Joyland

Los Angeles |

Baby of the Family

by Maura Roosevelt

edited by Katya Apekina

It is the first day that New Yorkers scale the streets sans jackets and cashmere scarves. People appear nearly naked in their bodily shapes. Shelley follows the path beside Terrace Drive to the center of the park, I Heart New York bag swinging from her forearm, when she spots him. He’s shuffling along the sidewalk with his wife (always with the wife now), the aging but still pert blonde woman leading him like a walking stick around Bethesda Fountain. It’s been fourteen years since she met Mr. Roop Gupta, since the economy tanked, and since he’d started her in this line of work. His age is showing in the growing hump beneath his cardigan. Mr. Gupta was her first client, of sorts. It’s his touch that she remembers first.

Of all things her mother cared about, the apartment furnishings were near the pinnacle. At twenty-one years of age, Shelly was living alone in her family apartment. Shelley liked to repeat the line “I grew up in a New York that doesn’t exist anymore.” Where she actually grew up was at the back end of an alley between 73rd and 74th streets near Columbus. Strong Place. The street was so narrow a car couldn’t drive up it, and the Whitby’s apartment, a duplex on the bottom two floors of a brownstone, was so narrow itself that as a child she couldn’t do two consecutive summersaults across it without banging the crown of her head against the plaster. But her father left at the beginning of high school, her grandmother died shortly thereafter, and her dazed and bespectacled mother was off on the Vineyard selling her grandmother’s—Biddy’s—old house on Gayhead. Although a Whitby, Shelley was her father’s youngest child, and by the time she came along it was only her grandmother Biddy who had any dough. And after the travel and the pills and primarily her parents’ long divorce, they burned through that money too. And now, the couch was broken, Shelley was broke. The idiocy of childhood is a shabby tale. And still, the shock of what we didn’t know can impress us, over and again.

She went onto Craigslist. She perused the Casual Encounters section, searching “M4W” and “Paid” and responded to the first three bulletins—jaunty, shot off emails. Then she clicked on the ETC tab, where the headline of the first ad announced: Read to the Blind Daily, Upper East Side. The body of the notice said: Looking for well-educated young woman to read to clinically blind writer, in his home. Must have strong reading voice and be available immediately.

She shot off another thoughtless message before her drowsy head wavered and dropped to the shellacked surface of the roll-top letter desk.

She woke to her cell phone’s ring. Her back ached from having slept while sitting, and as she clicked Talk, her hand moved automatically to her email inbox.

“Hello?” a deep voice inquired over the line. It was a voice that commanded a listener to follow it; a voice that believed it was owed another’s time. Shelley was disoriented. Her email held messages from two of the three Casual Encounter requests she’d responded to. The voice on the phone continued: “This is Roop Gupta, I have been told you responded to my ad for a reader.” Each vowel of the last word was elongated, articulated individually.

“Oh yes, hello.” Shelley was surprised that her pitch hit an octave higher than normal. She had never thought of herself as shy.

“Let me tell you about myself,” the voice over the phone bellowed. “I have published twenty-six novels in fifty years. I have been blind since the age of four.”

The first two emails were polite: “Looking for a freak, hope you fit. Let’s play! Respond and I’ll send location.” And, “business man who can give a good spanking, fun and easy. If you’re ready to have it I’m ready to give it. Fast cash—must to respond now.” But she had two more emails from the second man: “Meet at 5 at my office. My desk is waiting. I’ll spread you over it. a sure $150.” Then: “What’s your fucking problem? I’m sick of undependable cunts. I need to leave my office soon.”

Shelley responded to the voice on the phone. “I see—”

“I am looking for someone to help me, to read to me. How soon can you come in for an interview?”

Two hours later she’d showered and crossed the park and found herself on 81st and Madison, standing in front of The Grisham: a mammoth stone building, with a commemorated right to be there. Shelley unfastened the safety pin that held her pea coat shut. It was a nice coat, really, it was just old. As soon as her mother returned from Martha’s Vineyard she would surely buy Shelley a new one. They’d probably go to the Patagonia store and buy one of those non-poofy down pieces. But for now, she took the safety-pin out from where a button should be, and put it in her pocket.

