By Curtis Sittenfeld
When I started out volunteering on Monday nights at New Day House, it was just me, Karen, and a rotating cast of eight or ten kids who, with their sticky marker-covered hands and mysteriously damp clothes, would greet us by lunging into our arms and leading us into the basement playroom. Karen was a tall, thin black woman in her late thirties who had a loud laugh and worked as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. She once told me that she was the oldest of five sisters raised on a farm outside Columbia, South Carolina, and I think this upbringing contributed to her laid-back attitude as a volunteer. Karen and I had basically the same philosophy toward the kids, which was, We’ll try to entertain you, but we’re not going to give into your every whim, and if you’re annoying us, we’ll say so, and if you’re the type to sit by yourself, chewing on a plastic frog in the corner, we’ll let you hang out and chew as long as it doesn’t look like you’re about to cause yourself bodily harm. For over ten months, before I did the thing I shouldn’t have done, Karen and the kids and I existed in a kind of raucous harmony. It was the beginning of June when the third volunteer showed up.
As I punched in the code that unlocked the front door, I could see a white woman sitting on the bench in the entry hall, and I knew immediately she was the new volunteer. Because of how she was dressed, she clearly wasn’t one of the mothers, and because of how uncomfortable and out-of-place she looked, she clearly wasn’t a shelter employee. Once inside, I saw that she had bad skin, which she’d covered in a pale concealer so it was uniform in tone but still bumpy and greasy, and shoulder-length wavy brown hair that was rough in that way that means you’re too old to wear it long. She was probably about Karen’s age.
When we made eye contact, she smiled in an eager, nervous, closed-lipped way, and I offered a closed-lipped smile in return. I sat on the other end of the bench, as far from her as possible. From the dining room, I could hear the clink and clatter of silverware and dishes, and a baby wailing. The families ate dinner at 5:30, and we came at six, to give the mothers a break. That was the point of volunteers.
At five before six, Na’Shell and Tasaundra sprinted into the hall and hurled themselves onto my lap. Just behind them was Tasaundra’s younger brother Dewey, who was two and walked in a staggering way. Behind him was another boy who had been there for the first time the week before, whose name I couldn’t remember — he looked about four and had tiny gold studs in either ear. He stood by the pay phone near the doorway between the dining room and the entry hall, watching us, and I waved and said, “Hey there.”
“I’m braiding your hair,” Tasaundra announced. She had already wedged herself behind me and was easing the rubber band out of my ponytail, and Na’Shell said, “Can I braid your hair, too? Miss Volunteer, I want to do your hair.” Both of them were five. Once, early on, Tasaundra had asked me, “Can you do this?” and jumped three times. I had jumped just as she had, at which point she’d grinned, pointed at me with her index finger, and said, “Your boobies is bouncin’.” Then she and Na’Shell had shrieked with laughter.
The woman on the other side of the bench said, “Oh!”
“I heard them call you — you must be — I’m just starting–” She giggled a little.
“I’m Frances,” I said.
“Elsa.” She stuck out her hand, but I motioned with my chin down to my own right hand, which Na’Shell was gripping. The truth is that if my hand hadn’t been occupied, I still wouldn’t have wanted to shake Elsa’s. I had a thing then about touching certain people, about dirtiness, and I didn’t like Elsa’s hair and skin. Strangely, being groped by the kids didn’t bother me because there was a purity to their dirtiness; they were so young. But if, say, I was on a crowded elevator and a woman in a tank top was standing next to me and the top of her arm was pressed to the top of mine — if, especially, it was skin on skin instead of skin on clothes — I would feel so trapped and accosted that I’d want to cry.
“They sure like you, don’t they?” Elsa said, and she giggled again.
“Did you guys hear that?” I said. “You sure like me, right?”
Na’Shell squealed noncommittally. Elsa would figure out soon enough how generous the children were with their affection and also how quickly they’d turn on you, deciding you had let them down or hurt their feelings. None of it really meant that much. You tried to show them a good time for two hours once a week and not to become attached because they left without warning. One Monday, a kid was there, and the next, he wasn’t — his mom had found a place for them to live, with her sister or her mother or her ex-boyfriend or as part of some new program where her own place was subsidized. The longest the families ever stayed at the shelter was six months, but most of them were gone far sooner.
Mikhail and Orlean walked through the doorway from the dining room. At nine and ten, they were the oldest; boys older than twelve weren’t allowed in the shelter because in the past, they’d gotten involved with some of the younger mothers. “Can we go downstairs now?” Mikhail asked. Mikhail’s two front teeth pointed in opposite directions, so that two-thirds of a triangle formed in the space where they weren’t. In idle moments, he had a habit of twisting his tongue sideways and poking it through the triangle.
I looked at my watch. “It’s not quite six.”
“But there’s two of you’s.”
If we had been in the basement, I’d have said, Two of you. But I never corrected their grammar upstairs, where the mothers might overhear. I turned to Elsa. “The rule is that two volunteers have to be present before we go downstairs. You’ve been through the training, right?”
“I’m ready to dive in head-first.” She actually extended her arms in front of her head.
I walked to the threshold of the dining room, where the air smelled like steamed vegetables and fish. Scattered around the tables were a few mothers and a few babies — the babies weren’t allowed down in the playroom — and about five more children I recognized. “We’re going downstairs,” I called. “So if you guys want to come–”
“Miss Volunteer,” cried out Derek, and he stood as if to run toward me before his mother pulled him back by one strap of his overalls.
