Mira finds a sitter to watch her children after school, but she has serious trust issues; by Ellen Davis Sullivan.
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When Mira Goldbaum sent an e-blast to her Pinewood neighbors, she asked for a teenager. She only needed help for half an hour each day. She wanted a responsible person to meet her children at the bus, which stopped along a busy road at the opening of their cul-de-sac. Not that she thought Jonah or Hallie would dart into traffic. Still, they were too young to be home alone, even for half an hour.
It would be perfect for a kid without activities – although in Westover that would be quite a find. High school students here spent the hours after classes anxiously pursuing whatever accomplishment might be catnip to elite colleges: composing microtonal music, leading the robotics team in cut-throat competitions, interning in environmental science at the local community college. Her own kids had already started activities, seven-year-old Hallie in a weekly dance class, and ten-year-old Jonah on a soccer team – although they’d allowed Jonah to quit soccer in the spring after he announced, “The whole point is to get a ball in a net without using the parts of your body designed to do that.” Her husband, Sam, an assistant principal and beloved basketball coach, had tried to persuade their son to stick with it, since soccer was the only non-screen game he’d ever shown any interest in, but Jonah’s repeated cry, “It’s futile. Futile!” caused Sam to doubt his own motivational abilities, and to look at Jonah with more than a little sadness. Or so it seemed to Mira.
She waited two days for a reply to her email then told Sam she’d gotten no takers.
“What about my mom?” he said.
“She doesn’t drive when it snows.” This was true. It was also an excuse. Last month when Mira told her mother-in-law that she was going back to work in September, Edie said, “Is it really worth it? The only good thing about your job is you get summers off and you’re home before the kids.” Mira chose not to remind Edie that they couldn’t afford their mortgage payments on Sam’s salary without the income from her job as a part-time paralegal. She also didn’t mention that in order to get her boss to let her take another summer off despite home sales being on fire, she’d agreed to add half an hour to her workday.
Mira felt a rising edge as she pulled out the kids’ backpacks and stuffed their hoodies into the washing machine. School started in six days, and she had no plan for the extra half hours when she’d be at the office.
She was browsing a cooking site, amazed at people who rated a dish after they’d substituted three different ingredients for the ones they were supposed to use, when a rater mentioned a recipe newsletter going to spam. Mira checked her folder and found a note that had added to her original subject the words, Not a Teenager. She clicked on it.
hi, Mira, I’m sure I’m not who you’re looking for, but I’d be pleased to meet your children at the bus. What do you do? I’m a retired potter, if you can ever retire from pottery. I mean no one gives you a gold watch, so who’s to say any day now I might not fire up the old wheel and give it a spin. I’m available as soon as school starts, not that I know when that is – calendar emoji followed by five question marks. Peace out, Sandy Rosenberg 978-555-4167.
Since Sandy had hit reply all, anyone in the neighborhood who didn’t have her cell number before had it now.
Mira’s relief at finding someone was undercut by the note, which seemed a little off. Though maybe it wasn’t that strange if Sandy was in the generation who still mostly communicated by actual telephone calls. Which could explain replying to the whole list, though things like that happened to Mira now and then, usually not when she was giving her phone number to a stranger.
They arranged for Sandy to come over in an hour. When her car pulled into the driveway with a rough rumble, Mira was standing behind the family room shade where she could sneak a glimpse before Sandy reached the front door. Sandy was stoop-shouldered and had clearly been tall before her spine compressed. She moved at a regal pace, her gaze fixed on the walkway as if she knew the risks of an upturned brick. Her yellow-white hair was styled in a pageboy. She wore black slacks, a cream-colored tunic and black leather sneakers, a real outfit, unlike Mira in her weekend uniform of yoga pants and tee shirt.
When Mira opened the door, Sandy gazed at her with clear, pale eyes, and a smile belying any worries.
“Pleased to meet you,” she said, offering her hand, a curve of knobby fingers, to Mira, who pressed it gently.
