No Apparent Sadness
a short story by Ashley Shelby
About the Author
Ashley Shelby is a prize-winning writer whose fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared widely. She has received the Red Hen Press Short Fiction Award, the Enizagam Short Story Award, the Third Coast Fiction Prize, and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize.
Her debut novel South Pole Station (Picador, 2017) won the Lascaux Prize in Fiction.
Shelby is a former editor at Penguin Group (USA) and co-founded and curated the KGB Bar Nonfiction Reading Series in New York City. She received an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. She now lives in the Twin Cities with her family.
It is the same story, every morning, on the M104 downtown bus at nine forty-five. The bus pulls up to the bus stop, and the driver lowers the left side so the nannies can struggle up the steps with the fold-up strollers and the backpacks and the schoolbags and their purses and the kids too. The skinny blonde mothers stand in bunches and wait for their kids to find a seat. The kids plant themselves near windows and wave, their noses squished against the Plexiglas and no apparent sadness in their goodbyes.
It had, for a long time, seemed to me that the nannies were already bored and beaten and disappointed by life at this early hour. They’re used to the children they take care of in the same way that you get used to a neighbor’s dog. He requires care when his owner is away, and his owner lets him get away with a hell of a lot more than you’d let him get away with if he were yours. But because he’s not yours, you have to adjust your tolerance level appropriately. The nannies are all dark-skinned, mostly from the islands, and they’re all here to take care of someone else’s kid. They look at me and wonder, I know, what I do instead of taking care of some white baby. I can make my money in other ways. Of this, I’m sure.
The bus is divided like any society might be. The old women sit in the very front. The young women without children sit in the single seats that line one side of the bus until the front seats fill up, and old women stand expectantly in front of the young women, and the young women give up their seats to the old women. The men on this route will give up their seats for the young women without children and for the old women, but never for the nannies.
The main nanny-stop in my neighborhood is down at 110th and Broadway, so I get on the bus a stop early, up at 112th. This way, I get a window seat in the back of the bus. A few years ago, I had learned to save the seat next to me for the little blond boy with the jade-colored eyes and the sticky fingers, usually covered in potato chip dust. He didn’t talk to me, hardly noticed me, but enjoyed the vibrations of the bus engine on his bottom and the panoramic view of the society that a back-of-the-bus seat afforded him. His nanny liked to sit a few seats away from him. She was a very young, very large woman with bright jewels all the way up her ears and a scarf wrapped around her head. The little white boy who sat next to me clearly adored her. I had never seen a blonde mother waving goodbye to this pair at 110th and Broadway. They just seemed to materialize there together, holding hands and looking up Broadway for the bus.
The last bus ride I shared with them, the nanny was eating potato chips. The little boy was wearing a yellow Pokemon cap and watching his nanny eat the chips. Every once in a while, the nanny leaned across the seat and brought her face inches from his. She waited. The little boy puckered up his lips and kissed his nanny with an expression of pure love on his face. The adoration was so naked that I was embarrassed and turned to look out the window. As the bus pulled back into traffic and headed down Broadway, the lovebirds still gazed at each other. The nanny continued eating the potato chips and handed every third chip to the little boy. He put one chip into his tiny mouth whole. He chewed the chip, then opened his mouth wide, displaying the pale, lumpy mound of half-chewed potato chip on his pink tongue.
“Oooooh,” the nanny cried, “Disgusting! Close that mouth.”
The little boy laughed. I wondered then how it was possible to love a child who is not yours. She couldn’t hide it, and she didn’t try. I realized I was faintly jealous. I felt the urge to grab the little man sitting next to me, pull him onto my lap, and bring my lips close to his to see if he’d kiss them.
She handed him another chip, which he chewed and swallowed. He hopped out of his seat and ran up to her, fell against her and said. “Lemme give you a chip kiss.”
She pulled away from him, laughing.
“No way,” she said. “Absolutely not.”
“Lemme give you a chip kiss,” he said again.
He’d wrapped his arms around her neck and had brought his face so close to hers that their noses were touching, but he didn’t kiss her. She wrinkled her nose.
“You smell like potato chips,” she told him.
The smell of potato chips lingered around the seat next to me that he’d just temporarily vacated, and he was wearing the seasonings in a reddish brown ring around his lips, and it was all under his fingernails, and his fingertips were wet with his saliva. He delivered his chip kiss.
“Let’s pretend this bus is a boat,” the little boy said, now back in his seat.
“What kind of boat,” his nanny asked as she crumpled up the empty bag of potato chips, unzipped her backpack, and stuffed the bag inside.
“A boat that goes on rivers,” he said.
“And you can pretend the street is the river.”
“The street is the river,” he said as he clambered over me toward the window.
