If Cecilia Davenport lived in some other city, she and her husband would have bought a brownstone near a park, and then some other nanny who wasn’t Molly could walk Annabeth and Odette to it.
But then again, Molly thinks as she drives out to Cecilia’s, you don’t generally end up in Architectural Digest like Cecilia and Mr. Davenport have if you live in a place where houses and parks rub shoulders, where there are mundane things like sidewalks.
To even call the part of town where Cecilia lives a neighborhood feels wrong. The angular limestone houses on the other side of Molly’s windshield are set back on their two-acre lots, obscured by dark blots of cedar, hemmed in by powdery cliffs in extremely picturesque but non user-friendly ways. Out here, the closest thing to a sidewalk is the faint path behind the Davenport’s house that their daughter Annabeth likes to walk in the hopes that she and Molly might spot deer.
Molly reaches for her coffee cup in the holder between the seats. Deer. This early, any that jump toward the road would be a tawny blur, and if a deer and her Toyota crossed paths, it wouldn’t be Molly’s Toyota that came out on top.
Not like a deer would, either. If Molly totals her car, where will she be?
Shit creek, no paddle. No way to get to work. Not even Mr. Davenport’s forest green Passat has completely recovered from hitting a deer. For weeks, Molly has skirted its crumpled hood in the garage on her way into the house every morning.
Usually there are landscaping trucks pulled over to the shoulder of the road that she also has to watch out for, but today she’s on her way to work so early that the morning has just started to force pink onto the sky. She has the road to herself. She slows the car and flicks on the turn signal. It’s so easy to overshoot the Davenports’ driveway, so easy to miss the house cantilevered into the hillside, even in full daylight.
At first, Molly figured that the studio attached to Cecilia’s house, the clean white box awash with light that was the focal point of that spread in Architectural Digest, was off limits to her charges, Annabeth and Odette. Because if she — Molly — had had a studio, hers would be. At first, she’d also assumed she’d spend her time at Cecilia’s sitting on the blocky clichéd barge of sofa in the living room, staring through the ever-compelling portal of her phone, while Odette slept the cherubic sleep of a cherubic infant in her crib and Annabeth entertained herself quietly in some far-off room.
But the reality is the list of instructions Cecilia rattles off almost before Molly has time to get down the hallway hung with paintings that Cecilia did back in the 90s, back when she was Molly’s age, a brilliant young artist with henna’d hair hacked into bangs.
When Molly walks into the kitchen, Cecilia is sitting with her elbows on the table, silk blouse unbuttoned to the waist and hiked to one side, attached to the voracious apparatus of the breast pump. “The studio’s a wreck,” Cecilia greets her. “Could you start with that, please?” She raises her voice over the pump’s wheeze.
Molly always finds it hard to look her employer in the eye when she’s pumping. She busies herself at the sink, feeding bits of toast into the disposal, slotting crusted plates into the rack in the dishwasher. “And then the living room,” Cecilia says to her back. “And the downstairs bathroom. Don’t worry about the rest. They always want to see the studio, though.” She pauses. “Ted’s working from home —but Annabeth, honey, Daddy’s working. You can’t bother him. Molly’s in charge. The grocery list’s on the counter. Molly, if you could just brown the roast and get it in the oven I ought to be able to take over when I get back — oh, shit.”
Molly turns around. Cecilia is disengaging herself from the pump’s sinister tubing. She buttons and tucks, staring down at the phone she holds in one hand. “It’s already seven-forty-five and his flight gets in at eight-twenty.” Her heels clatter against the Saltillo tile and Molly understands that Cecilia has drawn the short straw yet again: she has to pick up another finalist for the art department’s tenure-track position at the airport. “Odette’s not up yet. Just give her this when she wakes up. If I’m not back before she starts fussing, there’re a couple more bags in the freezer. But the main thing I wanted to tell you….” She takes a breath. “The main thing is that Annabeth hasn’t been able to find one of the cats. Can you check the closets for Vanessa? Or maybe she got out last night. Somehow. Virginia’s — where is Virginia, Annabeth?”
Annabeth crawls out from under the kitchen table, swallowing sobs. “On my bed,” she says, coming to stand beside her mother.
“I don’t understand how that cat could have gotten out. Could you and Annabeth take a look around for her?”
