by Tina Silver
In 1982, Markham, Ontario, was a populous but irrelevant Toronto satellite, straddling the line between rural and suburban. At my high school, every student was white, depressed to some degree, and trying to act older. If you were sixteen—and I was—you were more often asked, “Where do you work?” than, “Are you going out with anybody?” Part-time jobs were an assumed part of life, even a status symbol. You worked fast food if you were desperate, Dominion or Miracle Mart if you were luckier, and Eaton’s or W. H. Smith if you hit the jackpot. I didn’t. The early ’80s recession was short but deep. At McDonald’s, I’d filled out three of the job applications they used as tray liners, but they didn’t call and neither did anyplace else. My spending money came from the last available source—babysitting. That summer it kept me occupied several nights a week, but my days were lonely and boring.
The last Saturday of July I walked to the Johnsons’ to babysit. I was totally psyched that Rita was coming over once the Johnsons left. Two days earlier, I ran into her at a place she rarely frequented—the library. I was checking out Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? because the girl on the cover, sitting forlorn as she rested her arms on her bent knees, looked the way I felt.
“Oh-my-god-hi,” we both squealed. I quickly added, “How come you’re here?”
“My mom sprained her ankle. She wants books.”
“Oh. Sorry. I hope—”
“I can’t hang out much or I would’ve called you,” she continued. “I’m getting so many hours.” She was referring to her job at a poorly air-conditioned ice cream parlor on Highway 7. All the staff wore T-shirts that said Lick it, you’ll like it.
“But I have this Saturday night off,” she continued. “You wanna do something?”
My heart leapt, then sank, then leapt again as an idea occurred to me.
“I have to babysit but come over, at six-thirty.” I scrawled the Johnsons’ address on a slip of paper scrounged from the bottom of my purse. I’d never asked any of my families’ permission to have guests, and the Johnsons’ six-year-old, Jenny, might tell her parents, but it was worth the chance. Rita and I stood there in the library, grinning manically at each other. We didn’t hug; our world was too homophobic for even such innocent gestures. But she seemed as thrilled as I felt to reconnect.
I’d been sitting for the Johnsons for several months before Nicolas was born last December. I thought I’d get a raise once there were two kids, one an infant, but I didn’t. My other families paid me $1.25 an hour; if not officially, then with the thank-you “bonus” they handed me at the end of the night. Emboldened with excitement at Rita’s secret visit, I decided to finally ask Mrs. Johnson for an increase.
At 6 pm, Mr. Johnson greeted me at the front door with his usual “Hey-ho-howdy, Jannette,” nodding in the direction of the living room. Nicolas was in his plastic walker, squeezing a Nerf ball and sucking on a pacifier. As I was about to hug him hello, Mrs. Johnson came downstairs in a red sundress and white sandals. The Johnsons belonged to a supper club, and I’d never seen her wear the same outfit twice. She bent over Nicolas and tickled him; he reacted with a chain of giggles, his pacifier dropping onto the tray of the walker.
“Jenny’s already sleeping,” she told me. “She’s got the sniffles. Or maybe a summer cold. Check on her periodically, okay?”
Though I adored Jenny, I was thrilled she wouldn’t see Rita.
“Sure. So… I just thought I’d tell you that my other families are paying me $1.25 an hour now.”
“Chunky wunky monkey,” she cooed to the baby, then replied without looking at me.
“We’ve always paid our sitters a dollar an hour.”
“Considering minimum wage, $1.25 isn’t much,” I quipped, referring to the $2.65 paid to minors. But babysitting was an exception.
“Kiss attack… kiss, kiss, kiss.” She smooched Nicolas noisily as he squealed. “Mommy loves those pudgy wudgy cheeks.” She stood upright and sighed. “It’s just… by the time we get through paying for everything else…” Then she left the living room.
I lifted Nicolas out of his walker for a cuddle. He wore a blue checkered shirt and diapers. I loved the marshmallow-squishiness of his arms, legs, and belly with their deep horizontal folds. I found him equally adorable from the neck up: cornflower blue eyes, a nearly round face, and almost no hair. He usually wasn’t a screamer unless he needed to be changed. He wasn’t crawling yet, but he could sit up by himself and he loved when I rolled his ball to him.
