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Excerpt

Babysitter

Joyce Carol Oates

August 24, 2022 
The following is from Joyce Carol Oates' Babysitter. Oates is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the NBCC's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and has been nominated several times for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2020 she was awarded the Cino Del Duca World Prize for Literature. She is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Distinguished Professor of the Humanities emerita at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

Suburban life in Far Hills, Michigan!—tyranny of the calendar.

Weekday mornings, afternoons. Appointments.

Dentist, orthodontist. Pediatrician, gynecologist, dermatologist, therapist. Yoga, hair salon, fitness center, beauty clinic. Community relations forum, parent-teacher evening, public library referendum. Luncheons with friends: Far Hills Country Club, Bloomfield Hills Golf Club, Red Fox Inn, Far Hills Marriott. Meetings: Far Hills His­torical Society, Far Hills Public Library Association, Friends of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Indeed, this spring Hannah has been invited to be a cochair of the annual fundraiser for the prestigious Detroit Institute of Arts, the first time Hannah has been so honored, deeply gratified even as Hannah isn’t so na’ive that she doesn’t guess the honor is linked to a sizable donation from the investment firm where Wes Jarrett is a partner.

They will acknowledge me now. They will see that I am one of them.

Suburban life: a (thrumming, warmth-generating) hive.

Family life: small smug hive within a hive.

In this, Hannah knows herself secure. She has defined herself­—wife, mother. She is safe, nourished. She has ceased thinking about how, why she is the person she is. Her hive identity is secure.

Outside the hive, Hannah has little interest. Indifferent to “news” that doesn’t touch upon the hive identity.

Rapidly she glances through the Detroit paper indifferent to most national news, all foreign news. Inner-city crime news: no. Hardly news. Increase of burglaries in the affluent suburbs north of Detroit, environmental issues regarding a “toxic” landfill not far from Far Hills, those obscure crimes labeled as domestic—these snag Hannah’s interest, but fleetingly. (Domestic violence! Women who marry abusive men, women who have not the courage to leave these men, foolish women, weak women—hard to be sympathetic with them.) The most frightening news, to Hannah the most distressing, is of a serial child abductor, child killer, killer pedophile in Oakland County since Febru­ary 1976-Hannah looks quickly away from headlines.

She is secure, protected. Her children.

None of the abductions has been in Far HHJs. None of the abducted children has been known to Hannah or her friends.

No room in Hannah’s life for the unexpected.

Each day is a rectangle on a calendar. An empty space to be filed. Each space a barred window: Shove up the window as high as you can and press your face against the bars, breathing in fresh chill air faint with yearning, grip the bars tight, these are bars that confine but also protect, what pleasure in shaking them as hard as you can knowing that they are unbreakable.

This calendar day April 8, 1977, has remained empty. In a crammed week Friday remains blank.

Is that suspicious? —Hannah wonders.

Can’t bring herself to mark April 8 on her calendar. Even in code. Not because Hannah is afraid of Wes seeing a mysterious notation on her calendar and becoming suspicious: Nothing is less likely than Wes perusing Hannah’s calendar unless it would be Wes search­ing through Hannah’s drawers, closets. He is an orderly, fastidious person respectful of his wife’s privacy as he would expect her to be respectful of his; if Wes has been unfaithful to Hannah, a possibility she has allowed herself to imagine as if to inoculate herself against it, he would not be so careless as to allow her to know: That would have been the cruel act, more than the infidelity itself. (So Hannah thinks.)

It’s the risk to Hannah’s pride, self-esteem, that she fears.

If he fails to meet her. Ifnothing happens.

She most feels humiliation. Rejection. So, better keep the date blank.

Even after his call, the perimeters of the meeting are vague. Will they meet for drinks at his hotel? Or … elsewhere?

As if (deliberately) putting an obstacle in Hannah’s path. Asking her to check with the concierge when she arrives at the hotel.

Why, Hannah will wonder.

His motives, Hannah will always wonder.

*

She tells Ismelda that she will be gone “much of the day.”

A suggestion that she isn’t going far, she will remain in the vicinity, lunch with women friends at the Far Hills Country Club, might visit a friend in the Beaumont Hospital, possibly a quick trip to the Gateway Mall, should be home by five-thirty, which means that, today, Ismelda will pick up Conor and Katya at school.

Usually, Hannah picks up the children. This is important to Han­ nah: She drives the children to school in the morning and picks them up in the afternoon, most days.

