“Jeanette went home and called Social Services, who said there was nothing they could do about it because eccentric behavior was not enough grounds for an evaluation.”
On the day she sawed the couch in half because the room was too small for it, Barbara Jacobitz called her neighbor Jeanette over to help her pick out fabric to reupholster the remaining couch fragment, and then Jeanette went home and called Social Services, who said there was nothing they could do about it because eccentric behavior was not enough grounds for an evaluation.
“But what about the children?” Jeanette pleaded, for Barbara ran an unlicensed daycare in her home, and Jeanette fretted about something going awry with an obviously crazy person in charge of so many young souls. The children in question both loved and feared Barbara, who was a manic-depressive, shopaholic composite of Mary Poppins and Oprah, with a smidgen of Cruella De Vil, and the parents both feared and admired Barbara for keeping their children inexplicably contented and compliant.
“Unless she left the power saw within reach of the children, there’s nothing we can do,” they replied.
“Well, by then it will be too late, obviously.”
Barbara’s husband, Manny, an independent limousine driver with distant, rickety ties to the Hungarian mafia, was currently in prison because he’d lied (only a little bit) on his taxes. The parents didn’t mind so much that he was in prison because it meant there were no men around to molest their children, and in fact, many of Barbara’s attendees were the children of members of the FBI taskforce on child safety, who were paranoid enough about child molesters to prefer the wife of a felon—whose home and computers had been searched by the bureau and verifiably contained no sexually explicit material whatsoever—to an unknown caregiver situation.
The older children, over the age of five and therefore old enough to play red-light/green-light in the finished basement unsupervised, had heard inklings of Barbie’s husband being in jail, but because their parents didn’t seem to mind (it had only been a little bit on his taxes, after all), and because Mr. Jacobitz’s limousine was still parked on the street outside, the children held him in high esteem in absentia; he was their folk hero. In all of the photos of him in the house, he wore a tuxedo, so bowties had become highly coveted dress-up items. When they played cops and robbers, everybody wanted to be Mr. Jacobitz, but because their parents were the cops, nobody ever wanted to play them.
The parents never saw the sawed-up couch in question because it resided in the den (not one of the areas frequented by rugrats), and so things at the daycare remained as before, for a time.
Incidentally, Mr. Jacobitz had had every reason to lie on his taxes, as he’d had to support his wife’s compulsive trinket-buying habit, which contributed to her behavior management system and was a near-impossible habit to break. The house was littered with single-use plastic bags filled with dollar store tchotchkes with no identifiable function other than occupying atoms and form. These she would bestow on the children as rewards for catching them in the act of doing good deeds. Though the system was plagued by accusations of arbitrariness and favoritism among the five-and-up set, the children responded with exaggerated gratitude, for she had been known to fling the plastic bag containing the prize—say, an eraser in the shape of a Koosh ball—at the child’s head in front of the others if he or she did not demonstrate appropriate levels of appreciation.
Aside from these minor dustups, her house was a welcoming place for children because it appealed to their innate desire to tinker. Her snack time routine could not have been more like a laboratory (luh-BORE-uh-tor-ee) if she’d orchestrated it that way intentionally. Under the guise of teaching the children independence, she set out various foods from the pantry still in their containers, and left it up to them to make whatever concoctions they saw fit. Canned sardines, Vienna sausages, saltines, black bread, hard cheeses, pickled gherkins, and because they were American children, always peanut butter. Certainly, this method sometimes led to gruesome fish dissections, and the sausages most often became toothpick tetrahedron sculptures, but by and large the children seemed to enjoy the freedom of it and you’d never know how good a peanut butter cracker with a gherkin face on top tastes until you’ve tried it.
She served the children their juice and milk in glass beakers from the cupboards (plastic ones for those under five). Whether she did this to add an air of mystery to the snack experience and to her persona in general or because she had once had a real use for the beakers, the children were never quite sure. Though there were rumors, no one was entirely aware of how she had made her living back in Budapest before emigrating to the United States; it almost certainly was not child care.
Shortly after the day Mrs. Jacobitz had sawed the couch in half, an older girl of about twelve showed up in the afternoon with the after-school crowd holding a check for fifty thousand dollars and instructions for her to be taken care of both morning and night for the remainder of the school year. The note claimed that she was preternaturally obedient and independent and could generally care for herself as long as meals and a roof were provided; clothing and toiletries would arrive the next day by mail and continuously as needed.
Barbara considered the offer from this unknown person and decided it would require no real extra work on her part—she already cooked breakfast and dinner for the children whose parents worked long hours, and the girl, or Portia, as the note called her, could sleep in the nap room at night in the main house while Barbara retired to the attached in-law unit to the rear without any of her routines disrupted. And because there was a rigid security system in place whereby the doors could be bolted remotely and no one could go in or out without being recorded on surveillance video and alarms going off—the FBI parents would have it no other way—it would be quite safe for the girl to stay on her own in the house at night.
