Authors: Penny Jackson
Tags: #Young Adult
Becoming the Butlers
By Pamela Brandt
Copyright 2012 by Pamela Brandt
Cover Copyright 2012 by Ginny Glass
and Untreed Reads Publishing
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
Previously published in print, 1990.
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This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to the living or dead is entirely coincidental.
To my parents
and my husband, Thomas Campbell Jackson.
The author would like to thank Melanie Jackson, Deb Futter, and Steve Stern for their support and encouragement.
That was the year I decided to become one of the Butlers. My mother was the reason for this pledge. She fell in love with George Vasquez, our building superintendent, and ran away with him the day after my fourteenth birthday. She didn’t even leave a note, and Pilar, George’s daughter, had to break the news to my father that they had headed to Spain. My father, when drunk (which was now nearly every night), would say that George and my mother reminded him of a bad joke told by a fat Catskills comic. My wife went off with the super, but now my toilet works. My super was super at unplugging our sink and plugging my wife. If I had only called Roto Rooter instead. At least that’s one less tip at Christmas. And so on.
When I thought about George, all I could remember was a stringy mop sliding suds across the lobby’s linoleum tiles. I knew there must be a hand attached to the handle, but I only saw George’s heavy black shoes, the laces untied and frayed. His footsteps echoed up and down the
stairway, and sometimes George deliberately scraped his heels across the floor, a sound almost like fingers scratching against a blackboard. I would concentrate and George, like a developing photograph, would slowly come into focus: a short, dark man handsome in a way I was too young to understand. His lips looked overripe, too pretty for a man like him, and his eyes had a way of following you, warm against your back, like a searchlight.
George took care of our apartments; repaired leaking pipes, set and retrieved rattraps, plastered cracks in the walls, and even fixed typewriters. He also mended the plants the building tenants abandoned: ailing African lilies, withered begonias, rotting rhododendron. George could make a damaged stem whole, breathe life into a withered cactus. He converted a back room in the basement into a greenhouse with purple fluorescent lighting, and I liked to go down there when my parents argued. The light made my skin look blue, and there was a smell in the room like chlorine. Next door was the laundry room with its constant rush of roaring water, and the leaky basement pipes dripped water too. I felt as if I were swimming in a pool or the ocean. No one took care of George’s plants after he left with my mother, and I crept downstairs and stole a lonely geranium. But my thumb was not as green and the geranium, like an abandoned lover, turned inward, the crumpled leaves dropping one by one.
But what I remembered most were the paintings. George’s works were stored in the bicycle room. Mrs. Campbell next door repeatedly complained about these paintings, claiming they took up space which rightfully belonged to Chuck Jr.’s tricycle, but she’d never dare move the canvases herself. George’s work looked dangerous to touch; tinged with acid. My father said the paint could have been spat onto the canvas, but I thought there was something so alive,
about those violent bursts of green, purple, and red. Once I placed my hand on a corner of the canvas and bits of paint, like tiny stars of glitter, stuck on my nails and wouldn’t wash off for days.
My mother always worked at home. Her first job was tie-dyeing T-shirts in our bathtub and making spin art, which she sold to tourists in Washington Square Park. But then the eighties came, and, as my mother described it, all the flower children went to Wharton and got high on bonds. Marriage was fashionable again, so she decided to cash in and become a wedding invitation calligrapher. She liked to listen to folk music when she worked: especially early Bob Dylan, her pen keeping time with the beat. A cup of herbal tea was always within her reach, as well as a bowl of olives which she nibbled at constantly. She usually wrote with five or six different kinds of pens, but always the same feathery blue-black ink, an outrageously expensive brand she could only purchase at a store in the Bowery run by a blind Hungarian émigré.
When I was nine, I accidentally knocked a bottle of this precious ink over the pile of envelopes my mother had so painstakingly prepared all afternoon. My mother dropped to her knees at the sight of her ruined work, and then plunged her hands into the wet mess as if her flesh could turn into a sponge. I sobbed inconsolably over what I had done, and my mother comforted me by claiming it didn’t matter, she would do it again tomorrow. But she never did readdress the envelopes, and told the bride’s mother that the package she had sent the day before must have been lost in the mail. The ruined pile was by her feet as she lied so convincingly over the phone, and as she talked she stirred the envelopes with the toe of her right slipper. I was astounded by her duplicity, and after she replaced the receiver on the hook she glanced at me and
said, “It doesn’t matter. The bride is only marrying him for his money.” Then she dropped the envelopes into the trash, humming along with Dylan.