“Sure,” Molly says. She wipes her hands on her jeans and takes the warm bottle of milk her employer hands her, with shrinking fingers.
The way to make things work, Cecilia explained back when Molly was her favorite graduate student, back before Cecilia’s long slog to tenure, back before Odette arrived on the scene, is to time things so that the babies will always be born in mid-May. That way you’ll at least have the summer before you have to go back to teaching a full load of classes.
Except this time, it didn’t work out quite the way Cecilia had hoped. Odette was born in early August, and Cecilia had to go with Plan B, which was the Nanny. “Oh, and could you grab a couple of bottles of wine while you’re out?” she asks, stooping to kiss Annabeth on the top of her head. “Something that goes with pork roast. I’m sure he’s a drinker.” She gives Molly a look. “Bless you.”
I don’t even like kids, Molly had said as she sat down in the chair in Cecilia’s office on campus, looking across the desk at her former thesis advisor, thinking how much she looked like warmed over dog-shit.
Which turned out to be exactly what Cecilia felt like. She’d gone on medication and things were looking better, but part of the reason everything had unraveled was because she kept feeling extremely anxious, about the baby. She knew Molly was sweet with kids, besides she’d heard through the departmental grapevine that the postgrad fellowship Molly had applied for hadn’t come through and she needed a job.
I don’t even like kids, Molly said again, more faintly. Annabeth adores her, Cecilia keeps saying, but Molly knows the truth: Annabeth hardly knows her. Love is the carrot, dangled, to keep her from quitting.
Love. Certainly not a factor in any job Molly ever had before. Not at the restaurant, not at Sam Flax, not at Kinko’s.
Maybe what she really is, she speculated to Martin right after she started working for the Davenports, is Cecilia’s wife. She and Martin were lying on his futon on the floor of his studio apartment, light beginning to seep around the edges of the curtains, and she needed to throw back the blankets and get ready for work. The previous night she’d had to stay late at Cecilia’s: at midnight the two of them had stood companionably side by side in front of the sink, Cecilia handing her slick plates to put in the dishwasher, tipsy from the chore of hosting the Dean and the Chair of the Art Department and the latest potential hire — really, Cecilia had said, maybe what everybody needs is a wife.
I don’t think I’d mind being somebody’s wife, Molly said softly to Martin.
Listen to you, he said, rolling away from her to eye the ceiling. Martin — whose parting shot would turn out to be so what that you look after her kids? You want a medal? It’s just another shit-job.
“You and Molly’ll have such a nice day together,” Cecilia promises Annabeth, searching her purse for her car keys. “And you can stay up for Mommy’s party tonight. Why don’t you show Molly the new books we got at the library?” She gives Molly another look, weighty with meaning. “Please look around for Vanessa. She can’t have gone far. Call me if you need to.”
The Davenport’s beautiful house is filled with beautiful art. Art Molly loves to look on. So for a while, the stage before this stage, she supposes, she tried to convince herself that was reason enough to stay with the job, reason enough to be happy — the slant of light on the gleaming wooden floors and the quiet, and the milky bubble at the corner of Odette’s mouth whenever she falls asleep clutching a bottle. Which she is not supposed to do, or Molly to allow, because it’ll be bad for the teeth Odette doesn’t actually have yet. The fact is that there are bold still-lifes hung everywhere, even the kitchen, oil paint on canvas, such an orgy of art that Molly can hardly comprehend it. She begins to run a sponge over the marble countertop. How much longer can she rationalize what she’s doing? She needs to go back to school, so she can get her education certificate, so she can teach art to preschoolers, at least until the next downturn, when such positions will once again be cut. It has been months since Cecilia last asked her how her own painting was going, months since Cecilia dropped the name of one friend or another who has a gallery. She has even stopped saying Etsy: has Molly thought about putting her canvases up for sale on Etsy?
“Now,” Annabeth says. “We need to look for Vanessa now.”
Mr. Davenport, also known as Ted, who, in an idiot rhyme Molly made up to make Martin laugh, likes to bake bread —sometimes he actually does bake it. He left a rock hard heel of a loaf on the counter for her to chuck in the garbage, a fairy tale trail of crumbs for her to brush into the sink. He certainly doesn’t have time to be anybody’s wife.