Hannah carefully explains this variation in the schedule so that the Filipina housekeeper who sometimes has difficulty understanding En­glish cannot possibly misunderstand.

Today, this afternoon: the children, at school. Yes?

Gravely Ismelda nods. Yes, missus.

Nothing to Ismelda about downtown. Not a word to Ismelda about driving downtown.

Ifs a journey: downtown Detroit. A pilgrimage.

Sixteen miles south and east on the thunderous expressway, not a journey undertaken casually by a Far Hills wife and mother.

Smiling to herself, self-astonished.

Why she is doing this, Hannah doesn’t inquire. How is the challenge.

GOOD FRIDAY 1977, DETROIT MICHIGAN.

*

Chill of late winter, sunshine flashing like scimitars on the river, she is driving to meet him where he has summoned her. Wind sweeps in roiling gusts from the Canadian shore.

Driving in her car, a gift from her husband: gleaming white Buick

Riviera.

At the horizon miles away her destination shimmers before her like a mirage.

Renaissance Grand Hotel, One Woodward Avenue, Detroit. Seventy floors, the highest building in Michigan.

Sixteen miles from her home in Far Hills, Michigan.

Sixteen miles from her children, her life. What has been her life.

He’d looked at her, he’d touched her wrist. Between them passed something like an electric current, a sexual jolt.

Don’t expect me to flatter you. All that in your life has been fraud, hypocrisythe lies you’ve told yourself—ends now.

He hadn’t uttered these words aloud. Yet, she’d heard.

He’d only touched her wrist, maybe he’d circled her wrist with his strong careless fingers. Yet she’d felt the jolt, and something like a rude caress, in the pit of her belly.

Don’t look surprised. That’s bullshit.

Rare for Hannah Jarrett to be driving on I-75: John C. Lodge Ex­pressway. South into the great maw of Detroit.

At this time of day, nearing noon, what would be her purpose? Han­ nah tries to think of plausible explanations, her thoughts are swept aside like butterflies in the wind, wings broken.

Since she’d left the fieldstone colonial on Cradle Rock Road, Far Hills, half an hour ago, the mist-shrouded sky has cleared rapidly. Windswept cobalt-blue sky as depthless and unyielding as painted tin, so glaring bright it would hurt her naked eyes without the protection of dark (designer) glasses.

A journey into the city, Wes would be at the wheel. For safety’s sake, Wes would be driving the Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon that is his vehicle.

In Far Hills, Hannah is a confident driver but her confidence has rapidly ebbed on the interstate. Motorcyclists in heraldic black leather, rough young faces obscured by tinted glasses, pass her slow-moving vehicle insolently on the right, cutting in front of her with deafening roars and expulsions of poisonous exhaust.

Wind! Fierce gusts from Ontario writhing and coiling like great invisible serpents.

As a child she’d seen wind serpents rush across open fields in the direction of her father’s moving vehicle with the intention of sweeping it off the road. For her father had been angry often, driving: Hannah’s mother in the passenger seat very still.

The wind serpents were to punish. Hannah shut her eyes tight, still seeing couldn’t be avoided.

She’d tormented herself with such visions, knowing they weren’t real. Yet possessing the power to frighten her.

Now in adulthood the struggle is not to see what isn’t there.

*

Still, there is the very real threat of punishment.

Gale-force winds believed responsible for recent three-vehicle crash, John C. Lodge Expressway.

Trucks loom up behind the Buick Riviera dangerously close. Leav­ing her territory in the suburbs has brought Hannah to a hostile place where she is recognized, and resented: woman driver, white woman driver, expensive car, an affront to male drivers. No sooner does one rattling truck pass Hannah than another looms up behind her in the rearview mirror.

When it seems that a truck can come no closer to the rear of Han­nah’s Buick, it swings out to pass. Not fast but with excruciating slow­ ness as a strangler might throttle his victim, taking his time.

A glaring face, blurred face in the high cab behind her, a jeering mouth.

Rich man’s wife. Rich bitch.

These strangers don’t wish to harm her, Hannah tells herself. There is nothing personal here, they don’t know her.

Fate of the adulteress. Her punishment, even before she has committed the sin.

Sin! Don’t flatter yourself.

He would laugh at her if he knew what thoughts she is thinking. Almost, Hannah hopes YK. will laugh—he will dismiss her fears.

Those times in a woman’s life, as raw as an open wound, when the hope is to take comfort in careless male laughter.

Why do you think that anything we do together matters? It does not matter.

It will not be disaster, except (possibly) to you.

