Track Four: “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed,” Barbara Mandrell, 1978
An Open Letter to Barbara Mandrell:
I’m sorry I thought you were an evil cunt all these years. See, my Grandma Florence told me you were. Well, she didn’t use the word “cunt,” but you get the idea. She maybe called you a mean old hag. An old bag? I have some recollection of Grandma referring to people she didn’t like as “old bags.” Perhaps even a bitch. No, probably not that. I don’t really remember the severity of her swears, precisely, except that by my recollection she never said fuck, but would frequently say with a sigh of exasperation, “Awwwwwwww chickyshit.” I’m pretty sure she never uttered the word “cunt,” at least not in my presence. I use the word merely for emphasis.
In any case, she really didn’t like you, and the things she didn’t like – Mr. Rogers (he was a creep I guess), Willie Nelson (ugly, didn’t have a pretty voice), Grandpa’s Total brand cereal (dry, bland, not to be enjoyed by children) – I was not supposed to like, either. Yep, Grandma was my tastemaker.
In retrospect, maybe I should’ve learned early on not to listen to Grandma Florence. Sitting on her living room floor watching television, she used to interrupt Tom & Jerry to show me pictures from The National Enquirer of aliens abducting people from their homes, cartoonish narrative line drawings with black shading illustrating folks lying in their beds at night, then images of spaceships hovering over houses and beaming down cones of light, followed by depictions of these folks rising up into the ships, then illustrations of the abducted being probed on laboratory tables by gangly spacemen with oversized heads, hollow, oval-shaped eyes, and slits for noses.
Grandma never really talked much about the Bible, but the way she’d sit with The Enquirer open on her lap when it arrived by mail each week, you’d think she thought it was a holy book. “Nikki, looky here – this little boy is half bat! Nikki, looky here – this says Elvis has been spotted outside a diner in Kentucky! Nikki, looky here. Look. They take you from your bed while you’re sleeping. They take you up into their spaceship, and they probe your little butthole while you sleep. Look! Look at the pictures. See, they probe you, but then they have this machine that erases your memory so you forget it ever happened, and the next morning you wake up in your bed with a sore little bottom and you don’t know what it’s from ‘til you start havin’ dreams about it. Government knows. Can’t do a thing about it.”
If I hadn’t believed her then I wouldn’t still be sleeping with my eyes open after all these years (single, in a double bed). For some twenty years, I thought you were a cunt, but I did always like that song of yours, “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.” Now, truth be told, I don’t always sleep single, and I technically sleep in a king. But whenever I haven’t slept single, I’ve been told I sleep with my eyes open. Especially when I’m blackout drunk, which, as has been reported to me, is quite frightening. I’ve given friends a few scares, thinking I’d died in an alcohol-induced blackout, lying on my back with my eyes staring straight ahead, dead to the world.
I have Grandma to thank for that, I think. As a child, I figured that if I slept on my back and kept my eyes open all night, I’d see those hollow-eyed freaks coming for me out of my direct and peripheral vision, that I’d scream when they descended in their cone of light upon my bedroom, and, you know, I’d scare ‘em away. “Boo, you aliens! I’m awake! Can’t take me now!”
As an adult, I’m not plagued with the fear that aliens will abduct me in my sleep. I’m more reasonable than that. But the eyes thing, the thinking you’re a cunt thing, you know. I mean, chickyshit. Sometimes shit like that sticks with you.
My second grade teacher Mrs. Rieck, rest her soul, she loved you, Barbara. It was really nothing short of an obsession. I remember it like it was yesterday, her daily performances. Mrs. Rieck would sit upon the wooden bench of the upright piano she’d placed in her classroom, her back held straight, arms bent at the elbows in perfect posture, poised to pounce. Around her sat twenty-some second graders, most sitting cross-legged and facing her back, some sitting upon their haunches, others reclining, legs jutting out, a few more wiggly ones adjusting from one position to the next, the luckiest couple squeezed on that bench right next to her. We adored her. Loved the wacky, colorful bifocals that would dangle around her neck ‘til it was time to perform. Loved her commanding, warbly voice and clamorously underpracticed piano skills. We loved to be embraced by her grandmotherly frame and vied furiously for her attention, hoping to be chosen to make the milk carton runs or deliver attendance sheets to the office on her behalf.