Ten minutes later, the Johnsons were out the door. They always fed the baby before I got there, so I put him back in his walker, stuck his pacifier in his mouth, and went upstairs to check on Jenny. She was deep asleep, her fingers curved around the satin edge of her flannel blanket. Awake, she was delicate and giggly, obsessed with all things pink and fairy princess. Usually, when I babysat her, I told her stories using her Barbies as puppets. Tonight, I had my fingers crossed that she’d sleep through Rita’s visit.
Rita had been my best friend since Grade 6. Our high school was big and intimidating, so in Grade 9, I convinced her to take advanced levels in history and English with me. But she struggled, lacking discipline and interest. In Grade 10, she dropped all her courses to general level. We no longer had the same lunch period. Daily, I ate my cafeteria fries and gravy alone, or sometimes with this girl Candace from my geography class. We had little in common and she had an embarrassing quirk: she ate baby food from glass Gerber jars with tiny spoons. We never spoke outside of school.
Occasionally, I’d see Rita in the halls between classes. We’d talk frantically to catch up, granting me a whole minute of friendship and belonging, but then I was left crushed, like the cigarette butts on the tarmac of the quad.
Socially, Rita fared much better than me. She made friends with Morgan, a girl everyone knew or knew about. Morgan was in my Grade 10 art class, apparently taking it for the second time. The teacher was a melancholic hippie, letting us talk as we drew haphazardly with charcoal or oil pastels. Morgan regularly bragged about her partying and ability to handle copious amounts of booze since age twelve. She always knew who was having a party that weekend and where to get the best grass. But this came at a cost. One rumor was that after four years in high school, she hadn’t completed her Grade 10 credits. She obviously stayed in school for the social interaction, even though her age peers mostly lost interest in her as they moved to higher grades. But many kids in her general and basic level classes, fully two years younger, thought her academic disinterest and talk-back to teachers was cool. For her eighteenth birthday in February, there was a huge, drug-filled bonfire party in her aunt’s backyard. I wasn’t invited and I babysat sullenly that night, knowing Rita was there.
Through Jenny’s bedroom window, I saw Rita’s four-door Toyota Tercel—her sixteenth birthday gift from last October—pull into the driveway. I hurried downstairs, glanced in on Nicolas in the living room—he was contently sucking on his pacifier and still squeezing the Nerf ball—then ran to open the front door.
Morgan was with Rita. That was a gut punch. I wanted time with Rita alone, but apparently, she didn’t feel the same need. Still, I took solace from the big grin she gave me. Morgan nodded at me, hoisting a large bottle of Baileys Irish Cream. Unsurprisingly, she’d apparently outgrown beer.
When I led them into the living room, Morgan plunked down on the couch like she lived there. She was physically imposing, being at least five foot ten and large-boned. Unlike most girls at school who cut and permed their hair, her almost-blonde mane hung down her back, chemical-free. Neither she nor Rita acknowledged Nicolas, but he was wide-eyed at the visitors invading his house.
“Got cups?” Morgan boomed, twisting the top off the Baileys.
“Shhh. There’s a kid sleeping upstairs. I’ll get some.”
In the kitchen cupboard, it was a choice between Mrs. Johnson’s crystal and plastic Snow-White cups. We’d use the cups, however stupid; the crystal was too risky. The Johnsons never had much in the way of snacks. I couldn’t offer Rita and Morgan canned soup, baby formula, or animal crackers. When I sat for the D’Amicos, they invited me to help myself to the contents of their kitchen, a teen-dream buffet of chips, candy, and ice cream bars.
Morgan poured us each a shot of liquor, downed hers, and replenished it immediately. Rita took a sip but then set her cup down on the coffee table. I knew her driver’s license and car meant everything to her.
I wasn’t a drinker; on the occasion I was at a party, I sipped one beer all night. “Tastes like malted battery acid,” Dad once warned me, and I agreed. But I drank the Baileys and broke out in a spontaneous grin. Morgan quickly refilled me; more than a shot, I’m sure, since it was hard to measure in cups sized for milk or juice.
Nicolas’s pacifier fell out of his mouth. He started babbling, and Morgan suddenly looked at him with interest.
“Hey little fucker; wanna get drunk?”
