My parents left for a vacation the second summer after we moved to upstate New York, the year I turned 8 years old, my older brother Robin was 10 and my younger brother Monty was 4. Ordinarily we would have been cared for by our longtime nanny Cathy, a 450 pound Jamaican woman who had been with us for years and who had become like a second mother to us. But my father had recently fired her, thinking that if she was gone my mother would emerge from her depression, stop watching soap operas all day and cut down on her daytime drinking. He also couldn’t afford to keep Cathy employed any longer.
Instead, they hired the 15 year old son of their close New York City friends to look after us while they were gone. Jamie was having a hard time at home, his parents explained, and they thought it would do him some good to get out of the city for at least part of the summer. My brothers and I were excited by the idea, having idolized Jamie from afar. He was the good looking, tall and exotic older brother of our summer friends, somebody who had barely acknowledged our existence before. And now he was going to spend two weeks with us - more like a summer camp counselor than babysitter. I remember thinking that I was going to be able to stay up as late as I wanted.
The moment he walked through our door, his infectious smile and deference towards my parents put them at ease. He shook each of their hands formally, assured them that he would take good care of us, and immediately started playing with Monty. In retrospect, there was something unsettling about how polite he was, and something slippery in the smile, as if it was designed to obscure rather than reveal. But at 8 years old, I didn’t know that there could be different layers to people, and that it was possible to pull one back to discover something completely different underneath. It occurred to me later that he looked like Robert Chambers, the preppie killer.
The first night that my parents were gone and Monty had been put to bed, Jamie spent the entire night playing a board game with Robin and me. It was a virtual golf game in which you rolled dice to determine how far and how accurate your golf shots were – rules that only Jamie understood. He suggested that I choose Jack Nicklaus as my player, because he was the best. Every roll that I took elicited an enthusiastic “great shot!” from Jamie as I won hole after hole of the tournament, eventually securing the overall victory. I couldn’t believe how good I was, and how excited Jamie was for me. I had assumed that he would ignore me after my parents left and only speak with Robin. But he seemed to like me, at least as much as he liked Robin - something I wasn’t used to with older kids.
The timeline of what happened next has been difficult to pin down. Since my family never spoke about it afterwards, the amount of time that Jamie was actually with us varies in people’s minds from a long weekend to three weeks. I believe he was with us for at least two weeks but my father insists that he and my mother would never have left a 15 year old alone with us for that long. My brothers don’t remember anything about that time, except for the fact that some bad things happened. So I serve as our family’s only flawed memory source, at least for this chapter of our story.
Jamie gave Monty a bath every night. Like all 4 year olds, Monty hated bath time and usually complained throughout the whole ordeal, but the first time I saw him being bathed by Jamie Monty was unusually quiet and looked frightened. Jamie was sitting on the bathroom floor, repeating something to Monty over and over again as he scrubbed his arm, something I didn’t fully hear until I got closer. “You need to get squeaky clean when you take a bath Monty, and you aren’t squeaky clean until you SQUEAK.” Jamie saw me approaching and called me over. “Watch this Kirk,” he said as he rubbed Monty’s arm with his thumb, “hear how it squeaks? Now THAT’S clean.” Monty looked at me helplessly and with a sadness that I had never seen from him before. “I can’t believe you’re squeaking Monty!” I said excitedly, hoping that I could make him smile. Monty relaxed a little bit with me there and eventually laughed uncertainly, looking at me for reassurance. I stayed with him until he got out of the bathtub, a knot forming in my stomach.
For the length of Jamie’s stay, there developed a divide between Robin and me and Monty and Jamie. My older brother and I spent as much time as we could away from the house, leaving Monty to Jamie’s unpredictable moods. We both knew what was happening, and as I look back on it now I don’t know if we just felt powerless to do anything about it or didn’t know enough about what was normal to realize that there was something that needed to be done. The very few people who I’ve shared this story with remind me that I was 8 years old, and just a child myself. I know I was, I say. I know I was. But when the tears come late at night, and I’m grasping my head to squeeze out the memory, I’m aware that I’m also the older brother who allowed Monty to be taken by the big bad wolf. And no matter how much I try to forgive myself, and try to forget what happened, there is one memory that I cannot make go away.
It was late afternoon. I was sitting in our living room watching a repeat episode of All in the Family. It was one of my parents’ favorite shows, even though I never understood why anybody thought the main character was funny. But since there was nothing else on and channel surfing didn’t exist back then, I slumped down in my chair and kept watching.
Upstairs I heard Jamie summon Monty from his bedroom – he asked if he had cleaned up his toys before dinner time.
Edith is crying hysterically, sitting on her chair, “Edith, c’mon c’mon will you stop slobbering there!” Archie says.
“Yes, they’re all picked up,” Monty says. His voice is higher than usual. “Are you sure?” Jamie asks.
