Let me tell you how it happened that Lori Sherman ruined my life by getting me mixed up with three sorry kids and their even sorrier mother. All this came about because Lori Sherman wore a cashmere sweater to school on the particular day I had decided to revenge myself for her multitude of misdeeds toward me. I had plenty of reasons for hating her and if I ever got close to running light of them, she made sure to give me more. It wasn’t that she was rich. Lots of people are rich. It wasn’t that she was prettier than me. Most girls are. It wasn’t even that she was smarter than me. I am smart enough to please myself. I hated her because she laughed at every stupid thing I said. Since I was talking all the time, she laughed a lot. And it made me mad. If I gave a wrong answer on my math paper, Lori laughed. If I fell on myself in PE class, Lori laughed. If my hair was standing up on the top like a stubby brown feather because I got gum in it and my brother had to cut it out with a pair of scissors, Lori laughed. Enough is enough and I decided it was my turn to laugh. This is where the cashmere sweater comes in.
Lori was sitting in the cafeteria eating her warm lunch because she was a "buyer." I was a "bringer," and ate peanut butter sandwiches every day. Not that I minded. Peanut butter is good for you and keeps all your organs stuck together so they won’t fall out. Many’s the night I lie in bed, dreaming about Lori Sherman’s parched, brittle organs cracking like old plaster.
On the day of the Sweater Incident, she was sitting all fancy with four other girls, twirling her hair with one hand and forking her Salisbury steak in gravy with the other. I walked up behind her, as calm as you please, and shoved the back of her head hard enough to bury the whole front of her in the Salisbury steak with gravy. When she jerked her head back up, it was the mashed potatoes rammed up her nose that set me laughing until I thought I would die, and be happy to do it.
There was a lot of racket, of course. Kids laughing, teachers shouting, that sort of thing. But the one sound I recall above all others was Lori, standing up and screeching hard enough to make my ears bleed, "My cashmere sweater!"
I laughed and shouted back, "Your cashmere sweater? Shoot, girl! You ought to blow them damned potatoes outta yer nose before you suffocate!"
Okay. I’d had detention before and knew it was a short haul. You sit in the office all day and read. Like that was some sort of deadly punishment. I could read for centuries and not care. With stupid punishments like that, I figured they should all thank Jesus that I hadn’t broken every window in the school yet. This time was different, though. This time they called my mama and I would sooner face the Devil on a hot July than face my mama when her jaw got stiff. I started thanking Jesus myself for all the blessings He had wrought me, and for His power and mercy. Amen.
Not that it did me any good. Mama took me home and whipped me half to death. At least it felt that way. Then she told me to sit right there in my room until she called for me. Under regular circumstances, that wouldn’t have bothered me. I would have read a book or written some stories in the storybook I’d put together. But I’d learned a thing or two in twelve Aprils. I’d learned that it takes more than blood to make people want you and I’d learned that boys are like kittens. When they are small, you can play with them but when they get big, they don’t give a shit about anybody. I’d learned that the only person in the world you can trust is your mama and when her jaw gets stiff, even Jesus can’t help you. And one more thing. When your mama whips you half to death and tells you to sit right there and wait until she calls for you, she doesn’t mean for you to go having a good time about it, reading and writing. She means for you to sit there with your throbbing backside and think about how bad you are. So, that’s exactly what I did.
I guess I fell asleep, because the next thing I remembered, Mama was sitting beside me on the bed. She was quiet and when I sat up, she said, "Camille, raising you is like trying to drive a team of wild horses. This is no Sunday ride, honey. You make a person have to stand and pull back as hard as they can."
I stayed still because I’d heard the "team of wild horses" story before. Best not to comment on some things. But her jaw was not stiff anymore and this was good news.
She said, "I spoke with Mrs. Sherman. That was an expensive sweater and you will have to pay for it."
Thoughts about the legal working age in Virginia pressed themselves hard against my tongue, wanting to come out. I might be stupid, but I’m no fool. I made those thoughts stay in.
Mama continued, "There is a woman who rides the same bus I do into town every day. I heard her telling someone she was looking for a baby-sitter for her children. A regular job, every Wednesday night. I’ll get her phone number tomorrow morning."
If I’d had any luck, that woman and her kids would have lived far away and, since Mama worked until late, I wouldn’t have to do it. Luck isn’t something I ever had in plenty and, as it turned out, they lived only four blocks from us and I could walk there. The plan was that I would watch three kids, make them go to bed on time, and their mama would bring me home. When Wednesday evening rolled around, I started walking, and I was mad every step of the way.
All I had to do was stand in the driveway and stare at that house to know there would be no soda in the refrigerator and no cookies in the jar. From the looks of things, they were poorer than we were, which was saying a lot. The grass and weeds in the yard were as tall as my legs and the mailbox hung all sideways beside the front door. I was thinking maybe I should make her pay me in advance. When I knocked, a dirty-faced boy of eight or so opened the door. Behind him, two other faces--a girl and a smaller boy--pressed close and all three of them peered up at me. One of them smelled of stale pee.
I said, "Hey."
The girl said, "Hey." Then, "Are you the baby-sitter?"
I said, "I guess I am. Why? D’you think I’m hiding Avon in my hip pocket?"
She smiled and the three of them stood back so I could step in. When the door closed behind me, the first thing that went through my mind was that, if I held my breath much longer, I’d pass out. So I took little breaths and my nose stung, but I was careful not to let it show on my face.
