Maybe when you were a teenaged baby boomer, you babysat. Or maybe you had a sister who did. Or maybe you were the babysitee. Whatever your experience, you probably never came close to what freelance journalist Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy, now of Bellingham, Washington, came close to one night when she took a new job with a local family in her hometown of Ames, Iowa. She writes about it in this excerpt from her new book called “Many Hands Make Light Work” It’s not “based” on a true story, she says, but an actual true story.
I stood riveted in the open doorway of the little house where I would spend this evening babysitting. Frozen with fear, I stared at the family pet lounging atop the back of the couch. The young mother, who had picked me up at home and brought me here, didn’t notice my fear.
“Baby Michael is already asleep in his room down the hall.” She kicked off her sneakers into a pile of detritus in a corner. I didn’t move.
“Mikey will wake in a few hours,” she said. She found her sandals under the kitchen table, thrust one on, and hopped as she pulled on the other, long hair swinging. “You’ll hear him cry. Fix his bottle, change his diaper, and he’ll go right back down.” She rummaged among dishes on the kitchen counter for her purse.
“Brenda, don’t make us late!” her husband roared down the hall. He tornado’ed into the living room. His young face, framed by a short beard and blond locks that brushed his shoulders, didn’t turn toward me, the thirteen-year-old babysitter in the doorway clutching my school backpack.
“I’m ready, I’m ready.” Brenda spoke calmly, purse hung on her shoulder, her gauzy peasant blouse showing bright embroidery at the round-scooped neck, its white fabric fluttering over jeans. She smiled, and I finally stepped into the house, my eyes still riveted on their pet, half snoozing atop the couch back.
“Oh!” she glanced from me to the pet. “If he nips you, tap him on the nose with this.” She handed me a stick of flimsy plastic.
They swirled out the door, legged it up into their pickup, and with a squeal of tires peeled out of the driveway as the screen door on the house banged shut behind them.
The pet was a lion. A real, uncaged, adolescent lion.
My back plastered against the wall, I stood alone, eight feet from the king of the jungle. He reclined lazily in alpha position on the couch back. He was the size of a Labrador. His tawny coat covered smooth muscle that rippled as he stretched and yawned, showing gleaming white incisors, unfurling a river of huge tongue.
Fear rolled off me in waves. The lion smelled it. Idly, as if he wasn’t sure why he was bothering, he lifted his head and swung it side to side, sniffing. The great heavy cranium bobbed slowly. The action made the creature look like one of those flocked animal figurines people place near the rear window of their cars.
I snapped back to reality and assessed the situation. The tiny living room felt like a boxing ring. I stood in one corner, frozen, disbelieving. In the other corner lay the feline combatant, lounging on his lofty perch, relaxed. His amber eyes rolled over me. His lip curled, showing those incisors again.
The lion had claws and fangs. He had sleek masses of muscle. He had on his side millennia of evolution that had honed cats into the most efficient hunters ever known.
I had a flyswatter.
Cheryl’s book is “Many Hands Make Light Work: A Memoir.”