Chuck and Paulette had to sell the house after they retired because the taxes were killing them. They made sure the new condo had an extra room, but they also made sure to call it the guest room, hoping their youngest, Bonnie, would take the hint. She was what Paulette called “slow to fly.” Her part-time job selling flowers out of the back of her truck wouldn’t pay for an apartment, and she was too set in her ways to have a roommate. But when Bonnie got a look at the new digs—fold out couch, no closet space—she stepped up her visits to the bulletin board in the plaza where she parked her flower truck. It was the only board in town, sometimes one thumbtack managing a stack of flyers six sheets deep. She looked for anything remotely possible, but there wasn’t much opportunity for self-improvement in Many Brooks, where even the rivers seemed stocked with still water.
Finally, a card with neat capital letters in thick red marker appeared: “Part-time babysitting in exchange for private cabin.” She hated kids, but figured she could fake it. She made an appointment to meet the woman and the six-year old twins after work, found herself on the other side of town behind the shopping plaza and the jail, nervously scanning street signs alongside fenced up, weedy parking lots, until she finally came upon a discrete smattering of ranch houses–like a pup tent on the moon. She pulled over and checked her directions just as one of the boys arrived at her truck.
“The lady’s here!” he cried, trying to get the door open. “I’m Forrest. And that’s my brother, Anthony.”
Anthony jumped up and down, shouting that Bonnie had red hair AND a red truck.
She wondered whether they were slow, the way Down syndrome kids were always so friendly.
“Oh, they like you already!” Lynn ground to a halt at the bottom of the driveway. She was fat-free with prominent bones, the type who looked like she’d been working too hard her whole life. She had a steel handshake and immediately led Bonnie up the steep hill—Bonnie struggling to keep up—past the yellow house, to a cabin made of cinderblocks under some willows.
“It’s not the Plaza Hotel but it’s not the Bates Motel either.” Lynn smiled, proud of her joke, and Bonnie smiled back even though she didn’t get the reference. “You’ll have total privacy. The boys are not allowed in here. And neither are we.”
“You and your husband?”
“God no. My roommate. Tina.”
Bonnie nodded, relieved.
“Sorry about the smell,” Lynn said. “No one’s been in here for a while. If you just open windows for a day, it should fade.” She walked through the cabin, opening the three windows.
One bare bulb hung from the ceiling. There was a slop sink, a pint-size refrigerator, two gas burners and no oven—just a microwave that looked to be about twenty years old. In back was a small bedroom with a bunk bed and a bureau, a shallow closet stuffed with wire hangers. A long table occupied the center of the main room, two folding metal chairs tucked against it. But it was the window at the front with a plump easy chair set in front of it—arms that had kept a cat’s claws sharp for years and thick, mismatched cushions—that had her ready to move in. She’d already forgotten babysitting was part of the arrangement.
They went to the house for coffee. Toys and dirty dishes filled the kitchen and living room; old newspapers and magazines covered every surface.
Lynn ran around closing doors. “You might as well see how we live,” she called, more indifferent than apologetic. “Hopefully, with a babysitter, I’ll have some time to clean.”
Bonnie knew what was in those rooms: piles of clothes, wet towels, unmade beds, small plates with crumbs and ketchup congealed on their surfaces, old glasses stained by evaporating clouds of milk.
Just as Lynn was putting on the coffee, Tina walked in, black as tourmaline and broad shouldered with close-cropped hair and a distracting space between her front teeth. Bonnie tried not to look surprised. She’d seen black people here and there, more there than here—and she felt a lack of expertise, as if there were a different set of rules to follow and she didn’t know what they were. Tina shook her hand then helped the twins set up their train set in the living room, letting Lynn handle the interview.
“First off,” said Lynn, “anyone who is going to know the boys needs to know what they’ve been through.” A long punch list of violence and abuse followed: abandoning parents, a locked closet where the boys were confined at night with a bag of McDonald’s cheeseburgers tossed in for breakfast, like they were bear cubs in a cage.
“So he wasn’t much of a father. Then I came along and—what an asshole—I fell in love. Things were OK until he left me for a twenty-year-old. Left me the house, his kids, and the mortgage payment.”
“A lot of people would have split and left the boys to fend for themselves,” Tina called from the next room.
“I’d never do that,” Lynn replied, and rolled her head around, chasing a crick. “You can move in tonight if you want the job.”
After picking up a few things from her parents’ condo, Bonnie called her sister to tell her the news, but Audrey wouldn’t stop screaming at her 16-year-old daughter long enough to listen. Audrey lived in the loudest house Bonnie had ever visited. Everyone shouted instead of speaking, the phone rang constantly, and all three TVs were on full volume all the time.
