Read Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Online

Authors: David Shafer

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (5 page)

BOOK: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The management was in a bind re Leo and his methods. He was sometimes a liability, especially when prospective parents were touring the facility. Why were the threes-and-fours listening to the Clash? Why were the fours-and-fives engaged in what appeared to be a mock trial of a stuffed gorilla on a Big Wheel? Sharon claimed to have no problem with Rolling Death per se (she was quite fond of
per se;
at this point in time
), but she wanted the name changed.

“How about Huggy Monster?” she suggested to Leo once at the seven-thirty goals meeting.

“Not as much at stake in that case, I think,” he said.

The truth was that the outdoor play zone was actually a covered parking lot that backed up to an enormous freeway pier and was surrounded by chain-link and surfaced in orange matting. A few play structures couldn’t dent its overall vibe of incarceration. When only the twos-and-threes milled outside in heavy diapers, or when a sparse crew of toddlers fought for possession of two blanched pedal cars, the outdoor play zone was truly grim and resembled a transfer point for tiny high-value detainees. Only a game that got the kids whooping, like Rolling Death, could transform the OPZ into the squealing theater that made parents certain they had done right to choose Brand-New Day, despite its cost, which was more than pretty much all of them had ever thought they would spend on child care.

And the parents, once they had interacted with Leo a few times, liked and trusted him. The mothers especially. They saw that their Lukes and Lolas ran to him first thing every morning. They watched him sit in tiny chairs and murmur to children who were protesting their parents’ departure. None of this wide-eyed condescension; no
Is that your bear?
shit. Rather, an intense and sincere interest. He rinsed their soiled clothes and hung them to dry over the sink; he slipped their best artwork into manila envelopes so that it would not get crumpled. And the parents liked the way he filled out the daily journal sheets that went into each child’s mailbox at the end of the day.

Blocks. Who woulda thunk?
Leo might write. Or, for
TODAY WE ATE ____________,
 he’d riff on the day’s offerings. Sometimes he’d produce a critique:
Fish sticks flaccid, but juice boxes especially cold.
Sometimes he’d mash up imaginary combinations, aiming for gross, as a child would.
Orange Roughy and Band-Aids. Mousse de Purell. Baby Carrots in Rubber Cement.
Or he’d pair a wine with the meal:
Riz Brun. Petits Pois. Château Latour 1959.

But then, beneath those idiotic prompts, in the lower half of the page, he’d add a few sentences about the weather or a reference to current events, something to peg that piece of paper to the adult world. Or maybe something about the mood in the room that day.
Carla’s vomiting in the sink transfixed the fours-and-fives and put them off snack.
The squall that came at midday soothed everyone here. Rain on windows trumps contested sock monkey.

Then he’d copy that master thirty times, standing over the copier as proud and eager as Hearst before his presses. Afterward, he’d add child-specific notes to a few of the editions, and then he’d distribute them among the mailboxes at the front. He liked to see the mothers and fathers jam these pieces of paper in their pockets and bags. He hoped that their lives would be improved some small amount by his words, by what they read about their children, for whom they toiled. Often he saw these notes crumpled and thrown away unread; there was a recycling bin next to the front door. Some parents had probably never once read a daily journal sheet.

That was okay. Leo was aware that taking pride in such a thing was ridiculous—that to do so exposed him to ridicule. But since everyone pretended to believe that you should take pride in whatever you do, most people were caught by something in Leo.

That happy fool at day care is referring to Afghanistan today,
a man might say to his wife from the kitchen. And she to him, sweeping Cheerios from the sofa:
you idiot. What’d he say?

When coworkers chided Leo about his devotion to the daily journal sheets, he tried to take it in stride. But really. Why did grown-ups find it necessary to tease fellow citizens who actually gave a shit?

“Enter the aphorist,” Eric would say whenever Leo came into the break room. Eric was the only other penis-laden BND employee and he seemed to not quite understand what an aphorist was, or maybe he hadn’t actually read the daily journal sheets, because Leo’s reportage was anything but aphoristic. Whenever he was reminded that it was largely fools and galoots who ran the world, Leo resorted to subvocal mantric recitations of the true-yet-banal moral directives that he had picked up from the few AA meetings he had ducked his head into after the blacked-out drive home: Reserve Judgment. My Side of the Street. Principles Before Personalities.

