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January 10, 2011 / Maleesha Kovnesky

Babysitting in Hell

Allison made a comment about romance novels after the Rat Race post.  Reading the words r o m a n c e  n o v e l s immediately triggered a seizure, and I woke up the next day in a pool of my own saliva and a concerned cat sitting on my chest.

In order to recover from my personal romance novel trauma, I have decided that I need to come write about it.  This will be very therapeutic. Enjoy.

***

I was twelve years old, and like most twelve-year olds, I was broke.  For that reason, I was ecstatic when the lady down the street came knocking on our door to ask my mother if I could babysit.  My mom called me downstairs to meet the woman.  I recognized her as the Lady from the Red House down the street.

“Would you like to babysit tonight?” my mother asked.

I nodded, probably not concealing my excitement very well.

“It’s just two kids,” the woman said (I don’t remember her name).  “They’ll probably just go right to sleep, so you’ll have the run of the place.  Come over at six.”

I was going to get two dollars an hour to babysit the kids all night in the Red House.  Oh, the excitement!

I walked by the Red House nearly every day.  It was six or seven houses down the block, across the street from the funeral home.  It was a two-story huge home with a big, dark, beautiful yard.  Majestic trees filled the yard and made countless nooks and crannies and shadows that would make the perfect hiding places.  The expansive front porch was wooden, held up by large painted beams.  Old rockers and benches lined the porch.  Our own cement porch with the plastic lawn chair paled in comparison to this sucker.  I couldn’t wait to see the inside of the house.  For a young, aspiring writer, this house was the stuff dreams are made of.

Six o’clock couldn’t come fast enough.  I quick-stepped down the sidewalk until I arrived at the gate of the Red House, at 5:55 PM.  I climbed the steps, noticing just how incredible the house was up close.  Once I passed through the gate, I had to climb more steps, then finally I was on the fantastic porch.  I rang the doorbell –they had a doorbell! – and waited.

The woman from before answered the door.  She was dressed up in something fancy and red.  She wore silver jewelry.  I briefly wondered what adults did with their time off when they recruited babysitters, and I assumed it was very glamorous and grown up.  I didn’t think about it very long, because I was too busy looking around the entryway.

The first room was the living room.  The furniture was plush and looked cozy.  The way the home was arranged was so different from the one I lived in.  There were giant bookshelves lined with tomes and antiques.  The television set in the corner was so large.  It appeared that they had cable from the program that was on.  I wondered if I would be able to sneak some HBO time.  Sneaking HBO time in the 80’s was the holy grail for pre-teens.

I waited excitedly for the tour of the house.  I wondered if they had any good snacks.  After all, a well-known perk of babysitting is access to good snacks.  The woman did not seem to be in any hurry to show me the rest of the house.  Just then, a second person came down the stairs.  She was dressed in a nice black shirt and acid-washed jeans.  Her hair was reminiscent of electrocution.  She smelled like some kind of berries.  “Oh, you must be the sitter,” she said.

“That’s my sister,” the woman said.  “It’s her kids you will be watching.”

“Okay,” I said.  I didn’t care whose kids they were anyway, I was just there to make sure no accidents happened and that I kept them safe while the adults were out playing.

“You ready?” the berry-scented sister asked.

“Yep,” the woman said.  “Let’s go.”  She put her hand on my shoulder.  “Come with us, the kids are already at my sister’s place.”  They guided me out the front door.

“I thought I was babysitting here,” I said.  “I told my mom I would be babysitting here.  I can’t go somewhere else.”

“Oh don’t worry,” the sister said.  “It’s right across the street.”

Panic set in.  Across the street?  The gray cement-block house next to the funeral home?  I didn’t realize anyone actually lived there.

***

We walked across the street.  The house was shaped like a box.  It was made of cement blocks, and was the same color as the sidewalk.  For the years I had lived in the neighborhood, I had never seen anyone enter or exit this house.

The women showed me the bedroom where there were three (not two) small children.  The baby was awake, sitting in a crib wearing only a diaper, sucking on a pacifier.  The two toddlers were laying on a mattress on the floor covered with a dirty blanket.  The room was so small that the mattress butted against the crib wheels.  The children stared at me.

“Don’t let them come out of this room,” the sister told me.  “They’re going right to bed.”  It was six o’clock in mid-June.  The sun wouldn’t even set completely until after ten.

She closed the door to the bedroom.  The kids didn’t protest or make a noise.  I felt sick to my stomach.

“If you need a flashlight, there is one in the kitchen,” the woman told me.

“Flashlight?”

