SPRING 2013 (Issue 78)

Kelly Sundberg

Cruelty Was the Only Thing She Knew

                                                                             And their sun does never shine.
                                                                             And their fields are bleak & bare.
                                                                              And their ways are fill'd with thorns
                                                                              It is eternal winter there.
                                                                                                 - Holy Thursday, William Blake.


The babysitter sees everything.

For the babysitter, childhood is an ugly, uncertain place. The babysitter has ways of
knowing—always knowing—more than the adults tell her. They think she doesn’t see, but she sees; she sees the home, the world, and the sky beyond. She sees the place where the clouds lose the soft embrace of a bath-time towel rub, gathering into the angry darkness of a stiff back, a locked door, a cracking belt.

My babysitter, Anita, was tall and gangly. Her limbs stuck together at knobby joints; she
swooped towards me with grasping hands, long fingers pinching wildly. I hid my head behind my mother’s billowy skirt, picked the calico up to my face, and peered through the faded fabric. Light distorted Anita into a long shadow—arms spread wide—dotted with tiny flowers. I buried my face, breathing in the warmth of my mom’s hip, the softness of her skirt. My parents had rarely left me with a babysitter, my mother too protective to hand me off to strangers. Even at seven, I was her baby—my brother, already thirteen. Babysitters were frightening to me. They were the world beyond that soft cotton. I thought maybe if I resisted, if I stayed hidden in those folds, I could remain a child, but I couldn’t.


The children I babysat often hurt me—a cupped fist, a mean name, a bowl of cereal thrown against the wall, but hadn’t I done the same? Hadn’t I run away from Anita, hiding in the sagebrush while she drove by calling my name, her face pinched and sad? And now Jonathan was hurting me, but that didn’t make my job any easier. Discipline without love hurts everyone.

I squeezed my eyeball in a hole drilled in the door just below the doorknob, through which if
I rolled my face just right—pressing my cheek to the rough wood—I could see his entire bedroom. The walls were covered in vinyl mats like a school gymnasium. The closet, doors open, had clothing spilling out of the shelves. A small mattress rested on the floor in the corner with a few stuffed animals scattered around it. Besides the stuffed animals, there were no toys, no sharp edges for Jonathan to hurt himself on. He was an eleven year old child who suffered from severe disabilities and epilepsy. The first day I had babysat, the mother hurried through my directions:

            1. If Jonathan has a seizure, hold him down and make sure he doesn’t break any of my             antiques.

            2. Make sure he gets his medicine, but don’t let him bite you.

            3. The kids can have ramen noodles for lunch. You might have to feed Jonathan.

            4. If Jonathan acts up, just put him in his room and lock the door from the outside.

After lunch, while the baby napped, I had let Jonathan’s sister, Lizbeth, talk me into taking
them out to jump on the trampoline. We bounced around, laughing, but when Jonathan fell down, he grew angry. Before I could grab him, he had propelled himself off the trampoline and run into the street. A car slowed and honked. I ran after him, grabbing his arm. He swung at me, but I ducked. I walked him back into the yard while he pounded his head with his fists.

Following his mother’s directions, I took him to his room, pushed him in and locked the
door. I was young, only fourteen, but still, it felt wrong—locking him in. He threw himself across
the floor, his chest bulging outwards, his fingers in his hair, making guttural, angry noises. I felt a
soft tap on my arm and turned to see Lizbeth behind me. She pointed down the stairs, and I heard the cries from the first floor. The baby was waking up from her nap. I rushed down the stairs, grabbed the baby from her crib, a diaper, then ran back up the steep stairs, the baby dangling in the crook of my elbow. By the time I got there, I was too late. The door was open, and Lizbeth was in the middle of the room, attempting to soothe Jonathan. Her voice, loud and mothering, shouted into Jonathan’s ear. CALM DOWN. IT’S OKAY. I stepped inside just in time to see Jonathan’s fist, make contact with Lizbeth’s eye. She turned toward me screaming, her fingers cupped over the injury. I put the baby down in the hall, praying that she wouldn’t crawl to the foot of the staircase and hurried Lizbeth out of the room. I slammed the door shut behind me, locking it from the outside.

“He h-i-i-i-i-i-t me,” she wailed.

I scooped the baby up and unbuttoned her onesie, swiftly sliding a diaper below her squishy behind. “It’s not his fault,” I said. “You shouldn’t have gone in there.”