But why did it not occur to any of his colleagues that not enough was being written about these kids? That children—even these economic-pinnacle children—were cashless and unlettered, after all, and if some decent record was to be kept of their day, someone would have to do it for them? Leo didn’t consider his account even adequate, really. So much was going on around him that escaped his notice. They were a flock he watched over; corralled, actually. He was a subcontracted shepherd, and his authority over them came from his greater strength, from the fact that he could quickly extract and, if need be, carry and, if need still be, restrain a child swinging a Wheat Thin like a shiv. The kids were hardly ever offered a choice—a real one, anyway—and Leo pretty much had to leave them alone to see them express preferences and drives. In these moments, or when he knelt among them silently observing a quarrel or a peacemaking gesture, he was aware of their society. But mostly, he was as clueless as a towheaded television reporter in Tahrir Square, and he did not hold himself up as a toddler sage or anything.

Leo made certain not to slack off in the other areas of the job. His coworkers could count on him to do his fair share or more of the daily labor required to run the floor at BND. The job consisted largely of light to medium housework and physical interventions in minor civil disputes. Leo was good at it, and he was well liked by pretty much everyone at BND.

Until Sharon came around. She started in on him at once about the lateness.
Can’t you see that no one else around here cares?
he wanted to say to her.
I’m fifteen minutes late and you’re thirty pounds overweight. Can’t we just call it even?
He did not say this. He loved his job and feared that Sharon was looking for cause to fire him. But really: No one else cared that he was late. Leo was almost always the last to leave. And there were about nine doors to check and lock and three notebooks to sign out of before the last to leave
leave. Once a week it was Leo who would stay late to receive the cleaners, a spectral team of Tyvek-suited Mexicans. A day-care facility was light duty for these guys, probably. Leo imagined that they usually cleaned up after suicides and fires.

Two or three times a month, Leo could count on staying late with a hyperactive boy named Malcolm whose mother would tear up at half past seven in a heaving BMW, desperate with apology and excuse. Such a parent was, per BND policy and contract, supposed to be charged a dollar per minute for any child care provided after 6:00 p.m. That was just stupid and punitive, though, so Leo would back-time Malcolm’s mom’s arrival to, say, 6:15. The last time that she had been late, she put cash in Leo’s hand under a dark and soggy sky outside. He’d accepted it accidentally, because she’d slipped it to him so discreetly, as if he were a maître d’. There followed an awkward operation in which Leo tried to give the money back, and he’d succeeded only when he’d finally pressed it against her. Which in turn complicated things, because there was a little spark, and they were both suddenly and briefly aware of the fun they could have fucking.


There was definitely something off about his equilibrium, Leo thought as he wheeled his lame bicycle up to the door of Brand-New Day. The right side of his body was beginning to feel like meat wrapped too tight in cellophane, and his hands were clumsy working the key of his bicycle lock, as if he had two fingers instead of five.

That fall really gave me paws,
he thought to himself, and he chuckled, which hurt his ribs.

He gave up on the lock, thumbed a code into the keypad around the side of the building, and rolled his bike into the play area. Employee bicycles were not supposed to be stored in the play area, another Sharon-promulgated rule.

Louise, a self-assured five-year-old on a Razor scooter, was the first to see him. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

“I fell off my bike, Louise,” he said.

“Did you have a helmet on your head?”

“No. I forgot it,” Leo said.

“You shouldn’t forget it, Leo,” said Louise sternly, and she Razored off.

Then Bennett and Milo, inseparable four-year-olds, stamped up to Leo, huffing, in spotless Nikes.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked Bennett.

“Nothing, Bennett,” Leo said. “How are you doing today?”

“Okay,” said Milo. “You fell off your bike?”

These kids were rhizomic, thought Leo. “Yeah, but I’m okay.”

“Can we play Rolling Death?” asked Bennett.

“Maybe in a little while,” said Leo.

“When?” asked Milo.

“Gimme a minute, guys,” said Leo as he slid down a wall to sit on the ground. His neck felt like a stem. He tried to keep his head between his shoulders and directly above his body. He was weirdly aware of his skin as the sack holding his person. It was

Alka approached him. She was a little Indian girl, all eyelashes and shoelaces. “Are you okay, Leo?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m okay, Alka,” he said. Then, because she was a child and would not call him crazy for saying it, he added, “But I think that they just tried to kill me.”

