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An Overactive Imagination

Updated: Jan 20

by Lou-Ellen Barkan



“Guess what?” Mom smiled. “We’re moving to Paris?” I was in bed reading Gone with The Wind. “Very funny,” she said. “Actually, Mrs. Simon called to ask if you could babysit Saturday night.”

“You’re kidding.”


“$2.00 an hour."

I thought about it for a minute. $2.00 an hour would make a dent in my Broadway ticket fund. Mom had promised to take me to see West Side Story as soon as I had saved enough for my ticket.


On other hand, I had never had a babysitting job. “Don’t I need training?” "You’re almost thirteen,” Mom said. “The Simon kids are eight and ten. You should be fine, and if you need us, we’re a few blocks away.”

“Okay. Tell her I’ll do it.” I waited for mom to leave before I called my best friend, Susie, the neighborhood’s babysitting guru. Susie had been babysitting since she was twelve.

“You feed them. You read a few stories, give them cookies and put them to bed,” said the thirteen-year-old voice of experience. “Smile at the parents. Not too many cookies,” she warned. “If they get too much sugar, they won’t sleep.”

Susie and I were hovering delicately between childhood and adolescence. We had put away our treasured Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew collections and filled our bookshelves with romance and adolescent angst. She was madly in love with Holden Caulfield. I had fallen hard for Rhett Butler. When I dreamt of being swept away by the man of my dreams, he looked suspiciously like Clark Gable.

Over the next few days, I worried. Babysitting sounded like easy money. Read a couple of stories and tuck the kids in. But what if something did happen? Houses in our

Image of a sidewalk in the suburbs, lined with trees and hedges separating the houses.
Image credit: Canva

neighborhood were set far apart, each with an acre or more of carefully tended property. Many had pools and gardening sheds. Houses were bordered by tall hedges to protect owners from prying eyes. Recently, the cops caught a gang of local kids breaking into a neighbor’s house. What if they showed up while I was babysitting?


“You have an overactive imagination,” Susie said. “Babysitting is the most boring job on the planet.”

“But what if…” “There is no ‘what if,” Susie said. “If something happens, you call your parents. Or call me.” As Saturday approached, I considered what I knew about the Simons. They were my parents' friends, part of a group that met monthly for dinner and cards. The women arrived trailing Chanel No. 5 crossed with a heavy dose of cigarette smoke. They played bridge in the dining room and gossiped. The men, all of whom had served in the military, came armed with bottles of amber colored whiskey and smelly Cuban cigars. They played poker and told dirty jokes in the smoke-filled den.

Mr. Simon was an Air Force veteran who had started a successful women’s dress company. Mrs. Simon stayed home to take care of the kids, ten-year-old Skip and eight- year-old Callie. My mother said that Mr. Simon fooled around with models in his showroom because Mrs. Simon was fat and losing her hair. I was thirteen, so I knew about fooling around, but models, I assumed, had their pick of anyone, so why would they fool around with dumpy, old Mr. Simon?

On Saturday night, my father drove me to the Simon’s house. The outside lights were on. I saw Skip and Callie looking out the downstairs window. My stomach lurched.

“You okay with this? “My father turned off the car.


“I’m fine,” I said. “You call us if anything happens.”


“I will.”

“You want me to come in?” “No,” I opened the car door. "I’m fine.” I stepped out of the car slowly, walked to the front door and rang the bell. I heard my father turn on the motor and drive off.

Skip opened the door and I walked into the front hall. “She’s here,” Skip announced to Bessie, the small black poodle sitting at his side.

Callie came down the stairs and twirled on the toes of shiny black Mary-Janes. She was wearing a pink cotton dress covered with pink and yellow daisies. “I got dressed up,” she picked up the hem to show me her lace slip. “I have to be careful when I eat the pizza.”

“I’m in the kitchen,” Mrs. Simon called out. “Everyone in here, please.” I followed Callie and Skip down the hall into the kitchen where Mrs. Simon was standing at the counter in front of an open box of pizza. She was wiping her mouth with a large paper napkin. Two slices of pizza were missing from the box.

“Plenty for everyone,” she said, standing back from the counter and smoothing her black evening gown.


“Come on,” I heard Mr. Simon yell. “We’re already late.” Mrs. Simon pulled out a hand mirror from her purse, checked her teeth, kissed the kids and waved goodbye. I heard the front door slam.

The early part of the evening went exactly as planned. The kids had pizza. We watched “The Wonderful World of Disney” and I taught the dog to balance a peanut butter treat on her nose. This was a big hit with the dog and the kids, after which they put on their pajamas and brushed their teeth. I read a couple of stories, tucked them in and hung around upstairs for a while to make sure they were asleep. Then I went downstairs to the den.

Every ten or fifteen minutes, I went back upstairs to check on the kids and snoop around the Smith’s bedroom. These treasure hunts turned up a few interesting artifacts; gigantic, silky negligees in lilac and black hanging in the closet and a box of Cuban cigars on top of the dresser. Most interesting, a blue plastic water gun. And, in the drawer of a night table, a box of multi-colored condoms and a magazine filled with pictures of naked women.

When my inspection tour was over, I went downstairs and settled on the den couch with Rhett, Scarlet and Bessie. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself when, halfway through the evening, Bessie lifted her head, sniffed, growled and ran to the backdoor. I followed her and looked out the kitchen window. I didn't see anything, but the sound was enough to remind me that I was all alone here and if anything happened, I was on my own.


