the understudy original

07 de março de 2009

O conto a seguir é do novo livro do David Sedaris que comprei por impulso quando tava em SP outro dia. Falei via SMS pro Felipe (que me indicou o Sedaris inicialmente) que eu tava com o pocket book em inglês na minha mão. Quando vi tava com ele na minha mochila, não esperei o Felipe indicar querer o livro pra ele e não me arrependo porque os contos são muito massa. Um dos primeiros contos do livro When You Are Engulfed In Flames era engraçadinho e tal e procurei online pra reler, mas não achei. Resolvi digitar ele todo só pra tê-lo em algum formato editável pra uma futura tradução amadora: é uma história sobre uma babá white trash americana e as recordações de algumas crianças sobre ela. No livro o conto tem 3 ou 4 partes e é só The Understudy, mas na publicação original em 2006 no The New Yorker ele se chama The Understudy: A Babysitter's Brief Reign Of Terror. Aqui vai o texto completo em inglês, inclusive com todas as bizarrices de quoting no estilo americano que eu detesto e tudo o mais:

In the spring of 1967, my mother and father went out of town for the weekend and left my fours sisters and me in the company of a woman named Mrs. Byrd, who was old and black and worked as a maid for one of our neighbors. She arrived at our house on a Friday afternoon, and, after carrying her suitcase to my parent's bedroom, I gave her a little tour, the way I imagined they did in hotels. "This is your TV, this is your private sundeck, and over here you've got a bathroom - just yours and nobody else's."

Mrs. Byrd put her hand to her cheek. "Somebody pinch me. I'm about to fall out."

She cooed again when I opened a dresser drawer and explained that when it came to coats and so forth we favored a little room called a closet. "There are two of them against the wall there, and you can use the one on the right."

It was, I thought, a dream for her: your telephone, your massive bed, your glass-doored shower stall. All you had to do was leave it a little cleaner than you found it.

A few months later, my parents went away again and left us with Mrs. Robbins, who was also black, and who, like Mrs. Byrd, allowed me to see myself as a miracle worker. Night fell, and I pictured her kneeling on the carpet, her forehead grazing my parents' gold bedspread. "Thank you, Jesus, for these wonderful white people and all that they have given me this fine weekend."

With a regular teenage babysitter, you horsed around, jumped her on her way out of the bathroom, that sort of thing, but with Mrs. Robbins and Mrs. Byrd we were respectful and well behaved, not like ourselves at all. This made our parents' getaway weekend a getaway for us as well - for what was a vacation but a chance to be someone different?

In early September of that same year, my parents joined my aunt Joyce and uncle Dick for a week in the Virgin Islands. Neither Mrs. Byrd nor Mrs. Robbins was available to stay with us, and so my mother found someone named Mrs. Peacock. Exactly where she found her would be speculated on for the remainder of our childhoods.

"Has Mom ever been to a women's prison?" my sister Amy would ask.

"Try a man's prison," Gretchen would say, as she was never convinced that Mrs. Peacock was a legitimate female. The "Mrs." part was a lie anyway, that much we knew.

"She just says she was married so people will believe in her!!!!" This was one of the insights we recorded in a notebook while she was staying with us. There were pages of them, all written in a desperate scrawl, with lots of exclamation points and underlined words. It was the sort of writing you might do when a ship was going down, the sort that would give your surviving loved ones an actual chill. "If only we'd known," they'd moan. "Oh, for the love of God, if only we had known."

But what was there to know, really? Some fifteen-year-old offers to watch yours kids for the night and, sure, you ask her parents about her, you nose around. But with a grown woman you didn't demand a reference, especially if the woman was white.

Our mother could never remember where she had found Mrs. Peacock. "A newspaper ad," she'd say, or, "I don't know, maybe she sat for someone at the club."

But who at the club would have hired such a creature? In order to become a member you had to meet certain requirements, one of them being that you did not know people like Mrs. Peacock. You did not go to places where she ate or worshiped, and you certainly didn't give her the run of your home.

I smelled trouble the moment her car pulled up, a piece of junk driven by a guy with no shirt on. He looked just old enough to start shaving, and remained seated as the figure beside him pushed open the door and eased her way out. This was Mrs. Peacock, and the first thing I noticed was her hair, which was the color of margarine and fell in waves to the middle of her back. It was the sort of hair you might find on a mermaid, completely wrong for a sixty-year-old woman who was not just heavy but fat, and moved as if each step might be her last.

