There was nothing Tempo hated more than lying to a grown up, but she didn’t want to disappoint Joy, who’d done her a huge favor by even telling her about the babysitting in the first place. Although they’d been friends for forever, Tempo hadn’t been Joy’s best friend forever in years. In fact, it had come as a complete shock when Joy pulled her out of the lunch line earlier that day and told Tempo she’d found her a job babysitting for the Peraltas. Tempo couldn’t help asking why Joy didn’t want the job herself.
Joy’s eyes did a loop-the-loop. Her goody goody sister Denise, who’d sat for the Peraltas before she graduated, had let it slip that Joy had only just finished eighth grade. Not to mention the fact that Joy was, face it, horrible with little kids.
“Mrs. P. and I didn’t really jell,” Joy said. “But she’s bound to like you. You’re such a goody goody, too.”
Maybe compared to Joy, but Tempo wasn’t anywhere in the same universe as Denise-who’d made National Honors Society and led Chesterton’s tennis team to the state finals. Who’d just started college at Princeton. Tempo knew that when it came time to apply for colleges, she’d be dying to get into somewhere like Princeton.
“Anyhow,” Joy said, “can’t you use the money?”
Although Joy didn’t mean it in a mean way, Tempo shut right up after that. Joy went on, saying the Peraltas paid, like, ten bucks an hour, and the kids were easy peasy. The only thing was, Mrs. Peralta was anally retentive, and she wanted babysitters with “a certain level of maturity.” Translation: fourteen-year-olds need not apply.
Joy, however, had it all figured out, and she’d invited Tempo over to her house after school. Now, in her bedroom, which was about a hundred times messier than Tempo remembered it, Joy was making Tempo rehearse everything she was going to say. When they finally called up Mrs. Peralta and right off the bat the lady wanted to know her age, Tempo just replied, “Sixteen, Mrs. Peralta.”
The woman asked whether Tempo had her license yet.
“Almost sixteen,” Tempo said. Already, the whole thing wasn’t sitting well with her.
Mrs. Peralta was quiet, and Tempo would have hung up right then and there, except Joy was sitting up on the bed and making frantic come-on-come-on motions with her hands.
Tell her about the class, Joy whispered. Sell yourself.
Tempo told Mrs. Peralta that over the summer she’d taken the Red Cross babysitting course, which covered safety-related topics and stuff like how to role model and positively influence younger children. She talked about her cousins, who were the exact same ages as Elizabeth and Edwin. She watched her cousins almost every weekend because her aunt and her mom both worked at the mall on Saturdays. Which was ad-libbed, but totally true. Joy smiled and began twirling her way around the clumps of dirty laundry on the floor.
“I see,” Mrs. Peralta said, in a tone Tempo couldn’t quite work out. Sometimes people got judgy about single mothers who had to work on weekends, and so that Mrs. Peralta wouldn’t think she was a charity case (and so Joy wouldn’t think so, either), Tempo said she just wanted to earn some pocket change.
Joy stopped twirling. Pocket money, she said, but Tempo didn’t correct herself.
“I understand,” Mrs. Peralta said, and to Tempo’s relief, she began to ask about grades and favorite subjects. (English, and math was a close second.)
Mrs. Peralta asked whether she had a boyfriend.
“No, ma’am.” Tempo thought about her mother’s boyfriend, Allan. He wore tons of cologne, but he always smelled like he’d just climbed out of a deep fryer. Just thinking about how her mother’s clothes reeked every time she went out made Tempo sick to her stomach.
She went into the final part of her speech, saying how adorable and funny and smart Elizabeth and Edwin must be. She was dying to meet them. Joy flopped back onto the bed, snickering, while Tempo said she loved spending time with kids that age-what with their energy, their innocence.
“Very well,” Mrs. Peralta said. Tempo could almost make out the smile in her voice. “Next Thursday. Quarter to six.”
Tempo thanked her, got off the phone, and grinned at Joy, who bounced off the bed, punched a fist in the air, and shouted, “Score!” Just like the boys she was always hanging around with these days.
