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A series of hurdles must be overcome to reach the cloistered inner sanctum of Sherry Dedham in Dallas, Texas. I ring at the front door of her estate, and a while later I am ushered in by a young Mexican woman dressed in black who shows me to an ornately decorated dining room, hung with portrait paintings. There I sit, listening to footsteps overhead, hoping that the hole in my nose where my nose ring should be will not heal while I wait. After a while, the woman reappears through a swinging door that leads into the kitchen. We pass through the house and out toward the pool, whose surface is shimmering in the sunlight of mid-day. Two yapping dogs called Fred and Ginger circle our ankles as we cross the patio to the pool house. She leaves me at the entrance, and I venture nervously inside and up the stairs toward the closed door of Sherry’s office.
My initial interview took place at a Starbucks on fashionable Knox Avenue, where I was treated to an intense psychological probing by Sherry’s husband Roy and Maximo, their Chilean hiring manager. I had completed an eighteen-page application, including a writing sample that consisted of a detailed thank-you letter to a luxury resort. I had answered questions about my personal spirituality and agreed to fingerprinting and credit checks. I had even, at the request of Maximo, removed my nose ring, just before Roy arrived. Maximo had asked me whether I could serve—not everyone can, he added. I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant, but I figured my willingness to remove the nose ring was proof that I could. Through it all, the figures in the Help Wanted ad from the Dallas Morning News beamed at me like the headlights of a Rolls Royce: “Personal Assistant/Nanny, salary 35K+, full benefits.”
I have never earned that much money in my life. It has been a year and a half since I last had health insurance, and a recent bout of mononucleosis has exhausted most of my favours from friends in healthcare. I am a northeasterner by birth, and I have arrived in Dallas with little more than a clunky old computer I can write on and my trusty Toyota Tercel, whose dings and dents are nearly as old as I am. I need work badly—not just for the money but for my sanity too. I met my Texan boyfriend overseas, and now we are living in a cheap apartment building owned by his father. Paying the monthly rent is a stretch, even at a discount. My boyfriend is trying to make it as an artist. He isn’t contributing much to our income, but he is contributing a moody, chaotic intensity to the atmosphere. I have already applied at five employment agencies, where I heard one woman whisper behind my back: “She’s lived in London, but I don’t see much office work here.” I am beginning to realize that the “international experience” I have acquired traveling around the world for the past couple years isn’t going to mean much in Texas, or maybe anywhere.
I knock hesitantly at Sherry’s door.
“VENGA!” she screams, startling me. I turn the knob and push the door open. “You speak Spanish, right? It’s very important that you can talk to Mariana,” she fires, skipping a greeting. I nod and take a seat. She studies me across the wide expanse of her oak desk and then presses the intercom at her fingertips.
“Mariana, traigame la sopa por favor!” Sherry glances at me to see if I understand her lunch request before launching her next command.
“I can’t find my pen,” she says to the intercom, this time in English. “Where is my pen?”
“Roy, have you seen my pen?”
“Could you look in the bathroom, please, or on my dresser.”
We cannot proceed until the pen is located.
“I need my pen RIGHT NOW…Did you find it yet?”
The responses that come back are mumbled. I have never seen a person behave this way before, except in soap operas. At some point, my presence occurs to Sherry, and she begins to review my application. I tell her what she wants to hear—that my boyfriend and I are living together but mere steps from being married, that we plan to raise our children as Christians, that I will certainly be available for the next three years. When her twelve year-old daughter and a friend interrupt to ask about going for lunch at a nearby deli, Sherry refuses. “You know there’s a lot of rift-raft hanging around there,” she says. I think I have misheard her, but then she repeats it: rifT-rafT. “Absolutely not,” she continues, “You could get shot, and we’d never even know about it. No way, Ma’am. Call them up and have them deliver. And tell them we’re paying by credit card, I don’t care if they’re cash only.” Her Texas accent is resplendent—I have never heard the language spoken in such glory.
Sherry turns and looks at me as if to say, See, that’s how to deal with children. She is formidable, this bottle blonde, sausaged into a magenta blouse and dark brown pants, the tips of her fingers and barefoot toes French-manicured. Through a thick veneer of makeup, she has a face like a bulldog. Over the three hours that I spend under her microscope, she reveals to me bits and pieces of her legacy, including a father who was a multimillionaire. A local college has been named for him. She explains to me that her family could live anywhere in the world, but they choose to live in Dallas because of the people.
“The most beautiful women in the world are here,” she sighs, perhaps wistfully. “We just think it’s the best city in the world. You’ll be glad you settled down here.” I do not tell her I am not at all sure of staying here for good. Unlike New York, Sherry continues, Dallas is very open to new money. I nod, wondering if the fiver I found on the street this morning counts as new money.