The ordinariness of Sandy in person reassured Mira. She led her to the family room where the kids sat whispering. “Hallie and Jonah, meet Sandy.”
Jonah kept his hand cupped around his sister’s ear.
“Say ‘hello’,” Mira said.
The children giggled. Hallie scrunched her shoulders down and clasped her hands together.
“Is everything all right?” Mira asked.
“It’s okay,” Sandy said. “You can tell her.”
“We already know her,” Hallie said.
“She fixes kids’ bikes,” Jonah said.
“I’m a whiz with a socket wrench.” Sandy twisted her hand as if it held a tool.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Mira stared at her children.
“We didn’t know you were calling our Sandy,” Jonah said.
Mira didn’t buy this. How many women named Sandy could there be in the neighborhood? Before she could challenge Jonah for not telling the truth, Hallie pointed to the beaded bracelet wound around Sandy’s wrist.
“I like that,” Hallie said.
“Thank you.” Sandy bent to Hallie’s eye level. “That’s a lovely shirt.”
Hallie had on her My Little Pony tee, which – as she’d reminded Mira when she put it on – was very old. “I asked for a new one, but you know how that goes.”
“Indeed, I do.” Sandy laughed.
Mira explained where and when the bus pulled up, and said Sandy should feel free to eat anything she wanted.
“I won’t be here long enough for a snack,” Sandy said. “Half an hour goes by fast.”
“Not when you have to study for a test,” Jonah said.
“Don’t worry,” Sandy said. “I’ll help you.”
The kids clearly liked Sandy though Mira found it strange they hadn’t mentioned knowing her. Still the woman seemed kind and not as dotty as her note, so Mira said, “I’m sorry to ask, but do you have references?
“You could ask my daughter how I do babysitting her kids. I’m sure she’d be happy to give you a list of my foibles.”
Sandy’s refusal to take this interview seriously caused Mira to smile. It was silly to be asking a grandmother if she knew how to babysit kids. Besides she had no other option. She hoped Sandy would accept what she’d planned to pay a teenager. “Would you take a check or is cash better?”
“Neither. This will be good for me.”
A doubt crept in. What did Sandy want if not a little extra money? She had her own grandchildren, though they might not be nearby. Of course she could be looking to fill empty slots in her weekdays. “Are you sure?”
“If I say it, I mean it.”
This claim to brutal honesty impressed Mira. Too many times, she squelched her own reactions to please someone else, like not telling Edie about the change in her work schedule.
In the hall, Mira held out her spare key. “They usually have a limit on TV time, but don’t worry about it. You can be the good cop.”
“Got it,” Sandy said. She opened the front door and disappeared.
Since she didn’t get references, Mira decided to do a little snooping. She could at least check out Sandy’s house. Working on closings, she’d developed a feel for a home’s value. She’d drive around Westover and look at the houses she worked on. She liked having a part in helping families realize their dreams. She hoped to become a real estate agent once the kids were older. She hadn’t walked around Pinewood since early May, before the Mother’s Day storm, back when she’d determined this would be the year she’d finally – seven years after the birth of her daughter – lose the nine pounds she still thought of as the last of “the baby weight.”
Her exercise routine succeeded until the day an elderly neighbor planting geraniums in his garden offered a forceful “hello” that stopped her progress. He told her he’d recently lost his wife. She said she was sorry. Before she could move on, he reported that he kept busy as president of the Westover Historical Society, which opened seamlessly into a monologue about the neighborhood’s history. His most interesting tidbit was that Pinewood had been the last land in town to be developed because the area was so swampy. “Some folks consider this part of Westover haunted since we have our own will-o’-the-wisp. In the right conditions, you’ll see a flickering light over the marsh. People used to believe it was a sinister spirit who led the unwary astray.”
Mira found this unnerving, but he went on to say it was only swamp gas, a natural phenomenon. She thanked him and hurried on.