[img_assist|nid=10579|title=Summer Moment by Merle Spandorfer © 2013|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=500|height=448]
Tempo hadn’t been exaggerating when she told Mrs. Peralta she loved spending time with kids. She had a knack for figuring out children, like factoring and the quadratic formula. Whereas sometimes she couldn’t buy a clue about what the girls in her grade were so fascinated with. She’d almost rather babysit than hang out with her so-called peers.
Still, Thursday afternoon, she wasn’t exactly feeling like the babysitter of the year. It was about a thousand degrees out, and she had to walk all the way down past the high school and up Grandview Ave, where the houses went from big to huge to monstrous. By the time she reached the Peraltas’, she’d gone from semi-sweaty to completely gross. After she rang the doorbell, she wiped her forehead with her wrist and peered at her reflection (yuck) in the little privacy window beside the door.
Mrs. Peralta, dressed in a simple black sheath that probably cost a hundred bucks at Bloomingdale’s, smiled at Tempo, and Tempo shook hands and glanced into the entryway-the foyer-with its marble tile, flowers bursting from vases set in recesses in the wall, a wide staircase that swept up and around and up and around.
“You have a lovely home, Mrs. Peralta.” She tried to make it sound natural.
Mrs. Peralta said, “You look a bit flushed. Ungodly hot for September, isn’t it?” She felt Tempo’s forehead in a motherly kind of way. Her hand was cool and steady.
She let Tempo into the house (the AC was cranked) and called for her children. Two seconds later, the girl appeared. Elizabeth-seven years old, with her hair up in a French braid, a dress that might have matched her mother’s except hers had a bow in the front.
The girl squinted at Tempo and said, “I don’t need a babysitter.”
Tempo’s cousin often used that same line, and so Tempo said she was just there to babysit a little boy. “I think his name’s Edward?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Edwin. His name is Ed-win.”
Tempo went on, saying she’d feed Edwin lots of junk food and candy and soda-which caused Elizabeth to gasp out loud and her mother to frown. Tempo told them she’d let him play outside, but only up on the roof, and afterward she’d make sure he didn’t take a bath or brush his teeth before she put him to bed, which would probably be sometime after midnight.
The girl was giggling now and telling Tempo that was all wrong wrong wrong. Tempo said shoot, maybe she’d need somebody to keep it all straight for her, and Mrs. Peralta smiled as Elizabeth offered her gracious assistance.
Upstairs, somebody screamed.
They found Edwin in his room, throwing a first-class tantrum, flailing on his little pirate ship bed and howling.
Elizabeth kept asking, “What’s the matter, Eddie? Do you miss Denise?”
Which only made him shriek more, because apparently, ever since Mommy had told him they were having a babysitter tonight, he had indeed been expecting Miss Denise.
Tempo peeked around Mrs. Peralta. “Know something?” she said to Edwin. “Denise was my favorite babysitter, too.”
The boy took his crying down a notch, and Mrs. Peralta turned to Tempo. “Denise Foster was your babysitter?”
Tempo kept talking to Edwin as though they were having a private session. “Did Denise ever play Confectionery with you?”
Edwin shook his head and Tempo, without mentioning Joy, told the Peraltas about the time she’d gone over to the Fosters’ house-she’d been eight then, although now she embellished and told Mrs. Peralta she’d been almost ten. Denise and Tempo had baked cookies and little cakes in Denise’s Easy Bake Oven. They’d decorated the treats with icing and sprinkles and those tiny colored marshmallows that come in Lucky Charms and then arranged everything on doilies and cut glass plates.
“Denise is an absolute goddess,” she said. Edwin nodded solemnly.
In actuality, Tempo did kind of idolize Denise, who was the sort of person who knew exactly what to do in every situation. That afternoon, for instance, by giving it a name like Confectionery, by explaining how aesthetic appeal and presentation were as important as the baking itself, Denise had turned their game of make-believe into a lesson in sophistication.
