‘Handy Man,’ Summer 1977

What Music Speaks, part eight

Tracy Lynne Oliver
Sep 12, 2019 · 4 min read
Illustration by Louisa Bertman

The song poured lazy through the radio’s single speaker, filling the hot afternoon silence with its somnolent groove and crackle. James Taylor’s voice telling me to gather round, that he was my handy man, saturated the summer air hanging stagnant on the covered porch. You sat beside me on the wooden floorboards. I lay on one of those aluminum and vinyl woven trifold lounge chairs, suddenly aware of all of my skin. I felt like a meal or an offering.

Or both.

Was it the music or the lyrics that broke the something that had been taut between us or was it the heat that had sucked the wet out of our bathing suits four songs ago? Or was it the toll of the old church’s clock — the one shrouded in trees on the hillside across the river? The ringing sent across the slick of the water to everyone who lived on the outskirts of town and along the rough-paved road that led to the lumbermill. The road we lived on. Was it the colossal thrice toll of its bells that urged you, the locked press of time urging your aim? Did you know your window of opportunity was about to expire the next time those bells would echo? Were you listening past James’ clear, calling tones for the churning of the gravel driveway under my father’s red Datsun’s truck tires? Or was it all of these things?

I do not know — or I do — whenever I hear this song.

Seventeen, golden and glowing. I couldn’t stop watching you; fixing fenceposts, digging trenches, cutting trees with my father, throwing a football with my brother, pressing yourself straight-armed out of our pool, whipping your wet hair from slicked-straight back to your long curls, the beads of water sparkling on your tan — no, it was gold…golden — skin, then lying on your back in your jean cutoffs, one arm across your eyes letting the sun have its way with you. How I wanted to be that sun on your skin. How the young girl of me bubbled with what I would find out later was the heat of a woman whenever you visited our property. Whenever you winked and called me, ‘squirt.’

“I whisper sweet things,
you tell all your friends,
and they’ll come running to me”

“Handy Man” by James Taylor. The lyrics, his voice, his calling, “Come-a, come-a, come-a, come come…” conjured, to me, a seduction. The refrain then punctuated by his claim of, “I’m your handy man.” The invitation for the girls to gather round and ordered to listen. How he was so confident in the sweet things that he would whisper to them would bring even more girls to his side. In 1977, to me, this song was a beckoning of something I did not yet understand. It was a hungered restlessness that stirred something dormant within me.

To this day, I will never forget your fingers. How it started with them snaking through the vinyl weaves of the folding lawn chaise, the fleshy round tips poking through the blue and white tubes. Nobody but James said a word and I didn’t know, so I put my fingertips to yours and when I did you smiled, like I was a dog who obeyed without needing a second command. Your smile, sparkling as bright as the pool water on your skin. I smiled back because I didn’t know…still. I smiled back because your smile was for me and the seduction in the song made a concoction I wasn’t ready to drink. Then both of your hands came, slow, your fingers with them, making friends with my skin, ever so slowly until you saw me trusting. Nobody said anything except James. In that space of heat and music, where this strange thing was happening, I held onto the song, something I thought I knew. Yet, still, I did not know. Until his fingers came with purpose, and his mouth stopped its smiling and came with a gummy wet and his sparkle turned to dirt, I didn’t know and then, suddenly, I did.

Whenever I hear this song, I remember the lure. I fall into the echo of an afternoon where I thought I was loved, like a woman.

I remember it was 1977 when this song was released and became a part of that summer.

I know the number of years between 1968 — when I was born — and 1977 is only nine.

Whenever I hear this song, I remember that I was never a woman and I was never loved.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Tracy Lynne Oliver

Written by

I am a writer with a cool website: https://www.tracylynneoliver.com/

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Tracy Lynne Oliver

Written by

I am a writer with a cool website: https://www.tracylynneoliver.com/

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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