In college I was hired by a couple to take care of their two boys after school until the parents came home from work. In return, I got a room in the attic. One boy was ten, another four. The little one suffered from asthma and had already figured out the manipulation that some sick children master. He could wheeze or choke on cue—whenever he didn't want to pick up his toys. Whenever he didn't want to sit with me to go over the flashcards his parents made him practice so he'd be a star next year in the best private kindergarten, so he could get into the best private middle school, then into the best private high school, and then into Harvard or Yale, like his mother and father, respectively. The two practiced law in the city and came back to the suburbs around 10 or 11 each night, even though when I was hired they said they'd be home at 6, 7 the latest. They fired the housekeeper the first week I was there, so I was also making the kids' dinner. The maid told me that on her last job she'd been thrown down the stairs by Tina Louise, the glamour puss from Gilligan's Island. I told her she should go to the police, but she was afraid. Who would they believe? An illegal from Guatemala or Ginger?
On Saturdays, the mother asked me to help with the laundry. I folded stacks of little shirts and pants then drove her to the drycleaners and supermarket. She wore several different wigs, which fascinated me—one was long and straight, another short and curly, and a third was a reddish pageboy. I wondered if she confused the jury with her different hairstyles. I wondered how often she went to court.
I was very afraid of the husband who told the wife what to wear and had the habit of calling her fat, which she wasn't. He also called the ten-year-old porky. He'd hurl a Nerf ball at the boy when he was daydreaming—which was often—and when his son didn't catch it, the father would shake his head and walk away. I knew I was the next one on his list to be singled out, so I sucked in my stomach whenever I passed him. When the jalopy they lent me to take the little one to pre school broke down, the father said I had to walk him there. The school was a mile away and the boy was allergic to everything in the fall air. When he started gasping and his inhaler didn't work, I picked him up and carried him. I asked the father when the car would be fixed, and he said he was going to junk it and, let's face it, the walk would do me good. He couldn't let me use his car because it was custom—not even his wife was allowed to touch it. I began to tell him about his son's asthma attack and he said, Not now.
The older boy came into my room with his friends and scratched up all my records playing DJ. The little boy took to calling me Stupid Vanilla, even in front of his parents who—could I have been imagining this?—both, without much success, tried to stifle their laughter. Then the father said, That's not nice, son. Don't call people stupid. And the wife chuckled at his bad sitcom line. A few days later the dishwasher broke and he complained that I hadn't washed the glasses well enough, that I shouldn't leave them in the strainer to dry or they'd streak. He flung a kitchen towel towards me. When I didn't catch it, it draped over my sneaker.
The mother said, "Your typing is keeping us up at night. Can you find another time to do your homework, hon?"
I tried to tell the wife that it was too much work, that this wasn't our agreement, that I'd missed a few classes because she wasn't home when she said she would be and I couldn't leave the kids alone. She promised she'd get home earlier next week, that she'd hire another housekeeper soon. Then she handed me a stack of envelopes—"Would you mind taking these to the post office?" I was sick of cutting up hotdogs on plates, of tripping on toys, of trying to stay out of the father's way. I moved out all my stuff one morning—the kids at school, the parents at work, the time I loved their big opulent house best. I wrote a resignation letter and left it on a table in the hall. The mother tracked me down through school to accuse me of child abuse, stealing one of her necklaces. She reminded me that she was a lawyer, that I couldn't get away with this. Then she broke into a sob. He's going to kill me—can't you come back? Please? At least for another week?
I wonder if that family ever talks about their disastrous 1985 nanny, that lazy white bitch who thought she was too good to pick up their socks.
His mother was exasperated—I can't deal anymore,
she said, leaving me in the lobby with her first-grader
and his Spiderman backpack.
He'd missed a lot of school
because of the separation, the restraining order,
the bad nights of sleep at the hotel,
the cough syrup, the bolted door.
The mother needed her son
with her as she went to the lawyer's office,
the safety deposit box, the Starbucks
where she wept and blew her nose into grainy napkins.
Now it was time for his homework
that he slid from his backpack
with a curt note: Patrick has missed
six days. Please have him finish these worksheets
in an attempt to catch up. Sincerely, Mrs. Harris.