She took a deep breath and walked into the lobby. The doorman was shrunken and white. The starch of his black and gold uniform seemed as if it alone were holding him up.

“How may I help you?”

“I’m here to see Mr. Gupta.”

He looked her up and down. “Top floor ma’am. Press fourteen.”

*

The elevator door opened directly into the apartment. Its prompt bing and precise jut of doors made her sigh; it was familiar. She swallowed, looked up, and there he was. In the foyer stood Mr. Roop Gupta.

He had no eyes. He was Indian, in his mid-seventies, wearing a crisp oxford and belted khakis. His hand extended, waiting. Where there would normally be convex bulbs there were scooped recesses, largely obscured by drooping skin. The cornea, the pupil, the retina below, none existed— only two moon-like slivers of white were visible just below the eyelids.

She stuck her hand right into his. “Shelley Whitby. Nice to meet you.”

“And you as well. I am Anandaroop Gupta. Please, follow me.” He turned into the dimly lit front room. “Now, some of these rugs are over two hundred years old. We ask that you please remove your shoes.” She kicked off her boots as he moved with deliberate shucks of his stocking feet, his hands flexed about his hips. “Come now. Shall we go to my athenaeum?”

He led Shelley through the front of the twelve-room apartment starting with the dining room, where the table was set with fine china, crystal glasses, and silver serving trays. A three-tiered cake stand stood as a centerpiece. There was no food on the table, but the places were set—it appeared a great dinner was about to be had, and then abandoned. When they reached the russet-glossed study Mr. Gupta questioned, “Is the light on in the room?”

There were small lamps glowing behind an oversized wood desk, though it was darker than what Shelley was used to. “Yes, two lights.”

Mr. Gupta sat behind the desk, and Shelley in front of it. He waited for her to stop shifting. “You went to Vassar, I see. Now tell me Shelley, what do your parents do?”

“Uh,” Shelley stuttered. Could he know she was Whitby? Shelley got the distinct feeling that he knew more about people than others did; perhaps his lack of sight gave him other gifts.

Mr. Gupta waited with a stony face.

Shelley’s mother never had a job. The family lived off Biddy and her father’s once-popular shop, Whitby Shades and Blinds, which he’d opened upon returning from his ambassadorship. After her father left, her mother barely went out of the apartment. She hummed around the over-packed rooms, her chin-length blunt cut rustling, without saying a word. She was, for lack of a better phrase, a woman destroyed.

“Well,” Shelley sighed now in front of Mr. Gupta, and told him, “my mother’s in real estate, and my father owns a shop.”

Mr. Gupta nodded. “And where do they complete these jobs?”

“I’m from the city.”

“Very good.” Mr. Gupta continued: “I already know you are prompt. But are you neat? Would you say you are an organized person?”

“Very much so.”

“And happy? As a child? How do you sleep?”

Shelley heard an uncharacteristic giggle escape from her throat, and then cut it off— he wanted her to answer. “Oh. As a child I was very happy.”

“I meant these days. How do you sleep now?”

Could he sense her eyebrows raising? “I’m a great sleeper.”

Mr. Gupta nodded, the horizontal line of his mouth taut. There was something strange about this egg-shaped man. Perhaps he was adept at detecting lies. “And happy, are you a happy person?”

“Very,” she responded.

“Fine. Now: what do you know about me?”

“Well I’ve heard about you, and read about you. I’ve never actually read any of your books—although I would love to.”

“Yes, well, I have published twenty-six books in fifty years. I worked for The New Yorker for thirty-three years. I attended Harvard and taught at Yale.”

Shelley understood by the silent beat that she was meant to respond. “Wow.”

“I have been blind since the age of four.” The speech sounded mechanical, as if he were expounding the long version of his name. “And I have always written with an amanuensis. Do you know what an amanuensis is?”

