If it were my house, I would have opened the pantry and said something to the effect of, “make yourselves some soup.” But it was not my house and not my child, so I cooked up Mac-n-Cheese as instructed. I could tell it was not Kraft by the thickness of the noodles and the banal hue of the cheese sauce. Mrs. Wilkey had made the macaroni herself, which I was very grateful for but obligated to decline. I am not 25 any longer, and my metabolism isn’t what it used to be. It is now the metabolism of a 28 year-old post-sexual woman of some scholarship.
I think partly Mrs. Wilkey chose Mac-n-Cheese because the noodles are soft and therefore do not require knives or other such perilous devices, though this is all subjective based on your perception of the fork. When she left me to baby-sit Billy for the night she said, “All you have to do for dinner, Ms. Covington, is heat up the Mac-n-Cheese. Don’t use the oven if you don’t feel comfortable with it; the microwave will do. Everything is child-locked except the silverware drawer, which is all-ages-locked on account of Grandma. I’ve left some forks out for you and Billy.” Which means that even if I wanted to give Billy some ice-cream, I would not be able to. I understand her reasoning—Grandma Wilkey cannot be depended on to behave in a rational predictable manner. I’m just saying that, besides rendering ice-cream an impossibility, also I need a spoon to mix honey into my coffee.
Mr. And Mrs. Wilkey had a fundraiser to go to for their church. It was the first time they had asked me to baby-sit, as I was Billy’s tutor, not his babysitter, and had actually never stayed with a child past the hour of 5 pm, after which, for all I know, they turn into pumpkins. This remark, of course, is a whimsy of mine, as children do not have the physical capabilities to transform into vegetables. I may not teach Billy biology, but I know some about it. I teach him History, Social Studies, Math and English, though perhaps not as extensively as I would like. Billy’s curriculum is a special case because Mrs. Wilkey has him on the Accelerated Christian Education home-school program, which means she gets to pick all the texts. Obviously, we read the Bible for English. I’m not making a judgment on that. But when I was in fifth grade, we read the Bible and a few classics, among them such greats as John Steinbeck and William Shakespeare. Mrs. Wilkey teaches him in science and religion and I have no knowledge of what either course consists of nor would I tell you my opinion if I did know, that being her own private business.
However, when I was in fifth grade, we read a chapter on evolutionary biology so we could choose ourselves whether it was true.
I was not home-schooled. I went to school in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where my father was a sociology professor and my mother was a benefit to those around her. My father used to say he was the last liberal in the state. My mother and I were apolitical. I think she was actually conservative, but feared that political differences would cause indigestion at the dinner table. She kept quiet about her opinions and let him have his. I didn’t have many opinions. I did have concerns—I certainly wasn’t nihilistic or an advocate of any other French philosophy, popular as they were at the time. It was and remains to this day my belief that every man should look out for himself. We all have a lot of personal choices to make that no politician is going to hold our hand through. Get married or stay single; have kids or help the kids already had; teach at public school or home school an evangelical boy who is oblivious to the outside world; make a lot more money teaching at public school or make the right choice; white toast or wheat toast. These are choices that we all make everyday. Have you ever called the president to help you make them? No. He is a very busy man. We are all very busy men and women.
I sat down with Billy to eat, even though only one of us was eating.
“Would you like to lead the prayer?” He asked. Billy assumes everyone is a Southern Baptist like himself because he lives in a vacuum. He is a very religious boy, in a mystical way. He genuflects at intersections among other natural replications of the cross. If he is not able to genuflect (say, we are in a car driving downtown, and there are many intersections along the way, and genuflecting every second is a safety hazard in that it distracts the driver who is sensitive to motion in the rearview mirror), he lowers his head and crosses himself. I have never seen Mrs. Wilkey and definitely never seen Mr. Wilkey genuflect. I believe Billy got it from a YouTube video. Mrs. Wilkey does not know he watches YouTube videos, but she would not mind, I don’t think, if she knew Billy exclusively watches taped church services from developing countries.
“I do not know the prayer, Billy. Why don’t you lead?” I said. Billy lowered his head and closed his eyes with his hand out to me. I took it.
“We thank you,” he recited slowly, “Father God, Lord of all Creation, for these and all our many blessings that are sent from heaven above, and we will never forget who is our true provider. Amen.”
