Netta Silverman was not a particularly tall woman, but she definitely had a presence--a fierce, mountain lion-like aura that bespoke a territorial power. She stood over me as I tried, unsuccessfully, to disentangle my left leg from the phone chord I had dragged beneath the door.
Damn old-fashioned phones.
My heart was pounding fast and rhythmic like an angry fist against a dead-bolted door; no chance of getting in or out.
“What is going on, here?” Netta asked, the mountain lion creeping behind her eyes. “I heard someone down here, and it made me nervous.”
“I was just using the phone,” I mumbled. “I...didn’t want to disturb anyone. It’s late.”
“I am aware of the time, Christina.”
“I am aware of the time, Christina.”
Her eyes didn’t blink, but narrowed slightly.
“I’m sorry, Netta. I should have asked you earlier if I could make another call. You see...I was just feeling...”
Netta took a deep breath, closing the collar of her velvet robe with a dazzlingly bejeweled fist.
Diamonds and rubies and pearls, oh my!
“Christina,” she said. “Is...everything all right?”
“Yes, like I said, I just was feeling a little...”
“Of course you were,” she said, tightening the belt of her robe with a flick of her long black mane. “I understand that you are far away from home. I do, but this kind of sneaking around my home at night is unacceptable.”
Her home, not mine. She made that absolutely clear.
“I’m very sorry, Netta,” I said, dangerously close to those ever-imminent tears. “It won’t happen again.”
“I hope it won’t. Good night, Christina.” And away she crept, back to her den, having protected her cubs from the evil predator: the screwball au pair who sat in strangers’ bathrooms sneaking phone calls in the middle of the night.
Netta was halfway up the steps when she heard a clanking in the kitchen.
“Is there someone in the kitchen, Christina?” she asked, eyeing me with suspicion as though I’d let in a burglar.
I peered down the long foyer and into the kitchen, where Calixthe was waving at me, a silly smile on her face that contrasted with the sadness in her eyes I saw earlier.
“It’s just Calixthe,” I assured her.
Netta came down the stairs, once again flashing her bejeweled fingers as she held her robe closed. She looked at me again, as if Calixthe’s late-night meanderings were all my idea.
“Calixthe,” Netta said, looking befuddled. “What are you doing down here so late at night?”
Calixthe’s West African accent made everything she said come out in soft, slow, round tones.
“I remem-buhd that I forgot to..”
“You remembered that you forgot?” Netta repeated. “That is not logical, Calixthe. That makes no sense.”
“I mean, I forgot to empty dah rubbish, so I thought I'd walk it out to dah poubelle.”
“That could have waited till morning.” Netta looked back at me, as Calixthe continued.
“I just know how you like dah rubbish brought out to dah poubelle...”
“Never mind the rubbish,” insisted Netta. “Calixthe, when your uncle and I are in bed, we need to know that everyone else is, too. Otherwise, I can’t sleep. You know that.”
“I’m sorry, Auntie,” she said, lifting the kitchen wastebasket. “I’ll just take dis out to dah poubelle and be right back.”
I was getting the distinct feeling that Calixthe liked saying “poo-bell.” And I was right. Calixthe smiled at me over her shoulder as she headed toward the servant’s entrance I had walked through earlier that day. Yay! I thought. Someone with a sense of humor!
I was certain I had just made a friend.
Netta waited for Calixthe to return from emptying the garbage so that she could make sure the door was officially locked for the night. I, on the other hand, walked upstairs and got ready to spend my first night in the fungus bed.
I heard Calixthe’s footsteps and then a knock on my door.
“Christina,” she whispered.
I got up to let her in, and she greeted me with the warmest of smiles.
“I just wan-ted to make sure dat you were okay,” she said, still smiling. “I heard you weeping earlier.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” I replied. “And please call me Chrissy.”
“You know, when I saw you arrive dis morning, Chrissy, I thought to myself, ‘Someone young dat I could talk to! Tank Gaw-t!’” She pronounced the “d” in “God” like a “t.” Suddenly, I was “tanking Gaw-t,” myself.
Her smiling eyes sank back into sadness. “It gets very lonely he-ah.”
“What do you mean, Calixthe?” I asked, wondering what her life was really like living with Netta.