To her right and left hung collages cut with dull-edged scissors. Alphabet banners depicting print versus D’Nealian letters. And Jessica Eicher and Joann O’Sullivan, suck-ups extraordinaire. My two best friends. Jessica’s parents consulted Mrs. Rieck about whether they should put money toward the purchase of a newfangled computer that year, or a piano. Much to Jessica’s brother’s chagrin, Mrs. Rieck replied confidently. “Piano.” Mrs. Rieck wouldn’t shut up about how Jessica was learning how to play the piano, and how the rest of us should, too.
She would shove her colorful bifocals up her dainty button nose and squint at the sheet music. Before she began bellowing in her boisterous, slightly out-of-tune voice that reminded me of the unfortunate occasions we’d get stuck sitting in front of a woman of her ilk in church during hymnals, she’d issue a sober proclamation: “Children. I’m going to sing it just like Barbara Mandrell.” Then she’d launch into a powerhouse rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” or that great ode to a runaway meatball, “On Top of Spaghetti.”
Mrs. Rieck had great affection for you, Barbara, dropping your name whenever possible, no matter how irrelevant the reference. She claimed she sang like you (no, she howled). She claimed she was as beautiful as you (she was matronly, perhaps even a little obese, had short salt and pepper hair, squinty little eyes, and definitely wouldn’t have ever passed for a hypothetical fourth Mandrell sister, not even one they made play banjo under cover of orchestra pit). Mrs. Rieck claimed she was as world-renowned as you, even though she was just a second grade teacher from rural South Dakota, albeit one of the most popular at May Overby Elementary.
Barbara, I too loved Mrs. Rieck. She was such a character, had such strong opinions. You couldn’t help but be drawn in. She said, “One hundred and five is not a real number,” and that she’d always ignore the pastor when he instructed the congregation to turn to it in the hymnal. “It’s one hundred five, not one hundred AND five, children,” she would explain in her droll affect. “If someone says one hundred AND five, pretend you have no idea what they’re talking about. IT’S NOT A REAL NUMBER.” To this day, I never insert unnecessary “ands” into numbers, bothers me to even do it on a check – “one hundred fifty AND no/100.” Also, Mrs. Rieck says don’t chop chop chop when cutting construction paper with scissors, but rather make long, intentional cuts. “I don’t want it to sound like a choo-choo train in here, children.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch, Mrs. Rieck hated that. Slice. Slice. Sliiiiiiiice. That’s better.
She was my favorite teacher, and as I’ve mentioned she spoke glowingly of you. And so, I decided in the second grade that I’d love you too, and that I was going to learn how to play the piano. A very square-sounding “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” was my favorite at the time.
One day, I went home to Grandma Florence and I was just a-singin’ your praises, Barbara. Barbara Mandrell this. Barbara Mandrell that. I doubt I actually knew anything about you, but I dropped your name at every opportunity, just like Mrs. Rieck.
Well, if Grandma had been a mean ol’ lady she probably would’ve washed my mouth out with soap. You’d think I’d been talking about them dirty Republican bastards Grandma hated so much. Or, the Jehovah’s. Ooh, Grandma hated those Jehovah’s Witnesses. Grandpa was one when he was younger, and was sent to prison as a conscientious objector during the Second World War. One day Grandma sat me down and told me their secret, which as I understood it had brought great shame to the family at the time and as such, “Those dirty Jehovah’s had better not ever darken my doorstep ever again,” she warned one day after a pair of proselytizers stopped by. Growing up, the axis of evil went like this: Jehovah’s. Republicans. And Barbara Mandrell.
Grandma told me you were a mean, evil woman. A selfish woman. A hateful woman. Here’s how she explained it, in short: You’d been in a car wreck and then, even with all your riches, you sued the poor family of the man who’d died in the other car. What a spiteful bitch.
I returned to school the next day, and told Jessica and Joann what Grandma had told me about you. “Who cares, Nikki. Who cares what your stupid grandma says,” they spit back at me in a huff.
Then I did the unthinkable; I went to Mrs. Rieck with the news.
She scorned me. Said it was all a misunderstanding, and that my grandma was wrong.
Jessica and Joann bore witness to this dressing down and just like that, I was persona non grata in the friend group. They were the type of girls who were always looking for a reason to feel as though they were better than you, that something about them was in some way exclusive. I was excluded from their special “arrange your outfits in the advance to match” days, and totally missed out when they both came to school in the poodle skirts Trevor’s mom had sewn for us for the talent show. I had no idea they’d deemed it Poodle Skirt Day! Mine was still hanging in my closet at home! I was wearing jeans.