It sounded as if the prayer hadn’t been ingrained in his tongue’s muscle. That’s how slow he said it. Though really it must have been by now, which means that his projecting at a speed of two syllables per second was deliberate. I did know the prayer. I had heard it many times at the houses of my girl friends growing up, and actually once before in this very household. My first day tutoring Billy I heard it. The Wilkeys had asked me over for dinner and I had not by that time adopted my present ideology which is never stay for dinner at the Wilkeys’. Mrs. Wilkey cooked steamed vegetables, roasted potatoes and chicken breasts, which was all very lovely. Mr. Wilkey led the prayer, all in one breath.
Then Mrs. Wilkey gave a few words of gratitude. “Thank you for Billy,” she said, “who is the rock our house was founded on; thank you for Ms. Covington, who tutored us both about the Babylonians today; and thank you for Grandma, who is still holding out strong.” When she finished Mr. Wilkey inhaled the peas he had been poking at during her sermon and inquired about the application process of becoming a home-school tutor. Which I answered to the best of my knowledge and innovation. He informed me what he wanted Billy to receive: management skills. “Time management, self management,” he said, and I thought he said “face management,” though looking back it was probably “space management.” Every time he said “management,” he tapped the table. He syncopated his points with his hand as if each knock were a vehicle his words would need in order to pass through my ears. When he finished his oration Mrs. Wilkey added, “But more importantly, a good, Christian instinct.” More importantly. Now you will never know whether I have a personal bias toward either Mr. or Mrs. Wilkey because I prefer to keep these things professional, but I will admit that I admired that woman at that moment. She had real faith in home schooling. I was going to teach her son how to be a good person. I was petrified.
“And thank you for my lessons today,” Billy continued, as his macaroni grew cold and stiff, “for the arrival of mail, even though none was for me, and for Grandma, whom I know you will redeem with blood and not allow to suffer in hellfire.”
“Of course, not, Billy. That’s repulsive.”
“Amen,” I said. He began to eat. “Why do you think your own Grandma is going to hell?”
“She’s a witch,” he said.
“No sir—what do you say in this house?”
“She’s a sorceress,” he said. Mrs. Wilkey had a rule where we weren’t supposed to say words that rhyme with coarse words. “Glass” was always “cup.” When Mr. Wilkey protested, she’d say, “It sounds bad enough to be bad.” I don’t think this stunted Billy’s vocabulary, because he was an excellent reader. It was merely one more reflex he had to embed in the brain among the many superstitious regulations he imposed upon himself. Billy was usually very good about this rule.
“Besides,” I said. “Grandma Wilkey is not a sorceress. She is your Grandma, and you love her very much.”
“Just because I love her doesn’t mean she’s saved,” said Billy. “Mom says a change of heart is needed.”
“Your mom did not say that about Grandma. She meant that about criminals and such.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It sounds true to me.”
The thing about Grandma Wilkey is she is crazy. She calls herself a witch. She doesn’t walk around with a broomstick or stew up curses and concoctions but she does a whole crew of other crazy business. Billy and I like to play Mancala after math. It’s this African stone game with marbles. You try to get all the marbles in your slot before your opponent does. Mrs. Wilkey adores it because it keeps Billy from his imaginings. Billy is the type of kid that can play for hours if you just give him a garden plant or other some such. I say garden plant because one day while I was grading his homework he spent the whole hour outside, standing in the same place, right next to a potted plant. He pretended his hands were some kind of creature, jutting out the index and middle finger like limbs. I couldn’t hear him play. Just watched as he ran his fingers along the branches, making them leap from leaf to leaf. Mrs. Wilkey wishes he were more athletic. All the same, when you’re alone it’s much easier to play make-believe than football.
Billy liked to give the Mancala marbles nationalities.
So this one time while we were playing Mancala I started hearing this haunting whooo noise, like wind through a tunnel. I thought it was the washing machine, or some other like appliance broken and running with water. When I left the room to check it out, I immediately knew what it was. Grandma Wilkey. I go into her bedroom and she’s got her head on the bed, moaning into the blanket, on her knees. I said, “Grandma Wilkey—what’s wrong?” She said, “Horrible, horrible, it’s too horrible.” I said, “What’s too horrible?’” She lifted her face from the blanket and I nearly screamed. White paste was smeared all over her face—like toothpaste or something, thick and crusty as it dried—It must have been toothpaste because there were also tiny green and red streaks in it. Crest. It had rubbed off some on her blanket. “The game is poisoned, the game is poisoned!” She shrieked. “I poisoned Billy’s game!” I asked if she meant the Mancala marbles. “I poisoned the marbles! I poisoned them all!” She said. “Wash his hands before it gets him!”
