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Stern remembered he had a job, babysitting of all things. He had agreed to do it because he didnít feel like looking for a real job at the time. He was getting food stamps, and the little cash he would receive from watching the two kids four nights a week would keep him in drink money.
Stern was recommended for the job by a friend of his who was seeing the mother. The mother, after her second shift at a factory was over, would go to Sternís buddyís house for some fun and relaxation, not having to worry about getting right home.
The job duties were few and simple (or so they sounded), and Sharon, the mother, was an easygoing, friendly woman in her mid thirties who very much appreciated (and told him so more than once) Sternís "services" at this time (Stern knew he wasnít being paid the going rate). The kids were a girl, eight, and a boy, eleven. They wouldnít be much trouble, Sharon assured him. "Theyíre good kids," Sternís friend, Larry, said. "All you have to do is feed them once and make sure they donít stray too far from the house. You can do all the writing you want to, read, watch TV. I didnít think youíd mind that." Larry grinned at him.
Stern didnít mind that: he spent most of his afternoons and evenings tapping away at his typewriter anyway, and now he could get paid while doing it. Sharon had plenty of books lying around the house, and she had cable TV.
"Donít let them try to take advantage of you," Sharon said, on his first day on the job. "I told them you were the boss."
The girlís name was Debra, and the boy was Timothy. They both greeted him in the quiet, awkward way of kids, getting their first impressions of their latest babysitter. Apparently there had been a few before Stern: teenage girls from around the neighborhood, which was an undistinguished, suburban housing tract full of small, cheaply built dwellings that all looked the same. The kids didnít know what to make of a male babysitter, and Stern wasnít at ease with that image either. It didnít seem like a proper "job" for a man in his twenties; and yet he told himself that it was a sacrifice for his work, something he could look back on and laugh about years later.
The boy, Timothy, was no problem from the start; he came home from school, grabbed a snack, and went right to his room, where he had his own TV and video games, and a phone. If he wanted to go out and visit a friend down the street, he mentioned it to Stern before he left, telling him he would be back soon. Stern, from his seat at the kitchen table, would just smile and say okay, keeping things simple. He had soon concluded that Tim wasnít old enough to present a problem for him.
Debra required some effort, however. Sharon didnít consider her to be old enough to go off in the neighborhood on her own, and so the girl was at the house all the time, and she didnít go off to her room like her brother. She liked to watch cartoons loud on the TV; she was talkative (asking Stern questions about what he was writing), telling him about school and friends; she was bored most of the time, and wanted to play games. Some days one of her girlfriends would visit, and Stern liked that, for he didnít have to be so much of a babysitter. The girls would amuse themselves, while he pecked away at the machine. But on the days that she was by herself, Debra demanded (she was a demanding, spoiled child it turned out) more of Sternís attention.
"How come youíre always typing?" she asked, more than once.
"Itís just something I like to do," he said, keeping it simple.
"But you type all the time," Debra said, in a protesting tone. "You never want to do anything. My other babysitters did things with me."
So to stop the whining, Stern made an effort to participate in whatever the girlís whims dictated for that day, even if it meant just watching her favorite shows with her. Often it meant playing a board game of some sort, or cards, which she just seemed to have discovered. It didnít require much effort on his part, but it took time, and this unsettled Stern. When he insisted that he had to get back to his typing, Debra would get upset and pout. "I wish you werenít my babysitter," sheíd say, and she would go into her room and shut the door. Only to emerge a short time later with a request that he fix her something to eat.
It became like a game between them, with Debra constantly trying to get Stern "to do something", and him, as subtly as possible in the beginning, and then completely frank toward the end, resisting. Stern thought he detected a mean little enjoyment on Debraís part. "You have to," sheíd say, if he balked at something. "Youíre the babysitter. Iím gonna tell my mother I donít like you."
Stern wondered if the girl had done that already. Not that he particularly cared. The job was turning out to be more of a chore than he thought it would. Yet Sharon hadnít let on that sheíd received any complaints. In fact, after three weeks, the mother seemed appreciative that Stern still showed up at the house.
"I know she can be a pain," Sharon said. "Iíve heard it from the others before you." She laughed and shook her head. "Youíre the only one thatís lasted this long."
"The girl needs her butt paddled," Larry said to Stern one night, when they were by themselves. "She hasnít had a father for half her life, and Sharon lets her get away with too much. Iíve told her that."
"Yeah, well, I donít want to have to play daddy too," Stern said.
"No, I donít either," Larry said. "Although Iím sure Sharon would like me to step into that role."
"Sheís getting pretty serious?"
"Lately, yes. Sheís going a little faster than Iíd like to. I mean I like the woman, I really do. We have a good time together. But, I think Iím a little too old for that daddy thing." Larry was in his forties.
Larry had told Stern that Sharonís ex husband had remarried, and though he sent money, he was hardly a presence in the kidsí lives. Sometimes he would take the kids for a weekend, but that happened less and less.
"If itís too much of a hassle, Iíll tell her youíve had it," Larry said.
But Stern stayed on for a couple more weeks (he didnít have any other jobs lined up). Larry must have mentioned something to Sharon, who in turn said something to her daughter, for Debra seemed to be on her best behavior for a couple of days anyway. Then the little tantrums began to occur again, along with the demanding ways and pushiness, which didnít surprise Stern. The spoiled behavior wouldnít change overnight. It might take years for that to change. He could imagine the handful that both kids would be for Sharon in a few years; he had seen other single women age fast under a similar strain.
During his last week as a babysitter, Stern kept a bottle of booze handy in the freezer (if he couldnít write, heíd damn well have a glow on while putting up with the brat). Debra even made a comment that he smelled like beer one night; and she was right, for Stern had sucked down a couple of Sharonís beers, which he had made a point of not doing until then. That night he knew that his brief stint as a babysitter was coming to an end.
One thing the job had given him was a new appreciation for being single and without the burden of kids. He knew that he would keep things that way for some time.
"Iím surprised you lasted this long," Larry said to Stern, the day after Stern had told Sharon that he had found some other work - which he hadnít. Sharon had seen through the excuse anyway. Still, she brought out a couple of beers for them, as the kids were in bed.
"Iíd stay home with them every night if I didnít need this job," she said. "And this is about the only steady thing around here."
"I know itís bad," Stern said. "Iíve been out looking myself." It was a lie, but it sounded good. Better than complaining about the kid, as he knew some of the previous sitters had.
"I got mad at her the other day because she sassed Larry," Sharon said. "I donít want her to keep him away." She smiled sadly at him and shook her head.
Stern looked away and drank his beer, not wanting any sign of what he already knew to show. He knew Larry was already looking elsewhere for companionship. Stern wouldnít have been surprised to find out that his friend was with another woman that very night, for Larry wasnít one to waste time when it came to that. Sharon would find out soon enough, and the only thing going for her would be that it probably wouldnít be the first time.
"Well, you might not have to worry about being unemployed too long," Larry said, the next day. "This woman I met the other night? Sheís divorced and got three kids." He laughed and punched Stern lightly on the arm.
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