“Boy, you need to finish your dinner,” she snapped, and Derek burst into tears. Derek was my favorite: He was three years old and had beautiful long eyelashes and glittering alert eyes and pale brown skin — his mother was white, so I assumed his father was black — and when Derek laughed, his smile was enormous and his laughter was noisy and hoarse. He was the only one I had ever fantasized about taking home with me, setting up a cot for him and feeding him milk and animal crackers and buying him hardcover books with bright illustrations of mountain-top castles, or sailboats on the ocean at night. Never mind that I had student loans to pay off and was living with a roommate and never mind that Derek already had a mother and that, in fact, she was one of the more intimidating figures at the shelter: She probably weighed 300 pounds and often wore sweatpants through which you could see the cellulite on her buttocks and the back of her thighs; she pulled her hair back in a ponytail that looked painfully tight; her teeth were yellowing; her expression was unvaryingly sour. It seemed to me nothing short of miraculous that she had been the one to give birth to Derek.
Seeing him cry, I wanted simultaneously to apologize to his mother and to pull him away from her and up into my arms, to feel his little calves clamped around my waist, his head pressed between my shoulder and jaw. But I merely ducked back into the entry hall.
Downstairs, I asked loudly, “Who wants to draw?”
Several of the kids shouted, “Me!”
“And who wants to play farm animals?” I asked.
Several of the same ones shouted, “Me!”
“I suppose I can be a cow,” Elsa said. “Moo!”
She looked at me expectantly, and I understood that I was supposed to laugh. “It’s not acting like farm animals,” I said. “It’s playing with them.” I gestured toward the shelf where the bin of plastic figures was stored. “Either you could do the farm animals with them, and I could do the drawing, or the other way around.”
She walked to the shelf and lifted the bin. “Look at all these fabulous creatures!” she exclaimed. “Oh my goodness! There’s a horse, and a chicken, and a pig. Will anyone help me play with these, or do I have to play all alone?”
Tasaundra and Na’Shell hurried over. “I’m the baby sheep,” Tasaundra said. “Miss Volunteer, do I get to be the baby sheep?”
“You was the baby sheep before,” Na’Shell said.
“But I called it.”
“But you already was the baby sheep.”
“Na’Shell, be the baby chicks,” I said while I pulled the markers from the drawer beneath the sink. “There are two baby chicks.”
“Then I want to be the baby chicks,” Tasaundra yelled.
I passed paper to Mikhail and Orlean and Dewey and to the boy whose name I hadn’t been able to remember upstairs but remembered now: It was Meshaun. The paper came from the shelter’s administrative office, with graphs on the back, or letters requesting funding, or information about welfare studies from 1994. Everything the kids played with was somehow second-rate — the markers were dried-out, the coloring books were already colored in, the wooden puzzles were gnawed-on and had pieces missing. When the boys made paper airplanes, you could see the graphs or the typed words where the wings folded up.
“And what have we here?” I heard Elsa say. “If this is a panda bear, we’re living on a very unusual farm indeed. And an alligator? My heavens — perhaps the farm has a little bayou in the back.”
I didn’t look at her, because if I did, I feared she’d make some conspiratorial gesture at me, like winking. I wanted to say to her, Shut up and play with the kids.
This was when Karen arrived, holding Derek’s hand. “Sorry I’m late.” Seeing Elsa, she added, “I’m Karen.”
Elsa stood and extended her arm and, unlike me, Karen took it. “I’m Elsa, and I’m finding that this is quite the exotic farm here at New Day House.”
“Hey, Derek,” I said. “Want to come make a picture?”
As I lifted him onto my lap, he reached for the black marker and said, “I’m a draw me a sword.” I loved Derek’s husky voice, how surprising it was in a child.
The drawing and farm animals lasted for about ten minutes. Then they built a walled town out of blocks, then Orlean knocked it over and Na’Shell began crying, then we played “Mother, May I?” until they all started cheating and then they started chasing each other around the playroom and shouting and Mikhail flicked the lights on and off, which he or someone else always did whenever things became unbearably exciting. Just before eight, during clean-up, Karen and I decided that Na’Shell had behaved the best and therefore could turn off the lights for the night. Karen and Elsa headed into the hall with the other kids, and I washed my hands while Na’Shell stood by the sink, watching me. She motioned to the inside of her elbow. “Why you do it all the way up here?”
“To be extra clean,” I said. When I’d dried my hands and forearms with a paper towel, I picked her up and she flicked the light switch. Upstairs, the kids had dispersed. Na’Shell’s mom, who had a skinny body and skinny eyebrows and pink eye shadow and enormous gold hoop earrings and who looked no older than fifteen, was waiting in the entry hall. I didn’t know her name, or the names of any of the mothers. “Come here, baby,” she said to Na’Shell. “What you got there?” Our last activity of the night had been making paper jewelry, and Na’Shell passed her mother a purple bracelet.
“Good news,” Karen said. “Elsa offered to give us a ride.” Karen and I always walked home together. The shelter was a few blocks east of Dupont Circle — weirdly, the building it occupied was probably worth a fortune — and Karen and I both lived about a mile away in Cleveland Park.
“I’m fine walking,” I said. The thought of being inside Elsa’s car was distinctly unappealing. There were probably long, dry hairs on the seats, and old coffee cups with the imprint of her lipstick.
“Don’t be a silly goose,” Elsa said. “I live in Bethesda, so you’re on my way.”
I didn’t know how to refuse a second time.
Elsa’s car was two-door, and I sat in back. As she pulled out of the parking lot behind the shelter, Karen said, “They’re hell-raisers, huh? Have any kids yourself?”
“As a matter of fact, I just went through a divorce,” Elsa said. “But we didn’t have children, which was probably a blessing in disguise.”
I had noticed earlier that Elsa wasn’t wearing a wedding ring; it surprised me that she’d ever been married.
“I’m sorry,” Karen said.
“I’m taking it day by day — that old cliché. What about you?”
“Card-carrying spinster,” Karen said and laughed.