 Shelley scanned her brain, taking apart the roots of the word, but she did not know. “No.”

“John Milton wrote with an amanuensis. Henry James wrote with an amanuensis. And I write with an amanuensis. All of my books have been dictated to someone, who then physically writes my words. This person also acts as my first editor, because I will occasionally ask them how something sounds, or the like.”

“I see.”

“Now tell me, how does that sound to you? Do you think that is something you could do?”

“Yes, definitely.” She made a point of smiling. Perhaps he could sense a smile, just as one knows if someone is smiling on the other end of the phone line.

“Would you be interested in this becoming a full time position, if you are up to the task?”

“That would be wonderful. Fantastic.” She’d always been a fine writer—nothing gut-ripping, but opinions she was not short of, and years of private school had, if nothing else, taught her to record them correctly.        

Mr. Gupta’s austere mask seemed to break for a moment, and his mouth contorted to something of a frown. “Now I must tell you something because when you are looking me up on the World Wide Web you may come across it: A few years ago, I had a mentally deranged assistant.”

“Oh.” Then she offered, “Sorry.”

“She was mentally deranged and wrote an article about me. A defaming article. Despicable. She accused me of everything—everything. From perjury to rape.”

The last word fell slowly through the dim, unventilated air. Her mind raced to whether or not there was anyone else in the apartment. She recalled the doorman, and wondered if there was a direct line to him in the entryway.

Mr. Gupta continued, “I could not be a rapist.” She told herself: he’s a blind man. “There’s no way I could be a rapist. I worked at The New Yorker for thirty-three years!”

This was not the kind of crap she took. But Mr. Gupta was old. Perhaps the blind have different social training. Her high-pitched giggle returned. “That’s terrible, I’m sorry.”

“Yes. Well.” He coughed. His voice dialed back to its lower tone. “Will you choose a book, any book, off the shelf? Open to the middle of it, and begin reading to me.”

*

When the interview was ostensibly over and they had left the study, Shelley offered a goodbye. “And, thank you.”

He hung there in the foyer, sipping in small exasperated breaths. “I think you are a very nervous person,” he said.

That was enough. She thought if she put up with that interview at least she would be compensated.

“You seem too nervous. But I want you to come back tomorrow. I will give you another try. I will call you promptly at nine o’clock tonight.”

The elevator door opened as Shelley was nodding, catching herself before she tripped over her unbuckled boots. She forced herself to say, “Thank you again.”

As she rode down the elevator and out of the building, Shelley was shaking, and she wasn’t sure why. She found herself released into the Upper East Side night, the spectrum of rotating taxicab lights and streams of people walking, directed, looking at no one. She struggled to hold her coat closed and not feel nauseous from the moving street. The shaking wouldn’t stop as she crossed Madison.

*

At nine o’clock the next morning Shelley sat with Mr. Gupta— he in another set of khakis and a different pressed, pastel shirt— in front of the Greek drama section of his library. He had an orderly process that got him through the paper. Shelley started on the front page and read every headline, then began every story. If he didn’t like it he would shout: “NO!” and she would move on to the next article. Mostly he ordered: “Cut to the jump!” And Shelley would have to skip to the continuation of the story in the middle of the paper. If she fumbled with the sheets, or took too long to find page A13, he would shout it again: “CUT TO THE JUMP.”

When they had exhausted every section of The New York Times, it was the end of Shelley’s workday. As she prepared to leave Mr. Gupta took a step toward her. She nearly hopped backwards.

“Can I show you to the bathroom?”

“No,” Shelley replied. “Thank you.”

“Very well.” He did not sigh. “You are still a poor reader and I am worried. But I would like you to come back tomorrow. I shall give you another chance. I will call you in the morning.”

