birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.


I’m sure no one actually thinks through what it means to send a 12- or 13- or 15-year old girl into someone’s home to stay with the children while parents are away. These are our neighbors, but usually not the across-the-street families whose kids we know. They’re down the block, or even a car ride away. Familiar, but not. Pikes Peak Park is mostly military, so for a time I collect my 50 cents an hour from a Navy couple with a little boy just learning to talk. The wife always looks exhausted, and the husband’s on a ship somewhere till further notice, so I spell her by playing with the boy, mixing up macaroni and cheese while he sits at the small plastic table they’ve put in the dining room on the other side of the counter island. I can see him from the stove. There are only three floor plans—basement house, L-shaped house, split level—on our streets, so every house you go into you’ve been in before. We’ve lived here from the beginning; our street is the first one behind the model homes.

I do the usual “airplane into the mouth” to get the little blond boy to eat, and he’s easy as long as everything’s exciting. “Whoosh!” “Whee!” “Wow!” We do that with eating and toys and anything else I dream up while he’s awake. His mother tells me later that I taught him “Wow!” which he now says when he sees me. If I’d have thought about it, I’d have used bigger words.

They move out. A motorcycle gang comes in for a short while just down the block. We don’t know them, but we hear the bikes, which fill up the scruffy lawn and driveway. They have a toddler in diapers, which I first learn when I see a dirty diaper on the counter with the can of Spaghetti-Os that the mother says is dinner. Our house is messy but nothing like this, more full diapers left around, heaps of unfolded laundry or dirty clothes—I’m not sure which—on the couch, and rubble from anything opened just left as it fell as if they don’t own a trash can. I’m not supposed to pick up, but I clear a space on the couch for me and the little one. She’s dirty. I tell my mom about her when I get home. Sometimes my parents look after strays. I remember a little girl they taught to read, and how the first time she came over they put her in the bathtub and scrubbed till the water was gray, then gave her one of my dresses to wear home. That didn’t happen this time, though. The motorcycle people didn’t stay long.

A nice couple a little farther away has kids I never see awake. It’s the perfect job. Nice clean house with matching chairs and couches and a big bookshelf that covers one wall and nothing out of place. Pale blue walls in the living room. Everyone else I know just has white. It’s so quiet I can do my homework, or just read their books, which I do. Pushed back on a shelf, with covers torn off, is a collection of stories. It’s porn. I’ve never seen stories like this. The sex talk at home was a brochure left on my desk with a little box of tampons. My mom, who learned about sex by having me, didn’t want to go into it. So for a time I’m swept into the world of men who grab women in alleys and do things to them that agitate me, heat me up. I watch the hours pass and put the books back exactly as I found them, and when the husband with liquor on his breath hands me a big tip and says he’ll drive me home, I make sure to scoot way over on my side when we both climb into the front seat. I look down and I hardly say a word.

Snow shovels

At the clinic