I sat very still, and, as he was sort of on my lap, I pretended I was his nanny. I instantly loved him. I found myself thinking, for just a moment, that I wouldn’t mind loaning out my womb to a baby boy someday. I was horrified by the thought. I was caving.
I saw myself in the old women of my neighborhood, who are seemingly cracked in half, bent toward the earth as if in uninterrupted supplication, and I wondered, will I miss them, those children I chose not to have? But then as soon as I turned away from this blond boy and looked out the window of the bus, I lost my train of thought. For now, I was existing in this strange, dirty city with its steamboats moving slowly down Broadway, where the streetlamps line the river like Cottonwoods bending over the Mississippi, and where women who look like me spend their lives taking care of the privileged children of other people. That’s right – there was my vanished thought. Children, the people who have them, the people who take care of them and the people who need them.
Up front, a child began to cry, and I noticed that her nanny continued looking out of the window. This scene seemed right. The love story that was taking place in the back of the bus disturbed me, but it had also ensnared me.
“My nose hurts,” the nanny said.
The little boy scooted off of his seat immediately upon hearing this and leaned against her. He was so light, so white, that I imagined he was the wispy residue of some cirrus cloud that had hung too low to the ground one foggy day. As I looked at his happy little face, I remembered that my ninth grade science teacher told us that a cirrus cloud can appear brighter against a twilit background, and as the boy leaned against his nanny, I saw my teacher was right.
“You better get some medicine then,” the boy said.
His nanny cranked her head over her shoulder to see what street we were on. She pressed the yellow strip, and the bell up front chimed. Stop requested. I watched her gather up her backpack and his lunchbox from the empty seat next to her. When she stood up, she placed her hand on the small of his back and led him gently towards the back door. I put my hand on the seat where he’d been for the last fifteen minutes. It was still warm.
Then one day, I didn’t see them anymore. The first day they didn’t show, no one except me noticed. I say that no one noticed then because many people noticed later – the whole city, in fact. I remember the day the bus pulled up to 110th and Broadway, and instead of waving goodbye to their children, the skinny blonde mothers got onto the bus with them, and it was the nannies who were left behind to wave goodbye. Now the children were not behaving poorly because they were spoiled; they were doing it because they were angry.
“Why’s not Mimi taking me to school?”
“How long until Sonia is allowed to take me to the park?”
“I hate this stupid bus.”
This continued for a few weeks. Sometimes a worried father walked his wife to the bus stop. Sometimes a father in a double-breasted suit actually got on the bus and rode, holding on to the strap and looking tough. Every once in a while I’d be looked at – examined – as I’d lean against the window and read a book. If I moved my eyes from the book to his face, he’d smile at me. I always smiled back; I couldn’t help it. Maybe he considered my smile subversive. Maybe they all thought I was a collaborator. That nanny with the jewels all up and down her ears and the scarf wrapped around her head “kidnapped” that little blond boy who sat next to me every morning at nine forty-five as I took the bus to class, and she looked like me in an incidental way.
But it wasn’t long before things were back to normal on the M104 downtown bus. One by one, the nannies started to replace the frightened Upper West Side mothers. The reunions between the younger bus-riders and their parents’ hired help were delicate, subdued affairs. The woman sitting near me one day, for instance, was reading the Post while the small redheaded girl she took care of sucked a thumb. The girl leaned back against her nanny and looked up at her. The woman kept reading. The girl then reached up and grabbed the nanny’s bra through her shirt, pinching her nanny’s nipple absently. The nanny did not move her eyes off of the page but wrapped her left arm around the little girl’s waist and pulled her closer.
The woman who used to sit in that seat had vanished off the face of the earth, and so had the boy she’d taken care of, the boy she had kissed. I had heard an old woman say, as I exited the bus a few weeks after news of the abduction hit the papers, that they’d found kids in France who’d been raised by wolves, and they’d survived. She was sure the kidnapped little boy was doing at least as well. I decided then that I was glad the nanny had moved on and had taken the child with her. Maybe she knew that it was only a matter of years before the little boy who kissed her, who demanded to be kissed by her, would be embarrassed and appalled at the intimacy they had shared. It had seemed a normal gesture of affection, but one day it would not seem so normal, and it would be denied. Instead of just waiting around for that to happen, the woman made this fate one that the boy’s parents would have to suffer instead. And they did, because when they finally found the boy and his nanny three years later, the boy – whose hair had darkened to a dishwater blond – did not want his parents to touch him. There, in front of the cameras and millions of other eyes, his parents reached for him as the policeman walked him out of the 24th precinct. He turned away from them and spoke his nanny’s name.
“No Apparent Sadness” Copyright ©2002 by Ashley Shelby.
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No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.