Every day that week Shelley received an early phone call. For the first time in her life, she trained herself to be awake by seven o’clock. The time Mr. Gupta called varied and she was afraid he would not approve of the sleep in her voice. She nearly jogged through the park on her way to The Grisham, wearing gloves now and sloshing acrid deli coffee onto the rapidly freezing ground. With the growing number of days, her duties were increasing. She not only read the newspaper, she also began leading Mr. Gupta on walks to Ninety-sixth Street and back. Or rather he led her. He gripped onto her bicep and pushed her around children flooding out of schools and Golden Retrievers crouching next to parking meters. He sidestepped puddles and bore down on her arm while weaving in and out of scaffolding. He said he liked to see the afternoon sunshine best of all.

After two more weeks, Shelley was answering his emails, then taking the subway to midtown and Wall Street to bring sealed envelopes to accountants’ offices. Shelley would say hello to Clova, the Caribbean cook, who sporadically entered and exited the apartment, and “had been with the Guptas” for twenty-four years. When she was there, Clova could usually be found in the kitchen watching a tiny muted television that sat on the counter. Mr. Gupta slipped a personal check into Shelley’s hand as she left on Fridays, without a word of discussion over the modest hourly rate she was being paid.

Shelley had been working for Mr. Gupta for months before she met his wife. Exactly when the bells chimed eleven o’clock Shelley stepped out of the elevator and to her surprise, there was movement in the apartment. A private yoga class was taking place in the dining room. The table, still set, was backed into a wall, and a squat German woman in a one piece spandex suit was directing a more svelte— even lanky— woman with a blonde bob, into the downward dog position. As Shelley removed her shoes, the blonde woman rose from her posture, ignoring the German’s orders. She walked right over to Shelley with a smile clenched in her cheeks.

Mrs. Gupta’s outstretched hand preceded her, then her stare rose from Shelley’s feet to the roots of her limp hair. Shelley had the distinct feeling the woman was after her already. Following introductions, Shelley began to move toward Mr. Gupta’s study, when Mrs. Gupta, hands on the hips of her flared yoga pants, called after her.

“You went to Vassar? I graduated from a Seven Sisters school too. Barnard.” Mrs. Gupta shifted her weight. “That was when Roop was in the height of his work at the magazine. When I met him.”

Shelley maintained a smile and answered, “That’s so nice.” Mrs. Gupta turned back to the German Instructor, and promptly assumed the lotus position.

The morning and afternoon passed as usual, with Shelley reading The Times, and traveling downtown to deliver a parcel to a secretary in a skirt suit. When she returned to the Gupta’s apartment Clova told her to wait in the library, for Mr. Gupta was engaged at that moment. In the library, on the side table where the morning paper usually lay, was a magazine, yellowed with age at the binding. The tattered cover displayed its title, SLEUTH: Issue 6. Headlines proclaimed: True Stories of the Kennedy’s Disturbed Daughter!, Interview with the Mother of Roman Polanski’s Tiny Tart, and Indentured Servitude: Inside Scoop from One of Roop Gupta’s “Guppies.”

That was it— that must have been the article he’d mentioned in her interview. Defaming him. Shelley memorized the title and issue number, so she could find it later online. She sat waiting then, as the minutes grew. The grandfather clock chimed lightly for the quarter hour mark, and then more heavily at half past. She heard no one in the apartment. Eventually Shelley leaned over and picked up the magazine. Turning to the index, and the article page, she revealed a picture of a young woman in a cowl-neck sweater. A brunette with vulgarly crooked front teeth. The headline ran: Gupta’s Guppies, A Rotating Wheel of Sweet Young Things.

Shelley’s eyes fell to the first paragraph. “One morning in his New Yorker office, he sat beside me and questioned: Are you on your period today? I can tell from the smell alone.”

Shelley shut the magazine and dropped it back on the coffee table without so much as a plunk. Shelley would not be caught reading that. She sat waiting in the library for the next forty minutes, at which point Clova curved her head in and told her she could go home. She would surely be paid for her wait time.

