“Babysitting,” New chapter from novel “Pushing the River”


Sierra was in her usual spot on the couch in the sun room, except facing the other direction, her back to Madeline as she came in and leaned against the door frame.  Also as usual, Sierra was dressed head to toe in clothes that belonged to her big sister – right down to the borrowed socks — with the exception of the fleece Madeline had lent to her, and which Sierra wore day and night, inside and out.  She was on the phone, though it was difficult to tell at first, as she was saying absolutely nothing.  It was only the slight crook of her head which implied that her ubiquitous cell phone was buried somewhere under her hair, tucked against her ear – that, and the fact that she didn’t turn around when Madeline came partway into the room, didn’t jump at the barest possibility of a warm, live body to talk with.  She spent an astonishing amount of time “talking” on the phone, saying absolutely nothing.  Hours, sometimes.  Hours in which she would walk all around the house, open and close the fridge, go in and out of the bathroom, play with the dog, the silence broken by an occasional giggle, or a comment of notable brevity, such as “What?”  “No way,”  “Are you shitting me?” – four words was pretty much the max.

Madeline caught a glimpse of the impossibly neon blue gum in the corner of Sierra’s mouth, which promptly fell onto her boob when she eventually turned her head towards Madeline, rolling her eyes as if being on the phone was really an enormous ordeal.  She reached down without thought to grab the blue wad, pop it back into her mouth, and chew the heck out of it to soften it back up.  This happened a lot, too.

Jesus, Madeline thought.  Fifteen.  She really is fifteen.

What the hell was I doing when I was her age?  Madeline’s mind leapt to a photo of herself and her father that a visiting camera-crazy aunt had snapped when she was fifteen.  It was very early in the morning, and her father was about to give her a rare ride to school.  She had an armful of books, and though she looked sleepy, a supremely chipper smile.  Ha, she thought, every single time she ran across that picture.  It seemed that between her aunt and her mother, about a million copies had been made of that picture, because everyone thought both she and her father looked so good.  More to the point, it was probably the one and only photograph that included both of them, as it was most likely the one and only time she had stood that close to her father for a period that extended a number of years in both directions of that particular morning.  Plus, her other dirty little secret was: she wasn’t just sleepy; she had been stoned out of her mind the night before.

OK, but besides that smoking pot thing, Madeline pondered, what the hell else was I doing?

Well, babysitting.  She did a lot of babysitting in those days, largely to support her music habits of album-amassing and concert-going.  A flipbook of the various families she regularly babysat for ran through her mind.  The Roys.  The Kelloggs. Families she could no longer remember names of either them or their children, but whose homes – their furniture, wall art, record collections, the various Things they had positioned in places of honor because of status, or nostalgia, or duty – these remained locked in her memory as if it were yesterday.

When she thought of these families as a whole, they all seemed impossibly earnest, clean-cut, each and every one of the men a future Scout Leader, and the women, they would be battling one another for PTA president, a freshly baked batch of cookies/brownies/banana bread forever on the spotless kitchen counter.  And religious.  Each and every one of these families was devoutly religious.  Weird, she thought.  How in the world did that happen?

Once the kiddies were asleep in their beds, she would peruse the snack options, put on some tunes, and settle in for an evening of making some money to sit there and do homework.  She always expected that the parents would return home with flushed cheeks, giggling and leaning against one another in a blush of fun at having a Night! Out! and perhaps one too many cocktails.  But this never happened.  Never! The mommies and daddies would arrive home looking every bit as polished and coifed as when they had left, and even more surprising, seeming genuinely eager to talk with her.  How was school going?  Was she still studying piano?  What was she reading in her spare time?  Their interest amazed her in a way that made her feel inexplicably sad — all wide eyes and toothy smiles.

There was that one couple, though.  What the heck were their names?  Rick?  Was that it?

Kathy?  They had that one baby boy who was generally asleep by the time she arrived.  Even when he was still awake, the kid did absolutely nothing.  Just kind of hung out.  Then went to sleep.

One look at Kathy and Rick and you couldn’t help but picture them as that glorious high school couple – the Captain of the football team and the head cheerleader – You knew that Rick would have been captain based not on any real degree of skill, or even leadership ability, but because he oozed an easygoing, blond smoothness and a manner that gently projected, “Damn!  It is really good to be me!”   Kathy could be defined by a word Madeline hardly ever thought of, let alone used in a positive way: cute.  She had porcelain skin with a dusting of freckles across her nose, and red hair that grazed her shoulders in a perennially perfect flip.  Sometimes she wore her black-framed, cat’s-eye glasses, other times not.  She had married The Catch, and was devoting herself to the role of wife, mother, homemaker.  She would keep herself trim, keep a spotless, if modest home, try out new recipes from Ladies Home Journal on a regular basis, make a boxed cake mix every week, and always wear an apron so she’d look her best when she sat down for dinner with Rick.

She was also the only one who would arrive home from her date night with her husband with her hair out of place here and there, her smile a little goofy, fumbling with the money, all of which Madeline found immensely adorable.

Rick would always be the one to drive her the distance of fifteen or twenty houses from their home to her own, which struck her as quaint but ridiculous in what she viewed as the world’s safest and most preternaturally bland suburb in existence.  She disliked Rick for reasons she couldn’t put her finger on at first.  His perpetual too-deep tan, his mirrored aviator shades, his profound and unflappable belief that every guy he met would yearn to be his best friend and every woman would sigh internally in his presence, unable to shake the image of his blond hair brushing against their faces, his sun-kissed hands gripping their hips.

Madeline had grown used to the parents’ fascination with her; but Rick possessed a clear, confident expectation that she would, of course, be fascinated with him.  He fiddled with the radio dial and changed the station to something he thought she would love.  She glanced over at him.  He had turned his body part way to face her and let his knees fall open.  He might have looked friendly and relaxed and nothing more, but she knew better.

You fucking piece of shit, she thought to herself.

He was waiting.  Expecting that Madeline would be overcome with desire and would make a move.  And if she did not, he was contemplating making the first move himself.

You fucking piece of shit.  Madeline thought of Kathy at home, drowsily checking on the baby, removing her clothes, crawling under the covers in a boozy glow that told her that life was truly good.  Rick’s hair was just beginning to thin, his overly-tanned skin withering with the advancing years.  Shit, the guy didn’t have a clue how desperate he was, how much of a joke.  But he would break his wife’s heart nonetheless.  He was one step away from trying to fuck everything in sight, while Kathy continued to hum in the kitchen and bake him cakes.

Thinking about this, about all of this, filled her with an intense rage, a full forty years later.

She looked again at Sierra, right as Sierra’s gum dropped out her mouth yet again.

Shit, thought Madeline.  Every single day of my life has been a cake walk, a total fucking cake walk, compared to this kid.


all photos from Flickr

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