Barbara had never taken in boarders before, but she assumed the girl was some daughter, perhaps illegitimate, of one of her husband’s more successfully nefarious associates, and she didn’t feel she was in a position, financially or otherwise, to refuse.
“Come in, dear child. We have so much to do.”
The other children were in the dark about the arrangement, which was just as well, for then the parents would be too. Portia never spoke of it, or her origins, to either Barbara or the kids, though she dove in immediately as an extra babysitter, volunteering to look after the older children so Barbara could focus on the small ones. Portia taught the girls how to braid their hair, the boys to dab the tips of their little wees with a single square of toilet paper after using the toilet so as not to drip so much on the floor (or on themselves)—the girls had complained—and to wipe their bottoms until the toilet paper came out clean to eliminate the problem of skid marks in their underwear (anyone who has ever been to daycare knows that toileting is an excruciatingly open affair). Her instruction had the added benefit of improving poor 7-year-old Andrew’s body odor to the extent that the kids would finally play near him again after having banished him to the literal corners of the room because he usually smelled like a child still in diapers. And, as the only one of them who had hit puberty and had had Sex Ed in school, she dispelled the rumors that had been circulating for months, ubiquitous among young children, that a man gets a woman pregnant by peeing in her. For a child, it seemed, she knew so many things.
For Barbara, it was beginning to look like an ideal arrangement. Portia would accompany her on her many shopping outings, and she would buy the girl frivolous baubles, hair clips and purses. Once, a bobblehead Pekinese. The girl never asked for things, for indeed, everything she needed had arrived by mail the day after she’d arrived, including a cell phone, which Barbara assumed was so she could keep in touch with her patron.
Despite the girl’s ability to care for herself, Barbara began to spend more and more time in the main house after hours, altering it here and there, little by little as it suited her while Portia read books or watched television on the severed sofa in the den, which now had a sheet thrown over it as it lingered in the queue of things that needed to be dealt with. Barbara had suddenly decided, for instance, that she wanted French doors instead of the ugly sliding glass one, so she took a sledgehammer to the frame and replaced it all in one night, leaving the older glass door out in the side yard propped against the house. She never managed to summon the will to do any of the finishing work, however, so increasingly there were exposed beams, absent baseboards, missing fixtures, such that even as the place was being incrementally renovated, it seemed to be coming apart.
Portia, meanwhile, became the voice of experience to the basement kids, explaining to them what their bodies were going to do when they got to be her age, showing them the copy of Changing Bodies, Changing Lives that all the students received in health class at school. A couple of the girls, six-year-olds, did not believe her when she told them that their bodies already contained a hole for babies to be born from, so she handed them her cell phone, turned on the 180-degree camera function, and told them to head to the bathroom to look (but not over the toilet or the phone could fall in). There was much giggling and bumping of cabinets as the girls attempted to balance, spread their legs, and view the screen, and when they returned to the group, one of them proudly brandished a photo she’d taken of her own private parts, which Portia promptly and wisely deleted.
It wasn’t long, however, before some of the FBI parents became uneasy with Portia’s unusual and perpetual presence at the Jacobitz house. When one of them, Andrew’s father, had to drop his kid off at 4:30 AM to head to a stakeout and found that Portia was already there and opening the door to welcome them, he asked his son about the girl’s family and habits, questions that Andrew was unable to answer. But because he could tell his father was very interested in Portia, and because he wanted to avoid being outright interrogated (which his father did for a living and was quite good at), he offered up as much about her as he could think of. She’d taught them how to wipe themselves better in the bathroom. She’d taught them how parents make babies. She’d let Charlotte and Alice take pictures of their baby holes. She’d showed them naked pictures from a book she’d gotten at school. When Andrew’s father found a downy strand of pubic hair in his son’s underwear at bath time that night, he got an emergency warrant to search the Jacobitz house and question the girl and called all of the parents with what he had learned.
When no one showed up at daycare the next morning, Barbara wondered if she had forgotten another minor American holiday, which she had once done with Columbus Day the first year she’d opened her home to children. When Andrew’s father and several other FBI agents—all wearing their badges conspicuously—arrived on her doorstep and asked to speak with Portia, the girl heard them talking from the kitchen, went to the bathroom, and locked the door. When the agents kicked in the door and searched the bathroom, they found no one there.
Mrs. Jacobitz was as baffled as they were, for the surveillance tapes showed no one entering or leaving the house. As evidence, the agents collected strands of golden hair from the cot Portia had slept in, the girl’s phone, her backpack (filled only with pencils, blank folders, and empty notebooks), and the note provided by Barbara that the girl had brought with her when she’d arrived. No one believed the woman’s story, that she didn’t know where the girl came from or who had sent the money, but they didn’t have enough for an arrest warrant, so they left with the evidence (including the beakers in the kitchen cupboards) and maintained round-the-clock surveillance of the house, inside and out, in order to find the girl, who could not have left undetected.
