Ross rubbed his chin while he stared at the choices of chewing gum on the rack by the grocery store checkout. He wasn’t usually indecisive, but all of the choices at the store made choosing difficult. Packages of both blue and green promised minty freshness, and the labels looked as wintry as the snowflakes drifting to the ground in the supermarket parking lot. He hoped it didn’t take as long to make a choice about which gum to buy as it did to choose from all the options in the breakfast cereal aisle.
Wintergreen was the final choice. Ross liked how it combined the concept of cold with a color he associated with springtime. Satisfied with the choice, he turned his attention to the man directly ahead in the check out line. The man dangled a baby carrier in his right hand, and his left arm cradled a small collection of boxes and fresh produce. Ross wanted to shake his head and point out the breakage of the cardinal rule of shopping with children. Always use a basket or a cart! Never render your free hand unusable! You’ll need it in emergencies.
The baby whimpered, and Ross winced when the uncomfortable fumbling began. The stranger swayed and shouted as the grocery items tucked into his left arm began to wobble. “Damn!”
Three boxes tumbled into the floor and a grapefruit rolled under the chewing gum rack. The baby swinging in the carrier began to squeal just as the man bent over to pick up his groceries.
Ross bit his lip. He knew what was coming next, and everyone else in the grocery line did, too. The group of customers gathered a collective breath and held it for a few short seconds before full-throated crying erupted alternating with shrieks of distress. The ear-splitting sounds echoed through the checkout area disrupting conversations and smothering the cashier’s question, “Paper or plastic?”
The left arm of the baby’s father reached upward from somewhere near the floor trying in vain to land a macaroni and cheese dinner box on the checkout conveyor belt. He grumbled and swore under his breath as the blue and yellow box waved in the air.
Ross reached out. “Let me help.” He took the box from the man’s fingers and dropped it safely in place to be rung up by the cashier. As she swept the box across the scanner with a satisfying digital tone, she tensed while she braced herself for the next bout of crying.
“Oh, man, thanks, bud,” drifted up from the floor. The words were followed by an unsuccessful, “Shh, shh, quiet now,” and a bunch of bananas waving in the air.
The baby shrieked again. Ross didn’t think it was possible, but the sound was louder than before. He grabbed the bananas and fumbled in his jeans pocket while watching for the next grocery items.
As two more boxes landed on the belt, the stranger stood and bounced on his toes, gently swinging the baby carrier to and fro. Frantic efforts to stop a new outburst were unsuccessful. A few seconds of blissful silence succumbed to another round of ear-splitting screams and gasping sobs.
Yanking his hand free from his pocket, Ross grasped what he’d been digging around for amid the change and stray dollar bills. He dangled his ring of approximately ten keys just inches from the scrunched up, beet-red, anguished face of the infant. It did the trick.
As the keys jangled against each other and reflected the evening light streaming in through the store’s plate-glass windows, light sighs and baby chuckles replaced the squeals and cries of distress. The screeching, flailing animal who writhed in the carrier just seconds earlier became a sweet baby girl with a tiny pink ribbon pasted to the top of her forehead. The tense and disgruntled group of customers all breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Ross watched the harried father release the tension in his shoulders and smile. “Bud, you’re a lifesaver. Thank you.”
“I was only trying to help. Babies aren’t easy.”
“Here, here!” A woman behind Ross’ shoulder shouted in agreement. A round of spontaneous applause erupted from the crowd. They celebrated the unexpected hero who ended the emotional trauma brought on by the shrieks of an unhappy, pint-sized future grocery customer.
It took only seconds to ring up Ross’s box of cereal, half-gallon of milk, and chewing gum. When he left the checkout line with a plastic bag holding the purchases, the baby’s father was still arranging blankets and zipping up a dark blue parka in preparation to face the frigid Minnesota winter weather outside.
“Do you need any help getting to the car?” asked Ross. “I’ve just got the one little bag.”
Up close, dark circles of fatigue appeared under the father’s eyes. They were the calling card of a new parent. “Are you for real? I think I can make it, but yeah, help is appreciated.” After pulling a stocking cap on over his head, the man reached a hand out to shake. He said, “The name is Puck. It’s as short and sharp as it sounds.”