Edwin was sitting up now, bouncing, saying he wanted to play ‘fectionery. Without missing a beat, his mother said maybe later, and she told the children to go ahead and play now, she’d kiss them when she and Daddy came home that night. She smiled at Tempo, and it was like Mrs. Peralta was beaming all this positive energy into her. If at that moment Tempo had looked in the mirror, she wouldn’t have been surprised to see herself glowing from the inside.
Tempo followed her back downstairs to the kitchen, where Mrs. Peralta went over the children’s schedule for the evening.
“No phone calls out, except in an emergency,” Mrs. Peralta said. “And no friends over. Otherwise, let common sense rule.”
It was a little after six now. She beckoned for her husband, who’d just appeared, and introduced him to Tempo.
Mr. Peralta wound his tie around his neck and said, “Wow, that’s a name.”
Tempo, channeling her mother, said, “It was my dad’s idea.”
“Is your father musical?” Mrs. Peralta asked.
Tempo shook her head. “He was in love with his car.”
“Oh, you poor thing.” The woman looked simultaneously amused and genuinely sympathetic, and Tempo felt another ray of positive energy.
Mr. Peralta cinched his tie and looked Tempo over. “Small for sixteen, isn’t she, Suzie?” His wife frowned and told him not to be crude.
Tempo was blushing, and she almost died when Mr. Peralta winked at her and said, “Small for fourteen, actually.”
Mrs. Peralta slapped him hard with her purse and grabbed his arm. “One more word, and you’ll find yourself without a babysitter or a date tonight.” She tried to smile at Tempo. “I’m sorry. We’re going to leave before you decide we’re completely beneath respectability.” Tempo was still blushing as Mrs. Peralta yanked her husband out of the kitchen.
Yesterday in the hallway, Joy had told Tempo to put some Kleenex or something in her bra before she went to meet the Peraltas. Hilary Kralich and Lacey Davidson were standing right there, laughing their heads off, while Joy said without boobs, Tempo didn’t look anywhere near sixteen.
“Do you even wear a bra yet?” Hilary asked.
Tempo knew Hilary hated her guts, especially after Mrs. Carson had discovered her copying Tempo’s earth science test at the end of last year. (Hilary had also stolen Tempo’s report on President Clinton’s reelection and plagiarized from it, but nobody had found out about that yet.) Still, Joy was the one Tempo was furious with. Even if Joy were only bragging-she’d never had to stuff her bra-it still felt like a betrayal.
Joy must have sensed this, because later she told Tempo she wasn’t trying to put her down.
“But seriously, Temp,” Joy said. “The Peraltas take one look at your chest, and they’re going to think you’re not to be trusted.”
That night, Tempo had tried out Joy’s advice using a pair of socks. It startled her to look in the mirror and see those lumps in the middle of her chest. She felt the way a pregnant woman probably did, or someone with a goiter or a tumor, something that didn’t belong. With that thought, she’d canned the whole idea, although now of course she’d had to listen to Mr. Peralta’s awful comments instead. Plus she was feeling guilty all over again for lying to his wife.
Just as Joy had said Denise had said, Elizabeth and Edwin were a total dream. The only snag came before bedtime, when Edwin asked Tempo to take a bath with him. He just wanted her to keep him company, but still, she couldn’t help feeling supremely weird sitting there on the edge of the tub, just looking, or just trying not to look while it stared right back at her. She’d seen pictures before, naturally, but it was different seeing a penis in person. A pecker, Joy would call it. Earlier that week in study hall, Joy and company had passed around a dirty version of the Peter Piper tongue twister.
For their story, the children selected “Little Red Riding Hood,” which they were both evidently familiar with, because when Tempo got to the part where the wolf persuaded the girl to pick flowers for her grandmother, Elizabeth declared, “He’s lying,” and Edwin cried, “Bad wolf! Bad wolf!”
Tempo herself felt the wolf was just beastly (she’d always thought the hunter at the end a bit sketchy, too). She kept reading, though, and when everything turned out all right, or at least the girl and the grandmother came out alive, the children actually clapped, said good night to each other, and went to bed, just like that.
