A short story by Rebecca Schiff
The housekeeper is having an affair. My parents talk about her affair when nothing is wrong with the car. When something is wrong with the car, they talk about the car. The car is a Toyota, and the place that fixes the car is also called Toyota. One of my parents drives the Toyota to get fixed while the other follows in the car that is not broken. They drop the Toyota off at Toyota and drive back together in the same car.
The housekeeper says the man is just a friend. My father says there’s no way that man is just her friend. My mother says she just hopes the housekeeper is being smart. My grandmother tells my mother the housekeeper wouldn’t do it. By “do it,” she means “have an affair.” My grandmother is around the house all the time. She and the housekeeper speak Spanish with different accents and are friends.
She would do it. She’s still doing it. She makes calls from our house. She takes calls at our house. She can only have her affair twice a week, when she cleans our house. I’m in high school, so I don’t know why I follow this. I don’t have sex. I don’t have anything.
The housekeeper has been working at our house for years, but nobody noticed her until she started having an affair. Before that, she was a Jehovah’s Witness. It’s probably more interesting than what she’s doing now. My grandmother sometimes bakes me a cake after school. She cooks, bakes, and speaks bad English. Sometimes it seems like she is our housekeeper. My grandmother had a husband, but I never met him. He wasn’t my grandfather. After he left her, she gained ninety pounds and never left the apartment she lived in in the country she lived in. This took a long time. My mother brought her to our house last year. Nobody talks about when she will leave.
I’m learning to drive. My mother and father argue about whose turn it is to take me out. Teaching me to drive is unpleasant. I’m not ready to face other cars, but they’re on the road anyway. In school, we can’t be alone in the car with the Driver’s Ed teacher. “I’m sure you know why,” the teacher says, alluding to a past or future crime. I don’t plan to get molested by him. I’m not that kind of sad.
Other kids have housekeepers. When a housekeeper quits, someone’s mom will give someone else’s mom “a name.” “Do you have a name?” “Sheila has a name.” There’s a network of moms who know women who know how to use a scrub brush, a scouring pad, a sponge mop. The women walk to and from our houses, without Toyotas.
“It’s good for them,” says my mother. My mother works with diabetics, so she wants the world to keep its weight down. The housekeeper is not fat but she’s not thin. She’s the right weight for a husband to start ignoring her and another man to still notice.
My mother tells my father, “If you have an affair, don’t bother coming home.”
My father laughs. My mother is a pistol from another country, a diabetic counselor. Who would cheat on her? Not my father. It’s not smart.
My mother likes the slang from this country, like “SOB” and “POS.”
“The husband is probably an SOB,” she’ll whisper about the housekeeper’s husband.
“POS,” she’ll yell when someone cuts her off.
“Thank God for AC,” she’ll say in the summer.
Maybe they don’t use acronyms in other countries. When I was a kid, we visited my grandmother in her apartment with-out AC. A useless fan moved air around. The shower took up the whole bathroom, and the toilet was somewhere else. Every time you showered, you had to mop the whole bathroom down the drain. I cried because I had never touched a mop before.
One day the housekeeper gets picked up in a van. I can’t see who’s driving, her husband or her lover, but I don’t know what either of them looks like. She bounces out of our house, so it’s probably the lover, or maybe she’s just happy to be done making beds for some family to lie in.
I’d like someone to pick me up and take me away. Some kids already drive. They drive their parents’ cars or, if they’re really rich, their own new cars. They look stupid driving a car they didn’t buy. This is America, though. Nobody cares what I think. I doubt my parents will buy me a car, though they will buy me college. I spend most of my time making myself worthy of this purchase. In between studying, I call my one friend, invite her over for a grandmother snack.
“Does she live with you now?” asks the friend, Louisa. My grandmother stands nearby in a hairnet, setting her hair for an event that never takes place.
“No,” I say. “I don’t think so.”
“When is she leaving?”
“Monday,” I say.
We eat cake with glasses of milk. Diabetics couldn’t have this snack.
“Good cake, Grandma,” I shout from the table. “Cake is good.”
My grandmother smiles like she understands more than what we say to each other. She rinses some onions to begin dinner preparations. That’s a way not to cry. After Monday, I’ll say there’s a problem with her knees and she has to stay longer to see American doctors. It’s true that there is a problem with her knees, long- running. She can’t really walk, and gets driven by my mother to Weight Watchers and to have hair electrolysized off her chin. If I learn to drive, I can take over these errands. It’s very motivating.