I knew she had been overtaken by her condition which is crazed but I took Billy to the bathroom to wash his hands, anyway. She watched from her door. When we were done she came over and hugged him tightly, apologizing for being a witch. I told her she’s not a witch, mainly so Billy wouldn’t get ideas. “I’m a witch, I’m a witch! I’m a damn fool witch!” She said. And that’s not the occasion but the motivation for Mrs. Wilkey locking the utensil drawer under my charge.
When I say that Grandma Wilkey is crazed I should specify that in her youth she was a communist. I found this out from Tom Tulloch, the bartender at Murphy’s Pub in town. No one’s name is Murphy and I doubt no one’s name ever was, Marion being a protestant town. “Murphy” excuses the alcohol—we didn’t bring it here, “Murphy” says. Some idolatrous Irish named Murphy did. But since it’s here, let’s have a drink.
According to Tom she was the only imprisoned woman in Marion for the entire decade of the 1950s. “According to Tom,” you should know, is a phrase synonymous with “according to the bartender who is a conspiracy theorist who would accuse a paying customer of stealing a whole box of Splenda before he even gave her the chance to say, ‘Hello my name is so-and-so pleased to meet you I take my coffee with honey.’” To his credit he has since apologized.
“I swear to you, she was red,” He said to me. “This was when I was in elementary school in Jackson—she was a teacher, not at my school,” he said this with his hands up, as if this detail proved his candor. “At the one nearby. She was a union activist who went to a few of the Communist meetings when it first came to Jackson. Her name was on the mailing list when it was exposed. If she had just apologized, not much would have happened, but she insisted on incriminating herself by saying she was a socialist when everyone else in Marion is either a Republican or under 18.”
“That is not true Tom,” I said. “For one, I am a Democrat.”
“That may be so, but you are a Republican Democrat. Grandma Wilkey was the first Socialist Socialist. She had to go.”
“I find your logic in the one, absurd, in the two, insufferable, and in the three, shocking. How on this ever-reeling sphere is a single mother supposed to raise a child from prison? I assume she didn’t get her teaching position back.”
“Nope. She went north. Didn’t hear about them again until John Wilkey brought her back as a crazed. It’s a testament to his character that he didn’t send her to an institution.” But if that’s a testament to anything it’s to Mrs. Wilkey’s faith in healing, because in my opinion a man of character would take his mother on a stroll in the afternoons, or at least procure for her a taxonomical picture-book of floral arrangements.
I wish I could tell you I returned that sentiment to Tom Tulloch in an offhand quip, but it was something I came up with much later as I was brushing my teeth.
After we cleaned up dinner Billy and I went to the living room to play blocks. The blocks are actually dominoes sent from the Accelerated Christian Education mathematics department as a supplement to the textbook. We did not use the dominoes for math class. Billy used them to construct imaginary cities.
“What’s that?” I asked. Billy was stacking the dominoes three by three in a square.
“It’s my house.”
“No—My future house. When I am an adult.” He continued stacking. I started stacking my own little stack. “I’ve already made the city hall,” he said. “Make a different building.”
“And who said this is the city hall?” I asked.
“It’s five by five. All city halls are five by five.”
“This just happens to be my apartment building.”
“What’s an apartment building?”
“A building with many private rooms or apartments for different individuals.”
“Okay. Those are five by four.” Billy created rules when we played games. He had a very scientific mind, prone to classification. The problem was his was a personal science, where items and living matter behaved consistently according to the natural laws only he perceived. I found it all impossible to predict. He once told me not to drink coffee because it quickened the heartbeat. “You only get so many heartbeats in a lifetime,” he said, as if the organ were some sort of trust fund I was about to splurge. Another time, when I told him to bring a jacket into town, he told me he never got cold. I told him that was ridiculous. He told me that cold was a figment of my imagination and if I just loosened my muscles up, I wouldn’t feel it at all.