"Mom!" I called, and, as my mother stepped out of the house, the man with no shirt backed out of the driveway and peeled off down the street.

"Was that your husband?" my mother asked, and Mrs. Peacock looked at the spot where the car had been.

"Naw," she said. "That's just Keith."

Not "my nephew Keith" or "Keith, who works at the filling station and is wanted in five states," but "just Keith," as if we had read a book about her life and were expected to remember all the characters.

She'd do this a lot over the coming week, and I would grow to hate her for it. Someone would phone the house, and after hanging up she'd say, "So much for Eugene" or "I told Vicky not to call me here no more."

"Who's Eugene?" we'd ask. "What did Vicky do that was so bad?" And she'd tell us to mind our own business.

She had this attitude, not that she was better then us but that she was as good as us - and that simply was not true. Look at her suitcase, tied shut with hope! Listen to her mumble, not a clear sentence to be had. A polite person would express admiration when given a tour of the house, but aside from a few questions regarding the stovetop Mrs. Peacock said very little and merely shrugged when shown the master bathroom, which had the word "master" in it and was supposed to make you feel powerful and lucky to be alive. I've seen better; her look seemed to say, but I didn't for one moment believe it.

The first two times my parents left for vacation, my sister and I escorted them to the door and said that we would miss them terribly. It was just an act, designed to make us look sensitive and English, but on this occasion we meant it. "Oh, stop being such babies," our mother said. "It's only a week." Then she gave Mrs. Peacock the look meaning "Kids. What are you going to do?"

There was a corresponding look that translated to "You tell me," but Mrs. Peacock didn't need it, for she knew exactly what she was going to do: enslave us. There was no other word for it. An hours after my parents left, she was lying facedown on their bed, dressed in nothing but her slip. Like her skin, it was the color of Vaseline, an uncolor really, which looked even worse with yellow hair. Add to this her great bare legs, which were dimpled at the inner knee and streaked throughout with angry purple veins.

My sisters and I attempted diplomacy. "Isn't there, perhaps, some work to be done?"

"You there, the one with the glasses." Mrs. Peacock pointed at my sister Gretchen. "Your mama mentioned they's some sodie pops in the kitchen. Go fetch me one, why don't you."

"Do you mean coke?" Gretchen asked.

"That'll do," Mrs. Peacock said. "And put it in a mug with ice in it."

While Gretchen got the Coke, I was instructed to close the drapes. It was, to me, an idea that bordered on insanity, and I tried my best to talk her out of it. "The private deck is your room's best feature," I said. "Do you really want to block it out while the sun's still shining?"

She did. Then she wanted her suitcase. My sister Amy put it on the bed, and we watched as Mrs. Peacock untied the rope and reached inside, removing a plastic hand attached to a foot-long wand. The business end was no bigger than a monkey's paw, the fingers bent slightly inward, as if they had been frozen in the act of begging. It was a nasty little thing, the nails slick with grease, and over the coming week we were to see a lot of it. To this day, should any of our boyfriends demand a back-scratch, my sisters and I recoil. "Brush yourself against a brick wall," we say. "Hire a nurse, but don't look at me. I've done my time."

No one spoke of carpal tunnel syndrome in the late 1960s, but that doesn't mean it didn't exist. There just wasn't a name for it. Again and again we ran the paw over Mrs. Peacock's back, the fingers leaving white trails and sometimes welts. "Ease up," she'd say, the straps of her slip lowered to her forearms, the side of her face mashed flat against the gold bedspread. "I ain't made of stone, you know."

That much was clear. Stone didn't sweat. Stone didn't stink or break out in a rash, and it certainly didn't sprout little black hairs between its shoulder blades. We drew this last one to Mrs. Peacock's attention, and she responded, saying, "Y'all's got the same damn thing, only they ain't poked out yet."

That one was written down verbatim and read aloud during the daily crisis meetings my sisters and I had taken to holding in the woods behind our house. "Y'all's got the same damn thing, only they ain't poked out yet." It sounded chilling when said in her voice, and even worse when recited normally, without the mumble and the country accent.

