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How Much is That Baby in the Window

Everett's Christmas Story, 2008

by Everett Wilson
December 8, 2008

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How Much is That Baby in the Window
We were all suburban women. We had not grown up together, and we wanted to know each other better. So at the December meeting of our book club each of us was to share a Christmas memory from childhood—meaning the 1960's, for most of us. I had no trouble figuring out what story to tell. When it was my turn, this is what I said.
 

"I grew up in Chicago, did you know that? I suppose my family was well off, though I never thought about it much. There was always money for a nice vacation in the summer, and braces for our teeth, and music lessons, and college funds in safe accounts; all the stuff my own kids had in their turn. We weren't poor or deprived or unhappy. My parents were beautiful people and I even got along with my older brothers, so this isn't about the poor little match girl.

"It was early December, the year I turned seven. I arrived home from school one afternoon to find my mother more dressed up than usual and wearing makeup. Something was happening, and I probably was not included.

"It turned out I was.

"As she unbundled me from my winter coat, sweater, scarf, and snow pants, she said, 'Tonight, Daddy is going to take your brothers to a hockey game. I wondered if you would like to go down to the Loop with me to see the decorations and do some shopping. I warn you though, it will be cold and there will be a lot of walking.'

"Of course I wanted to go, and Mom didn't delay in making it happen. After a bathroom stop, I was bundled up again, and she put on her full-length mink coat. I loved sitting next to her when she was wearing it. She looked expensive, felt expensive, and smelled expensive when I snuggled up to her on the bus or train. Now, looking back, I realize that she was one classy lady, not just 'Mom.'

"There was no snack for me at home that afternoon. She said we would have an early supper in the tea room of one of the big stores .

"This was getting better and better. I saw it as 'we women' out on women's business, and I think she did too; she smiled the whole evening long, except for the few minutes I am going to tell you about.

"Dusk comes very early in a Chicago December, so during the elevated ride we saw the lights of city go on around us. Then the train dipped into the darkness and roar of the subway.

"Coming up the long stairway to the street my mother held my hand firmly, and then we stepped out into the heart of the Loop. Of course it was as bright as day because of the neon and the Christmas lights. No photograph could capture the color and movement of the scene. "Oh, Mom!" I gasped. "I thought you would like it," she said.

We began with a slow stroll along the display windows of the giant department store near the subway station. They were works of art, all of them: I immediately recognized Santa's workshop, with its mechanized elves going through the motions of toy making, and Santa's reindeer in flight, with Rudolph and his glowing nose in the lead. They were old friends from my storybooks.

"Then I stopped, fascinated. Before me was a scene I had never set my eyes on before. Taking up one large window was what looked like the inside of a barn, with animals I couldn't yet name, gathered around the oddest baby bed I had ever seen. It was made of rough wood and was filled with dried grass.
 
"I owned many dolls, good ones, but lying on the grass of that bed was the prettiest doll I had ever seen. On either side of the bed were mannequins, male and female, dressed something like Arabs in a movie. On the floor near them were three or four male mannequins, dressed the same but not as clean or as nice-looking as the ones nearest the bed.

"Of course you all know what I was seeing, but I didn't when I was seven. I had never before seen the manger scene. Where would I have seen it? We didn't go to church, listen to Bible stories, zero, and I was just seven

"I couldn't take my eyes off the doll. I had never begged for anything in my life, but my heart filled with desire, and I blurted out, "Mom, that doll is all I want for Christmas."

"When she did not speak I looked up. She was surprised, because it was unlike me to ask for things; but it was more than surprise that made her pause. I sensed instantly that she was going to turn me down. Why, I had no idea; so I just waited for her response. "Honey," she said softly, "I don't believe that doll is for sale," she said.

"'Why not? It's a store, isn't it?'

She struggled to explain. "The people who designed the window worked very hard to make it look exactly like they wanted it to. The baby is the main person in the display."

I drew in my breath to argue. I was surprised at how I felt, but I couldn't help it.

Then a very pleasant male voice spoke above my head, behind me. "Ma'am, if the child wants Jesus, she can have him."

"I beg your pardon?" Mom said. She wasn't used to being addressed by strangers in downtown Chicago.

"I can see to it that your daughter gets the doll. When the store closes on Christmas Eve, it will be delivered to your home. All I need is your address."

"'Sir, that is impossible,' Mom said briskly. 'And you are interfering in something that is not your business. You are setting my daughter up for disappointment and spoiling her evening.'

"When Mom drew herself up and spoke in that tone to anyone of any age, especially when she was wearing that coat, the conversation would end then and there; but not this time.

"'Will you do one thing when you get home, please, for your daughter's sake?' he said in the same pleasant voice, ignoring what Mom had said. 'Call the main switchboard of the store. Do not identify yourself. When the operator answers, just ask 'How much is that baby in the window?' and listen to what she says.'

"Then he was gone. I never got a good look at him. But Mom knew that I had heard what he said, and knew that there was no way I would let her get out of making that call.

"That was the high point of our evening, for me. Not for Mom. But she took me to a nice tea room anyway, as promised.

"I wanted to ask Mom why the baby had such a funny name and how the man knew its name, but I decided that could wait until I knew what was going on.

"We got home about eight. She hung up her coat and took off her hat, then with a a set mouth marched to the telephone. She almost snapped out the absurd question. Then she was silent for a moment, gave our address, and hung up.

"What?" I asked.

"Her eyes were wide, her defenses down. 'She said the doll was free, and she had instructions to send it to the address of the woman who called and asked that question'

"And sure enough, on Christmas Eve Jesus came from the store in a panel truck.

"We never did know who the man was. It didn't matter. What mattered is that he was somebody I needed right then, who said exactly the right thing to my mother: 'If the child wants Jesus, she can have him.'"

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RDM from Middletown, CTY writes:
December 8, 2008
Nice story, Everett.

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PO BOOKS BY EVERETT WILSON
Real Things
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Published January 2, 2008
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Real Things first appeared in serialized form on the Partial Observer in 2001. It is now available in print for the first time.

Over thirty years after a senseless crash redefined his life, Greg Thompson and his family finally learn why.

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A father learns from the wisdom of his toddler.

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