The Cross family's new nanny is perfect. A natural with children, a whiz in the kitchen, and a gifted painter, the only thing Miss Washington can't seem to do is make a mistake. But thanks to Stuart Cross's artistic ambitions, his wife Andie's mounting paranoia, and the nanny's smitten ex-boyfriend, what should be domestic bliss quickly turns into an outrageous disaster.
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The Good NannyA Novel
By BENJAMIN CHEEVER
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2004 Benjamin Cheever
All right reserved.
Chapter One"You're in the country now. Safe at last."
Experience the river views that inspired a famous school of art. Live in the grand estate neighborhood where Frank A. Vanderlip (First National City Bank) played penny poker with John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil). This is Tara on Hudson. Full air. Stunningly appointed Great Room with fieldstone hearth. EIK. 4 BRs. Jacuzzi. A prestigious gem on one secluded acre. Special and unique. Walk to train. Maid's quarters with separate entrance. $850,000.
Sotheby's had placed the ad in the New York Times Magazine section. Joy Gainsborough-Orsini had spread her Gore-Tex parka on the sod, gone down on her belly to shoot the picture. And so the building-large enough in life-seemed to pierce the very skies.
Shown now in the last rays of a watery March sun, the edifice towered amid immature plantings. This was on the Albany Post Road and directly across Scarborough Station Road from the Scarborough Presbyterian Church. Although substantially smaller than the church, the house seemed to vie with that structure as to which was to be the more preposterous demonstration of man's aspiration to transcend practicality. Both buildings were designed to excite awe. Both were far too large to justify their purposes as shelter.
The church was substantially bigger than its competitor, but the Cross residence had the Gothic windows once reserved for places of worship, and a three-car garage mahal. It outgunned the sanctuary six toilets to one.
Featuring the largest lawn in the development, the wedding cake of a house was bordered on the left by a replica of Washington Irving's Sunnyside. A miniature of the dome of Jefferson's Monticello took the right flank. The builder's motto and slogan: "The Grandeur and Genius of the Past; the Comfort and Convenience of the Future." The development: Heavenly Mansions.
This was Saint Patrick's Day in the New Millennium, and Tara's owners were hosting a party. The invitations had been cardboard shamrocks with "You survived Y2K, now come toast Andie," and then this line from Housman: "Malt does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man." Although few of the guests were drinking malt. They were drinking Frascati, and a fruity Chardonnay. All purchased at The Art Of Wine in Pleasantville.
The host, Stuart Cross (no relation to the pens, thank you), was heading into the great room with a fresh tray of oysters. The hostess, Andie Wilde (no relation to the famous playwright and pederast, alas) was at the granite-topped island in the kitchen, taking the Saran Wrap from a bowl of guacamole. Stuart was 59. Andie was 32, a small, slender brunette now wearing an ankle-length suede skirt, which snapped up the front, and a black cashmere turtleneck. Andie always gave the impression of having just finished an exhaustive crying jag. Perhaps it was the too-generous use of mascara; perhaps it was something more fundamental to her character. This melancholy cast had rendered her irresistible to a certain type of male, many of whom were powerful or rich.
She'd grown up bookish in bookless Vandalia, Ohio-Dayton's airport town. "Raised in a bowling alley, but with the soul of an English maiden," Stuart had said, casting the first of the honeyed barbs that snagged Andie's heart. "If I weren't so old and shrewd, I never would have gaffed her," he said once when quite drunk. "I paid attention. Pay attention, and you needn't be kind."
Andie was half-Irish, but the party was being held to celebrate, or at least acknowledge, her promotion to the enviable but not entirely respectable position of top film critic for the New York Post. "Yes, I love my job," she said when asked. Everybody asked.
Stuart heard a cry of tires, and then what sounded like a collision, but by the time he put down the oysters and reached the window to look out, a red van was moving through the intersection. A green SUV, which was on his lawn, reversed back onto the road and followed the van.
"What happened?" Andie asked. "I felt just as if somebody had walked over my grave."
"Nothing to do with your grave," said Stuart. "Looks as if there was an accident at the crossroads."
"Doesn't that mean tragedy?" asked Wallace Stevens (not that Wallace Stevens). "An encounter at a crossroads?"
"Traditionally, it means tragedy," said Stuart, going back to the kitchen to get the oysters.
"Can I have another?" asked Stevens, when the host reappeared.
"You ate the last tray," said Stuart. "Let's give somebody else a chance."