“Oh, you think this is funny?” Audrey screamed at Sonia. “Wait until I tell Lenny.” Thinking of Sonia and Lenny, the stepfather, conjured those poor boys. Bonnie imagined cuddling them on that crumb-infested sofa, one under each of her arms. She was going to help them so they wouldn’t grow up to be rapists or alcoholics. She would listen to them. She was an expert listener. Everyone said so. It was the one thing she knew she did well.
The twins were as different as their faces: Forrest was scared of everything; Anthony was bold and convinced of his own importance. Bonnie babysat five days after work, all day Saturday. Often she took them into the woods behind their house.
“Okay,” she said one day, struggling to come up with an activity. She stepped on a spot thick with pine needles. “First we’ll break out the juicy juice, and while you toast the forest fairies, I want you to think of a wish. You only get one.”
“To the fairies!” she cried to set the mood.
“To the fairies,” said Anthony, then Forrest.
After they finished their juice, she took one sticky hand in each of hers. “Hold hands,” she said.
“No way!” Anthony shouted.
“We have to form a circle and hold hands or the fairies won’t pay attention.” She gave Anthony her no-nonsense expression, waiting for compliance.
Forrest held out his hand, but Anthony put his behind his back.
“OK. Forget it then. No wishes,” Bonnie said.
“That’s not fair!” screamed Anthony.
“Then hold your brother’s hand.”
He grabbed a big stick.
“Put that down right now, Anthony.”
“I am the king of the forest,” he bellowed. “You are my prisoners.”
“We can be your prisoners if you’re nice to us, but weapons aren’t allowed. Put it down or I’ll tell your parents.”
“They’re not our parents!” he shouted.
“She’s not our Mom,” said Forrest.
“Well, who is your Mom?” asked Bonnie.
Anthony put the stick down. “Can I be king of the forest without the stick?”
“You can have the stick and be king of the forest. Just don’t use it as a weapon. Let’s see you use it another way.”
He leaned on it as if he were lame.
“Excellent,” said Bonnie. “Good job.”
“What can I be king of?” asked Forrest.
“You can be—” she thought fast, “king of the sky. That means that everything that goes into the sky is under your rule. The airplanes and the birds and the clouds and the stars and the planets—”
Anthony looked up. “I want to be king of the sky,” he shouted.
“You’re king of the forest,” Bonnie replied. Things were disintegrating, the way they always did at this time of day. Lynn would be home by now anyhow. “You know what? We have to go home for dinner. But tomorrow we’ll come back. OK?”
At the house, she hugged the boys, watched them disappear inside then climbed the hill to the cabin. She wanted to shower—she always felt dirty after babysitting, from wiping their noses and the jelly on their hands and playing on the ground—but she hated the thought of the cold spigot and how she never really felt clean afterward. Lynn had told her she was welcome to shower in the house, but she avoided the house when Lynn and Tina were around. They hardly spoke to her and she could feel their resentment comingling with need. She usually washed up at the sink each morning and took a hot shower at her parents’ on the weekend. She tried to liken it to camping.
Often, when she dropped the boys off at the end of the day, she felt an ineffable sadness–as if she had just abandoned them. Or they had abandoned her. Sometimes she cried and ate too much; other times she drank bourbon and sat in the armchair staring out the window at the yard, with its secrets and sadness. It was like a painting in her brain: the drunken slope, the beat-up grill with its rusting propane tank, the green plastic Adirondack chairs, the picnic table—the only area occasionally in use. She moved to the bottom bunk and lay down, remembering the weighted blankets on the mental ward and how they softened everything that was too intense. She pulled free the three blankets on her bed then gathered every towel and sweatshirt she could find. Lying on her back, she tossed the fabrics like Frisbees, here and there doling out heft. Her sister always said she needed to be held—and not by a pile of blankets either.
Sunday Audrey wore a giant football shirt in Miami Dolphins colors, turquoise and orange, and black leggings that ended just above the knees.
“I think Lenny’s having an affair,” she said the moment she closed the door to the truck. “He’s in too good a mood.”
“That’s not exactly evidence.”
“Okay.” She paused for maximum impact. “The other night he came home smelling like pussy.”
Bonnie raised her eyebrows. She wasn’t surprised. She’d had no use for Lenny ever since he’d billed himself as an eye doctor when it turned out he was really an optician.
Chuck and Paulette were thrilled the girls brought booze. Sometimes Audrey was on the wagon—they never knew until everyone arrived—and this was not as much fun. Bonnie sat in a lawn chair with her bathrobe on, her wet hair wrapped in a towel. Chuck commented that it looked as though Audrey had gained weight while Bonnie had lost some “l-bs.” He winked approvingly in Bonnie’s direction.
