|Oct/Nov 2012 Nonfiction|
My babysitter Wanda told the best stories because she stretched the truth until it became something fabricated, something she could tell with smugness and wit that would make people feel foolish for doubting her. She came to our house when I was in first grade. Wanda was a white woman who lived in the second floor guestroom and spent the day dusting the house and making buttermilk biscuits.
"Story?" she would say, her soft southern accent making the word ring. "I don't know if I know any stories."
I used to stand in the doorway of her bedroom, waiting for her to give in to my request. Wanda would watch me watch her, greedily taking in my hopeful gaze.
"But then again, I do have a funny thing to tell you, now that I think of it. It has to do with a man who went to jail."
"A real jail?"
"Yesiree," Wanda said, drawing out the word. She gave me a conspiratorial look and bent forward, whispering, "Except the thing is that it was all a mistake." She raised her eyebrows and leaned back, waiting to see if I would take the bait.
"What mistake? What was it? Tell me."
"Well now, let me see," Wanda said, putting her hand to her chin as though she was thinking hard. "I can't say without telling you first about how his house got caught afire in the middle of July."
"Fire?" I said, spellbound.
"Oh yes, a mighty fire. See, the man's name was Dwayne. Dwayne Smith. Now Dwayne had a strange habit of pacing 'round town square while he waited for his government checks to be cashed. He'd pace and mutter to himself about future events. Prophecies! Some people paid cash so they could listen in, because Dwayne never told a lie. Some people thought he was the Spirit incarnate."
"What?" I asked.
"A messenger from God," Wanda said, widening her eyes.
Almost always I found Wanda sitting on the rocking chair, sewing the kinds of things that one would find at an antique store. Embroidered pillowcases and cross-stitched pictures were her particular favorites. For the two years she lived in my house she kept her room clean, her narrow bed positioned in front of the black and white television set. There was one small window that let in a few hours of northern sunlight each day. The only sign of her hard religious streak was the Bible on the bedside table. It was the only book she kept in her room. No matter what Wanda was doing, she left the television running with the volume so low that the voices were hard to understand. Wanda did not mind talking above the grind of static.
"Dwayne turned down the money people offered, saying it was a sin to take it—that taking money made you a Pharisee."
"A bad, bad person. Jesus hated Pharisees. And so one day, Dwayne started pontificating about purging the blackened souls of the Damned and God's Will. That's when things started to go wrong..."
Her words allowed me to see Dwayne's pocked face; through them I could hear Dwayne's dry rasping, voice. The story possessed me in such a way that I, too, could stare at the smoldering ruins of Dwayne's house as he screamed, "God's wrath! Repent!" And that was how I would become transfixed, led through the mysterious corridor of Wanda's dark, fantastic imagination.
Wanda would make biscuits on the many weeknights that my mom would come home late from work. When the biscuits came out of the oven, they were crisp and brown, their hard edges sealing in their fluffy, dense centers. Wanda always wrapped them in a heavy linen napkin and set them into a small wicker basket.
"Is Dad coming home tonight?" I asked Wanda.
"Greedy child," Wanda said. "The vanity of desire is a sin in the eyes of God."
She was unsure of how to explain his absences. Even when my father managed to visit on his custodial nights, he often was overmedicated or too tired to eat. Dinners with Wanda were not something to miss, either. The basket of biscuits was always the last thing Wanda placed on the dinner table before she would sit with a heaving grunt in her chair. Then she would smile at my brother and me. That was our signal to pray.
"Thank you, God, for this very good food. And for all our friends. And let us be happy today and tomorrow and forever and ever. In Jesus's name we pray, Amen."
Every night it was the same prayer said the same way. Wanda told us that if we did not mean what we said, then something bad would happen. Wanda, my brother, and I each held our hands in our laps, our eyes closed as we repeated the words so often that I struggled to really mean what I said about food or God or any of our friends. After we finished praying, Wanda would smile and hand us the basket of biscuits.
"You want a story, right?" she asked, her voice brimming with an eagerness to tell.
Yes, my brother and I begged. Yes. Please.