It wasn’t his fault. Nothing was his fault. I wanted to hug him, to sweep him into my arms, curling his bent body into mine. I knew the contours of his shoulders from holding him down, the strength of his legs from when they kicked me. I thought of him as a toddler, but he was strong like a boy. He would have never let me hug him. He knew nothing of hugs.


Babysitting is servitude. Humiliation. Humiliation that feels like a cold fist in the chest. Humiliation that feels like a flushed, fevered face. Humiliation that feels like an icy, hard neck. Humiliation that feels like rage. Humiliation that feels like all of these things at once, but, mostly, it feels like anger with no purpose. Or anger with no strength.

I had no authority over Winston. He was smart. Too smart. He knew how to get attention. He was darting in between legs while I chased him. It was the night of the annual Fireman’s Ball held at the Elk’s Lodge, and I had been hired for the sole purpose of keeping Winston upstairs while his parents held an after-hours party in the basement when the ball ended. Instead, I was chasing Winston between clusters of partygoers.

“Winston,” I said in a pleading voice. “It’s time to go upstairs now.” I softened my voice. “C’mon now,” I said in a sing-song. “Come along.”

Winston stopped, looked back at me with narrowed eyes, and stuck out his tongue. I hated that child. I hated his name. Winston? Who named their child Winston?

“Winston,” I sing-songed again. “Winston, where are you?”

I heard something behind me and turned to see my eighth grade Algebra teacher, Mr. Martin, who mocked me in class, and sent me home crying. My mom offered to call the superintendent, but I said no. The year before, my Social Studies teacher had punched a student in the face. His bear tooth ring left a bruise blushing across the boy’s cheekbone and a gash below his eye. That teacher was put on probation. The following month, my science teacher lost his temper and threw a desk at the chalkboard. Nothing happened to him. I’d quickly learned that children had no business exposing the cruelty of adults.

My mom was opinionated though. “Good old boys,” she called them. “All of them, good old boys.”

At the party, Mr. Martin was talking to another good old boy, Mr. Malone, who was married to a former teacher of mine. He was nice in class. Sometimes, I would tell him I was having “female problems” to get out of playing kickball, and it usually worked. But once, I overheard some ladies whispering. “Abusive. And an alcoholic,” they said. “But he seems so nice most of the time.”

Mr. Martin and Mr. Malone each had a drink in their hands, glowing dark liquid. Their cheeks were flushed, eyes jolly. Mr. Martin laughed at me and pointed towards a bedroom, “I saw him go in there,” he said.

I blushed and rushed into the room, which was dominated by a large waterbed. Winston giggled underneath the bed. I knelt down on the ground and saw he had crawled through a hole in the wooden frame.

“Be a monster,” he commanded. “Be a scary monster and come get me!”

I held up my arms, making growling sounds. I reached in the hole to grab him, but he scooted back. “Rawr,” I said, sticking my head in the hole, wedging my shoulders between the wooden slats. “Rawr!” Winston began giggling uncontrollably, then popped out the hole on the other side. I tried to scoot back, but my shoulders stuck. I tried a different angle, squirming and pushing with my hands. P-u-s-h-i-n-g.

I was stuck. And humiliated.


I was only eleven when I babysat Michael, still a child myself. But is that an excuse? Should children be forgiven for their own cruelty? Because I don’t forgive myself. I still feel a deep shame, a regret unlike any other.

I had just recently decided to put my Barbies away—that I was too old for such nonsense— but sometimes, when a friend came over, we would take them out, clandestinely, and play. My brother had just turned seventeen, and he still babysat me when my parents left the house, but I thought I was ready to be a babysitter myself. I begged my mom until she relented. She knew I would call her if I needed anything.

Michael’s hair glowed white, and when his arms wrapped around my neck, I inhaled the smell of baby in that softness. I had been babysitting him for six hours straight—the longest I had ever watched a child. My previous babysitting experience was limited to brushing the hair of the neighbor child while her mother cooked in the kitchen beside us.

While Michael napped, I tried to turn on the TV, but there was no reception. The house was small—oldish—and, although it was tidy, it had that smell of a house that hasn’t been cleaned in a while. It was sparsely furnished, no magazines or books to entertain me. I picked up the phone to call a friend, but there was no dial tone either. They didn’t even have a working phone.

I flopped down on the green shag carpet by the stereo and looked through their cassette tape selection. I didn’t recognize any of the bands, until I came across something magical: Jon Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory. I put the tape in, and fast forwarded. I lay on the floor listening to the crashing chords, fantasizing about Emilio Estevez in Young Guns. He rode up to me on his horse. I wore a Calico prairie dress and laced up boots. I had cleavage—just enough—and blonde curls that escaped from a long, heavy braid.