This was a slightly shocking comment. At the volunteer training almost a year earlier, it had seemed that the majority of people there were unmarried women who probably wanted children and who were nearing the age when they’d be too old to have them. This fact was so obvious that it seemed unnecessary to ever discuss it out loud. Plus, it made me nervous, because what I wondered was, was this the time in my own life before I found someone to love and had a family and looked back longingly on my youthful freedom? Or was it the beginning of what my life would be like forever? We were driving north on Connecticut, and out the window, it was just starting to get dark. Elsa’s and Karen’s voices were like a discussion between guests on a radio program playing in the background.
“And how about you?” Elsa said.
The car was silent for several seconds before I realized she was talking to me. “I don’t have any kids,” I said.
“Are you married?”
In the rearview mirror, we made eye contact.
“No,” I said.
“Frances is a baby,” Karen said. “Guess how old she is.”
Elsa furrowed her eyebrows, as if thinking very hard. “Twenty-four?”
“Close,” I said. “Twenty-three.”
Karen turned around. “You’re twenty-three? I thought you were twenty-two.”
“I was,” I said. “But then I had a birthday.”
I hadn’t been making a joke, but they both laughed.
“Are you, like, getting school credit for being a volunteer?” Elsa asked.
“No, I’ve graduated.”
“Where do you work?”
Normally, I felt flattered when people asked me questions. With Elsa, I was wary of revealing information. I hesitated then said, “A graphic design firm.”
“That sounds glamorous.”
“What’s it called?”
“Okay.” Elsa nodded. “I think I’ve heard of them.”
I doubted she had. The firm was three years old, and had only six full-time staff members. Before she could ask me another question, I said, “Where do you work?”
“Right now, I’m freelancing from home. I’ve cut back on my hours lately, but what I do is I help non-profits and NGOs with fundraising.”
Right, I thought. You’re unemployed.
“Like a consultant?” Karen said.
“Yep.” Elsa grinned. “Answering to no one.”
You’re so unemployed, I thought.
After Elsa had dropped off Karen and I’d climbed into the front seat, I could not help thinking — I was now alone in an enclosed space with Elsa — that perhaps she was genuinely unbalanced. But if she were violent, I thought, she’d be violent in a crazed rather than a criminal way. She wouldn’t want to rob me; she’d just want to do something bizarre and pointless, like cutting off my thumb. Neither of us spoke, and in the silence, I imagined her making some creepy, telling remark: Do you ever feel like your eyes are really, really itchy and you just want to scrape at them with a fork?
But when she spoke, what she said was, “It’s great that you’re volunteering at your age. That’s really admirable.”
I was almost disappointed. “The kids are fun,” I said.
“Oh, I just want to gobble them up. You know who’s especially sweet is, who’s the little boy with the long eyelashes?”
The question made my ears seize up like when you hear an unexpected noise. “I’m not sure who you’re thinking of,” I said. “But you can just stop here. At the next corner, by that supermarket.” It suddenly seemed imperative that Elsa not know where I live.
“I’ll wait if you’re picking up stuff. I remember what it’s like to carry groceries on foot.”
“My apartment isn’t far,” I said. She hadn’t yet come to a complete stop, but I’d opened the door and had one leg hanging out. “Thanks for the ride,” I added and slammed the door without waiting for a response.
Without turning around, I could tell that she had not yet driven off. Go, I thought. Get out of here. What was she waiting for? The supermarket door opened automatically, and just before it shut behind me, I finally heard her pull away. For a few minutes, I peered out the door at the street, making sure she didn’t pass by again. Then I walked back out empty-handed.
At this time in my life, I spent the weekends running errands; during the week, I was often so exhausted after work that I’d go to bed at eight-thirty or quarter to nine. Then on Saturdays and Sundays, I’d hurry up and down Connecticut, to the laundromat and the supermarket and CVS.
Sometimes I’d pass couples eating brunch at the outdoor cafés or inside restaurants with doors that opened onto the sidewalk, and when I looked at them (I tried not to stare, but rarely did any of them look back anyway) I felt a confusion bordering on hostility. Flirting with a guy in a dark bar, at night, when you’d both been drinking — I understood the appeal. But to sit across the table from each other in the daylight, to watch each other’s jaws working over pancakes and scrambled eggs, seemed embarrassing and impossible. The compromises you’d made would be so apparent, I thought, this other person before you with their patches of dry skin and protruding nose hairs and the drop of syrup on their chin and the way they spit when they talked and the boring cheerful complaints you’d make to each other about traffic or current events while the horrible sun hung over you. I could see how during the night people preferred the reassurance of another body in their bed, but in the day wouldn’t you just rather be alone, both of you, so you could go back to your apartment and sit on the toilet for a while, or take a nap without someone’s sweaty arm around you? Or maybe you’d just want to sit on your couch and balance your checkbook and not hear another person breathing while they read the newspaper five feet away and looked over every ten or fifteen minutes so that you had to smile back — about nothing! — and periodically utter a term of endearment.
As I ran errands, I’d wear soccer shorts from high school and T-shirts that I’d have perspired through in the back; passing by the cafés, I’d feel hulking and monstrous, and sometimes, to calm down, I would count. I always started with my right hand, one number for each finger except my pinky: thumb, one; index finger, two; middle finger, three; third finger, four. Then I’d go to the left hand, then back to the right. I knew this wasn’t the most normal thing in the world, but I thought the fact that I didn’t count high was a good sign. Triple digits, double digits even — then I might have worried for myself, but staying under five felt manageable. Anyway, it was like hiccups; after a few blocks, I’d realize that while I’d been thinking of something else, the impulse to count had gone away.
The following week, as soon as I entered the shelter, Elsa jumped up from the hall bench holding a grocery bag and, proffering each item for my inspection, withdrew a box of markers, a packet of construction paper, two vials of glitter, a tube of glue, and finally, a carton of tiny American flags whose poles were made of toothpicks. “The kids can make Uncle Sam hats,” she said. “For the Fourth of July.”
In the last week, I had decided that my initial reaction to Elsa had been unfair; she hadn’t done anything that was truly all that strange or offensive. But being in her presence again, I was immediately reminded of a hyper, panting dog with bad breath.
