|Gretchen Meeker looked out at her audience and felt the familiar sting of disappointment. She'd told herself not to hope for too much, but the lounge wasn't even a quarter filled. There were a few middle aged drinkers clustered at the bar, a couple of young families at tables, and the rest were older people. As a singer of contemporary music, she was pretty sure the geriatric crowd wouldn't even get her music, let alone applaud.
She gave an inward sigh that didn't touch her perfectly painted face, ran a quick tongue to moisten her full lips, and squared her bare shoulders. She had to perform, and the band was waiting on her queue to begin.
"Glad to see so many beautiful folks here tonight," she began, "I hope you're enjoying your cruise so far. We'd like to make your evening a little brighter if we can."
"You can make my evening better anytime, baby!" roared one of the bar flies, hoisting his mug of beer toward the stage. "Come to my room later!"
Gretchen's mood slumped further. Not only was the audience crap, and the pay minimal, but now she was getting heckled. She knew this type, though. In one form or another, his sort had been heckling her all her life. She flexed a muscled bicep at the guy, "With all that beer, I doubt you could keep up, or keep it up!"
A scattering of laughs answered her jest, and the heckler turned his attention back to his drink, his face even rosier than before. An old man seated near the stage clapped delightedly, his blue eyes twinkling under bushy brows, "You gave him hell!"
Gretchen gave him a smile and a wink, and began to play the opening notes of a popular song. The band joined in, and for three and a half minutes the world made sense. Her voice felt strong, her fingers sure on the strings. As she segued into another top 40 hit, she kept waiting for the music to change her, to infect her with the joy that always came from performing. This was how it worked. Life beat her up, dragged her through the mud, and then music stepped in to save her.
Life so far had been a struggle. Gretchen was blessed with height, and she stood tall at six feet. But growing up this was a curse, driving away the boys and giving the girls a target for taunts and sniggers. Music was her salvation, and she threw herself into practicing her guitar and tuning her developing vocal chords.
Gretchen's parents were not supportive. When she declared a music major they stopped paying her university tuition. Stubbornly committed to her dreams, she took out loans and pressed on, studying music theory and writing her first songs when others partied their youth away.
The last few years had been harder still. Gretchen struggled to put together a halfway reliable band from musicians met at coffee shop performances and bar venues. Then came the truly difficult challenge: moving forward.
Through it all, Gretchen had one ally. Her grandfather John was her biggest fan, never missing a performance. He showed his love for her by accepting who she was, applauding her efforts, and encouraging her to keep trying, to be who she was and not what everyone else wanted her to be. She loved him, and the pain of his loss left a raw wound.
Gretchen's voice broke slightly, and she struggled to hold onto the melody. Sensing her distress, Harry the drummer rapped his rims hard and went into a noisy drum solo, giving her time to get it together.
But Gretchen wasn't together. She felt like she was coming apart in motes of black grief and gray disappointment. Just two weeks ago, Mom had called to say that Grandpa John was gone. He'd passed quietly, at home in his easy chair, a CD of Gretchen's band looping over and over.
When their agent suggested the cruise ship tour five days ago, she accepted, even if they would just be going as another cover band.
She stood on stage and strummed as her tears rolled over waterproof mascara. The drum solo came to an end. She finished the song and stood there gasping, as if having run ten miles. She felt drained, exhausted. She felt like walking off the stage, putting aside her guitar, and never playing again. Who would care? Her band would find a new frontman or woman. This cruise ship would dock somewhere sunny and she'd just get off and disappear.
Then she remembered her grandfather's favorite phrase: "Be the you that you are meant to be!" Suddenly she knew what that meant. And more importantly, she knew what to do.
She stepped back up to the mic, "Now that you're warmed up, I want to go off program a bit with a song I've been working on lately." She gave her band a signal and they set up a beat and bass line. As the music drove her, Gretchen gave herself to the emotion of the moment, pouring out her grief, her frustration, and all the disappointment into a captivating melody. Her pain was catalogued in tones of harmony and dissonance, the abuse of a lifetime laid bare. And then her words seized upon defiance, a refusal to submit to her oppressors or be a victim. She gloried in the strength of her body, her will, and her voice.
The song ended with a crash and the audience came to its feet, clapping. The old man in front shouted, "Aristos! Eisai Calliope!"
Gretchen started at the old Greek's words, recalling the name from a music history class. Calliope was the muse of lyrics, a god of epic poetry. Right then she realized that she'd never find a better stage name, a replacement for her given name that never had seemed to fit. From here to the end of her worldly odyssey, she would be known as Calliope.