In reality, I wasn’t blonde. I was a redhead. A carrot top. But in my fantasies, I always looked like a younger Christie Brinkley. I lay on that carpet, sun filtering through the window in dusty lines, playing the song, then rewinding it, and playing it again. In the music video, Jon Bon Jovi stood on the edge of a cliff in the desert while the camera swooped over him, red rocks against blue sky. His hair was long and wavy, thrilling.

I wasn’t supposed to have seen the video. I wasn’t even allowed to watch MTV, but I could do whatever I wanted at my friend Jessica’s house. Her mom worked two jobs—at a grocery store and a bar. When I went to her house, we ate thick, government cheese sandwiches and went to the gas station on the corner and bought cigarettes for her mom. “I have a note,” Jessica told them.

At home, I told my mom, “Jessica has the best cheese!” My mom looked at me and crinkled her nose, “Someday, you’ll be glad I didn’t feed you Velveeta.”

Jessica’s mom was the one who got me my babysitting job. She knew lots of people from the bar who needed babysitters. So there I was, spending the day with a one year old. I was young enough that I still role played motherhood when I babysat—like a little girl playing with dolls. And this baby was perfect in his gentleness.

On a whim, I decided to go outside and re-enact the Bon Jovi video. I went into the yard, leaving the door open. It was one hundred degrees, and the heat hit me in a blast. There was no grass in the yard, only a scrubby tree. I held my arms out, lifting my face in supplication, Going down! In a blaze of glory! The world spun around me deliciously, I was transported by my fantasy.

But suddenly, Michael was crying. Screaming. Shrieking. In the face of his screaming, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the responsibility of a child.


Amber was the child who scared me the most—with her round face and dark, knotted hair. She was plump, but her mother was skinny. When her mother picked me up, she swept gas station coffee cups off the seat of her car, and the skin was so loose on her arm that I could see the two bones coming together at the wrist. Her trembling fingers looked like piano keys.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked. I shook my head, no. She was already smoking. I looked back at the house and my mom peeking her head out the screen door. She waved as we drove off.

Amber’s house looked like a shack. There were milk jugs in the yard with stray kittens lapping at the rims like nipples. In the corner of the yard, a heap of rusted out farm machinery sat next to a pile of gravel. A large spray-painted plywood “For Sale” sign was propped against the shed.

“What’s for sale? I asked.

The mother shrugged. “Everything,” she said.

The mother and father were going out on a date. The first in a long time. The mother’s fingers kept trembling. Her shoulders jutted out of a black, leather vest.

The father looked at my breasts.

I was thirteen. The summer before, my mom had taken me to a department store in Spokane, where I was fitted for a bra. It was confirmed; I was already a very embarrassed C cup. For the first time, we bought my school clothes in the teen section of the store, but I looked longingly at the children’s section. I picked out ten different variations of turtleneck. I learned to slump my shoulders forward to hide my breasts.

Amber’s mother yelled, “Mike, come on out and meet the babysitter!” A large boy came out of the back room. He was almost my age. We stared at each other awkwardly. The mother shrugged her shoulders. “He’ll probably just hang out in his room,” she said. “He doesn’t really need a babysitter, but he won’t watch his sister, because he’s a little shit.” She yelled the last part, rolling her eyes towards his disappearing frame as he skulked back into his bedroom.

Amber hid in the kitchen. The mother finally dragged her out from behind the fridge, placing her firmly in front of me. Amber was tall, with a moon face and big eyes. She seemed overgrown somehow. I knelt down in front of her, trying to make eye contact. “Hi Amber,” I said. She twirled her hair, avoiding my gaze.

When she spoke, her voice was little. It was a toddler’s voice in a seven-year-old frame. “Hi,” she squeaked, looking down. I looked down, too. Her foot traced a circle on the linoleum where the plastic was cracked and warped.


Sometimes, only the babysitter knows the selfishness of the mother. Mothers can want, can be full of suppressed desire. Mothers can wish they weren’t mothers, then feel sick at their own cruelty. Jonathan’s mother didn’t want to be a mother. She wanted to be beautiful.