They led me to the couch and when I sat down, we got to the introductions. The older boy handled his end, telling me his name was Sam, his sister was Tina and his little brother was Danny. I was right about Sam. Eight years old, exactly. Tina was seven and Danny was five.
I said, "I’m Camille."
Sam said, "That’s a stupid name."
I said, "Big talk from a kid who don’t look like Clorox could bleach him clean."
Tina sat beside me and asked, "Do you like kids?"
"No," I said. "I can’t stand them. Either kids or boys. What time do y’all go to bed, anyhow?"
Their mama came bustling down the hall, tugging at the hem of a short skirt--which didn’t make it any longer, that I noticed--and checking her reflection in the hall mirror. When she saw me in the glass, she looked startled and turned around. The last time I’d seen that much paint on one person’s face was the thirty-first of October, the year before. We’d been out trick-or-treating and I wondered what her excuse was. When she leaned over to shake my hand, her blouse jiggled around like she had a live fish in there. I didn’t peek on purpose, but when big-bosomed ladies go about without the proper underclothes on, you can’t hardly help peeking.
She said her name was Bonnie and that she was already late for bowling. With one quick wave of her hand, Miss Bonnie was out the door and down the porch steps, moving at an amazing speed, considering the high heels and all. I ran after her and shouted from the door, "Hey!"
She stopped and looked back. Even from that distance, I could see her face get kind of hard. She said, "Yes?"
"I ain’t got the number where you’ll be. How can I call you if the house burns down or something?"
She eyed me for a second, then said, "I’ll call you every now and again, just to check up." She opened her car door and I shouted again.
She said, "What?"
I said, "My name is Camille."
She said, "Great!" and that was that.
I closed the front door, turned to the kids and asked, "Okay. Which one of you smells like week-old piss?"
When I looked Danny over, he started crying, which told me he was the customer with the stink problem.
I said, "We’ll just fix this right now," and I took his hand in mine. He didn’t tug or fight or anything when I asked Tina," Where’s the bathroom?"
I told him to strip and, when I started the water running in the tub, his eyes got all big but I set that straight right quick. "Danny," I told him. "We can make this easy or hard. I’ve washed a fractious beagle before and I know what I’m doing. Let’s just decide now that I win."
Behind me, Sam said, "‘Fractious?’ What kind of stupid word is that?"
Without bothering to look back at him, I muttered, "Read more, kid."
Danny got into the tub easy enough and I set Tina to soaping his back. I told her to make it a game; draw pictures with her fingers in the soap and make him try to guess what they were. That way, his back and neck would be shiny clean before he knew what was happening to him. Then, I told Sam to show me where Danny’s clean clothes were. When I saw the bedroom Sam and Danny shared, I knew there weren’t any clean clothes to be had. And when I saw Danny’s bed, I knew why he smelled the way he did.
The sheets were all twisted and clumped every which way and the stink coming off them was giving me a headache. I stepped back and turned my head. I didn’t mean to make Sam feel bad but I just couldn’t breathe in there.
I asked him, "Do y’all have a washing machine?"
He surprised me by answering, "And a dryer, too."
I said, "You haul those sheets off that bed and I’ll go with you to the washing machine."
It was in the basement and we had to climb over what seemed like a dozen reeking mounds of clothes to get to it. Sam asked did I know how to work a washing machine and I told him I reckoned I did. I turned the dials to "hot" and "high" and dumped in some soap powder. Sam stuffed in the sheets and I stood there, waiting for the water to fill.
Sam said, "Come on. What are we waiting for?"
I looked over at him and shook my head. "We’ll wait for the water to fill up and let it swish a bit. Then I’m going to open the lid so it won’t wash. That way, the sheets can soak a while. I don’t guess we’re going to find any pajamas or anything, are we?" He just stared at the wall and said nothing. I asked, "A big old tee-shirt, maybe? It doesn’t have to be nice. It just has to be clean."
Sam said, "I have a tee-shirt, but it’s special and I’m not sharing."
"Sam," I said, trying to keep my voice gentle, "you can have it back. It’s just that Danny needs something clean to wear. You can have your tee-shirt back tomorrow."
"What if he pisses in it?" Sam shouted and I could tell he was more scared than mad.
I said, "Sam, if he pisses in it, I’ll wash it for you next Wednesday. I promise. You can’t very well leave your little brother to run around naked, now can you?"
Sam looked like he was about to cry and whispered, "If you wash it, it won’t smell like my daddy anymore."
Well, this was the first I’d heard about any daddy and I asked him, "Where’s your daddy? No one said a word to me about you having a daddy."
Sam blinked and started grinding his teeth. Finally he said, "He’s at the war right now. I’m taking care of his tee-shirt until he gets back. If you wash it, then it won’t smell like him anymore."
I said, "What does your daddy smell like?"
Sam glared at me and snapped, "Like a daddy! That’s how!"
Upstairs, Tina yelled that Danny’s back was clean so I told Sam to come on and we returned to the bathroom. That girl had done a good job. I’d never seen such a slick, clean back. I told her to work on his legs and arms. Danny seemed happy enough to let her. I washed his feet and he kicked and laughed and got me sopping wet, but that was okay. I’d been wet before and I figured I’d dry out just like always. I washed his stomach and his neck and he laughed some more. When I cleaned his ears, he yelped and fought me, but that beagle had yelped and fought me, too. And the beagle had sharper teeth. I told Sam to wash his brother’s beeswax and Tina and I hid our eyes until he was done.