"Can't speak English," I wrote in the complaint book. "Can't go two minutes without using the word 'damn.' Can't cook worth a ~~damn~~ hoot."

The last part was not quite true, but it wouldn't have hurt her to expand her repertoire. Sloppy joe, sloppy joe, sloppy joe, held over our heads as it it were steak. Nobody ate unless they earned it, which meant fetching her drinks, brushing her hair, driving the monkey paw into her shoulders until she moaned. Mealtime came and went - her too full of Coke and potato chips to notice until one of us dared to mention it. "If y'all was hungry, why didn't you say nothing? I'm not a mind reader, you know. Not a psychic or some damn thing."

Then she'd slam around the kitchen, her upper arms jiggling as she threw the pan on the burner, pitched in some ground beef, shook ketchup into it.

My sisters and I sat at the table, but Mrs. Peacock ate standing, like a cow, we though, a cow with a telephone: "You tell Curtis for me that if he don't run Tanya to R.C.'s hearing, he'll have to answer to both me and Gene Junior, and that's no lie."

Her phone calls reminded her that she was away from the action. Events were coming to a head: the drama with Ray, the business between Kim and Lucille, and here she was, stuck in the middle nowhere. That's how she saw our house: the end of the earth. In a few years' time, I'd be the first to agree with her, but when I was eleven, and you could still smell the fresh pine joists from behind the Sheetrocked walls, I thought there was no finer place to be.

"I'd like to see where she lives," I said to my sister Lisa.

And then, as punishment, we did see.

This occurred on day five, and was Amy's fault - at least according to Mrs. Peacock. Any sane adult, anyone with children, might have taken the blame upon herself. Oh, well, she would have thought. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Seven-year-old girl, her arm worn to rubber after hours of back-scratching, carries the monkey paw into the master bathroom, where it drops from her hand and falls to the tile floor. The fingers shatter clean off, leaving nothing - a jagged little fist at the end of a stick.

"Now you done it," Mrs. Peacock said. All of us to bed without supper. And the next morning Keith pulled up, still with no shirt on. He honked in the driveway, and she shouted at him through the closed door to hold his damn horses.

"I don't think he can hear you," Gretchen said, and Mrs. Peacock told her she'd had all the lip she was going to take. She'd had all the lip she was going to take from any of us, and so we were quiet as we piled into the car, Keith telling a convoluted story about him and someone named Sherwood as he sped beyond the Raleigh we knew and into a neighborhood of barking dogs and gravel driveways. The houses looked like something a child might draw, a row of shaky squares with triangles on top. Add a door, add two windows. Think of putting a tree in the front yard, and then decide against it because branches aren't worth the trouble.

Mrs. Peacock's place was divided in half, her in the back, and someone named Leslie living in the front. A man named Leslie, who wore fatigues and stood by the mailbox play-wrestling with a Doberman pinscher as we drove up. I thought he would scowl at the sight of Mrs. Peacock, but instead he smiled and waved, and she waved in return. Five children wedged into the backseat, children just dying to report that they'd been abducted, but Leslie didn't seem to notice us any more than Keith had.

When the car stopped, Mrs. Peacock turned around in the front seat and announced that she had some work that needed doing.

"Go ahead," we told her. "We'll wait here."

"Like fun you will," she said.

We started outdoors, picking up turds deposited by the Doberman, whose name turned out to be Rascal. The front yard was mined with them, but the back, which Mrs. Peacock tended, was surprisingly normal, better than normal, really. There was a small lawn and, along its border, a narrow bed of low-lying flowers - pansies, I think. There were more flowers on the patio outside her door, most of them in plastic pots and kept company by little ceramic creatures: a squirrel with its tail broken off, a smiling toad.

I'd thought of Mrs. Peacock as a person for whom the word "cute" did not register, and so it was startling to enter her half of the house and find it filled with dolls. There must have been a hundred of them, all squeezed into a single room. There were dolls sitting on the television, dolls standing with their feet glued to the top of the electric fan, and tons more crowded onto floor-to-ceiling shelves. Strange to me was that she hadn't segregated them according to size or quality. Here was a fashion model in a stylish dress, dwarfed by a cheap bawling baby or a little who'd apparently come too close to the hot plate, her hair singed off, her face disfigured into a frown.

