by Greg Marshall
The store that sold my sister Tiffany’s skater clothes housed a tarantula in an aquarium and charged extra for jeans with holes in them. “You kids think you can get away with stuff, but you forget I was a bad kid,” Mom mused, sorting through racks of distressed flannel. “I’ve done more bad stuff than all of you combined.”
It had been a year since Mom finished chemo, her hair growing back springy and alive. It had also been about a year since Tiffany decided to become a diehard skateboarder. She’d stopped going to swim practice and dropped out of St. Vincent’s, exchanging her Catholic uniform for baggy clothes and making no secret of her scorn. I could see hating a mom for dying, but for living?
It was obvious: my sister needed counseling.
“You shouldn’t listen to everything LD says,” Tiffany told me, tapping the aquarium glass. The tarantula didn’t respond. Maybe it was asleep.
“Her name’s not Little Debi,” I said. “It’s Mom.”
“And counseling, seriously? You know I could get you so much worse.”
My toes jammed together in my shoe, my leg suddenly aware it was being talked about. If the tarantula escaped now, I was toast. Because of cerebral palsy, I drag my right foot and have what my family calls “tight tendons.” If I’d been arguing with my adopted sister Jessica, it would have been no surprise to hear her come back with, “At least I know how to walk.” Even my brother Danny would, on occasion, imitate my thwacking footfall. But for Tiffany to put me down because of my leg, that was a low blow.
What happened to the country club rat, the girl who pressed goggles into her sockets and dove off the blocks, racking up High Point Awards as her swimsuit crawled up her bottom? The Tiffany I knew tramped the Cottonwood Club greens in a leopard bikini, hooked balls into the clubhouse, and sent disparaging questions about my leg back at the offending party. “What’s wrong with my brother?” she would ask. “What’s wrong with your brother?”
“I mean, why does he walk like that?”
“I’m just going to stop you right there before you make a complete idiot of yourself,” Tiff would say. “Goog and I are twins, so anything you have to say about him, you’re saying about me too.”
In a sense, we were twins, born three years apart, our hair chlorine-green by summer’s end. We’d sit under the helmets at the salon and become blond again, Tiff talking to her double-jointed finger like the boy in The Shining, and then we’d go home and squirt milk out our noses at dinner. Historically, Tiff peed her pants laughing at least once a year, usually while squealing, “I’m peeing!”
She came out of the changing room looking pale and mascara-clumped, like she’d been attacked. Like she’d been crying. This was what became of you if you weren’t careful: Your grades sagged with your pants. You wore belly shirts, showing off the moles on your midriff, and studded your belt with beer bottle caps.
“I’m sorry if my clothes intimidate you,” she said. Turning to my mom, she added, “You can count me out for watching your brats this summer.”
“My brats?” Mom said. “How do you figure that? You’re one of them.”
“I’m not the one who chose to shit out five kids,” Tiffany said.
“Four,” I reminded. “Jessica is adopted.”
“At least I know how to walk,” Jessica said.
Over the years, Mom hired ladies of all sorts to help watch my little sisters and me. Danny, especially, was terrible to these polygamist runaways and community college phlebotomists, drenching them with Super Soakers, slipping exhaust whistles onto their tailpipes, asking if they were virgins.
Normal protocol was to place a help wanted ad in the Tribune. We have an after-school French class to thank for bringing Johanna into our lives. She gave weekly lessons to Bobby Leavitt’s older sister, a girl two doors down who rolled her red hair into Princess Leia buns and stayed up late on school nights to watch David Letterman. After a session of verb conjugation one afternoon, Johanna bounded up the sidewalk and into our lives, a handsome, big-boned college girl with a smile of square capped teeth.
Maybe it was the five-year age difference between them, or Johanna’s plush physique, her jean shorts or Birkenstocks, but almost from the start this wholesome new nanny put Tiff out. Johanna treated being nineteen like it was a super power. When we shopped at the mall, she scatted to the Muzak, even among the pretentious comic book clerks at Night Flight who made fun of my Warner Bros. shirts.