Danny only got scared once, and that was when I set to washing his hair. Things got dicey because there was no shampoo in that house so I made Tina bring me dishwashing liquid. Sam objected, saying his brother wasn’t no sink of dishes but I shut that down in a hurry, reminding Sam that, the way I figured it, almost a hundred percent of what was rotting in Danny’s hair was food anyhow.
As for making Danny be still so I could scrub his scalp, I told him to pretend he was a whale and breathe out his mouth like it was a blow-hole. He liked that and kept thrashing his legs around like they were big whale fins. Between you and me, the beagle was easier.
When I’d gotten Danny out and wrapped in a towel, I turned to Sam and asked, "What’s it going to be? He’s cold."
Sam spun around and ran from the bathroom. I heard his bedroom door slam and I wondered if I should go after him. Danny’s teeth were starting to chatter.
Tina asked, "Can I take a bath, too?" I nodded, watched the bedroom door, and waited.
Nothing happened. Sam did not come back out and Danny was starting to cry. Okay. I’d been in this situation before, too, so I tied one towel around Danny’s body and tucked it in. Then I tied the ends of another one around his neck and told him he looked like Superman. It was a good idea but he got all squirmy while I combed his hair. I finally got mad at him and told him to be still or he couldn’t be Superman because nobody ever saw himflying around town looking like a drowned rat. When I let him go, that boy took off like a shot, tearing down the hallway with his arms outstretched and making all kinds of racket. Well, at least he wasn’t crying and cold.
I walked around the house a bit, noticing everything. I have an eye for things, for studying how they look and remembering it. Tina stayed right with me, quiet and watching where I looked, like she was trying to guess what I was thinking. I was mighty glad she couldn’t.
There were dishes on the kitchen table, all crusted with food, and there were beans and pieces of hard black meat on the floor. I figured that meat might have been chicken in a former life. My sneakers stuck to the kitchen floor and made a nasty sticking sound with every step I took. The sink and every inch of counter space was stacked with dishes, glasses, forks, knives, and spoons. I sent Tina back to the bathroom for the dishwashing liquid. As she turned to leave, I glanced at the backs of her legs and wondered how long a person has to go without being washed before dirt starts making patterns on their skin.
I made Tina my Special Helper and, even though it took us better than an hour, we got that kitchen cleaned up and the dishes washed and put away. All the while, Danny was jumping off furniture and singing and racing up and down the hall with that towel stretched out behind him. Once, he climbed on top of the kitchen table and got all ready to jump. I just glared over at him and said, "Act like you’ve got some sense, okay?" He got down and pouted for a while before he went racing off again.
I sent Tina down to shut the lid of the washing machine so the sheets would wash and then we set to wiping off the kitchen table. It took us awhile, seeing as how we had to work at it here and there with spoons to scrape off some of the hard stuff. We’d just finished straightening the living room and stacking all the magazines and newspapers when I noticed Sam standing there, not saying a word and holding an old white tee-shirt in his hands. He was grinding his teeth again.
I sat on the couch and waited for him like you might wait for a squirrel to come eat a peanut out of your hand. If you move, it’ll run. But if you stay still, sooner or later, it’ll come to you. After a minute or two, Sam walked stiff-legged over to the couch and shoved that tee-shirt at me. I held it in my hands and thought about his mama off bowling and his daddy off to war and this tee-shirt. All of the sudden, I wanted to know what his daddy smelled like so I brought that tee-shirt to my nose and sniffed. You need to move slowly in life sometimes, or you miss things. Like, if you are hurrying, you miss how three robins can chase a blue jay right out of your yard or how, when the sun hits them just right, drops of rain dangling from the tips of leaves look like diamond fingernails on green, drooping hands. Or you miss a smell you really need to find. Popular people are usually in a hurry to get someplace, but when you are alone most of the time, you can go as slow as you want. I breathed that tee-shirt in and out, and I smiled.
I said, "Sam, I know this smell and, after Danny is finished with it, I’ll wash this shirt and make it smell like your daddy took it off just this morning."
Sam’s eyes got wide and he swallowed hard a couple of times. I could see he didn’t believe me. He whispered, "D’you promise?" I nodded.
"Sam," I said, "My daddy smells like that, too. It pours from a bottle and I know he’ll let me borrow some, seeing as I buy it for him for his birthday, Father’s Day and Christmas every year. He has about twelve bottles right now. He saves them in his dresser drawer, in case he runs out."
Sam didn’t smile or say thank you or anything. He did stop grinding his teeth, though. We dressed Danny in the tee-shirt and Sam and Tina helped me rub Danny’s mattress down with some warm water and dishwashing liquid. Then, we hauled it out the back door, down the steps and leaned it against the house.
When we came back in, I looked at the clock. Nine already. I’d been there three hours. Seemed like three days. Sam and Tina were bugging me to take a bath. Kids and ducks. You let one get into the water and all the rest of them got to do it, too. I sent Sam first and Tina after him. I did some wash, put the clean sheets aside for Danny and helped Tina wash her hair. By ten o’clock, I wondered if Miss Bonnie was ever coming home, and I wondered why she still hadn’t given us a "check up" call.
Tina and I folded laundry for a while and Danny fell asleep on the couch, all wrapped in his daddy’s tee-shirt. I knew I had to get those kids to bed so I had Sam help me bring in the mattress. It still wasn’t dry so we put it wet-side down on the bed and made it up with the clean sheets. Danny never even woke up when I carried him in and put him to bed.