She got off the couch. Leaning over the baby, Morgan lifted his chin with her thumb as her index finger lowered his jaw. She pushed the top of the Baileys bottle in his mouth and tipped it vertically, making Nicolas sputter and wince as the liquid ran out the sides of his mouth. The booze also spilled onto his shirt and the tray of the walker. Rita and Morgan chortled like a sitcom laugh track.
I wanted to tell Morgan off, but they might leave.
“That’s why you live with your aunt,” Rita told her, giggling.
“So what? It’s cool. I get to live my own life.”
“Huh?” I asked, looking around frantically for a box of tissues but not seeing one.
“My Mom said I was too rough with my half-brothers. When they were little fuckers like this.”
I raced to the kitchen and returned with a wet dishtowel. Nicolas’s shirt was soaked, and he lifted his tiny arms in compliance as I stripped it off. I figured it was warm enough just for diapers, so I didn’t bother searching his bedroom dresser for a replacement. I cleaned the baby’s face and the walker tray, then took the dishtowel and T-shirt to the laundry room. I ran both under the faucet of the large metal sink to eliminate the alcohol smell before I tossed them in the laundry basket. I’d tell the Johnsons he spit up. I returned to the kitchen to grab Nicolas’s bottle of formula and brought it to him. Hopefully, it would get the taste of alcohol out of his mouth. He grasped the bottle with both hands, something he’d recently learned to do.
“Take it easy, Jannette,” Rita said, noticing my agitation. “Have your drink.”
Embarrassed to seem uptight, I drank my second “shot” of Baileys.
Morgan and Rita talked for a while about parties and people whose names I knew but didn’t know. Rita had a robust social life; there was no way she missed me as much as I missed her. I had a bit more to drink. Morgan had considerably more.
Suddenly, Morgan said, “This is boring. Let’s go to McDonald’s.”
“What about Jannette?” Rita asked her.
To me, Rita said, “I am kinda hungry. Maybe we can hang out again another time.”
The sadness I felt was palpable. Then she added, “I mean, I guess you could bring the kids. But don’t let them mess up the car.”
My thoughts swished around like Jenny’s hands when she finger-painted on construction paper. The Johnsons… angry? Jenny… delighted to eat a Happy Meal or cranky from being sick? Nicolas…
“Let’s go now,” Morgan instructed Rita.
“It’s up to you,” Rita told me as she stood, taking keys from her purse.
“It’s just… I…”
“Just leave them,” Morgan said. “What’ya think is gonna happen to them in Markham? Fucking nothing, like always.”
My drink-muddled thoughts struggled to decide. I absolutely didn’t want Rita leaving without me. Jenny slept soundly upstairs and was likely out for the night. Nicolas couldn’t do much, but if he cried, he’d wake his sister. I would bring Nicolas, let Jenny sleep, and savor a little more time with Rita.
Lacking a key, I left the Johnsons front door unlocked. Car seats were not mandatory or even much used, and I held Nicolas on my lap in the passenger seat. Holding the Baileys, Morgan sat behind me. The car wasn’t air-conditioned, and she rolled her window down until the top of the glass disappeared into the bottom of the frame. The air was heavy with southern Ontario humidity.
McDonald’s was about a fifteen-minute drive. Rita rewound her recent cassette purchase, Frank Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, three times. She only wanted to hear “Valley Girl.” I didn’t much like the song; Moon Zappa sang of teenage wealth and privilege that was foreign to me. Nicolas fussed a bit and I tried to give him his bottle, but he wouldn’t take it.
“Fuck it,” Morgan said the moment we pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot. “Let’s get pancakes.”
Rita thought for a moment. “They do go better with Baileys,” she said, effectively confirming our change of destination. “I love buttermilk pancakes, with pats of butter melting on top like in commercials.”
“There’s no pancake place around here,” I said, perplexed.
“Downtown,” Morgan directed. That meant Toronto.
“I can take you back,” Rita told me. That stung. Just like that, she chose Morgan’s whim over our friendship.
“I mean… how long will it take?”
Rita shrugged. “Pancakes take longer than fast food. And then there’s the drive there and back.”