Pinewood, the neighborhood’s main road, was a lop-sided oval nestled among tall firs with cul-de-sacs sprouting from it. Mr. Historical Society lived in the dead center of Pinewood and spent a lot of time in his yard. She couldn’t loop around without passing his house. Soon Mira stopped trying to rush by him. Chatting with the old man sucked up too much of her exercise time. Instead, she quit her walks.
Now Mr. Historical Society knelt, clippers in hand, chopping woody stems of rose bushes nearly to the ground. Mira increased her pace. When he called out, she kept walking, fanning her fingers in a quick wave. Turning onto Sandy’s street, she was shocked to see a large oak tree leaning against a corner of the house. The spring storm had been so long ago. Sandy should have taken care of it by now. It could seriously damage her home’s value. That wasn’t the only sign of neglect. Weeds ran riot in the beds around the shrubs. Three concrete steps to the front door were askew, probably normal settling, but they should really be replaced. She reminded herself she wasn’t here to evaluate real estate, unless Sandy’s lax approach to home ownership meant she wasn’t reliable enough to watch kids.
Still, Mira was curious. She knew from looking at fixer-uppers before they bought their house that if the front was this much of a mess, the back would be a disaster. She ducked into the clot of trees along Sandy’s driveway, a jumble of oaks, pines and low scrub, a finger of forest that reached out to separate one yard from another. A deep cleft in the earth, blanketed with moldering leaves emitting a musky odor, cut through the trees. She had to be careful. If she slipped, she’d tumble down the length of a flight of stairs with only broken limbs, damp leaves and possibly snakes to cushion her fall. She crept along until she could glimpse the back porch which appeared to be in good repair, although a large pile of what had once no doubt been fireplace logs were heaped under it moldering in disarray. A faded political sign and a rusted trowel lay decaying among the logs. A car drove by. The last thing Mira needed was to get caught casing a neighbor’s house. With no cars in sight, she stepped out of the shadows as if she were continuing a walk, pumping her arms to show she was out for her health.
“We’re not hiring her to take care of the house,” Sam said when she reported what she’d seen. “So what if she isn’t a balabusta.”
“We don’t even know that she’s Jewish.”
“Come on,” Sam said. “Sandy Rosenberg?”
“Even if she’s Jewish, what does that prove?”
“That she’s like my mother, your mother. They love being grandmas.”
It bugged Mira that this stereotype of the Jewish mother had survived every wave of feminism, causing her to be judged by her mother and mother-in-law on her ability to dote on, brag about and overfeed her kids. Not that doing real estate closings in a suburban law firm was a prodigious achievement, but it wasn’t nothing. And yet, she couldn’t stop herself from worrying about what her extra time in the office was doing to her kids.
“We could let them stay on their own,” Sam said. “Jonah could look out for Hallie.”
“If you think he’s old enough.”
“I think you’re getting awfully wound up about this.”
She resented and admired how deftly he made it all about her. For an instant she’d let herself believe he would make this decision, though they’d been married long enough for her to know better.
She was about to defend herself when Jonah raced into the kitchen chased by Hallie. He ducked behind Mira. She stepped aside. Jonah took off. Mira hoped they’d run out of energy before she had to do something.
Hallie stopped and wailed, “Give it to me.”
Jonah waved around his clasped hands.
“Mooooo-ooooom.” Hallie’s whine stretched to a note so bitter Mira was reminded of the cantor during her father’s funeral last winter, a wail that had reverberated in her for weeks. She hadn’t thought of it for some time, that melody that expressed better than words the longing she felt to see her father again.
“Sam,” Mira said.
“Kids,” Sam said, not glancing up from his tablet’s screen filled with fantasy football rankings.
“It’s mine,” Hallie said. “He stole it.”
“Give it to her, please,” Mira said.
Sam stood. Jonah stopped moving. When Mira pried open his hands, a tiny frog sat dazed in the kitchen light. It blinked then leapt onto the floor and hopped toward the cabinets under the counter.
“You aren’t supposed to go into the marsh,” Mira said.
“We didn’t,” Jonah said.
“He found me,” Hallie said.