“I love you, Miss Tempo,” Edwin said, before she kissed him. It was almost enough to make Tempo want her own baby brother.
In her room, Elizabeth said she didn’t need a goodnight kiss, but she insisted Tempo sit beside her until she fell asleep, which was in about two minutes flat. Tempo felt the positive vibes zapping into her again. She sat for a little while longer watching Elizabeth, taking in the halo of light the bedside lamp put over the little girl’s head.
[img_assist|nid=10665|title=Urban Landscape by Lesley Mitchell © 2013|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=500|height=368]
Back downstairs in the library, Tempo had gotten through about a chapter and a half of her book for Honors English when someone knocked on the front door.
It was a soft tap tap tap, and that was it, as though the person already knew there were children sleeping inside. Tempo thought about the wolf in the fairy tale knocking at the grandmother’s door, which was absolutely ridiculous for sure. She told herself that maybe it was the Peraltas and they’d forgotten their key. Mrs. Peralta had said they’d be back sometime after nine. Which would make them a little early, actually. It took Tempo another minute to work up the nerve to answer the door.
It was only Joy. She giggled and waved while Tempo unlocked the door, and now Tempo discovered it wasn’t only Joy, but Hilary Kralich, too. The girls pushed their way inside.
Tempo shut the door behind them and locked it again. “You guys scared me half to death,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Surprising you,” Joy said.
Hilary grinned and said, “Surprise!”
Tempo told the girls they couldn’t stay because Mrs. Peralta had said no friends over while she was babysitting.
“Oh.” Joy’s smile disappeared. “Fine. Then you’re not our friend.” She waited a second before she smiled again and said, “Just kidding.”
The girls brushed past Tempo and sailed down the hall toward one of the living rooms. Hilary leapt onto the squarish sofa, and Joy collapsed on the daybed, putting her feet up on the cushions and flinging her arm across her forehead like she’d swooned.
Tempo stayed back in the hallway, saying she had tons of homework, including five chapters of Catcher in the Rye. Okay, the reading was optional, and it wasn’t really her kind of book-the narrator had an attitude problem and a tendency to swear. But she wasn’t going to tell them that. She reminded them that she wasn’t allowed to have anyone over.
Hilary snorted. “Lame.”
“You’re going to get me in trouble,” Tempo said. It was ironic because she hadn’t needed to use that tone of voice all evening. “The Peraltas could be home any minute.”
Joy sat up. “When?”
Any minute, Tempo said again, and now thank God the girls were getting up and walking back toward the front of the house. Instead of leaving, however, Joy started up the staircase with Hilary bounding along right after her.
Elizabeth and Edwin were asleep, Tempo protested, and anyway it wasn’t right to go upstairs in somebody’s house unless you were invited. Joy said pshaw, like that was a word she used all the time, and Hilary shook her head and told Joy, “Oh my God, she really is a wet blanket, isn’t she?” She asked Tempo what was she was going to do, tell on them? She threatened to scream-and when Elizabeth and Edwin woke up they would see who would tell on who.
Joy said to Tempo, “I have to show you something up here.”
Tempo followed them upstairs, half afraid of what they would do if she didn’t stay with them and half curious about what there was to see. She paused in the hall between the children’s bedrooms, but Joy and Hilary continued on.
“Wait up,” Tempo whispered.
You could probably have fit Tempo’s whole apartment in the Peraltas’ bedroom suite. She could sense the size of the place even from the doorway, which opened into a sitting room, and beyond that, the main bedroom. Joy and Hilary were banging around in the bathroom.
“I can’t remember,” Joy was telling Hilary, “whether Denise said to look in the master bath or the master bedroom.”
“Denise?” Tempo watched Joy slide open the drawers under the vanity, rummaging through everything. The bathroom gleamed-the faucets, the towel bars, the handle on the toilet-as if all these tiny spotlights were being focused on Tempo.
Hilary opened a cabinet and then slammed it shut again.
“We really shouldn’t be in here,” Tempo said, as Hilary started into the Peraltas’ closet.