Tina and I had managed to get enough laundry done so they had clean clothes for school and when I sent her off to bed, she hugged me and kissed me. I don’t usually tolerate such things, but I let her because she was little and didn’t know any better than to kiss strangers who don’t like kids anyhow.
Sam and I watched TV for awhile. When I sent him to bed, I gave him some advice.
"Sam? D’you get up in the night to pee?"
I said, "Okay, from now on, every time you get up, wake Danny and make him go, too. Right soon, he’ll get the hang of it, but you have to teach him first. Now, before you go to bed, haul him out, shake him a little so he wakes up, and make him go."
Sam took a deep breath, still no smile or talking or anything. He just walked down the hall toward his bedroom. A few seconds later, he came back out, dragging Danny with him toward the bathroom. Before Sam went to bed, he said exactly four words to me, "See ya next Wednesday."
Miss Bonnie came home well after two in the morning. She was falling-down drunk and hit the curb on every corner when she drove me home. I decided that I’d rather walk home next time than risk riding with her again.
I’m not sure whether or not to tell you this next part because I know what you’ll be thinking: "Doesn’t that girl know stealing is wrong?" Well, of course I knew. But I needed to buy some things and, since I had to give all my baby-sitting money over to Mama for Lori Sherman’s blasted cashmere sweater, what choice did I have?
I’d seen Mama’s open wallet on the coffee table, like it was just waiting for me. I could even see the corners of money poking out the side. But when I started to reach for it, my insides got so sick, I wanted to puke. I don’t think any sin could be worse than stealing from your own mama, because she is the only person in the world you can trust. I prayed for forgiveness right away, just for thinking such a wicked thing. Then I went rooting under all the cushions on the couch and chairs, seeing what change Daddy might have lost from his pockets.
Stealing from a daddy is different. Daddies are men and so they don’t ever really love anybody. Besides, I didn’t exactly steal it from him. I just cleaned up the mess he’d left under the cushions. Finders-keepers, you know. Like I said before, I’d never really had much luck. If I had, Mama would’ve married a rich man and I would have found more than two dollars and seventy-three cents in change.
With that pitiful fortune in my pocket, I started walking toward town. We called it a town but people from real towns would laugh if they heard that, I bet. Real towns have rivers. I know that because I read it in a book. Think about it. Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York, Savannah, Paris and London all have rivers. Not having a river is a shameful thing for a town. Take Russia, for example. Sure, they have rivers for their towns. But those rivers freeze up in the winter and then what good are they? This explains why Russians are forever trying to take over other towns that have rivers, in case you didn’t know. In Springfield, we had a creek back in the woods but, during dry spells, we barely even had that. It’s enough to make any decent citizen feel ashamed. Think ill of the Russians if you want, but it entered my mind a time or two that the true reason the people a few miles away in Alexandria were so stuck on themselves was because they could float their inner-tubes on the Potomac River any time they wanted. Anyhow, I walked to town.
I had stolen things before, but mostly just to impress my brother, who could practically steal your wallet while you were holding it in your hand. I’d stolen gum, sodas and a candy bar here and there. Nothing big. My brother stole a bottle of Cold Duck once. Seemed like a lot of trouble for something he was going to puke all over the curb in front of Music and Record store. Anyway, you’ve heard of recreational fishing or hunting? That’s when you do it for fun rather than for serious. The sordid history of my stealing is that it had, in truth, only been recreational stealing. Those times were gone, though. On that day, I stole for serious and felt like a regular Al Capone.
The situation was this: those sorry kids I baby-sat had no shampoo in their house and no Lysol to clean Danny’s mattress. I know you are thinking I am one of those, "O, ye, of little faith" the preachers are always complaining about, but I didn’t believe for one second that Danny had stopped peeing his bed just because Sam was supposed to be waking him in the night and taking him to the bathroom. Brothers forget things. I knew this from first-hand experience. Also, I decided it wasn’t right to borrow any of the shaving stuff I’d bought my daddy and, if I shouldn’t borrow it from him, stealing it from him would be even worse. He was a good daddy to me. He tried his best and a person can only try their best. Stealing a present was out of the question. So, along with the shampoo and the Lysol, I had to snag myself some of that shaving stuff that comes in a bottle with a boat on it.
I hit three different stores for this so as not to look suspicious. And I divided my two dollars and seventy-three cents into three parts, leaving ninety-one cents in an obvious place at each store. I was being as honest as I could and you know full well that Al Capone would never have bothered to do that.
When I got home, I hid the bottles in my closet and, while I waited for Wednesday to roll back around, I checked every day to make sure no one had found them. Mamas have this habit of cleaning out things like dresser drawers and closets, whether you want them cleaned or not. I’d gotten the small size of everything except the shaving stuff because it only came in one size. Nothing worse than a greedy thief. But looking at that bottle of shampoo made me happy because I knew that, even if I got some in Danny’s eyes by accident, it wouldn’t sting. I tore off the label so he wouldn’t see the baby on it and think I was making fun of him.
The following Wednesday night, I left early for baby-sitting. I had a lot of work to do and I didn’t mean to waste one second getting to it, either. When I knocked on the door and Sam opened it, I looked at him and asked, "Where’s that tee-shirt?"