Paulette put out a plate of cold cuts, rye bread in a basket, some mustard and pickles, then retrieved the first tray of gin and tonics.
“I’m not eating,” Audrey finished half her drink in one swallow. “Lenny is having an affair.”
“Baloney,” Paulette gave a good squeeze on her lime, sucked her fingers.
“Did you check his credit card?” asked Chuck.
“Oh, please. Don’t listen to him. Hey, how are those kids?” she turned to Bonnie. “What are their funny names?”
“Forrest and Anthony.”
“Forrest,” she said. “What kind of name is that?”
“I didn’t name them. I just babysit for them.”
By four o’clock the fifth of gin was empty and Bonnie could barely see. She dropped Audrey off and drove through town, then parked too quickly in Lynn’s driveway, hitting the basketball hoop and denting her fender.
Tina came outside, drinking a beer. “Woops,” she said.
“Yeah. Sorry about that.”
“Well, here’s more good news: Lynn’s gone.”
“Took off this morning and never came back. I called her cell and she’s not answering. You reek of gin.”
“Are the boys alright?”
“I told them she’d be back in a few days.” She shrugged. “Can you do some extra babysitting?”
Bonnie was relocated to Lynn’s room.
“They call it the master bedroom because you have your own bath,” Tina said, trying to make it sound appealing. The boys kept asking if they had a new mommy. Tina explained that Bonnie was their very good friend and maybe an auntie, but that Lynn was their mommy and she would be back. Still, they called her mommy. Tina was called Tina, as usual.
That night Bonnie gathered all the quilts, towels and wool blankets she could find. She instructed the boys to lie very still, smoothed their hair and rubbed their chests. In the darkened room, she read them a story about a street-smart mouse that accompanies a lion navigating New York City on his way to find a home in the suburbs. Halfway through the story the boys were asleep and when she skipped ahead, she was glad of it. It turned out the lion was put in a zoo and the mouse died in a trap clenching a wedge of cheese in its tiny jaws.
For three days Bonnie called in sick to work. She’d had her job for five years and couldn’t tolerate the thought of having to find a new one, couldn’t imagine what she was qualified to do. She considered notifying the school or the authorities, but she didn’t want the boys to be taken away—even though she knew she was incapable of caring for them. Finally she called Audrey and cried through an account of all that had happened, said she feared she would wind up in the mental ward again. “I’ve missed three days of work. They’re going to fire me.”
“Report them to the police. That’s illegal—not to mention inhuman.”
“But if I call the police, they’ll put the boys in foster care.”
“Not your problem.”
“It is my problem.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“I can’t afford a sitter. Can you help? Just this once?”
There was a long silence. “Okay, fine.”
That same day a car pulled up behind Bonnie’s flower truck and a middle-aged man walked toward her, rifling through his wallet. It took Bonnie a moment to see that it was Lenny. She realized from his thinned hair how long it had been. Plus he wore little round glasses and she never remembered him wearing glasses.
“Hey,” she waved.
He squinted. “Bonnie?” He slapped himself in the forehead. “I forgot this is what you do!” They almost hugged.
“This is it.” Bonnie waved her hand across the width of her truck.
“Well, let’s see.” He sighed. “How about some freesia? You know Audrey loves freesia.”
“I only have purple freesia.”
“Well, that’s her favorite,” Bonnie cocked her head, wishing she’d thought of it herself—getting Audrey some flowers. “I won’t be offended if you go elsewhere. I don’t work on commission.”
“No, purple is fine.”
Bonnie lifted a bunch from the water and set about wrapping them in orange, yellow and pink paisley paper. She refused his money. “I wish they were yellow,” she said. As soon as he drove off, she called Audrey to check in.
“They want to know when you’ll be home,” she said. “I don’t think they like me.”
“I’m sure they do.”
Audrey moved into the walk-in closet. “They’re very sweet. But you don’t want them to get dependent on you,” she said ominously.
“They need to depend on someone.”
“Yes, but you’re not going to take over as their parent.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far.”
“You know they’re not like puppies. You can’t put them up for adoption when they become teenagers, or if you decide you want to go to college, or if you want your own kids. You’d be stuck with them. Forever.”
“That’s something Mom would say.”
“Is it? God, I’m sorry.” Audrey sighed. “It’s just such a terrible situation. And I’m worried about you. All this stress isn’t good for you. But I’m going to help. I’ll babysit while you’re at work. In the meantime, we’ll try to track those bitches down.”