We counted six pieces of paper.
Patrick, can you write your name on this line?
He took the pencil into his fist.
He was fine until the "K," which he wrote backwards.
He furiously erased, almost ripping through the paper.
The worksheets were about the short A,
the way it sounds. Hey, I said, Patrick has a short A in it.
and so does Mrs. Harris. I repeated their names
until I thought he got it—Patrick, Harris,
exasperated, can't, bad, napkins, catch, man, backwards…
Circle the pictures of things with the short A sound:
A truck, a hat, a bee. Patrick went to circle the bee,
but I lifted his hand, the pencil point hovering
over the paper. What sounds the most like Patrick?
Hat, Patrick, Harris, I said, a big hint.
Oh yeah, he said. Yeah, I said. Hear that short A sound. Yeah?
I'm hungry, Patrick yawned, telling me how in the morning
there would be free muffins here, and hardboiled eggs.
I looked at my watch. It was almost eight.
Patrick was supposed to be in bed by 8:30,
though he hadn't had a regular schedule for a while.
I thought of putting him in his booster seat,
trying to find a restaurant with takeout
but the homework loomed. He was starting to close
his bloodshot eyes. I know where the vending machine is,
he said, then he led me to it, his papers still spread out
on the table where he'd have his breakfast.
I bought him a granola bar and Sun Chips, E8, B4,
which seemed slightly healthier than the Snickers he wanted.
We watched his dinner plummet. He pushed
the metal door open and pulled out the snacks from the bin.
I slid in a dollar for water. The sound
of the dropping bottle startled him.
It's OK, I said, though nothing was really OK.
He didn't talk about his father or what he'd done.
We went back to his homework.
Backpack has two short A's. Can you hear that?
I exaggerated the A's, repeating the word.
Patrick, Harris, backpack, hat, snacks…
Think, I said, before you circle the next picture.
I have to confess I gave him a lot of clues.
I couldn't bear to see him erase,
I couldn't bear to say the word "wrong."
He circled the map, the basket, the jacks.
Then a strange request: draw a picture
of your favorite cat. A blank square
looming. Patrick scribbled something
so tiny and fierce I didn't question it. His face
was full of crumbs. The final worksheet,
Three Apples. The directions read: Color each apple
a different color—yellow, green, and red.
Patrick dumped the contents of his crayon box
and we found a yellow stub, a green stick
with the paper curled off. Not exactly apple green,
though it would do. Patrick began to cry
when we couldn't find a red.
I dumped out the contents of my purse,
hoping for a red felt tip. We went to the front desk—
Do you have a red pen? The woman
behind the counter checked all the drawers,
but she was sorry. It was already past bedtime—
Patrick was whimpering, his nose running.
I wondered if I should go to find a Walgreen's.
I have an idea, I said, You can color the apple pink
and I'll write a note to Mrs. Harris telling her
it was late and we couldn't find a red crayon.
Pink is for girls, Patrick wailed.
What about purple? I said. Purple is red with blue in it.
No no no. He kicked and stomped,
wanting me to take him back to his house
where he knew he could find a red crayon,
where he could find his favorite pillow
and toy box and hotdogs and buns.
But there were also guns and an angry man.
I held him until he stopped kicking,
until he snapped fine. He scrawled
a few purple loopy marks that went
outside the lines. Each apple had oval eyes
and a U-shaped smile that seemed to mock us.
I wrote a note to Mrs. Harris explaining
Patrick's crayon situation, which I hoped explained
the whole situation. The whites of Patrick's eyes
were full of red squiggles. I put the papers
back in his folder and zipped up his backpack.
I carried him up the elevator to the dark hotel room
where his mother was under the covers—exhaustion.
I could see Patrick's clothes in a heap on the floor.
Somewhere in that shadowed pile were his pajamas,
but by now he was snoring. I positioned him
in the bed next to his mother's, sliding off
his Spiderman sneakers, then pulling the covers up
to his chin. Did you wash his face? Brush his teeth?
his mother mumbled. Yes, I lied.
I left the key card on the bureau and backed out—
free, relieved, but haunted, probably like Patrick's dad.
That asshole. That bastard. That bad, bad apple.