Before we had our driver’s licenses, my sister and I used to go for whispery cruises in my parents’ cars at night. There lies a letter somewhere, documenting her last gift, but too many cigarettes and probable fires have obliterated all that once was kind. We liked to step inside our shadows to sip the refreshing clean night air. Beside the wishes of sinking cans, starfish, and the ink of octopi. Beside you, Jennie. And all the streetlights still muted and secure. On a lonely little suburban street.
We can never be rebels again. But the rebel costumes were always ill-fitting anyway, the eyeholes beginning to droop.
I guess that was also the only summer when I actually had a male friend (i.e. we didn’t actually fuck!).
We must’ve looked funny shrunken behind the dash and steering-wheel, sitting on pillows. I’m still running inside somewhere. If I’m remembering the times: swans would fly over green velvet dresses. Then I still have to ask myself for a confession about the differences of friendship and love.
Sometimes a guy friend makes a move on me and I complain to my girlfriends about it (not like I had to kill the kids). I’d become a heavy drug user in the mid-70’s–which is something you’d tell your shrink to get his attention, then watch snake-bites blur in his bangs as I stir one hot finger in my cocoa. The shoelaces untie and put the broken children holding hands back together again. I’m a nanny. Did I mention that? But there are horrors somewhere, spiraling around at the bottom of the pond and untying my shoelaces to set me free of the drowning.
Were they ever really my friends? Not John. With John and I, he was always platonic. Evil wasps stirring in his pants; that was just my phantasy.
I shut myself away for the whole three years in Istanbul. And as I pack my bags to leave, I see the bridge shadow of no return. I wake alone and frightened, a blood-fattened mosquito hovering beside my split chin as the prayer call echoes out-of-sync across the Bosphorus. But I’m getting ahead of myself yet again in the thorns of thicker shadows.
Call me an au pair. That sounds such a candlelit mystery when standing beside the shrunken head in my nightie negligee.
That’s something you should tell your psychologist, I point out. But when my girlfriends aren’t there, I wonder why I was really complaining. Is it just that girls like to bash guys? Three felines come together in camaraderie. Treating them like an inferior segment of the species, and always only after one thing. It all sounds so stupid in hindsight.
Just one compliment: you were really a ferocious ghost chewing up the scenery of a telephone call forever shuttling back and forth through the dead television forest of nowhere.
A storm started up and my sister told me “quick, turn on the windshield wipers!” I leaned over and found the switch. They worked for a few minutes and then abruptly stopped, making a sound like a battery had died. She pulled over and panicked. I told her to turn onto a side street, massaging her shoulders as she wept. It wasn’t as though we could call our parents.
We’d been coming back from Phoenix Records in Dirtywater, listening to “Reel Around The Fountain” on the first Smiths record, stunned by the unique way Morrissey intensely warbled. I remember the cover with the jacked, half-naked guy in maroon sepia who looked like maybe he had been lifting while growing horny and contemplating a self-suck.
Jennie jumped out and fiddled with the windshield wipers, whapping them while kicking the bumper. I tied one of my shoelaces to a wiper and tugged it back and forth and back and forth.
There was a house to our right with all the inside and outside lights on. Two Dodge Neons were parked in the driveway and a brand-new jungle gym glowed.
“Or maybe we should just call mom and dad. The rain will hurt your hand if you stick it out the window when we drive.”
I can still smell my sister’s strawberry gum, her clove cigarettes, and the coconut oil she would put in her hair. It was like I was with her ghost, even then. I light another cigarette while swinging on the porch.
The nanny ignored our insistent knocking at first. Her eyes looked bloodshot as she cracked open the door.
“What do you want?” The nanny said. She gripped a crucifix around her neck intensely.
“…to use your telephone,” my sister said in a desperate, shaking voice.
“What…did your car break down or something?” the nanny said, sneering while lighting a cigarette.
The nanny motioned toward the rotary telephone on the kitchen wall. The wall had height marks and the names of children with cute misspellings, but my sister made no move.
I walk downstairs to the familiar breathing of the fireplace. The thing is: I don’t recall picking up the kids from summer camp today.
The kids at the house where I work as a nanny now are asleep and their parents are away. But just long enough for me to pull the nanny costume off. The tights. The negligee. The nurse mask with the droopy eyeholes. The bats swoop within the batting of an eyelash and I go dark, finally.
I never became like that nanny so many years ago as she went over to a squealing baby in a crib and aggressively quieted it by sticking a pacifier in its kisser. And nannies can’t nurse, but at least wet nurses can still drown in their sister’s tears.
The nanny turned to us sharply.
“What’s the problem? If you want to use the phone then use it.”