She lobs the end of the loaf into the mouth of the trash can and looks down at Annabeth consideringly. There’s the studio to straighten, the roast, the wine that needs to be purchased. “As soon as Odette wakes up,” she tells her charge.
In the beginning, it was easy for Molly to think of Annabeth as a type. Those Botticelli curls! What was their provenance? They surely hadn’t been inherited from Mr. Davenport. Annabeth was a type, the sort who reeled off the names of dinosaurs and wanted to go to the grocery store in sparkly dresses. Indulged daughter of bright parents. What might it do to such a child, Molly wondered aloud to Martin one night, what might it do to a child to always have in front of it the evidence that it had once been its mother’s beloved? For baby Annabeth had been Cecilia’s muse, in paintings that swathed their domesticity in a soft Dutch light that shouldn’t appeal.
But it did. No good could come of it, she’d say to Martin now. No good can come from any of it, she thinks as she stands at the sink. She wrings water from the sponge and places it on the porcelain soap dish. “Now?” Annabeth persists from the doorway.
In her head, Molly runs through Cecilia’s instructions. There’s the living room to pick up, the studio. The groceries.
The list slops over onto her weekends and time off — Cecilia’s dry-cleaning! The Passat’s oil change. Annabeth’s birthday. Annabeth’s birthday had meant a Saturday trip to the high-end children’s boutique. Sprout. And that had been her and Martin’s undoing. Because he thought the two of them were headed out to buy groceries.
The thing was (Molly gets this), her boyfriend’s courage quailed. When they stood in cement-floored Sprout, with its ductwork exposed overhead like a cardiac patient’s rib cage, he glanced around at the other shoppers and lost heart. The other people in Sprout were only a few years older than he and Molly were, but they were white-teethed and beautifully-dressed and shellacked with perfection and the babies in the strollers they pushed were named Blithe and Tweed. In all likelihood, Molly suspected, they would exit Sprout for nurseries uncluttered by bad design or shoddy workmanship.
Martin was only thirty, two years older than Molly; he just wasn’t ready. Being a child, he said, grinning to show that he understood the absurdity of what he was saying, was one thing. Having a child was another. It didn’t do any good to say she wasn’t in any hurry. He saw her at Sprout — the way she’d been fingering that fuchsia tulle skirt that cost almost as much Cecilia paid her a week.
The fuchsia tulle skirt that Annabeth is now wearing, in fact. Annabeth watches Molly closely as Molly lifts her sister from the crib, as she wipes and wraps and then, draping Odette over one shoulder, a heavy mink stole of baby, walks into the kitchen to warm the bottle gently.
“Daddy said if Vanessa doesn’t come home, it might be coyotes,” Annabeth says, standing beside her. “But I know Vanessa’s smarter than coyotes.”
“I do, too,” Molly says. Ted’s refusal to mince words with Annabeth sometimes leaves her wordless. “Run pick up all those Legos you left in your mom’s studio so I can vacuum later. After Odette’s bottle we’ll go outside and look for her. I promise.”
People are always promising Annabeth things, she has noticed. “If Vanessa and a coyote met on a dark night,” she adds. “I’d put my money on Vanessa.”
Vanessa and her sister Virginia usually sleep wherever Molly needs to clean. They lie on the beds and lick at each other’s ears; they subside into their dozy fugue. They spit when she tries to move them. When Cecilia was still just one of Molly’s professors, rather than her employer, Molly wouldn’t have pegged her as a pet lover — but of course. Cecilia loves Vanessa and Virginia with all her heart, when she has time to.
Molly’s first job for the Davenports, a trial-run, had been to house-sit and feed Vanessa and Virginia. Cecilia had been pregnant with Odette. She and Ted and Annabeth were going to make one last trip. Cecilia’s swan-song was the way she kept describing it, to Big Sur. No point going to Napa, since she was pregnant. Two times a day for a week Molly shook dry nuggets of food into Vanessa and Virginia’s chipped china bowls; she dirtied one glass, one knife, one bowl, one spoon, and slept uneasily in the guest room in pajamas she’d never wear in her own apartment or at Martin’s. The morning Cecilia was due back, she dutifully wiped away any residue of herself that might be left around the house. The rings on the table left by her cup of coffee. An unintentional dog-ear she’d given a page of the latest issue of Art in America. The cats’ nails clicked on the floorboards as they padded down the hallway past the beautiful paintings and came to twine themselves around her legs in the kitchen. The house sounded differently depending on who was in it. Now, when it’s just her and Annabeth and Odette, it takes a giant breath, holds it in. The minute Cecilia walks through the door and drops her oversized bag on the floor, it exhales.