In the final hour of the interview, her husband Roy joins us. He wants to tell me a little about the children. He starts with Steven, their eighteen year-old, who has just been accepted at Vanderbilt University. Roy pauses to consider his words. “Steven is a strange child,” he whispers. “He eats almost no meat whatsoever. All carbs.” This is cattle country. I make what I think is an appropriate expression of shock and dismay. He is glad that I have understood.
Roy describes Stephanie, the twelve year-old, as their “most spiritual child.” He remembers a time when she printed the Easter story from the Internet and conducted a service for the family at their ranch in the hill country.
About their seven year-old, Roy waxes most enthusiastic. “Benjy is our love bomb,” he tells me. I am not sure what this means, but it sounds frightening. Sherry adds that at five years old he had the vocabulary of a twelve-year-old (she had him tested), but that now it is probably fourteen.
An hour later, I have been dismissed by the Dedhams and am just unlocking my own front door when my cell phone rings. It is Sherry. “Can you come on back over? I forgot that the girls wanted to ask you some questions!” I drive back to the estate, and Stephanie and her friend sit me down at the dining room table to ask me where I buy my clothes and where I go to church. Luckily, I have been to a church service with my boyfriend’s family at one of the football stadium-sized mega-churches in Dallas and can name it. The image that was projected over the altar during the service—George W. Bush flanked by Abraham Lincoln and George Washington—flashes into my mind. God and country, I think. Clothes and country. Clothes and God?
The next day, I am back, under the tutelage of Maximo, who says, “I’ll tell you this: They like you. So do as I say, and you’ll have the job.” He leads me upstairs to Personal Assistant Headquarters, where he outlines my day-to-day responsibilities. He starts with an example of a recent problem: A dog collar was lost somewhere on the property. It would be up to me, Maximo explains, to delegate responsibility to solve the problem. He gives me a list of people to contact: the gardener, for one, and the girl who walks the dogs. I would provide daily updates on the search to Sherry via a detailed log of the day’s events. Another challenge is the malfunctioning of one of the fountains in front of the house. He models for me a call to Jerry Jones’ secretary “to see if they have a guy.” I can tell by the way he says it that this Jerry Jones is an important person. Later I find out he is the owner of the Dallas Cowboys football team. Maximo shows me a few templates for letters of congratulation upon acceptance to sororities. He asks me to put some Christmas pictures into an album.
“The most important thing to remember is that Sherry likes you to do all the shopping over the Internet and on the phone,” he says. He looks me in the eye to indicate the gravity of this: “She doesn’t like you going to the stores.” In my real life, I do “go to the stores.” But I vow never to do so for Sherry. He who serves shalt not question.
In the afternoon, Maximo assigns me to the task of Benjy, the “love bomb.” He gives me a checklist to complete: 1. snack 2. homework 3. 20 minutes reading 4. counting money 5. practice piano 6. bath and pyjamas by 5 pm.
At three o’clock, Benjy stands on the marble countertop in the kitchen plucking fruit from a bowl and chucking it across the room. By four, he has squirted me with cheese from a can and has told me (with relish) a disturbing story of killing his pet bird with a toy sword. I remember an article I read about the warning signs of budding psychopaths. While I try to complete the checklist by reading to him for twenty minutes, he hides behind the bed and applies glue to his hair. Afterward, I try to get him to hand over the bottle of glue, and Benjy says he is going to tell his mother not to hire me, and then I will be poor, not affluent like them. I see that Sherry was right—he does have a good vocabulary. When the piano teacher arrives, I gratefully turn him over to her and slump against the grand staircase in the front room.
As I rest on the step, an image looms above me—an oil painting of Sherry in a red dress. Diamonds glitter at her pulse points and spill down the plunging neckline of her dress. The artist has been generous to her face and to her cleavage. I have noticed that there are portraits of Sherry throughout the house. In the bathroom, there is a close-up of her face, framed by waves of blonde hair. It sits on a decorative oriental tray, surrounded by rose petals. In Benjy’s bedroom, there is another photo of Sherry in full makeup and a voluminous white nightgown, the folds of which obscure baby Benjy, who is barely visible at the bottom of the frame.
From the other room, I can hear heavy plunking on the keys of the piano, and the sound of Mariana clattering dishes in the kitchen. I imagine that Sherry is upstairs by now, having retired to her boudoir for an afternoon nap before dinner. Around her, the hive is buzzing with worker bees. I run my finger over the spot on my nose where my nose ring was. It is sore. I imagine the task ahead of me—bathing Benjy and putting him to bed—and then the long assessment of my performance by Maximo that will follow. Suddenly thirty-five thousand dollars seem beside the point. The front door is right there. I walk to it, turn the knob, and continue down the stairs and across the manicured lawn to my old Toyota, hidden in the trees.