I clicked through the job listings with a feeling of despair. Most of the ads on Craigslist were for the sort of jobs I would never even consider, and I was starting to get fatigued just looking at line upon line of ‘girls wanted, 18+ for adult work.’
Why was it so hard to find a legitimate job that didn’t require a social security number? I was in the USA on a student visa, and I wasn’t allowed to work while I was here, but I had another year to go on my Master’s degree and I was broke. After page ten of the same slush, I was about to give up. A small ad near the bottom of the page caught my attention; it was posted twelve days ago, but I decided to take a look anyway.
Wanted: help around the house for widower and two boys aged 6 and 4. I need someone to help in the home and look after two boys over the summer on my homestead in Northern California. I have a lot of work to do harvesting and working on my farm, and can’t be watching the kids at the same time. Sewing skills and a good work ethic are essential. $100 per week and free accommodation (incl. food, utilities, etc.) if needed. If interested email me.
It was probably already filled, but I decided to shoot him an email anyway. The accommodation would be a definite bonus, since I had to vacate my dorm room in two days’ time.
Before I’d applied for any jobs, I had written a cover letter, heavily edited by my roomie Kelly, who was an MBA student.
“There are some key words you need to use, to grab the attention of HR managers,” Kelly had said. “Such as ‘proactive’ or ‘motivated self-starter.’”
I reread it, but it just didn’t seem appropriate. Feeling guilty, I set the cover letter aside. Perhaps I could use it for a graduate job next year. The task at hand required a more personal touch, so I started again from scratch, then read it aloud to myself in case I had made any mistakes.
I am writing to apply for the vacancy you advertised on Craigslist, requesting someone to look after two children and keep the house in order over the summer. My name is Isabel Sutton, and I am a twenty-four-year-old graduate student (from the UK) studying for my M.A. in anthropology at Berkeley. I have just completed the first year of the Masters’ course and am looking for work between now and September when my studies will resume. You mentioned in the advertisement that accommodation would be available, which I would require if it’s not too much trouble.
I have attached my Curriculum Vitae and I would like to draw your attention to the experience I had at Sixth Form, when I volunteered as a nursery assistant in my free time for two years, until I went to university (Bristol, England). Since then, I also gained eight months’ experience working as a cleaner for an agency in England, from whom I can provide a reference if required.
I am available to start at any time and I have my own car so I can travel at short notice. I look forward to hearing from you soon,
Yours faithfully, Isabel Sutton.”
I reread it twice, and although I wasn’t completely happy with the sentence about accommodation, I closed my eyes and clicked ‘send,’ reminding myself that I wasn’t being hired for my writing skills.
I wished I had an allowance from my parents, like Kelly did—she’d gotten both her tuition fees and accommodation paid, and her parents put money in her account every month for food and other expenses. It was proper unfair. My mother was a nurse and my dad was… well, currently he was a used carpet salesman (some sort of environmentally friendly startup) but before that he’d been a waiter, a taxi driver, and a train conductor. Job security wasn’t his strong point. If it hadn’t been for mum’s sacrifices, we would have been turned out of our lovely family home years ago.
After the stress of the job search and the relief of finding anything at all to apply for, I closed my laptop and made a cup of tea before looking for any other jobs.
The travel kettle I’d brought from England had a heavy adapter plug on it, and Kelly had joked about how it couldn’t brew coffee, but it did make tea. I much preferred to start the day with a nice cup of tea, but teabags were so expensive! So were a lot of my favorite foods—Branston pickles, French Dijon mustard, and my most loved treat, my Saturday night dinner, a fresh, tender steak. As I squooshed the teabag against the side of the cup, I reflected that I’d spent far too much of my savings on home comforts. I suppose that was how I ended up looking for a job at the last minute, to raise a little cash. It was a good thing I’d acquired a taste for American chocolate or I’d have been bankrupted before Christmas, given my sweet tooth.
Before I had left for America, I had budgeted meticulously, worked sixty hours a week at the cleaning company to save the cash, but there were all those little unexpected costs that had eaten away at two years of money in barely nine months.
I sat down with my finished drink and stared out of the window. My last anthropology class had been on Friday, and my studies wouldn’t begin again until September. Had I really been in California for a whole year?