She had dark curls and big brown eyes in a heart-shaped face. She wore Chanel No. 5. I knew this, because one quiet afternoon, I slipped into her room and examined the top of her dresser—long beaded necklaces hung and sparkled in front of a mirror. An antique tray held a silver handled brush and mirror set next to a bottle of Chanel No. 5. I had only heard of this perfume on television. I picked it up carefully and sprayed it—ever so slightly—but it didn’t smell glamorous. It smelled old. It smelled like baby powder.

Her house was immaculate in the way that a preacher’s wife’s house should be, but nothing about her seemed modest. She was completely unlike my Lutheran mother who wore cotton skirts and leather sandals, who let magazines pile up on the coffee table while laundry waited in the dryer for days. I never met Jonathan’s father, the Baptist preacher, but my mom had gossiped to my dad at the dinner table that the preacher had left when he found out his wife was having an affair, so I had suspicions about what the mother was doing when I babysat.

I didn’t mind, though—mostly because of the pay. Jonathan’s mother had vouchers for child care through the state. The state paid me four dollars an hour to watch him. The mother paid me a dollar and a half more an hour to watch her other two kids. That was more than minimum wage, and I wasn’t even a legal worker yet.

Jonathan’s room was a prison designed to contain his mess. When I witnessed his first seizure, we were next to a china hutch in the dining room. He fell on the ground, legs twitching, arms stretched out to the side. I watched, terrified, and Lizbeth jumped in to help. She was Jonathan’s younger sister, but she liked to act like a mother. When I didn’t move quickly enough for her, she shouted, “Hold him down. Don’t let him break the china!” So I did.

I knelt down and held his arms. He was only three years younger than me, and his body bucked against my weight, but I held firm, my arms rigid. I had a brother—six years older than me—who I’d wrestled with during my childhood, so I knew to place my legs over his chest, squeezing them to hold him still. I held him like that, using all my strength to keep him from moving, but I began to cry.

After the seizure ended, I stayed there for a while, holding him still, but gently now. He was tired and confused, unable to speak. Jonathan had never developed language, but his eyes were articulate. They said, You hurt me. I sniffled. “I’m sorry.”

I felt a pat on my shoulder. It was Lizbeth. “It’s alright,” she said. “Mom cries all the time.”


The babysitter must be blind. The babysitter cannot see the secrets behind the walls—the betrayals, the affairs, the alcoholism, the lies. None of it can be real to the babysitter. To the babysitter, the house is the set, and the family members are the players. The babysitter and the children are enacting their part of the drama, removed from the gaze of the parents, and when the babysitter goes home, she must forget the part she’s played, but sometimes, she doesn’t forget.

I could hear voices just outside the room, and I shouted out weakly “Help!?” No one heard, so I shouted again, louder this time. From above me, I heard Mr. Martin drawl, “Well….I’ll be damned if you’re not stuck.” He reached down and pulled on my legs, which hurt. My body stretched backwards, but my head remained firmly clamped between the wooden slats. “Alright, Sundberg,” he said. “We’re going to have to pick up the bed.”

He went and recruited two other men; together, they tried to pick up the bed. “Dang, this thing is heavy.” They spoke in unison, “One, two, three, lift!” The bed rose, and I scooted back, relief seeping into my shoulders and neck.

I blushed and looked at Mr. Martin. “Thank you,” I said. He looked down at me, his eyes no longer jolly. “You’re not the smartest girl I’ve ever met,” he said. “Not smart at all.”

I clamped my lips shut, saying nothing.

After I put Winston to bed, I curled up in a chair upstairs in front of the television. Winston’s dad had asked me to stay late and clean up after the party. I watched MTV, trying not to fall asleep. I thought it was unprofessional for a babysitter to sleep.

But the party never ended. It kept going. I heard it below me, the music, dancing, and laughter. My eyes closed, then snapped open again. Winston’s mother came in carrying a crooked glass of pink wine. “Hang in there,” she said. She had a platinum tan and the whitest blonde hair I had ever seen; she’d been a beauty once.

She walked through the living room, giggling, holding on to the arm of a man in a Stetson hat and Wranglers. She smiled at me and waved as they passed by, closing the door to a bedroom behind them. My chest hurt for her husband, who still looked at her with love.

Soon Mr. Martin came up the stairs, looking for the spare bathroom. I quickly changed the channel from MTV to PBS. He leaned into the wall, eyes cold and hard. “There’s no use trying to convince me you’re smart,” he said. “I have you in class, remember?” He said it like it was a joke, but neither of us laughed.

