This is a short story from my collection "Stocking Stuffers." A little December in July, if you will.
It wouldn’t do to have Christmas cards sent out without pictures of the baby.
The thing was trying to decide where to go, which department store offered a better deal, knowing that getting roped into spending $150 for a $9.99 special was what all new parents had to watch out for.
And really, that wasn’t the half of it. It was getting a nine-month-old in a good day with a good temperament and ready smile for the camera, car ride and stroller and bundling and unbundling notwithstanding.
This first Christmas as a parent was turning into a strange, strange thing indeed. This precious, wildly mobile, dazzling baby, with a will and lungs of iron, came into the world in a foreign land and endured undernourishment, allergies, travel, mosquitoes, musty, damp weather, more travel, incontinence, love, being photographed and filmed inside and outside, wet or dry, dressed or naked, was everything to mother and father and grandmothers and grandfathers and all the various relatives.
So there was no pressure in getting baby’s first Christmas picture absolutely perfect.
That’s when dads all over the world step up and say …
“Let’s just go to Sears.”
“When?” the young mother asked, knowing that the baby was guaranteed picture perfect only from 9:00 to 9:15, morning and evening. Any other time is asking for a disaster.
“Whenever you want,” the father wisely replied.
Murmur, murmur, huddle with the older, wiser grandparents, happy now that the new generation had arrived.
“Why don’t I call over there?” the all-knowing-while-still-getting-over-being-suddenly-a-dad father offered, practicing the truly useful art of any-attempt-at-getting-information-is-seen-as-doing-something-constructive.
It was agreed that this was O.K.
The phone call was made.
“Oh, you can come anytime between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.” the sweet voice said in reply to his inquiry. “Seven days a week.”
“I see. Do you have any openings?”
“Oh, it’s first-come-first-serve.”
“Yes. We take names right at nine o’clock.”
“Anything else you need to know?” the sweet voice asked.
“Yes. Where is the studio located?”
“The doors right off Hamilton.”
He turned to face his family.
“Well, what did she say?” the mother asked, somewhat impatiently, knowing the father never came right out and said anything.
The pregnancy had been hard on her. The toxemia nearly killed her. Traveling home and living with her parents was hard for her, and having a baby that cried all the time was hard for her, and not being able to find work was hard for her. She was tired all the time and the father felt helpless to do anything about anything except try to make her life as easy as possible, and he knew his answer right that moment would determine whether this would get her support or it would become another stressful ordeal.
“First come, first serve,” he said.
“I’m not going to stand in line with the baby just to get his picture taken. It’s below freezing out there,” she cried.
“I’ll stand in line,” the father said.
“I’ll get there at seven-thirty or eight and be the first one there and stand in line and be the first one in. Then all you have to do is show up when the doors open and we can walk right in. Then they have to take his picture. It’ll work out fine.”
She looked through him, down into his soul, to see if he was serious.
“Trust me,” he said.
“Sounds O.K. to me,” the grandmother offered. “Yes. He can go and wait in line and we can get the baby ready to go and be there at nine o’clock,” the grandmother said with a certain finality in her voice that was very much the period at the end of a sentence.
“When will we do it?” the mother asked.
“Tomorrow,” the father decided.
For the rest of the day the grandfather, grandmother, father and mother listened to the radio for the weather reports, to see what kind of day would be in store for the baby and his first picture.
The father already knew.
The only thing you have to know about Prairie Canada is that the wind never stops blowing. And it always blows at the worst moments. And in December, the wind chill would freeze the spit on your lips. It was the kind of cold people refer to when they say “When Hell freezes over.” With a wind chill. All the heat sucked out of the atmosphere. Absolute zero, marrow freezing, eyeball blinding cold.
And he would face that in morning. He had to. His son had to get his picture taken.
There was much discussion the next morning about when to be there to make sure the father was the first one there.
This was at 6:00 a.m.
“Better make it seven-thirty,” the grandmother said.
“Eight will be all right,” the grandfather said.
“The doors don’t open till nine,” the mother said.
