Spring 2012

Table of Contents - Vol. VIII, No. 1


Poetry    Translations     Fiction    Essays    Reviews   

James Hanley


The Babysitters

The four year old boy hid behind the wide chair in the living room, crouched in an undeclared game of hide and seek, waiting for his grandfather to look up from his reading. After a while, the boy gave up.
Walking in the room, her housedress wrinkled from the earlier games she played with the boy sitting on the floor in the back bedroom where the child slept when staying over, Betty asked, “Playing with Grandpa now?”
Gordon looked up. “No, he was playing by himself.”
“Why don’t you come with me,” she said to the boy, “it’s a lovely day to ride your bicycle outside, so we won’t bother your grandfather.”
“He wasn’t bothering me,” Gordon called out as she opened the front door.
“Because you don’t pay attention to him.” Her words were muted by the sound of a garbage truck mulching refuse.
At five o’clock, Betty brought her grandson back into the house to wash him and drive back to her son’s house.
“Do you want to go with me to Ted and Lorraine’s?” she asked.
“No, you won’t be gone long.”
“Say goodbye to Grandpa and give him a hug.” The boy clung to her legs, the hem of her skirt lifted by his tight grip.
“I’ll see you next week,” Gordon said.
“He’ll be back on Saturday, remember. His parents have a wedding to go to.”
“No, I don’t recall. Those kids need to start relying on a babysitter more often.”
“I have to go. Stir the sauce every ten minutes.”
While Betty was gone, Gordon opened a bottle of wine, extracting the cork with a yank. Before he poured, he looked at the label and recalled their vacation at Napa Valley where they’d loaded the trunk with cases and headed happily home with enough wine for a very long time. That was so long ago, he remembered, just before he retired, before his grandchild was born. It was also their last lengthy trip. They’d watch the baby, then boy, four days a week, at times more, occasionally overnight, driving him to pre-school since September.
Later Betty returned and they ate dinner in silence; their day was shared so there was no news, no gossip or upset to talk about. He looked at her and saw the furrow lines that cut into her brow as if by a thin knife, etched by the strain of once teaching in middle school to indifferent children.
“You look tired,” he said.
“I never sleep well, hearing sounds from his room, looking in on him.”
“Is this something,” he paused, “you should be doing at your age?”
She laughed at his suggestion. “I’m six years younger than you, just sixty. I still have stamina.”
“I’d thought you had enough of,” he hesitated again, “raising children.”
“He’s not part of a category; he’s my grandchild.”
“Our,” he corrected.
“Our,” she repeated flatly. “I have cake for dessert.”
“He’s a good boy; I know that.”
“He is,” she said as she sliced a piece from a cream-coated cake.

At night, Betty undressed and headed toward the bathroom when Gordon said, “I’d arranged to play golf on Saturday.”
“That’s fine,” she called out from behind the half-opened door. “He does ask about you when you’re not around.”
“I know. I just feel sometimes like we’re repeating our lives, not doing things I thought we would at this stage, unencumbered.”
After midnight, Gordon awoke with a start; he placed his hand over his racing heart. He felt no pain on his left side and knew it was not a heart attack, but it still frightened him.
Betty lifted her head. “Gas?”
“I think so; I’ll take something. Dinner was spicy.”
“I tried a new recipe, sorry.”
Gordon got out of bed and sat on the chair at the other side of the bedroom. Sweat had formed a circle around his head plastering his unruly hair against his broad dome. Looking down, he saw his hand was shaking. The incidents left him unable to sleep when they happened at night. Each time he’d hoped that his assumption was correct as he waited for the fast heart beat to calm. He went downstairs and took an aspirin, washing it down with water from the sink. He saw the boy’s plastic truck in the corner of the room and picking it up, he spun the wheels, recalling how he’d clicked together the pieces of the unassembled toy and placed stickers cautiously on the sides and rear of the toy vehicle. When he watched his grandchild with Betty he was repeatedly drawn back to his son as a child, perhaps because the boy had similar features. Back then, he thought, he’d never felt worn at the end of a day, never tired by the countless games and chases—a routine that was pleasant despite the demands. But he also remembered the later years when his son, their only child, went to college and suddenly the demands—slowed during his son’s teen years—had ceased, freeing him, he’d admitted reluctantly and only to himself, never to Betty. At first the freedom also allowed them to fill the evenings and weekends with activities and travels long put off. They were more physical with each other without sounds from the nearby bedroom or the squeak of their son’s footsteps on the wooden stairs. When both retired, she seemed relieved, even anticipatory while he struggled with the loss of a profession-centered day. When boredom and the slow consideration of what now bound them became troubling, their son and his wife announced the pregnancy. Betty, he remembered, who had been slowly yielding to lethargy and gaining weight, perked up, and animation he’d not seen for a while reappeared. All the cycles and activities of the pregnancy preoccupied both households, but Gordon felt less caught up. Betty noticed, but his son and wife did not.
Betty called down to him, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he answered.
“You should get something from the doctor to help you sleep,” she said from the top of the stairs.
“I’m on enough medication,” he said loudly; “go back to sleep. I’ll be up shortly.”