“It ain’t your fault,” Archie says, “it’s the world, Edith.” He’s tapping her hand gently.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“I mean that the world just ain’t ready for you.”
“Yes, I promise,” Monty says, his voice pleading.
“You aren’t lying to me, are you? You know how I feel about lying.” Jamie says
“I don’t understand,” Edith says.
“I just mean that you ain’t never hurt nobody, never told a lie to nobody, and I know damn sure you ain’t never stolen anything before,”Archie replies.
Monty’s voice starts to crack. I can hear him more clearly as he backs away from Jamie towards the top of the stairwell. “I’m not lying, I promise,” he cries.
“So, if I go into your room I won’t find any toys on the floor?” Jamie asks. His voice is low and gentle.
“No…” Monty says, his voice trembling.
“Do you really thinks so?” Edith asks.
“Well certainly!” Archie says, “the only thing somebody can pin on you, which as far as I know ain’t no crime, is being a dingbat.”
“All you need to do is to tell me the truth, Monty,” Jamie warns. “That’s all.”
“I am!” Monty pleads
There’s a pause as Jamie walks into Monty’s bedroom. I can hear Monty moaning in fear at the top of the stairs. I hear Jamie’s footsteps return.
“Oh thank you Archie!”
“You lied to me,” he says calmly.
“Nooo!” Monty yells, I can hear him backing up further. “Please, no I didn’t lie,” he screams, his voice is rising in terror. I can hear Jamie walk towards him. “I didn’t mean it” Monty whines, “please don’t!”
Edith kisses Archie’s face and forehead as he shoos her away. “You want to thank me Edith, get me some of that coffee over there…”
I believe there exist individual moments that define us, sometimes for the rest of our lives, sometimes until those moments are replaced by others. As Jamie descended on my 4 year old brother, and I heard the first crack of his hand which exploded like a lightning strike on his backside, followed by my brother’s blood curdling scream, I wonder now how my choice to turn down the volume on the television set so that Jamie didn’t know I was there defined me. As the blows descended, was my character being chiseled in stone with each piercing scream? Or was this just the moment in time that I was being revealed for who I really was – a person who stays still and waits for bad things to be over, thinking I’m glad it’s not me.
Later that night Jamie called Robin and me into Monty’s bedroom. Monty was asleep in his bed, lying on his stomach. Jamie pulled back the covers and lowered Monty’s pajama bottoms so we could see his backside. It was completely covered in splotchy black and blue bruises. Jamie giggled saying “have you ever seen anything like this?” Robin said “oh my god,” and smiled uncertainly, “that is wild.” I looked at both of them and followed along, shaking my head in disbelief - “wow,” was all I said.
The next day Jamie found me in the stables, grabbed my arm and pulled me under a table in the tackle room. He punched my shoulder repeatedly, saying “you’re not going to tell anyone about Monty, are you?”
“No,” I said.
“ARE you?” he repeated.
“No, I promise,” I replied.
When my parents returned home, Monty ran to my mother and jumped into her arms. They wrestled on the couch as my mother showered kisses upon him, rocking him back and forth. Almost instantly she noticed the bruising at the bottom of his back. “What’s this?” she said, confused as she pulled the pajama bottoms down. Monty recoiled a little. I held my breath. “Bobby!” she screamed, “come here!” She started checking out the rest of Monty’s body in terror. “BOBBY COME HERE NOW! WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO YOU?”
Jamie was ordered out of the house, apologizing profusely as he went and taking full responsibility for what happened. My parents called his parents but never told anyone else, nor did we ever talk about it as a family after that. A few nights later I was with my mother in her dressing room as she was getting ready to go out, and I told her how Jamie had made me promise not to tell anyone what happened. My mother didn’t react, except to recoil slightly at the mention of his name. “It’s over now,” she said simply.
My parents’ marriage disintegrated within the next six months, and for the years following whenever I made passing mention of Jamie’s stay with us, my mother became hysterical and could no longer speak to me. When asked why he never pursued any further action against Jamie for what he did to Monty, my father explains that it was something that people never spoke about back then. My brothers and I didn’t discuss it until a few years ago, at which point I realized that they didn’t recall what happened. Monty wanted to know why we didn’t protect him and neither one of us could give him an answer.
Jamie went on to a successful career in business, eventually becoming a top executive at one of the most successful companies in the world, in charge of North American operations. He seems on track to one day become the Chief Executive. We’ve seen him off and on over the years, and he once tried to apologize for what happened that summer, explaining that he was young and didn’t know what he was doing, but that he’s different now. My brothers were cordial to him, but I was unable to look at him and refused to acknowledge his apology.
He is now married with children, and I sometimes still see them at summer functions. I watch his children carefully, looking for any signs that one or more of them might be going through something similar to what Monty endured. His wife looks unhappy every time I see her, as if she is shouldering the weight of the world – but then again I could just be reading too much into things. Jamie always looks at ease, still flashing a big, bright smile.