Tags: #FIC000000 Fiction / General
panting on subway platforms, battling the sun with wide hats and light clothes, rushing to scaffoldings for shade, dashing into department stores not for the sales advertised on windows but for the AC. Those unable to escape to beaches and countrysides congregated in places where the humidity could briefly be forgotten: world music concerts with musicians from far-flung lands like Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso; rooftop revelries where everyone seemed absolutely certain of their good looks and sophistication; street fairs with too much grilled chicken and not enough moving air; sunset cruises with last-minute tickets and mediocre cocktails. There was much to do in the city, and yet the desperation remained among many to be out of it, to be in a place where the mission was pleasure and not endurance, to sit where the air moved without burden and the water went on for thousands of miles, a place like the villages of the Hamptons.
Jende could take a paid vacation in the first two weeks of August, Clark informed him as they drove down Lexington on a mid-June morning. The family would be spending late July and pretty much all of August in Southampton (Cindy and the boys, mostly), as well as random days in early-July, so it should be an overall light summer of work.
“I am very grateful, sir,” Jende said without a change in his countenance, though inwardly he was grinning wider than the Great Rift Valley. It would be the first time in America he'd be paid to do nothing, though he knew he wasn't going to sit around idle for two weeksâhe was going to call the livery cab company he used to work for and get shifts so he could add to the funds he and Neni were saving for his asylum case.
“You should ask Cindy if she needs a housekeeper for that last week in July and the first three weeks in August, when Anna takes her vacation,” Clark added minutes later. “She usually gets someone from the agency. Maybe your wife would like to do it and make some extra money?”
“Oh, yes, sir. My wifeÂ â¦Â she wouldÂ â¦Â we would be very grateful, sir.”
Cindy did need someone, and Neni needed a break from the oft-gloomy task of feeding and bathing incapacitated senior citizens, though it was the prospect of earning more money in four weeks than she made in three months that prompted her and Jende to discuss the offer for only five minutes before agreeing that she would skip the second summer semester (since her student visa allowed her to) and go to Southampton. She called Cindy Edwards that eveningâafter Jende had coached her on what to say, what not to say, how to say the right things wellâintroduced herself, and said she would like the job. Cindy offered her the job, though not before telling her what was involved: maintaining a spotless five-bedroom house, grocery shopping for specific items that must be gotten right, daily laundry, cooking specific recipes, serving guests in a dignified manner, babysitting a ten-year-old as needed, twelve-hour workdays with lots of downtime.
“I will do it all very well, madam,” Neni said, holding the phone tightly against her ear.
“I trust you will. Jende's a hard worker, and I imagine you're no different.”
“Only, madam, it's just one more thing,” she said.
“I'm four months pregnant, madam. It's not going to be a problem for me, butâ”
“Then it won't be for me, either,” Cindy said, ending the matter, and then telling Neni that in the last week of June she would need to take the Long Island Rail Road with Anna to the Hamptons so she could get acquainted with Cindy's needs and expectations.
“Make sure you only do what they say you do and exactly the way they say you do it,” Jende said to Neni just before she descended the steps into the subway to travel to the Hamptons to begin her four-week stint. “No more, no less.”
“Ah, you, too,” she said, laughing. “What do you think I'm going to do over there?”
“It's not a laughing matter, Neni. Just do your work well. That's all I'm saying. Don't do or say anything that doesn't concern you. These people are our bread and tea.”
“Don't worry,” she said, still laughing at his serious demeanor, which she found both cute and unnecessary. “I won't disgrace you. It's not like I've never been around rich people.”