A hand to her diaphragm, Johanna’s normal speaking voice stretched into song, giving way to that of an opera singer, her eyes far away as she belted out Mary Magdalene’s famous lines from Jesus Christ Superstar. “I don’t know how to love him.” She squeezed my shoulder with a powerful hand. “He’s a man. He’s just a man. And I’ve had so many men before. In very many ways, He’s just one more.”
It was a catchy tune, especially sung a capella, and one I hoped to be able to relate to in the near future. As we crooned right there in the store, Tiff twisted her face in disgust, like she belonged on the embossed covers of the Fear Street novels she liked to flip to the end of, the ones where babysitters trembled by the phone, waiting for another call from the neighborhood serial killer.
More than breath control or her love of Belle from Beauty and the Beast, what distinguished Johanna from her predecessors was that, from the beginning, she belonged to me. She gave my brother and sisters rides, sure, but when it came to just hanging out, there was no question I was her favorite. She shared my appreciation of Walt Disney, not just the man himself, whose biography I had recently torn through, but the rap version of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” I’d performed at Disneyland with Up With Kids. We could spend hours at the snack bar tossing scraps of grilled cheese to the ducks as we speculated about whether Walt was cryogenically frozen in a vault under Tomorrowland.
Since the mall near our house didn’t boast a Disney Store or an FAO Schwarz, I shopped in catalogs. My collectibles were mostly stuffed—the python Kaa from The Jungle Book and a huggable yellow Pooh Bear—but someday soon, when I had the birthday clout, a trove of proper Disneyana would be mine. Porcelain dolls. Sterling silver coins. Empire. “I have no doubt,” Johanna said, flipping through starred pages.
Setting aside the reticence I’d acquired from a lifetime with two snickering older siblings, I invited Johanna to call me Greggy-the-Pooh, or if she preferred Greggy, Pooh, Pooh Bear, Poohie or The Pooh. Only my mom deployed these names now that I was almost in the fifth grade, but I wouldn’t mind if they made Johanna feel special. “How about just Greg,” she recommended, the hint of a smile on her face.
A touring production of Les Miserables came to Utah that summer. My parents won tickets in a Planned Parenthood auction and, when Chelsea came down with a fever the night of the show, they stayed home and let Johanna and me go.
I came home with the first and second CDs I’d ever purchased in my life: the original London cast recording of what I was already calling Les Miz. The next night at dinner, I brought down my Coke bottle CD player and cued the discs for my family, tears streaming down my face. Seated at the head of the table, one leg tucked under her, Tiffany asked when I had gotten so artsy. “If you’re not careful people are going to get the wrong idea about you.”
“Artsy?” Johanna said in the van the next day. “You’re not just artsy, you’re the artsiest Pooh Bear out there.”
“She didn’t mean it like that, Johanna,” I said.
“I’ve never seen a kid your age give a better dramatic reading about stopping violence,” she said, referring to one of my recent poems.
Johanna’s praise warmed me. “That was pathetic,” I said. “I can’t believe I read that to you.”
“I bring the death of sympathy,” Johanna proclaimed. “I tear down Lady Liberty / I am the merciless beating of the black drum / When will the violence be done, done?”
“Anyone could write that,” I said.
“It’s got a real rhythm, Greg, really,” Johanna said. “No kidding. You have a way of looking at the world that’s just yours.”
The little girls were in the back, blissed out to their sing-along tapes. What made these songs about birthdays and splish-splash taking baths so cloying was that they had been personalized. A dubbed voice, tinny and robotic enough to be at home in a Speak & Spell, interrupted the melody of the song to say Jessica or Chelsea.
“You know what I mean about a way of looking at the world? Take these tapes,” Johanna said. “They’re annoying, right? They drive us bonkers.”
“So there’s this thing called irony. It’s like sarcasm but not putting anyone down. It means you enjoy something for a different reason from somebody else. Your sisters like these songs because they say their names. But do we like these songs?”
