NEW YORKER Stories
Lorrie Moore's "Childcare" is a masterpiece of elegant, lucid, and self-effacing construction. Narrated by an appealingly awkward college student whose self-assessments are expertly balanced against quirky observations of the ever-new world around her, the story is almost impossible to read with any sense of its formal properties. It unfolds as naturally as a writer could hope for. Even at the ending, from which the natural satisfactions have been withheld, the reader will pause to wonder "what happened next," but probably not give much thought to how it was done — how, that is, the story was wrought. "Childcare" is so densely planted that it feels as chaotic as a jungle —but it is only as fecund.
Aside from some introductory paragraphs, the action is packed into a few hours over two days. Tassie Keltjin is looking for what she calls babysitting work. (It's what I would call nannying — helping out with a new baby.) In the first focused scene, Tassie has an interview that doesn't proceed as all the other interviews have; unlike the other prospective mothers, the woman at the last interview, Sarah Brink, is planning to adopt — and that is not the only difference. In the second scene, Tassie accompanies Sarah to another town, in order to meet the prospective birth mother, Amber Bowers, a girl who is clearly in trouble with the law. After the interview, Sarah says something to Amber that could at best be characterized as officious. Insulted, Amber withdraws the offer of her baby. Back in the town where Sarah runs a posh restaurant, and Tassie goes to school, the older woman asks the younger to give her a call after the Christmas break.
"OK," I said. "Sounds good." Sounds good. It was the Midwestern girl's reply to everything. It appeared to clinch a deal, was somewhat the same as the more soldierly Good to go, except that it was promiseless — mere affirmative description. It got you away, out the door.
And that's how "Childcare" ends, with Tassie easing out the door. The ways in which Sarah Brink differs from the other mothers have something in common.
One fortyish pregnant woman after another hung up my coat, sat me in her living room, then waddled out to the kitchen, got my tea, and waddled back in, clutching her back, slopping tea onto the saucer, and asking me questions.
Sarah, in contrast, with her lack of "sags" and "pouches, linen skin still tight across the bone," and hair "dyed the fashionable bright auburn of a ladybug," looks "like a highly controlled oxidation experiment" — a phrase to unpack at leisure. And she considers Tassie with an intensity that's embarrassing.
"I'm Tassie Keltjin," I said, thrusting out my hand. She took it and then studied my face. "Yes," she said absently, unnervingly scrutinizing each of my eyes. Her gaze made a slow, observing circle around my nose and mouth. "I'm Sarah Brink." she said finally. I was not used to being looked at close up, not used to the thing I was look at looking back. Certainly my own mother had never done such looking, and in general my face had the kind of smooth, round stupidity that did not prompt the world's study. I had always felt as hidden as the hull in a berry, as secret and fetal as the curled fortune in a cookie, and such hiddenness was not without its advantages, its egotisms, its grief-fed grandiosities. "Here, 'et me take your coat," Sarah Brink said finally, and only then, as she lifted if off me and headed across the foyer to hang it on a hat rack, did I know that she was as thin as a pin, not pregnant at all.
Everything about this passage points to unpreparedness of some kind. There is Tassie's awkward manner, and her confusion at being stared back at. She is not used to being found interesting enough to attend to; she is accustomed to the comforts of being overlooked, which is something that calls for no real preparation at all, just a stoic acceptance. Her hiddenness is "fetal," and the interest that she takes in fortune cookies — the subject of an introductory joke — reflects the fact, explicitly confessed elsewhere, that Tassie is waiting to see what will happen to her, and has no real plans for shaping her destiny. It also seems that Sarah is not prepared to meet Tassie, who appears to throw her off guard for some reason. And of course Sarah is not pregnant: she is quite literally not prepared to have a baby. Later: "Sarah sat across from me on a pale-gray sofa, the very brightness of her looking as if it might stain the cushions." It's hard to tell which is less prepared for an infant, Sarah or the sofa.
Neither woman seems prepared for the interview that follows. Sarah doesn't seem to know how to broach the topic that is most on her mind: the fact that she will become a mother by adoption. Tassie doesn't know what to say when she hears this news, and lamely (she thinks) offers congratulations, and this not only surprises Sarah but delights her.
Sarah's face lit up gratefully, as if no one had yet said an encouraging word to her on the matter. "Why, thank you! I have so much work at the restaurant that everyone I mention this to acts peculiar and quiet, so meanly worried for me. They say 'Really!' and then all this tension springs to their mouths. They think I'm too old."
That she might be too old to be a mother is a convenient notion for Sarah; it occludes the likelier possibility that she lacks a suitable character for motherhood. When she tells Tassie the name of the restaurant that she runs — it's a place, of course, that Tassie herself could never afford to dine at — Tassie surprises her again. Tassie's father, it seems, has supplied local restaurant with vegetables. This information nearly electrifies Sarah.
"Why, I remember your father very well. His Klamath pearls were famous. Also the yellow fingerlings. And his purple Peruvians and Rose Finns were the first to be sold in those little netted berry pints, like jewels. I'd rush out to the farmers' market at 6 AM to get them. Come April, I should put those back on the menu." She was getting dreamy. Still, it was nice to hear my father spoken well of.
"Your father seemed like a nice man. How old is he now?"
"Forty-five! Why, I'm forty-five. That means I'm old enough to be your..." She took a breath, still processing her own amazement.
"To be my dad?" I said.
Sarah Brink laughed, a quasi-laugh, a socially constructed laugh — a collection of predetermined notes, like the chimes of a doorbell.
Does Tassie notice the persistence with which Sarah refers to her father, the man who grows potatoes "like jewels," in the past tense — in what we might almost call the distant past? Tassie's witty save ("To be my dad?") looks at first like a brilliant deflection, but in fact it not only underlines what Sarah was about to say (about being old enough to be Tassie's mother) but completes the family triangle by linking her father to this stranger. It also emphasizes the fact that such any such connection obviously proved to be fruitless. Tassie doesn't mention Sarah's manner of speaking; undoubtedly in the present of the interview, she is too surprised by Sarah's knowing of her father to parse the possibilities of her actually knowing him. in some sense, rather well.
Not only is this conversation unforeseen and unlikely, given what has brought the two women together, but it suggests that there is something of a mistake about what has brought them together, or about the fact that they have not been brought together before. By the end of the story, the air is so thick with mistake that we have no trouble understanding why Tassie wants to get away, out the door. Driving away from the ruined meeting with Amber, and realizing that her outspokenness was a mistake, Sarah says something that sounds familiar, only she inverts it in a very odd way:
"I always do the wrong thing. I do the wrong thing so much that the times I actually do the right thing stand out so brightly in my memory that I forget I always do the wrong thing."
This amounts to a confession that she, Sarah, gets through life by denying failures, acknowledging them only in their immediate wake. We have to hope that Sarah realizes that adopting a baby would be another "wrong thing" — and not because she is too old. (July 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press