At breakfast the following morning, Gordon asked, “What do you want to do today?”
“I need to get pajamas for the boy. He’s outgrown the pairs we have. Do you want to go with me?"
“No,” he said quickly, “I have things to do.”
As he got up to leave, Betty said, “He’s a distraction for me. Children have always been that. When we had problems—"
“For god’s sake, that was twenty five years ago.”
“I’ll go to that new craft store that opened in the next county after I get the pajamas and be back after lunch, so you’ll have to fend for yourself.”

After a promising April, rain dominated the following month. Gordon volunteered on town boards but the meetings were in the evening so his days were largely unoccupied. He was online for long period, reading news and sports scores, clicking on team websites. A pop-up offer for a resort in the next state appeared as he searched. He opened the advertisement, read the promise of panoramic views and cozy rooms and sent away for a brochure. On a day his grandson was staying, he started for the front door to get the mail but stopped. Noticing the boy nodding off on the couch, he called out to Betty, “he’s napping and it’s late; he’ll never get to sleep until midnight.”
“Distract him; I’m on the phone.”
Gordon walked over to the couch and said, “Want to help me get the mail?”
The boy nodded sleepily. They walked down the gravel driveway, the child kicking up loose rocks which skimmed and settled in the bordering shrubs. At the mailbox Gordon lifted his grandson and watched as he opened the box and pulled out the letters and flyers crammed inside.
“Here, grandpa,” he said happily.
“You’re a good boy and a big help.” When he unfolded the mail encased in coupons and food store bargains, he saw the brochure he’d ordered. He leaned down and showed the colorful pictures to his grandson. “I’m going to take grandma to this place.” The boy turned the glossy pages and asked, “Can I come?”
Gordon laughed. “This is for big people. Maybe some day we’ll take you to Disney Land, or Disney World, I forget which.”
As they walked back to the house, Betty came out and waved her arm to signal them to hurry.
“What’s the matter?” Gordon asked.
“Great news, but not in front of...” she pointed with her eyes.
“Could you bring the mail in the house?” he asked the child.
When the boy had closed the door from the garage leading into the house, Betty said exuberantly, “she’s pregnant; our daughter in law is expecting. I’m so excited; I thought our grandson would be an only child like his father.”
“Are they certain,” Gordon asked accenting the last word.
“Yes,” Betty said, twisting her head slightly in a questioning gesture.
Knowing her movements, he said, “It’s a valid question. We shouldn’t leave the boy alone inside.”
Later that afternoon, Gordon offered to drive the boy back home. As he prepared to leave, he sorted through the mail, and removing the vacation flyer from the bottom of the stack, he ripped the glossy paper in pieces. On the trip back, the boy, bound in his elevated car seat, played with a plastic airplane making motor sounds and lifting the toy in pretend flight. Gordon looked at the rear view mirror, which he had bent so he could watch the child and saw his grandson look up, catch his eyes in the mirror and smile broadly, his baby teeth showing between thin lips. Gordon reached in back and gently squeezed the child’s knee. “I love you, little guy,” he said. “Grandpa just gets grumpy at times.” He shook his head as if realizing he was rationalizing to an uncomprehending child. By the time he returned, Betty was setting the table for dinner, humming as she lined the utensils against the plain plates.
“Open up the good bottle of wine,” she said.
At dinner she asked, “You’re so quiet. Aren’t you excited about the news? We’re going to have another grandchild.”
“Are we going to be taking care of two?”
“They can’t afford day care, you know that. Soon the boy will be at school full days and it’ll be mostly one child. We’ve done this before. I know we are older but...”
“We chose and accepted the imposed limitations when we had our children, but now decisions are made that limit our lives and we have no choice.”
“You think they shouldn’t have this child?”
“I think they should consider how to do so without involving us to the degree it does.”
“Did you have those thoughts when our grandson was born?”
“Don’t make me seem selfish. Things are not what I expected for this part of our lives.”