She shook her head, seemingly resigned to the life she’d been given. “I mean dat, Netta, my auntie...she is very strict wid me. I have to do tings dat are very unpleasant. Tings dat sometimes make me sick.”
My mind immediately conjured thoughts of brutality, beatings--horrible things. Of course, I had a vivid imagination.
“What kinds of things, Calixthe?” I asked after a moment.
She shook her head. “It’s just my life, here. How man go do?”
“Excuse me,” I said, not understanding her.
She laughed and then explained.
“‘How man go do’ is pidgin English. It is how we talk back home. It means, ‘What can a man do?’” She threw up her palms with a shrug, and then added, “How man go do?”
We laughed and then started talking about our families and how much we missed them. She told me about her father--Netta’s brother--her siblings, and all of her friends back in Africa. I told her about my family, about Adam.
“Adam...Oh my Gaw-t! Is he handsome?” I assured her that he was, and proceeded to show her my many photographs. We laughed and talked for a while, both feeling comforted by the fact that we had found a friend. Soon, she would become like a sister to me, the only person in that household who understood me. The only one who didn’t treat me like a servant.
“I could really go for a glass of wine or something,” I said, feeling miraculously lighthearted. “Even a beer would be mighty nice.” During dinner that night, Netta and Mr. Butterbeans had offered me a glass of wine, but I declined, not wanting to appear like a lush. So much for keeping up appearances!
Calixthe’s eyes flashed a glimmer of mischief.
“They have a stash downstairs, dans la cave, in dah basement,” she said with a tilted head. “I could show you.”
“We really shouldn’t,” I said, feigning reservation. “Do you think we should?”
Without a word, Calixthe grabbed my wrist and whisked me down the Cinderella stairs, both of us giggling like school girls. We cracked the kitchen door, peering through the sliver of light to see if Netta were still standing guard. We tiptoed across the ceramic tiles like cartoon cat burglars. A mask, striped shirt, and giant money bag with a dollar sign painted on it were all we needed to top off the ridiculous tableau.
When Netta had given me the grand tour, she had left out the basement, and it was fairly obvious why. There were shelves of canned goods lining the walls, along with boxes of holiday decorations, and what looked like old pots and pans. Around the corner was a tiny fitness room with a Nautilus machine that looked like it had never been used. At the far end of the hall stood a washer and dryer, stacked on top of which were piles of dirty laundry. In essence, it was a basement of the peasantry. A commoner’s cave.
“What’s that smell?” I asked, childishly holding my nose shut with my thumb and forefinger. “Something truly reeks down here!”
Calixthe gestured for me to follow her. “Let me show you.”
As we entered the laundry room, the source of the stench became clear. Piled in baskets, at least ten or twelve of them, were clothes and bedding soiled with bodily waste. Soaking in buckets of murky brown water were mounds of children’s underclothes.
“Whose clothes are these?” I asked, ready to gag from the violent stench.
“Stuart’s and Soryah’s,” she said.
“But they’re ten and eleven years old! Why are they still...?”
“Good question,” Calixthe replied, shaking her head. “It is very sad.”
“But, why haven’t Netta and James addressed this problem? I mean, Stuart and Soryah are way too old to still be...you know. To me that signals some sort of emotional or psychological dysfunction. Don’t you think? And they make you clean it? Calixthe, that is awful.”
“They are crazy. All of dem!” Calixthe explained, shaking her head. “But, how man go do?”
Laughter, once again, stemming mostly from disbelief over such a tragic discovery. This very wealthy, successful family’s striking façade was merely that: a pretty picture that covered up a gaping hole in the wall.
I thought of the stained bedding in my own room and realized, beneath the surface, this family was flawed. Their children were soiling themselves at the dinner table, allowed to do so right before their parents’ eyes. Maybe it was a cry for attention? Maybe, I thought, Netta should have been hugging her children more instead of hunting me down in the hallway bathroom.
“I need a cocktail,” I said, leaving the laundry room, the stench having engrained itself in my memory for all time.
“How about a beer?” Calixthe suggested.
“They are over here.” She opened a fridge packed with Heineken.
“Do you think they’ll notice that some are missing?”
“Probably, but..” and we giggled all the way back to my room, repeating the phrase that had already become our mantra.
“How man go do?”