Stan was eleven years old and things had got so bad between his parents the only thing they could agree on was that he should spend some time out of the house. Since it was coming on summer anyhow they packed him up just like they’d done in years previous for camp, though this year there was no money for that, no way. They sent him instead to his aunt, his mother’s sister, a distracted woman, twice divorced, who lived in a decent house on Long Island in a neighborhood the long-time residents felt was in decline. “Changing” was the word they used. They were mostly Jews and what they meant was blacks were moving in.
Aunt Lisa had long blond hair, split at the ends and graying at the roots. She lit purifying candles, was a sort of new ager, and had a boyfriend who owned a landscaping business. They smoked pot up in her bedroom where she thought her daughter and nephew wouldn’t smell it, though both of them did, though only the daughter knew it for what it was. Mandy was fifteen and totally grunge. She hated her mother for being a hippie and she hated summer because it was too hot to wear the clothes she liked to wear (she wore them anyway) and because she was in summer school after spending the past school year stoned, which is why she had her mother’s number, all right.
Aunt Lisa’s boyfriend’s fortunes were declining with the neighborhood’s. It was because the new neighbors did their own yard work. Nothing too fancy, just a simple clean yard was what they liked: grass mowed, hedges clipped, done. And for the most part they did it themselves. He talked about his troubles over dinner. “Niggers,” he said—he wasn’t even Jewish—and Aunt Lisa said “Charles,” and that was that.
Stan was in love, obviously. Mandy had an angular face, boy hips, missile tits, and natural red hair streaked fuck you-blue. She wore torn black jeans and thrift store tees that advertised defunct products or commemorated the company picnics of yesteryear. Sometimes she would pick out a plain white shirt, scribble some band’s lyrics on it with a laundry marker. And always the red-and-black flannel, worn unbuttoned all the way (cuffs too) so the outsize shirt hung on her like a drape. She kept her wallet clipped to her pants with a long shiny chain that she was hopeful would scuff with time.
Stan sat in the living room in the big chair by the picture window, sometimes holding a comic book sometimes nothing at all, staring out at the street waiting for that first righteous glimpse of her on her walk home from summer school.
Naturally, she had him totally figured out and some days called him a baby and sent him off and so the days when she felt like putting up with him were extra special for them both. On those days she treated him like an equal, sort of, and took him down to the basement, which had been converted into a den by the first husband and decently appointed by the second.
Aunt Lisa had inherited the home from her mother. Aunt Lisa’s sister—Stan’s mother—had gotten the cash and Aunt Lisa had gotten the home. Aunt Lisa had never had doubts about who got the better deal, especially seeing as how Stan’s parents had pissed theirs away. The house still stood and still was hers. Men came and went, leaving their improvements behind as testament to the degree and duration of their best intentions.
There was a TV in the basement den and a nice comfy couch and a pool table even. Mandy would put on MTV just to have it on but she didn’t like to watch with Stan, who asked too many questions and didn’t get it. Having to explain why things were cool made the fact of their coolness less certain, and certainty was the rock on which she built. He was a summer baby, would turn twelve there, but in the meantime she didn’t need the grief. What he needed to do was learn.
They would stand behind the pool table, the farthest corner of the basement, where there was no view the stairs, where Lisa or Charles would come from if they ever came down to check on them, which neither ever had nor ever would. Mandy put her cool hands inside Stan’s clothing and touched him all over. “Let’s see what’s going on here,” she’d say. Or she’d put his sweaty hands inside her clothes and when she did that she said “I’m going to teach you something today. When you’re older your girlfriends will thank me.” This was a variation on something a boy at her school—a senior—had said to her the previous winter, before teaching her something she hadn’t exactly wanted or not wanted to learn.
Stan didn’t understand how Mandy would know his girlfriends for them to thank her, since he didn’t actually live on Long Island. Wasn’t he going to get to go home—back to his familiar school and shouting parents? Maybe if he got married one day there would be a wedding and everyone would come. Mandy might go up to his bride on his wedding day and say “you better thank me for what I taught your husband Stan back before you even knew him, that summer he stayed at my house.” Anything was possible with Mandy, who smelled sour in a sort of good way and that was only the tip of the iceberg of how she was strange. He tried to imagine what the thing he touched looked like based on what it felt like but everything he thought of seemed insane. It made no sense for anything like what he was thinking to be a thing that was a part of a person.