I nodded. I was a talker in class, always had been, and he hated me. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, but I had been receiving the “she talks too much to her friends” comment on my report cards since the second grade. Mr. Martin would glare at me or clear his throat, but that wasn’t very effective. After a while, he used humiliation to get me to stop talking. He would make me come to the board and explain an equation he knew I didn’t understand. Or he made fun of me to my friends—about personal things like my hair or my intelligence—and it worked. I quit talking, but he never quit looking for ways to humiliate me.

“You know you’re going to hear about this on Monday, right?” He said. “I’m going to tell everyone.” I understood. Mr. Martin. Mr. Malone. Winston’s dad. His mom.

I couldn’t tell their secrets, but they could tell mine.


Babysitters cannot be children. They must occupy a liminal state, or they will feel a shame that will never go away. If a child becomes a babysitter, she may hurt herself or others. This burden will weigh on her, even when she’s not a child, when she has her own children.

At least that’s what happened to me. Now, I look at the face of my own son when he cries and think, Have I loved you enough? Could I ever love you enough? When I hold him, I don’t want him to ever feel betrayed by me.

Not like I betrayed Michael.

It was the loudest, most terror stricken screaming I had ever heard, but when I burst through the door, Michael stopped. He looked at me smiling, raising his chubby arms. I swept him up, feeling loved, feeling like a mother.

I gave him a cup of apple juice, then took him outside to play. He poked around in the dirt, but mostly he followed me around. I tried to find things to play with and spotted a stick on the other side of the tree. I went to grab it, disappearing behind the tree. He shrieked again. I popped back out from behind the tree, and he quit crying immediately, smiling at me beatifically. I picked him up and he nuzzled his head into my shoulder. It was the sweetest feeling ever.

I put him back down, then went back to grab the stick. He shrieked again when I disappeared, but this time I lingered, enjoying the feeling of being missed. When I came back, I cuddled him again. I enacted the ritual one more time, disappearing behind the tree, hearing him cry, then coming out to his cheers and smiles, picking him up, and cuddling him in my arms.

I felt sick about it though. About my meanness. Still, I had wanted his hugs. My parents didn’t hug me. They loved me, but discipline was love. Hard work was love.


I couldn’t save Amber. I couldn’t even help her.

We knelt on the floor in her bedroom playing with her Barbies next to a pink, plastic dollhouse. “You be the mommy, and I’ll be the daddy,” she commanded.

“Okay,” I said. “Don’t I look pretty?” I said, prancing Barbie across the floor.

She grabbed the Barbie out of my hand. “Not like that,” she commanded. “Like this. Here, you lay on the bed.” She threw the Barbie on to the bed. “Now, I’m daddy.”

Her voice took on the gruffness of a male. “I’m daddy, and I’m going to beat you up.” She pressed her Ken doll down on Barbie, rocking his plastic arms back and forth like punches.

I leaned back on my heels, quiet, a tightness in my chest. “Is that what your dad does?” I asked.

She looked up uncertainly.

“Amber!” I heard a sharp voice from the doorway. Her brother Michael was leaning in the door frame. “She’s just playing,” he said. “She always does that.”

I looked back down at Amber, who was humming now, brushing Barbie’s hair. When I looked back to the doorway, Michael was staring at me, arms crossed. Eyes like dark pools in the shadowed hallway.

The Ride Home:

The babysitter carries a piece of each child in her heart—like a shadow left behind. I curled them up in my memory, then went on with my life, but always, they were there—Jonathan, Winston, Michael, and Amber. And more.

The last time I babysat Jonathan, social services came to the door: a man and a woman. They were wearing dark suits; they were expecting his mother. “She knew we were supposed to be here,” the woman grumbled. But she didn’t look annoyed; she looked concerned. “Can we come in?”

I let them in. The kids were all sleeping. It had been a long day. They sat by me on the couch and asked questions. How much did I babysit? Did I watch the other kids at the same time? Did she pay me separately for the other kids? How much? I answered their questions truthfully, seeing no other way.

When the mother came home, I told her what had happened while she was gone. She was upset that I had let them in. I felt angry—taken advantage of—but still, I said nothing.

“I can’t give you the vouchers for Jonathan,” she said. “I’ve run out. The state won’t let me have anymore, so I’ll have to pay you myself.” She sat down and wrote me a check.

The check was for ten dollars. I had babysat for seven hours. We only lived a block away, so I walked home that day, knowing it would be the last time I babysat those children, missing them in some odd way.

