- By Kelsey Ronan
- Thursday, December 16, 2010
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The circulation desk began sending e-mails with the rising numbers of my overdue fines and by the end of January I accepted that I had lost the battle against D.H. Lawrence. I had been holding onto the stack of novels from a seminar fall semester. I didn't read them and I flunked the class. Still, when the semester ended and Christmas break went by and the new term began without me, I kept the books in a stack by my bed, like maybe I would get around to reading them sometime, just to prove something.
But I never did. Finally, I walked to campus and let the books fall into the return slot outside the library door — Women in Love, The Rainbow, Lady Chatterley's Lover — the whole unread, unwieldy lot of them.
On my way out I stopped by the door to look at the bulletin board and a typed posting on blue paper caught my eye.
Babysitter needed for 7-year-old girl, M-Th, 3:30-8. Must be comfortable handling small birds, competent cook. Non-smoker, female preferred. Bring references to the Biology Dept.
I made a detour to the computer lab and spent the afternoon crafting a resume I dropped off at the science building. The secretary called the next day and set up a time for me to visit Dr. Pierson at home.
I drove to her house near the community college, brick with vines creeping up to the shuttered second storey windows, tucked into a neighborhood of solid upper middle class colonials and saltboxes with the snow shoveled neatly out of the driveways and sidewalks. Everyone here probably got their master's and had golden retrievers playing with little kids in the backyard, and they probably made it through the collected works of D.H. Lawrence, blushing appropriately at the outdated sexual innuendo and recognizing the genius of it.
Dr. Pierson greeted me at the front door. A long thin woman in a sweater with a scarf loosely knotted around her neck and hair drifting out of a lazy bun. I scanned my memory for her in the halls, but found nothing.
"You must be Anna," she said.
She waved me in, disappearing across the hardwood floors while I struggled with my boots on the welcome mat. I followed the sound of rattling cups and the softly enunciated, librarian voice of an NPR presenter to the kitchen, where Dr. Pierson poured coffee from a French press.
"Sit," she said, gesturing to the kitchen table.
Of the four chairs, one was blocked by a stack of papers, another by a bag of fruit spilling pears and nectarines.
I had lied like hell on the letter I left with the biology department secretary and listed friends as phony references, arming them with stories about my great work ethic and experience working in orphanages straight out of Dickens, wiping noses and fixing the lives of children with my limitless kindness and patience.
The only time in my life I had ever babysat was for the lady in the apartment across the hall. She banged on my door late one night and asked me to sit in her living room for a few minutes while she ran to the store for smokes. I ventured timidly to the open door of the sleeping kid once, a small lump of toddler swaddled in a cocoon of blankets, just visible by the light seeping into the room from the hall. Mom came back with her menthols and I went back across the hall.
But Dr. Pierson didn't ask me a thing, just if I took cream or sugar.
Instead she told me, "Edith's a little vulnerable right now. She won't be any trouble to you. She's a wonderful child, but she's going through a difficult time."
She studied my face in a way that I knew she was watching for a flash of alarm or concern, waiting for me to ask just what Edith was going through. I sipped my coffee and nodded. I have great respect for difficult times.
She proceeded to give me her schedule, outlined the duties I would have to perform — administering fruit with a sliver or two of brie for after school snack, dinner from post-it note marked pages of international cookbooks, no more than an hour of television from a list of approved channels. Could I handle that?
She opened a drawer and handed over neatly typed lists of all the phone numbers I might need (police, fire, a sister named Ellen in Fenton) and a timeline for how life should be conducted through the hours — 4 p.m. homework, 6 p.m. dinner, 7 p.m. take out the trash, 8 p.m. brush teeth.
Everything explained and certain, all considerations accounted for.
"Edith's going through a phase right now. She comes home every day and gets in the bathtub. She will sit in the bathtub for hours. It's what she enjoys. Let her have her baths," Dr. Pierson said. "Just don't let her stay in there too long. I don't want her getting pneumonia. Once the water's getting cold, make her get out."
I said it would be no problem.
"You're sure this will not conflict with any of your course work this term?"
"I'm not in any classes this term," I said.
She frowned. "Why's that?"
"I'm having my own difficult time," I stared back at her.
She seemed to respect difficult times herself and said no more. We agreed on a wage — far more generous than I imagined — and she gave me a front door key.
I didn't realize until I was home I'd forgotten to ask about the bird.
I arrived a half hour early my first day, knocking a long time before I let myself in to be sure Dr. Pierson was out. I moved through the house cautiously.
It was a house without fuss or sentiment. No wedding portrait, no pictures of baby Edith gumming a favorite toy or clutching mother's breast. The few prints on the walls were photographs of butterflies and flowers, zoomed in close to catch the droplets of water on a leaf, the texture of petals and wings. Up the stairs two bedrooms and Dr. Pierson's study, immaculate. I had imagined an extension of the professor's offices in the English department I'd visited when I failed exams or forgot to turn in papers and had to plead my sob story.
Stacks of books, papers falling out of folders and cascading to the floor, postcards from art museums and cartoons clipped out of the New Yorker posted on the door. Smarmy quotes from James Joyce or Shakespeare or whoever pinned to cork bulletin boards. On Dr. Pierson's desk was a computer and a vase with a few stems of pussywillow. Books lined neatly on the shelves.
