Our catastrophic, weirdly euphoric conferences are now almost a decade behind us. It turns out, however, that an advisory ethos still prevails between me and Arty. We’ve barely taken our seats at the bar when he says, “All is well, my friend, all is well. Life goes on. But there’s something I’d like your opinion on.”
He has a situation on his hands. It concerns Gladys, the former nanny of his two girls.
I befriended Arty when he was a near-client of the company I used to work for, which dealt in educational software. I got to hear a lot about his kids and his ex. Gladys rings no bells.
“Go on,” I say.
Gladys looked after Arty’s girls from when they were newborns until both were in elementary school. Seven years, in all. Over the course of those years she bottle-fed them, changed their diapers, dressed them, cooked for them, let them eat her lunch, picked them up from preschool and kindergarten, sang to them, reprimanded them, got worn out by them. She gave them love, is what it comes down to, Arty tells me. Then she left. The kids didn’t need a nanny anymore. Also, Gladys was pushing sixty and had bad knees: she needed to work with younger, less wayward charges. So she took a job in Chelsea, working for a couple with a baby girl, Billie. It was during the Chelsea job that Arty got divorced and Gladys lost her husband, Roy. Gladys stayed in touch with Arty, dropping by maybe once a year to see Arty’s girls when they were over at his place. The girls’ mother—
“Yeah,” Arty says, and I can tell, or maybe I’m imagining, that he’s disinclined to repeat the name.
—the girls’ mother had cut off contact with Gladys. Gladys’s calls and messages to her had gone unanswered.
Arty is expecting me to respond with sympathetic disapproval. I don’t respond at all, however. I’m out of practice. Another way to put it might be: I don’t want to hear any more stories about rotten behavior or the battle of the sexes or the woe that is marriage. I’ve moved on. These days I’m all about love’s triumph, adversity overcome, the peak scaled, the clarity after the rain.
“Anyway,” Arty says. Not long after Arty’s divorce, Gladys rang him and asked for a loan—five hundred dollars. “Now, this is a careful, churchgoing woman making twenty bucks an hour, minimum. So I say to her, Gladys, you’re short of money? She tells me it’s the doctors’ bills for Roy. So listen to this: Roy went to the hospital in Brooklyn. He felt sick. They performed some kind of procedure right away and he died under the knife. Sixty-six years of age. A quality guy, by the way. Always had a twinkle in his eye. A carpenter. Then they sent Gladys a bill for a hundred and ten grand.”
“Goddam fucking assholes,” I say.
“Gladys told me nothing about the bill at the time,” Arty says. “Turns out she agreed to a payment plan with the hospital—two hundred and fourteen bucks a month. She tells me she’s been paying it for almost two years. I say to her, Gladys, you should have spoken to me about this. This is nuts. This can’t go on. They should be paying you for what they did to Roy, not the other way around. But Gladys is waiting for her citizenship application to go through, she’s scared of the immigration authorities and she doesn’t want to make trouble. So boom—there goes her retirement money.”
“Gladys is from where?”
“Trinidad,” Arty says. “I lend her the five hundred. I’m not going to see it again, but whatever.”
I think I can tell where this is going. “She doesn’t have children to help her?”
Arty shakes his head. Gladys has a son, Benjamin, who’s in his forties but has never had what you’d call a career. His wife is in the military, so they keep being moved between dead-end Army towns—in Texas, in North Carolina, in New York—and the wife keeps being posted overseas, and basically Benjamin has been the main hands-on parent of their child, a girl. “I went to their wedding,” Arty says. “Out in Flatbush. At this Jamaican church.” Arty says very intently, “I thought Jamaicans were all about carnivals and ganja. I was expecting a party. But this was like a funeral.” He relates that the minister, the proprietor of the church, began the service by criticizing the congregation for being late. “ ‘Tardiness,’ he called it,” Arty says. “Tardiness this, tardiness that.” The minister lectured on this subject for an amazingly long time and with an amazing anger, scolding and admonishing and tyrannizing everybody. “I’m looking around to catch someone’s eye—you know, maybe raise an eyebrow—but they’re all just looking straight ahead with these blank faces. They’re scared. They’re frozen with fear.”
Here I want to interrupt him. I want to talk about myself. I have a whole little riff ready to go. Speaking of nannies, I’d like to say to Arty, I’m a dad all over again, which means I’m back on the school run—which means that every morning I’m reliving the nightmare of failing to put names to faces, and sometimes even faces to functions. I recognize people but can’t properly identify them, these caregivers, moms, dads, receptionists, teachers, and children who have every right and expectation to be identifiable. They call me by my name and my little boy by his—and I can’t reciprocate, no matter how much I’d like to. If there is one thing that’s held me back in life, I want to suggest to Arty, if I have an Achilles’ heel, if I have a chink in my armor, it’s this inability to hold on to names and even, increasingly, faces. It was a real stroke of luck (I’d keep this to myself, of course) that Arty, let alone Paloma, emerged from the fog, or the deep, or the forest, or wherever it is everybody has gone.
“Money,” I say to Arty. “The minister wasn’t happy with his fee. So everybody being late made him really mad.”
Arty points a finger at me, as if he’s very impressed by what I just said. He continues, “When Christmas came around, I gave Gladys another couple of hundred bucks. Not the biggest deal, but not nothing, either.”
Then things began to look up for Gladys. Her citizenship came through, and, when her Chelsea job ended, she felt it was time to retire. She’d turned sixty-five and couldn’t take another New York City winter. She decided to go back to Trinidad, where she hadn’t lived for thirty years.
“Trinidad is where, exactly?”
Arty seems not to have heard me. “So this is what I do,” he says. “I’ve got some cash in a savings account from when we sold that shack on the Shore. Eighteen thousand. I give Gladys a retirement gift of two thousand dollars. As a thank-you and a goodbye and a good luck and a have a nice life. She’s got two brothers down there who’re well-to-do, she’s got her Social Security, it is what it is. I’ve done my bit.”
I want to go home. But Arty bought the first round of beers and might feel stiffed if I took off. Two more, I signal to the bartender, and I extract some bills from a buttock pocket.