A couple of years later, my mom came into my room and sat down next to me. “Honey,” she said, putting her hand on my leg. “I think you should know that Jonathan passed away today.” I started to cry. She put her arms around me, hugging me tightly, for the first time in years. “Oh, honey,” she said. “He’s in a better place now.”

At three a.m., Winston’s mom still hadn’t come out of the bedroom. I was drifting in and out of sleep, but I could hear the revelers below me. Winston’s dad stood in front of me, keys in his hands, his eyes tired. “I’ll just take you home,” he said. “You’re tired.”

“I can call my parents for a ride,” I said. “It’s no problem.” Even at my age, I could see that he had been drinking. I didn’t want to get in a car with him.

“No, no, no. We couldn’t do that,” he said.

On the drive home, I fought to keep my eyes open. He talked to me, probably fighting to keep his eyes open, too. I was convinced that if I fell asleep, he would drive off the road and we would both die in a ditch. Still, my eyelids shut of their own volition.

“Shit!” His voice broke through my sleep.

I sat up in my seat, wide awake. He smiled at me nervously. “It’s okay,” he said. “I just drifted off the road a bit.”

When we reached my house, the porch light glowed. He handed me a twenty dollar bill,
more than I had ever made babysitting before—two weeks allowance. In the house, I found my
mom asleep on the couch. I touched her shoulder. “Mom?” I whispered in her ear. She shot up.

“What time is it?” she asked, her forehead tightly frowning. “It’s three a.m!”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I made twenty dollars.”

She stood up. “Well, I was worried about you,” she said. “You should have called.”

She walked me down the hall to my room where I crawled into bed. She pulled the covers up around my shoulders like she had when I was a baby, and I drifted off to sleep.

Michael’s parents came home sunburned, smelling of beer, but happy to have had the day off. They paid me well. Usually, the poorer the family, the better they paid. I pocketed the money and kissed Michael goodbye. I walked home that day, too, dragging my feet in the dirt, the sun pounding on my head. Ashamed. I was going to be a terrible mother.

But I hope that isn’t true. I hope I learned something that day about need, or at least about wanting to be needed.

Amber’s parents couldn’t drive me home. They’d had too much to drink. I was relieved they admitted it. They called me a BB taxi. In my hometown of 3,000, we had no real taxi service, but an enterprising couple, Brent and Brenda, sometimes gave folks rides for cash. The mother called them, but Brent and Brenda didn’t want to get out of bed, so I called my dad.

My dad answered—flustered and sleepy. Then, the excruciating part began. I had to wait on the couch for him to arrive. Amber’s father went into their bedroom and fell down on the bed, calling out to his wife amorously to come join him, but she sat next to me and made small talk. I tried not to look for bruises.

When my father arrived, I ran outside. His car was so warm, his presence comforting. He looked at me kindly. Noticing my relief, he said “Maybe we should rethink some of your babysitting jobs.”

I thought of that babysitter Anita—how scared I was of her—and I wondered if she’d been scared of me, too. If my shyness and hiding and running away had said something to her about my family, about the ways in which we knew how to love.

The year after I barely passed Mr. Martin’s class, National Geographic came to our town and did a piece on our changing economy. The glossy folds of the magazine revealed a picture of Mr. Martin’s dad—a rancher. A true good old boy. In the photo, he is looking out the window of a beat-up blue truck at the photographer. A green pasture stretches out beyond the pick-up, and in the distance, sharp mountain peaks are set off by a stormy blue sky. His grandson, Mr. Martin’s son, is sitting next to him, but that’s not the interesting part.

In the middle of the photo—taking up most of the shot—snarls a dog. The dog lunges out the window, paws pressed against the outside of the door. The dog, mostly white, with a black circle encasing one eye, has two sharp incisors that glow in the darkness of his angry mouth. He is barking at the photographer. Ready to attack. Mr. Martin’s dad leans back, enjoying its viciousness, smiling smugly, and his grandson is laughing. Looking at the photo, I don’t see Mr. Martin, but I recognize the smile of his father with a jolt. It’s filled with the same smugness that looked down at me that night at Winston’s, that made me feel small. And powerless.

I wonder who babysat Mr. Martin when he was a child? What had she thought? Had she, too, thought that cruelty was the only thing he knew? That cruelty was the only thing he would ever know?

Babysitting is good practice. That’s is what everyone says. And maybe babysitting is good practice. Maybe it’s practice for something unidentifiable, something small and hard that burrows into the heart and won’t let go. Maybe it’s practice for that day when everything changes, when you wake up and the world just feels different, somehow