Miss Bonnie called good-bye to us when she left but I was in the basement stuffing Danny’s sheets and Sam’s tee-shirt into the washing machine so I didn’t bother to call one back to her. I’d been bowling, myself, and I knew a couple of things about it. In the first place, bowling in a short skirt is stupid. Everyone can see your underwear when you lean over to toss that ten-ton ball. In the second place, not once in all my existence had I seen a woman wearing three-inch heels at a bowling alley. There’s one thing about grown-ups that always works in a kid’s favor. Grown-ups think we’re all kind of thick, like we don’t see or hear anything. But, we see and hear it all. Trust me. We do. When you are smaller than the folks who can play God over you, it’s only common sense to stay on top of things and learn to out-think them as fast as you can. There’s one exception when it comes to grown-ups thinking you’re stupid, though, and that’s your mama. You can ask your mama anything and she won’t tell you dumb stuff and try to make you think about something else. She will look at you with those pretty brown eyes and say, "Well, Camille, you’ve asked a straight question and I intend to give you a straight answer." As I closed the washing machine lid, I thought about Sam, Tina and Danny’s mother and knew even the Mama Exception had an exception. Nothing about being alive makes any sense, if you start to thinking about it. So don’t think about it too hard.
Sam and I got to scrubbing Danny’s mattress with the Lysol right quick and had it out back leaning against the house within twenty minutes from the time I walked through the front door. I’d guessed right about Danny. He didn’t piss as much, but he sure enough soaked the mattress every single night. Poor kid.
I know I sounded like a regular Army soldier, standing in the living room and giving orders, but Sam, Tina and Danny seemed to enjoy being told what to do. We worked for a hard hour, the four of us, and we got that whole place spic-and-span. I piled Danny’s clean sheets on the couch while I waited for the mattress to dry and I held the tee-shirt in my lap. It was all soft and white and I pretended I didn’t notice the tears filling Sam’s eyes. I just reached over into the bag I’d brought and drew out the shaving stuff with the boat on the bottle.
Sam and Tina gasped and Tina said, "Daddy," in a lost kind of voice, like she was remembering a dream she’d had a long time ago.
I told Sam to strip off his shirt and, when he did, I said, "Now, you open this stuff and pour some into your hands. Then, smear it on your face and neck and smack yourself on the chest with it. Go ahead."
Sam opened the bottle and let some trickle into his palms. Then, he did like I told him and rubbed it in and smacked his chest with it. When he was all finished, we put the little stopper back in and I handed Sam the tee-shirt. He took it, pulled it on over his head and sat on the couch. Then he turned away from us, curled into a ball, and didn’t say another word. I watched him for a second and decided to leave him be. You poke a shell with a stick and that turtle won’t ever come back out.
I was folding clothes when Tina came into the living room and handed me a sheet of paper. I looked it over and told her to fetch her books. She and I worked number problems for awhile and then I had her read aloud from her reader. We switched off, back and forth. Put some laundry in and put the wet clothes into the dryer. Then do some numbers. Fold the clothes. Then more pages in the reader. Put the clean clothes away. Numbers again. Another load in. More pages in the reader.
When I was sure I had some pajamas for Danny all clean and ready to go, I got him into the tub and showed him the shampoo I’d brought for him, special, and told him how it wouldn’t burn his eyes. Of course, he wanted to test it out and I had to wash his hair three times, but he didn’t cry once and he didn’t have to close his eyes and breathe through his mouth like a whale through a blow-hole. I’m telling you this because it means I stayed dry all the way through Danny’s bath.
I got everybody to bed just as late as I had the Wednesday before, but we’d gotten a lot more done. I figured we could get this down to a fine science before too long. When I was sure they were all asleep, I sneaked into Sam and Danny’s room and put that bottle of shaving stuff inside Sam’s socks, tee-shirts and underwear drawer. That way, he could smell like his daddy as much as he wanted, whenever he wanted.
When I finally sat down on the couch and looked around the room, I thought, "This is a sad house. Everyone who lives here is sad. I am so glad I don’t live here and I am so glad my mama doesn’t lie to me about bowling."
Miss Bonnie stumbled in the front door at close to three o’clock the next morning. She smelled of drinking again...and she wasn’t alone. Coming in behind her and doing his best to hold her up was a man I had never seen before. He managed to get Miss Bonnie to the couch before she collapsed and he whispered to me, "Come on. I’ll take you home." I stood, got my jacket and headed for the door. He was hurrying me along but I saw it anyhow. Miss Bonnie’s blouse was inside out and buttoned all wrong. Why hide it from me? She wasn’t mymama.
When the man and I got into his car, he told me his name was Doug. I nodded and stared out the window into the black night. He said he’d noticed Miss Bonnie might have had a bit too much to drink at the party so he decided to bring her home rather than let her drive.
I said, "What party? She told me she was going bowling." After I said that, Doug shut up and I was glad. Lying bastard. Where did he get off thinking being twelve meant the same thing as being stupid?
But Sam had his tee-shirt and Danny was clean and smelled good and all of Tina’s homework was done. They had clean clothes to wear to school the next day and I was content with that.
When Doug dropped me off, I waited for him to drive away before I climbed into my bedroom window and got into bed. If Mama found out how late Miss Bonnie got home, I wouldn’t be allowed to baby-sit Sam, Tina and Danny anymore. Then who’d take care of them?
One of the rules of being a kid is that you have to do right in school and make good grades. Well, I made lousy grades and I even tried to feel bad about it sometimes. Of course, I hated it when Mama looked over my report card and sighed at me and said, "Camille, you’re a bright girl and you can do better than this."