Molly can always tell when Ted works from home, even though the door of his office will be tightly closed. She hates it — his voice. On and on — and on — too low to ever make out the words but always there, even when he stands at the kitchen counter slicing bread from the loaf, swiping whole-grain mustard from the jar, a break, he calls it. Still talking, always talking, attached to his Bluetooth.
“Vanessa!” Annabeth bawls.
What is Molly to make of her employer, who named her now-elderly cats after Virginia Woolf and her sister? Who wears the charcoal one would expect, augmented with touches of the tangerine and bottle green favored by female professors with artistic sensibilities of a certain age? The first time Molly stood in the kitchen during one of Cecilia’s parties, hired to collect dirty wine glasses and then wash them, she’d felt one way about Cecilia. Now, sometimes, she feels another.
“Vanessa,” she yells, startling Odette, strapped to her chest. Annabeth stoops to examine something —nothing? — on the ground and then trots across the yard that is less yard than it is landscape: artful spikes of century plant, feathery grasses Molly doesn’t know the names of. “Wait, Annabeth. I don’t think she’s down there.”
But Annabeth has already started down the trail that snakes from the property line to the creek, skirting cedar and steplike protrusions of limestone. As Molly hurries to catch up, Odette’s head thumps against her breastbone.
When Odette sleeps in the sling, her head lolls in a way that used to bother Molly. Babysitters and Shaken-Baby-Syndrome will always be forever wedded in her mind, because of the trial televised back when she was little, the au pair in, where? Cambridge? Chicago? She still pictures the au pair’s indifferent moon-shaped face as she sat in the courtroom.
What if Molly jars Odette? What if she drops her, what if she loses her temper? What if she falls down this hill and just breaks her?
The thing is, Martin said, the thing is, Cecilia’s faith in Molly has sucked Molly in. Sucka! he said, stroking her hair. Martin thought about her, Molly now realizes, much the way Cecilia thinks of Virginia and Vanessa. As a pet. Don’t think for a red-hot second she doesn’t use you, he added.
At first Molly worked for Cecilia two days a week while Cecilia taught her seminar and survey course, and then that turned into five days, because maybe then Cecilia would be able to paint again. And then Cecilia and Ted started seeing their marriage counselor on late Friday afternoons and what with traffic sometimes they couldn’t get through the door until after seven— Molly just took over cooking supper, too, and bathing the girls and tucking them into bed.
And then, there always were gallery openings and lectures Cecilia was supposed to attend; they might tart them up with wine and cheese, she said to Molly (tartly), but it was also her job. When Cecilia and Ted got home, he immediately padded upstairs to their bedroom, but Cecilia sat at the bar in the kitchen, hooking the stocking feet she had divorced from their high heels when she walked in onto the rungs like a schoolgirl. Eating Molly’s leftovers straight from the Tupperware —having weaned her of making her stand-by meal, of microwaved hotdogs. Cecilia ravenously scraped her plate as she reported the latest departmental gossip. Which Molly had begun to find more and more foreign, like the internecine squabbles of kings.
Or they talked mediums. Cecilia had switched to acrylics when she was pregnant with Odette. Now, even though she had switched back to oils, her paintings just wouldn’t come right.
Molly can’t spot Annabeth; there’s the evergreen bulk of a cedar between them. There’s a faint gritty smell to the air she has come to associate with money. Do Ted and Cecilia have any? They don’t think so. “Here, kitty, kitty,” she calls without much energy.
Cecilia leaves a stash of bills always on the kitchen counter, tens and twenties Molly can use in emergencies, weighed down with a fossil of the sort you might find on this trail; it’s a Cretaceous-era clam-shell, heart-shaped, the size of a fist. Cecilia has told Molly that people call fossils like that deer hearts. Or is it dear hearts? Molly wonders. Cecilia also says Molly should use the money weighed down by the fossil for take-out, for pizza or Chinese. But not more often than once every couple of weeks. Molly strains to see down the hill. “Annabeth!”
