Mandy came up from the basement one Sunday afternoon like a character from some Barry Manilow song, which is what she was. None of us were prepared. None of us thought this was possible. None of us thought that time, even with the way it creates and destroys so many things through its passage, would bring to fruition this example of early 1970s songcraft (more on that later) as reinterpreted for an American pop audience. None of us were drunk or impaired (or enhanced, as people like to say). None of us were caught in the throes of any number of madnesses for which hallucinations and delusions are symptomatic. None were named Scott or Richard. None of us liked Barry Manilow.
I was raised since infancy—from the delivery doctor’s smack on my ass to my first puff of illegal smoke—in this small Virginia town a hundred years from the nearest big city. I’d go to DC sometimes with friends for punk shows, maybe a stop at a strip joint where the bad girls ended up working when they left town. We were the coolest kids at County High, but we always came home. Leaving our small town never occurred to us. When my father died, followed a few years later by my mother, I was left in our family house, a big blue Queen Victoria style with a new kitchen built by old cousin Roger before he had his stroke and forgot how to do those things. Big Brother Jimbo had moved out two years earlier when he and Janice got married. Their kids—my two nieces and one nephew—already think I’m the greatest uncle in the world. Just wait until I make them privy to the best source of smoke, though of course I’m too old to smoke the way I used to.
After a while, I didn’t want to be alone in the house. I wanted to see more people right by me than Barbara next door who was usually doing one thing or another to her garden or else just sitting on her porch with a book. So I asked my friends Billiam and Duck if what the hell, why not come live in my house. It’s all paid for and we’re friends, all single, and all into the same good music. Billiam was divorced, and Duck didn’t believe in the commitment that marriage required but nonetheless was a people person. So they moved in and we hung out and worked sometimes and we listened to music, and if there was something really good in DC, we went.
Things had been going well with us in the house for about five years. I worked a little bit here and there, and Billiam had his decent job taking care of the grounds at the public library (after having worked at the chicken plant). Duck did what he always did—played a little guitar during the day in the living room before heading off for his night shift at the rubber plant.
Then Mandy came.
She was a little shorter than I’d expected, even if Billiam and Duck said she was just as tall as they’d thought she should be. For me, though, there was something about a woman coming out of a song that made me think she’d be tall, the sort of girl I’d look up to physically and intellectually. But even though she was small, Mandy was smart. She came out of the basement like Venus coming out of Botticelli’s scallop shell, rising out of that stink (yeah, you know that shell had to stink) like a tall glass of switchel. She was a sight to see, like the surf and turf special at Joe’s Steakhouse before they went out of business. But even then, we never forgot that her origin was a Barry Manilow song.
The first few days were strange. Billiam refused to say anything and just eyed her suspiciously between drags of his cigarette. Duck brought her a glass of water; she sat on the living room sofa and started to drink. I asked if she’d like anything to eat. She stared at me for what seemed like an uncomfortably long time, but maybe it wasn’t that long and I just wasn’t used to having strange women stare at me. Finally, she said she’d like a ham and cheese sandwich. Luckily, we had everything we needed in the refrigerator. I got out the Oscar Mayer sliced ham, store brand Swiss. I even toasted the Arnold white bread. I didn’t have any mustard or mayo, so as a final touch, I added a smear of blueberry jelly on the bread. I set it on a paper plate, cut it in half, and put it on the end table next to the sofa. I didn’t want to be rude, so every now and then I peeked over to check out the lovely way she chewed her food, because the way a person chews their food is important to me and says a lot about the person doing the chewing and, sometimes, how they feel about me, which I must say was on my mind right from the start.
As expected, she was a little different from the way she was originally written. Not many folks are aware but she was first created by two dudes from England, Scott English and Richard Kerr. Well, actually only one was from England, and it wasn’t the guy whose last name was English, if you can believe that. Scott English was from Brooklyn, though he did die in England. I think he might have become an expatriate—the sort of thing that had no interest for me. As for Richard Kerr, I don’t know anything about him except that he was English. I think that’s enough.
What else can I say by way of introduction? I have no idea where Mandy had learned all the things she knew but she spoke of them so easily once she started speaking to me. It was like she was an actress who had mastered her dialogue, disappeared into her role. Whoever she was, whatever she was, she was all new to me, and like no woman I’d imagined before.
Her second day with us, tiny dark fish flopped around in a puddle at her feet. This was not part of the song. I asked her if she was all right, but all she said was something to the effect that she was a woman, hear her roar, which of course was a totally different song and I had no idea how that had anything to do with the fish on the floor. I guess that’s where she was like so many other songs, in that sometimes, you weren’t completely sure what she was about, which I liked. It’s rough when they’re trying to ram some malodorous bromide into your skull in an attempt to make you follow all the good examples. I was never one to play along.