Mira didn’t believe this. The creatures in the wetlands fascinated the kids. The mud that was often caked on their sneakers when they came in from playing outside was proof.
Sam raised his arms like The Swamp Thing causing the kids to giggle then he stiff-legged his way to the counter, the children on either side of him to corral the missing creature.
“I’m keeping Hopper as a pet,” Hallie said.
“Only if we find it.” Sam knelt to look under the dishwasher.
“You have to find it.” Mira pictured herself coming into the kitchen the next morning for her first cup of coffee, barefoot and groggy and feeling the squish of slimy skin under her toes, or worse, confronting the skunky smell of death. “It can’t live under there.”
“Hopper’s going to die?” Hallie began to cry.
“It was going to die in your room,” Mira said.
“I have a jar with air holes and everything.”
“She catches bugs to feed it,” Jonah said.
“You’re bringing bugs into the house on purpose?” Mira said.
“Lighten up,” Sam said. “This is what kids do.” He opened the dishwasher door and peered inside.
Mira wasn’t persuaded. They’d been over this before. This time she’d wait until the kids were out of the room. She couldn’t keep herself from warning them repeatedly about the dangers of ticks and poison ivy and Triple E, even though she knew when Sam downplayed it all, he sounded brave and she was the wuss.
“Daddy, I’m going up to get my jar,” Hallie said. “You find Hopper.”
“I’d love to, Honey, but I’m afraid it’s gotten where we can’t reach.” Sam opened the door of the cabinet under the sink and looked in.
“I bet Sandy will find it,” Jonah said.
“Of course,” Hallie said.
Mira started. “Why do you say that?”
“Sandy can do anything,” Jonah said.
“When you fall off your bike, she makes scrapes disappear,” Hallie said.
“With Band-Aids?” Mira didn’t see how else a scrape could disappear.
“She’s got special goop that works like an eraser.” Jonah waved his hand over his arm ending with a flourish.
Though Hallie’s beatific upturned face suggested more than normal first aid, Mira pictured Sandy wielding an ordinary tube of ointment like a wand. No doubt her true magic lay in knowing how to calm a tearful child.
Apparently content that Sandy would solve their frog problem, Hallie and Jonah ran off to fulfill their daily TV allotment.
“Guess that takes care of that,” Sam said, standing and dusting off his jeans. “We’ve got ourselves a babysitter.” He leaned over to kiss Mira, his hands sliding across her back.
She wanted his arms around her, but she pulled back to see him eye-to-eye. “You don’t think it’s weird they didn’t tell us all this about her?”
Sam nestled his nose against her ear. “Kids love secrets,” he whispered.
When he pressed his lips to hers, from under the counter Mira heard a faint croak.
On the first day of school, Mira knew Sandy would be there when she got home because she’d asked a neighbor to text her when Sandy showed up at the bus stop. The kids sat on either side of her on the family room sofa, Jonah playing with his phone, Hallie with her toy laptop. Sandy held a copy of the weekly magazine Mira subscribed to, but never found time to read. She tried to remember the last time the kids sat like that with her.
“How’d it go?” she asked, half hoping to hear of a near disaster.
“Terrific,” Sandy said with such enthusiasm Mira could picture emojis falling from her lips.
“She found Hopper!” Hallie said.
“Alive?” Mira tried to count the days since the frog disappeared.
“She revived him,” Jonah said. “It’s a miracle!”
“Not really,” Sandy said. “Frogs go dormant in winter. That’s what Hopper did. It just took a little coaxing and a bit of water to wake him up.”
Mira had never heard of hibernating frogs, but what did she know about reptiles? If frogs were reptiles. “Be sure to keep it in the jar.”
“I’ve got a small tank I’ll bring over tomorrow,” Sandy said.
Oddly, this was the first moment Mira realized Sandy would be in the house every day. That was what she wanted, but it still caused her a pang of regret.