“Yeah, sorry, the electricity’s been out for a while.  We’ll be back later tonight.”  I watched out the torn screen door as the two ladies walked back across the street, climbed into their car, and drove away.  I stared at the red house.  It’s two upstairs windows stared back, mocking me, its door a twisted smile.

***

Not long after the women left me in the cement block house, I noticed the sound in the walls that wouldn’t go away.  The sound was a constant whooooooosh with a clunk clunk clunk thrown in every couple of minutes.  The clunk clunk clunk rattled the walls and when it stopped, a fading sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss sound echoed throughout the house.  The whooooooosh continued.  I tracked the sound down to the kitchen.

 

This story took place long before water conservation was "in"

The sink faucet was gushing water into an old resin sink.  I tried to shut the faucet off to get rid of the sound, but it was stuck on, apparently permanently.

The refrigerator was an older one, the kind that came from the 1960s.  Without thinking, I looked inside.  Thankfully it was too dark to see what was growing in there, but the smell of death and rot and sickness hit me in the face like a warm cloud.  I gagged.  The smell filled the house for the rest of the evening.

Don't even think about opening a refrigerator like this

It was dirty.  The whole house was messy, sure.  But it was more dirty.  A layer of slime covered every smooth surface.  A layer of dust clung to every soft surface.

I peeked in on the children.  They were still awake with wide eyes, but none of them said anything.  The sun was still high in the sky, but there were few windows in the cinder block house.  The already dim light in the house was changing quickly to shadow.

“Are you guys okay?” I asked.  The children continued to stare at me.  The younger girl wiggled in closer to her brother and hugged him tight.

“It’s okay, you guys,” I said.  “I’m right out here, and I will be here if you need me.”

The looks on their faces made me want to cry.

I closed the door on the children – who were as dirty as their surroundings – and started to feel a little bit of panic well up in my gut.

The inside of the house was getting darker.  I went back into the kitchen for the flashlight.  It was a large, barrel-shaped flashlight with a handle.  I flipped the switch.  Nothing.  The batteries were dead.  Had I sworn back then, this is where a barrage of F-bombs would have started dropping.  But I was twelve, so instead, my eyes welled up with tears and fear.  I was going to have to go home and get a flashlight, because the house was so small and full of junk, and it was dark, and there were three kids too small to fend for themselves in there.  I went back to the bedroom door.  I wiped my eyes and put on a brave face, and checked back in on the kids.

“Hi again,” I said.  Their eyes shone in the dim light.  “Hey, will you guys stay right here, and promise me that you won’t come out for a little bit?”

The oldest boy nodded.  “Good.  I have to run down the street for a minute, but I will be right back, okay?”

The children remained silent.

“I promise you, I will be right back,” I said.  “Do you believe me?”  After a long pause, the two kids nodded.  The baby was curled in the crib, possibly asleep.  The baby was next to a blanket that hadn’t been there before.  One of the toddlers must have put it there.

“Ok then,” I said with a smile.  “I will be right back.  Don’t be afraid.”  I believe I was talking more to myself than them.

***

I sprinted down the block.  The air outside smelled extraordinary after being cooped up in that sick house.  I got back to my house in a flash and banged on the door.  My mom answered.  “What are you doing?” she said.  “Where are the kids?”

“I need a flashlight,” I said.  “Do we have a flashlight?”

My mom wrinkled her eyebrows.  “Yeah, we have a flashlight.  I’ll have to find it though.  Why do you…”

“I gotta get back to the kids,” I said.  “Can you bring the flashlight over when you find it?”

“Yes,” my mom said.  “What’s wrong?”

“Everything!” I yelled it over my shoulder and sprinted back down the street.  I ran in the door.  The putrid stink of rotting meat hit me again, and the whoooosh of the broken sink seemed louder than it had been.  I ran over to the bedroom and peeked in.  The room was completely dark now.  I squeezed my eyes shut to adjust to the lack of light.  “I’m back,” I said.  “I’m not going anywhere, ok?  I’ll be right out here if you need me.”  I covered up the baby, and gave the two older kids a friendly pat on the head.  Hell, I didn’t know what to do.

I waited and waited and waited by the back door for my mom to bring the flashlight. Apparently time moves slower when you are in a stinky house with no electricity and ghostly wall-knockings.  Finally I saw her. She was walking up the steps to the red house, so I called across the street…”I’m over here!”  She jogged over, and I let her into the house.  I don’t remember exactly what my mom said, but it was probably along the lines of “Oh.  My.  God.”

We peeked in on the kids.  By now, they were asleep, and God in retrospect I hoped they were dreaming about college.