So she was surely at home, “calligraphing,” when George came to mend whatever was wrong. This was the scenario I wanted to believe was real, and imagined over and over again as I tried to sleep at night. For some reason I chose a Tuesday in July; a hot, hot summer afternoon. Because of an overactive dishwasher that seemed to drown everything in steam, the kitchen was unbearable, the wallpaper sweated. The fan in the window blew in dead insects and fumes from overheated cars, ice cubes instantly melted into cloudy water. George’s shirt was soaked with sweat, and the first thing he did when he walked into the kitchen was to lean over the sink and drink directly from the faucet. Something twisted inside my mother as she watched his mouth strain to meet the rushing water, the bristles of his moustache shiny and wet. George’s muscles were taut, and his T-shirt slid up to reveal a smooth band of brown skin. He was probably surprised my mother was still there, and watching.
“I’ll only be five minutes,” he told her, thinking she was impatient for him to finish.
Suddenly nervous, my mother nodded and stumbled out of the kitchen. Back in the dining room, she tried to concentrate on her work, but the pen felt slippery in her fingers, the ink soaking through the paper. Behind the door she heard the clanking of pipes, hammer against metal. Then a strange noise that sounded like a plate falling, not breaking, but rolling across the tiles. She stood up and walked back to the kitchen, where she saw George unconscious on the floor. He had collapsed from heat exhaustion, his breath faint against my mother’s cheek as she bent over to take his pulse. Wet hair was matted
against his forehead. My mother tried to give George mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and several minutes later he came to, his lips, which I could almost feel, warm against hers. They both pulled away, trembling, stuttered apologies, and then without a word, resumed kissing.
Or perhaps after George regained consciousness he asked if he could lie on the bed and when my mother came in, with a pitcher of ice water, he took her in his strong arms, rubbed his parched lips against her neck, wound his fingers through her own, and brought her hand to his heart. I decided my mother smelled like vanilla that day, and her pale arms were the color of milk. George’s cologne, musky and a little ripe, like a damaged peach, permeated the bed sheets. Maybe that night my father’s nose detected something different, but he thought it was a new kind of fabric softener, and fell asleep as my mother stood over the bathroom sink, the Noxema on her face making her tears taste like medicine.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. My mother was always running away. She had eloped with my father when she was only seventeen. My father described the scene as “High Gothic in Brooklyn.” My mother had tied all her sheets together and from her third-floor window climbed down into my father’s arms. The wind was howling and the moon was full and at first their rented Buick wouldn’t start. But somehow they made it to Reno, where they got married in a chapel next to Sears Roebuck. The second time she ran away was when she discovered she was pregnant. My mother said she had only intended to go to the A & P for a carton of orange juice, but somehow found herself an hour later at the Greyhound Station buying a cross-country ticket to San Francisco. She tried to track down all her old friends at a house in Haight-Ashbury but only discovered a David’s Cookies store instead. So she
bought herself a Grateful Dead album and sent a telegram to my father asking for money.
Once, when I was eleven, I came home from school and bumped into her trying to hail a cab. She carried a large Samsonite suitcase, and wore my Mickey Mouse cap perched on top of her head. “I feel like going to Disneyland,” she told me. “Want to come?”
We only got as far as the subway. “Coppertone!” my mother suddenly cried, stopping right at the token booth. “We forgot the suntan lotion!” The phone rang as soon as we got back in the apartment and my mother spent nearly an hour convincing one of her clients not to cancel her wedding. “But the invitations are so gorgeous…” was her argument, and somehow the woman on the other end agreed that this was reason enough to marry a man she didn’t love. That night when my father inquired about the packed suitcase in the kitchen my mother stared as if it belonged to someone else. Sometimes she would disappear before dinner and not return till late, explaining she had a sudden urge to go to a folk club in Greenwich Village or a yen for dumplings in Chinatown. After my mother took off for a whole weekend to see Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park, she returned contrite, mainly, I thought, because her friend’s car had broken down somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike.
“I’m sorry, darling,” she began, holding my hand. “Everyone needs a little fresh air, and I suppose I need it more than most. But what’s important is not the fresh air, but how you find it.”
My father never seemed very bothered about these incidents. My mother had married much too young, he explained, and never quite grew out of her rebellious phase. “She’ll be back,” he always told me as I waited like a puppy by the door. “She always comes back.” But
George was different. She had never run away with a man before, and Spain was even farther than California.
At first my father, the algebra teacher, considered my mother’s affair in terms of a mathematical equation. George plus Elizabeth didn’t add up, and he tried to solve the problem with vodka. He had always drunk a little too much, but never during the day. Now, as soon as he got home from school, he would go straight to the liquor cabinet and down two martinis before he even said hello. Some of my friends at school told me that my father had begun to act strange in class; mumbling, swaying unsteadily, and dismissing everyone ten minutes before the bell. I was scared he would lose his job and just disintegrate into someone like the strange chattering man who lived on Broadway who supposedly was a former Columbia University Professor.