So he asked if he could see it. She said she’d show him, but that if she did he had to kiss it. He didn’t want to do that so he never saw. She got angry and called him some things that he didn’t know what they all were—but he got the gist anyway, and some of them he did know—and she stomped up the stairs. He stayed behind the pool table and cried and felt bad about everything, like what had just happened and Mandy being angry with him but also how he missed the predictable madness of his fucked-up parents and also news headlines that scared him and other stuff too, vague huge stuff, because it had gotten to the point where it really was everything at once.
As he calmed down he began to hear the TV again. It had been on the whole time but he’d tuned it out for a while. It was re-entering his life like a shuttle back from space. They were doing a special on a rock star who had killed himself in the spring. There was some footage of a crowd gathered in what looked like a park, and then they played a song by the rock star’s group. The dead person was the singer, and he dressed, Stan saw, sort of like Mandy. Distortion churned from the amplifiers. It was aggressive, messy music, but weirdly catchy—like someone had taken a Beatles tune and transcribed it for chainsaw orchestra. Stan thought that the rock star screaming was the most pure sound he had ever heard.
When Stan was seventeen he dressed like Mandy had when she was fifteen. Now Mandy had short spiky shock-white hair and raver pants. She was in college and had a gruff doughy girlfriend. Charles and Aunt Lisa had gotten serious, but never married, and in August Charles had died of a brain aneurysm. Now it was the high holidays. Stan was staying in the basement. Same old couch, but a new TV. His parents were upstairs, in his mom’s old bedroom. Aunt Lisa wasn’t much on synagogue. “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” she’d always say, with cautious certainty, as if coming to the realization for the first time. But this year she fasted and even stayed at services through Yizkor.
They all broke the fast together at sunset and then the older folks went to bed, so Stan, Mandy, the bullish girlfriend, and Jeff—Charles’s son from a previous marriage, who Aunt Lisa had insisted join them for dinner—decided to go down the road and have a drink at the Hi-Tone, where nobody ever got carded. “I think I started coming here like the school year right after that summer you stayed with us, Stan,” Mandy said to her cousin. “If anyone else says they’re sorry,” Jeff said. They were a few rounds in. “I mean it’s not like I don’t believe them, I mean of course they are, but how much can you take, you know?” He seemed to be waiting for one of them to answer him. When they didn’t, he said he was going out front for a smoke and the girlfriend asked if she could bum one and went with him. Mandy and Stan sipped their beers.
“I am sorry, you know” Mandy said to Stan after a while, “about.” Then she didn’t say anything. She looked up at the front door. But then she looked back at Stan. She said, “I mean it was kid stuff. Stupid.”
Stan didn’t know what he wanted to say, or what he was going to say, though he knew he was about to say something. The truth was he hardly ever thought about the summer he had spent playing touch with his punky cousin. He was older now than she’d been then. He’d slept with a few of the girls and one of the boys at his high school and was mostly happy. His grades were nothing special, but then neither was he.
“Is Darcey a heavy sleeper?” he asked her. Darcey was the girlfriend. He thought about the words he’d just said. He thought to himself: that’s what I just said.
She said nothing, only stared ahead. Was she mad? Had she even been listening? He didn’t like her staring like this. He touched her leg under the table: the knee and then the fullness of the thigh, then his hand was floating in space and that meant she had either jerked away or opened for him, he didn’t know. He finished his beer in one long pull then stood up. He had gotten tall. He fished a couple quarters from his pocket, went over to the jukebox and punched in the number for his favorite song of all time, which he supposed she’d recognize. He couldn’t decide if he was changing the subject, making some grand statement about it, or just doing whatever he wanted. He went up to the bar and ordered fresh drinks for everyone. The other two would be back any minute. It was a cheap place but that hardly mattered. His parents had gotten their shit together and he could have sprung for that round of drinks if it’d cost twice, three times what it did.
It wasn’t his play on the jukebox yet, but all he had to do was wait. All he could do was wait. When he heard the opening chords—certainly, at the latest, by the bridge—knowledge would rise up inside like water seeping into a basement or an unfurling rose—or better yet, it would arrive in his mind fully formed, ex nihilo, like how when somebody calls you with the bad news your first thought is always “I already knew that, I have always known.” The words a lie at the moment you first think them, they immediately become true and stay true forever, just like the lyrics to any song.