Back on Strong Place Shelley scoured the Internet just as she had upon returning from her interview— searching databases for any mention of the Sleuth article. Again, she found nothing. She walked through the rooms of her apartment with a certain aloneness that reminded her of a Saturday afternoon. As if there was something she kept forgetting to do; it was a feeling she had nothing but fondness for.

*

By February the news, which Shelley read aloud everyday now, reported impending economic collapse in all financial centers, American and otherwise. On their walks Mr. Gupta sporadically asked her “What do your parents do?” As if he had never asked her before. Was he testing her? Did his memory fail? She changed her answer every time. Sometimes she said they were in politics, sometimes she said hardware. On those days she waited for the humdrum, the classic, “So are you related…?” But the question never came. In the evening before she left, trembling and tired, she was more often than not told by Mr. Gupta that he was not satisfied, but was giving her another chance. In response she offered him one simple, “thank you.”

It was an ice-covered morning when Mr. Gupta was facing her as the elevator doors binged open. Without wasting a second he traversed the foyer, bellowing over his shoulder, “Today we will do something different.”

In the study, he proclaimed, “Today, I must write. Are you ready?” Shelley opened the laptop stationed at her side of the desk. His face turned up to the ceiling, and he began to speak more softly than before. It was as if a flow of words were being released from a quarry. He recounted a Healer in Calcutta in 1940, who told him that he was blind due to the sins of a past life. It was a gentle description, focused on his own early struggles, how against bitter odds he worked his way to the limelight. And Shelley typed it out gently, with compassion. She followed the rhythm of his voice with her fingers, as they wrote in the darkened room.

After an hour and a half Mr. Gupta dropped his head— “Yes—that is enough.”

Shelley rested her fingers, and noticed the pulsing veins visible through her translucent skin. The abutting windows in the corner had steamed slightly from their bodies.

Mr. Gupta’s head still hung and she watched him shamelessly. Slowly, he got up and moved around the desk. Standing above her, his body close to hers, he asked, “Did you enjoy that work?”

“I did. Thank you,” she said. She was being honest. It wasn’t the writing that she liked, but the act of writing it down. She had never known before working for him, but she liked taking directions. Doing as she was told.

His balled up hands hit the top of his thighs: “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he stormed. “I want you not to thank me!”

Shelley choked in her reaction. This emotion from him! “Sorry.”

Then he asked, “May I touch your hands?”

She shook her head.

Mr. Gupta took both of her hands into his. “We worked very well together. Writing is what I was put on the earth to do, and you have helped me achieve my divined purpose.”

His hands felt softer than the hands of most old men, and were perfumed with a musky lotion. Shelley’s pulse went into her eardrums, and her shoulders eased down.

He moved his hands out of hers, placing the pads of his fingers over her eyes. His nails caught briefly in her lashes and the dip beneath her lower lids. He brought the tips of his middle and forefinger over her eyebrows, in measured time, and around to her cheekbones. Onto the bridge of her nose now, he let them rest for a moment, quivering, before moving to the inner, vulnerable, section of her cheeks.

Her own skin felt smooth when he touched her. For a flicker she relaxed her oblique eye muscles, closing her lids, letting the heat of new skin touch hers. And then all eight of his fingers moved slowly down to her lips. As the pads of his middle and forefingers passed over the delicate vermillion border, Shelley parted her lips slightly. His nails hit against the enamel of her teeth. Shelley’s movement shifted his fingers. He felt the moisture, the inside. With that he turned in a violent motion toward the back wall—he cleared his throat. His right hand went to his own temple. He announced: “Very well, I’ll see you again. Tomorrow.”

Shelley rose slowly and left the room, the building, the block. She traveled home in a daze, peacefully beaming. That night she ordered in a roast chicken dinner and consumed every bite of it. She went into Biddy’s old room, and quickly fell into the slumber of a runner who had just won a race.

