Backing Up

By Tony Mancus



On the night that the episode of New Girl that Prince is in re-airs days after his death—the one where Nick and Jess tell each other they love one another for the first time—my wife Shannon and I frantically hustle to put on an immersive and interactive show at a stranger’s house in the middle of DC. There are 16 performers involved and four rooms. I’ve never done anything like this before. The show puts groups of people through four stages of life, and then makes them go through again highlighting some of the agency we have in the world and in art as we experience and make it, consume and are consumed by it. At the end of the night a shrouded mannequin is processed into the main gathering space as a dead body would be and laid out on a sheet spread on a table that the audience has marked with their fingerprints. They place paper flowers they’ve been making around the body and the guides who have been leading groups through the four rooms/stages of life take out scissors. The moment in the episode where Prince gets the two characters to express their feelings, their love for each other, could be happening at the exact same time the guides cut into the white sheets, sticking their hands into the misshapen head on the stiff mannequin body to reveal live flowers.


I live in tiny studio apartment in Sunnyside, Queens and have been fighting with the girl I’d moved to the city to be with for what feels like weeks, months. Fighting about fighting and about our lives and about nothing. She’s at class. I’m listening to Sign o’ the Times and washing the dishes. I’d taken the tape from my older brother’s wooden cassette holder at some point nearly a decade earlier – the green house had recently been sold, the room holding those cassettes something I would dream about, sometimes sneaking through the front door when the new owners weren’t paying attention, sometimes I’d become part of the structure itself. The green house was two doors down from the yellow house my family split up in, where my parents fighting would eventually lead to them inhabiting separate floors, where they would not speak for two years, where I would sleepwalk to my mother’s room each night to fold into the creases of a bowing leather couch.

“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” comes on as I’m scrubbing and the lines “took another bubble bath | with my pants on | all the fighting stopped | next time I’ll do it sooner” ring through the tiny kitchen, erasing the image of my parents, their respective houses. I have an idea. I’ll go out and get some tuna to sear, to have it ready for when she gets back from class, then I’ll suggest a bubble bath. Maybe the lines will trigger the same effects in real life. Dinner’s made, the table’s set. She comes in. Two bites into the tuna, she starts to cry, says, “I have to tell you something.”


Stepping outside in the summer in Tucson is like stepping into an oven. There’s fire crawling down Mt. Lemmon. It looks like some kind of alien hellscape. I clean an art studio out a couple nights a week. Find a rubber acupuncture hand there and pocket it. After biking home from scrubbing the floors, Al and I talk about all kinds of bullshit and scream lyrics from “Starfish and Coffee” at each other when we’ve come around to the morning coming up – fire on fire. I try to teach college kids how to write research papers. I try to learn how to make strings of words that make mirrors for us. My friends are all unafraid of dancing, of singing and they make it feel ok. 


In April, I see Prince play live on the Hit N Run tour at the Casey Arena in Wilkes Barre with my father. It is surprising how good the sound is for an Arena. We’re in the back and Prince wanders on and off stage throughout the set. He seems like he’s not totally into it, but when he closes with “Purple Rain,” it’s transcendent. My dad and I are both singing along. He doesn’t know a lot of the newer stuff but he knows this. His memory goes about a decade later. I promise to remember this for him.

On September 12, I drive cross country for a month alone. I’m looking into schools. There are no planes in the sky until I get to Wisconsin and then it’s fighter jets. Rounding the month out on the way from Atlanta up to NEPA, I catch onto 81N and listen to “The Cross.” The country is full of flags and my grandfather has been dead for nearly a year. I scream/weep along. I am not religious.


I don’t quite know what 23 positions in a one night stand means. I mean I could guess and have seen pictures, but I put “Cream” on the mix tape I made for the night I’m going to have sex with my first real girlfriend. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the angsty stuff on it, but that’s ok. We stay together through college. Maybe none of these things are connected.


I’m in 8th grade and one of the only kids in my school into Cross Colours. Diamonds and Pearls is one of the first CDs I buy. I’ve got a permed mullet and a peace sign shaved into the back of my head. My dad cuts my hair. He’s a hairdresser. I sneak my Walkman into school to listen to the coverage of the Iraq invasion, worried about my brother and the idea of a draft. I don’t see the line between Sign o’ the Times and De La Soul and the hope of some earlier era smashing up against what comes next. I’m kind of ok with not being like a lot of the other kids.


The single for “Little Red Corvette” spins on the Fisher Price record player in the yellow house. In fact the grooves wear out. The people at the bar my parents own don’t get to listen to this because PJ and I are addicted to it. We run circles dancing around the player. We have no idea what the song means, but we can’t stop. The record plays and plays.





Tony Mancus is the author of a handful of chapbooks. He lives with his wife Shannon and a handful of yappy cats in Arlington, VA