I hate when people say New Slavery is bad like Old Slavery. O.S. was racist. Only Negroes were for sale. Any white worm with a wad of ones or a dingy house could get a slave. N.S. is different. Without N.S., my mom and I would still be homeless. She'd be slinging fries in a dump and I'd be stuck in the parking lot, pretending to read a stained old book for babies.
N.S. is the best thing that ever happened to us. And it all happened fast. Dad got hit by a car and the doctors gave him Oxycodone. He liked it a lot. Mom started to yell about that. One night, he went to the grocery store and tried to steal all their money so he could get more pills. They got him and took him away. Mom didn't make enough money to keep the house. She said the good news is that now we were eligible for N.S. She said you couldn't be in N.S. if you were a thief and now we were rid of the thief. We got bought quick at the first auction. Mr. and Mrs. Welt bought us for cheap. In my head I call them Pa Welt and Ma Welt. They're professors. They have more books than a store. Their house is huge. Mom says not to be impressed because the university owns it, not them, that it's no different from a shelter in that way.
Pa Welt is my favorite. He's one of those black men where you can't tell if he's forty-five or a hundred. Mom says that's because black don't crack but I think it's because he's smart. His eyes fix easily on things far away, things I can't see. He teaches astronomy. Our first week, I asked him what astronomy was exactly. Mom answered, "It's like your horoscope and then some." He laughed and laughed and I had that feeling that maybe N.S. was going to be like it looked in commercials, pleasant and almost like home.
Ma Welt wasn't as much of a talker, but that's because she writes poems and you need to be alone a lot to do that. She watches Mom and me in the yard sometimes. Mom says her degree is bullshit and that Pa Welt's is real because he knows math. She says math is real. She says you only get to live on poems if you were born rich with parents who paid for fancy schools and got you new coats every winter. I've never been in Ma Welt's closet but I picture rows and rows of coats, elegant ones that don't keep you warm, and big ones for ski trips.
I was thinking about coats when the Sunday paper came this morning. I grabbed it and ran it in to Pa Welt, but I forgot to take out the flyers. He hates those flyers. He looked down at the big fat bundle and then he looked at me.
"I'm sorry, master," I said.
He nodded. I can picture the way he must be with his students when they screw up a math horoscope thing. I kept my hands clasped behind my back like he likes. Lots of masters don't like that. Lots of masters like hands where they can see them, but Pa Welt says hands in front are fidgeting, and fidgeting is bad for us all.
The backyard was hot and sticky and I waved my arms and Mom looked up from the riding mower and came my way. I'll never get used to seeing her on that thing. We lost our car a few months before we went into N.S. and I got used to thinking of her as someone who doesn't drive. We wandered in those days, sleeping in dirty shelters and on beaches. The first time we went to the center to register for N.S., we sat in the waiting room. Mom grabbed my hand when we'd been there an hour and we ran out. I asked why. She said she couldn't do that to me. I said the TV in the waiting room showed all kinds of happy people in N.S.-- slaves and owners. There was a girl my age and she was playing volleyball on a beach. She looked tan and happy. Then someone called her name and she smiled and left the game and ran up to the deck and started setting a picnic table. I wanted to live in a house like that, on a beach like that. Mom said that wasn't real and that slavery was bad, that there was no volleyball ever. The next day I woke up stiff and smelled very bad things. I asked where we were because I couldn't remember and she said, "The beach, baby, just like you wanted."
We went back to register for N.S. a week later. The woman who filed our papers was a nice lady. She looked at my mom and said, "Oxy?" My mom nodded. She shook her head and I knew right then that she was gonna put us in a good auction. She said the good news is the taxes that owners pay on slaves are helping the government make rehab clinics nicer than most hotels. Mom and her both shook their heads and I looked at the TV for the beach girl slave, but she wasn't there anymore.
Mom clicked off the mower and nodded toward the garage, "Water."