"First rule is that nobody touches nothing," Mrs. Peacock said. "Not nobody and not for no reason."

She obviously thought that her home was something special, a children's paradise, a land of enchantment, but to me it was just overcrowded.

"and dark," my sisters would later add. "and hot and smelly."

Mrs. Peacock had a Dixie cup dispenser mounted to the wall above her dresser. She kept her bedroom slippers beside the bathroom door, and inside each one was a little troll doll, its hair blown back as if by a fierce wind. "See," she told us. "It's like they's riding in boats!"

"Right," we said. "That's really something."

She then pointed out a miniature kitchen set displayed on one of the lower shelves. "The refrigerator broke, so I made me another one out of a matchbox. Get up close, and y'all can look at it."

"You made this?" we said, though of course it was obvious. The strike pad gave it away.

Mrs. Peacock was clearly trying to be a good hostess, but I wished she would stop. My opinion of her had already been formed, was written on paper, even, and factoring in her small kindnesses would only muddy the report. Like any normal fifth grader, I preferred my villains to be evil and stay that way, to act like Dracula rather than Frankenstein's monster, who ruined everything by handing that peasant girl a flower. He sort of made up for it by drowning her a few minutes later, but, still, you couldn't look at him the same way again. My sisters and I didn't want to understand Mrs. Peacock. We just wanted to hate her, and so we were relieved when she reached into her closet and withdrew another back-scratcher, the good one, apparently. It was no larger that the earlier model, but the hand was slimmer and more clearly defined, that of a lady rather than a monkey. The moment she had it, the hostess act melted away. Off came the man's shirt she'd worn over her slip, and she took up her position on the bed, surrounded by the baby dolls she referred to as "doll babies." Gretchen was given the first shift, and the rest of us were sent outside to pull weeds in the blistering sun.

"Thank God," I said to Lisa. "I was worried for a minute there that we'd have to feel sorry for her."

As children we suspected that Mrs. Peacock was crazy, a catchall term we used for anyone who did not recognize our charms. As adults, though, we narrow it down and wonder if she wasn't clinically depressed. The drastic mood swings, the hours of sleep, a gloom so heavy she was unable to get dressed or wash herself - thus the slip, thus the hair that grew greasier and greasier as the week progressed and left a permanent stain on our parent's gold bedspread.

"I wonder if she'd been institutionalized," Lisa will say. "Maybe she had shock treatments, which is what they did back then, the poor thing."

We'd like to have been that compassionate as children, but we already had our list, and it was unthinkable to disregard it on account of a lousy matchbox. Our parents returned from their vacation, and before they even stepped out of the car we were upon them, a mob, all of us talking at the same time. "She made us go to her shack and pick up turds." "She sent us to bed one night without supper." "She said the master bathroom was ugly, and that you were stupid to have air-conditioning."

"All right," our mother said. "Jesus, calm down."

"She made us scratch her back until our arms almost fell off." "She cooked sloppy joe every night, and when we ran out of buns she told us to eat it on crackers."

We were still at it when Mrs. Peacock stepped from the breakfast nook and out into the carport. She was dressed, for once, and even had shoes on, but it was too late to play normal. In the presence of my mother, who was tanned and pretty, she looked all the more unhealthy, sinister almost, her mouth twisted into a freaky smile.

"She spent the whole week in bed and didn't do laundry until last night."

I guess I expected a violent showdown. How else to explain my disappointment when, instead of slapping Mrs. Peacock across the face, my mother looked her in the eye, and said, "Oh, come on. I don't believe that for a minute." It was the phrase she used when she believed every word of it but was too tired to care.

"But she abducted us."

"Well, good for her." Our mother led Mrs. Peacock into the house and left my sisters and me standing in the carport. "Aren't they just horrible?" she said. "Honest to God, I don't know how you put up with them for an entire week."

"You don't know how she put up with us?"

Slam! went the door, right in our faces, and then our mom sat her guest down in the breakfast nook and offered her a drink.

Framed through the window, they looked like figures on a stage, two characters who seem like opposites and then discover they have a lot in common: a similarly hard upbringing, a fondness for the jugged Burgundies of California, and a mutual disregard for the rowdy matinee audience, pitching their catcalls from beyond the parted curtain.

© caio1982