I wrote this short story about 15 years ago. It was based on my experience as a nanny for a wealthy family. There is a world that exists that only “hired help” knows about. I hope I did a good job of bringing it to light. Published in New Reader Magazine.
Courtesy Amy Judd Photography
The Meaning of Flight
One morning, Rhea saw it there, pecking in the pristine landscape under the Kensington Country Club sign as she waited to turn into the gated community—a black chicken scratching in the pansies at sunrise. It was still there at dusk when Rhea left, the sun casting long shadows in the Georgia summer twilight and the day after. Rhea started looking for it every morning when she drove by, throwing crackers out the window into the grass by the bushes, hoping it was smart enough not to wander into the street.
Rhea thought she knew where it came from. Down the road, past the developments, a single trailer home hunched on a square of land, fending off the flock of developers that swooped down from Atlanta to buy up everything in the vicinity and turn it into expensive gated communities. The trailer had a makeshift wire fence surrounding it that kept in a brood of chickens and a few goats. All the neighborhood women grumbled, saying it was a black stain on the town. They complained it smelled up the new park where they marched around the man-made lake pushing strollers and talking out loud into hidden cell phones attached to their ears. They held community meetings and petitioned the city council, but the trailer’s owner wouldn’t budge—even when offered large sums of money.
Rhea wondered how the chicken found its way there. Surely, it didn’t walk the three miles from the trailer to Kensington Park. Chickens are (as everyone knows) flightless birds. She thought about trying to corral it and return it, but it seemed fat and happy, scratching out a quiet living in the flower beds and retreating into the woods at night to roost.
Rhea was a nanny for one of the many rich families in the Kensington Park Country Club, where the residents were tucked safely behind cast iron gates inside sprawling houses in neighborhoods built in less than a month. The gigantic homes stood stamped onto the hillsides in a pattern of three or four alternating models—so close they almost touched. They appeared made of brick or stucco on all sides from the street, but they hid shingled backs—like dresses pinned to the fronts of mannequins in a store window display to create the illusion of being completely clothed.
It was a new neighborhood, and most of the cul-de-sacs were unfinished. The houses sat on their streets like embryos in jars displaying descending forms of development. They started out fully formed at the top, bulging with families on green lawns thick as carpet. Expensive cars hid behind garage doors designed to look like carriage houses. But as you drove down the street, the lush lawns turned into freshly laid sod with the seams still showing. For-sale-signs advertised barren three-story houses with naked windows staring at the road like lidless eyes. Newly planted flowers budded in beds around the foundations. Saplings sprouted along the driveways, tethered to stakes to keep them upright.
At the end of the cul-de-sacs lay red clay and skeletons—partially framed buildings swarming with construction workers like flies on a carcass. They perched in the eaves in the afternoons, eating their lunches from plastic grocery bags as Rhea walked by with Katie in the stroller. Something kept them from whistling and cat-calling like they did in her town. The same unspoken rule decreed they idle their leaf blowers and lawn mowers as she passed. Rhea used to say hello and smile, but they only stepped aside and looked at the ground.
Outside the gates of the neighborhood, Rhea was Mommy, not to the two-and five-year-olds she watched, but to the endless amounts of people she interacted with every day—a generic tag they gave her to avoid actual conversation.
“What would you like, Mom?” the woman from the ice cream store asked.
“How long has this fever been going on, Mom?” the nurse asked at the pediatrician’s office.
“Wait for your Mommy, Honey!” warned the mothers at the playground.
Rhea stopped correcting them. It was easier. Their eyes didn’t drift while she continued talking, trying to cling to the intimacy of the prior conversation like a child to its mother’s knee.
So, Rhea took on the role. She slipped her arms into the designer sweat suit costume of the neighborhood mommies, bought a fake Gucci bag online, stole a pair of Chanel glasses from the Gymboree lost and found and traded in her Volkswagen Bug for a black shiny SUV she couldn’t afford.
Her husband was a good man. He worked two jobs while putting himself through school. Rhea barely saw him. All she wanted to do was stay home and have children, but bills kept her at work, getting up before daybreak to drive an hour to the rich side of the county.
Eight weeks into her pregnancy, Rhea developed hyperemesis. She got so dehydrated from vomiting, she spent the night in the hospital. She didn’t go in to work for three days. Maggie, her boss, used it as an example of how flexible she was when Rhea complained later about the long hours. Rhea felt like a fly caught under the glass of her financial situation and thought Maggie used it to her advantage. Rhea needed her and her money, and Maggie knew it. So, forty hours a week became fifty, and fifty became fifty-five. Helping with the laundry turned into picking up Maggie’s bloodstained underwear off the bathroom floor and scrubbing it in the laundry room sink until her hands were white and cracked from bleach. Rhea put up a fight when Maggie expected her to baby-sit on the weekends without compensation. Maggie turned on her and hissed. I was just asking you for a favor as a friend.