“They’re driving me psychotic,” I said, using a word I had just learned. I was always testing out new words on Johanna to see if they made sense.
“Precisely,” she said. “We like these songs because we don’t like these songs. The best way to make fun of something is to enjoy it.”
“Why don’t we just turn it off?” I asked.
“And deal with two sobbing little sisters? No way, amigo.”
Johanna tipped up the volume and, with a psychotic grin that showed off her gums, sang along in her opera voice, swinging her head this way and that, elbows out, shoulders jumping—a child actor all grown up. When the dubbed voice came on she exaggerated it, this time making it a belch, the next time a squeak. “Come on, Pooh Dude,” she told me. “I know you know the words. They’ve been seared into our brains.”
It’s not like it took a lot of convincing. Soon we were both belting along to the music, forcing giggles. Hello, Jessica, how do you do? We’re going to sing a song for you. It went without saying this same technique could be used to “enjoy” Herman the Worm and Barney the Dinosaur. My whole childhood could be recalibrated to find the humor in the indignities of being a big brother. When it doubt, pull up your shorts, flail your elbows and groan. If your sister calls you artsy, respond with a stage bow and an encore.
It was July by the time Johanna sat my brother and me down at the Cottonwood Mall food court and told us her parents were gay. That is, her mom liked women and her dad liked men. It wasn’t chance that brought these two observant Mormons together but a shrewd bishop. Over the tinkle of the arcade and the practiced boredom of the Hot Dog On A Stick girls, Johanna confessed that her parents split up when she was eleven or twelve. Her mom shacked up with a lover near Liberty Park and her dad moved to Alaska. “They couldn’t live a lie anymore, you know?” she said.
My right leg clenched and I tried to keep my face muscles from flinching.
Alaska, I thought. Wow.
“Your parents have been completely cool about it,” Johanna said, playing shyly with her straw. “Your mom was the one who thought I should tell you guys, actually.”
Danny flashed his close-lipped smile, saying that our last nanny made Jess eat a banana out of the trash compactor and the one before that was a polyg. “You’re not in bad company,” he said, and went back to sorting through a pack of basketball cards.
“Have you told Tiffany yet?” I managed. “Don’t pay any attention to her, Johanna. Just zone out when she goes off. That’s what the rest of us do.”
“Oh, no, your sister has been great,” Johanna said.
As improbable as it was, Johanna’s assertion turned out to be true. My big sister, with her multiple ear piercings and ghostly foundation, was being great, or at least not the hormonal bigot I’d feared. It was hard to say quite why, but she started tagging along with us to the pool and snack bar, skateboard tucked under her arm, a sucker tucked into her cheek. “You know, Johanna, you get it,” she said thoughtfully. “You know what it’s like to have a mom who sucks.”
Forced to the back of the van, where Jess and Chelsea stuck gum wherever they wanted and half-finished Cokes swamped cup holders, I had to poke my head between the front seats to hear anything besides those splish-splash cassette tapes. My big sister boasted about how long it had been since she’d shaved her legs and how skirts were a male-perpetuated conspiracy. It was hard to believe this considerate feminist was the same girl who yelled at Mom for shitting out kids.
When I sang ironically, Johanna tried to rope me into the conversation.
“We’re talking about the atrocious state of the beef industry in this country. What do you think, Greg?”
“Meat is gross,” Tiffany said before I could think of anything.
“Hello,” I said. “Earth to Tiffany. It’s called waiting your turn.”
Tiff’s hairy knees protruded pinkly from denim tatters. She twisted a long white denim thread around her finger. “So are guys, actually. I told you about the one who tried to shove his tongue down my throat.”
“Tiff, that’s terrible,” Johanna said, showing more concern than was necessary. Guys were always trying to shove their tongues down Tiffany’s throat and Tiff was always kneeing them in the balls.
“Did you tell your mom?” Johanna asked.
“Don’t worry,” Tiff said. “After what I did, he won’t be having kids.”
“That’s not good,” I said. “It’s not healthy.”
