a hallway.
They turned a corner. There was Arlene Brady. Melanie was caught off guard. “Hi, Arlene. How are you?”
Arlene stared at Melanie for a couple of seconds. “That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me in days,” Arlene said. She hovered an instant, then swept down the hallway.
“Who was that?” asked Gretchen.
“Nobody,” grumbled Melanie. “Her locker’s next to mine.”
“Hey, Brannon!” Melanie cringed as she heard Craig Miller’s familiar greeting. “How about some ice cream tonight? Me and ice cream—an irresistible combination.”
“I really do like ice cream, Craig, but it’s a bad night. I have an interview with Bishop Jackson, plus a bunch of studying.”
“You’re just playing hard to get,” replied Craig. “But I know my charms will win you over in the end.”
The phone rang in the bishop’s office. Bishop Jackson reached for it and answered. While he was talking, Melanie glimpsed a name on a move-in list that was on his desk. She squinted and looked again. No mistake: Arlene Brady.
Arlene, the princess of weird, a Mormon! This is too much, Melanie thought as Bishop Jackson hung up.
“Bishop, you have a girl named Arlene Brady on the list there.”
He nodded. “I went to her apartment last week and talked with her father. The two of them are there by themselves. He’s not a member, and they move around quite often. He said Arlene doesn’t have many friends. I told him maybe we could help.”
“But she wears costumes to school,” Melanie said. “Yesterday she came in wearing an outfit that made her look like a diesel truck. I’m serious, Bishop. The exhaust pipes were silk-screened on her sleeves! She even had a little black spot underneath the engine. She told me it was an oil slick. The guys at school are calling her Oil Slick Brady.”
Bishop Jackson sat back in his chair. “Sounds like someone who needs attention. Melanie, I know this is a busy time for you. But I also feel it’s important for Arlene to have a friend. Will you give it a try?”
Melanie smiled weakly. “What’s her address?”
Melanie braced herself, standing in front of the apartment. She’d promised the bishop a visit, and that’s what Arlene Brady would get—one visit. Besides, Melanie had the perfect excuse. She needed to be to work in 15 minutes.
Arlene opened the door.
“Arlene? It’s me, Melanie Brannon, from school.”
“I can only stay for a few minutes. I’m on my way to work.” Melanie entered. The apartment was sparsely furnished. It looked like the residence of a family used to moving quickly.
Melanie didn’t know quite what to say. Arlene was anything but mainstream Glenwood High, yet she seemed a little more normal than Melanie had anticipated. “Well, Arlene, why I came here tonight,” she started matter-of-factly. “I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I think you are too. We have a Laurel class, a group of girls our age, and I thought you might like to do some things with us.”
Arlene tilted her head and ran her fingers through her long hair. “Mormons. Yes, I remember being baptized with my mother a long time ago,” she said. “People from church come around to visit us, but we never stay in one place long enough to really get involved. My father changes jobs a lot. The longest we’ve stayed anywhere is two years. Sometimes it’s only a matter of weeks.”
“It must be hard to move that much,” Melanie said.
Arlene sighed. “This may sound crazy, but do you know what I fear the most? It’s not the new teachers or setting up housekeeping. It’s that every time I’m in a new place, I don’t know if I’ll make any friends. I like being an individual, but when you move around as much as I do, it’s hard for people to get to know you.”
Melanie looked closely at Arlene. Maybe that one statement accounted for much of her bizarre clothing and behavior. A plea for attention and a plea for friends. Arlene looked at a wall. “I’m telling you a lot and we hardly know each other. You must think I’m strange.”
“Maybe a little different, that’s all,” sputtered Melanie. Then, trying to change the subject, “Your place is nice.”
“Thanks,” Arlene said, a little more happily. “My father is on the road a lot. I try to have a clean apartment and something warm for him to eat when he gets home. He’s a good person. He doesn’t really understand me, but I know he loves me. That’s something I’ve learned from him—you can love someone without completely understanding them. Know what I mean?”
“I’m not sure,” Melanie admitted.
“What about church? Want to join us?”
“Maybe. It depends on my dad’s schedule.”
Melanie glanced at her watch. It was almost six o’clock. “Wow! I have to run. I start work in exactly two minutes.”