The first time I took her out of the house, we looked at each other, as if to acknowledge that yes, the world is strange and one must watch one’s step, and not just because there were sometimes fish. I saw Barbara on her porch next door, talking with Mack, who might have been her boyfriend or something at that point. I nodded and said “hello” or “good morning” as a way of making the moment pass more quickly.
Although those fish were strange, I must say that even stranger to me was that phenomenon they call small talk, which always seemed a shit substitute for true communication. I think that’s why, in my younger days, I was kicked out of bars and other similar establishments with such frequency: so often I’d simply refuse to speak. Sometimes I’d point to the bottle of liquor I wanted to drink from, which would prompt the bartender to mumble with concern and a worried brow, “I guess you can’t talk,” to which I’d respond, “Oh, I can talk, but I don’t want to talk to you.”
Soon I discovered this was not what people wanted to hear. I guess that’s why I was friends with Billiam and Duck—they didn’t always feel that implacable urge to speak. I’d lived alone in my family house those years, high and lonesome but mostly silent. Lonely isn’t something you tend to feel too deeply when you’re silent—not me, anyway. But when Billiam and Duck moved in, it started to feel like I was part of something again, a family of beautiful silences. Others might have seen the silences as awkward or odd, but I liked them—we all liked them. And then Mandy joined us.
Whenever I walked with Mandy toward Main Street, her left hand was always close enough for me to grab in case she got frightened and needed comfort. I’d be wary the entire time, worried that the fish might start flopping on the ground by her feet, meaning I’d need to explain a few things to people I didn’t feel like explaining things to. But the street where we lived was mostly quiet except for the couple right across from Barbara with their shouting arguments that always seemed to end up in the front yard for some reason, and the house a couple of doors down that would get raided by federal agents or local cops. Main Street was kind of quiet, too, this being a small town where main doesn’t necessarily translate into a lot of motion. Just a few teenage moms pushing strollers and smoking cigarettes, or Jake Bourbon in his motorized wheelchair acting like he was in a hairy rush to get somewhere when everyone in town knew he had nothing to do. Still, there was a part of me that wanted more people to see me walk down the street with a woman from a song—even though that was something that maybe people didn’t need to know. Pride with all its sweet glory and delight, after all, seems to always be in grave combat with discretion.
One time I did take Mandy into the coffee shop on Main. We’d been sitting at a table by the window drinking coffee when she said she was hungry and wanted a ham and cheese sandwich, which they had on the menu. I went up to the counter and asked Alicia, who’d been working there for years, if she could make a ham and cheese sandwich but hold the mustard aioli and instead slap on some blueberry jam. After Alicia brought it over to our table, Mandy took a few bites. She was quiet at first, then said, “I like your sandwiches better,” which made me feel briefly as if I were having some kind of hypertrophic spasm in my heart. I smiled at her and said, “Thank you, Mandy!” I tried to act as if everything were the same. But the world Mandy and I shared had just gotten smaller and a little more humid. We went home and watched the local news for a while—well, it wasn’t exactly local but it covered the Shenandoah Valley and came from a station based in Harrisonburg. I hadn’t been there in years, even though it was only an hour away and once I had gone to college there for several semesters. Somehow it was a place I didn’t think I’d be welcome, so I avoided it like Van Halen shunning brown M&Ms in the dressing room, even though I hated M&Ms no matter what the color.
A few nights later Mandy and I made love for the first time. She was good at it, even though, as a character in a rather inexplicit song, she didn’t have much experience with that sort of thing. As our breathing got faster, she started praising the Lord or whoever it was she worshiped. At first it sounded like she was saying either “god” or “gut,” which made me think maybe she had some German in her. Then she started using words I didn’t know, which made me think of other forms of god, though she still used the given name sometimes as an interjection or imprecation just like the rest of us.
I understood that it was hard being an old pop tune in a small town, because it’s hard to be anything but small in a small town. Yet Mandy—despite her sentimental outlook and what I suspected was an extra love hole most people don’t have—was anything but small. That created some problems as far as my friendship with Billiam and Duck went. Gone were the nights when the three of us went down to drink at the Lucky Star bar on Main Street. Now it was just Billiam and Duck, because Mandy wasn’t a drinker and didn’t like to be around people who drank to beautiful excess the way I used to with my friends. I’d spend my days and nights at home with Mandy, and when Billiam and Duck came in from the bar, they’d be all, “Hey, Dewey’s saying what the fuck is wrong with you, never coming down, not even to watch the games?”
But as I’ve said all along, there’s nothing the fuck wrong with me. The days move like radio waves through the earth’s atmosphere and beyond to points unknown. We don’t know if they’ll ever contact anything resembling the intelligent life that was their source, and the words we know and speak and sometimes sing travel on in the most profound ways. Whether it’s a simple hello, the theory of the structure of the universe, or a sentimental love song, the message carries itself aloft. Once we start something, we have little control as to where it goes, believe me. Mandy, you’re a fine girl, like Brandy in that song that came before you, which is the reason your name was changed to Mandy for Virginia, California, America. And you’re a woman, too, like Sossity in that song from the last decent album Jethro Tull ever made. (What the fuck happened to them?) But, as I had planned to say from as far as a billion light years away, you’re Mandy, even though it’s terribly hard talking to you this way.