Each afternoon when Mira came home and the house was in the same hectic non-order as when she left, she breathed easier. On the second Friday, the scent of cooked sugar drew her into the family room where Jonah licked orange-colored jam from his fingers, while Hallie’s pink tongue circled her lips clearing away crumbs. A plate of rugelach sat on a tray table, clearly the cause of the kids’ preening. This struck Mira as peculiar since Hallie normally refused to eat food with nuts and Jonah had recently declared raisins “repulsive.”
“Have one,” Sandy said.
Mira picked out a cookie. The dense cream cheese pastry coated her tongue with pure richness. She pictured the shoebox in the pantry with her grandmother’s recipes, the ones she never had the energy to make.
“Delicious,” she said.
“They’re my granddaughter’s favorite,” Sandy said.
Mira hadn’t told Sandy about the limit on sweets before dinner. Bringing it up now would seem churlish. Instead, she waited until Sandy left then said to the kids, “You know you aren’t supposed to eat more than one cookie after school.”
“We didn’t want to be rude,” Jonah said.
“She baked them herself,” Hallie said, her eyes wide as if this were a marvel even more impressive than bringing Hopper back to life.
The next week went as smoothly as the first two, although Mira was feeling guilty about taking Sandy’s time for free since there’d been a day when she got stuck in a closing, and arrived home late. She told Sam she thought they should insist on paying.
“She’s enjoying it,” Sam said.
“You really don’t get how wound up the kids are when they get off the bus.”
“I get home as soon as I can.” Sam’s high school was in an old mill town twenty miles from Westover. Each day when he came home late, he complained about traffic, though Mira suspected from the sets of sweaty gym clothes in the laundry hamper during the off season that he often spent time after school playing Horse against the kids on his team who didn’t have parents waiting for them at home.
“Besides, it’s only half an hour,” Sam said. “She doesn’t have to nag them about schoolwork. She doesn’t have to make sure they don’t zone out on TV. And she’s bribing them with home-baked cookies. It could go on forever.”
But it couldn’t.
The next Wednesday when Mira came into the kitchen, Sandy and the kids stood at the sink, their backs to her. They were examining several dark fluted mushrooms laid out on a paper towel.
“Look, Mom,” Jonah said. “Black Trumpets.”
“We picked them ourselves,” Hallie said.
“How do you know they’re okay to eat?” Mira set down her carryall.
“They’re divine,” Sandy said.
Mira swept the hair back from Hallie’s forehead and bent, pressing her lips to her daughter’s skin, smooth as a flannel sheet.
“They’re Black Trumpets,” Sandy said, as if Mira must not have heard.
“You can’t be sure, though,” Mira reached out to hug Jonah who backed away.
“I’m quite sure,” Sandy said, taking a mushroom and biting it in half. “See?”
“Let me,” Jonah said.
Sandy dropped the other half in his palm. He popped it in his mouth.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Mira said. “Give me that.”
Jonah chewed vigorously and swallowed.
“I know what I’m talking about.” Sandy flicked a clump dirt off a mushroom with her fingernail.
“I’m sure you think you do,” Mira said.
“Think I do?”
“Run up to your rooms,” Mira said, pushing Hallie toward the front hall.
“I didn’t get any.” Hallie whimpered as she trudged head down toward the stairs.
“See you tomorrow,” Jonah said following his sister.
“These are edible,” Sandy said. “Just because you don’t know it, doesn’t mean your kids shouldn’t.”
Mira did not admire Sandy’s honesty as much as she had at first. This mushroom business was outrageous, exposing the kids to possible poisons.
Sandy wadded the paper towel around the mushrooms and unzipped her fanny pack.
“Here,” Mira yanked a grocery bag from a quilted sac hanging on the wall and thrust it at Sandy. She was furious that Sandy had defied her in front of the kids.
Sandy wedged the bag into her pack. At the front door, she turned. The kids sat on the landing. “Remember,” she held up her index finger. “No picking without me.”
Hallie sniffled and nodded. Jonah saluted.