I always wanted to say right back, "Sure I can, but why?" I never said it, though. Mama was willing to overlook a lot of bad stuff, but if you were ever mean to anybody (like if you shoved them into Salisbury steak with gravy) or if you ever shot your mouth off at her, Mama would light into you like the Wrath Of God.
The Bible says there is a purpose to everything under heaven and I believe that. There is also a purpose to making bad grades and, when I started baby-sitting those sorry kids, I figured out what it was.
Miss Bonnie never got home before two or three o’clock in the morning and she only drove me back to my house that once. Doug took over for her and, even though I hated riding with him every Wednesday night, at least he wasn’t drunk. The point is, come Thursday morning, I was so tired I could hardly stand up at the bus stop. In school, I took to grabbing a nap here and there. My grades might have dropped, if they’d ever been up in the first place. So, the purpose of bad grades under heaven was that Mama never knew how tired I was and I didn’t have any school papers I suddenly wasn’t turning in on time.
Things plagued my mind, though. I wanted to tell Mama about them but knew if I did, there would be no more Sam, Tina and Danny for me. Besides, I was handling things pretty well by myself. The first time Doug reached over and put his hand on my leg while we were riding in his car, I didn’t even bother to look at him. I just kept staring out the window at all those sleeping houses and said, "Quit." And he quit. Nothing to it. Sometimes he’d tell me what a pretty girl I was and how I was almost a woman. I was more a woman than he knew and I could recognize bullshit better than most.
Doug wasn’t the first man who’d ever put his hands on me and I knew he would not be the last. I’d told Mama about the other man and she took care of it for me. I don’t know what she did or how she did it, but those hands stopped and right quick. The only thing Mama ever said to me about it was that we were not to tell Daddy anything because if we did, someone would die. I knew my daddy wasn’t the best daddy who ever lived, but I also knew he tried to be. Sometimes, when Daddy was sitting on the couch reading the sports section, I would sit beside him and kiss his arm, just because it made me feel so good to know that he tried and that if he knew someone had hurt me, he would make that someone die.
So I took care of Doug myself and didn’t worry about my grades sliding. In my spare time, I read books and wrote stories. I wrote hundreds of stories; sometimes five or six a week. Mama liked to read them and she liked me to sit on the bathroom floor and read them to her while she soaked in the tub late at night when she got home from being a hat-check girl. And don’t be thinking ill of Mama because she was a hat-check girl, either. She also had a regular job during the day where she wore pretty dresses and typed letters. Daddy worked, too, off and on. But sometimes he was so sad, he couldn’t do anything but sit on the couch and smoke and read the sports section or just stare at nothing. Daddy never drank and he never gambled. He never hit Mama or me or my brother. He never did a mean thing in his life. But every now and again, the sadness would come over him and then he couldn’t do anything at all.
I never wondered much about Daddy, like if he’d ever had dreams when he was young. But I wondered those things about Mama all the time. I would watch her get dressed in the morning and think how pretty she was and I would try to guess what she might have dreamed of being when she was a little girl.
So I asked her once. Her eyes got all soft and she said, "I always wanted to be a dancer."
I could believe that. I knew Mama had a way about her some people didn’t like. Daddy’s mother said Mama was "vulgar" and "sexy." I think she said that because Mama liked to wear tight stretchy black pants on a Saturday afternoon, and because her eyes twinkled when men whistled at her.
Daddy’s mother said I was vulgar, too. We were all sitting together visiting one day and Daddy’s mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. That woman hardly ever spoke to me so I guess I was kind of stunned and my mind went still.
Mama perked right up and said, "Camille is going to be a famous writer. You’ll see."
Then Daddy’s mother said, "Well, she’s vulgar enough to be a woman writer. They’re all sluts, you know, and she’ll never make any good money."
I muttered something at her and she told Daddy I was rude and what did anyone expect from a fatherless girl, anyway? If that old bitch thought she’d hurt my feelings, she was dead wrong. I knew Daddy wasn’t my real daddy, but he tried and that was good enough for me. Besides, not only was Daddy’s mother an old bitch, she was also stupid. I could have told her that people don’t write for money. They write because their chest hurts if they don’t. They write because their brain is packed with words and they have to put all those words on paper or else they can’t think or sleep or anything. They write because there is a fire inside them that burns all time and it’s real and it’s exciting and it blows through you until you hurry and turn on the light and grab your notebook and write as fast as you can, until the fire dies down and the words become quiet for awhile.
Daddy’s mother said women writers were vulgar sluts. Well, I’d seen a few sluts here and there and I didn’t notice any of them entering the writing contests at school. Miss Bonnie was a slut and I wasn’t even sure she could read. But I could, and I did. Every Wednesday night. After the chores were done and the laundry was put away, Sam, Tina, Danny and I would sit together on the couch while I read my stories to them. Outside, the November rain slashed against the house, making the windows rattle. Inside, we were together, pressed close to each other with a blanket across our legs while I held my notebook in my lap and warmed them by the fire that burned inside me.
When I walked up those front steps the first Wednesday night of December, my thoughts were far away. I was dreaming of Christmas and all the presents I could buy for my family and Sam, Tina and Danny. In my mind, Mama wore a pretty scarf I’d seen at Walmart and Danny played with the Matchbox car I planned to get him. Likely, the reason I got confused so fast was because I hadn’t been paying attention to anything except all those pictures in my head where I was handing out boxes of presents I wrapped myself and all the smiles I’d get in return.