Nicolas continued to squirm, not liking being confined to my lap. I lifted him into the backseat, where he’d have room to flail around, setting him down on his back on the seat beside Morgan. Happily, he immediately began to kick his legs and babble.
“It’s fine,” I told Rita. “Let’s go.”
It was clear from Rita’s white-knuckle driving that this was her first time on a three-lane highway. I looked back at Nicolas continuously, making sure he wasn’t going to roll off the seat. But he was getting blasted with dust and exhaust fumes through Morgan’s open window. After a moment, his shoulders rose, his fists clenched, and he let out three sneezes.
“What’s the name of the restaurant,” Rita called back to Morgan.
“Pancake Griddle… Pancake umm… Pancake House… or something.”
“What exit do I get off at?”
“I dunno. It’s on King Street… or Queen Street…”
“Shit,” Rita said quietly.
For the next while, Rita drove with increased tension and Morgan drank. I kept my window open only halfway so as not to force more wind on the baby. But the breeze was strong enough that I felt it lessening the effects of the alcohol. Anxiety grew in its place. We’d been gone about forty-five minutes and we weren’t even at the restaurant, wherever it might be. I pictured Jenny waking, feverish, realizing she was alone, and getting hysterical. Did she know how to dial a real telephone and not just that Fisher Price toy? What if she left the house, barefoot, wearing only her nightgown? Might a burglar target the house even though it wasn’t dark yet? The Johnsons had been vague about their return time. What if they got home before us?
Nicolas sneezed a couple more times, probably from highway dust or maybe he was coming down with the same thing his sister had. Next, he started to whimper, and I panicked. That usually meant he was getting ready for a full-scale bawl.
“Little fucker better not start screaming,” Morgan warned.
I suddenly realized I didn’t have his pacifier. Maybe it was still in the house, or maybe it fell on the driveway as we were getting into the car. His fussing increased, despite me leaning over the backseat and rubbing his tummy. Suddenly, the unmistakable odor hit us. Even with the blasting air from the windows, the smell filled the car in seconds. I hadn’t had the clarity of mind to bring a change of diapers.
“Gag me with a spoon,” Rita cried, channeling Moon Zappa. “That diaper better hold out. If he wrecks the upholstery…” She quickly took her left hand off the steering wheel, turning the handle on the driver’s door to lower her window some more.
I twisted around in my seat as Nicolas began to cry full-out.
“Shut the little fucker up,” Morgan told me.
“I can’t. He needs to be changed and I don’t… I didn’t…”
“That smell… fuck… I hate it,” Morgan added. She made a fist with the hand not holding the Baileys and swung menacingly in the baby’s direction. “Little fuckers… totally useless…waste of… of…”
I knew she probably meant “oxygen” but was too loaded to recall the word. I leaned over the back of my seat, ready to lift Nicolas into my lap.
“No, Jannette,” Rita hollered. “I don’t want him right next to me! He can stay where he is!”
“Can we pull off at the next exit,” I asked her. “We could find a drugstore and—”
“That could take ages,” Rita replied. “I’m not driving around, and getting lost, even more lost, for that little fuck.” Now, Rita was channeling Morgan.
Nicolas’s screaming pounded our eardrums as the smell got more acute. My thoughts churned, probably spinning as fast as Rita’s tires. Nicolas. Jenny. House. Alone. Diaper. Lost. The Johnsons.
“I can’t take it,” Morgan yelled over the baby. “Useless little… shoulda left him…” She took a swig from the bottle.
“We have to turn around,” I told Rita. “Please take us back to the Johnsons. Then you and Morgan can—”
“We’re practically downtown! You want me to go all the way back to Markham, then drive back down again?”
“Forget coming back downtown. So, she doesn’t get her goddamn pancakes!” I looked back at Morgan. “A baby is more important!”
With a thud audible even over Nicolas’s wailing, Morgan put the Baileys bottle on the car floor. Grabbing Nicolas forcefully by the armpits, she lifted him off the seat.
“What are you doing? Put him down!”
Instead, Morgan shifted, leaning against the back passenger door. She thrust Nicolas through the wide-open window, holding him as far out as her arms could extend.
“No, Morgan, no!” I screamed. I kneeled backward in my seat, sticking my head out my window to see Nicolas. “Bring him in! Rita, Rita! Help!”