“You should be careful,” said Alka.

“Mos’ def, Alka. We should all be careful.”

It was probably due to his disembodied—or, rather, too keenly embodied—state that Leo was unaware of Sharon, who had come up behind him.

“Can I speak to you inside, Leo,” said Sharon.

“They tried to kill Leo,” said Alka.

“No, that was just a joke, Alka,” said Sharon. “Leo was joking. Why don’t you go and play with Cecilie.” Sharon was in a purple pantsuit. Alka, all of five, heard the edge in Sharon’s voice and shoved off. “Leo. Inside. Right now,” said Sharon.

Every successful person knows that he’s supposed to have a story about having been fired. But if one is telling such a story, it is presumed that the teller has overcome the embarrassment of the event and is telling it beneath the smiling light of a vindicating future. However, Leo had been fired from, or failed at, a few jobs now, so the walk from the outdoor play zone to Sharon’s front office was a long one indeed, especially because his feet seemed to lag in their response to his brain’s commands, which meant that he was staggering.

The other play facilitators weren’t looking at him. Or maybe they were just engaged with those children who stayed in a mild posttraumatic state for twenty minutes after drop-off, the ones you really had to look after. Samuel was not one of those children. Samuel, a stoic riddle of a child who happily did blockwork while classmates shrieked murderously beside him and who would probably soon receive a distinguishing diagnosis, had dropped his gluestick and was beelining toward Leo.

“Hold on there, Samuel,” said Leo to the boy as he approached. But Samuel ignored him and flung himself at Leo, open-armed. Leo picked him up and held him strongly, though in doing so, he noticed, painfully, his torqued spine. So, gently, he put Samuel down. Sharon was standing at the open door to her office. Leo trudged in.

Sharon’s office was full of beanbag frogs; she thought frogs were winning and childlike. She gestured for Leo to sit, and then she sat too, among her frogs, and put her arms on her desk.

“Leo, I think we both know why you’re here,” she said.

Yeah, but he wasn’t going to help her do this. “Promotion?” he said.

Her fingers were laced pudgily on her huge desk-blotter calendar. “You’ve gotten stranger and stranger these past few months, Leo. I’m afraid I just can’t have you responsible for these children. I am going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Ask me? Really?”

“No. Tell you. Okay? I’m telling you to leave. Let’s not make this unpleasant, Leo. Brand-New Day has no further need of your services.”

His face went hot and the small room got smaller, like someone had twisted the zoom lens on his vision. He felt like a child. Tears—oh hell, not
—came to his eyes. He was going to lose something dear to him. The mayhem of cleaning up after crafts, the riot of Rolling Death, the quiet of nap. The children. They didn’t care what a hash he’d made of the past ten years. They were joy uncorrupted, bad liars, openhearted. They were his fan base, his gorgeous, dirty rabble. They loved him.

“But who will write the daily journal sheets?” he tried to say but squeaked instead, the words rushing, high-pitched, to beat out the sob rising behind them.

“I want you to leave the building when you leave this room, Leo. Do you understand?” she said.

Leo tried to collect himself. He paid close attention to his breath. He set his mouth, looked at his hands. Then something strange happened: anger began to eclipse the pain and confusion.

“You’ll have to pay me to leave, right? You can’t just fire me like this?”

“I think if you look at your contract, you’ll find that we owe you two weeks’ pay.”

His contract? He had forgotten he had one of these. “Okay. I’ll take that now.”

Sharon looked at him as blankly as one of her frogs.

“I mean
now. You got nine hundred and sixty bucks in that desk?”

“Of course not. I’ll have Linda send you a check.”

I’ll have Linda send you a check.
And just like that, Brand-New Day would be done with him. Oh, it made his blood boil; it made him light-headed. So few people could give these children the kind of care he’d been giving them. He was sure of that. Never lying to them; engaging them with all he had
. I’ll have Linda send you a check.
He wanted to rifle through Sharon’s desk drawers, her purse. He wanted to take whatever money she had, kick her in the pantsuit. He wanted to break her stupid fat fingers, scatter her zillion folders, command the fours-and-fives to set on her like jackals. Uh-oh. He had mumbled some of that aloud.

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