I knocked on the door, and when it opened, I just stood there and blinked. Miss Bonnie smiled at me the tightest smile I’d ever seen in my life. At least I thought it was Miss Bonnie. I blinked a few more times, stepped back, checked the house number and finally asked, "Miss Bonnie? That you?" Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and there wasn’t a spot of make-up on her. She wore a gray sweatshirt, blue jeans and sneakers. Also, her chests were up so I knew she was wearing a bra, too. High blasted time.
That tight smile of hers widened until I thought it might pull a rip in her face, and her eyes bore into mine so hard, I knew she’d gone crazy.
"Of course it’s me, silly!" she laughed, and that laugh sounded like it had been strangled from a horse. "Come in before you catch your death!"
Since when had my health become a big issue with her? I stepped into the house, scooting as wide a circle around her as I could. I figured I’d have to fight her. She’d probably killed the kids and stuffed their bodies into the washing machine. Before I had a chance to make any plans, I saw the man, and it sure wasn’t Doug.
It took me about five seconds to look him over and know who he was. He stood from the couch and put his hand out to me. I took it and gave it the most proper shake I could. I’d never had to shake a man’s hand before. He was tall and stiff, like a Ken doll, and I could see his scalp through his short hair.
Miss Bonnie stayed right behind me, so close I could hear her breathing. She said, "This is my husband, Tom."
I said, "I figured it was. Hello, sir. I’m Camille, the baby-sitter." I’d never called Doug "sir" but there was nothing about Doug that made a person feel respectful.
He said, "Hello, Camille. I’ve heard a lot about you from the kids. Nice to meet you at last." I nodded and thought, Alabama, as I live and breathe.
Mister Tom and I sat on the couch together and I could smell the after shave on him. It made me smile. I’d saved that smell for him while he was gone so Sam could feel close to him.
Miss Bonnie stood right there at the couch, chattering like a rabid squirrel. She talked about how much she loved bowling and how excited Doug and Nancy would be to see Tom again and what a wonderful evening they all were going to have. Mister Tom and I just sat there and stared at her. He didn’t say a word and neither did I. I knew what she was thinking. She was scared to death that I might spill the beans. She was putting on this great big performance called, "Nothing Wrong Here!" Liars all over the world know this routine. I’d even acted it out myself here and there. I did a better job of it, though. She must have realized that her audience was bored and her act was going nowhere, so she put her hand to her hair, smoothed it a few times, and hurried down the hall.
I saw her glance back at me once, through the mirror. Funny, the first time she ever saw me had been as a reflection in that very same mirror as she’d primped and fussed and tugged at the hem of her short skirt. Back then, I couldn’t get a word out of her. Now, her eyes pleaded with me, begged me with such desperation, I was surprised it didn’t shatter the glass.
I met her glance with my own. No, I won’t offer nothin’. That would just hurt his feelings. But if he asks, he gets it all.
Mister Tom and I talked a bit, just friendly stuff. The kids came in and fought for room on his lap. It struck me that, of all the time I’d known them, this was the first time I had ever seen them happy. They were squirming and giggling the way kids are supposed to, and Sam’s eyes sparkled. I realized that he favored his daddy. Same smile. Same stubborn jaw.
Before Mister Tom and Miss Bonnie left, he led me into the kitchen and showed me where the cookies were. He opened the refrigerator door and pointed to a case of Coca-Cola. He fished around in his pocket, handed me some money and told me to call for pizza.
I thanked him about a hundred times and said, "Mister Tom, my Mama says it’s proper to tell a soldier ‘welcome home’ when he comes back from war, so, welcome home, sir."
That man flinched as if I’d slapped him and he looked away fast. Instantly, I was sorry I’d said it and wished I could take it back.
"I meant no disrespect, sir," I murmured. "My mama also says I talk too much."
His eyes met mine and he said softly, "None taken, Camille. Thank you. Tell your mama from me that she raised a fine young lady."
I grinned, "I’ll tell her, but she ain’t going to buy it."
That made him laugh and I thought what a handsome man he was and what a fool Miss Bonnie was to want a greasy pig like Doug when she had a fine man like Mister Tom who bought cookies and soda and pizza and who could make a girl look twice at his lips when he smiled.
I said, "You sound like Alabama, Mister Tom. I ain’t far off, am I?"
He looked surprised and said, "You hit the nail right on the head. How can you tell?"
"Well," I sighed, feeling mighty important all of the sudden, "Virginia and North Carolina sound almost alike, but not exactly. Georgia purrs. South Carolina sounds like Georgia, but not as soft. Mississippi sounds warm and Alabama...well, Alabama sounds like they love to sing."
That really made him laugh so I laughed too. Then he said, "You sure don’t miss much, do you, little lady?"
"Not a blasted thing," I told him.
His face got all serious again and he said quietly, "I’m counting on that."
Sam, Tina, Danny and I played games that night. We played charades and Simon Says. We ate pizza, drank Coca-Cola and downed cookies with both hands. We talked about Christmas and vacation from school, but I knew the real cause for the joy in that house had nothing to do with the holidays. When a person is the rightperson, it makes all the difference in the world.
We didn’t do any chores that evening and, to tell you the truth, there weren’t any to be done. I was pure amazed at how hard Miss Bonnie had worked to get her house in order and I said something about it to Sam. He got all huffy and informed me that his mama hadn’t done a durned thing. That house had been scrubbed by his daddy. Every single inch of it. Seemed like Mister Tom had his own ideas about how a family should be run. On the one hand, I was mighty pleased about it. On the other hand, I had cause to be somewhat less than ecstatic. When Mister Tom and Miss Bonnie returned from bowling at ten o’clock that evening, my only comment--which I made to myself--was, "Damn. This is going to cost me money."
