Jonah’s Babysitter

By JOEY DEAN HALE

I’d met Jimmy Reynolds when we were in fifth grade and his parents were the new owners of one of the two grocery stores in Maysville, my hometown of 900 or so, on the banks of the Little Wabash River in southern Illinois. I even went to his house once after school. His dad supervised while we shot off Jimmy’s model rockets, then later his mom cooked hamburgers and homemade fries for us and his younger brothers Jason and Jonah. The Reynolds kids spent that summer with their grandparents back up in Michigan but then with just a few weeks to go before the 1978-79 school year started Jimmy called and asked if I could come over again.


I was always up for new adventures and Mom didn’t mind taking a break from her household chores to give me a ride into Maysville. When we pulled up out front at Jimmy’s there at the edge of town she said, “Here,” and handed me a couple dollars from her purse. “In case you need it.”

Since Jimmy’s dad was roughnecking on an oilrig 30 miles southeast of Maysville and his mom was uptown running the grocery store, they had hired a babysitter for little Jonah: a teenage hippie girl with long brown hair and sandals and peace sign and happy face patches on her faded bell-bottoms and a white peasant shirt embroidered with little purple flowers. I remember all that but I can’t remember her name.

I wore my comfortably faded overalls while the other boys wore jeans. As usual, Jimmy’s jeans were way too tight and too short—“high-waters” the kids at school called them—though his little brother Jason’s pants were too big, the cuffs rolled up and a thick belt cinched around his waist. Jason also had a friend over named Phillip. His clothes fit him fine but his two front teeth resembled Chiclets hanging over his bottom lip and when I walked up Jimmy said, “You know Beaver, I mean Phillip, don’t ya?”

They all laughed, even Phillip. I didn’t really know the kid but I had seen him at school.

In no time we were all up in the Reynolds boys’ tree-house while the babysitter stayed inside watching little Jonah. Of course, the tree-house was too crowded with all four of us up there and we couldn’t shoot off any rockets without Jimmy’s dad there to supervise, so finally Jimmy, Jason, Phillip, and I walked up the street to the liquor store for a Coke, since even though the Reynolds ran a grocery store they didn’t keep any soda at their house.

The liquor store reeked of cigarette smoke and stale beer, and Barb, the owner, sat at a table in the back corner playing cards with four men in greasy caps and work-clothes with their first name on patches above their right shirt pockets and “Kinney Oil Co.” embroidered over their left. We selected our sodas from the cooler along the wall then stood quietly at the counter beside the Slim Jims and cigars until finally Barb threw her cards on the table and said, “Mack, you cheatin bastard.”

“Hell, you dealt me that hand,” the one they called Mack said. He spit tobacco juice in an empty beer can with the top cut out.

“Ya best go wait on your customers, Barb,” one of the others said.

“You can all kiss my ass,” she said and the men roared laughing.

Barb stood and coughed and waddled over to the cash register. She had three hair rollers pinned on top of her head and a coffee stain on her shirt. When she spoke her cigarette bounced in her lips. “35 cents apiece, boys.”

Jimmy said, “The Cokes in the machine up at the grocery store is only a quarter.”

“Well, feel free to hike your little ass up there and get ya one,” Barb said, and the men at the card table all chuckled again.

Jimmy paid for his and his brother’s drinks and I bought mine and Phillip’s, since he didn’t have any money, and we stepped back outside.

I thought we might venture on, up to the gas station or the park or even the pool hall, but Jimmy said, “Mom said not to be runnin all over town.”

It was such a great sunny day—one of the last free ones we would have before school started up again—so I was a little disappointed we wouldn’t be strolling down Main Street and otherwise exploring Maysville. Instead we walked back east, sipping those ice cold Cokes. But we went on past the Reynolds’s home, on down the road going out of town. Then we cut south through the cemetery. Many of the old headstones stood mossy and unreadable and toppling over under the oak and maple trees, most of the newer graves decorated with plastic flowers and little American flags.

We climbed the woven-wire fence in back of the graveyard and hiked down through the woods to the riverbank, sweating even in the shade of the trees. It had not rained for weeks and the river water stood brownish green and stagnant, the surface slick with oily rainbows. We followed the Little Wabash upstream for a ways, then cut back through the woods to Jimmy’s street again but instead of going back west to his house we crossed the road and climbed another fence and cut through another patch of trees and briars until we found ourselves in a small junkyard. Twenty-five or thirty cars and pickups sat rusting among the weeds, some up on blocks, others missing doors or windows or hoods.

An old trailer house with no underpinning stood up by the road but there seemed to be no one around and those vehicles appeared to be abandoned. Just left there at our mercy. So we climbed in and out of those cars, pretending to race and crash, going through all the glove compartments, though we didn’t find much of anything besides mouse turds and dried up ink-pens and books of matches that wouldn’t strike.

While I was sitting behind the wheel of an old red Chevy Jimmy grabbed a brick from a pile of rubble and pitched it into the windshield and the glass spider-webbed before my eyes. Then Jason and Phillip joined in the brick throwing and I climbed out of that car just as the windshield caved, for the most part still one large fractured slab, though in the front seat and all along the dash tiny chunks and fragments gleamed like jewels in the sunlight. Then Jimmy busted the passenger side window with a short length of pipe while Jason and Phillip moved on to break out the windows and mirrors of other cars and trucks.