“I better be there at seven-thirty,” the father said.
“Do you want to take some coffee with you?” the grandmother asked.
“No. It’ll make me want to go, and besides, I’ll just dress warm. I’ll be all right.”
The grandmother smiled a satisfied smile. She knew the father would dress warm and he would stand in that spot and he would stay there until the doors were opened. He would be the first one there and he would make sure he had first pick at what time to take the picture. And the baby would be there on time, warm and happy, ready to get his picture taking. That morning she was as sure of that as anything in her life.
At 7:15, in long underwear, two pairs of wool socks, jeans, shirt, another shirt, sweatshirt, parka, gloves, toque, and an empty bladder, the father made his way to the car. It had been started, warmed up, and the ice had been scraped off by the grandfather. It was a ritual, sort of, in wintertime.
“I’ll see you there,” the father said.
“What time do you figure?” the grandfather asked.
“Exactly nine o’clock,” the father replied.
“Right,” the grandfather said. “Nine o’clock. Better be there a few minutes before.”
The father got into the car, which was now quite warm and happily humming, and he steered away from the curb and up to the end of the street to turn left to head toward downtown.
He looked in the rear-view mirror. The grandfather was watching him, and continued to do so until after he turned on his left-turn signal, came to a full and complete stop, looked both ways, and turned, not too quickly, into the left of two lanes heading west to downtown. The grandfather watched, thinking that by nine o’clock, he’ll have to go another route. Traffic would not be right to go turn left up there. Not to get there by nine.
The father discovered he could not park the car on Hamilton Street in front of the doors leading into the store. There was a loading zone along that curb a block long, so he would have to park across the street and down towards the corner. The parking meters didn’t have to be fed in until 9 a.m. but he knew he wouldn’t be there to do so then. He decided he better do it just then and forget about it. The meters would only take quarters, twenty minutes per, and so it would be at least five quarters before he could get back to the car if all went well, and probably six. Two hours, from 7:30 a.m., was 9:30 a.m.
It occurred to him to bring quarters, but it was luck that he had six of them, and he put them all in. If he was going to be the first one there, he would be in and out by nine-thirty.
But as looked up and down Hamilton Street for the dozenth time, there was not a living soul to be seen. He felt like the man running the race and was either way ahead or way behind.
That did not prevent him from running across the street down to the opposite end of where the doors stood, all metal and glass and cold like guardians keeping the store safe from whatever rose up from the street.
It was 7:32.
He was the first one there.
If it wasn’t for a five-story parking garage directly across the street, he still would not have seen the sun come up. There were far too many low, fat, cold clouds for sunrise to be visible. It mere days it would be the shortest day of the year. The morning would never really shake off the dark, and the cold, about 8 degrees Fahrenheit, was an old cold, cold that had been in the air for days, stale and bitter, and was eager to settle into your bones.
He noticed then that his moustache was starting to ice up.
But he kept his hands in his pockets, his head down, and his weight on the balls of his toes. He bounced up and down, like a top-heavy pogo stick, and he took quick glances down the street every few minutes.
His mind began to drift.
Cold and alone, waiting for an appointed hour, waiting to take some action, waiting, waiting, reminded him of when he was in the navy.
Standing watch, at night, in the cold, the wind blowing off the water, the dampness that made your bones feel arthritic even if you were just 21 years old. The time passing so slowly, meaningless, for at that hour, the time before waking up the cooks, before reveille, before another day on a ship, the watch stood, the watch observed, and generally, as the ship slept, the watch froze.
His mind drifted to a place it seemed to like to visit when it needed to pass the time. Whenever he had to stand the watch and pass hours upon hours with nothing to do but stand, perhaps pace a few feet, and rest his hand on the .45 and two clips that was never used, his mind drifted into a sort of mantra, one from his school days, one from spending hours in church:
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of god, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
He prayed; he prayed entire rosaries, he prayed entire rosary cycles, the sorrowful mysteries, the glorious mysteries, all of the mysteries, real and imagined, all of the things that he brought forward into adulthood from his imperfect Catechism.