Joy went through a set of shelves, a formidable display of shoes, polished and stacked two by two. “She said it wasn’t even really hidden.”
“Denise?” Tempo asked again. And then: “What isn’t hidden?”
Joy ignored her. She and Hilary headed for the bedroom, leaving Tempo to straighten up and turn off the lights in the closet and the bathroom. Tempo was sure Mrs. Peralta would be the type to notice anything out of place. Returning to the sitting room, she thought she heard noises downstairs-footsteps rustling, voices calling her name. She hurried out to the hall. But there was no one.
Back in the bedroom, she told the girls she wanted to go downstairs.
Hilary smiled. “Then go, Lame-o.” Joy, searching through the drawers of the Peraltas’ bureau, didn’t answer.
Tempo stared at the back of Joy’s head. When they were little, they used to try to send each other telepathic messages on the playground, certain they could succeed if they both concentrated hard enough at the same time. Now, however, Joy was on some completely different, completely insane wavelength.
Joy crawled onto the bed and patted down the duvet. She thrust her hands under the pillows, into the pillowcases. Finding nothing, she crawled back down.
Tempo tried to smooth out the comforter. “Please.” Her throat caught on the word. “You’re going to get me in trouble.”
Joy finally looked up. “Jeez, Temp, don’t be a baby.” And then she yanked open the drawer of the nightstand and said, “Here. We. Go.”
It took Tempo a second to identify the contents of the bag Joy was holding up. The substance in the bag.
“Oh my god,” she said. “Why would the Peraltas have that?” According to every health teacher she’d ever had, marijuana was, like, really bad for you. It was toxic. It was illegal.
Joy shrugged. Everybody needed to unwind, she said. Mrs. P. was pretty uptight in case Tempo hadn’t noticed.
Hilary was jumping up and down, clapping her hands. “Maybe they need help.” She snatched the bag from Joy and beamed at Tempo. “You know, getting in the mood.”
“What mood?” Tempo asked, and then she made a face. “Gross.”
Hilary dangled the bag in front of Tempo. “Here’s a question for you, Brainiac. What do you get when you put sex and pot together?”
Tempo pushed the bag away. Joy, all wiser-than-thou, said, “Denise and Trayne would get completely randy whenever they smoked it. One time, I could smell it all the way downstairs, and I went up to Denise’s room to warn her. I saw them on the bed together. He was lying back with his pants off, while she crouched over him with her head down near his stomach. She was sucking at it.”
A wad of horror wormed its way down inside Tempo. “She was sucking at it?”
Joy laughed, and Tempo asked, “What did you do?”
“I cleared my throat and said, ‘How does it taste?’ and Trayne said, ‘Uh, Joy, we could use a little privacy.’ Denise didn’t even look up. Oh my god, it was the funniest thing ever.”
Hilary said, “A sexpot!” She giggled. “Get it? Sex plus pot equals sexpot!”
Tempo was quiet, her brain spinning with the times Denise had played House and School with Tempo and Joy, the day she’d given Tempo a boxful of Barbies because Joy wasn’t interested in them, the afternoon of Confectionery. The memories whirled and frayed and then fell away, leaving only the picture of a girl and a boy, naked. A girl and a boy naked together-doing drugs and doing each other, as Joy would put it. She would be laughing her head off while they did each other, did that to each other.
Joy took the bag back from Hilary, and Tempo said, “Put it away, Joy. God, I’m all nauseous now. It’s disgusting.”
Hilary sneered. “Disgusting? Mrs. Peralta being a sexpot?”
Joy said, “I don’t blame her. I think Mr. P.’s pretty hot, actually.”
“Just put it away,” Tempo said.
Instead, Joy opened the bag. Tempo almost gagged on the smell. Taking three baggies out of her pocket, Joy said, “Share and share alike.” She pulled a handful of marijuana out and divided it between the baggies. She handed one baggie to Tempo and one to Hilary.
“You’re stealing it?” Tempo asked.