The tea mug was barely empty when I saw a reply in my inbox.
Re: Wanted: help around the house for widower and two boys aged 6 and 4.
Excited, I clicked on the message to open it.
He actually got back to me!
Miss Sutton, are you free this afternoon for a telephone interview?
My heart leapt and I replied quickly.
Sure, call any time.
Less than a minute after I hit send, my phone started beeping.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Is this Isabel Sutton?” A man’s voice, deep and unmistakably American, said my name in a way that gave me a slight thrill.
Was this really my potential employer?
“Hi, I mean, um… this is she!” I blustered, trying to remember my manners.
“I’m Nate Byrne, I’ve just got a few questions to ask,” he said.
“Go for it,” I said, hoping I wasn’t being too casual.
“Have you ever lived on a real homestead, Miss Sutton?” he asked.
“Can you just, um, clarify what a homestead is, please?” I asked, feeling sheepish. The last time I used the word homestead was in an essay during my study of Viking culture, and I was pretty sure that no non-indigenous American people lived in wattle and daub houses with thatched roofs.
“It’s a small farm that’s virtually self-sufficient,” Nate replied.
“Oh, in England we would call that a smallhold!” It was one of those words that apparently hadn’t made it across the Atlantic. “My uncle had one, where he raised chickens, sheep and had an orchard with the most delicious fresh apples.”
“Smallhold? That’s a great word. So, at my place, we’re not totally self-sufficient, but we make most of our food here on the farm. I know I advertised for someone to help around the house—and I do need that—but there are certain times of the year when everyone is expected to pitch in, for example when it’s time to harvest the crops or if any of the goats are birthing. Would you have any problems with that, young lady?”
“Actually, Mr. Byrne, it sounds delightful. I used to love visiting my uncle’s smallhold. Everything just felt so… refreshing; do you know what I mean?” I thought back to the chickens, and how I used to get so excited when it was time to look for eggs.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Let’s talk about housework for a minute. You said you worked for a cleaning agency for a time?”
“Yes, I was a Millie Maid,” I confessed. Would he know what that was? “Blue polyester uniform, driving to people’s houses, cleaning up after them. Some of the messes people left were horrific but most people I visited were just too busy to keep their houses in order.”
“Why’d you do it? I mean, why would you want to do that sort of job?”
What was that supposed to mean?
“Why wouldn’t I want to work as a cleaner?” I was nettled. I had always enjoyed the satisfaction of making someone’s house tidy. It pleased me to know that I’d made their life a bit easier, and maybe it was the anthropologist in me but I had felt privileged to see that side of society, to see how people lived from the inside by going into their homes and making them clean and tidy. I had been unprepared for the amount of contempt with which some people treated cleaning staff. If this man had a prejudice, I certainly wasn’t going to put myself through cleaning his house.
“I guess I always thought people only cleaned if they weren’t able to get another job.” He seemed taken aback by my response to his comment.
“Well, some people just like cleaning,” I retorted. It was a poor response, but I was mildly annoyed.
Maybe I didn’t want to work for this man on his farm after all.
Except… what other job could I get?
“If you liked cleaning so much, why’d you leave, Miss Sutton?” Nate asked.
“There was an incident. A man tried to press his advantage while I was making my first visit to his house. Luckily I got away, but it left me shaken and I no longer felt confident going into strangers’ homes. The agency was less than understanding, and since I was commencing my final year of university, I decided to focus on my studies.” I explained.
“Dear God. I’m sorry.” Nate seemed to genuinely care—and after only five minutes on the phone and a couple of emails. Maybe he was just a kind and caring person. I’d not quite gotten used to the American way yet; particularly, the way that Americans seemed to be so warm, so empathic, compared to people in my homeland, where we did not want to pry, lest we be seen as nosy. Perhaps my final project could be a firsthand field study of the differences between ways of life in America and the UK… my mind ticked on for several seconds before I realized there had been silence down the phone that entire time.
“Hello?” I asked, to check we hadn’t lost the connection.
“Sorry, I was just thinking,” he replied. “So let’s put your cleaning knowledge to the test. You’re in the middle of vacuuming and the Hoover goes dead. What do you do?”