Bonnie took care of the boys when she wasn’t working; Audrey filled in when she was. Sometimes they’d all cook out in the backyard. Bonnie loved her sister anew, which came as an enormous relief after an always present, unexamined acrimony and years spent choking on it.
One evening they sat at the picnic table eating barbecued chicken and corn, the boys and Bonnie on one bench, Audrey smoking a cigarette on the other.
“Hey,” Bonnie said. “How’d you like the freesia?”
“The freesia. Didn’t Lenny tell you he got it from me? I know it wasn’t yellow and that you prefer yellow, but it was a good batch. Fragrant.”
Audrey stared straight ahead, wheels turning. Had there been freesia and she’d forgotten? “I never got any freesia.”
“He said he was buying it for you. He wanted yellow because he knows you prefer—“
“When was this?”
Bonnie thought for a moment. She brought her hand down on the table, remembering. “It was the first day you babysat.”
“What are freesia?” asked Forrest.
“Aunt Audrey’s favorite flower,” Audrey said.
“Who’s Aunt Audrey?”
“I am,” she said sadly, feeling how little she mattered.
Forrest was covered in barbecue sauce, unlike Anthony who knew how to use his napkin and managed to stay clean. Bonnie tore open a Wash ‘n Dry.
“What do freesia look like?” asked Forrest as Bonnie wiped him down.
“They’re yellow and shaped like delicate bells,” said Audrey.
“Bells?” He laughed and Anthony laughed, too.
“What’s so funny about bells?” Bonnie pretended to give him a noogie.
“Or you could describe them as tiny cups of honey-water for butterflies to drink from.” Audrey pushed her plate away.
That night Audrey stayed in Tina’s room. Bonnie heard her weeping and went into the closet and gathered up all the blankets. She said nothing, just unfolded them over Audrey, one, then the next, then sat on the edge of the bed, her body against Audrey’s arm, until the crying blended into light snoring. She contemplated how much suffering life wrought to everyone she knew and how it seemed excessive. Out the window she could see the cabin lit dusty lavender. Weeks had passed since she’d set foot in it. It seemed part of another lifetime. But she no longer minded the house, now that those women were gone.
Audrey and Bonnie took turns calling Tina—hers was the only number they had–every morning, afternoon, and evening, thinking they’d harass her into doing right by the boys. But they were settling into a routine. The boys seemed to sense this was their best shot so far. They made their beds, put their toys away, even learned to assemble their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the days when Bonnie was rushing to get ready for work. Bonnie thought about them all day while she sold flowers, often stopping at the little toy store in the plaza to pick up pens, a train for their train set, or some modeling clay. Audrey’s daughter, Sonia, appeared with Audrey one morning. She put her pink suitcase down, got one look at the cabin and begged to live there, offering to babysit in exchange.
“Why not?” Audrey said to Bonnie. “It will teach her some responsibility. The boys already love her.”
“They don’t even know her.”
“They will soon. I can’t leave her with Lenny.”
But Bonnie felt a wild protectiveness, and she imagined Sonia talking on the phone and smoking all night. Isn’t that what teenage babysitters did? So they sat down with Sonia and explained that these were special boys with special needs and she’d have to promise to take care of them, not just ignore them and do whatever she felt like doing.
Audrey insisted the sisters go out one night a week to a watering hole frequented by people who worked at the quarry in the next town. This way they wouldn’t run into anyone they knew. At the bar one night Bonnie asked Audrey, “Do you miss Lenny?”
“Not as much as I should,” Audrey removed an olive from her martini glass.
“Eye doctor, my ass,” Bonnie laughed.
“I ran into this chick who works at his office. She said they don’t even let him make glasses anymore. He kept fucking them up, putting the lenses in the frames upside down, using the distance prescription instead of the near.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“She didn’t know whether he had someone new. Do you know?”
“Me? How would I know?”
“If he does, I hope she likes ‘all-missionary-position-all-the-time.’”
“Really,” said Bonnie with wide sarcastic eyes.
Most nights were spent watching TV and eating popcorn. They gained weight, both in the belly, like their father. And sometimes they drank too much to relieve the pressure that swells when you don’t know what you’re doing or how it will turn out. Audrey pointed out that you never know how things will turn out, so Bonnie ought to stop worrying. “Look at my life,” she said. “Life fucks you up the ass when you aren’t looking and you just have to rub your butt and move on.” She finished off her martini.
But at the end of the day, when they retired to the bedrooms that had once been occupied by strangers, they were two sisters living peaceably in a house that wasn’t theirs, taking care of two boys who had no one else. Neither knew how long it would last, but they’d never felt closer to happy.