Which was trueâher family used to be rich in the eighties and early nineties. Back then her father was a customs officer at the seaport in Douala, and, thanks to all the gratuities (not bribesâher father swore he never once got his palms greased) he and his colleagues took from merchants bringing goods into the country, he was able to multiply his annual government salary by ten and ensure that his family lacked no good thing. They lived in a brick house with running water, owned a working telephone, and her father even owned a car (a dilapidated blue 1970s Peugeot, but still a car and thus a symbol of prosperity in Limbe). They were the first family in their Down Beach neighborhood to own a TV set. Neni still remembered those early days of television in the late eighties, when CRTV broadcasted only from six o'clock to ten o'clock in the evening. By five-forty-five every evening, the neighborhood children would be in their living room, sitting on the floor, waiting for “telleh” to begin. When the TV static, which the children called “rice,” slowly disappeared to reveal the Cameroonian flag, the children would giggle with delight, and the adults, packed on the sofa and chairs all around the living room, would tell them to be quiet. Television was on. No one was allowed to make noise when television was on. Children were supposed to watch the news in silence while the adults discussed the atrocities in South Africa every time a picture of Nelson Mandela came up, wondering when those bad white people were going to set that good man free. Children were supposed to watch documentaries in silence; watch fast-talking cartoons, which they called “porkou-porkou,” in silence. They had to be quiet during whatever British or French or American series CRTV was broadcasting, soap operas and sitcoms which they barely understood but nonetheless giggled at whenever kissing scenes came on and groaned whenever someone was punched. The only time children were allowed to talk was when a music video came on. Then, they were encouraged by the adults to stand up and dance to Ndedi Eyango, or Charlotte Mbango, or Tom Yoms. And every time they would stand up and bust out their best
moves, twirling tiny buttocks and moving clenched fists from right to left with all their might, smiling to no end. To be able to see their favorite musicians singing in a black box, what a privilege.
Neni smiled at the memories as she sat in the train. She was a teenager back then, but as a middle child she wasn't allowed to touch the TVâturning it on and off were rights reserved for her father and oldest brother. Nowadays even three-year-olds in Limbe could turn a TV on and off. Every third house in town had CNN, though, funnily, her parents' house didn't.
Her father had stopped working at the seaport in '93, forced out by a Bamileke boss who wanted his tribesman to take Neni's father's job. With no warning, he had been transferred to a far less lucrative position at the Treasury Department in Limbe, and six months after that his widowed sister had died, leaving behind three children he had no choice but to take in and raise alongside his five. With the loss of his prestigious job came the loss of some of the power and respect he'd had as a rich man. Folks still greeted him with both hands, but many stopped coming to his house to visit, knowing that upon leaving they wouldn't receive five or ten thousand CFA francs to “pay taxi.” These days he was retired, living on a meager pension, without much to his name besides an ancient blue Peugeot in the garage of his brick house.
need to be; all the brick houses of New Town, Limbe, put together couldn't compete with one of its rooms. When Neni had first gone there with Anna to learn her duties, she had tried not to show Anna how awed she was, but Anna must have seen it on her face: Her eyes couldn't stop roving from the moment they stepped out of the cab in front of the two-story warm gray stone-and-wood-shingled house with meticulously manicured boxwood spheres on both sides of the four-columned portico. It wasn't only the size that astounded her (why did they need such a big house for only a few months a year? why five bedrooms when there were only two children? didn't they understand that no matter how much money a person had, they could sleep on only one bed at a time?) but also the profuse elegance. Even on her third day there she was still flabbergasted by the sumptuousness of her surroundings, especially the living room, with its all-white decor and large windows as if to never lose a view of the sky. She was astonished by its spotlessness, which Anna had told her was because Cindy hated dirt even more than she hated cheap things; its plush white carpets and wool rugs, which she almost feared stepping on; and its black chandelier and glass accents, so delicate-looking she dusted with tenderness, worried she would leave a mark.
The afternoon she arrived, Vince had given her a hug and told her to make herself comfortable, though she couldn't see how she could possibly do so if she was in a constant state of unease about ruining something. She spent all evening of that first day in the kitchen with Mighty, too circumspect to go anywhere besides her bedroom after Vince left for the city (to meditate at Unity; Jende wasn't exaggerating) and Cindy went out to dinner with friends. Even in those first hours in Southampton, she could tell Mighty would be her only true source of joy thereâhe reminded her of Liomi, thanks to his abundant eyelashes and the way he never seemed to lack something to laugh or smile about.
“Do you enjoy living in Harlem?” he asked her while she was making his dinner, surprising her with his forwardness, a characteristic untypical of children from Limbe.
“It's nice,” she said.
“Jende says he doesn't love it too much.”
“He said that?” Neni said, turning from the stove. “Why would he say that?”
“Because he's honest,” Mighty said with a laugh, “and honesty's the best policy, right?”