“Then we’ll have a parade,” she continued. “You know, get in the spirit.”
“We’re not allowed to take the kids outside.” Not only were we not allowed to take them outside, but if our paths should cross with theirs in the normal world — if, say, I saw Tasaundra and her mother at the Judiciary Square Metro stop one day — I was not even supposed to speak to them. I also was not supposed to learn their last names.
“Inside then,” Elsa said. “We’ll have the first annual super-duper New Day House indoor parade. And I have an idea for next week, too. I was thinking we could do a dress-up kind of thing with old clothes and whatnot. I’ve been cleaning out my basement, and I found some bridesmaid dresses that I’m sure Tasaundra and Na’Shell would think are to die for. So when you go home, look in your closet and see what you have — graduation gowns, Halloween costumes. I’ll swing by the Salvation Army this weekend.”
I thought of my own half-empty closet. Unlike Elsa, apparently, I actually wore all my clothes.
“Now that you’re here, I’ll go get the kids,” she said, and I watched as she walked into the dining room and said in a loud, fake-forlorn voice, “I can’t find anyone to play with. Are there any fun boys or girls in here who’ll be my friends?”
I imagined the mothers scowling at her, though what I heard was the screams of the kids, followed by the squeaks and thuds of their feet as they hurried across the linoleum floor to fling themselves at Elsa. I wondered if she thought that winning them over so quickly was an achievement.
In the basement — Karen arrived shortly after we’d gone down — the hat-making occurred with a few hitches, most notably when Na’Shell spilled the red glitter on the floor then wept, but it didn’t go as badly as I’d hoped. “Great idea, Elsa,” Karen said.
Elsa stood. “Okay, everyone,” she said. “Now we’re going on a parade.”
“I ain’t going on no stupid parade,” Orlean said.
“I ain’t going on no stupid parade,” Tasaundra echoed.
“You guys,” I said. “It’s, ‘I’m not going on any stupid parade.’”
“But that’s why you made the hats,” Elsa said. She set a cylinder of blue construction paper on top of her head — of course she had made one for herself — but it didn’t fit, and she had to hold it in place. “Do I look exactly like Lady Liberty?”
The kids regarded her blankly.
“We need a leader for the parade, right?” Karen said.
“Oh!” Derek’s eyes widened. “Miss Volunteer! Pick me!”
Pretty soon, they all had assigned positions, even Orlean and Tasaundra. They lined up in front of the door in their hats, their chins raised high in the air. As we exited the playroom — I was in the middle, holding Derek’s hand — I heard singing. It was Elsa, I realized, and the song was “America the Beautiful.” And she was really belting it out. Had I only imagined her twittering, inhibited persona from the week before?
We cut through the dining room, where the only person present was Svetlana, the shelter employee on duty Monday nights, who was either flaky or not fluent in English; if you asked her anything about anything, she would simply shrug. She was sitting at a table doing a crossword puzzle, and she blinked slowly at us as we walked around the periphery of the room. By then, Elsa was singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Mikhail was blowing a kazoo whose origins I was unsure of. From behind her, I looked at Elsa’s awful hair, her cotton sleeveless sweater, which was cream-colored and cabled, and her dry and undefined upper arms.
Back in the stairwell, I saw that Elsa was not going downstairs; she was going up.
“Hey,” I said.
She didn’t stop.
She looked at me over one shoulder.
“Those are the bedrooms,” I said.
“I think we should respect their privacy.”
“But look how cute the kids are.” Elsa leaned over and cupped Derek’s chin with one hand. “What a handsome boy you are, Derek,” she crooned. She straightened up and said to me, “I’m sure it’s fine.”
I looked at her face, and I could that this wasn’t about challenging me, that in fact, I had nothing to do with it. This really was about the parade; something in the situation had made her giddy in a way I myself had never, ever been — utterly unself-conscious and eager. Her chest rose and fell as if she’d been exercising, she was panting a little, and as she smiled, I could see her big front teeth and gums, I could see her mustache of pale hairs above her lips, her uneven skin, her bright and happy eyes. She was experiencing a moment of profound personal triumph, though nothing was occurring that was remotely profound or triumphant. It was a Monday evening; these were children; and really, underneath it all, weren’t we just killing time, didn’t none of it matter?
“Karen, don’t you feel like we shouldn’t go upstairs?” I said.
“Ehh — I don’t think anyone would mind.”
I stared between them. I had felt certain that Karen would agree with me.
“Don’t worry so much.” Elsa punched my shoulder. “It’ll give you wrinkles.”
The second floor was a corridor with two rooms on either side, like a dorm, but none of the rooms had any doors. Inside the rooms were bunk beds, as many as four in a row; I knew they made the families double up. The first room on the right was empty. I glanced through the doorway on the left and saw Mikhail’s mother slouched on a bottom bunk, leaning against the wall, nursing her daughter. The baby was turning her head so her mouth was not actually clamped around the nipple, and as I glanced away from the huge, pale, veiny breast, my eyes met Mikhail’s mother’s. Her mouth was pursed contemptuously, and her eyebrows were raised, as if to say, So you enjoy looking at my tit? I kept walking.
In the second room on the left, two mothers were sleeping. As I passed that doorway, continuing to follow Elsa who was still singing and Mikhail who was still playing the kazoo, one of the mothers rolled over, and I hurried by — let her see someone else when she looked out to see who’d awakened her. In the last room on the right, Elsa found the audience she’d been searching for. She knocked ceremoniously on the doorframe.
“Excuse me, ladies,” she said. “I have with me a group of patriots eager to show you their artistic creations. Will you permit us to enter?”
A pause followed, and then one woman said, “You want to, you can come in.”
We filed into the room–there were so many of us that Karen had to remain in the hall — and I saw that Derek’s mother and Orlean’s mother were sitting on the floor with a basket of laundry between them and piles of folded clothes set in stacks on a lower bunk.
