“Caretaker Needed,” the 2nd place story in our 2018 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers was selected by Aimee Bender on the basis of its frank and anti-sentimental voice. She said, “I love how this voice will make a statement and then a sentence later modify the statement— the narrator’s voice is so frank and appealing in what she knows and doesn’t know about herself and her motives. The story is funny, and fresh, and then ends up quite affecting at the end with the reveal in her past that is written so well and moves into spaces unexpected several times over. It’s anti-sentimental while also unafraid to go into strong feeling.” We are thrilled to share “Caretaker Needed” with you today.
If you didn’t know already, babies are everywhere. They do not stop being in grocery stores just because you want them to. You see them in their car seats and at cash registers screaming in frightening pitches. They are in the liquor store and they are playing next door and they are bundled in a baby carrier on their mother’s chest while she tries to stop the baby’s older sister from catapulting head first down the slide.
I found Mr. Emory the week I arrived in New Mexico by way of a hardware store flier.
CARETAKER NEEDED. GOOD PAY.
I called the number and drove the winding road to Mr. Emory’s home. His desiccated front yard was littered with cacti, rocks, lawn ornaments. A bent “Don’t Tread on Me” sign was staked into the dirt. Inside he served me cloudy tap water and told me he was dying. Cancer, he said. He said that he didn’t expect the job to last very long. “I won’t last very long,” he said. He said he’d given up on chemotherapy. He went into a long spiel I didn’t try to follow—something about the effects of toxicity of the blood on the afterlife. Without waiting for me to respond he said, “Let’s get down to brass tacks.”
As if remembering he was supposed to, he asked me my qualifications. I told him I was a former yoga teacher. I was familiar with anatomy. “Death doesn’t scare me,” I said.
He looked at me a moment and said, “You’ll do.” He shook my hand and thanked me. He called me “Miss.” I did not bother to correct him. I was married only in the technical sense. Any day now, a packet of notarized papers would arrive care of my husband’s lawyer in New York.
When my parents heard about the divorce—irreconcilable differences, I told them, I used those words—they had wanted me to come to Florida, where they’d retired and now spent their days playing tennis, drinking mojitos, and purchasing starfish-patterned bath towels for their musty beach-adjacent ranch. I didn’t go to Florida. The idea of it made me itchy. Instead, after an Ouija-like sweep of Google Maps, I found Devil’s Fire. It was a nowheresville outside of Santa Fe. I had never been to New Mexico but the idea of geologic formations shaped like tables appealed to me. I pictured ghosts suppering at the red-orange mesas. I was cheered at the idea that these phantoms might outnumber human residents. I found a rental apartment on Craigslist for $250 a month. I found Mr. Emory.