I ran and got one of the expired warm ones. Lots of slaves don't get water in the bottles. We're lucky that way. Mom grabbed the bottle and twisted the cap off and chugged it all in one motion.
"What did you do?"
She raised an eyebrow. She learned to do that back long ago, when she was an actress, not like Hollywood style, just community theater style. She always said there wasn't a difference once the house lights dimmed. Anyone on stage is onstage and all humans are made of the same stuff. "Your paycheck doesn't come onstage and relax you," she'd say. "We're all the same onstage." That eyebrow always gets me, so I confessed.
"I left the flyers in the paper."
"How many times a week does the Sunday paper come?"
"How many times a week do you have to remember to take out the flyers?"
"How many times did you screw that up?"
"How many times is too many times?"
"How many times have I told you that N.S. is no damn joke. You can't be stupid."
"Get down," she said.
She hopped off the mower and I bent over for my spanking. My lips almost hit the grass and I could taste it. I always close my eyes and pretend I'm Mom when I get a spanking. She used to pay people to rub her. She always it's nice to let your body belong to somebody else sometimes. Ma Welt walked onto the porch and called for my mom. I was relieved because honestly, it's not much like a massage, a spanking, even if thinking that helps you get through it.
I was sleeping that night when Mom poked me. I woke and my eyes weren't adjusted. She was nothing but the smell of cut grass. The smoke from her cigarette wandered out the window, off on a big adventure or maybe just disappearing.
"It's all your fault," she said.
"Nothing," she said. I didn't know how nothing could involve fault. "N.S. is no different from O.S."
She knows I hate when she says this and I said nothing. She stubbed her cigarette on the windowsill and left my room with the door open. Pa Welt appeared. He closed the door and sat on my bed that was actually his if you thought about it. Slaves can't own stuff. I sat up. He said for me to make noises. I asked what kind and he wheezed and my eyes were adjusted so I could see him. He waved for me to do the same and he waved me to be louder and started shimmying so the bed moved and he whispered, "Cry". I cried like stage actors do and then he hit the bed hard and I stopped. He lit one of Mom's cigarettes and said that N.S. is the same damn thing as O.S.
"Why?" I said.
"Because people are just people. All monsters at the end of the day."
I felt like I did when I looked at stories in the bible sometimes. Like the stories are really simple, just men and goats and decisions to make, but like I was missing something, not smart enough to see that the goat wasn't just a goat but something more that really mattered.
Pa Welt seemed to know that I didn't get it. He probably understood all the stories in the bible. "Well," he said. "Do you know what we just pretended?"
I nodded and I knew I was turning red and I was never more grateful for the darkness.
"Do you know why?"
"Because you're mad at me because I messed up. And cuz it's N.S. and you can do whatever you want."
He turned to me and I could see the whites of his eyes real good. He looked at me direct, like I was a student who got a bad grade. I'll never forget him staring. And I didn't know what to do; I didn't know if it was my turn to talk. I wasn't used to being studied like that. And the look on his face was bossy. It was like Mom's face when she heard Dad's car in the driveway after he'd been gone a while.
Pa Welt must have got bored of my dumb face because he stood up and straightened the top sheet. "That's right, girl. I was here because I can be and I want to be. And your mother thinks I did what I pretended to do. And you are to let her believe that, because if you don't we're going to have trouble."
"But she likes you. She knows you'd never do that."
He gave me that stare again and I knew I did bad and he pointed a finger at me, "Nobody knows what anyone in a position to do anything they want is capable of doing."
I couldn't follow his riddle. "Yes, Sir," I said.
"You do not tell your mother what actually happened here. The pretending is a secret."