The friend card—one Maggie could whisk out like a Visa and use at a moment’s notice. She seduced Rhea into a false sense of camaraderie, insisted she call her Mags, confided in Rhea about her husband’s negligence and what a jealous bitch her sister was. She cradled Rhea in the cozy nest of girlfriend closeness and then turned on her for a favor—something you wouldn’t ask of an employee without compensation but something you wouldn’t ask of a friend either. Can you do me a favor and stay late and clean the basement? I have a big party tomorrow. Rhea stopped fighting it. She swallowed down the protests sticking in her throat and agreed to whatever Maggie wanted. It was easier than flinching through the day, waiting for Maggie to slap her with some new argument proving how unreasonable she was being when Maggie had been so flexible with her.
At least the children loved her. There was solace in that. She wasn’t hired help to them. She was just Miss Rhea, a constant presence they didn’t question or wonder about, an intrinsic part of their tiny five and two-year-old lives.
Rhea’s job included dropping off and picking up the five-year-old, Hunter, from the bus stop at the top of the cul-de-sac. So every morning, Rhea packed Katie into her stroller and took the journey to the top of the hill with Hunter. Mothers left their houses and joined them in the line with their offspring trailing behind like ants. They ignored Rhea and neglected to reprimand their children when they picked up Katie and swung her around, or pushed Hunter out into the street. Tired and nauseated from being pregnant, one day Rhea lost her temper. She called out in a voice loud enough for the mothers to hear, “I know your mothers don’t care, but if you do that one more time, you’re gonna be in big trouble.”
She got into a yelling match with Diane, Maggie’s neighbor, who called Maggie and complained. Rhea thought she might lose her job.
But Maggie just rolled her eyes. I could care less what they think, Rhea. They are no friends of mine, just a bunch of stay-at-home-bitches with no lives of their own.
Rhea gloated the next day at the bus stop. They had not gotten the best of her. They had not defeated her.
After that, the neighborhood mommies formed a tight flock away from her, calling out to their children in first names that should be last ones: Conner, Carter and Madison before turning back to their conversations about how hard it was to find good help or a decent lake lot to build their summer houses on. Rhea was close enough to hear, but not near enough to feel involved. She busied herself with buttoning Katie’s coat and tying her laces. She pretended to talk on her cell phone, laughing into the dial tone.
The morning Rhea came back from the miscarriage, the chicken greeted her at the neighborhood entrance. Some of its feathers stuck out at an odd angle as it scavenged through the pine straw. It looked thin. Rhea rummaged through her glove department but found nothing to give it. It waited, cocking its head and studying her with one yellow eye as she drove past.
Maggie was on the phone when Rhea walked inside the house. She looked up and placed her hand over the phone receiver. “Did you get the flowers I sent?” she mouthed to Rhea, her lips stained a dark red.
Maggie gave her a thumbs up then returned to the phone, pecking at her laptop. Katie cried through the monitor beside her.
“I’ll get her,” Rhea said, going up the steep stairs to the second floor.
Katie sat in her crib and squinted at her in the semi-darkness. The smell of urine drifted from her crib. “No, Rhea. Want Mommy.”
Rhea tried to pick her up from the crib, but she flattened herself against the bottom of it, making her body a dead weight Rhea struggled to lift. Katie screamed as she put her on the changing table and unzipped her pajamas. Rhea said nothing, just changed her, stoic and silent and as if she was dissecting a cadaver. Katie calmed down half-way through, hiccupping and sucking her thumb.
Rhea sat Katie up and took a deep breath. “Let’s go eat breakfast. Okay, sweetie?” She knew Maggie could hear her through the monitor.
Katie looked up at her from underneath a curly mop of blonde hair, then pulled Rhea’s shirt up with one hand and put her tiny finger in Rhea’s belly button with the other.
“Baby?” Katie asked, her eyes wide and blinking.
Rhea pulled down her shirt and shook her head slowly. “No, no more baby. Baby all gone.” A single rivulet slipped down her face and splattered on Katie’s arm.
Katie touched the wet spot with her finger and looked at it. She scrunched her tiny face into a frown. “Boo-boo Rhea?”
Rhea picked her up and put her back into her crib. “I have to go potty, Katie. I’ll be right back.” Rhea locked herself in the bathroom and rocked herself on the toilet as blood trickled out of her into it.
Katie yelled, “Out, Rhea. Out!”