In the following weeks, they returned to their routine with the frequent updates on the pregnancy—which they learned was a girl. Gordon played golf more, often tossing his clubs in the trunk while his grandson rolled golf balls on the driveway. “I could use help with the boy; I can’t get things done trying to occupy him. There are no children in the neighborhood he can play with.” she complained to him after a long weekend with the child.
“I don’t know how to keep him occupied. I’m inept at playing—childish games, that is; out of practice.”
“Children’s games,” Betty said.
“Childish is pejorative, a dismissive word. Unless that’s what you meant.”
“I don’t need correcting.”

The following silence lingered and as the sun set, visible from the living room window, Gordon, put a CD on and listened to the slow cadence of the music. As Betty walked by, he jumped up from the chair and grabbed her arm.
“Let’s dance,” he said and ignoring the quizzical look on her face, put his arm around her waist and took hold of her hand. Swaying familiarly, he squeezed her while turning so that he could see her still attractive face in the wall mirror. As he quickened his movements, he recalled the lessons they’d once taken and the nights they’d practiced, laughing at missteps until they’d grown instinctively to sense each other’s motions, and enjoyed the long, tempting embrace and pressing against each other. When he scuffed the edges of her shoes and was roused from remembrance, he pulled her into a spin and stumbled. Stopping and stepping back from her, he said, “I’m sorry.”
Her eyes filled, “I’m no better,” she said.

While watching television a few weeks later, Gordon felt a sharp pain start in the center his chest; then it abated, but only momentarily, and returned in cyclical intensity. He shook his left hand in response to the numbness that moved down his arm. His breathing was labored as if oxygen were in short supply in the circling room. He stood up quickly and his knees buckled and before falling, he grabbed at the thin wooden tray along side his chair and the legs cracked, spilling the cup of unfinished coffee. He struck the floor and passed out. Betty, changing the sheets on their bed, stopped momentarily then continued to tuck the edges of the flowered mattress cover. When the phone rang, she shouted, “Gordon, could you get that?”
The phone ring stopped and a voice was recorded. Betty called down, “Gordon, where are you? Didn’t you hear me ask you to pick up?”
When she found him, she paled. Running to him, she could see his chest moving in a shallow rhythm. Calling his name repeatedly, she stood and rushed to the phone.

In two weeks, Gordon had recovered sufficiently to return home. Weak and thinner, held up by Betty and their son, he shuffled to the couch. Within minutes, he fell asleep. Waving away her son, Betty sat on the edge of the couch, the only sound coming from the closing door and the uneven breathing of her husband. She held his hand grasping just below the fingertips, lightly but assuredly, as she held the hand of the boy, and looking out at the window watched birds settle on the withered tree in the corner of their yard.


© James Hanley



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