It was the worst shunning I’d received, not to be topped until Jessica and Joann found out my mom was voting Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election and theirs were voting Bush, and I wasn’t allowed to walk to school with them for a week. And that wasn’t topped until they both found out what a period was, you know, that kind of period, and laughed at me when I thought they were discussing punctuation.
“What are you guys laughing at?”
“Nothing, Nikki. You wouldn’t understand.” Toss hair, whirl poodle skirts.
Forced to choose between my allegiance to Mrs. Rieck and to Grandma Florence, I chose my Grandma, Barbara. When forced to choose, it’s always gotta be Grandma. And so, it was Grandma who was in the right. I never looked back.
Twenty years later, I was smoking outside a bar, talking with Randy about music, who were our favorite singers and so on. We had been drinking, and he mentioned your name.
“Barbara Mandrell. Now that woman can sing.”
Hold the goddamned train, Randy Travis.
Nearly a decade after Grandma Florence’s passing, I still carried that torch of hatred for you, Barbara.
“Fuck Barbara Mandrell. Fuck Conway Twitty and fuck Barbara Mandrell.”
(I also don’t like Conway Twitty. That oftentimes presents as a pressing issue when I’ve been drinking, which is a hell of a lot better way to be a mean drunk than to be a fighting drunk.)
This sentiment stopped Randy in his tracks. He grabbed my arm, looked seriously in my bloodshot eyes with hurt and confusion in his own. “What? What are you talking about?” He shook his head in disbelief. “You. You are drunk.”
“Fuck that dumb bitch, Barbara Mandrell. What a bitch.”
“What do you have against Barbara Mandrell? And… and Conway Twitty for that matter?”
“Conway’s a fucking creep. Barbara… uh Barbara…”
“Honey. Honey. Have you HEARD ‘Sleeping Single in a Double Bed?’ Have you SEEN her variety show? Girl. Babygirl. We’re renting the variety show. You’re coming over, and we’re watching the variety show.”
I dismissed him and vowed never to go to his house to watch your stupid old variety show, even though in that moment, I realized I was behaving like the kid raised to hate. Wait, I was a kid raised to hate. The people in my hometown were racist as fuck. Fortunately, being a racist isn’t something that stuck on me, not even for a moment; hating you, however, did. I had become, without good reason, a knee-jerk Barbaraphobe. Still, I scoffed at the idea that I could come around to you, Barbara, and we proceeded back into the bar as I grumbled about Conway Twitty’s creepy curly hair and his disgusting lyrics and about how you were an evil cunt.
The next morning, I woke up and began perusing the newspaper. I noticed a trivial little headline.
Barbara Mandrell First Woman Inducted to Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
It was as if Mrs. Rieck was calling me from up in her piano-bangin’ heaven, a heaven in which children cut construction paper using long, confident strokes, where no one says “and” when voicing numerical values over one hundred, and every D’Nealian l, m and n has a perfectly swooped monkey tail.
“Niiiiiiiiiiiiikkkkkkiiiiiiii… listen to your friend Raaaaaaaaannnnnnnddddyyyyyyyyyy… embrace Baaaaarrrrrrrrbaraaaaaaaa…”
So I went online, curious. I listened to “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.”
“Catchy tune, I suppose.”
I watched some clips from the variety show you’d hosted with your sisters back in the early eighties.
“Damn, y’all sure were cute. Look at your feathered hair! And your matching ribbon chokers! And the dumb sister – man, she sure is funny!”
I read some more, and discovered that as a child, you were proficient in several instruments. That you toured with Patsy Cline, George Jones and Johnny Cash as a teenage steel guitar prodigy. You truly were country when country wasn’t cool.
Then I read that this car crash incident, the reason Grandma thought you were an evil cunt, was the result of an archaic Tennessee law requiring you to sue the accident victim’s family before you could collect any insurance for your own medical bills, and that you needed to collect money so you could continue to pay your band while you recovered but were unable to tour. I read that the tabloids at the time had taken hold of the story, and ripped you to shreds.
“Oh. Yeah! The tabloids! Grandma’s Bible!”
It all made sense.
Well, I’ll be damned. You know, sometimes we women are awfully hard on each other. It really oughtn’t be that way.
Here’s to you, Barbara Mandrell.
And Grandma, I’m sorry I disclosed that Grandpa was in prison, and I’m sorry I’ve moved to the dark side and that I don’t think Barbara Mandrell’s a cunt anymore by the way, I think Willie’s version of “Always on My Mind” is far better than Elvis’ DON’T HAUNT MY DREAMS TONIGHT, GRAMS!”
(And please, don’t send those aliens after me. I’ve got my sleepy eye on you.)