“We could carry them over to our house,” my mom suggested.  We were both nervous about removing someone else’s sleeping children and bringing them home with us without permission.  This was before cell phones, so we couldn’t call the mother and ask.  In fact, I wasn’t even sure where they were going that night.  They didn’t leave any notes or numbers to call.

My mom had to get back to the house to watch my little brother.  I didn’t want her to go, but what could I do?  I told her that I would be okay on my own with the flashlight.

“Okay,” she said.  “You grab those kids and come over if you decide you can’t stay.”

“I will,” I promised.

She shook her head in disgust.  “You have to watch these kids tonight.  But I’m never letting you babysit for these people again.”

I didn’t argue with that.

***

I’ll never know if it was mice, or bugs, or my imagination, but in addition the stink and the whoosh and the clunk, I kept hearing skittering noises.  I tiptoed into the living room.  The beam of my flashlight was heavy with dust motes.  The furniture was cramped and covered in half an inch – half an inch – of dust.  I guess at that point it’s dirt, not really dust.  There were books…more books than I have ever seen in one place other than the Butte Public Library…but instead of being Dewey Decimaled and lined neatly on shelves, they were in piles.  They were in piles, they were in stacks, they were in piles on and under stacks, they were stacked in piles.  Each pile and each stack was covered in the same layer of dirt that everything else in the room was.

 

This was the closest image I could find to represent the living room...though you'd have to imagine a lack of light

I had a flashlight.  At least there was reading material.  Things were starting to look up, if only a teeny-tiny bit.

I opted to sit in the green(?) chair in the corner of the room, away from the window, where I could keep my eye on the door.  It was truly a terrifying house at night, not to mention it was two feet from the funeral home which housed dead bodies, and my twelve-year-old self fully expected something to walk through the door frame and rip me out of the green(?) chair…a ghost, an axe-wielding man, whatever.  I would sit in the corner and be prepared to….throw some dusty books at it?

I held my breath and sat in the chair, covering my face with my t-shirt.  I could feel a dust cloud rise around me and settle into my skin and hair.  I could hear my heart pounding.

The chair was surrounded by some of these book piles.  I reached over and grabbed a few of the books.  I shook off the dirt.  Romance novels.

I was twelve and most certainly not yet interested in the activities being portrayed on the covers.  Surely there was something else to read.  I got out of the chair, dust clouds be damned.  I started sifting through the piles of books.  Every single one was a romance novel.  Ick.

 

so many books...only dustier

Yet I had no choice, there was nothing to do, I could either read or wait for a zombie to suck my brains out, so I opened one of the books.  Double ick.  I wafted through some of the pages.  There were some interesting phrase patterns I picked up on.

Lots of pages had words like throbbing or aching.  No one seemed to be in pain though.  Strange.

People in romance novels are generally very happy.  The ecstasy and sweet delivery that the characters felt was evident on at least every other page.

I kept scanning past the word member.  It was everywhere, member, in these romance novels.  It took me several books to figure out that the characters were not trying to get into a country club.

 

Why the fuck does this guy have no pants on?

Lots of things in these books were taut or erect.  Those words seemed to be in all of the books I scanned.  Weird.

The men in these books were all very manly indeed, from what I could tell.  None of them seemed to wear shirts.

 

Pure literary gold

The women in these books were very breathless and usually glistening.  Unlike the men, the women wore shirts…blouses really, but it wasn’t long before their bosoms were spilling out of their clothes.  Wherever these stories were set, it must have been really hot and humid.

I studied these books for the better part of the evening.   It dawned on me what all of these books were talking about: throbbing erect members spilling onto glistening bosoms.

 

 

You can't see her bosoms on the cover, but don't worry, they are described inside

 

Maybe there are some twelve year olds who would be into that sort of thing in today’s America, but this twelve-year-old in the late eighties quickly shut the books and put them back into their stacks.  I heaved dust into my hands from the floor and scattered it back onto the piles, in hopes that daylight would not reveal I had been snooping at such…such…well, I didn’t even know what to call it.  I just know I felt guilty and a little bit funny.  I was definitely not feeling ecstasy.

I woke up some time during the night with flashlights shining in my face.  I opened my eyes, I was curled in the chair, dust clinging to my sweat.  The ladies were back.  “We’re here,” they said.  “You can go home now.”

I grabbed my own flashlight (it hadn’t been turned off throughout the night, mind you) and sleepily followed the ladies out the door.  They were staying in the Red House, after all, it was time for me to go.

“Do you mind if we pay you tomorrow?” the younger sister asked.  “I don’t have any cash left after tonight.”