Tiff let the thread uncoil from her finger. “Fuckin A, Googs. Don’t expect me to lift a finger if you’re ever raped by a man.”
“Raped?” I asked.
“Fuckin A is right,” Johanna said. “That jerk had it coming.”
Skater language sounded forced coming out of her opera-trained mouth.
To my chagrin, Tiff and Johanna were on the fast track to becoming pals, until, that is, Johanna caught Tiff smoking weed on the gazebo swing with some of her burnout friends. Considering Tiffany’s habit of throwing raging house parties when it was obvious she’d get caught, it was only a matter of time before Johanna busted her. I’ll never forget the internal torment our nanny felt at snitching on Tiff once my parents came home, how she paced around the kitchen counter, hands on that brassy hair.
“You fucking told?” Tiff said.
“Johanna did the right thing,” Dad said. He opted for the pseudo-scientific approach, pointing out that pot is psychologically addictive, but Mom undercut him.
“Psychologically addictive, Bob. Really? Was it psychologically addictive when you smoked a freezer bag full of dope your first semester at Drake?”
While Mom was only interested in yelling at Dad, Tiffany was only interested in yelling at Johanna. “What are we, two years old tattling to mommy and daddy?”
“I’m the screw up,” Mom said, throwing up hands. “Blame me. Everything’s my fault anyway. Always has been. Believe me, there’s nothing I haven’t smoked, snorted or ingested.”
While it’s true that this was Salt Lake, where a suburban kid smoking pot even once or twice was not the norm, I couldn’t help but think that if Mom really had been the hard-drinking, hard-partying blowjob machine she made herself out to be, my sister’s poser drug use would not have registered as such a catastrophe.
Part of what made the news so shocking as it trickled in that night was that a boy had been on the scene, presumably the one who had tried to stick his tongue down Tiff’s throat, the one she’d fought off by planting a knee in his groin.
Since mom had gotten sick, I’d become pretty weird about smoking. If someone lit up on Nick at Nite, I tucked my nose into my shirt, waving my hand in front of my face as if second-hand fumes could waft through the screen. If I caught a whiff of the incense coming from Tiff’s room, I’d hold my breath and sprint for an open window. I even refused to apply any of Tiff’s hemp lotion because it contained trace amounts of THC.
Fear notwithstanding, it was almost a relief my big sister was an addict. Based on what I’d picked up at my elementary, where I performed “(Give Drugs The) Boot Scootin Boogie” for a Red Ribbon Week assembly, friends who did drugs weren’t your friends. It followed that a sister who did drugs wasn’t your sister. Anyone on Care Team could tell you that. The fact that Tiffany smoked pot meant she would be dead soon and, after a heartfelt memorial service and a respectable amount of time, her room could be converted into a costume closet and Johanna would once again belong to me.
Ours was a house of shifting alliances. What surprised me was not that Johanna double-crossed Tiffany, but that she did not steer clear of her afterward. Had Johanna’s gay parents raised her in such a protective cocoon, with such pure values, she hadn’t picked up on how babysitting worked? Johanna’s job was to make us cannibalize each other so we didn’t go after her. Once you betrayed a fickle fourteen-year-old, especially a tongue-biter like Tiff, she became an enemy. Intentions didn’t matter. No amount of creativity or thoughtfulness, no musical phrase or red wheel of cheese brought to her bedroom door could stall the onslaught.
One evening, trying to make things right, Johanna invited Tiffany to drive up Millcreek Canyon to look at the stars. I can’t remember why Tiffany capitulated, whether my parents threatened to confiscate her skateboard or what, but she grabbed her Salty Peaks hoodie from the chair in the kitchen and marched out to the car. It wasn’t a bad idea: find a pretty spot with a creek, maybe some sunflowers, and set her free. Return her to nature. Looking out over the valley, up above Churchill Junior High, Tiff’s problems would look so small.