My mom received a letter from Wanda eight years after she had left our house, after she had taken her stories and biscuits and embroidery away with the two suitcases she used to pack her life's possessions. Wanda had decided to move back to Arkansas and had done so defiantly, her voice quavering as she told my mom that she hated Chicago. "It's cold," Wanda said. "Everything about Chicago is cold. But the worst are the people. I see people everywhere, ignoring each other, so selfish, never willing to be a neighbor—to treat a human being decently."
That was Wanda's way of telling us that she was fed up with our house. My mom found Wanda's letter in the mailbox and let out a noise of surprise as she opened the envelope. "What could this be?" my mom said aloud. "What in the world?"
Wanda's letter went something like this:
November 16, 2001
I have had an injury and can't work. Now I am geting my social security and I need you to say that I worked for you and for how many hours each week. If you really want to know it is some somthing that happened to my back but I won't be able to work anymore.
My daughter is still in Rockford and my son is still working for Mack. He stopped by last week and has another cat in the truck with him. It is funny how some cats don't mind driving. They are both good.
I need that social security or else I won't have money any enough for the hospital bills I have now. Tell the kids I say Hello! and Wesley I hope he's doing well to.
Wanda loved to tell stories, but every now and then she liked to talk about the life that I knew—the one that she lived with us. "You know what your dad's problem is?" she asked when I was watching television in her room one time. Her voice had a barb in it that made me not want to answer. Wanda often developed theories for things that could not be explained, such as my father's mental instability. At that moment the public broadcasting station was playing the movie Dr. Doolittle, and I remember staring at the animals, my mind numbed by the black and white screen and the barely-audible volume. "You know what he needs in his life?" she asked, raising her voice to assure my attention. "God," she said, not waiting for a response. "The Lord. And I think I've been reaching your dad, little by little."
When Wanda talked about God, I was unsure of what to say because I did not think about God-related things. Wanda knew that I was not as religious as I should have been, making her eager to enlighten me.
"If everyone let Him into their life, then His presence would set all problems right. I can bet you anything on that one. Just look at my life! All from letting in the warmth of Our Savior."
Wanda did not like it if I lost myself in the television when she talked about religion. I turned away from the screen and stared into Wanda's middle-aged face, at the features lost in her grey perm and her quivering jowls. She snapped the television off.
"If only I could teach you children about proper faith, then He would show you the way. The way to miracles. What do you think of that?"
"I don't know."
"You're lucky I don't discipline you," Wanda sneered, pushing up her sleeves. "I was raised with a cherry switch. Pa would go out back and snatch one and I would hear him cutting it, making it sharp, testing it on the shed." Wanda walked to the bed and towered over me, raising her voice. "But I know you children weren't raised like that. Your mother raised you to be spoiled and full of sin. Do you think your mother raised you spoiled?"
I thought about my options. Neither of them seemed like the correct answer. "No?" I guessed.
Wanda raised her head, shaking it, appealing to the heavens, before she looked down. "God is watching you, little girl," she said, voice cracking, and the tears formed in her eyes. "And I'm trying as hard as I can to be on your side, praying that you will be righteous. Know this: if you tell your mom what I told you, I'll give it to you good. I'll tell your dad how spoiled his children are, so he'll never come around no more. Then you'll find out what it means to be a sinner." Wanda turned the television back on and went downstairs.
That night I played with the light switch several times in my bedroom before falling asleep. It did not seem right when I just turned them off. Wanda's words lingered in my mind and I made myself flip the switch until they went away, even as my mind buzzed with the electric shock of fear.
Lights off, lights on.
At some point I developed the habit of singing the song I had learned in church before I went to bed. I would slowly trace my finger against the top of my bed's white headboard, following the sloping lines of its upper edge:
Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.
Wanda approved of my singing when I confessed to her that I sometimes did that before I fell asleep. She smiled and grabbed me roughly by the shoulders, bending so that she was level with me.
"He works in His ways," Wanda whispered, her face so close to mine that I could hear her voice quaver. "You must turn to the Lord in times of uncertainty and fear. Let me tell you a strange thing. Now there was this boy I knew down in Arkansas. Lived 'cross the street. He used to fry eggs on the sidewalk."
"No," I said, sitting at the foot of the bed with the television to my back. "That's a lie."