Miss Bonnie tried to drive me home but Mister Tom grabbed the car keys with one hand, my wrist with the other, and we were down the porch steps before she could stop us. I knew this dodge. It’s the one your mama pulls when her friend from work sees her at the JC Penneys. They start talking and you notice that your mama’s friend has a mustache even though she’s a woman. Then you start to raise your hand to point at it and you are turning your head at the same time to tell your mama, "Will you look at that? She has mustache! How’d a woman get a mustache?" Before you can open your mouth, your mama is telling her friend she really has to run and she’s dragging you down the pajamas and nightgowns aisle just as fast as she can move. This little dodge is called The Hustle and Mister Tom hustled me damned quick to the car that night. He about tripped over me twice, but we got away, leaving Miss Bonnie standing at the end of the driveway, watching us go.
On the way home, he asked me if the kids had been good and I told him they had, and always were. He asked if I liked watching them and I said I sure did. He wondered if I thought I got paid enough, or did I think it was time for a raise. I said I figured I could use a raise, it being nearly Christmas and all. He said maybe the raise should start that very night, seeing as Miss Bonnie got home so much earlier than usual. I said she sure did and five hours wasn’t nothin’ to sneeze at when you’re working cheap.
As soon as I said it--the second it came out of my mouth--I knew he’d out-slicked me, and it made me mad. When he stopped the car in front of my house, I got out and slammed the door. I heard the door on the driver’s side open and I turned to face him. He walked toward me and stopped. His face looked terribly sad in the moonlight and steam puffed from his lips in the cold night air.
I said, "You had no call to trick me. I chattered on like that because I trusted you. If I thought you’d be all sneaky, I’d never have opened my mouth."
"Doug usually drives you home?" he asked. I nodded. "Right late?" I nodded again. "Is Nancy ever with him?" I sighed and shook my head.
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants and walked--more like marched--back to the car. I know he was surprised when I got in and sat beside him. The car was still warm but getting cold fast and I asked Mister Tom to start the engine.
When the chill eased off, I cleared my throat a few times and said, "Mister Tom, I ain’t going to talk about Miss Bonnie. In the first place, she ain’t here. In the second place, if I could figure it out, you can, too. Mister Tom, I just want you to know that you have three really nice kids who love you. Sam is crazy about you and Tina needs someone to show her that not all men are like Doug. It ain’t right for Danny to sleep night after night in a bed all cold and dripping with piss. He needs someone to take him in hand and teach him things. I like your kids," I said as I reached for the door handle. "As far as I can see, kids do a better job at loving than grown-ups do. That’s because kids love with their whole selves. I just wanted to tell you that."
He didn’t say a single word to me. I got out, shut the door and watched him through the window. He just sat there, staring at nothing, it seemed. Then, he put the car into gear and drove away. I never saw Mister Tom again, but I knew I’d been wrong about something. Daddies can love as much as mamas can. Sometimes, more.
All that week, I wanted to call over there, just to see what was going on and make sure the kids were all right. If you have ever been a kid living in a house with two grown-ups circling each other all the time, you know exactly why Sam, Tina and Danny plagued my mind. Finally, on Saturday, I did call. But no one answered the phone. And I let it ring about a million times. I called again on Sunday. Same thing. On Monday, I went over there and knocked on the door. Nothing. On Tuesday, my brother told me he’d seen a "for sale" sign out front of Miss Bonnie’s house. Suddenly, I was scared for Wednesday to come.
When it finally did, I had to almost drag myself over there. My legs felt like they were full of wet sand and my chest was all thick like it gets when I have cry locked up inside it. Every house on the street except Miss Bonnie’s sparkled with Christmas lights. Her house looked like a big, black emptiness all hunched in the dark. Even from the driveway, I could tell no one was home. Some houses grow old and become haunted with ghosts that sneak around and wail and fly in and out of the windows at night. But I knew that, if Miss Bonnie’s house ever grew old and haunted, the ghosts would just sit alone in the closets and sigh.
"Hello!" someone called to me and I about jumped out of my skin. When I turned around, I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk. She smiled and I smiled back, but only to be polite. I don’t appreciate it when folks sneak up on me like that. Especially not when I’m thinking about haunted houses. She said she was Miss Bonnie’s across-the-street neighbor.
"You’re the baby-sitter?" she asked. I said I was. "Well, then you’re out of work," she told me and seemed almost pleased to be saying it. "They’re gone."
"Gone where?" I asked.
"Well," she said, "I don’t know where Bonnie went, but he took the children and went back to Alabama, I hear."
I took a deep breath and sort of sighed, "All righty. I expect I’d better be going, then."
I started down the sidewalk, past all the happy houses. I could smell wood smoke coming from some of them and imagined all those mamas and daddies and kids snuggled in front of their fireplaces, being so safe and warm and not knowing that Sam and Tina and Danny were gone.
It was for the best, I knew. Those sorry kids had ruined my life, anyhow. I’d taken to thieving on their account and what about my grades? Just when was a person supposed to study? I had better things to do on a Wednesday night than baby-sit ‘til all hours.
I couldn’t get away from that house fast enough. With my face wet and all the Christmas lights a blur, I started to run. The awful sound of someone crying filled the air around me and followed me all the way home.