Even Edith's bedroom seemed too utilitarian, the bed sheets tucked military tight. But on her dresser there was a gold birdcage in the shape of a Japanese teahouse, and in it a bird, no bigger than my fist, shrilly squawking. A green bird with a pinkish head and a curved yellow beak. It leapt from a swing to the bars of the cage, shouting at me and flapping its wings.
"So you're the bird," I said. "I'm the babysitter."
The bird squawked again and rapped its beak against the bars.
I shut the door and went to wait for Edith at the kitchen, readying a plate of pared fruit and brie. I cut myself a sliver. I'd never had brie before. If sophistication had a taste, I'd say it's brie — with a faint whiff of feet.
Edith came in, shrugging her backpack to the kitchen floor. She had frizzy blonde curls cut in a bob and a round face. A bubble of face inside a bubble of hair. None of her mother's litheness, but a solid, chubby little girl.
I introduced myself. She blinked at me a few times before returning to her coat and gloves.
"D'you have any homework?" I asked her.
Nope, she said.
"Would you like a snack?"
Nope, she repeated.
She kicked her rubber boots into place beside the door and bounced out of the room. I listened to her footsteps up the stairs, her bedroom door opening, closing, her footfalls moving down the hall to the bathroom. I crept to the bottom of the stairs and listened. The bird shrieking, then running water and a cassette tape clicking to a start. I slowly ascended the first few steps until I could hear a country twang and a man with a deep voice slowly singing,Hello darlin.
Nice to see ya.
It's been a long time ...
You're just as lovely as you used to be.
I sat down on the step and listened. Country songs warbling along and sometimes the squawk of the bird, a splash of water and Edith's tinny voice, cooing inaudibly.
I gave her an hour before I went upstairs to retrieve her. The bathroom door was open. I knocked before swiveling my head in the frame. There was no need for modesty — she bathed in a bikini, bright pink and yellow flowers sandwiching a pale globe of stomach. The bird, freed from the Japanese teahouse, sat on the shower curtain rail, preening wet feathers. A cassette player, battery operated, rested on the toilet seat, turning through the reels of syrupy country ballads.
Gotta try to find a way to lose these memories of a love so warm and true.
"Ready for dinner yet, Edith?"
The bird swooped toward me and I jumped — swearing, regrettably, "Christ!" — as it landed on my head.
"Not yet," she said.
"Is this thing going to bite me?"
She didn't answer. I felt its little talons picking through my hair.
"Isn't the water cold?"
She shook her head.
"Franny," she called. "Franny Anny birdie girl."
The thing dove from my head and fluttered to the edge of the bathtub, biting at the cap of a shampoo bottle.
"Ten more minutes," I said. "Then you gotta eat."
The tape clicked to an end. She reached over, flipped it and pressed play.
Hello darlin, nice to see you.
"Ten minutes," I repeated.
I was not quite a babysitter, but the winter lifeguard at the city's smallest indoor pool.
Edith came down to the kitchen in her bathrobe.
I cooked whole wheat pasta with pesto and organic peas for dinner. She ate with Franny on her shoulder, sometimes offering her a piece of rigatoni.
"What's that music you were listening to, Edith?"
"Conway Twitty," she said.
"What's your bird's name?"
"Where 'dja get her?"
"Oh. For your birthday or something?"
"Nana Lou died," she said. Franny sounded two sharp hoots in confirmation.
"I'm sorry to hear that. Was that your mom's mom?"
She carefully speared three pieces of pasta and three peas on her fork prongs, ignoring me.
"Well it looks like you're doing a good job taking care of Franny. What kind of bird is she?"
"She's very pretty."
"I know," Edith said, and offered the bird a pea on the end of a fork prong, as if in reward for her good looks.
She went upstairs to play with Franny without my interference. I cleaned up the kitchen and wiped off little green dabs of lovebird shit with Windex and paper towel. Dr. Pierson came in, asked a few brisk questions about how the evening had gone and bid me goodnight.
The only variation in our evenings together was Dr. Pierson's recipes. Edith came in every day, brushed me off, and got into the bath with Conway Twitty.
When Edith took her baths in the evenings Franny joined her. She settled herself on the dry ledge of Edith's shoulder or a bony island of kneecap. Sometimes she dunked her head in briskly, let the water slide down her back and shook. She'd fly up to the shower curtain rail and preen meticulously through her feathers, one by one. The process took a good hour — enough time for Edith to reach over and turn the cassette tape over twice and the water to grow cold. Without especially listening I soon knew the whole tape. When I was at home, or at the grocery store, or walking through the neighborhood, the songs played in my head. Edith was monosyllabic at best with me. The most I heard from her was from eavesdropping, holding my breath outside her bedroom or the bathroom as she took her long baths with Conway Twitty. She talked to the lovebird. What's that darlin?
How'm I doin?
I'm doin all right
'cept I can't sleep
I cry all night till dawn
"Franny," Edith cooed to her. "Franny Banany Anny. Franny bird."