"Swear to God. This was back when I was a little girl, maybe seven or so. Hey—just about your age! Anyways, one summer day I found this boy blacked out—just blacked out cold!—at the bottom of his front porch steps, his forehead cracked a whole inch, the blood coming down his face."
"Did he die?"
"Well that's the funny part. So it turns out, not only did he fall down the steps, but he had fallen from a seizure. And the doctors, well, no one thought he would make it. But there was a miracle, see. A miracle from God..."
Now I look back at Wanda and I see a person who was scared, who believed in a greater power that was beautiful and strong when life seemed hard. Wanda had a ninth grade education and decided to marry the first man who told her that she was beautiful. He deserted her so that she had to raise two children by herself in a duplex in Arkansas. As a child, the details of her life did not affect me so much as did her definitions of good and evil. Wanda always managed to look at life straight on, framing her stories in a way that would make people shake their heads and chuckle.
"You'll never believe this one about my son," Wanda said once. "When he was in fourth grade, that boy came dragging his feet into the kitchen before school. I said 'What's wrong?' and he told me he was sick. Forehead wasn't hot or anything but he said he had a fever. So I had him take his temperature and he wandered off, leaving me in the kitchen where I was getting breakfast ready. Next thing I know he comes back into the kitchen and I take out the thermometer. 120 degrees! And I told him, 'Daryl, if you were that hot you would be dead.'" Wanda paused to look from my brother to me to absorb our amazement. "Caught that boy right in the middle of his lie, I sure did. Turns out he had been running the thermometer under hot water!"
Her family life had been just another kind of story for my brother and me—entertainment over dinner. I wondered why it had taken so long for my mom to hire a babysitter who could cook well and tell us stories and stay with us all night. My mom would come home each day, bitterly tired and strung out from her work as a doctor. Sometimes my brother and I pestered her to tell us stories while she watched prime time shows about cops solving crimes.
"Mom, tell us a story, tell us a story!" we would say. "Wanda does!"
"I'm not Wanda," she would say as she sat on the couch, staring at the television.
After being turned away by my mom, my brother and I would run upstairs and knock on Wanda's door.
"A story! A story!" we would say, hoping she would open the door. Looking back, it is strange to imagine how Wanda must have felt. Sometimes she seemed happy to be needed and would open her door with mock annoyance. At other times she must have resented our desperation, our greed for connection.
While our mom made a point never to raise her voice in anger, Wanda's voice often exploded, escalating into a high pitch as she backed us into corners with her thick body. She was unpredictable, with anger like a ticking bomb, silent and still before it would detonate. The first time it happened was a month after she had started working for us, the month before I entered first grade.
"What do you think of your father's house?" she asked while she sat on the rocking chair in her room, embroidering a frog design onto a pillowcase.
My brother and I had just come back from spending the weekend with my father. He had bought a new house after forging my mom's signature and draining her bank accounts. The small, bright yellow house was in a middle class neighborhood just a short drive from my mom's house. While my brother and I loved staying in a house rather than in the ramshackle apartment my father had been living in downtown, I did not like the way his new house felt so crowded with large furniture, with bookshelves and computers and beanbag chairs. It was as though my father had bought his furniture without thinking of where it all was going. We had to clear boxes off of one couch so that we could sit down. The floor of my father's house was covered in papers and beer cans, the walls lined with unsteady towers of cardboard boxes. Everything smelled of packing peanuts and warm plastic. I sensed that my brother and I could not fit anywhere.
"Really," Wanda said in a wheedling, quiet way as she set her sewing onto the table. "I just want to know what you think of his house."
"Messy," I said, softly.
"Kind of small," my brother said, following my lead.
"Oh, I see."
Wanda's eyes turned to the floor as she sorted out her thoughts. When she looked up at us again they were blazing with anger. "So you think your dad can't take care of himself, do you?"
My brother and I did not respond.
"I know exactly what you're thinking. And I think it's unfair. That's right. It's unfair that both of you and your mom just treat him like some homeless, hopeless bum. Your own father! No forgiveness. No love of Jesus."
Wanda took a step toward us and seemed to stand even taller than ever. Her pastel blue sweatshirt heaved with her chest as she drew in deep breaths. That stout, aging woman seemed to take up the whole room with her thundering voice. My brother and I could not see past her, could not hear her trying to convince herself as well.
