Thought You Ought to Know

Thought You Ought to Know

I’m remembering for you the time I stood at the corner of Broadway and Commercial and watched the future pass before my eyes.

This was a long while back, sometime during the winter of 2001. The Royal Bank was gone by then, as was the discount furniture place with its endless Final Offer!!! sales of brown naugahyde couches with chrome armrests, rattan CD racks, and objects d’art such as ceramic elephant‑foot umbrella stands, as was Betty Brite’s – the cleaners where the disgruntled man, his fingers slick with leftover take‑out Thai, always insisted there had been no belt with that dress, no top button on that suede jacket, but because it was the only dry cleaners within miles (which tells you what kind of neighbourhood it used to be, a neighbourhood where there was no great demand for dry‑cleaned clothes) I had continued to take in the occasional desperate, non‑hand‑washable item.

In their place was the new SkyTrain construction site, the security fence decorated with plywood cut into the shapes of fish and birds and whatnots and hand painted by primary‑school children.

I had a soft spot for children then, not having any myself. Optimistic children with their clever little fingers holding brushes dripping with bright acrylics, painting pink birds and blue fish and crooked houses filled with hearts and giant eyes spiky with red lashes. Small children who meant no‑one harm and whose joyful cut‑outs were defaced by malcontents who’d decided progress was a disease curable via graffiti, that the carving up of the Grandview Cut was like a cancer of the prostate, a condition you could arrest if detected in its early stages. Save the Cut, they’d spray‑painted across a purple heart in which sat a yellow cat. People not Profit across my favourite cross‑eyed salmon. You might have said that the people out in New Westminster at the end of the Millennium Line were people too; people who needed to get places. Most likely sorry, sad‑eyed, carless people who couldn’t afford to live in our progressive neighbourhood with its varied vegan, transgendered, and medical marijuana options. You could’ve said this. Although no‑one did.

People ought to have licenses to have children, this is something I’ve always felt strongly about.

This was the Yuletide season, but I might not have even noticed if it hadn’t been for the desultory Salvation Army Santa in her saggy outfit ringing her bell with the herky‑jerky movements of a Haldol user. She did not possess the preternatural pep of a volunteer, but rather the glazed look of a conscript. Oh yes, and the squeegee people all wore Santa hats.

I was wondering about these hats – and how, if the squeegee men, as they all appeared to be young men, had the wherewithal to locate the shops selling these seasonal items and the money to spend on them, then why didn’t they have the wherewithal to go find real jobs – when I noticed the baby.

The baby in question was unexceptional in every way. This was not one of those infants whose eyes brimmed with the wisdom of the ages, like a pygmy oracle of Delphi, or a baby of such intense buttery deliciousness that you wondered why it hadn’t already been spread on a warm scone and gobbled up. It was a most forgettable baby except for the fact that it had no hat on its head.

As a registered nurse (on sabbatical at the time for a nervous condition that does not bear getting into) I knew a thing or two about babies. One important thing about babies is that they have massive heads in relation to the size of their bodies. The reason for this, as I learned from Chatelaine magazine and not nursing school, is purely Darwinian. That oversized head makes them look more appealing to the adult human and in circumstances when it’s all a mother can do to keep from throwing her terrifying child from a 12th‑floor tenement window, that disproportionate head, with its uncannily large eyes, can actually save the child’s life. (That same article mentioned that a small‑headed baby’s chances of someday passing on its genes are about equal to a chinless man’s.) Call it the Bobble‑Head‑Doll Effect. Celebrities are also known to have over‑sized heads. Angelina Jolie. Alec Baldwin. Jay Leno. Mulroney, père et fils. They’re practically hydrocephalic!

What I did learn in nursing school is that ninety percent of a baby’s body heat can be lost through its head.

This mother was oblivious, though. She stood waiting for the lights to change, bouncing up and down on her heels in some kind of sport shoe, her calf muscles twitching. The stroller was a regular Humvee of a thing, tricked out with shock absorbers and chrome bumpers. It was cold enough to snow, which was unusual for Vancouver. I watched a particularly fat flake land on the baby’s forehead and melt down into its left eye. The child blinked rapidly once, twice, and the drop continued downwards. The mother didn’t even notice. I could see steam rising from the baby’s scalp as heat molecules made their escape. A quick Google search will reveal these to look alarmingly like pimento‑stuffed green olives, which puts me in mind of gin martinis, a road I do not want to go down.

People ought to have licenses to have children, this is something I’ve always felt strongly about.

I am telling you, I was this close to snatching that baby from its all‑terrain vehicle right in front of its overly fit and preening mother who probably wouldn’t have noticed until she was sipping her single‑origin Rwandan decaf‑frappy‑thing at JJ Bean. (This same coffee shop now offers something called “public cupping” on Sunday afternoons, which as a former public health professional I know is unrelated to the ancient Chinese practice of hot cupping but most likely just as pointless.)

I was already planning a better life for the baby. A life safe from the harm wrought by adults tuned solely into their own overweening needs. Not knowing whether it was a girl or boy, I settled on the name Lee, which I’ve always thought was a nice unisex name. Lee would be a quiet child, not prone to extreme displays of emotion in either direction, a comfort in his or her mother’s later years when inconsiderate neighbours stomped in and out at all hours tending to their hydroponic cash crop downstairs and especially during the late‑night police raids.

I considered the possibility that in Lee’s heartbeat I might detect a faint murmur, and accepted the fact that I would have to pray at Lee’s hospital bedside – trying to not think about the tube down my child’s throat, the vertical incision across its small chest – as the wages for all my sins. Lee would get better and, when older, somersault across the twilight lawn and clamour, politely, for a pony or a motocross bike. Lee would softly weep when we bury the cat and in a high, clear voice recite a poem he (or she!) wrote.

As I was reliving the trip Lee and “Ma” would take together to visit the hedge mazes of England, the traffic lights changed and the mother reached into her pocket, pulled out a pink fleece cap with piggy ears, and fit it snugly over baby’s head. That is how quickly dreams can be dashed.

I just thought you ought to know.

Vancouver writer Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the bestselling story collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth and editor of the awardwinning Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow. Her short fiction and journalism have been widely published and anthologized, most recently in The Walrus, Harper’s, and Maisonneuve, as well as broadcast on the CBC and on NPR in the US. She was an adjunct faculty member of UBC’s Optional Residency MFA in Creative Writing from 2005 to 2012. Zsuzsi’s latest book, Better Living through Plastic Explosives, was a finalist for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Learn more at zsuzsigartner.com.

Comment

2 comments

  1. Deb Spearing says:

    Great story ZSuzsi. What a busy brain you have! Makes me laugh.

  2. Melanie Starchuk says:

    Interesting outlook on whoever this story is about.

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