“Check if it’s plugged in properly, check that the wire isn’t loose, check I didn’t catch the button when I moved it, check the filters and dust bag. Then let you know that your vacuum cleaner is off-color,” I said.
“That’s great, but I meant what would you do about the floor?” Nate asked.
“Oh, how silly of me! Of course that’s what you meant. I’d fetch the dustpan and brush and get it done that way,” I said.
“Great. Okay, next question: you answered the phone and it’s a sales call. Someone’s knocked on the door and it looks like it’s something urgent. What do you do?” he asked.
“Well, that’s easy! I’d hang up the phone and answer the door!” I said. “I don’t owe the person on the phone anything, and they’re wasting my time!”
“That sounds good. Let’s just say the salesperson you hung up on calls back and starts berating you for ending the call, they’re not letting you get a word in edgewise, what do you do?” he asked.
“I would just hang up again. If they call again, I’d ring one four seven one and get their number, then threaten them with a harassment suit,” I said. Would he find that offensive?
“What’s one four seven one?” Nate asked, sounding confused.
“Um, the number you dial to find out who just called you so you can return the call,” I said, then mentally kicked myself; it probably wasn’t the same number here, was it? I had never needed to use it the whole time I’d been in California.
“Oh, star sixty-nine.” Nate said. He seemed to be thinking for a moment. “Okay, Miss Sutton, how would you handle a bad date?”
I was nonplussed. What did he want to know that for? Was it even remotely any of his business?
I paused for several seconds, wondering whether to answer the question, and if so, what to say.
It would have helped if I’d been on any dates in the past few years. Unable to think of a clear, direct answer to such a peculiar question, I just recounted the last date I’d been on.
“The last man I dated was when I was about twenty, so I might be a bit rusty, but the whole evening was a complete disaster from start to finish. He showed up half an hour late, with a dozen chrysanthemums, which he insisted I carry around while we went to dinner then the cinema. I think he wanted people to know that I was his date, which would have been great if he hadn’t been on his phone the whole time. At the restaurant, he tried to order for me, but he didn’t know me at all, and guessed completely wrong. I am intolerant to lactose, and he ordered me the cheesiest moussaka that I’ve ever seen, followed by cheesecake with cream. Then he kept making the most awful jokes at my expense. ‘Where are you from?’ he asked me. ‘Originally? Wiltshire,’ I replied. ‘Oh, we all know about Wiltshire girls,’ he said. But then he kept pressing it, over and over. I still haven’t a clue what everyone apart from me apparently knows about Wiltshire girls. I eventually told him to shut up, and when we got to the cinema, he ate all the popcorn then left me to make my own way home,” I said. I started to blush, aware of the fact that I was probably rambling at this point.
“And what did you do?” Nate asked.
“I got a horrifically expensive taxi. It was late and the buses had finished running. Then when I got home, I found five voicemails on my phone, all from him. Apparently he’d had a great time and couldn’t wait to see me again,” I said. “Suffice to say, I blocked his number and didn’t agree to a second date. Then he showed up at my flat and started banging on the door. I started to become afraid, so I… um… hid in my bathroom until he went away. It wasn’t my finest moment, I have to admit.”
“Sounds like a bad situation for everyone involved. Although, you know, calling the police when he was at your door might have helped, Miss Sutton,” Nate said.
I knew that, I just hadn’t done it.
“So here’s a hypothetical for you. You’re driving down the road, it’s late at night, you’re running late and you’re alone. You see what looks like a person lying on the side of the road next to a darkened car. What would you do?” he asked.
I frowned. These questions were highly irrelevant; they had nothing to do with getting this job. I contemplated ending the call, but Nate seemed friendly enough, and I really needed the money.
“I would pull over, get out of my car, and check that they were okay. I mean… clearly they’re not okay if they’re lying on the side of the road, but I’d still need to get an idea of what ailed them. If they were conscious I’d ask them what happened, where were they injured, et cetera. Then I’d ring an ambulance, informing the operator of what was wrong with the person. I’d sit and wait with them until the ambulance arrived, to reassure them that they weren’t alone, and I’d make sure they had their keys for their car, because it would add insult to injury if their car got nicked while they were in hospital,” I said.
