In the deep freeze
Time for a new story, I think. And this is one I've wanted to share for a while. It comes from a student I'll call "Tessa" and something she wrote for my class when I asked them to do one of those "moment in time" pieces of personal nonfiction. She ended up rewriting it several times and she earned an A for the final draft. But the stories she told me about the "behind the scenes" stuff of the event she chose to chronicle were even more interesting that what she put on the page.
Background needed. Many of the sorority girls who deign to take part-time jobs opt to become nannies to the wealthy families in the exclusive neighborhoods around the campus. We're talking estate-like mega-mansions, not the shoddy McMansions of the ugly suburbs. Even a teardown in this area can go for half a mil, with a $5 million, three-story behemoth taking the place of a 1950s one-story brick cottage.
So who lives in these places? Movers, shakers, big deal makers. They are still young, very ambitious and have children who still need minding. To help look after their offspring, lawyer-mommy and mogul-daddy hire a Tri-Delt or a Kappa to pick them up at school, haul them to soccer practice or gymnastics, and maybe get them fed and medicated (they're always medicated) before the parents get home late from their offices.
Tessa worked for such a family. She said the mom was a control freak extraordinaire. Left Post-It notes everywhere about everything. "Put Justine in the pink and black leotards for ballet. NOT the purple ones." Or "Phillip has a birthday party at the DeWildes' on Tuesday. Be sure to ask about peanuts. NO PEANUTS ALLOWED!" Another note said simply: "No TV--Enrichment activities only!"
Trying to raise her children via notes to the hired nanny, the mom rarely interacted with them herself. Tessa said she never saw either parent hug or kiss their kids. Or, for that matter, each other. They were an emotionally chilly family and the kids sometimes acted robotically emotion-free.
Besides trying the humanize the little ones, Tessa, a sweet and still refreshingly naive young woman, was also put in charge of pet care for the family's rather elaborate menagerie. On the third-floor of the manse, in an enormous play area the parents avoided, were many cages filled with small furry things and several large aquariums containing frogs, fish and other aquatic beasties. It was the kids' favorite place to be.
So one day Tessa brings them home from school and little Justine heads straight for the third floor to check on her animals. Tessa climbs the stairs a bit behind her and by the time she gets to the playroom she wonders why the little girl is so quiet.
"I got to the door and saw her standing in the middle of the room, holding something brown and still in her hands," said Tessa.
It was Jelly, one of Justine's prized ferrets.
"He's dead," Justine said dispassionately. She didn't appear the least bit upset, Tessa recalled.
"I thought she might cry. I remember how much I cried when my pets died. But no, she just held it like an empty sock. Then she started toward the stairs, still holding the dead ferret. I followed her downstairs, not sure what she was doing or where she was going.
"She went all the way to the kitchen and back into the gift-wrapping room--the mom had a separate room filled with fancy papers and ribbons on spools, like you might see in a store somewhere--and I decided to play along and not ask questions. And this is where it started to get weird. Here's this 7-year-old girl, with a dead ferret in her hands. And she lays it out on the countertop and pulls off a big sheet of plain white wrapping paper. She puts the ferret in it and carefully wraps and tapes it up, like you've seen a butcher do with a steak or a piece of salmon. She was very deliberate, turning the corners just so and sticking the tape up and down the seam of the paper. Then she grabbed a black marker and wrote `Jelly' and the date on the outside of the little package.
"So I'm thinking she's going to bury it in the backyard, that we're going to do one of those little kid pet funerals like the little girl in Poltergeist. How sweet, I'm thinking.
"But instead of going outside, Justine heads for the garage and goes over to this big deep-freeze in the corner. And you're not going to believe this, because I wouldn't have if I hadn't seen it. She opens the door of the freezer and carefully places Jelly on a shelf. And as I look closer I can see that there are lots of white packages in there, each carefully labeled in black ink with names like `Puffer' and `Snowy' and `Bonkers.' And I realize that I'm looking at a pet cemetery. They've got all the dead bodies of all the pets the kids have ever had. In the freezer."
As Tessa told me the story--and she later wrote it with all the details intact--she kept shaking her head in disbelief. I asked her to wind up the piece with a conclusive device, something that would give meaning to what she'd witnessed. And I'm probably paraphrasing a little, but as I recall, she came up with something that sounded like this:
"On the outside they look so normal. They're rich. They live in a beautiful house. Everything about them--mother, father, son and daughter--is shiny and perfect. But there is something missing. They don't feel. They are cold as ice. And I realize now that the truth about who this family really is lies not in how perfect they look to the world but is hidden at the back of the garage, in a freezer filled with little corpses carefully wrapped in white paper."
I praised Tessa's work, read it aloud to the other classes and encouraged her to compare her story to Truman Capote's short titled "A Lamp in the Window." I liked hers better. Because I was sure hers was true.