When he left, I got to be alone for a few minutes. I lit one of her cigarettes like I do sometimes when she's not around. I tried to understand what he meant. To me he had it all wrong. I knew what we had been pretending to do. And if we were in O.S., he would have had me for real. He would have stuck it in me and not cared that I was crying and maybe even put a hand over my mouth, or not. And maybe there are people in N.S. like that now, I thought, people who would do that to a kid just because they could. But Mom and I were lucky. We weren't living with bad owners. And I was pretty sure that there were some things you actually couldn't do in N.S. The lady at the registry said they could hit me, but some places were off limits. Mom stopped her from saying more, but I knew what she meant. The registry lady said she hoped that we never had to learn the tricky laws about that stuff and Mom said amen. But I kept coming back to the bottom line. If we were O.S., he would have forced himself on me for sure. But this was N.S. and I only had to pretend to get hurt. I wasn't getting hurt, really. Pa Welt wasn't a monster. He was a good man. And I never believed it more than I did right then, that N.S. is nothing like O.S.
Plus, that was the most time I ever spent alone with Pa Welt. I felt chosen and special. He told me a secret and you only share secrets with people you trust. Mom came into the room soon and I had to switch gears. It was really hard for me to be sad and shake and pretend that I had been hurt. But I did it. I pretended. I curled against the wall and shook and shook. She stayed away from me, over on her bed. She didn't ask me anything about it. She just sat up on her bed facing the wall, not the window. I waited for her to cry, but she never did.
From then on, Pa Welt came by at least two times a week, sometimes more. Sometimes we would talk about what he was teaching or he would tell me funny stories about the kids and the other professors. Over the years, I got to know him pretty well and it was weird never being able to tell Mom about our talks. But Mom was weird anyway. She talked to me less and less all the time. And all the while, Pa Welt and I talked more and more. He taught me about how N.S. came to be, when the country went into a depression when I was a baby and nobody had jobs and in some cities, they were burning up whole neighborhoods because nobody could pay for the houses. He said the first man who suggested it was a senator and that he got shot in the street the very next day. He said the whole country went crazy, monsters on all fronts. And then he said there was a flat time when everyone was worn out from fighting about whether N.S. was good or bad and then suddenly, it just was.
He didn't like it, he said, but Ma Welt had told him to see the good. They could buy people like us with nowhere to go and at least then they'd have somewhere to sleep. Once he said it was the biggest mistake he ever made, becoming an owner. And I almost cried and he said he didn't mean that it was a mistake buying me, that the buying was a mistake. Then I cried and he got mad and said I had to get out of my own head and see the big world. I said I would try. He said he was trying too, going to secret meetings about how to get N.S. ended once and for all. He and some other professors were gonna try and make signs and protest and that kind of thing. He said Ma Welt wasn't political, that she preferred to stay out of the world, that she liked it better in her head. It was so easy to picture him and Ma Welt walking with all the other smart adults trying to end N.S., all because they wanted better things for me and Mom, but it was very hard to picture him at those meetings without Ma Welt in a poetry coat right by his side.
I was eighteen when things started to look different. One fall day, I was out back on the mower when I saw Ma Welt storm out the side door with big signs and posters in her arms. I never saw her walk so fast in my life. She went straight to a clearing and tossed them all in the dirt and lit one match after another until she finally got a little fire going. I didn't know what to do so I did nothing. Mom was pulling weeds. I looked at her and she gave me stay-still eyes so I kept on mowing. Pa Welt came out with a bucket of water and poured it on the little fire and then the fire was out quick, and Ma Welt went inside and he stood there for a minute staring at his burned up signs. He stopped talking to me for a few weeks, and then one night, we were on the bed.
"I know what you meant about monsters," I said.
He looked at me hard.
"Ma Welt is the one who told you to come in here. She'd be mad if she knew we weren't really doing anything."
He was very serious in his face. I actually thought he might cry. "Poets are not like you and me," he said. And then he did cry and I put my arms around him. I rubbed the back of his head and told him to quiet because somebody might hear. He shook and I rubbed his temples and I pulled back and I put my lips to his. It wasn't a kiss really. It was more like two lips meeting and freezing up. We both stopped.
He stood up and he kicked Mom's bed. I stood up and walked over and stood by him. "You're not a monster, though. You're a good man. And N.S. is okay by me."