Barbara was troubled by the agents’ accusations regarding Portia. Had she taken advantage of the children? No, certainly not, for she was just a lovely girl, lonely and lost as the rest of us. The hair must have drifted off one of the shared toilets. Barbara did not know where in the house she had gone, but she suspected that Portia was hiding somewhere in the walls themselves.
She began to go around knocking gently on the drywall, boring holes higgledy-piggledy with a drill if she thought she heard rustling or breathing on the other side, all the while calling to her, telling her it would be all right, that she had nothing to fear and that she loved her, more than anything. Even life itself. At one point, she pulled out a stethoscope from a bag in the closet and shuffled amongst the rooms, listening to the walls as though she were examining the insides of a beast which had swallowed her whole.
She tapped in Morse code on the water pipes, forgetting that a child her age would probably never have learned such a thing. She pulled up loose floorboards, leaving food when she had an intuition, and went so far as to knock down the wall separating the nap room and the den in the search for Portia, which had the added benefit of making the room significantly larger, which had been part of the problem all along, though the now half-sofa was too small for the space and she would have to throw it out altogether.
The agents watched all of this on their surveillance equipment and called Social Services, for the woman was clearly mad.
They had her arrested for child endangerment the following day, as a close inspection of the house had revealed exposed wiring and electrical outlets, crumbling plaster, and improper lead abatement during renovation of a house built prior to 1950. She was placed in the psych ward for mandatory evaluation.
Andrew’s father, Agent Schnide, ran forensic software on the girl’s phone, but it had never made or received any calls. He did recover the picture of the little girl’s private parts, but from the angle it appeared to be a selfie. The pubic hair from his son’s trousers was a match for the hair on Portia’s cot, but he could elicit no other information regarding the girl’s alleged naughty behavior from his son, despite being an expert on both child abuse and interrogation.
Had she touched his private parts? Yes, she’d showed him how to wipe better—hadn’t Mommy noticed how clean his underwear was now?—he was very proud. Had she exposed herself to any of the kids? No. Though he had seen all of the other girls’ private parts from the waist down, as they were always clambering over one another to go to the bathroom at the same time, he could not recall ever having seen Portia’s.
The note that had accompanied Portia’s arrival was written in a child’s handwriting, and the check had come from a business that appeared to be a front for money laundering, though the details of who was behind the faux operation remained elusive. No one had reported a missing child.
The beakers contained traces of lithium, but the consulting toxicologist claimed that the concentration was no more than the amount found in some commercial mineral waters, though no such containers were found in the house. They did, however, find a metallurgy lab in a storm cellar separate from the basement with a secret entry through the pantry. From the dust accumulation, it did not seem as though anyone had entered the room in quite some time.
They never did find a body. Even the cadaver dogs had seemed confused, sniffing the air in the house insouciantly, as though nothing whatsoever was the matter. Occasionally, one of them barked, seemingly at random, at shadows or a spider.
The agents obtained a warrant to knock down the interior walls of the home, but behind the walls were only more walls, and under the floors were more layers of flooring. And then one day, the house went up in flames. A chemical fire, it was ruled.
After the fire, the agents returned to sift through the rubble. The chimney was the only part still standing of course, and when they saw the pillar singled out against the blank sky beside the denuded skeleton of a scraggly black spruce, they collectively realized that no one had ever bothered to search the chimney.
“I told them it would be too late,” clucked Jeanette, the neighbor, from the sidewalk. “It’s a miracle no one got hurt.”
The limousine was still parked at the curb and though sullied with ash and slouched over sagging tires, it seemed ready as ever to go somewhere, anywhere, but perhaps slower than before.
The former attendees of Mrs. Jacobitz’s daycare were now enrolled in a homeschool co-op where, according to the charter, only the mothers of pupils were allowed to teach; the agents had not wanted to be in the position of not trusting one another to watch the others’ kids.
Barbara didn’t seem to mind the psych ward, never able or willing to be ruled competent for trial. She was not given access to the power tools in the craft center, so she primarily worked with beads. She made necklaces for Portia, the daughter she’d never had, and hid them throughout the building—in the pipes, the hollow bedposts. On days when the sun was shining at 2:30 in the afternoon, she enjoyed sitting and watching the band of light creep up the wall till it pierced the container of clear plastic beads on the shelf and scattered infinitesimal fractured rainbows all over the room.
“It will drive you quite mad,” she’d told her therapist one day when Barbara had brought her out so they could watch it together.
Sometimes, as gifts for some of the other patients, she made models of the molecules of various psychiatric medications out of toothpicks and gumdrops. It was supposed to be a joke, but nobody ever got it. No one ever understood what they were supposed to be.
Photo by Timothy Neesam