He’s her friend. He’s an ally. That was evident from the start.

The way they’d met—purely by chance. Recognizing each other at once.

Amid the festive cacophony of a social occasion feeling his fingers brush against her wrist. As if underwater, a predator fish gliding near.

H’lo! Do I know you?

Which one are you?

He was rude, but he was very funny. Not sure why Hannah is laugh­ing but the memory is delicious.

Nothing delicious but it’s secret, surreptitious.

If she has an accident at this inopportune time, in this place, travel­ ing inexplicably south on I-75 into the city of Detroit, if Hannah dies mangled in the shiny white Buick, among those whoa known her or would claim to have known her it would be protested But—what was Hannah Jarrett doing driving into Detroit! Why alone? There’s nothing on her calendar to explain …

Ismelda would have been stunned, baffled. For Mrs. Jarrett had taken pains to suggest to her that she was not going to be far away from home.

And Wes: astonished. Sensing himself betrayed, humiliated So sure he knows his wife, as (he thinks) he knows his children, as familiar to him as the contents of his pockets, and of no greater mystery.

… that shea had a (secret) life, an (illicit) life.

… a life beyond his reckoning. 

*

It would be her first time-adultery.

Eleven years of marriage. A small lifetime. But whatever occurs today, or fails to occur, will be out of time. It will not factor in the marriage time.

As it happens it’s the Friday before Easter: Good Friday.

Just chance. Accident. That he is in Detroit this week.

Guilt stirs in Hannah’s soul like a rough-textured garment chafing the most sensitive skin.

She has been entering the city of Detroit, descending into a new ter­rain. Residential neighborhoods of small wood-frame houses in small lots, row houses, weatherworn tenements and commercial buildings, graffiti-scrawled walls. At the shoulder of the roadway broken glass, rusted hubcaps and fenders, shredded tires.

It has been a gradual descent southward from Far Hills to the sprawling city of Detroit: Her destination is the luxury hotel at the foot of Woodward Avenue, at the Detroit River, the boundary between the United States and Ontario, Canada.

Astonishing to Hannah: She will be meeting a man there, a stranger, who has told her to call him Y.K., at the Renaissance Grand Hotel.

His instructions, Hannah will follow.

All the while comforting herself—Of course, I won’t go through with it. How could I.

That Leslie Caron voice of breathless sincerity, regret.

I’m sorry, I can’t stay long. I will have to leave by …

Like an actress she will control the scene. Determining beforehand how the scene will play out.

… must be home by five-thirty.

How he will look at her when she tells him this! The desire in the man’s face, that is enormously exciting to her.

He will be hurt, she thinks. For a moment, basking in that certainty.

But he may be unhappy in a way not flattering to her. There is that possibility.

Laugh in her face, shut the room door in her face.

No, he will be hurt. Hannah thinks so.

The woman, a married woman: coming to him.

Meaning that Hannah has the freedom to leave him, if she wishes.

You know, I think I can’t stay. I think-this has been a misunderstanding.

Must try to explain to him that yes, she is attracted to him but her life is too complicated right now to commit herself to any kind of …

Wind, rocking the car! Hairs stir at the nape of Hannah’s neck.

In the house in Far Hills wind sometimes whistles in the chimneys, rattles windows with a sound like something trying to gain entrance. Doors are blown open by the wind, or blown shut. Oh Mommy! Mommy! Katya cries. The ghost!

Don’t be silly, silly! There is no ghost.

Yet Hannah hears the ghost, too. Hears something.

You don’t want to think that, in one of these older houses, someone may have died. Marriages may have died.

Families, broken.

But Hannah hears the children clamoring for her. Her love for them comes in a rush, they so adore her.

Already her lover has laughed at Hannah, there’s a certain stiffness in her, a kind of prudery.

Beneath the designer clothes, the anxious female.

I’m sorry. I guess I can’t stay. Not today. Today isn’tisn’t a good day.

Better to be brief, mysterious: I’m sorry. Circumstances have changed, I can’t stay.

Y.K. has other women, Hannah supposes. More experienced, less awkward than Hannah.

Very likely some of these are women Hannah knows. Someone had invited him to the fundraiser evening. He wouldn’t tell her, of course.

If you don’t mind a married woman …

He’d laughed at her, heel liked her frankness. She’d wanted to think that she had surprised him.

Not guessing how unlike Hannah such a remark was. She’d had a drink, or two. She’d meant to be bold, sexually provocative, in emula­tion of the chic black crepe de chine Dior she’d bought for the evening; yet she’d sounded, in her own ears, rawly wistful.