“What if it was pouring down rain?” Nate asked.
“What on Earth has that got to do with anything?” I snorted derisively. “A bit of rain isn’t going to ring an ambulance for a person, is it?”
Nate paused for several seconds. I think he was laughing, but covering the receiver with his hand or something. Maybe he thought he had to conduct a serious interview.
“I guess not,” he said at length. “Young lady, how much do you drink on an average night out?”
I gave up trying to work out what his angle was, and decided to just go along with it.
“I suppose it depends,” I said. “If I was the designated driver, I would not touch a drop. Lemonade all the way. But if I’m not driving, I’d have two, maybe three drinks, depending on how long we were out for. Pardon me for asking, but what has all this got to do with the job?”
“Would you hire someone to take care of your kids if they went out all night drinking a couple of bottles of wine every evening?” he asked.
“Fair point,” I conceded. “Have you any more odd questions?”
“What was the last book you read?” he asked.
I looked at my desk, where How to Read Ethnography was stacked on top of The Social Fabric of the Cook Islands.
“Do you mean fiction or nonfiction? Because I’m a master’s student so I read a lot of stuff for essays and such.” I said.
“Let’s say fiction.”
“Wow, well, it’s been a while since I had the time, but I’d say it was The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle,” I answered.
What Nate said next utterly surprised me.
“You got a soft spot for Professor Challenger, Miss Sutton?” he asked.
He had read The Lost World? Most people hadn’t even heard of it. It was one of my favorites. And, yes, I did have a bit of a thing for the good professor.
“Well, it has turn of the twentieth century manners, long dresses, adventure, gallantry, excitement, live dinosaurs… what’s not to love?” I replied. “And I must confess that I do have a certain fondness for him.”
I didn’t want to tell a complete stranger that my greatest regret in life was being born a hundred years too late. Certainly, I’d not admit—not for all the tea in China—that I would love more than anything to find a strong, decisive man like Professor Challenger, someone who could take charge, a real man with old-fashioned ideals and a firm hand.
This conversation had definitely taken a turn for the personal.
“Can I ask you some questions now?” I asked, feeling vulnerable. How had this man got me thinking about… things so quickly? He was a potential employer, not a date.
My voice of reason stepped in at this point. Had he actually said anything so far to make me think he wanted a relationship? No, I reminded myself. It was my thoughts, my feelings, that had been awakened. He had been polite and professional.
“Fire away, Miss Sutton,” he said. His voice was having a strange effect on me now.
Damn, now I needed to think of some questions. Did I have any? My mind was utterly distracted.
“Um… do your children have any medical conditions or disabilities that would require any special care?” I asked.
“No, just two normal American boys who lost their mama way too soon,” Nate replied.
“What job do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a farmer these days. Straight out of high school, I joined the army. I was there eight years, until my first son was born.”
A soldier? Oh, God, my nipples were straining at my plain white bra and my knickers… would need changing. I didn’t expect this conversation to be doing this to me. Was it his voice? The way he kept calling me ‘young lady’? Or was I just so sex-starved that I’d throw myself at the first man I saw? What was wrong with me? I needed to snap out of it.
This highly distracting arousal was probably what got me asking my next question quite so bluntly, because I just couldn’t concentrate to word it in a tactful manner and I felt it needed saying.
“Are you expecting any sexual favors or ersatz relationship in exchange for money or services?” I asked. I wasn’t quite sure what ‘ersatz’ meant, but I thought it sounded good.
“Nope, not interested in any of that, Miss Sutton. I haven’t even met you. But if it goes somewhere…” He left the sentence hanging. I decided to make myself clear.
“I’m not going to work for you if any sort of sex is part of this job description,” I said, sounding more confident than I felt. You couldn’t be too careful with people you’d met online, right?
“No problem. Any other questions?” he asked, and I felt like he was humoring me.
“Yes. Will the accommodation be in a separate room with a lockable door, and how will you pay me?” I asked.