It looked like a lot of fun but just as I picked up a brick a little man with a long gray beard burst out of the back of that trailer house and was upon us in no time. His clothes and cap were slick with oil and with one large dirty claw he snatched Jimmy by the arm and said, “I know who you are, ya little shit, don’t think I don’t. Now what the hell ya thinkin, bustin up these vehicles?”

“They’re just old junkers,” Jimmy said, trying to pull away.

“Well, I sell parts off them old junkers, boy. Why ya think I got em sittin out here?” The man looked as though he might cry and I felt a little sorry for him until he said, “Now I’m gonna go in and call the Sheriff, and then I’m gonna call your folks. You boys is gonna pay for them winders and whatever else ya tore up.”

I didn’t know if he meant he was calling all our parents or just Jimmy’s. I hadn’t given him my name but it was a small town and, although I didn’t know him, I always assumed everyone already knew me because they usually did.

By the time we hiked back to Jimmy’s his mom was already there, still wearing her white apron from the store, brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, her body that of a skeleton, her thin face red and sweaty as she lectured the babysitter on how to do her job. Of course, when we stepped in the door she directed her wrath on Jimmy. “What the hell was ya thinkin?”

“They was just old cars,” Jimmy tried to explain. “Out in a field.”

She slapped his face and his eyes watered as he stared down at the worn carpet. “You know what your dad’s gonna say? Then, when I tell him I had to close down the store and come home because of this…” Suddenly she turned and in one fluid motion unbuckled and removed the belt that held up Jason’s baggy pants. She then proceeded to whip Jimmy with the leather strap. They twisted in violent circles about the living room, knocking over the babysitter’s glass of ice-tea on the coffee table and breaking a tall lamp on a stand. It went on forever it seemed. The screaming and flailing. Jason bawling and holding up his oversized hand-me-down pants. Phillip and little Jonah were both crying. Even the babysitter cried, holding her hand over her mouth.

I slid out to the backyard and stood there pointlessly staring up at the tree-house until the babysitter came outside with Phillip. She opened her car door and said, “Hop in. I’m taking you guys home.”

The babysitter was from north of town and didn’t know where either of us lived and Phillip wasn’t sure how to get to his own house but after he said he lived down by the old Pure Oil camp we just drove down that blacktop until he said, “This is it.”

Then she turned to me. “So now where do you live?”

I noticed she was still crying a little and I asked her why.

“I kinda needed that job,” she said.

“You got fired?”

“She wouldn’t even pay me for the time I was there today.”

“Well that sucks,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “It does suck.” She lit a cigarette and I asked her if I could have one. “Are you serious?”

“I smoke with my cousins all the time.”

She lit another Camel off the one she was smoking and handed me the cigarette that had been in her mouth and I thought that was very cool. She turned up the radio and said, “Pick out a tape if you want to.”

She’d kicked off her sandals and was driving barefoot and I thought she looked great with her long hair and hippie shirt and now those big sunglasses.

I chose Steppenwolf Rest in Peace from her 8-track tape case, then purposely misled her past the road to my house and back over by the river as we listened to her stereo and smoked cigarettes. It felt like we were somehow partners in crime – or at least we’d been falsely accused together – and now we had this connection. At least, I wanted there to be a connection. And I wished I was older.

A chain made of beer can pull tabs dangled from her rearview mirror, alongside a glass prism ball which swayed and reflected the bright sunlight back against the windshield, so occasionally we were blinded in a swirling overexposure of light and otherworldliness until she turned the corner and the trees again blocked the sun.

I said, “Have you seen that Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry movie?”

“Yeah,” she said, blowing smoke out the window. “It was okay.”

“Yeah, I saw it at the drive-in with my cousins.”

“Well,” she said. “I really hated the ending.”

“Just when ya think they’re gonna get away – BAM – the train hits em.”

“But I wanted em to get away,” she said. “Didn’t you?”

“Yeah. I really thought they was going to.”

Finally after a few more miles she said, “Man, you really live out in the boonies. How much farther is it?”

“Turn left up here.”

A few minutes later we pulled into my driveway. “Well, take care, now,” she said. “Here, give me a hug.”

I liked the way she smelled, like a smoky perfume, as her soft hair brushed against my cheek and I tried to think of something cool to say but only came up with, “Thanks for the ride.” Then she drove off as I shuffled up the sidewalk.

Inside Mom stood at the kitchen sink slicing tomatoes from our garden. “Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah, it was alright,” I said. I wanted to tell her about Jimmy’s mother beating him with a belt but I couldn’t think of a way to do it without going into the whole story and I figured the less she knew the better.

“Who was that who brought you home?”

“The girl that was babysittin Jimmy’s little brother Jonah.”

“Oh, I just wondered,” she said. “I figured their mom was busy running the store.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Well, go ahead and get cleaned up. When your dad gets home from work we’ll eat supper.”

I washed my hands in the bathroom sink, looking at myself in the mirror and thinking about my ride home with the babysitter and the way she smelled when she hugged me. Nobody ever called our house, not the Sheriff or Mrs. Reynolds or the guy who owned the junkyard, so I never heard any more about the broken car windows. Jimmy didn’t even mention the incident when I saw him a few weeks later at school. In fact, he really wasn’t that friendly. And before long Jimmy’s dad found a new job in a different state and the Reynolds family sold the grocery store back to some locals and moved away to that better place everybody was always talking about.

 

*          *          *

Joey Dean Hale, a St. Louis-based writer and musician, has published sto­ries in sev­eral mag­a­zines, includ­ing Fried Chicken & Cof­fee, Road­side Fic­tion, and Octave Mag­a­zine.

Photo by author

Jonah’s Babysitter

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