When Sam got home from work the kids were playing Super Mario Maker with the nerve-jangling music blaring. Mira told him about the mushrooms. Sam looked Mira in the eye long enough for her to realize how rarely that happened these days. She missed what she used to see in his eyes when he could tell she was upset: his desire for it not to be due to something he’d done or hadn’t done. Now, he looked as if he just hoped she wouldn’t drag this out.
“Do you really think Jonah’s going to get sick?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but he could and she doesn’t care.”
“She ate it.”
“Everyone knows kids get sick from foods that don’t hurt adults. Their immune systems aren’t fully developed.”
“Everyone doesn’t know that. You know it. Because you read about stuff like that.”
“I just want them to stay healthy.”
“And I don’t?”
“You know what I mean.”
Sam tapped the keys of his phone. “Here. An edible mushroom also known as the trumpet of the dead.”
“She’s teaching our kids to eat mushrooms that summon death?”
“I’m not sure that’s what it means.”
“She can’t take charge like this.”
“She’s an adult alone with little kids. What do you expect her to do?”
She didn’t know. Unease rose in her. She hadn’t imagined that a half hour a day would be enough for Sandy to have such a strong pull on Hallie and Jonah. Of course they knew her before school started. Who knows how much time she’d spent with them? “I’m going to talk to her.”
“Go for it.”
And she would, but not with the Hallie and Jonah around. They wouldn’t give her any privacy. Just look at how they’d sat on the landing waiting to hear Mira caught out as a fearful, overwrought mother. If they began to see her through Sandy’s eyes, they’d never listen to anything Mira told them.
Sunday morning after Sam left with the kids for their weekly breakfast with Edie, Mira put on her rain jacket, tied her waterproof sneakers, and set off under a thickly clouded sky. A dense fog clung to the marsh. Pinewood had no streetlights, so most houses had a lamppost by the driveway, but during the day almost none were lit.
Striding through the gloom, she rehearsed what she wanted to say: these are our kids. They live by our rules. She needed to find a way to say it that wouldn’t offend the woman who made it possible for Mira to go to work every day.
At Mr. Historical Society’s house, she admired the well-tended grass, leafy green trees, and the rake resting at the ready beside the garage door though there wasn’t a tinge yet of the red and orange to come. He’d thoughtfully turned on his lamplight or else he’d left it on last night by mistake. His absence with the light haloing in the fog had a disconcerting effect on her, as if he, like her father, had vanished forever.
Around the corner, Sandy’s house came into view, tree still leaning against it, beds not weeded, steps askew. Mira strode up the walk and pressed the doorbell. No lights were on inside. She glanced through the window. A stoop-shouldered woman with a halo of frizzed silver hair shuffled toward the front door, a gray cat curled on her shoulder. Mira started.
A light came on. The door opened. Sandy stood before her with her same pale eyes, yellowed pageboy, and knobby fingers. “Yes?”
“I was just -” Mira’s breath caught. Sandy could not have transformed in the seconds between passing the window and opening the door. “I… If you need help… with that tree, I know a good landscaper.”
“Thanks. I have a guy. He’s been going flat out, but he promised to be here next week.”
Mira looked past Sandy: no old lady, no cat.
“Does your mother live with you?”
Sandy’s laugh rippled upward. “My mother?”
“Sorry. I just -” Mira said.
“Yes?” Sandy grasped the door.
“See you tomorrow.”
The door thudded shut. Mira pivoted, turning her ankle on the uneven step. Hobbling down the walk, pain inched from her heel to her calf, the hood of her jacket flapped, her heart pounded. What had she seen? A trick of shadows? Sandy’s partner? But there was no place for another woman to hide when the door opened.
The fog condensed into rain. Cold drops plopped onto her hair, stuck to her eyelashes, clouded her sight. An acrid smell like vinegar rose from the decaying swamp. Ahead, a light flickered.
She’d seen something. She was almost sure. What could she say to keep Sandy from showing up tomorrow? She had no reason to give and no one else to watch the kids. She had to figure it out today, but she had no ideas. Sam would be no help. For now she had to focus on getting home. She swiped rain from her eyes. Was the light in the distance a lamppost? She hurried toward it.