Parents' Night at Madame Ursula's Twos and Threes

Welcome! This piece of paper is all you'll need to complete your self-guided tour of our facility tonight. We've known your toddlers for four weeks now, and all of us at Madame Ursula's are in love! With weekends!

Seriously, we're glad you're here to at last become acquainted with the place where your little ones spend up to ten hours a day. (Ten-and-a-half if you're Jean Williams, whose ever-tardy mother, Evelyn, always arrives with smeared lipstick and her bra in her pocket. Let us guess, Evelyn, you were shopping, right?)

Before you begin your tour, and before we answer a few of the questions you've left for us over the past month on our answering machine and in registered letters, let us restate what should have been, and we believe was, made clear to you in your registration packets: We are a child-focused day care. By this we expected you to understand that your questions and your concerns would be addressed only when we felt we had attended to all your children's needs, which are a lifetime's labor at least.

While we dutifully acknowledge the creativity of your efforts to penetrate "Fortress Ursula," as some of you have dubbed us, in order to ask us questions or have a premature look at our facility, we were especially admiring of Peter Wagner's impersonation of a candy-gram bearing clown. Although we recognized his deceit from the beginning, we were happy to join in the masquerade by pretending Mr. Wagner was an enemy combatant from one of our country's recent wars and thereby detain him for a six-and-a-half hour mock interrogation in which Hugo, whom the children have affectionately nicknamed Huge-o, repeatedly asked him, "So you think you're funny, clown?" Mr. Wagner's subsequent threats to "go to the police" we found less than amusing. This is why his poor son, Joey, who is guilty only of having a father whose fifty-sixth answer to the question, "So you think you're funny, clown?" was "Please let me go home," is no longer under our care or anyone's care, as all other facilities in town, as you know too well, are full.

One of your major concerns, as reflected in your questions, is our drop-off and pick-up policy. For an overwhelming number of you, the idea of pulling off at mile marker eighty-five on Interstate 96 and sending your two- or three-year old (or both your two- and your three-year old, thank you Ted and Martha Johnson, you relentless love bunnies), down a dirt path into the middle of what we agree appears to be a forest out of the Brothers Grimm is, as more than one of you wrote, "a nightmare." Likewise, retrieving your children at the same mile marker on the half hour or hour you have been assigned, and fearing your toddlers might be so careless as to venture into the middle of a national highway, is, as more than one of you wrote, also "a nightmare."

Were we at Ursula's in charge of your daily care, we would work on helping you find more original metaphorical language to describe your concerns. Although it's true that we have only a single, machine-gun carrying guard at the entrance to the path, as both a GI Joe-themed welcoming committee of one to the children and an incentive for parents to abide by our rules and forsake any effort to follow their toddlers to our facility, your children, as a whole, have shown a remarkable ability to refrain from dashing into the highway as well as a keen navigational sense in finding their way down the one-and one-quarter mile path to our door. (Peter and Suzie Johnson, if you're here tonight, please be assured that we are still looking for little Jimmy. Three weeks is not a long time for a three-year old to be on his own. The forest is full of nut-bearing trees, and at least seventy-five percent of the animals within it are benign.)

Another frequent complaint concerns the lunches we serve at Ursula's. Again, I refer you to your registration packet and the prominent use of the adjective "fresh" in our description of food served in our facility. "Fresh," in our opinion, cannot be said to characterize store-bought food of any kind, whether it's grapes flown in from Chile or apples grown in our own state. In our discerning opinion, "fresh" can only refer to fruits, vegetables or meat that, less than an hour prior to consumption, could be said to be, for a lack of a better word, "alive."

Yes, you will no doubt note the lack of vegetable gardens and fruits trees on our property, and this is a situation that, in time, we hope to remedy. But in the meantime, our delightful charges--your delightful children--have made abundant use of the wild berries, mushrooms and grasses found within a square mile of our facility. And allow me to assuage your concerns: We do have a fail-proof test to determine if any of what is foraged in the forest is poisonous. Every day, one of the children is elected to be the "royal taste tester." Whoever is elected inevitably performs his or her duties with the regal grace and fearlessness that the position requires. We are delighted to report that, to date, only two taste testers have required hospitalization. (We continue to root for the speedy recoveries of Jerome Jacobs and Missy Wells.)

Our lunchtime specialty, of course, is meats, which our charges also assume responsibility for procuring. Fortunately, the forest in which our facility resides is a near Eden in terms of its wildlife. The young hunters in our ranks--and this includes everyone under our care except Sarah Smith, who remains stubbornly vegetarian--have felled deer, raccoon, rabbit, groundhog, possum, squirrel, owl, wild dog and wild cat, the last two of which, despite some misinformation you might have been fed by your over-imaginative offspring, bore no conclusive signs of having had owners. (We follow the state's legal guidelines on such matters, which we've boiled down to a catchy rule of thumb: If owners don't tag 'em, we bag 'em.)

Some of you have expressed reservations about entrusting two- and three-year olds with weapons ranging from Swiss Army knives to AK-47 assault rifles to nail bombs. First, allow us to defend our decision to permit our charges to use nail bombs. Remember: with the two-year olds, at least, we're dealing with novice hunters, and to expect them to down a jackrabbit or even a lumbering raccoon after only a few days on the shooting range is unrealistic. But by arming them with a nail bomb, which has the potential to obliterate every living creature within a certain large but limited radius by spraying nails around like a sprinkler, we enable them to enjoy immediate success in their hunting endeavors. Some of you might argue that this is like asking them to read David Copperfield without having taught them the alphabet, but we're talking about weapons, not books, so hold your analogies until kindergarten.

About this evening's tour: Please note that some of the rooms are locked. We ask you to refrain from any vigorous (or even non-vigorous) attempts to enter these rooms. While we are delighted to introduce you to our facility, we expect that the three rooms that are open to your inspection, one of which is a closet, another of which is the girls' bathroom, will give you sufficient insight into what we do here at Ursula's Twos and Threes.

On your departure from Ursula's via the back door, should you hear a faint, persistent moaning sound coming from high in one of the sycamore trees, please do not be alarmed. This is Bobby Kilbert, our now former assistant director, who had the audacity to write an "anonymous" letter to the editor of the Post Leader in which he referred to Ursula's as the "childcare equivalent of a gulag." To insinuate that anyone at Ursula's is or ever has been a member of the Communist Party, much less affiliated with its cruel albeit sometimes effective penal system, is, as we're sure you'll agree, a crime for which our halls of justice have no ready punishment. Moreover, the children have become used to having Mr. Kilbert strung up in a tree. In what has become a ritualistic greeting, many of them send affectionate bullets from their AK-47s buzzing past his ears before they go on their morning hunt.

You will conduct your tour tonight under the gaze of Hugo and his fourteen brothers and sisters. (You will not be able to distinguish their genders, so don't even try.) Please refrain from asking them anything, as none of them speak English or any of the world's 100 most popular languages.

Upon completion of the tour, you will have twenty minutes to return to your vehicles. After this, the lights on the path will be extinguished and Hugo and his family will don night-vision goggles. What they do next is strictly up to them.

Now, relax and enjoy!

About the author:

Mark Brazaitis is the author of three books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and An American Affair: Stories, winner of the 2004 George Garrett Fiction Prize. He is an associate professor of English and directs the creative writing program at West Virginia University.