Odette makes a mewling sound against her chest. Odette isn’t that much bigger than a cat herself. Sometimes at night, when Molly dreams of work, that’s what Odette is. Four flower-besprigged bowls are set on the Saltillo tile in the kitchen instead of two, and Molly walks through the silent house, stooping to look under beds, checking the closets.
It doesn’t make any sense, Martin said once, why people want one. Molly had been telling him about Vanessa and Virginia, and he had meant a pet, but she had kept quiet because he almost seemed to be talking about something else. Back when she lived in the dorm, she had taken part in a similar-sounding discussion, along with her hallmates, up late at night. How can you have children when there’s global warming? somebody always asked, and they’d all nod sagely. How can you?
“Annabeth!” She starts down the slope, hugging her arms to her chest both to comfort Odette and to keep her from jouncing.
The creek has dried to less than a trickle, but the rocky barrier of it doesn’t stop Annabeth. She already stands twenty or so feet downstream from Molly with her hands on her hips.
“Look,” Annabeth calls.
“I don’t want to carry your sister out there,” Molly shouts, thinking — shit creek, no paddle. As usual, she set out without a plan. What if Annabeth is looking down at the body of Vanessa?
Molly picks her way over the rocks and stares down at the jumble of bones scattered like pick-up sticks across the surface of the tilted stone. For a second, she can’t help thinking: Kid. Annabeth’s femur and forearm would be about the same size as this.
But what lies there on top of the rock is not Vanessa. In fact, it has not been anything for a very long time. She saw a photograph once in National Geographic. Sun melted ice; a glacier retreated. The process revealed all that was left, a mummified sack of bone and sinew.
But the dirty bas-relief spread in front of them is not quite that, either. “Is it a skeleton?” Annabeth asks, crouching on her hands and knees to look at it more closely.
“Not exactly.” Molly lifts Odette from the sling to soothe her. Odette turns her head away, face red with her desire not to be jollied. Jiggling her, Molly lowers herself to the rock. It’s something. “It’s a fossil of something.”
“We discovered it,” Annabeth says. “I did. Don’t you think it should be in the museum?”
Indulged child of bright parents — Annabeth knows museums. Even Molly takes her to them, pushing Odette’s stroller past dusty habitats encased behind glass on afternoons when the temperature goes up over a hundred, reading placards out loud. Coastal Plain, Trans-Pecos. Cecilia has been clear about the rules from the get-go. When Molly is in charge, there can be no television, no computer, no cell phone.
Molly honestly doesn’t pacify Annabeth with her phone — much. What is Annabeth’s hand uncovering as it brushes away grit? A skeletal wing? A vaguely bird-like skull? Annabeth gestures for Molly’s phone, and Molly hands it over without a word. Annabeth holds up the phone and begins to shoot pictures; above; from the side; close up with her sister’s little bootie pulled from her foot and placed carefully in the frame. For scale, she says, peering at the results on the screen. The museum will want to know that.
Now she carries the phone up the trail as carefully as a handmaiden with a chalice. “Chickens are dinosaurs,” she says over one shoulder.
Even the pea gravel in the Davenport’s driveway contains curved yellow toenails of limestone. Coiled snail shells pock walkways and stud the slab-sided buildings downtown. Molly never looked twice at them. “I’ve heard that.”
“But this would be a really giant chicken.”
“It would be,” Molly agrees as they cross the yard. “As big as you.”
Maybe Annabeth has found something that matters. Stranger things have happened. “Don’t drop the phone,” she adds as Annabeth yanks open the back door and runs down the hallway to her father’s office.
By the time Molly catches up, Annabeth has already flung open the door. Ted’s sanctuary, Cecilia calls it — is there something bitter in her voice or is she joking? — with its creamily-painted walls and spotlit floor-to-ceiling bookcases which display his spoils from his stint in the Peace Corps. Cowrie shells, rattles, all vaguely museum-like themselves, no wonder Annabeth’s thoughts immediately ran in that direction. Annabeth stands beside her father’s desk chair. He sits with his phone clamped to his ear; he stares down at his other hand, which holds the phone Annabeth handed him: Molly’s.