“I’m driving,” Rita answered, with almost as much sarcasm as fear.
The wind blasted Nicolas; naturally, he bawled full throttle, his face turning the pink of the twilight sky. His legs kicked, his eyes clenched shut and his shoulders turned white where Morgan’s fingers squeezed his flesh.
“Morgan, for Christ’s sake, he’s seven months old!”
She craned her head toward the front seat. “Airing him out.”
“Bring him in! Please, please, please, Morgan!”
“What? We don’t even know where we are. Rita, stop!”
“And get rammed from behind? Jesus, Jannette.” I fully realized now that Rita’s most pressing concern was her car.
“Get over to the shoulder,” I begged, checking to see if any vehicles blocked a lane change. Beside us was a car, the couple inside horrified. The driver, the husband, yelled something I couldn’t hear, but it no doubt related to a baby hanging out the window.
Nicolas suddenly stopped crying, scrunched his shoulders, and clenched his fists. He let out a chain of sneezes, then resumed screaming and kicking. He weighed nineteen pounds; how long could Morgan hold on to him?
“Pancakes,” she yelled back, teeth clenched. Whether it was from hostility toward the baby or the strain of his weight, I didn’t know.
Now, I was almost standing in the passenger seat, my head pressing the car’s ceiling.
“Rita, stop and let us out! We’ll walk home.” That was impossible, but at least Nicolas would be safe if we got out of the car. “Or take us home, please! Please.”
“I don’t know where we are,” Rita replied in a low voice I’d never heard before. “I don’t know how to get back at this exact moment, okay? Let me drive.”
“Are you kidding?” Tears had made it to my eyes. I thought of climbing into the backseat and wrestling Nicolas from Morgan. But the odds were poor; the baby would likely get dropped in the struggle.
“Riiiiita,” said Morgan, in an unfunny imitation of what was probably supposed to be a mother calling her kids. “I want pancakes. Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes,” she sang. Each time she said that word her arms jiggled, making Nicolas’ body tremor. She shifted in her seat, trying to pretend holding the baby wasn’t taxing her. But now there was a slight shake in her wrists.
“Soon,” Rita called back. “We’re almost downtown. We’ll find someplace, I promise.”
I couldn’t believe Rita was still trying to appease Morgan, that their friendship was more important than a helpless infant. There could not be a person on Earth more unworthy of friendship than Morgan. What kind of monster would even think of hanging a baby from a car?
“Is this because you’re fucked up,” I yelled at Morgan. “Because you’re so dumb at school? Probably a retard?”
“Why did you say that?” Rita cried. “Jannette, shut your mouth!” She looked furiously to her right, checking to see if there was space for a lane change. The car with the terrified couple slowed down and let us merge in front.
“You bitch,” Morgan yelled. There was anguish in her face. “Why did you call me that?”
She dropped her left hand from Nicolas’s armpit, pulling her arm back into the car. Her remaining arm bobbed up and down from the baby’s weight, causing Nicolas to lean sideways. His free arm flapped, and his scream was pitiful.
“No, no! I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry, Morgan. Bring him in, please!”
Nicolas began another chain of sneezes, his body jerking. On the fourth sneeze, Morgan lost her grip. My carnal scream signaled Rita to pump the brakes, but we were doing over eighty kilometers per hour.
Nicolas hit the road belly down. The force of the landing instantly tossed him back into the air, window-height, as the car’s speed sent his miniature body flying forward several meters. He crashed into the tarmac nearly headfirst, went into a high-speed chain of bouncing somersaults, then rolled sideways multiple times before stopping. Braking cars swerved and there was a symphony of horns. I heard screams, mostly female, coming from cars with open windows.
Rita had stopped the car. She said, “Oh my god,” so many times in succession it sounded like a chant. Behind us, Nicolas lay prone and unmoving on the highway, his diaper shredded. I pushed open the passenger door, but Rita frantically grabbed my wrist.
“No! You’ll get hit! There’s nothing you can do.”
I held my breath that he wouldn’t get run over; I didn’t want his body suffering further indignity. I watched a succession of vehicles mercifully steer around him or stop. Numerous motorists got out of their cars to surround the baby. Their body language conveyed their anguish and disbelief; one woman crossed herself. A few wrote on their palms—Rita’s license plate, of course. Rita took her foot off the brake and hit the gas. I watched Nicolas’s body shrink to a dot as we left the scene.