"We're all monsters," he said. "I am not a good man. Now get on the damn bed so we can be done with it."
We did the pretending and he left. Now I had a whole new mystery. I had his lips to think about. I don't know why I kissed him. I thought he'd be happy that I knew that Ma Welt was the monster, that I understood that monsters can make poems and coffee cakes for college students who sit in the living room and eat the coffee cakes and talk about the poems. I thought he'd want my support. I thought he'd be proud that I'd put two and two together. I shuddered when I realized that I thought he'd kiss back.
A few years later, Mom's heart died when she was on the mower. I ran over and saw her stiff body and it hit me that I didn't know her very well. I had the strange sensation that I was seeing my dad for the first time in years, someone I barely knew and hadn't seen since before N.S. But she was right in front of me, had slept in the same room as me for years. I wanted to wake her up but it's a stupid thing to want to do to a dead person.
It wasn't much of a funeral, just us. And in the weeks after Pa Welt stayed away. He didn't visit me anymore. I had a lot of time to think about Mom, even with having to do all her work. I remembered her as someone moving back, one step at a time, so slowly that you couldn't tell they were moving until they were suddenly far away. She had stopped doing all of the things she used to, talking about theater, raising that eyebrow, talking about how she hated Oxy. She became a quiet woman. And all the while Ma Welt praised her, bragged to visiting students that Mom was the best slave in town, that other professors were jealous. Mom never seemed happy to be praised. The only word I could think of to describe what she'd become was quiet. Somehow, I had never seen that my fake pain was causing her real pain.
I never felt so stupid in my life as I did in those weeks without Pa Welt to talk to, with Mom's bed empty so close to me. And I decided that Pa Welt was wrong. N.S. is not as bad as O.S., not by a long shot. It's worse. If I was O.S. and he'd really been sticking it to me, I bet that first night I would have cried hard with spit flying out of my mouth, my body shaking and my insides sore. I bet I would have gone into Mom's bed. I bet she would have held me until I fell asleep. I bet she would have gotten her own waters instead of sending me. I bet she would have talked even more about the stage. I know I would have seen that eyebrow snap up. I know I would have known her.
I'm not in N.S. anymore. A couple months after Mom died, Ma Welt said she didn't want me there all by myself, that two girls were better than one. Pa Welt said he had to agree. I got transferred to another family in another state. Their money is old and there are nine of us owned by them. I don't know the other slaves that well. I'm not very good at making friends. But I tell you, I am the best slave in the bunch. I'm not sure if that would make Mom proud of me, but it's something. It's like Pa Welt said in one of our talks, before Mom died, before we kissed. I had told him that I was thinking that maybe someday I'd like to be an actress. He didn't seem to think it was a good idea.
"It's hard to be good at two things at once," he started. "See, I can tell you all about the stars, what they're composed of, how they come to be on a molecular level. Do you know I've even discovered things nobody ever knew before about stars?"
I didn't know that.
"But," he sighed. "Could I write a poem about the stars? Could I make you see them the way Mrs. Welt can? Do I have the capacity to put the stars in your lap, in your throat? Do I have the kind of tormented and special and sick mind that can take words and make a damn solar system out of them?"
I didn't know what to say.
"No," he said. "Not on your life."
He was sweaty and caught up and confused, "Wait," he said, looking out the window at the stars he knew so well. "Where was I going with this?"
I didn't know. I don't know. I don't see anything in stars. I just see the darkness that could swallow them but doesn't, not some nights anyway.
Caroline Kepnes has en extra bone in her foot and every book that Paula Fox ever wrote. She lives in Franklin Village, a surprisingly charming area of Los Angeles. Highlights of her career include a first person account of The Sopranos bus tour for Entertainment Weekly and being serenaded by foreign boy bands for Tiger Beat. If you read Arabic, you can read several of her stories online in that visually pleasing language. "Cry" is an excerpt of a longer piece and she's thrilled to see it here in The Fear of Monkeys.