Arlene smiled nervously. “Thanks for stopping by. Not many people do.”
“We’ll change that. Good night, Arlene.”
It was a busy night on the taco-building line. Nevertheless, Melanie couldn’t tear her thoughts away from the clean little apartment and the girl who lived there.
The next few weeks were a blur. Family, seminary, school, church, work, and studying crowded Melanie’s days. No matter how busy she was though, she took the time to talk with Arlene every day.
Arlene did attend a Church Halloween party, but it almost backfired. “A half-dozen people complimented her on the costume she was wearing,” Melanie confided to her mother after the party. “But it wasn’t a costume!”
Things finally clicked in November when Arlene agreed to attend the Laurel class.
She arrived at church wearing a long black dress, black gloves, her head crowned by a small black hat. “I thought I should wear something formal,” Arlene told Melanie. The Laurels were polite, but distant. Melanie realized that if Arlene were to become an active Church member, it would take more than the efforts of one person. It was well into the evening before she came up with a plan to help expand Arlene’s circle of acquaintances. Oddly, the key to the plan was none other than Craig Miller.
The opportunity to approach Craig came the very next morning on the front steps of school.
“Melanie,” he began earnestly. “I have to know. Is there any chance for us socially,” he cleared his throat, “like on a date?”
He looked stunned. “There is?” he mumbled, slowly shaking his head. “Boy, that direct approach is powerful stuff.”
“I have Thursday night off. How about the symphony? But there’s one condition. I’d like to double.”
“With Arlene. Can you line her up?”
“Oil Slick? You want me to line up a friend with … with … that? Which of my friends am I willing to sacrifice?”
“How about Terry Packham?” persisted Melanie. “He’s a super guy, and he’s in a different school. He’s never heard of Oil Slick. She’ll be just plain Arlene to him. Terry’s more mature. He’ll do it.”
Craig cued on the word mature. He lowered his voice. “Oh yes, maturity. Still, there is the matter of Arlene’s somewhat unusual taste in apparel.”
“You won’t even recognize her,” promised Melanie.
“Then I’ll pick up the tickets and call Terry. Symphony. A very mature choice.”
“Craig—thanks. You’re the first guy I thought of. That’s a compliment.”
No sooner had Melanie disappeared than Craig pumped his fist into the air and bellowed “All right!”
Coaxing Arlene into the double date was trickier than Melanie expected.
“I’m not the dating type,” Arlene protested.
“That’s not true,” Melanie replied.
“I don’t have the right clothes to wear,” Arlene argued.
“I have some you can borrow,” answered Melanie.
“I’m too much of an individual to dress up like everyone else,” Arlene contended.
“Clothes don’t make you an individual. That comes from what you do with your life,” countered Melanie.
Arlene finally relented. “Okay, you win. You should sell life insurance. You’re the most tenacious person I’ve ever met.”
“Thank you,” beamed Melanie.
Tuesday night, Melanie tiptoed into her house after stopping by Arlene’s apartment. She had spent two hours helping Arlene find just the right clothes to wear. They finally settled on a cream-colored skirt and powder-blue sweater with a lace collar. With her hair in a French braid, Arlene’s subtle beauty was unmistakable. She’d smiled often that night, and not once had her conversation drifted into the strange lingo that she spoke at school. “I’m making a difference,” Melanie thought as she settled into bed.
The morning of the symphony dawned gray and rainy. Melanie sat up in bed after her alarm sounded. Her throat was scratchy and she ached from her toes to her temples. “Of all the days—the flu,” she mumbled. “I’ll feel better later on.”
But that wasn’t the case. Once she arrived at school her condition took a turn for the worse and not because of the flu. As the morning classes wore on, there was no trace of Arlene.
Where was she?
During breaks Melanie searched the hallways. At lunch, she didn’t eat, but looked for her friend. The end of the school day came. No Arlene and no hope. Melanie’s throat crackled and her forehead burned. Where was Arlene? She drove home and plopped on her bed. Her head throbbed. She closed her eyes and fell into a fitful sleep.
“Melanie,” a voice said softly. “You need to get up. How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Melanie said, though she wasn’t really sure. “I need to get going.” She was soon in the apartment’s parking lot. Melanie trudged upstairs to Arlene’s apartment. The drapes were open a little. She peered in. There was nothing. No chairs, no table, no couch. Nothing.