Joy sighed. “It’s just a little bit, Temp. They’ll never ever miss it.”
“Damn straight.” Hilary gave her bag a shake. “This is enough to roll, like, two joints. How about a little more?”
Joy shook her head. “I don’t want to risk it.”
“Risk what? They won’t know who took it.”
Tempo stared at Joy again. Obviously, the Peraltas would know who took it, or at least they would know who they thought had taken it. But why wasn’t Joy saying anything? Why wasn’t she putting the bag away? She wasn’t even looking at Tempo.
“Come on, Joy.” Hilary said. “Let’s just take the whole freaking bag while we can.”
Tempo had trouble getting her voice out. Finally, she said, “I can get more the next time I babysit.”
“I’ll take a little each time,” Tempo said. “The way Denise did. I can always come back for more.”
“What if the Peraltas don’t like Tempo?” Hilary asked. “What if they don’t have her back?”
“They’ll have me back.” Tempo steadied herself. “Trust me.” She managed to sound serious and at the same time act as though it was no big deal.
Joy nodded. “That’s it, Temp. That’s my girl.” She started to put her arms around Tempo, and for a split second Tempo felt herself about to slap her friend across the face and tell her to go to hell.
But she didn’t. She went ahead and hugged Joy, as if they were two little girls again, meeting under the monkey bars at recess, and while Joy put the rest of the marijuana back in the nightstand drawer and closed it, Tempo arranged the pillows and finished smoothing out the duvet.
The girls had just reached the foyer downstairs when they heard the keys being laid down on a counter, the murmuring in the back of the house. Hilary and Joy slipped out the front door. Tempo closed it behind them and locked it.
She made her way back to the kitchen. Mrs. Peralta asked how everything had gone that evening.
“Everything was fine,” Tempo said.
She wanted to tell Mrs. Peralta the truth about Joy and Hilary and the marijuana. She wanted to tell her about Denise. About herself.
The woman paid her. Tempo put the money in her pocket, slipping the bills behind her plastic baggie. She fingered the baggie for a moment.
Finally, she said to Mrs. Peralta, “I think I forgot something.”
She hurried upstairs and raced back down the hall to the master suite. In the doorway, she paused, feeling as if she really had forgotten something, or lost something. Then she dashed into the bedroom, put her baggie into the drawer with the Peraltas’ stash of weed, and hurried back out.
At the stairs, she met Mr. Peralta.
“Tempo, ma Cherie.”
He came close to her, so close she could smell the wine on his breath, feel the warmth on her forehead. She stood still as his hand brushed the top of her head.
“I hope we see more of you very soon,” he said.
It would still be some years before Tempo would come to understand that she was like a little boy playing with matches when she whispered, “I think you’re pretty hot, Mr. P.”
His hand jerked back, and then froze. It hung in the space between them, as if it were something separate from him. She stared at his hand, and then stared at him staring at it. He wouldn’t look at her.
The hall light came on, and Mrs. Peralta appeared. “Is everything all right?”
Mr. Peralta laughed, a phony kind of laugh. “Tempo was just saying good night to the children,” he said.
After a pause, Tempo nodded. “I promised Elizabeth.”
In her room, Elizabeth was sleeping, her perfect face angled slightly away from the light, just as it was when Tempo had left her. Tempo reached out, as if to pet the girl. She sensed the Peraltas hovering in the hallway behind her.
When Mrs. Peralta called the next day, or over the weekend, or the following week, it wouldn’t matter whether Tempo lied or didn’t. Mrs. Peralta would know. Not everything, but she would know enough to understand Tempo wasn’t such a goody-goody after all. Maybe she would think she wasn’t to be trusted. Maybe she would think she wasn’t mature enough. Maybe she wasn’t, maybe she was.
Tempo turned off the bedside lamp.
Bryan Shawn Wang grew up a few miles from the King of Prussia mall and now lives with his wife and children in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. A former biochemist, he teaches biology and chemistry at local colleges. His fiction has recently appeared, and is forthcoming, in Rathalla Review, The Summerset Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Kenyon Review Online.