Leaving unspoken the deeper fear—If you don’t mind a wife and mother …

A man who laughs at women. A man who laughs at women is likely to be a man who doesn’t appreciate jokes from women. A man who sees through such jokes. Manly scorn, like one snatching away a frilly foolish article of clothing exposing the (naked) (female) body tremu­lous before him.

The children! If there is sin, if there is the possibility of a very bad mistake, it is because of the children.

She’d driven the children to school that morning. That, she is deter­mined to do.

It would be said of Hannah—She was an excellent mother, the chil­dren adored their mother.

But they are quick to sense when Hannah’s attention isn’t focused exclusively on them. That morning in the car fretful, restless as Han­ nah only half listened to their chatter. Mommy! Mom-my!

Reproach in a child’s voice, the heart is lacerated.

Needy, hungry for Mommy’s love. Insatiable, exhausting. You won­der if any mother, any breast would do, to satisfy a child’s hunger.

And a man’s hunger: less personal and particular than in a woman.

The curse of the female, to so badly need love.

The curse of the female, to care.

Mommy kiss-kiss! Mommy where are you going?

For they can sense: Mommy is going on a long journey, there is the risk that Mommy will never see them again.

No longer Mommy in the corduroy car coat but in a coat of soft black cashmere falling in loose folds about her legs. No longer the lace-up canvas shoes as comfortable as bedroom slippers but elegant impractical stilettos by Saint Laurent.

I would so value you as a friend. Someone in whom …

Must not seem to be pleading with him. If you plead with a man you have already lost.

How Hannah would cherish this man who is a few years older than Wes, and so much more interesting than Wes, as a friend!—Whom I trust and can confide in.

For she has no one. No one in her present life. Her friends in Far Hills are not intimate friends, no one whom Hannah could trust not to talk about her unsympathetically.

And Wes is not her friend. A husband cannot be a wife’s friend. Nor has Wes been faithful to her. Hannah is (almost) sure.

Look, you know you’re coming. To me.

Bullshit your husband has anything to do with it.

*

Now the descent is more evident: tilting toward the river.

Exits rush past as in a dream. Street names cited often in local crime news—John R., Cass, Vernor, Fort, Freud, Brush, Gratiot.

Why hadn’t she left home earlier! She will be late arriving at the hotel.

Her (female) pride in not having left earlier. Unable to decide what to wear. Changing her clothes (again). Pale rose silk shirt, impulsively she thinks—Yes! This.

And then precious minutes lost as she’d stood staring at a clock in the bedroom, mesmerized.

Must not let him guess how eager you are. How hungry, yearning.

No man wants a woman who wants him. Not in that way.

No man wants a woman who wants. That’s the bottom line.

This bitter wisdom, Hannah’s mother has imparted to her. Not in so many words, perhaps.

And now Hannah, poised on a precipice: thirty-nine years old.

Not old. Among their circle of Far Hills friends.

Still., it leaves Hannah just a bit breathless. And in a few months she will be even older: forty.

And how strange and unexpected, Hannah isn’t much different from the person she’d been at twenty-six, nineteen, thirteen. The child self. The waif. Who this person is, she must keep secret from others.

This is new to her, this obsession with a stranger. Her conviction that, somehow, in a way that will become clear to her, Y.K. is not really a stranger.

If a woman is not desired, a woman does not exist. Help me to exist.

CITY CENTER
LAST EXIT BEFORE TUNNEL TO CANADA

For a panicked moment Hannah misreads this crucial sign, the very sign for which she has been waiting, then realizes that this is her exit.

A relief, to leave the thunderous expressway. She has been spared a spectacular collision, instant death.

And now, stuck in slow-moving traffic. Delivery vans, one-way streets. A maze of one-way streets.

The fabled inner city. Dreaded by (suburban) (white) citizens forced to drive through these blocks to the Renaissance Plaza at the river.

And all for him. Risking so much for him.

An impatient driver behind Hannah sounds his horn. At Lared and Fort the traffic light has turned from red to green, Hannah hasn’t responded quickly enough.

Turning onto Lared, headed south into a dismal derelict block. Thinking this must be a wrong turn but then seeing, a quarter of a mile away, the towering Renaissance Grand.

Dazzling rows of windows rising seventy floors. Soft explosion of sunlight as filmy clouds part.

How thrilled Hannah is, to be here.

Out of her mounting anxiety, a sudden rush of joy.