Not one to argue with an adult, I said “Sure, that would be okay.”  They patted me on the shoulder, said thank you, and I walked home in the dark.  I took deep breaths of the clean night air all the way home.  I had survived a night in a scary house of plague next to a funeral parlor, so walking home in the dark was a piece of cake.

I never got paid.  I never saw them again.

***

It is a visceral hatred I have for romance novels.

To this day, whenever I get near a romance novel in a book store, or at someone’s home, or even see one in a magazine, I see those children’s quiet faces in the dim light, and I hear whooshing and clunking, and I recall the scent of decay.  It’s nothing personal against the genre, or fans of the genre.  It’s a simple reflex of anger toward those two women…I don’t mind that they never paid me, but I do mind that anyone that owned a Red House would let three babies sleep in a cinder block one for no good reason.



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8 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Mary in Marrakesh / Jan 16 2011 4:42 pm

    Wow, this is the most horrible babysitting experience I’ve ever heard of. It actually sounds like good preparation for boot camp….

  2. fawnahareo / Jan 11 2011 11:27 pm

    Oh, those children! 😦

  3. David / Jan 11 2011 7:18 pm

    What a great post Maleesha! Really nicely told and so evocative. ♥

    Between the lines of narrative your 12-year old wisdom and equanimity peek through. Maybe the sisters, over cups of hangover-relieving coffee drunkenly discussed their plans to open a used book store next to the funeral home. Guess they’d need Fabio to come by and hammer together some bookcases first. Wonder who’s kids they really were?

  4. Pammy Girl / Jan 11 2011 8:45 am

    I think I saw those ladies on an episode of ‘Hoarders’. EWWWW. I can’t believe you had children after that.

  5. scotott / Jan 10 2011 9:17 pm

    First mistake…a young babysitter should never go to work for hording incestuous lesbians who hurl their personal pleasuring devices behind concrete walls. Seems to me that they might have been a pretty close opposite to Peter Graves’ character in “Airplane”, only not as endearing. Young as you were, there’s no way for you to have known.

    Fabio…”taut” “erect” and pants free on the cover displayed. It’s almost like I’m sitting in one of those special cinemas with Paul Reubens. Wait a second…yep, I just threw up.

    “The Blind and Buttonless Horseman”. I’ll admit that I first thought the title read “Bottomless”, and that’s funny to me, for no good reason. I’d feel sorry for this stallion on a stallion, if he’d met the roommate I had about 20 years ago. My roomie was told by a nice Korean lady that he had “such soft hands, like a lady angel.” How would our romantic stallion overlord know whether the reach around he was getting was from the nice lady with the umbrella, or my ever smiling roomie? Sure, the steed master would like it well enough, but would he be “OK” with it? I guess we’ll never know.

    Now that your story has made me think of many icky things, I believe that I shall “shake it off” by taking a sub-zero walk to get all those throbbing member references chased out of my head.

  6. Oregon Sunshine / Jan 10 2011 12:46 pm

    I cannot begin to imagine the horror. I just can’t process it.

    I read romance from time to time, but I use it as a brain break or filler. However, I fully understand your repulsion of it.

    It’s probably the kind of phobia that I would have to pay a therapist to remove.

  7. Allison / Jan 9 2011 8:39 pm

    Though my childhood home had plenty of romance novels, the similarities ended there. This story took me back to my social work days, and reminded me why I had to get out. Dirty houses. Dirty blankets. Dirty everything.

    I wrote a research paper on romance novels for my ‘Psychology of Women’ class in college, which actually required me to read one of those books. Most.painful.assignment.ever. Would rather have read The Fountainhead again that to have read a Harlequin disposable.

    I am impressed you had to write a paper on it. Would so love to read that. I could never have been a social worker. I can still see their faces to this day.

  8. Mike Goad / Jan 9 2011 4:00 pm

    Though there were only a small number of books — mostly romance — I’m familiar with the smell, the noises, the disgust… except I wasn’t just visiting for an evening. I lived there.

    I haven’t been in my mom’s home since 1995. Every time we visit, we meet at a local restaurant or our camper, if we’ve got it with us. Last time, we actually made it to her front porch, but she made up excuses to keep us from going in.

    I can’t say I blame you for using the camper! I guess I understand that lots of people seem to live like someone on “Hoarders” but I got the feeling they didn’t want me in their nice red house, so they put me and the babies in their “spare” place across the street so we wouldn’t break anything. Today it would definitely be a place where CPS would step in. However, they demolished the building many years ago (surely it was condemned) and there is a parking lot there now for overflow parking at the funeral parlor.

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