He did not have the mind to mentally build a house. He could not recall baseball games from memory, he could not recite the periodic table of elements. Back then, alone in the world, in uniform, in peacetime, standing watch, knowing that there wasn’t anything he could do or anywhere he could go, not then and not later, the only thing his mind could focus on was saying the Rosary.
Again, and again.
The prayers drifted upward into the atmosphere, and perhaps were then carried away in any strong breeze. He wasn’t sure.
But on Hamilton Street at 7:42 a.m. his mind found that mantra. Like old friends picking up a conversation that was dropped years before, it continued as before: Hail Mary, full of grace …
As people passed him to go to jobs he didn’t have, he prayed to himself, and watched the people begin their day, and he thought he wished he could be like them, going to a job, and not having to stand in line like this, but then he felt guilty, because he knew he was doing this for his son, not for himself, and for his family, so they could have a nice picture of the boy, his boy, and everyone could see how good he looked, how happy he was.
… the lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women …
It was 8:07; the din of delivery trucks drowned the traffic. The streetlights still glowed. The cars coming up the street turned into the parking garage. It hadn’t snowed for several days, but the snowy world around him was a frozen one, and the drivers this day were a little less cautious, feeling like the streets were solid enough for normal driving.
… and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary …
He could see himself, in his suit and overcoat, his shoes shined, going to work. He never had a job like that. He worked nights, usually, in newsrooms, editing news stories and laying out pages and putting together a thing called a newspaper, something of little importance to some, occasionally of great importance to a few.
… mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Once in a while something in the newspaper was the sort of thing people kept in their home, a part of it clipped out and placed in a Bible, or a scrapbook, something holy: a birth announcement, an engagement, an obituary. A picture of a child on a perfect day. A daughter receiving a scholarship. A son receiving a medal. Little things, scraps of things, pictures and words, on newsprint, printed every day.
He missed it. His heart ached for it.
The din of a day beginning increased in volume. The streetlights went out, the darkness finally receded a little.
He knew he was glad to be there, to be doing this, this plan that working well so far. He was the only one there, and he knew he would be the first in line.
As long as the mother and the baby got there by nine, things would be fine.
“Are you waiting in line?” asked a woman pushing a stroller that carried a sleeping 18-month-old wrapped so snug he envied the little thing.
“Yes. For the photographer, you mean,” the father said.
“Yea. It’s too cold to be out here but I thought I’d come early and be the first one,” she said.
“Yea. Y’know, it’s worth it, being here first. I gotta get going this morning.”
“Yea. So how long have you been here?” the woman asked.
“Really? Who’s getting their picture taken?”
“My son. He and his mother should be here any minute. We want to get it done right away before anything else happens today.”
“Wow, what a great idea. Holding a place in line. I should have sent my husband down here.”
Two more women with babies in strollers had arrived by then, and the story of the man arriving at 7:30 to get a place in line for his wife to get the baby picture spread quickly. Most agreed getting their husbands to do it was what they would do next year.
As he saw, in the corner of his eye, the lights in the department store to come on, he spotted a familiar truck carefully turning the corner and slowing to a smooth stop in front of him on Hamilton.
“Are we late?” the mother asked as she rolled down the window, baby in the car seat and grandfather behind the wheel.
“No, right on time,” the father said.
He could see that the baby was bright-eyed, alert and happy.
“What a great idea,” the woman behind the father said to the mother. “Sending your husband.”
“Yea,” she responded, shyly, looking at her husband, smiling.
A woman on the other side of the door marched up, turned the key in the lock, and as she opened the door, the father bounded across the sales area to the counter beneath the Photography sign. Everyone else was jockeying for room to get through, stroller and parent, to make their way to the counter.
“Which time can I sign up for?” the father asked the woman that appeared from behind a door and stepped up to the counter.
“Anytime you like,” she smiled.
“How about now?” he asked over his shoulder as his wife walked up up to the counter with the happy baby.
“Fine,” she said, smiling up at him. “Perfect.”