Derek yelled, “Mama!” and tumbled into her lap.
“Would someone like to say the Pledge of Allegiance?” Elsa looked around at the children. “Who knows the Pledge of Allegiance? ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag…’”
“‘…of the United States of America,’” Orlean said, but then he didn’t continue; only Elsa did.
It was excruciating. When she got to the end, the room was silent, and I couldn’t look at the mothers. How loud and earnest we must have seemed to them, how moronically bourgeois, clutching at their children. I started clapping, because I didn’t know what else to do, and then the kids clapped, too.
It wasn’t just that the mothers intimidated me; it was also that, in a strange way, they inspired my envy. I’d once heard Na’Shell’s and Dewey’s mother having an argument on the pay phone about buying diapers, and as she yelled and cursed, I couldn’t help but be impressed by her sheer forcefulness. The mothers’ lives were complicated and unwieldy. They had debts and addictions, and most of all, they had children, who had come from having sex, and if sex didn’t always co-exist with love, well, at least it did some of the time. Even when they lived in New Day, a place where men were prohibited from entering, love found these women: romantic entanglements, problems you thought about hard while sitting on the front steps smoking. Other people were so unsuccessful in fending off love! Congressmen or senators who had adulterous affairs with their aides, or students I’d known slightly in college, girls who as freshmen declared themselves lesbians and then graduated with boyfriends — to give into love represented, for them, a capitulation or a betrayal, yet apparently the pull was so strong that they couldn’t resist. That’s what I didn’t understand, how people made the leap from not mattering in each other’s lives to mattering.
Another thing that impressed me about the mothers was their sexiness. The really big ones like Derek’s mother wore sweatpants and T-shirts, but some of the others who were twenty or thirty pounds overweight dressed in tight, revealing clothes, and they looked good: tank tops and short skirts and no stockings and high-heeled mules, gold necklaces and bracelets and rings.
Back in the playroom, Elsa beamed and giggled, and I could tell that she considered the parade an unqualified success. “Frances, are you always such a stickler for the rules?” she asked in a teasing voice.
“I guess I am.” I forced a laugh. Though what happened later might make this seem like a dubious claim, I’m pretty sure I already knew then that it’s not worth it to have conflict with people you aren’t invested in.
“No hard feelings, right?” Elsa said. “It seemed like the moms were totally psyched to have us come through.”
I said nothing, and turned away from her.
At the end of the night, when we chose Derek to turn off the lights, Elsa said, “I’ll stay behind with him. You can go up.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m usually the one to stay behind.”
“All the more reason for you to go up.” Her tone was friendly, like she was doing me a favor.
“Actually,” I said, “I prefer to stay.” I was standing by the sink, and I turned on the water.
“You’re doing a very thorough job,” Elsa said, and I flinched. I’d thought she had left with Karen and the kids, but she was standing next to me.
“Gotta watch out for cooties,” I said. “Ready, Derek?” He raised his arms, and I lifted him.
“I’ve noticed that you wash your hands a lot,” Elsa said.
I turned and looked at her, and I could feel how my mouth was a hard line. “You’re very observant,” I said.
She took a step back.
I carried Derek to the light switch, and he turned it off. On the other side of the door, I set him down. He took my hand, and though my entire body was tense from the exchange with Elsa, I felt some of Derek’s placidity, his sweetness, seep into me. Elsa reached for his other hand.
“Oh my,” she said. “What have we here?”
“No!” Derek said. “It’s mine.”
I glanced down and saw that Elsa was extracting from his grip one of the piglets from the farm animal box.
“That’s not yours,” Elsa said. “That belongs to all the children at New Day. Look.” She held the piglet toward me. It had peach skin and pink hooves and a little curly tail, and it was arching up, its snout pointed skyward. “This pig doesn’t belong to Derek, does it, Frances? If he took it, I bet the other kids would feel really sad.”
I said through clenched teeth, “Let him have it.”
“What?” Her voice was confused, no longer intended for Derek.
“It’s not a big deal,” I said.
“Don’t you think that sends a confusing message?”
“It’s a plastic pig,” I said. “He’s three.” I thought of the objects I had coveted as a child: an eraser in the shape of a strawberry, which belonged to Deanna Miller, the girl who sat next to me in first grade; a miniature perfume bottle of my mother’s with a round top of frosted glass. My mother had promised that she would give the bottle to me when she was finished with the perfume, but year after year, a little of the amber liquid always remained. There were not that many times in your life when you believed a possession would bring you happiness and you were actually right.
“You know what I’ll do, Derek?” Elsa said. “I’ll put the pig back, but I’ll put it in your cubby. That way, when you come down here tomorrow, you’ll know just where it is. Okay?”
I knew she would think we’d compromised, but she could compromise by herself. While she was in the playroom, I lifted Derek and carried him upstairs.
I kept waiting that week to get a call from Abigail, the New Day director, saying she’d received complaints from the mothers about our excursion to the second floor. I would apologize and take responsibility for my participation in the parade but I’d also explain that Elsa was the one who had initiated it and that, in general, I had some concerns about her behavior as a volunteer; while eating dinner at night, I rehearsed the way I’d phrase this. But the days kept passing without a call. By the end of the week, I still hadn’t heard from Abigail, and then I knew I wasn’t going to.
The next Monday was quiet. Orlean had, to the envy of everyone, gone out for pizza with his father, and Dewey didn’t come downstairs because he had a cold, and Tasaundra and her mom had moved out of the shelter and gone to stay with a cousin in Prince George’s County. A new girl named Marcella was there, a chubby, dreamy eight-year-old with long black hair.