Out of the ruins of the old Detroit, the new.

Very little remains of historic Detroit, demolished since the “riot” of July 1967. Wes’s family had lived in Detroit for generations, in the exclusive residential neighborhood called Palmer Woods, now no longer, all have abandoned the city. Hannah has seen photographs of Detroit taken before 1967, rapidly receding into a sepia-tinged past.

Renaissance Plaza is the “new” Detroit: luxury hotels, spectacular new office buildings, high-rise apartments and condos, upscale res­ taurants and boutiques, a prestigious medical suite (specialty: cos­ metic surgery), a theater/symphonyhall seating two thousand people. Straight ahead, across the river, the merely utilitarian skyline of Wind­ sor, Ontario.

Inner-city renewal, gentrification. Civic-minded corporate development.

Hope for Detroit’s future!

Hope for the doomed city.

Hannah knows that Wes is among the investors in the Renais­sance Plaza project but she has no clear idea how much money he has invested, nor even whose money it is, exactly—his exclusively, or his and Hannah’s.

The project is (it’s said) millions of dollars in debt and yet there has been some profit for investors. The vagueness of “some” profit is surely purposeful.

Hannah has only a vague idea of what bankruptcy is. In personal terms, yes; in corporate terms, no.

Her father had declared bankruptcy, in fact more than once. As a child she’d known nothing.

Wes has seemed bemused, explaining bankruptcy law to Hannah. For everything is a matter of “tax law”: When it comes down to it, everything is a matter of “tax lawyers.”

However, laws governing real estate differ from tax laws governing other sorts of businesses. It’s possible—probable?—that investors in the Renaissance Plaza project pay no property taxes for it though the buildings have been built on the most expensive property in the state of Michigan.

Hannah had expressed bewilderment to Wes: Shouldn’t they be worried about losing their investment? Isn’t it a risk? And Wes had touched her wrist to comfort her, as one might comfort a fretful child. Saying, with a shrug, If you know what you’re doing, there is no risk.

*

Hannah has reached her destination: the beautiful gated city within a city elevated ten feet above the street.

High smooth concrete walls, few entrances and none easily navi­gated by pedestrians; indeed, pedestrians are discouraged in this part of the city. Traffic entering the plaza is funneled into looping drive­ ways where town cars and limousines, airport shuttle buses, private vehicles move slowly forward to be checked and greeted by security guards and uniformed parking attendants.

At once, Hannah feels at home. A relief to leave street-level Detroit and ascend to the gated city where she is recognized: rich (white) man’s wife.

Uniformed staff are a comfort within the gated city. For what is provided is security: protection. Parking attendants, doormen, bell­ boys, a chorus of warm greetings for Hannah in the gleaming white Buick—Welcome to the Renaissance Grand, ma’am!

The Buick is taken from Hannah, gratefully she hands over the key to the ignition. Parking her car is a chore Hannah dislikes as she would dislike servicing or cleaning the car, vacuuming her house, scrubbing sinks and toilets, such tasks fall to persons who have been trained to execute them skillfully.

And how are you today, ma’am?

Is this your first time visiting us, ma’am?

Hannah is very well, thank you! And no, this is not her first time at the Renaissance Plaza.

Smiling at such greetings determined not to see that the uniformed staff despises her, of course (telling herself) they don’t despise her, they have mistaken her for another (rich) (white) woman who may resem­ble her. In fact, the hotel workers must be grateful for Hannah Jarrett as for any visitor to the gated city in the very heart of the doomed city forestalling the inevitable day when the staff is given notice that the luxury hotel has declared bankruptcy.

Until that time, Hannah smiles upon the uniformed staff persons equally, when it’s appropriate she tips them equally.

Always a cache of five-dollar bills in her wallet, to hand out like blessings.

Though ma’am is annoying to her, frankly.

Trying to smile through ma’am, with gritted teeth.

Impossible not to think of ma’am as a rebuke.

Rich (white) man’s wife: ma’am.

Taking the parking stub from the uniformed attendant as if this has not happened already. How many times. That flash of teeth, staring eyes through the eyeholes of the smiling-mask face, of course they call her ma’am, in that other life, time they’d slashed the throat of ma’am nearly decapitating the blond head.

You endured this once. All that lies ahead, you can’t prevent.

Many times, again. For the first time.

__________________________________

Excerpted from BABYSITTER: A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates © 2022 by Joyce Carol Oates. Published by arrangement with Knopf, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.

 




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