If Maggie heard, she never came up, retreating somewhere deep inside the massive house.
When Rhea came downstairs, she saw a note on top of a box of baby clothes. Can you return these for me? I bought them for my friend’s baby shower, but I think I’m going to get her a stroller instead.
Rhea trudged up the hill to the bus stop, ignoring Hunter and Katie fighting over a toy. She had been almost fifteen weeks along—in the safe zone. When she found blood spotting her underwear, she had called her doctor. He reassured her it was probably just from intercourse. He advised her to rest and not lift anything over twenty-five pounds but Maggie wanted her to come in to work, because her designer was coming over to show her some new ideas for one of the three gigantic guest rooms. So, Rhea went in. She didn’t bother telling Maggie what happened or ask her to bring down the heavy loads of laundry from upstairs. Maggie was too busy poring over paint colors and fingering swatches of rich fabric.
When Rhea reached the top of the hill to wait for the bus, she stood there, a pad thick and bulky between her legs. She dripped as she waited, listening to Diane gossiping to the others. Diane was the fat one of the group, thick and round like a hen. She stood in the middle of the circle, talking about a mother missing from the bus stop that morning. A wattle of skin jiggled under her neck as she whispered in a loud voice. She had a big bruise on her arm, and when I asked her about it, she said she didn’t want to talk about it. The women clucked their tongues in disapproval.
When the clots came like dark pieces of liver, Rhea had called the doctor again. Her husband drove her to the office, his face white and drawn as he gripped the steering wheel. Rhea wailed against the car door, clutching her stomach. Her breath fogged the window around her head, leaving a disembodied silhouette when they pulled into the empty parking lot. Her doctor unlocked the office and ushered them into the examining room. He put Rhea’s legs up into stirrups and inserted the thin cold wand of the ultrasound. Her husband walked behind him and watched the screen, looking for the tiny flutter of the heart beat. Rhea watched his eyes as she lay there with her legs spread. He searched the screen then settled on something, and she knew. The doctor gave her a sympathetic grimace. I’m sorry. I think we’ve got a miscarriage here. He told her some women choose to pass it at home, but she could go to Mercy Hospital for a D&C. Rhea asked if she would be drugged for it and he said yes. She nodded to her husband. She wanted to feel nothing.
Mercy Hospital was on Rhea’s side of town. It was an old brick building, crumbling around the edges, who’s waiting room was always crammed with families speaking a dozen different languages.
They waited fifteen minutes for the woman at the front desk to finish her phone conversation and admit them. Giant cramps gripped Rhea’s abdomen like a fist as she paced and listened to the woman complaining about her boyfriend into the phone. Rhea’s husband gripped the counter and stared at the woman, but she ignored him and took her time winding down the conversation before finally hanging up. She admitted them and directed them to the wrong floor. As they entered an unmarked office to ask directions, Rhea’s water broke. She bent over and held her knees together as it rushed out of her and splashed onto the floor. Red strands floated in yellow liquid around her feet. Two women in scrubs behind the counter ran over with a wheelchair and rushed her upstairs. Doctors and nurses turned in the hallways as the women wheeled her by, trying to locate the source of the inhuman sounds before turning back to their conversations. Rhea tried to lean over the side of her wheelchair so that she wouldn’t put any weight on the tiny mass between her legs in her underwear. She felt something—the flutter of a butterfly wing.
She waited four hours before getting the D&C. They pumped her full of Stadol and she floated in and out of dreams where she walked through a park following the sound of crying. An old woman sat on a bench feeding birds. Didn’t she hear it? The woman just shrugged and threw bread to a group of blackbirds who shrieked and stabbed at one another with their sharp beaks. Rhea woke to see her husband sitting by her bedside. The small mass was still between her legs. Rhea told the nurses something was down there, but they said they couldn’t clean her up until she stopped bleeding. She tried to tell them something was there, the flutter of a tiny wing, but they just shushed her and dripped more drugs into her IV.
Finally, before they wheeled her into the operating room, they cleaned her up.
“We have remains here,” the nurse said.
“What? What are you talking about?” asked the other one, peering between Rhea’s legs.
“We have some fetal remains here,” said the first one pointedly, holding up something between her gloved fingers. Rhea squeezed her eyes shut and mumbled. They had to save it. The doctor wanted to run tests. The nurse put it in a plastic container marked “biohazard” and left it on the side table next to Rhea.
“Don’t,” Rhea’s husband said, following her eyes. “It’s not something you want stuck in your mind for the rest of your life.”
Rhea turned away and looked out the window. She stared at the wall of the brick building facing her until she drifted back to sleep. She remembered nothing else until after the procedure was over—her uterus scraped clean like a dirty plate.