Elsa’s dress-up clothes went over well enough, except that the entire process, from the kids’ choosing what to wear to putting on the outfits to taking the clothes back off again, took less than fifteen minutes. Elsa encouraged the kids to draw pictures of themselves in the clothes, but all anybody wanted to play was “Mother, May I?” I wondered if Elsa would keep hatching schemes week after week or if she would soon realize that from kids, you didn’t get points just for trying.
While I was putting together a wooden puzzle of the United States with Marcella and Meshaun, Derek came over to the table. He said, “Miss Volunteer,” and when I said, “Yes, Derek?” he giggled and ran behind my chair.
“Where’s Derek?” I said. “Where did he go?”
“He behind you,” Meshaun said.
I whirled around, and Derek shrieked. He tossed something into the air, and when it landed on the floor, I saw that it was the pig from the week before. He picked it up and made it walk up my arm.
Elsa squatted by Derek. “Do you like your pig?” she asked.
I couldn’t help myself. “His pig?”
But I noticed that Elsa had that fighting-a-smile expression people get when they’ve received a compliment and want you to think they don’t believe it. “It is his,” she said. “I gave it to him.”
Then I saw that the pig wasn’t identical to the one from the week before — this pig’s snout was pointed straight in front of it, and its skin was more pink than peach.
“I felt like such a witch taking the other one away,” she said.
I stared at her. “When did you give it to him?”
“I dropped it off last week.”
Knowing she had come to the shelter at a time other than Monday evening, I wondered what Abigail had made of that, or whether Elsa had met other volunteers. And had Elsa summoned Derek in order to give him the pig in private, or had she handed it over in front of other children? She should be fired, I thought, if it was possible to fire a volunteer.
That night as we left the shelter, Elsa said, “Anyone up for a beer?”
“Sounds good to me,” Karen said.
“I need to be at work early tomorrow,” I said. Karen and I had never socialized outside the shelter.
“Come on, gal,” Karen said, and at the same time, Elsa said, “You know, Frances, I looked up your company on the web the other day, and it seems pretty cool. My clients sometimes need graphic work, letterheads and the like, so I’m always on the lookout for people doing innovative work.”
“I mostly do administrative stuff,” I said.
Elsa elbowed me. “No low self-esteem, you hear? You’re just starting out. Listen — I’m impressed that you even landed a job at such a great place.”
I offered her my closed-lipped smile.
Elsa turned away from me. “Karen,” she said, “do we have to forcibly drag this girl out for one lousy Budweiser?”
“At her age, she should be dragging us,” Karen said.
“I really can’t,” I said. “Sorry.”
As I walked away, Elsa called, “Hey, Frances,” and when I turned back, she said, “Bye, Miss Volunteer.” Her voice contained a singsongy, excessively pleased note that made me suspect she’d thought up the farewell earlier and saved it, for just this moment, to say aloud.
When I got back to my apartment, I again washed my hands and forearms and then I changed out of my street clothes. I knew that I washed my hands a lot — I wasn’t an idiot — but it was always for a reason: because I’d come in from outside, because I’d been on the subway or used the toilet or touched money. It wasn’t as if, sitting at my desk at the office, I simply jumped up, hurried to the bathroom, and began to scrub.
Usually when I got home at night, my roommate, whom I hardly knew, wasn’t there. She had a boyfriend, a Romanian grad student, and she spent a lot of time at his place. It was mostly on the weekends that I saw them. Sometimes on Saturday mornings when I left to run errands, they’d be entwined on the living room couch, watching television, and when I returned hours later, they’d be in the same position. Once I saw him prepare breakfast in bed for her by toasting frozen waffles then coating them with spray-on olive oil, and I wondered if this was an error due to the language barrier or if he was just a gross person. I was glad on the nights they weren’t around. After I was finished washing my hands and changing my clothes, it was like I’d completed everything in the day that was required of me and I could just give into being tired.
The next week, when Elsa let Karen off, I leapt from the car as well. “I’ll walk from here,” I said. “I need some air.”
“Are you kidding me? It’s ninety-five degrees.” Elsa patted the seat. “Get back in.”
“It’s cooled down a lot since this afternoon,” I said. “Thanks, though.” By the time I turned toward Karen, she’d climbed the steps to her building and was reaching for the door handle. Her building was on the corner of Connecticut and Cathedral, and though I’d passed it many times — my own apartment was just a few blocks north, on Porter — I was struck as I never had been before this moment that it was just the kind of place where a moderately successful single woman in her late thirties would live: on a heavily trafficked street, with a brightly lit and tastefully appointed lobby visible through the glass door. From behind her, I said, “Karen, can I talk to you for a sec?”
She turned around. “What’s cooking?”
“Has it ever occurred to you that Elsa might be a little — I don’t know — unhinged?”
Karen laughed. “She marches to the beat of a different drummer, that’s for sure.”
“I think it goes beyond that. She seems to have really bad judgement, like with the parade. She didn’t even realize how the mothers reacted.”
“I thought the parade was kind of cute.”
I tried not to show my surprise. Maybe the parade hadn’t been the best example. “She doesn’t talk to the kids on their level,” I said.
I waited for Karen to react, but she was chewing on the inside corner of her lip. Even to my own ears, my assessment of Elsa sounded less like concern than gossip.
“I can picture something bad happening to one of the kids because of her,” I said.
“Granted, she’s eccentric,” Karen said. “I take it her divorce was pretty rough and now she’s putting the pieces back together.” I wondered if Elsa had confided in Karen — perhaps when they’d gone out for beer. “But I’m not real concerned,” Karen added. “She’ll calm down in a few weeks.”
So for Karen, life was unmenacing until hard evidence proved otherwise; despite her laid-back demeanor, I’d pegged her for being, at her core, a pre-emptive worrier like me. After all, given that she was unmarried, hadn’t the world failed her already? There were many less appealing women who found husbands, so why hadn’t she? Didn’t she see that life could be unfair and unpredictable and that you needed to exercise some vigilance?
“You don’t think I should say anything to Abigail?” I finally asked.