Even when she wished he wasn't so inquisitive, she couldn't deny that he was a token of how normal rich children could be. During their first days together, he amused her with questions about African lions and leopards and what kind of animals she had seen roaming around Limbe, questions she was sure he'd already asked Jende at least a dozen times but which delighted her so much that she made up tales about monkeys stealing her lunch when she was a schoolgirl, and a classmate who used to come to school riding on an elephant. I don't believe it, Mighty would say to such stories, and Neni would make up an even more incredible one. Babysitting him was by far the most enjoyable part of her job, and the part she was certain she impressed Cindy the most in executing. Every time Cindy walked into a room to see her and Mighty laughing or playing, Neni could sense Cindy's approval because nothing appeared to matter to the madam more than the happiness of her children, their nonstop possession of every good thing life had to offer. If Mighty was laughing and Vince was smiling, there couldn't be a happier woman on earth than Cindy Edwards. This desire for their happiness (constantly asking if they needed something; always reminding Neni to make their meals and snacks just the way they liked them; giving Mighty three kisses every time either of them left the house) was followed closely only by her obvious need for a sense of belonging, an utterly desperate need she could never seem to quench.
It was a longing that confounded Neni, because on the day they met, Cindy Edwards appeared to be a woman with no desperate needs. From the moment they shook hands in the portico until Cindy left for her dinner, the madam was enveloped in an air of superiority, standing tall and keeping her shoulders back as she walked in long strides, slowly enunciating every word when she spoke, as if she had the right to take as much of the listener's time as she wished. She pointed with slender manicured fingers bearing a sole emerald ring, nodding like an omnipotent empress as she took Neni around the house to give her polite but specific instructions on what she must do every morning and how she must do it; as she told her things that Anna might have said but which she needed to reiterate, things like what she couldn't stand in a housekeeper: dishonesty, poor communication, and not acting with poise when company was around.
And yet, despite this portrait of a self-assured woman, Cindy seemed to have a near obsession with being where everyone was and doing what everyone was doing. Within four days, Neni noticed that she was on the phone with a friend at least once a day, wondering if the friend had gotten an invitation to So-and-So's cocktail party, or This-and-That's dinner party, or that upcoming gala or wedding. On the few occasions when her friends apparently told her they'd gotten their invites and she hadn't gotten hers, she seemed to be in physical pain, her deep sighs and suddenly slumped shoulders and sad voice revealing to Neni that despite the fact that she was telling her friends that it was okay, she wasn't okay because she was probably wondering why she hadn't been invited, what she'd done to not be invited, if her social status was intact. This desperation to always be a part of something, always maintain a sense of specialness thanks to the action of others, baffled Neni, but she didn't call Jende to talk about it because she knew he would say what he always said whenever she said she couldn't understand why people cared about stupid things like the approval of others: Different things are important to different people.
Five days after her arrival, though, she called him to talk about Cindy, terrified.
“I think Mrs. Edwards is very sick,” she whispered from her room in the basement.
“What's wrong?” he asked.
There was no one else in the house, and Mrs. Edwards looked sick, she told him.
“What kind of sick, Neni? Fever? Headache? Stomachache?”
“No, no, not that kind of sick,” she whispered again.
Where was everybody? he wanted to know. Mr. Edwards was in the city, and Mighty and Vince were at the beach, she informed him. What did it matter where they were? she asked in frustration after replying to the question. Mrs. Edwards did not look well, and she was afraid because she didn't know what to do. The madam looked like she was very sick, but maybe she wasn't sick. She needed advice from her husband, not one question after another.
“But you're saying fifty different things,” he said. “Say something that makes sense.”
Mrs. Edwards had told her she was going into her bedroom for a nap and asked that she not be disturbed. Neni had stayed in the basement, doing laundry, before remembering that the sheets in the guest bedroom needed to be laundered. She had opened the door to the second-floor guest room without knocking, assuming Mrs. Edwards was asleep in the master bedroom on the first floor. When she entered, she had seen the frightful sight: the always composed and elegant madam splayed against the headboard of the bed, hair strands lying on her sweaty face, her hands limp on her sides, her mouth half open with saliva halfway down her chin.
“I'm afraid,” she said to him, panicked and near tears. “She was fine this morning. She told me one hour ago that she was going to nap, and then I go to the guest bedroom and see this.”
“Does she look dead?” Jende asked.
“No, I saw her breathing,” she whispered. “Oh, Papa God, what should I do?”
Jende was silent for a moment. “Don't do anything,” he told his wife. “Just pretend you didn't see anything. If something happens to her, you can say you did not know. You can say you never entered the room.”
“But what if something is wrong and I am supposed to do something?”
“Neni, Neni, listen to me,” her husband commanded. “Let her husband and her sons find her and decide what to do. Do not touch her, you hear me? Don't even go back to the room. Do not involve yourself in their business, I'm begging you.”