So I’m going to go back to talking about you, and how we went on. Living in what became just our house. That was when Mandy got pregnant, and Billiam and Duck figured they may as well make room for my expanding family. They got an apartment together over on Criser Road. It was a little harder to walk to the Lucky Star, but by that time they didn’t drink quite as much as they once did. We were all, apparently, getting older and progressing with our lives. I got a job at the community college. I didn’t have a degree, but that didn’t seem to matter to them. They recognized that I’d done a lot of learning on my own and could easily manage multiple administrative tasks. Mandy stayed home, tending to the chickens we had out back. It was against regulations to raise chickens within the town limits, but no one bothered us about it. We had fresh eggs most of the year.
Every now and then Billiam and Duck would stop by to say hello and see how we were doing, but we were mostly alone. Mandy’s belly was getting bigger each day. She ate my ham and cheese sandwiches while I ate the eggs, hard-boiled like a dark and lonely place, and together we watched the news. Out in the world there was murder and theft, war and the threat of war, bombs and bombers, suicide and all varieties of despondence and desperation. We watched it all from our living room with the shades down as our baby grew inside Mandy’s dark pink belly and my heart beat harder in anticipation of the birth, the first smack on the ass, followed by the first breath of country air. Mandy practiced her breathing, taking a long slow gulp and then releasing it like a big girl trying to blow out all the candles on her birthday cake.
The pregnancy went on and on, and after a while Mandy began literally to glow, her cheeks a lovely shade of pink. I quit my job to stay home with her and help because she couldn’t get around on her own anymore. We wondered if perhaps she was having twins. We didn’t know for sure because we never went to a doctor. Who knew what they might say or tell us to do? All we knew was that we loved the baby and we loved each other. We weren’t about to take any chances with the sweetness in our lives.
And then one day, I did go out. It was two in the afternoon and the boy we paid to get our groceries had been sick. A lot of people had been getting sick in town, and he was one. I still had some eggs, but there was no ham, no cheese, no bread, and no blueberry jelly. I walked to Main Street, telling Mandy I’d be right back. Mandy mumbled something I couldn’t quite understand—as she was prone to do under stress.
When I got to the coffee shop, Alicia was at the counter. I ordered the ham and cheese sandwich for Mandy and waited. Alicia asked me about Mack.
“Is he for real?” she wondered.
“What?” I said, kind of startled.
“Well, he says he’s buying the coffee shop. He’s been having all these meetings with people he says he’s going to hire.”
“He does have this fancy sports car he drives around. But I thought he was living with Barb because he was broke and needed a favor.”
“He says that when he buys the place, he’ll make me manager, with a nice raise, which means I can quit my shift at Lucky Star and spend more time with my son.”
As we talked, I remembered one time late in the evening. The blinds at Barbara’s were still open and a dim light was on in the living room. Through the window I could see her and Mack, dancing slowly. I couldn’t hear any music, but they must have been listening to something. You can’t move like that without the inspiration of actual music. I mean, I’ve studied the way people move when there’s music as opposed to faking it. People don’t move like the rest of the world doesn’t exist unless there’s music. You can’t imagine the demise of all your enemies, much less the end of the world, without there being real rhythm and melody in the air. I watched skinny Mack and big Barbara dance for a few minutes. I could have had my face pressed right against their window and they would not have noticed me. That’s how far gone they were in the haze of their own firmament, dancing with their eyes closed and thus blind even to the slightest possibility of transgression and horror.
“I don’t know,” I told Alicia. “I can’t say for sure if I’d believe him. I just hope he’s for real.”
I said goodbye to Alicia and headed out the door.
After I’d turned off of Main Street with Mandy’s sandwich, I started to hear sirens. I just kept walking for a while, like someone hearing music or a man dancing with his sweetheart. I wasn’t sure how long I’d keep going this way before turning again to find some suitable direction, but I kept going, crossing the street to the fancier part of town. I walked past lawn after lawn, those plots of land that used to comfort me although at the moment they seemed like nothing more than dismal fields of practicality.
I must have been getting tired, lost in the dimming light of afternoon. Then, I looked to the ground and saw a puddle of fish like those that would sometimes appear at Mandy’s feet. I looked up but she was nowhere to be seen. So I kept going, feeling that even if the future became hard and dreary in ways I couldn’t yet imagine, I would think of Mandy. I would remember the things she did—and the scent and taste of ham, cheese, and blueberries on her tongue—until darkness dissolved any memory of her face, and silence swallowed the final notes of that dreadful song.