“My dad’s mom is more of a regular grandma type,” I say.
“She belongs to a golf club.”
“I hate golf,” says Louisa.
We have no time for golf. After this snack is over, we have to study together, which means Louisa shares her flash cards with me. As disciplined as I am, I cannot bring myself to make my own flash cards. I feel something like guilt, but I’ve already paid her in cake. I’m set for flash cards for the foreseeable future.
My mother comes into my room and offers us grapes on a tiny plate.
“We’re full,” I say. “We’re quizzing each other.”
“A plethora of snacks at your house,” says Louisa, practicing flash card words. “I like it here.”
“I’d prefer the snack wasn’t cake,” says my mother, but she can’t control what gets baked. Her mother is her mother. That’s the reason she gives my father for why my grandmother stays. My father seems ready for it to just be our family and the people who clean for our family again. My grandmother is not his family. His mother is where she belongs, eating her meals on a golf course.
The next day I get home from school and my grandmother is not there. I wonder if she’s left for good, if they took her to the airport and nobody told me. But her things are still in the basement, her housecoat, her shoes. The basement smells like her. She has sisters and brothers who smell like her, too. My grandmother was one of twelve. A few have died, but a lot are still left. They assist dentists or sell tools to dentists. My grand-mother was the oldest and didn’t get to go to dental assistant school because she was needed at home.
Where is she now? She could have gone grocery shopping, walked very slowly to the Dairy Barn to buy the cream she whips for my strawberries. I wait an hour. I eat rice cakes with nothing else. I call both parents and reach neither. I call the housekeeper’s number on the refrigerator. A man answers.
“Is Isobel home?” I say.
“She cleans today,” he says.
“She’s not cleaning here today,” I say. “I can’t find my grand-mother, and I thought maybe they went somewhere together. Sometimes Isobel drives her to the pool.”
“Isobel don’t have a car.”
“Right,” I say. I remember the van out front, sense he’s not its driver. “They take a taxi. From here. Isobel walks to our house and then they take a taxi to the pool. Swimming’s good exercise for old people.”
“Call the swimming pool,” he says, and hangs up.
Both my grandmother and the housekeeper are not where they’re supposed to be. They’ve escaped. I call my mother again. Her secretary says she’s left for the day due to a family emergency.
“I am her family.”
“Oh, I didn’t recognize your voice. Your grandmother, honey. She’s in stable condition, but she was struck by a car crossing the street this afternoon.”
“Shit,” I say. It’s not a flash card word, but something new I’m practicing.
“They’re at St. Joseph’s.”
I have no way to get to St. Joseph’s. Now my father calls and tells me to stay put. He says my grandmother crosses the street like a turtle. He says that she has been “banged up a bit,” but once she’s healed, it will be time for her to go home. By home, he doesn’t mean here. I tell him Isobel’s been lying about cleaning our house to have her affair. I tell him I don’t care, but I thought he should know.
“We’ll worry about that later,” he says, as though there will be a family meeting to decide what to do.
“How will Grandma get around after she goes back?” I say.
“Will she still go to Weight Watchers?”
“It’s an international organization,” he says.
I call Louisa, tell her that we may have to study at her house from now on.
“I hope you like celery,” she says. “My mother doesn’t want me getting fat.”
“I like celery,” I say. I like most things. It’s something my parents have always valued about me. I look in the fridge to see what remains. Yesterday’s cake, outlined in foil. The grapes we should have eaten instead. Cheese, which people eat for break-fast, lunch, and dinner in the country where my grandmother lives. I don’t know what they eat in the housekeeper’s country or in the country of her lover. Probably cheese.
The doorbell rings. Some kids’ doorbells make a song, but my parents probably never got that far in the doorbell catalog. They keep it simple— one kid, two sedans. Vans are for moms to drive around a brood, or for lovers who have to make deliveries. But there’s no van parked out front. Through the window, I see a man who looks as afraid of me as I feel of him. Without hearing his voice, I know it’s Isobel’s husband. We’re the ones stuck waiting for everyone else to come home.
‘Not That Kind of Sad’ is taken from Rebecca Schiff’s debut collection of short stories, The Bed Moved.