You got the sense that once Billy created such a fact it commanded him. There was no creative contradiction, no dismantling of the law once he laid it down. The same day Grandma Wilkey accused herself of poisoning the Mancala marbles, I found Billy sitting at the living room table drawing. He was sucking at something. He’s not allowed hard candy nor gum, so I told him to spit it out. Out came three Mancala marbles. When I asked him why he was sucking on those, when his Grandma specifically told him not to go near them, he said he wasn’t one to play with fate. That he was supposed to get poisoned that day. It was just like that. No fear of his Grandma, no fear of the marble. I don’t think he wanted to die. He was just obedient to the Rules—the rules that had first set and now continued to set his seeming world in motion.
“Who lives in your future house?” I asked.
“Grandma and I.”
“Where do your parents live?” He looked up at me like I had just uttered the single-most moronic remark of the century.
“Here. In this house.” He slapped the floor. “Obviously.” By some distinction in his rationale it was acceptable for he and Grandma to live in a house made of dominoes yet ridiculous for his parents.
“Are you married? In your future house?”
I crossed my arms in a challenging manner. “To whom?” I asked. I didn’t think Billy had ever met a girl his age.
He stopped building and exhaled in exasperation like I had just asked him which animal cow-milk comes from.
“To Grandma,” he said, flinging up his arms. There were certain societal conventions of which Billy was unaware. Romance was one of them.
“You can’t marry your Grandma.”
“Says everyone. Says the law. You have to marry someone you love. In a romantic way.”
He shrugged. “Not in this city.” He slipped a stone from his pocket and placed it in the middle of his future house.
“Why on earth did you bring that inside? Throw that out.”
“I need it!”
“You do not need it; this is a play game; that is a dirty rock; throw it out.”
He narrowed his eyes, seething, pressing his lips tight. For a moment I thought he was going to throw the rock at me.
Instead, he quietly put the rock down and tensed his jaw, keeping his gaze on me. “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock.”
“That’s Matthew,” I said. Not to impress him. Just to let him know I knew and was not extremely impressed, though really it always gave me shivers when he quoted. He had a way of animating scripture, of making it more physical than I believe was intended.
“And I don’t think the idea is that the house is founded on a real rock—”
“Well, that’s what it says,” he said firmly. “And it’s my bath time, anyway." I looked at my watch. It was exactly 7:30 p.m.
“All right. You go get the water ready, I’ll pick up the blocks.” He scampered up the stairs. If it were my child, he would be taking showers by now and alone, instead of relying on the supervision of an adult. Mrs. Wilkey had specifically left me with the instructions to oversee him as he bathed. To make sure he scrubbed his whole head of hair and the bottoms of his feet. To open up a towel as he got out so he could walk right into the warmth of it. Of course, there are many ways to raise a child.
I, for example, would raise my child to be a self-sufficient person.
As I was putting the dominoes away on the bookshelf I came across a book I hadn’t seen since my own years in elementary education. Natural Theology, a book by William Paley, which argues the case for intelligent design from natural complexities. I had to read an essay from it in grade school. I remember my father calling the school to speak to the principal when he asked me what I was learning and I told him Paley. I recall being very embarrassed about the incident, embarrassed because I liked the essay. There was something about a watch, I remember. I opened the book up.
“There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance without a contriver; order without choice—”
“The bath is full.” Billy was standing in the doorway. He stood staring at me curiously.
I shut the book and put it back hastily, still a little embarrassed about my fondness for it. “What were you reading?”
“My chemistry book?”
I shuddered. Visibly. “Is this your chemistry book?” He nodded. “Natural Theology? I thought it was your religion book.”
“It’s my favorite book. Look at this.” He opened it up to a picture in the middle of an elephant. The elephant’s various anatomical features were labeled: proboscis, tusks, ears. Each feature had a short explanation as to its function.
As an educated woman, I found the primary use of this text in the Wilkey household inappropriate. As a University of Virginia educated woman, mind you, at least for two out of four years. Rest assured that I left that place out of my own volition, due to the liberal arts program being a little too liberal for my taste. I will spare you the details of that story, on account of our being people of letters, and the story being one of pornography.