I walked to the front and back door to check the locks. Both were on securely and in the right position. The chain lock above both bolts were securely fastened. The front porch lights were on. I bribed Bessie with a treat and she followed me upstairs to check on the kids. Both were sound asleep. Bessie sniffed around their room and the other upstairs bedrooms and bathrooms. Nothing had been disturbed. All the lights were out, and all the windows were closed. We went back downstairs to the den. I debated calling Susie, but I knew she would just laugh at me. And if I called Mom and Dad, even just to check in, they might sense that something was up, come rushing over and I might not be allowed to babysit again. Instead, I walked back to the kitchen and found the knife rack next to the stove. I pulled out the largest carving knife, carried it to the den and put it on the coffee table in front of the couch. I checked the telephone dial tone and sat down to read. One eye on the knife, one eye on the clock.

Another hour passed. There were no more knocks or thumps. Bessie spent the rest of the evening snoring on the couch. I checked the kids a few times more and then, just before midnight, I heard a car. I ran to the front door, looked out the glass door panel, and saw the Simons sitting and talking in their car.

I ran back to the den, grabbed my coat and book, and went to meet them at the front door. Then I remembered the knife. I dropped the coat and book on the front hall floor, raced back to the den, grabbed the knife, circled back to the kitchen and put the knife in its holder. I was standing at the front door, out of breath, when I heard the key in the lock.

“Hi, honey.” Mrs. Simon smiled. “Everything go okay?”


“Yes.” “Did the kids eat?” “Pizza and ice cream. I put the extra slices in the fridge.” “That’s wonderful,” she said. “Thanks so much for doing this. You’re a lifesaver.” Mr. Smith handed me a ten-dollar bill. “I think a couple of extra bucks for doing a great job is in order. How about I drive you home?” I nodded and Mrs. Simon gave me a hug and opened the door. Mr. Simon and I walked to the car. He held the door open for me while I slid onto shiny black leather seats that smelled like his sweet cologne. I heard the locks click as he started the engine.


Image of book on the lap of a young girl sitting on a bench.
Image credit: Canva

We drove the quarter mile down the Simon’s road and then made two right turns before turning onto my street. It was a clear night, but dark and very cold. The coat and book were on my lap. I was wearing my school sweater, unbuttoned.


As we made the final turn, Mr. Simon asked. “So, how is school going?”


“School's good."

“Courses you like?”


“English.”

He slowed down the car, turned his head and looked at me. “Really? I liked English.”

I nodded.


“You have a boyfriend?”


“No.”

“Well,” he said.“I’m sure it won’t be long. A pretty girl like you.” We were a quarter mile from my house, so I was looking in that direction when I felt Mr. Simon put his hand on my knee and give it a light squeeze before sliding it slowly up my thigh. With his hand moving up my leg, Mr. Simon was still driving, but very slowly, and looking ahead at the road. I debated my options. I could, maybe, just take his hand off my leg and pretend nothing happened. The car kept moving. “Look.” I pointed to the lighted window on our second floor. “Mom waited up. ”He stopped the car and looked at me.

“Thanks for the ride.” I took his hand off my leg. “I can walk the rest of the way.” I clicked the open lock button, stepped out of the car, slammed the door hard and ran to the house. I rang the bell and Mom opened the door.

“How did it go?” Mom asked. “How did you get home?” I looked down the street. The car was gone. “It was fine. Mr. Simon gave me a ride."

Mom closed the front door and locked it. “Mrs. Simon called and asked if you could come back next Saturday.”

“No way.” I shook my head. "English paper due next week.”


“Homework?” Mom raised her eyebrows. “Really?”


“Yeah,” I started up the stairs to my room. "Too much work. Can you let her know?”


“I’ll tell her.” Mom blew me a kiss. “Get some rest.”


Mrs. Simon called a few times that week and Mom made my excuses until, eventually, the calls stopped. Then, later that month, I ran into the Simons in town. Mrs. Simon gave me a kiss and said they missed me. Callie gave me a hug. Skip said Bessie was still doing the peanut butter trick. Mr. Simon stood quietly, smiling, as if we shared a secret.


For weeks, I went over and over that night. Maybe, just maybe, I had misunderstood what happened. Maybe, nothing happened. Maybe, like Susie said, I just had an overactive imagination.


A few weeks later, I used my Broadway fund to buy a Swiss Army Knife. I put it in my schoolbag. When I started high school, I carried the knife in my knapsack. Four years later, on my way to college, I transferred the knife to a shoulder bag and, years later, into the designer purse I bought to celebrate my first promotion. The knapsack, the shoulder bag, the designer purse, like the thirteen-year-old, are long gone. But the knife is in my drawer, still in working order.


***

Black and white picture of the author, Lou-Ellen Barkan
Lou-Ellen Barkan

Lou-Ellen Barkan is a native New Yorker, living with her husband and Rosie, an eleven-year-old Golden Retriever. Her two children, six grandchildren and three careers, on Wall Street, in government and not-for-profit, have produced enough characters and material for a lifetime of writing. She has published short fiction and non-fiction in, among others, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Lowestoft Chronicle, Round Table Magazine and Clever Magazine.






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