“A dinosaur,” Annabeth is chattering. “It should go in the museum. Shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t it? We need to call them. Will you call them, Daddy?”
Where? her father mouths. Who?
It’s not that Molly doesn’t sympathize with the expression on his face. A tinny voice seeps from the phone pressed to his ear; he is nodding; he is scrolling; he seems to be weighing the phones he holds in each hand. “Daddy,” Annabeth persists. “We need to call. Now.” Her words run together.
Molly holds out her hand for the phone and puts the other on Annabeth’s shoulder to nudge her from the room. The shrill little voice at Ted’s ear is increasingly persistent.
“Annabeth, honey, fossils like that are everywhere,” her father whispers, hand cupped over the receiver. “you know that. We don’t need to call the museum.” He shoves the phone into Molly’s hand, an almost convulsive gesture. “Molly can take care of it.” He is like a diner pushing himself back from the table — too full, too much. Molly takes Annabeth by the elbow; she’s walking deferentially backward to the door. Ted flaps one hand at her. Later.
A good nanny would — what would a good nanny do? A good nanny distracts when you cry, of course. Snack? Walk? Story? A good nanny dissembles. Your mom will be home soon. A good nanny doesn’t spend the day sitting on your bedroom floor beside you, pouring over the pictures in books, because maybe that just makes it all worse, maybe reading books like this for months is what gave you the idea in the first place. A good nanny —
Why would anyone want to be a good nanny? Molly wonders. She yanks the vacuum cleaner by its hose over the bump of the threshold into Cecilia’s studio. She has bundled Odette back into her crib for her midmorning nap. Annabeth sprawls on the white sofa in the living room, eyes glued to — what else? — Dora the Explorer.
One side of Cecilia’s studio is stacked floor to ceiling with quantities of the medium Cecilia bought back in the nineties for little more than a song. Cecilia’s medium: all the linoleum that the last independently-run hardware store in Taylor, Texas had in stock when it went out of business. Explosive, expansive florals in coral and jade green; deco grids that scream out Bauhaus. Although maybe medium is not exactly the right word. All this old linseed oil and pine rosin linoleum is just the material, the canvas, so to speak, that Cecilia paints upon.
Or used to paint upon. Her early work hangs on the walls, but Molly can’t detect the faintest ghostly whiff of turpentine in the studio. She stands in the center of the studio and takes a deep breath. To remind herself — of what? Walking over to the paint-spattered table, she touches the tips of the sable brushes stood up in an old soup can. Hoping against hope—
But the brushes aren’t damp, are never damp. She plugs in the vacuum cleaner and turns it on.
The first night Cecilia ever left her in charge, she and Ted had had a dinner to go to, and then a reception, and then one thing had led to another and it had gotten later and later.
A figure-eight of wooden traintrack covers the floor of the studio, running beside, between, brightly-colored structures, a village of Legos. The same ones Annabeth promised she’d put up. Molly crouches on the floor and begins to scoop up handful after handful, tipping them into the bin on the floor.
The first time Cecilia left her in charge, it got later and later. Molly had sat on the sofa with Annabeth on her lap, listening for the sound of the tires of the forest green Passat crunching up the fossils in the gravel driveway. Her texts, first to Cecilia, and then to Ted, went unanswered.
Just go without me, she had finally given up and texted Martin, who was waiting for her to get home. Eventually he had. To the party that would turn out to be the place where he’d talk to Brianna for the very first time.
Out at the Davenports’ that night, Annabeth had had the glassy stare that portended fever. Her temperature kept climbing. 101 degrees, 102. 103. It wasn’t the end of the world, Molly knew. But she just was the nanny. She searched through the medicine cabinet in the master bathroom for children’s Tylenol another time, pushing aside the dome of Cecilia’s diaphragm left drying on its bottom shelf.
She yanks at the vacuum cleaner and it trundles behind her. She is tired of stooping. Tired of picking up things. She moves the wand of the vacuum cleaner across the floor.
Up goes a little Lego wizard, up goes a little golden-haired princess. Up goes a corner of the castle they live in. There are so many little plastic blocks — it’s easy to convince herself that Annabeth will never notice the absence of any of these minor characters at all.