"You didn't want me here at all, did you?" asked Stevens. "It was Scarlet's idea, wasn't it?" A tall, ungainly creature who might have been Lincolnesque if it weren't for the weak chin and a terrible comb-over, Stevens-a book agent-had been the last guest invited and the first to arrive.
"He'll try and do business," Stuart had said. "And he's a spitter."
"He's had us to dinner twice now in the city," countered Andie. "You may not like him, but he is a brilliant agent. The man can ask the baldest questions and somehow get away with it, or almost. There are a half a dozen writers we admire who never would have made it without him. Besides which, we are celebrating the patron saint of outcasts."
"We're also honoring the man who cast out the snakes," said Stuart.
"If we don't include Stevens," said Andie, "he'll hear about the party from your old friend Loose Lips Solon at Random House."
The agent had arrived a half an hour early-Andie was still in the shower-and presented Stuart with a one thousand, one hundred-page manuscript titled Gone With the Wind. (Not that Gone With the Wind.) "Random House despised it, but I think it's perfect for you," he explained.
Now Stevens was making Andie blush.
"Is Tom Hanks here?" he asked.
"I didn't invite him," said Andie.
"He would have come," said Stevens, moving his face unnaturally close to that of his hostess. "Doesn't he want good reviews?"
"It doesn't work that way," said Andie, backpedaling out of range of the spray.
"Then how does it work?" asked Stevens. "I told Loretta that he might be here."
"I judge the movie on its merits," said Andie.
"Isn't that a bit subjective?" asked Stevens.
"Yes," said Andie.
"But you don't pay for your tickets, do you?" asked Stevens.
"No," said Andie, "not usually."
"Which right away puts you in a different position than all the rest of us," said Stevens. "Loretta asked me the other day if you got free popcorn. I didn't know. Do you get free popcorn?"
"No," said Andie, "not usually."
Stevens nodded pensively. "Did you ever try and figure out how much they pay you per review?" he asked.
"No," said Andie. "I never did."
"Loretta was saying they should wire a keypad into the seats," Stevens continued. "After the movie, everybody could push a button for thumbs-up, or a different button for thumbs-down. The results could be tabulated and published. That way we'd really know what to see."
"Enough charming chitchat for now," said Stuart, inserting himself between Andie and the agent. "How about a house tour? Anybody who wants to admire the Jacuzzi," he said, "queue here." Half a dozen late arrivals responded to the invitation, and Stuart started up the stairs. "The real estate agent promised a seasonal view of the Hudson," he said. "I don't see it. Unless she was talking about the nuclear winter."
"Where do you write?" asked Wallace Stevens, when the party reached the top of the stairs.
"Actually," said Stuart, "I haven't written a word since we moved in, but I have picked the spot."
"I think the places where creative people work are sacred," the agent said, looking into the faces of the other guests for confirmation. None was forthcoming. But Stuart led the group into a small bedroom off the hallway. This had a dark oak table with one center drawer and a chair with a cane bottom.
Stevens went to the desk. "Do you mind?" he asked, looking back over his shoulder at Stuart.
His host said nothing.
The agent opened the drawer, found it empty, took a card out of his wallet, wrote something on the back, put the card in the drawer, and closed it. Then he backed away from the desk and brought his face close to Stuart's "That's my home number," he said.
"Thanks," said Stuart, wiping spittle from his cheeks as he turned and went into the hall.
"Instead of the river view," he said, "we have a master-bedroom-suite-to-die-for. That's what the realtor was always saying, 'a master-bedroom-suite-to-die-for.'"
"Die happy," one of the guests chimed in.
"Somehow I don't think Joy will die happy," said Stuart, "but I accept the compliment."
He led the group down the hall and into the bedroom. This was large and with floor-to-ceiling windows on one wall. An ebony sleigh bed stood in the center of the room. A small, clever wooden desk with pillars, cubbies, and a Hepplewhite chair was set in a corner. "It's a reproduction," Stuart said, before moving out of the sleeping area and through the first phase of the bathroom-two sinks, and a long mirror lined with light bulbs, in a style reminiscent of a theatrical dressing room.
"It's fabulous," one of the guests enthused. "The dream house for the dream couple."
"And we dream big these days," Stuart said. "Five people, four thousand square feet. Lucky Karl Marx has been discredited. Else we'd all be murdered in our beds."
"Would they murder the nanny?" asked Kick Massberg, a colleague from the city and Stuart's protégé.