Rhea placed her hands over her still swollen abdomen as she waited for the bus. She pressed her fingers into it, almost expecting to feel something there. Hunter ran wild in the neighbor’s yard. Katie screamed from her stroller to get out.
“Hi, I’m Robin.” A woman Rhea didn’t recognize stretched out her hand to her. Her fingers were long and bony, trapping Rhea’s fleshy hand in them like a rabbit. The other mothers paused and turned sideways, listening to their conversation.
“And what’s your name, you precious little princess?” Robin asked Katie, who frowned at her.
“That’s Katie.” Rhea said, staring at the woman’s legs. They were so thin, Rhea imagined she could make out her joints under the thick fabric of her sweat pants.
“She’s so cute!” Robin said, smiling at Katie.
Katie scowled and slapped at her leg. “Out! Out!”
“Which one is yours?” Robin asked, looking at the brood of children swarming through the yards.
“Hunter,” Rhea said, pointing to him as he wrestled another boy to the sidewalk and sat on him. She felt the other mothers’ eyes on her.
“Oh, wow. You must have your hands full.”
“You could say that,” Rhea said, looking at the rings crusting Robin’s fingers and her long painted nails.
She pointed with one of them at a fat little girl with pigtails who had small piggy eyes and an upturned nose. “That’s mine over there—Gracie. She’s five. We just moved in down the street.”
“Adorable,” Rhea said, watching Gracie dig inside her nose, pull something out then eat it.
Robin shook her head, embarrassed. “Well, she’s my little project. You can’t have everything!” She smiled and shrugged her bony shoulders like wings. “I’m working on another though. Hopefully, this one won’t be as challenging.” She rubbed her stomach, a small bump Rhea hadn’t noticed before.
“Congratulations,” Rhea said dully.
“Thanks. Are you going to have anymore?” Robin asked, her eyes blinking wide with mascara. Rhea saw Diane watching her out of the corner of her eye, cocking her her head, listening.
This was usually the part in the conversation where Rhea stopped pretending and admitted they weren’t hers—that she was just the nanny. But the words lodged deep in her throat. She stared silent at the ground. Robin shifted her stick legs, waiting.
Diane walked up and touched Robin’s arm. “I’m Diane,” she said. “This is Maggie Wallace’s nanny—Rhea.”
Rhea’s face burned.
“Oh,” Robin said awkwardly.
Diane tucked Robin’s arm under her fat one. “Let me introduce you to the other mothers.”
“Okay,” Robin said, looking helplessly at Rhea.
Rhea stared after them as they absorbed Robin into their circle.
Diane’s whispers floated over in snatches. Rude to our kids. Doesn’t have her own, so she doesn’t understand. Gives Maggie an awful hard time. Miscarriage.
Robin glanced over at Rhea, her face growing more pointed as she listened to Diane. The others bobbed in agreement.
Rhea bent down in front of Katie’s stroller. She untied then tied Katie’s shoes.
Katie frowned and touched the wetness on Rhea’s face. “Boo-boo, Rhea?”
Rhea stood up and jerked the stroller around and headed back to the house.
Hunter yelled after her, “Where are you going Miss Rhea? The bus isn’t here yet.”
Diane called to him, “Come over here with us, son.”
Maggie was on the phone in her office. Rhea tore a piece of paper off a notepad and scribbled on it: I’m going home. She deposited Katie in Maggie’s lap, handed her the note then walked out the door. Maggie ran out after her, but Rhea was already in the car. As Rhea backed out of the driveway, Maggie followed with her mouth hanging open and her arms flapping up and down. Katie tottered after her crying. Rhea drove past the bus stop. The women surrounded Hunter and watched her as she drove by, swiveling their heads on their necks like owls then snapping them back to Maggie, who was still yelling from the driveway—Katie, a tiny dot by her side in Rhea’s rearview.
Rhea drove to the entrance of the subdivision, her breath tight in her chest. She paused at the stop sign where the access road met the highway. It wasn’t too late. She could still go back. Her cell phone rang deep in her purse. Something moved in her peripheral vision and she turned to look. A large hawk stood at the base of the Kensington Park sign, ripping long pink shreds out of something clutched between its talons. It looked at her and cocked its head, examining her like an insect—one yellow eye at a time. There were dark feathers strewn around the carcass—a black stain on the ground. Rhea stared at it until a car beeped at her from behind. An angry looking woman with big black sunglasses motioned in her rearview for her to go. Rhea looked one more time at the hawk—its beak sharp and bloody—then pulled out onto the highway and went home.