I was hardly what you would call a stargazer, but I wanted to come along. Life lessons were afoot. Drugs would be discussed, and perhaps with my role-playing experience I could de-escalate a bad situation and save Johanna. “You think marijuana cigarettes are cool,” I’d say to Tiffany, “you should give another listen to Les Miz. Now that’s cool. And the best part is, you don’t need to be messed up to enjoy it. Come on, Tiff, I’ve got the CDs right here.”
“You should stay here,” Johanna said, blocking my exit with a meaty arm. “Your sister and I need to talk. Girl stuff. How bout we make a date for tomorrow? What do you say? Tomorrow, Pooh Dude? We’ll work on your pitch.”
“Whatever,” I said, hoping I sounded as disaffected as Tiffany.
Johanna dropped Tiff off about an hour later. My sister stormed into the kitchen carrying the chilly September air and told my parents that Johanna had made a pass at her. “Do I have to spell it out for you?” Tiffany said, trying to overcome our stunned expressions. “Johanna, our nanny, was trying to get in my pants.”
“That’d be pretty easy considering they’re already bunched around your ankles,” I said, pleased with myself for coming up with something Danny-like to say.
“Nice one, Gregor,” Danny congratulated.
“Now hold up, Greggo,” Dad said.
“She squeezed my thigh,” Tiffany said, clearly basking in the attention. “In the car, she reached over and grabbed me.”
Dad was such a softie that the whole notion of lying was beyond him. This was a job for Mom. I expected her to come at Tiff with sarcasm, something along the lines of, “As if, Tiff. I’m sure Johanna wants to get in your pants. I’m sure this whole summer she’s been plotting to seduce you.”
You didn’t have to be a drug counselor to see that Tiffany had connected the homophobic dots of her own prejudice, turning a supportive squeeze into something sexual. Just because Johanna had gay parents didn’t mean she was gay herself, let alone that she wanted to hook up with my gross sister.
“You’re just pissed because she took away your drugs,” I said, trying not to shake. I always shook when I was upset. “Quit playing mind games.”
Tiffany’s face splotched with emotion, like I’d finally gone too far. It was awful seeing her cry, and even more painful hearing her cry. Yanking at her hoodie strings, she reduced her face to a talking butthole. “I know when I’m being molested, OK? What, it has to be the weird creepy uncle touching you inappropriately for it to be wrong? First I have to kick that fuck face in the balls and now this? I feel like I’m being attacked.” So quietly you could barely hear, the butthole added, “It makes me want to smoke pot again.”
“Come here, Tiffer,” Dad said, pulling her into a hug and for once my sister didn’t bite her tongue and wrestle him to the ground. She just let him hold her.
I have no doubt Tiffany believes Johanna was hitting on her. Twenty years later, if you get my sister talking, she’ll say how messed up our erstwhile babysitter was, how having two Mormon parents come out the closet was a recipe not for a sweet and complicated soul, but for a complete fuck up. Maybe it’s that expression, fuck up, so often hurled at fourteen-year-old Tiffany that makes me wonder if my sister is talking about herself, a girl fucked up by Mom’s cancer, left to worry if it was her fault.
My parents never confronted Johanna about Tiffany’s flimsy accusation. They just called her and said they didn’t need the extra help anymore. They were trying to protect their kid, maybe take Tiff’s side for once, but it was hard to understand Johanna’s dismissal as anything but an unintentional warning: just the possibility of being gay cost our babysitter her job.
I wish there had been a parting gesture between Johanna and me, but farewells just weren’t in the cards for the ladies who nannied for us. One moment they were there and the next they were perennial topics of dinner conversation, reduced to punch lines: the polygamist, the trash-eater, the molester. And even if I could have thanked Johanna, what would I have said to her, this college girl who knew that I, like my Disneyana, would be worth something some day?
I remember first hearing the Bob Dylan song “Visions of Johanna” in college and wanting to cry, and then listening to it again. I can almost hear Johanna’s loose vibrato as she sprawls atop the windshield of her parked car, appealing to the starry night. What a lovely Mary Magdalene she would have made, so calm, so cool, no lover’s fool.