Sometimes Franny grew disinterested with the bathroom and swooped through the house. She perched on windowsills to screech and flap her wings at the birds outside, soberly feathered compared to her tropical pink and green and free to flit from branch to branch, rooftop to telephone wire. For bird and girl I was near invisible — someone to clean up and serve dinner.
I didn't do anything while I was there. While Edith bathed I made dinner and after dinner I sat. I brought books I was supposed to read or took out of the library. It started happening to me a while ago. I sit down and read and I get to the bottom of the page and have no idea what it is I've read. So I read the page over and get to the bottom and it's the same thing. My eyes go over the lines but I can't stop myself from thinking about other things. Is this an example of post colonialism? Intertextuality? What does that mean? Why do I need to know that anyway? And if you know does it guarantee you all this — big house with shiny wood floors and an eccentric, well-behaved kid in the bathtub? Do I want that? Do the Moroccan cookbooks and the French cheeses come with it or is there some other class, some other book you have to read to get all this?
Once I asked Edith at dinner, "So what's with the country music?"
She stuffed a fluffy lump of couscous into her mouth.
"Conway Twitty," she said.
"How'd you come across this Conway Twitty?"
"Nana Lou," she said. "It's Nana Lou's tape."
I left it at that.
I was a few weeks into my career when I found Edith one night hanging over the back of the sofa, dripping water on the upholstery, clutching a pair of green plastic binoculars. She stared through the window into the backyard, Franny on her shoulder.
"What's that, Edie?"
"Pair-a binoculars," she said.
"I see that. Where'd you get them?"
"Big Boy meal."
I could not imagine her mother ever nearing a Big Boy. Another Nana Lou souvenir.
"Can you see much? With it being dark and all?"
"I'm tryina see a owl. Or some bats."
"I'd like to see, too," I offered.
"I'll tell you when I see one," she said.
We sat in companionable silence, her watching and me waiting.
"How long ago did Nana Lou die, Edith?"
She frowned, ignoring me, staring intently into the dark. Franny snagged a corner of the binoculars in her beak and bit. Tap tap tap of beak against plastic.
"I lost someone, too," I said. "My little sister drowned on vacation. We went up to Lake Huron last summer and she drowned. It's been 134 days."
I had begun counting the days — 1, 2, 3 — as a way of encouraging myself. I have made it through four days, I said to myself. Then it became habit, and without especially wanting to I found myself reciting the day's number when I tried to watch TV, or follow one of Dr. Pierson's recipes, or read a book.
"It's tough, I know," I said. Edith's round face was lost in the part of the curtains.
"I bet you have a lot of really good memories. And you've got Franny and your tapes — that's awesome."
"I have to brush my teeth," she announced. She brought her head back into the room, put the binoculars on the table, and wrapped her fingers around Franny, holding her against the lapel of her bathrobe. She went quickly up the stairs and did not come back down.
I picked up the binoculars and slid into her place on the sofa, staring into the relentlessly magnified dark. My eyes began to well with tears and I pressed the binoculars in harder, feeling the plastic bite into my skin.
Edith's baths became shorter as bird watching became a daily part of her routine. With her binoculars a thick paperback started to appear with her — The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds, pilfered from her mother's study.
She bundled up in her puffy cloud of a coat and pulled her hat down over her brows, took her book and went out in the backyard, circling a path through the snow and swinging her binoculars. She would stop sometimes to consult her guide. I tried to be useful but I didn't know anything — blue jays and robins and the odd crow I would point out and she would correct and say was a raven. Franny clung to the window in the back door, shouting at us.
I would watch Edith catch her breath, focus on one faintly trembling branch.
"What'd you see, Edie?" I'd ask.
She would be religiously quiet until the bird had flown off or disappeared in a nest.
"A finch. Maybe a sparrow."
One night I came to get her for dinner and found her balancing on the ledge of the bath, elbows anchored on the window frame and peering out, binoculars in hand.
"Edith!" I shouted.
She ignored me. "I think I see one," she said.
"See what? Get down from there before you fall."
She nimbly slipped down, bath-puckered feet landing flat on the bathmat. She darted past me.
"I think I see one!
"Where's my book?"
She raced down the stairs, Franny flying in pursuit. She went out with the screen door slamming behind her and the lovebird left in the kitchen.
I followed her out on the back deck, where, barefoot in her bikini, she pointed to a naked tree branch. A small bird with a bright Mohawk of red feathers tufting from his head.
"Yellow-bellied sapsucker," she said. "Male."
"Are they rare?"
"What's 'rare' mean?"
"Like ... hard to find."
She shrugged. "I dunno."
The bird was no less a miracle for this, for its easy accessibility. It was just a garden variety yellow-bellied sapsucker. The bird was significant simply because she understood it. She recognized it and could call it by its name.
Silently we stood together in the melting snow and watched the bird.
"Amazing," she said.
Kelsey Ronan hopes to pen the Great American Novel but for now writes and cares deeply about the city of Flint. She is East Village Magazine's community editor, writes for several other local publications and leads a creative writing workshop for kids at Shelter of Flint. She is a 2009 graduate of UM-Flint.
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