In the morning her phone call progressed as usual, and Shelley stepped out of the elevator at eleven. Mrs. Gupta, who she had not seen once since her initial yoga-interfering encounter, was reading at the ornate dining table. As Shelley raised her hand in greeting, Mrs. Gupta picked up her book and walked down the private hallway, to the bedrooms, where the help was never permitted to enter. Shelley began to make her way to the study when she heard his familiar shuffling. Mr. Gupta carried a brown paper shopping bag that had the words Big Brown Bag printed on its side. Bloomingdales.

“No Shelley,” his voice resounded. “To the library.”

Shelley sat next to him, in front of the enlightenment philosophy section. Morning sun streamed through the crosshatched windows. Her straight hair was tucked behind her ears. Mr. Gupta, she thought, was almost smiling.

“I have gotten you a present.” He held the shopping bag toward her.

She plumped with pride. But, she was puzzled: she pictured him wandering through the variegated aisles of Bloomingdales by himself— but he would never be able to go there alone. And if he hadn’t sent her, who would have picked it out?

“Thank you,” she said, instantly regretting her word choice. She touched the handle, letting her knuckles graze against the side of his.

Opening the bag, a mass of fabric was visible, but Shelley had to pull the garment up and out to see what it was. As she raised it further she realized it was a coat. A deep purple Burberry coat made of cashmere and wool, long, and insulated for winter. It had brown toggle closures made of horn, stitched tightly to its breastplate. She held it in the air, to see it fully. She was in awe.

“Do you like it?”

“You don’t—yes—”

Then she was silent. How had he known she needed it?

Mr. Gupta’s molded cheeks broke, and he was smiling. His face looked burnished, loosened.

The two sat together noiselessly, and Shelley felt the heat of the late winter sun. After the rays pinked her cheeks, she saw the newspaper untouched on the side table and stretched to pick it up.

Now Mr. Gupta’s expression contracted. “Stop. I have something to tell you.”

Shelley waited.

“I can no longer use you.”

Without an answer from the girl, he continued.

“Your reading is still very poor and not good enough for me.”

“What?” she said before catching herself.

“I could inch along with you but that wouldn’t be fair to myself. I will mail you the last check for your services. Please take your gift. I suppose you shouldn’t feel too disparaged.”

At that, he raised himself and appeared ready to leave the room. He stopped for a moment. “You’re a very shy person Shelley. Very shy.” And then he scuffed away, leaving her alone in the library.

Shelley thought her skin might peel from her boiling flesh. Who did he think he was? Didn’t he know who she was? She was liable to rampage the library, pull every book off the shelves, throw them to the ground, tearing out pages. She could have screamed, turning over upholstered chairs and mahogany tea tables. But she didn’t. She let herself into the elevator quietly.

In the following years her mother didn’t return to the house on Strong Place for more than a week at a time. In a short time, the debts the family had accrued— the furniture repairs, funeral costs, property taxes—they all fell to Shelley. And Shelley, now practiced at working with and for men who needed extra care, went about pursuing others that were interested in her, on the Internet. She returned to the original men who’d emailed her, then began to build a more genteel client base.

*

On this spring day, thirty-four-year-old Shelley swings her plastic bag on her arm as she ambles up Strong Place and enters the family apartment. When she was young she used to like being alone at the house on the Vineyard at night. She’d walk out to the end of Biddy’s dock, where she’d plunge both ankles into the ocean while she bundled a fleece collar around her jaw, and blurred her stoned eyes at the gem-like stars above her. That was what she thought of as equilibrium.

The heat inside the Strong Place apartment has been off for weeks already. She steps lightly on the stairs but they still creak, and in the parlor she rests her bag on the coffee table before opening the hall closet. The sulfurous odor of leather boots and now vintage trench coats wafts out as she pulls the purple Burberry coat off the hanger, the same one Mr. Gupta gave her those years ago, nearly pristine in condition, as she never wears it out of the house. She drapes the coat over her shoulders and sits down in the center of the settee. One day, invisibly, you cross over from living through your days to living through your life. Bitter odds, she thinks, but she has found stasis. Happiness. Shelley fastens all the toggles of the coat and, leaning back, lets her frail body settle into it.