Car doors shut and Melanie heard Terry talking to Craig. In the dim light she could see the surprised look on Craig’s face as he neared the apartment.
“Craig … I don’t know how to explain … Arlene is gone, moved, I think. I don’t know why,” Melanie said softly. “Maybe I was too pushy. I’m sorry, Terry.”
Craig squeezed her hand. “You don’t want to hear this, but you look awful. I’m worried about you. It’s okay. Go home and get some rest.”
“Your tickets will be wasted,” Melanie moaned.
“Hey, you don’t think a couple of guys like Terry and me can get another date on short notice?” Craig said. Then, turning to Terry, he said, “My mom’s not busy. How about yours?”
Craig and Terry escorted Melanie to her car. “Will you call me tomorrow?” she asked.
“Count on it,” Craig said.
Melanie’s night was a long one. She’d drift off to sleep, then bolt awake, a sense of betrayal in her mind. Why hadn’t there been a call? A note? Melanie didn’t understand Arlene. She had looked so pretty two nights before. And Melanie had glimpsed a good, sensitive person beneath a carefully constructed facade.
When the alarm clock aroused Melanie, she felt tired, but the fever had subsided. She hurt, but it was no longer because of the flu. Bleary-eyed and with a heart that still stung, she prepared for school.
Mrs. Foreman adjusted her glasses and looked solemnly across the room. “I trust that you have all finished Macbeth. Let’s start with act 5.” She cleared her throat and read:
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Mrs. Foreman scanned the class for a victim. “Your thoughts, Miss Brannon.”
Melanie wearily rose.
“Macbeth has just learned of the queen’s death,” she began haltingly. “He may also be pondering his own uncertain fate. He concludes that life is without lasting meaning and filled with hollow relationships.”
Mrs. Foreman walked slowly towards Melanie. “Continue, Miss Brannon, with your own thoughts on the subject.”
Melanie exhaled slowly. “My own view—I think Macbeth is wrong.” She closed her eyes and remembered Arlene’s words about not understanding someone yet loving that person nonetheless. “The purpose of life is to find joy and that comes by caring for others and serving them, even if you don’t always know why. You have to do it unconditionally. Life is much more than an hour on stage, much, much more.”
“You’ve given thought to the subject? Are you sure of your statement? It’s so simple,” Mrs. Foreman challenged.
“Yes, I am sure, Mrs. Foreman.”
Mrs. Foreman whirled around and marched back to her desk. She stood imposingly, weighing Melanie’s words. Then her features seemed to soften. “I agree with you. Life must be filled with unconditional service to have great meaning. It’s a lesson that I can’t teach you from a textbook. You seem to have picked it up on your own, Melanie. Thank you.”
Saturday afternoon, Melanie was shredding lettuce on the taco line. Tommy came out of his office. “Call for you, Mel. Sounds long distance.”
Melanie rushed into Tommy’s office. “Hello!”
“It’s me!” came the familiar squeaky voice.
“Arlene! Where are you? I’ve been worried sick.”
“I’m in New Mexico. Dad found a place he liked on his last trip, and you know how he is. Backed his truck up to our apartment and we loaded everything in. He found a job dispatching down here. He’s going to sell the truck. No more hauling. He says we can stay here a long time. I think this is home.”
“I’m so happy for you, Arlene.”
“I tried calling you before we left. The line was busy. Four times. Please don’t be unhappy with me. I feel bad about the symphony.”
“Don’t worry. The guys were great.”
“I’ll get the skirt and sweater back to you.”
“Forget it—they’re yours. You’ll need something to wear to church.”
“Melanie—I’ve thought about what you said. That you are a true individual by what you do with your life, not how you dress. I think I have the confidence now to change for the better.”
“Everyone has to choose their own path,” Melanie encouraged. “It sounds like you’re starting on a good one.”
“Please write. I’ll send you my address. Thanks, Melanie. You are a true friend.”
“And you, Arlene, are a true individual. Maybe we’ve both learned something from each other.”
Melanie hung up. She fairly floated back to the lettuce chopping board.
“Good news?” Tommy asked.
“The best,” Melanie said.