Karen shrugged. “I just don’t know what there is to say.”
It was storming the next Monday: not just rain but big rolling gray clouds split by lightning and followed by cracks of thunder that faded into softer rumbles. Abigail was peering out the front door when I arrived. She was often leaving as I was arriving, and I said, “Don’t get too wet.”
She shook her head. “Svetlana called in sick. I’m staying over.”
“Lucky you,” I said, and she grinned. Abigail was in her fifties, a woman with short silver hair who wore jumpers or long cotton skirts and had a master’s degree from Harvard; I knew this because the diploma hung framed in her office, where I’d sat for an interview.
I was, apparently, the first volunteer there. When the kids came out from the dining room, Meshaun was clutching a red rubber ball, and Orlean was trying to take it away, which made Meshaun howl. “Whose ball is it?” I asked.
“Me!” Meshaun shouted.
I turned to Orlean. “Is that true?”
“Yeah, but he ain’t playin’ with it. He just holdin’ it.”
“If it belongs to him, he gets to decide what happens to it.”
“Geez, woman.” Orlean sighed loudly. He crossed the hall, passing Derek’s mother as she emerged from the stairwell. Orlean leaned his back against the wall, folded his arms across his chest, and glared, and I tried, out of respect for his disappointment in me, not to smile.
“You know where D’s at?” Derek’s mother said.
“Are you talking to me?” I said. “Sorry but I just got here.”
“Monique told me she was gonna watch him while I was at the CVS, and now she says she don’t know where he is.”
“Derek’s lost?” I stood, my heart beating faster. “If he’s lost, you should tell Abigail.”
As Derek’s mother walked toward Abigail’s office, I hurried downstairs, but the playroom was silent, and all the lights were off. “Derek?” I called. “Are you here, Derek?” I flicked the lights on and looked under the tables, behind the shelves. But I would have been able to hear him breathe, and the only sound was the drip of the sink.
When I returned upstairs, the hall was crowded with Abigail, Derek’s mother, Na’Shell’s mother, Na’Shell, Meshaun, and Orlean, plus Elsa and Karen had both arrived; Elsa was holding a collapsed, dripping umbrella as Abigail talked. I was glad I hadn’t been present when Abigail told them Derek was missing — Elsa probably had opened her mouth, covered it with her palm, and gasped. Abigail gestured at me and Derek’s mother. “I want the two of you to look outside. Elsa, you go upstairs, and Karen, you go downstairs. I know we’ve already checked the building, but we’ve got to be thorough.”
I still had on a raincoat, and Elsa offered me her umbrella, which I didn’t take. Despite the seriousness of the moment, it felt awkward to walk outside with Derek’s mother — I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to split up or stay together. I glanced at her, and her face was scrunched with anxiety.
“He couldn’t have gone far, right?” I said.
“I’m gonna beat his ass when I find that boy,” she said, but she sounded more frightened than mean.
We did split up — I walked toward one end of the block, turning my head from side to side and calling his name (a passerby might have thought I was calling for a puppy) then I walked to the other end of the block. The rain was falling solidly. Out on the street, the cars made swishing noises as they passed, and my stomach tightened with each one. The roads had to be slick, and the rain on the windshields would make everything blurry. It was hard to know if it was worse to imagine him alone or with someone — if he were alone, surely the thunder and lightening were terrifying him.
I walked around the side of the shelter, expecting and not expecting to see him everywhere I looked. In my mind, he was wearing what he’d been wearing the day Elsa had taken the pig away from him, a red and blue striped T-shirt and black sweatpants. I found his mother standing on tiptoe, peering into the dumpster in the back parking lot and shoving aside pieces of cardboard. “You think he could have gotten in there?” I said. She didn’t reply, and I said, “You know the volunteer who has kind of light brown hair and hasn’t been coming here for very long?”
Without looking at me, Derek’s mother said, “You mean Elsa?” If a bird had flown out of her open mouth, I would not have been more astonished.
“I think she came here a few weeks ago some night besides Monday,” I said. “Right? She brought Derek a little pig?”
“I don’t know nothing about that.”
“I’m wondering if you’ve seen her here other times. Has she ever invited Derek to do stuff during the day?”
For the first time, Derek’s mother looked at me, and I saw that she was on the verge of crying. “Monique’s a fool,” she said. “I knew I shouldn’t of left her with D.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said. “It’s really not. Kids wander off.”
Then her face collapsed — big, fat, scary Derek’s mother–and as she brought her hands up to shield it, her shoulders shook. What I was supposed to do, what the situation unmistakably called for, was to hug her, or at the very least to set an arm around her back. I couldn’t do it. She was wearing an old-looking, off-white T-shirt that said Luck O’ The Irish across the chest in puffy green letters and had multiple stains on it, and I just couldn’t. If I did, after I got home, even if I changed out of my clothes and showered, her hug would still be on me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry — I’m — by the way, I don’t think we’ve ever been introduced. I’m Frances.”
She lifted her head and looked at me, appearing bewildered. In that moment, from inside the dining room window, Karen joyously called, “We found him! Come inside, y’all! We found Derek!”
The entry hall was so thick with mothers and children that I couldn’t even locate him at first and then I saw him, before she passed him off to his mother, in Elsa’s arms. On his left cheek was the imprint of a pillow or a wrinkled sheet, and he was yawning without covering his mouth. I heard Elsa say, “And then I just thought, could that little lump on the top bunk be Derek? I was on my way out, but something made me check one more time…”
The combination of the accumulated people, the relieved energy, and the storm outside made it seem almost like we were having a party; at any moment, a cake would appear. “You gotta watch your babies like a hawk,” someone beside me said, and when I glanced over, I saw that it was Meshaun’s mother. Her voice was not disapproving, but happy. “Like. A. Hawk,” she repeated, nodding her head once for each word.