“I have to doâ”
“You don't have to do anything!”
She hung up and called her friend Betty. Betty was in her seventh year of nursing schoolâshe would know what to do.
“I think it's drugs, oh,” Betty screeched above the sound of her children screaming in the background. “Only drugs can make you look like that.”
“Betty, please stop joking. I'm talking about something serious whichâ”
“Who said I'm joking? I'm telling you that it's drugs.”
“NoÂ â¦Â not Mrs. Edwards.”
“Why are you arguing with me? Rich people like them, they like drugs.”
“Not Mrs. Edwards! She's not that kind of person, Betty, I swear to you.”
“Where do you know her from? Because she wears nice clothes, you thinkâ”
“What would she do drugs for?”
“Neni, please, if you don't want to believe me, then let me get off the phone.”
“Oh, Papa God!” Neni cried, slapping her thighs as the phone beeped and displayed an incoming call from Jende. She ignored his call, knowing what he wanted to reiterate.
“Listen to me,” Betty said. “Listen. Go wake her up. Shake her only softly, okay?”
“And what if she doesn't wake up?”
“You move that thing one more time,” Betty shouted away from the receiver, “I'll come over there and cause you some serious injuries.”
“Betty, I don't knowâ”
“Hold on,” Betty said, and for almost a minute Neni heard nothing but the sound of a toddler screaming. “You don't teach these children how to obey, tomorrow they'll start behaving like American children,” Betty said when she returned to the phone.
“You think I should wake her up?”
“Yes, go wake her up.”
! Man no die ei rotten.”
“You've used your pretty legs to walk right into trouble.”
Neni laughed, the kind of mirthless laugh her mother used to emit when life was so strange only a laugh could give one the strength to face it.
“If she's dead,” Betty added, “call her husband, not the police.”
“Okay, okay, let me go.”
“And Neni,” Betty said right before she hung up, “please, don't tell the police you called me first. I'm begging, don't even mention my name for any reason whatsoever. I'm afraid of police people.”
Neni hung up and ran back upstairs, her grip tight around her cell phone. Cindy was sleeping in the same position. For a minute Neni stood next to the bed, staring at the prescription pill bottle next to the empty glass and half-empty bottle of red wine on the nightstand, before moving closer.
“Mrs. Edwards,” she whispered, nudging her in the arm. Jende would kill her for this, but she couldn't leave the woman alone in this state.
Cindy did not respond.
Neni leaned closer and spoke directly into her ear. “Mrs. Edwards.”
Immediately, Cindy closed her mouth and began smacking her lips.
“Mrs. Edwards, are you okay?”
Cindy opened her eyes slightly. “What do you want?” she asked in a husky slur.
“Nothing, madam. I just wanted to make sure you're all right.”
Cindy sat up, brushed off the hair lying on her face, wiped her chin. She opened her eyes fully and looked at Neni. “What time is it?”
Neni pulled her cell phone out of the pocket of her
. “Five o'clock, madam.”
“Shit,” Cindy said, turning her legs around to get out of the bed.
She staggered with her first step, and Neni quickly caught her by the arm. “It's okay,” Cindy said, pulling away. “I'm okay.”
Still brushing hair off her face, she sat on the armchair next to the closet and asked for a glass of cold water, which Neni hastily ran off to get even before she was done asking. When she finished drinking, Cindy asked for a second glass of water and a plate of saladâplain lettuce with oil and vinegarâwhich Neni brought on a tray. Carefully, Neni lifted Cindy's legs and placed them on a footstool so the tray could balance with ease on her lap.
“Do you want me to run your bath now, madam?” Neni asked.
Neni went into the bathroom, scrubbed her hands, and turned on the water in the bathtub. She poured in ten drops of bubble bath, knelt by the tubâher growing belly against its cold skinâand stirred the water in the gentle circular manner that Anna had taught her. When the tub was full, she came out and took Cindy's tray.
“Clark won't be coming tonight anymore,” Cindy said as Neni was about to exit the bedroom. “Vince is leaving after he and Mighty get backâhe's spending the next couple of days with a friend on Martha's Vineyard. You can serve Mighty his dinner whenever he wants.”
“Yes, madam,” Neni said, and hurried downstairs.
Around seven o'clock, she heard the Jaguar's engine in the driveway, Cindy leaving for one social engagement or another.