"I think she'd be the one to let them in, while we slept," said Stuart. "Or that's my understanding of class war. We've got the walk-in closet," he continued, leading the party deeper into the bathroom, "the Jacuzzi, steam shower ..."
"Do you ever really use the steam shower?" asked a cleft-chinned blonde named Heather who worked for the Bathos Literary Agency in Manhattan.
"Yes, of course," said Stuart, as the party retreated down the stairs. "So far we've really used it only twice." The group crossed the kitchen, descended a set of bare wooden stairs and came into a large basement. Stuart hit the wall switch, and there was an appreciative pause as the guests spread out and took in the huge space, entirely empty and with a ceiling seven feet high.
"The hot water is heated right on the oil burner," Stuart said. "One fire instead of two. Cellar floor is as dry as a bone," he said, tapping at the cement with the toe of one tasseled loafer. He extended his arms and turned once in a slow circle. "Imagine a gym, a wine cellar, a prison."
Solidly built and of moderate height, the host moved with surprising grace. He wore his curly gray hair long, in a style more befitting a musician than an editor. Despite his age and sedentary profession, he was still slender and carried himself with the grace and assurance of a natural athlete.
After the third glass of wine, he'd begun to tell everybody who would listen-and some people who would not listen-that with Andie's increased income, he was now finally prepared to resign his editorship at Acropolis Books "and write the novel that's been eating at my guts since I first achieved consciousness." Wearing chinos and a white button-down shirt with blue pinstripes, no tie, but fastened at the collar, he was standing now, with one hand on the mantel, talking intently to a knot of guests. "I'm tired unto death of delivering other people's children. Delivering them, and washing off the blood and sputum."
"He's blotto. Snockered," said Herbert Pipes, a friend from the city and the couple's tax lawyer. "They'll take you out of that elegant office of yours in a pine box," he told his host.
"Stuart couldn't quit back then. He was the sole support of his widowed mother," said Andie, angrily.
"Maybe," said Pipes turning back to the other guests. "But you all should know that the very first thing Stuart told me when I met him was that he was going to leave his job and write the great American novel. That was twenty years ago."
"Might quit," snapped Stuart. "And while I'm making changes, I might also engage a lawyer who doesn't tread on my dreams." This was delivered in tones that were clearly meant to sound lighthearted, and just as clearly failed. The host opened his mouth again, perhaps to make amends, but he was cut off by the rising clamor of police sirens. The large Gothic windows at the end of the great room had a commanding view of the Albany Post Road. Stuart and several others moved to look outside as two squad cars raced north toward the Village of Ossining, followed by an ambulance, and then a third police car.
"Move to the country," said Stuart. "Escape urban brutality."
"All right, all right," said Kika Campion-Bourne. A friend of Andie's since Kenyon, Kika had lived in Scarborough for a decade. She was the individual most responsible for convincing the couple to abandon that cramped apartment in Chelsea that Stuart had shared with his mother. Kika was tall for a woman-five feet eleven inches-and had naturally blonde hair, which she wore to her waist. "Your pal might be sexy," Stuart had told Andie once, "if her hips weren't so generous and her bust so ungenerous. Girls frequently pair off in college, with one being beautiful and moody, the other ordinary but reliable," he told his wife. "I bet Kika was reliable."
"You're only trashing her because she's my best friend," said Andie. "And you don't like to share."
"There's that," said Stuart, "but even you can see how plain Kika is."
Andie never aired her husband's poisonous remarks to her friend, and so they had the desired effect, which was to weaken the connection between the two women. Kika was not a dunce, though, and sensed the hostility. She treated her pal's distinguished husband as if he were a naughty little boy.
"Now, now. Don't get your knickers in a twist, Stu. You're not in Manhattan anymore," she said, wetting the index finger of her fight hand and tucking hair behind her ear. "The police in Scarborough are like Maytag repairmen. Half the department turns out for a busted taillight."
As she spoke, another squad car pulled up to the intersection, paused, made a hooting sound with its siren, and ran the light.
"I don't care how bored the police are," said Stuart. "That's not a minor accident. Sounds like a race riot to me. Isn't Peekskill north of here? A mob tried to murder Paul Robeson in Peekskill."
"Now we are showing our age," said Kika.
"Time out," said Andie, stepping between her friend and her husband and putting a hand on each of them, trying to draw the charge of malice into her own body and then to ground.
Excerpted from The Good Nanny by BENJAMIN CHEEVER Copyright © 2004 by Benjamin Cheever. Excerpted by permission.
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