I will say this: if you think it is uncomfortable and not particularly edifying to be the third wheel to a couple, imagine you are in your dorm room, reading for class, the sixth wheel to an orgy.
Be that as it may, I did learn enough at that institution to be put off by the notion of Billy’s education filtering through the lens of an 18th century theologian. I suppose I always knew that he wasn’t really taking a science course. I knew that Mrs. Wilkey felt strongly about teaching Billy science herself. I suppose because of personal time constraints she might have bundled it with religion. She spends a considerable amount of time at the Marion School for the Deaf. It was not my business what she taught Billy and whether she called “The Lord’s Prayer” “thermodynamics.” I was her employee, and as such followed her instruction. I never asked questions, and she never asked in which half of a college degree was I deficient.
When it was time for bed, Billy got down on his knees with his elbows on the mattress. I settled into the armchair. He began to pray.
“God bless Mommy, God bless Daddy, God bless Grandma, God save Grandma, God bless Ms. Covington, God bless Grace, God bless Michael, God bless Ruth—”
“Billy,” I said. “Who in the world are you blessing?” The only names that boy had been exposed to beyond this house were prefixed with the title “Dr.”
He pointed to his bookshelf and there I saw not rows of books but rows of Playmobile figurines.
“Couldn’t you just say, ‘God bless my toys’ for now? And then pray for them in your head once you get in bed? For my sake?”
He considered for a moment. “I can only pray on my knees.”
“Why is that?”
“I’m not sure. Dad told me to pray on my knees. I think it’s because God can hear you best from that position.” He shrugged. “Probably something to do with the angle the knee-joints give to the rest of your body in relation to heaven.”
“All right. You can get out of bed and finish your prayers after I finish reading you your bedtime story. Deal?”
“Which story would you like me to read?”
“The Watchmaker.” He spoke nonchalantly, tossing his eyes casually to the ceiling like they were Sunday morning hotcakes. But I caught his eyes when they darted back toward me and they were lemur-sized. Intent.
“The Paley essay? The essay in your science book, Billy?”
“No. The story of the Watchmaker. You know. Before Genesis.” I studied him to make sure he wasn’t having me on. He was staring back, equally studious of my expression. I got the feeling he was testing me.
“Do you have a copy of the story?”
“Probably,” said Billy. “Though most people know it from memory, right? I just want the story of it. The historical part. The way it actually happened.”
I looked around his room. On his bedside table was a copy of the Bible. I flipped through it to the beginning, hoping the story would be on a piece of paper or some such, tucked inside. It was not.
“Mom usually just says it from memory.”
“Hold on.” I walked briskly to the living room. I was pretty sure he meant the Paley essay, but it wasn’t much of a story. It was just a metaphor—no plot at all. Any kind of fiction in the traditional sense would have had to be fabricated by Mrs. Wilkey and even then I couldn’t imagine her telling some such epic of a man, let’s say, who loses his watch and must find this Watchmaker or other such unfounded nonsense. I quickly looked over the bookshelves in the living room for a novel I could distract Billy with, or maybe a picture book from his youth. I found nothing but the texts from the A.C.E. I brought the Paley book into Billy’s room.
“Okay,” I said. “The Watchmaker.” I took out my reading glasses and began to read.
“Chapter I. State of The Argument. In crossing a heath, suppose I—” I broke off for a moment. I was mildly disturbed by the prospect of posing this “argument” as a story. I had never read a story that began with a chapter that so bluntly confessed itself to be an argument. Also, it was in the first person, and this felt belligerent to me—I have no recollection of ever crossing a heath, and I certainly wouldn’t expect to come to any theological conclusions if I ever did, so please don’t impose your suppositions, Mr. Paley. I decided to tell the story from the third person.
“In crossing a heath,” I began again, “one particular man pitched his foot against a stone.” I glanced at Billy. His lemur eyes shone the way cats’ and does’ do in the night, glazed with fear. I assumed he noticed my allegorical alterations. He did not, however, protest. I continued, making more little alterations here and there where I deemed fit. “When wondering how the stone came to be there, the man decided that it had been there forever. However, in his next stride the man discovered upon the ground a watch. When pondering to himself the origins of this mechanism, he did not conclude that the watch had always been there, as the stone had. Instead, he decided that its parts were put together for a purpose. This purpose and the mechanism had both been designed by a maker. The man decided that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer who formed it for some such purpose the man observed it to have. There was a maker who comprehended its construction and designed its use.”