“Sure, it’ll be separate. There’s nothing to worry about at my place. I don’t exactly live in a palace but it sure ain’t a shack either. I can put a lock on the door, no problem, if it makes you feel secure. You’ll get paid weekly, one hundred dollars a week into your bank account. Got any more questions, Miss Sutton?” he asked, and I realized he’d stayed calm while I’d been getting stressed out over the nature of this job. The incident at the cleaning company had apparently affected me more than I knew at the time. Or was I just going on the offensive to cover up my own blatant interest in this man? Probably a bit of both. I couldn’t be too careful.
This was so humiliating, I was glad he couldn’t see me because my face was beetroot.
“No… that’s everything,” I said. Nate was silent for several seconds. He seemed to be thinking.
“I guess you’ll do,” he said at length. “Can you start tomorrow?”
“Um… okay,” I said. I hadn’t expected him to want me to start so soon, but it would certainly solve my little housing problem without me resorting to living in my car. “Where am I going? How far are you from Berkeley?”
“Oh, didn’t I post the address? It’s Byrne Ranch, it’s on route 299, after Big Bar. If you get to Salyer, you’ve gone too far,” he said. “It’s about a six-hour drive from ‘Frisco, so a bit less from Berkeley. Do you want map coordinates?”
“Map whats? Never mind, don’t worry, I’ll find it.” I wrote down the details he gave me.
“Great, I’ll see you at midday tomorrow, then? I’m looking forward to meeting you, Isabel. Don’t be late or you’ll miss lunch,” he added.
For some reason, I wanted nothing more than to eat lunch with this man I’d never met.
I got off the phone and stared into space for long minutes; what was I getting myself into? Why had Nate asked all those bizarre questions? I had been to a lot of job interviews in the past, and none of them had been like that. Was this a scam?
Something in Nate’s voice made him sound trustworthy. This was a big risk, but my gut instinct told me it was the right thing to do.
The room was untidy, despite the inner peace I derived from cleaning. I pulled out my two purple suitcases to fill with my belongings. When they were full, I still had things left over. I tried straddling the bigger of the two suitcases to try to get it to zip up. It refused. Wiggling my hips in a most ungainly manner, I finally got it fastened, but looking around the room, I realized I would need to get rid of a few things that I’d accumulated over the past year.
I sifted through my clothes and shoes, and separated some items to take to Goodwill. It was still open, so I drove over at once. When I got back, I tackled the fridge.
By the time I went to sleep, the car was packed and everything was clean and tidy.
In the morning, I got up at half past four, showered, and put on the clothes I’d prepared the night before, then took a last look around my dorm room, my home for the past year. It looked sad and empty without all the usual posters and clutter.
I picked up my remaining things, stuffed them into a plastic bag, and walked out. I posted the key through the slot at the reception desk, so that the receptionist would find it when she arrived in four hours’ time. That was it, then, the end of the year.
With a sigh, I pushed the double doors open and stepped out into the parking lot, gasping at the chilly mist of dawn. This was my favorite time of day, before the town awakened, whilst the day was pregnant with possibilities.
I unlocked my car, a 1992 Volkswagen Rabbit, and got ready for the drive. The engine roared to life and pulled out of the lot, then after a brief journey through Albany, I was on the freeway, on route to my new job. That was a slightly nerve-racking thought. I’d never just packed up and moved in with a complete stranger like this before. University halls of residence clearly didn’t count. Despite how honest Nate seemed, what if this job was a fake? What if Nate had changed his mind since I spoke to him last night? I couldn’t afford the petrol to drive seven hours, just to be turned away again.
Was I just looking for things that could go wrong? I tried to distract myself. Irritating pop blared through the speakers after I turned the radio on. When I stopped at some traffic lights, I flicked at the tuning button, and I was soon able to get the station changed to something more civilized. The soft piano and saxophone tones of some jazz music soothed my nerves and I started to enjoy the journey.
I wondered what Nate looked like, whether he was attractive; his voice had sounded older, more mature than the men I was used to spending time around. Most of my coeds were younger and definitely more immature than I was. It was a hazard of being a postgraduate and living on campus.
Nate sounded like a real man.
I imagined him in dirty jeans and a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, perhaps heaving biceps streaked with oil from fixing a car. I caught my train of thought and chided myself; I hadn’t even met him yet, how could I be thinking like this about my future employer? Regardless of what my brain thought, my pussy spasmed at the imagined vision of Nate. I could dream a little.