Stripped of Johanna’s company, I had a confusing time at the start of fifth grade as I tried to spiral toward straightdom. Convinced I had a crush on a half-Armenian girl in my class named Sonja, I went to the mall with my mom and Tiff and, braving my arachnophobia, pulled on the loosest fitting, most shapeless skater clothes I could find.
I came out of the changing room to my mom clutching her purse like I might try to swipe it. “My God. What happened to my Pooh Bear? I survived cancer for this?”
As we made our way out to the parking lot, Tiff bumped my hip, giving me a side hug. “You look good, Googers.” Not only had I worn the clothes out of the store, I’d ripped off the tags, making return impossible.
“OH MY GOD,” Mom said behind us. We turned to find her holding up a hand and for a moment I wondered if she had forgotten her credit card. “You two look exactly like twins,” she said. “I mean EXACTLY like twins.”
What ended up bringing Tiff and me together was the chore we most reviled: babysitting. After Johanna, there was no more hired help. Danny had far too vibrant a social life playing in Roundball Ruckus tournaments and egging houses to stay home on weekends, meaning Tiffany and I were it. “You said it yourself. You’re too old for babysitters,” Mom told us. “I know just how you feel. Watching your sisters isn’t the in thing right now.” She made air quotes at her ears. “But this is what normal families do. The big shits watch the little shits.”
Tiffany and I threw hissy fits but secretly we were both relieved to have something to do on weekends. Trying to be the kind of babysitter Johanna had been, I all but forced Jessica and Chelsea to record songs on my tape player and hunt for the Where’s Waldo doll I’d hide for them. Jesus Christ Superstar took up hours, as did a method-acty version of house in which I played a talking baby with a speech impediment, crying “Sista, pwease!” During Barney, I hiked my shorts to my chest and warbled the theme song. I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family.
By this time, Tiffany had a new self-appointed twin: Jessica. You might have thought my big sister would balk at the idea of being a negative role model, having every flaw acted out in front of her. Au contraire. She was never more pleased than seeing her Native American scion fake cramps to get out of going to school. “You’re six,” Mom would say. “You can’t get cramps.”
The two wore crumbly gray sweaters from Abercrombie & Fitch and top-knotted their hair. They stuck stickers onto their skateboards, worked their feet under couch cushions and took stairs two by two. Jess messed up her eyebrows and copied Tiff’s gaudy cursive. If Tiffany doubled back to touch newel posts and rattle door handles, Jess was half a pace behind, going through the same obsessive-compulsive routine.
The hench-sister dynamic would have been cute if it weren’t based on disdain. Both Tiff and Jess were hell-bent on the emotional destruction of the youngest, most premature among us. When Tiffany was in charge, whimsy and creativity went out the window for a more engrossing parlor game: verbal abuse.
“We’re going to sell you to the gypsies, Chels,” Tiffany would say.
“Yeah, the gypsies,” Jess would second.
“How about we make you eat dog shit,” Tiff would say.
“Yeah, dog shit,” Jess would agree.
In part because of the tag-team pummeling she endured and in part because her relationship with Mom remained umbilical, Chelsea exhibited some serious separation anxiety. The hours before my parents went to cards became sponge-roller soap operas. “They want me to eat dog shit,” Chelsea would protest.
“Of course they do, Chels,” Mom would say. “They’re your older sisters.”
Once Mom and Dad had struggled out the door, Chelsea would pout for five or ten minutes before sniffing her way back into the living room where Barney and his minions offered an amorous quid pro quo. Antagonism and abatement, this was the natural rhythm of babysitting. Tiffany and Jess would make fun of the purple dinosaur until they got tired, and then we’d all just stare at the TV, counting down the minutes until the garage door rumbled open and our parents appeared in the kitchen looking tousled and shiny, as if they had never left.
Greg Marshall is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers and the former nonfiction editor of Bat City Review. Greg’s work has appeared in Electric Literature, Barely South and Under The Gum Tree.