When we finally took the children down to the playroom, I couldn’t shake a feeling of agitation. While Elsa was holding hands in a circle with Na’Shell and Marcella and, in an English accent, singing the “My Fair Lady” song “I Could Have Danced All Night,” I said I needed to go make a phone call. Upstairs, I knocked on the frame of Abigail’s open door. “Are you busy?”
“Come on in,” she said.
“I have this weird feeling,” I said. “Like maybe Elsa has something to do with Derek’s disappearance. She’s kind of obsessed with him.”
“Frances, Elsa found Derek.”
“Yeah, supposedly,” I said.
“I’m not certain what you’re getting at.”
“She came here once in the middle of the week just to give him a present. And she showed up late tonight, which she never does.” I took a breath. “I wouldn’t put it past Elsa to have hidden Derek in some closet so she could be the one to find him,” I said. “I just don’t trust her.”
For several seconds, Abigail looked at me. All she said was, “Let me think on this.”
We were leaving the shelter when Abigail stuck her head out and said, “Frances and Elsa, come into my office for a minute.”
She sat at her desk, and we sat in side-by-side chairs, facing her. “I understand there’s some tension between the two of you,” she said. “As far as I can see, you’re both doing a terrific job, but I’d like to take a minute and clear the air.”
I felt Elsa looking at me, and then she said, “Is this because I asked Frances about her OCD?”
I jerked toward her. “Excuse me?”
“I know that conversation we had was sort of awkward,” Elsa said. “But I have a cousin who has it, and it can be treated. My cousin’s on medication and now she’s doing real well. It doesn’t have to be this debilitating thing.”
I felt that if I did not grip the arms of my chair, I might spring from it. “I’m not obsessive-compulsive,” I said. “And it’s none of your business.”
“Frances, it’s okay. It’s not–”
“It’s okay?” I said. “You’re telling me it’s okay?” I could hear my voice growing louder.
“Frances, relax,” Abigail said.
“When you’re the one who has no grip on reality?” I said to Elsa. “It’s pretty obvious that you live in this imaginary world where you believe — you believe–” I paused. Our faces were only a few feet apart, and I saw a tiny dot of my spit land on Elsa’s jaw. She didn’t rub it away; she seemed paralyzed, staring at me with curiosity and confusion. “You believe that people are watching you go through your life,” I said. “That if you use a big vocabulary world, someone will be impressed, or if you make a joke, someone will laugh, or that you’re scoring points by buying glitter for underprivileged children because someone sees you pay for it and makes a note of how generous you are. But no one cares. Do you understand that? No one gives a shit what you do. And everyone can see how desperate and messed up you are, so you might as well just stop pretending that you–”
“This is unacceptable,” Abigail said. “You’re way out of line.”
“Next time she’ll probably kidnap Derek for good,” I said. “Then tell me I’m out of line.”
“Frances, an accusation like that–” Abigail began, but I cut her off. I had always respected Abigail. She had struck me as both smart and down-to-earth, and I’d admired the fact that she was devoting her career to a cause for which I spared only two hours a week. But in this moment she seemed dismissive of me because I was young, and fundamentally indifferent to what was happening. What was it to her if two of the volunteers didn’t get along? I stood up.
“Forget it,” I said.
I was almost out the door when Elsa said, “We just want to help you, Frances.”
I whirled around. Though this was when I placed my hands on either side of her throat, though I pressed them inward and I could feel the delicate bones of Elsa’s neck beneath her warm and grotesque skin, I really didn’t mean to hurt her; it’s not that I was trying to strangle her. Her eyes had widened and she was blinking a lot, her eyelids flapping as she brought her own hands up to my wrists to pry my hands away. But that gave me something to resist. I squeezed more tightly, and she made a retching noise.
“Let go of Elsa immediately,” Abigail said. “I’m calling the police.”
It actually wasn’t the threat so much as the interruption — an outside voice, a third party — that made me drop my grip. Elsa coughed and panted in a way that struck me even then as theatrical. On my way out, I stopped and looked back at her once. “You’re sickening,” I said.
I never went back to the shelter, and I never spoke to any of them again. I received five messages at work from Abigail — I was purposely not answering my phone — and in the second one, she said they wouldn’t press charges if I sent a letter from a therapist proving that I’d sought counseling. When you work for a graphic design firm, or even, I imagine, when you don’t, this is not a particularly difficult thing to fake.
Three months had passed and it was a Sunday morning when I saw Karen. Actually, what I noticed first was a couple who emerged from the bagel place near my apartment holding hands, the guy carrying a brown bag, and I watched them for a moment before I realized the woman was Karen — tall, cheerful Karen, the self-declared spinster. Was this a new development? They were talking and then he turned and kissed her on the nose; he was also black, and slightly shorter than she was. Before she could notice me, I crossed the street.
Around Christmas, I received a donation request from New Day, which, given the circumstances under which I’d stopped volunteering, was probably an oversight. New Day was affiliated with two shelters on Capitol Hill, and the request came with a calendar that said on the front Volunteers Are Shining Stars! For each month, the picture was of kids and adults at the various shelters playing, and Elsa was featured for the month of March. Had she been posing with Derek, the calendar would have felt karmic and punitive; in fact, she was doing a puzzle with a boy I’d never seen.
I couldn’t help wondering if any of the children noticed my absence or asked where I’d gone, or if I was just another in a long line of adults who slipped without explanation from their lives. For a while, I contemplated what I’d do if I saw one of them on the street. Because of the shelter rules, it would have to be a subtle gesture, less than a wave, something a mother wouldn’t notice — a wiggle of the eyebrows, a flare of the nostrils, a flickering pinky finger. In the end, it didn’t matter, because I moved away from Washington without running into any of them.
As for the adults, I can’t say that I cared much what Abigail or Elsa thought of me after the incident in Abigail’s office, though I did regret that they must have told Karen about it. In Karen’s eyes, I probably became a person she once knew who turned out to be crazy.