Billy was now staring at the clock on his wall, rapt in awe. He was not blinking. Water pellets gathered at the bottoms of his lids and spilled over down his cheeks and still he did not blink. I was all a sudden saddened by this show of reverence. I felt a sudden that I was playing a part, performing a ruse that I did not want to take credit for any longer. I was overcome with a sense of loneliness not for myself but something inside—a loneliness of emotion, in the sense that awe seemed to be the sole emotion Billy carried with him. I did not detect delight on his face, nor mischief, nor any of the more critical shades. I don’t think Billy had ever heard a fiction. He had heard the stories of the Bible, but he was such an honest boy…if I told him my flesh were green he would see it.
“In crossing the heath, a young boy came across the same mechanism,” I said. I lowered my eyes to the page as if I were reading it there. This was more difficult than you might expect as there were words there to confuse me. I felt Billy shift in my vision’s periphery. These alterations, he could probably tell, would be a good deal more fitting for him personally. Firstly, a bedtime story should always have a character one’s own age so you can slip in. This facilitates the dream state. Secondly, a bedtime story should never be an “argument,” which bears images of conflict and war that are upsetting enough in the light of day.
“’What is this?’ The boy wondered to himself. He picked it up and put the chain around his neck. As he walked away, his trousers began to slip, for he had been crossing that heath for quite some time with little nourishment. ‘Ah-ha!’ he said, in a moment of solitary ingenuity. He took the mechanism from around his neck and looped the chain as a belt. ‘Ah,’ he sighed, in a moment of self-satisfaction with his clever ingenuity. He opened up the watch. Behind the transparent face, he could see wheels turning, teeth gnashing, springs coiling, and weights balancing to move the pointers on the face or some such.
“I know what this is,’ the boy said gravely to himself. “A dirt counter. Counter,’ he addressed it, ‘how many dirts, would you estimate, are on this heath?’ He looked at the face of the mechanism and saw the big pointer on the ten, the littler on the two. ‘I thought as much,’ he said. ‘Twelve dirts.’ And he continued on his way, crossing the heath. The end.”
I closed the book and put it on the bedside table with a giddy flourish. I was quite pleased with my story, which remember had come to me all in one moment. Billy was no longer looking at the clock. He was now staring rather curiously and suspiciously at me.
“Was that the real Watchmaker story?” He asked.
“No. That was another version of the story.”
“Is that the version that your mom told you?”
“Yes,” I said, though I was tempted to blurt that I had made it all up spontaneously by myself. “That is what my parents told me, when I was a girl. Do you like it?”
“Good. You can tell it to Mom next time she tells you her version. Or you can tell that version to your kids, if you want.”
“Do I have to tell that version?”
“No. But if you liked it, you should tell it.”
“I liked the boy...but if I were the boy, I’d know it wasn’t a dirt counter.”
“Even if you had never been exposed to Time before? Think about that.”
“Yeah, I thought about that. I’d think it was a compass or something.”
“Fine. That can be your version. ‘The boy crosses a heath, finds a mechanism, calls it a compass.’ There. ‘The end. Everybody goes to sleep.’”
“Yes. The watch is a compass,” Billy said sleepily. I said goodnight. I took the book and flicked off the light and left his room. I put the book back exactly in its former place on the shelf, yet still panicked that Mrs. Wilkey would find out I had used it to tell figments. I felt as if I had stolen her milk and replaced it with paint. This, I knew, was illogical and grotesque. I told myself my next bedtime story to Billy would be Alice In Wonderland, which was my favorite in 5th grade. And if Mrs. Wilkey found out about our little nighttime reading sessions, so be it. I am an educator.
The Wilkeys came back at around 11 pm. Before Mrs. Wilkey even had a chance to ask me how the night went I told her firmly and politely that I could not work there anymore. Not as a baby-sitter, not as a tutor, not as anything. I told her it had nothing to do with Billy or her or her husband.
“Then what?” she asked. I told her it was because my father was very sick.
“Osteoarthritis,” I said, because I knew a bit about it having researched it one day after feeling a suspicious and unprecedented amount of hip pain.