"Your father is the only one in this family turning to the word of the Lord!" she shouted, and then lowered her voice to a rattling, sunken whisper: "The Lord can see your pride and your mother's pride. He can see the meek and the poor of spirit and knows that you drive your father into desolation."
By the time she reached the Lord's name in her disciplining, Wanda's face was flushed, her jaws clenched with her fiery words. She trembled as she spoke. "You want your father to change. Well, open yourself to him and to the Lord. He worketh miracles. That He does."
That night I flipped the lights seven times—three plus four—just to be on the safe side: Lights off, lights on, lights off, lights on, lights off, lights on, lights off. Seven was a religious number, comfortable and safe.
By second grade I felt uneasy with my classmates at school. I always looked forward to being at home, where I knew that Wanda could make me laugh at her stories. While Wanda cooked dinner and told stories I would sit at the kitchen table, bursting into fits of laughter that were too loud, too relieved to seem normal. Wanda thought me to be a nervous child. Sometimes Wanda turned away from the stove to insist that I give her a hug, a gesture that made me feel both giddy and protected. Wanda gave the kind of firm hug that I received from my own mother less and less as time went on.
"If you love someone, let it show," she would say with her soft southern inflection, holding my stiff body against her enveloping warmth.
By fourth grade she was gone, and I had trouble being touched by other people. If, for example, someone would brush against my left elbow while I was sitting at my desk, I would take my right hand and wipe the palm against the spot that had been touched. It was a relief, taking that sensation back. Like I had cancelled something.
There was always something to get from Wanda's stories. A point or a moral seemed to structure everything in a pattern my brother and I learned to trust. We knew that Wanda would make everything fit tidily together.
Tall tales, my mom called them, but we did not see it like that. Wanda held us spellbound each time. Yet her unpredictable outbursts scared us. We did not know how to make her stop. Once I told my mom about how Wanda disciplined. She must have had a brief talk with Wanda about her role as a babysitter rather than as a parent. When I came home from school that day there were no biscuits, no stories, and no warm hugs.
"How dare you!" Wanda screamed, her face turning bright red. "How dare you lie about me like that to your mom. You are a liar."
My brother smirked at me as he set his backpack down. Wanda turned on him. "And you—you let your sister spin lies in front of your mother. You are both headed on the path towards evil!"
Wanda yelled until my brother and I were both crying. After that her voice settled into a volume that seemed dangerously calm, as though she could explode again at any moment. She hugged us quickly and told us to get ready for dinner.
"You will never tell your mother anything like that about me again," Wanda said, her voice quiet with an insistence that we could not ignore. She turned toward the kitchen. "Never again."
By the middle of fourth grade I had taken to counting things in sets of threes and fours—threes for good things, fours for bad things. For example: If I was walking to the dinner table after coming home to an empty house, I would count my footfalls—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. If I happened to reach the dining room table by seven, I would pivot my foot—eight—and then sit down. Or perhaps it was something good, something that would merit being done in threes. If I was hoping to get money for a Christmas present, then on Christmas Eve I would sing "Go Tell it On the Mountain" three times, tracing my finger along the headboard.
Jesus Christ is born, I would sing aloud for the third and final time, relieved to be done with my ritual. I wondered if it was what my mom called a "superstition." Lights off, lights on, lights off, lights on, lights off, lights on, lights off. Sometimes it seemed too much of a burden to bear and I looked forward all day to the moment I could rest my head against the pillow and sleep, letting everything go.
My fifth grade math teacher was named Mrs. Johnston. She was not related to Wanda—just a person with another letter in her name that made it sort of close. I often felt myself drifting off in Mrs. Johnston's class, unable to focus on the blackboard as she taught us how to solve for variables. She called on me once to answer a question when I was staring at the ends of my long hair, tugging out the hairs that looked split or damaged. I swept the hairs off of my desk as Mrs. Johnston waited for my answer. My face turned red. I felt like I had been caught.
"Maybe you should try to pay attention next time," Mrs. Johnston said.