My sister explained to the nanny about how we were far too young to be driving and that she didn’t want to call our parents. She broke down and blubbered.
I will never forget the blazing smirk of recognition that then passed over the nanny’s face. She was the first and last person I’ve come to know that admitted to driving a car well before the law allowed it.
“I guess we’d better have a look-see then,” she said.
The nanny had me hold an umbrella over her after she’d popped the hood of the car and made my sister point a flashlight. She bent over and quickly pulled out a black elastic thing that was sooty and thick.
“Well, here’s your problem,” she said, trying to sound like a seasoned mechanic. She held it up to the flashlight, stretching it this way and that, and then said, “Hold on, I know just the thing” and then motioned us over to the garage.
She pushed the garage door button and then went straight to the back where she began to rifle through some cardboard boxes containing an assortment of little boy’s action-figure toys.
“Ah ha!” She said, lifting some kind of army propeller gizmo with a thick brown rubber band encircling it.
She forced it to fit with a few grunts and swears. Then she shrugged and said, “should work for now, but you really oughta get the proper part soon.”
My sister and I thanked the nanny as though she had saved our lives and performed a miracle. She was so tickled, in fact, that she couldn’t resist adding as we opened the doors of the car to leave:
“You can come inside now.” Only there was something about the way the nanny said this that made it seem more like a demand.
I am only a nanny and the children’s parents could turn on me and fire me in an instant. I could live under a bridge, forever running from a frozen forest and doomed to make love to the trolls for all eternity. It’s like a stake in my heart, but that’s what separates the flower petals from the rain.
I looked over at my sister in delight. She gave me a beaming look that seemed to say, why haven’t we tried this before?
We couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the nanny was about to giggle and make fun of us. She sat back confidently and acted like she had all in the power over us in the world.
John emerged from floating embers and thyme, but we don’t like to repeat that part of the history. Just as we will never speak again of the evil owls in the frozen forest. The air around him sparkled like maybe we’d just got stoned.
He brushed snow off his woolen trousers and walked over to the nanny. He unzipped his fly and pushed her head into his crotch. Her tongue slithered in the shadow on the wall above the cradle. After a little while he said, “ah jesus, you’re getting it all bloody.”
Jennie, can we tear down this scenery and run? We’re being hunted in the forest. They want our blood. Smeared on the petal of every flower, we left our scent. I froze the last meal that you made, Jennie. I eat a little bit day after day, sucking the freeze from the frozen you.
He zippered himself back up and pulled my sister by her hair from across the room. Rubbery hair can stretch for thousands of miles. They waded into the snowy forest closet with stacks of towels on shelves and a light bulb with a string hanging down which he yanked before slamming the door.
My sister didn’t talk about it on the way home. We got lost awhile in the snowy forest, but when we came back out there were rain clouds like before. I guess that night comes to mind when I think about losing her…the little voodoo dolls; the bloody bunches of hair (this was all before Narragansett). She dated him all through high school, actually. No, not the criminal. The crime itself. Like a locket stuffed with a fossilized child. That’s why nannies puzzle all the others. And why it’s so easy to remember all the bad times. When did the good times happen, Jennie, like in all those rock n’ roll and pop songs? It’s a rain that tears our hides apart.
It’s easy as clams when you brush there, which I can easily do all night. I don’t let myself grow comfortable. I guess that’s when you get hurt like a nanny. She just mumbled to herself and kept cooing to the baby. She even changed it twice like she had done it wrong the first time or maybe just some of the diaper got stuck to its skin. I remember many rashes, little cuts, welts, and red marks here and there. Of course I was one of the bridesmaids at her wedding and of course I had the most to say at her funeral. That’s something the love of her husband or the friendship of even her most long-lasting friends could never touch: our bond.
I wish I only remembered the best of times, but I’m a nanny too now. I guess that night was one of those impossible nights that you run from and get all torn up inside about when you feel yourself re-approaching it, losing control of that life you wanted to live, the sister whose hair you didn’t want to be pulled, the playing-house nanny you didn’t want to be, the bond you wanted to break free of now that she’s not there to support you with that look of the peculiar and the melodramatic, the inherited and the disinherited, the wise and the impure, the gelatin and rainbows, the bird cookies with funny faces, the breakups and makeups, the lost touch and touch-ups of quickly get in touch, the hometowns and last towns and lost towns and ghost towns, the look of camaraderie that didn’t make the moments sink so fast, always enough.
Nicholaus Patnaude grew up in the haunted woods of Connecticut. His illustrated novel, First Aide Medicine, was published by Emergency Press. His second book, entitled Guitar Wolf, was published by Eraserhead Press. He also serves as editor-in-chief at Psychedelic Horror Press.