The drive home was a blackout for me. I don’t remember how Rita turned around or found her way, I don’t remember anything that was said or even if there was conversation. Later, I would be consumed with disbelief that Rita did not kick Morgan out of the car. That I rode back sitting so close to the person who caused the death of a baby. Of Nicolas.
I do remember glancing back at Rita’s car as she backed out of the Johnsons’ driveway. Morgan had her elbow on the windowsill, resting her chin in her palm. Her expression wasn’t distressed, but contemplative. She seemingly thought of nothing more disturbing than not getting her pancakes.
As I climbed the Johnsons’ porch steps, my legs shook spastically and I fell, lightly scraping my bare knees. The front door flew open at the mere touch of the doorknob. I raced up the staircase, gripping the banister for balance, and charged into Jenny’s room. There she slept, her expression blissful, her breathing soft but for her slight congestion. Nothing had yet changed in her world; she didn’t know her baby brother no longer existed. I stood beside her bed, my body trembling from ankles to fingertips.
As soon as the Johnsons’ car pulled into the driveway, I rushed out the front door, leaving it open behind me, and ran home along five blocks of sidewalk. I didn’t turn around once, terrified of the Johnsons’ car approaching me from behind with Mrs. Johnson in hysterics. I never again spoke to Nicolas’s parents, and I certainly didn’t ask to be paid.
At home, my parents were out. The olive-green phone mounted to the kitchen wall rang relentlessly for several minutes. When it finally stopped, I took the receiver off the hook.
Morgan’s legal counsel maintained that she had never intended to drop Nicolas. “Horseplay” was how her lawyer painted her actions, “by a girl who’d had too much to drink, who was goaded by irresponsible friends,” as if me and Rita dared her to dangle a baby out the window of a speeding car. The Crown saw things differently, especially since Morgan, at eighteen, did not fit the legal definition of a “girl.” She was charged and eventually convicted of criminal negligence causing death. Only after the trial did the press report that the “too rough” behavior that got her evicted from her mom’s place included chucking a dining room chair at her baby half-brothers while they played on the floor. I never learned if she was drunk then, too. I did hear that she finally got her high school diploma while serving six years in prison.
Rita was merely fined for leaving the scene. But the worst of it for her was her parents selling the car—a bigger punishment than it sounds, given Markham’s abysmal public transit. The retribution I experienced was the annihilation of my babysitting career. Word traveled the parent grapevine fast even though my and Rita’s names were never printed in the papers.
The Johnsons moved just before Halloween; as for what became of them, you could take your pick of rumors. They divorced. They stayed married and moved to the States, or Ottawa, or even Europe. They had a couple more kids. Jenny got messed up on drugs.
Just before I started Grade 11 in September, McDonald’s finally called. I sold their high-cholesterol fare until I got the mall Christmas job at Baby & Tots. I was the youngest part-timer; the rest of the staff had kids. They couldn’t get over how patient I was with the exhausted moms pushing strollers with crying youngsters. I sometimes bought merchandise with my employee discount, clothes that would’ve looked cute on Nicolas. When I got home, I laid the clothes out on my bed and fantasized that I was dressing him, that he was my baby.
Instead of hoping to run into Rita at school, I avoided her. She came into the store a couple of times, but I pretended that I was too busy to talk. I stopped returning her phone calls, not because I hated her but because of an overwhelming feeling that I had outgrown her. After the holidays, Baby & Tots gave me a permanent part-time job. I became close with my co-workers; I went to their homes for dinner and all their children’s birthday parties. We always talked about kids and babies.
Tina Silver‘s (she/her) fiction has appeared in The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, The Impressment Gang, Other Voices, Grub Street Literary and AgnesandTrue: A Canadian Literary Journal. The Fiddlehead’s editors nominated her story “Simulation Camp” for the 2018 Writer’s Trust Journey Prize and the 2018 National Magazine Awards. She has had numerous plays performed and given workshops in Ontario and British Columbia. Tina is a graduate of York University and lives and works in Toronto on the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. You can check out her plays at https://www.canadianplayoutlet.com.