Later that week, Mrs. Johnston scared me again. My class was walking to the library and I was last in line. Mrs. Johnston held the door open for the rest of the class and then closed it before I could go inside.
"Are you ok?" she asked, bending down so that we were eye to eye. I could smell the powdery stink of her heavy flesh. Her smell overwhelmed me. "Look at me. You're so distant in class. Are things alright?"
I was shocked.
"Yes," I said, my stomach lurching in fear. A teacher had never said something like that to me before. Mrs. Johnston held my gaze and then stood to her full height, opening the door so I could join the rest of the class.
"I saw you watching me," Wanda said as she stood in the doorway of my bedroom, "when your dad was asking me about God."
"I was in bed," I said. My face burned with the lie. I wondered if Wanda had really seen me at top of the stairwell, listening to their voices as they spoke in the front entryway of my mom's house.
"He will give you salvation."
"I've been trying to learn."
"I can see Him smiling on your face."
"What do you recommend that I read?"
"Mania," my mom grumbled aloud after my father had told her about those discussions. "Wesley is in the grips of mania and Wanda believes he has seen the light of God."
"Your mother does not believe," Wanda told me. "And maybe you don't. Maybe that's why you spy on your own father while we talk. But soon you will believe. You will."
My mom came close to knowing the truth about Wanda and the truth about me. Of course my mom was annoyed that my brother and I wanted her to tell stories that were as good as Wanda's. But she was also glad that Wanda was so entertaining. She overlooked Wanda's strange attitude towards my father because Wanda was such a reliable babysitter.
"It's a relief to have someone like her living with us," my mom said while she sat in front of the television. It was a commercial break and she had turned to watch me sitting on the chair beside the couch. I had been trying to tell my mom a funny story that Wanda had told us about her son's cat. I could tell that I was not as clever as Wanda because my mom changed the subject. I pulled my hair into a ponytail and saw my mom's eyes. She gave me a hard stare, and then flipped on the light.
"Ringworm?" she asked. She stood up and walked over to where I sat, touching my temples with her fingers as she bent my head down. My hair was thinning on the right side. "I want to look at you in the light. Has your scalp been itching?"
"No," I said.
"Your hair is patchy on this side."
I had no idea what my mom was talking about, but it made me worried. Or perhaps I did know what she was talking about. The thought made my heart pound. Living with a doctor had turned me into a slight hypochondriac. Disease seemed to lurk around every corner.
"Hmm, but it's not ringworm," she said, perplexed. She stepped back, looking at me, and then turned the light off. The television show had come back on. "Let me know if it starts itching," she added.
As I watched my mom, I felt ashamed without knowing why. I wanted to tell her that Wanda was not always a great babysitter, that sometimes Wanda scared me. But I knew that Wanda was watching, everywhere I turned, and that I could count on her. I wanted to tell my mom that I was afraid of things that I could not name. My stomach trembled in fear. I thought of the impermanence of things—of the voices of the people I loved that seemed to pass in and out of my days, perhaps to never return. In a haze I walked upstairs, past Wanda's room, and into my own. I sat at my desk and opened a book in the dim light. As I read I pulled at a single strand of hair until it soundlessly came out of my scalp. I stared at it in the light and my thoughts seemed to slow down. That was a single hair. One hair out of many. I then pulled out three more hairs, hoping for things to get better with four, for my mom to see how I wanted her to know things without me having to say them aloud: one, two, three.
I was never good at endings, like Wanda. But to be good at ending a story there must be a conclusion—an implied one—dangling like a sword above the body of words, the way that Wanda waved hers over my fragile mind. She always saw past me, never knowing how desperately I wanted her to be something in my life that she could never be. Wanda escaped from our house of disconnect. "Chicago is full of cold, heartless people," she repeated to me as she packed her suitcase.
But while Wanda pictured her life as a straight, vertical line, going from down to up, hell or heaven-bound, I was too clumsy to figure out where the conclusion was hiding. Wait, I wanted to tell her. I sensed that my life was bumbling forwards and backwards, tumbling into the quicksand of prayers like Wanda's:
In Jesus's name I pray-
In Jesus's name I pray-
In Jesus's name I pray-
Amen, Amen, Amen.
Lights on, lights off, lights on.