“I’m Ross. I love babies, but I know they’re a handful. My sister had to deal with hers on her own. I stepped in to help when I could, and I learned a few tips and tricks along the way.”
Puck was a striking man. Despite his haggard and harried expression, his body was sturdy and wiry. Cords of muscle stood out on his tattooed forearms. Ross liked the way the corners of his eyes crinkled when he finally smiled.
Puck tugged on a pair of black leather gloves that didn’t look like a winter design. They were thin and skintight meant for a good grip when riding a motorcycle. “If you don’t mind, could you carry my bag of stuff to the car? I’ll handle Addie, and that way I can make sure she doesn’t get cold out there. They say the snow might cut loose again any minute. That’s why I needed to rush to the store. The fridge and cupboard were getting empty.”
“Oh, sure. Addie, that’s a pretty name.” Ross wondered about Addie’s mother, but he guessed that she might have been up all night, and Puck was a gentleman father taking care of the early evening shift.
The weather words were prophetic. Halfway to the car, a cobalt blue SUV, the snowfall intensified. Fortunately, the wind didn’t pick up, but the snowflakes were suddenly twice as big and multiplied by the second. Visibility fell by the minute.
The parking lot was already full of small snow mountains pushed up against lamp posts. They were the remnants of earlier storms. Forecasters predicted the third three-inch snowfall for Coldbrook Bend in just over a week.
As Puck punched his key fob to unlock the doors, Ross reached forward to open the rear door of the SUV. He was relieved to see a car seat strapped into place waiting for its little occupant.
Setting the carrier on the back seat of the SUV, Puck began to unwrap the blankets wrapped around his precious parcel. “She’s asleep now. Wouldn’t you know it?”
Ross sensed that he was no longer needed. “It’s been great meeting you. I’ll leave you to the drive home.”
“Hey, don’t leave yet.” Puck focused on Addie but continued to speak. “I haven’t had enough human contact lately. I go back to work in two days. I’m one of the lucky ones. They gave me a full eight weeks of leave. The law only requires six. Did your sister have to work while her kid was a baby?”
“Yep, forty hours a week. I did some babysitting, and my parents pitched in, too. Did your wife get leave from work?”
Puck froze in place and frowned. He spoke slowly in a low tone. “She’s gone.”
Ross began to form the obvious question with his mouth, and then he held his tongue. He saw the pain in addition to fatigue in Puck’s dark eyes. He decided against a question, and his voice came out in a whisper. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. I need to get used to the questions, and I’m sure I’ll need to tell the story a thousand times when I’m back at work. My wife, Miranda, died about twelve hours after Addie was born. It was sudden and a shock. It was something to do with high blood pressure. No one saw it coming. She didn’t either. She was so happy when she first held Addie in her arms. At least she got to have that.”
Opening and closing his mouth, Ross struggled for words. A small tear formed in the corner of his eye while the snowflakes continued to drift to the ground.
Puck held up one of his leather-clad hands. “Don’t worry about what to say. It’s horrible. I know that. I’ve got lawyers who are trying to convince me to sue, but I can’t deal with that right now. Taking care of Addie is my limit. It’s all I can do. Doing all the right stuff by her is about all that keeps me holding it together.”
“If I can…”
“Don’t think I don’t appreciate the help. I really do, but you don’t know me. We’re total strangers. It’s a sad story, but we’ll make it. Life goes on.” Puck turned away and began tucking blankets back in against Addie. He appeared to be repeating the same actions he’d performed just a few minutes earlier.
Ross rubbed his hands together. During all the talk, he’d forgotten to put on his own stocking cap and gloves, and his hands were beginning to feel numb from the cold. He tried to imagine himself in the position of a widower with an infant child. He couldn’t. It was a completely different situation from that of Ross’s friends Brody and Dak, and their baby Penelope. He knew how to relate to them.
“Drive safe on your way home.” Ross turned to look for his car in the parking lot. In the midst of the story, he’d forgotten about that, too. Suddenly, half of the cars looked the same.
“Will do. It’s only about a five-minute drive away. And buddy, thanks again. I do appreciate it.”
For the rest of the evening, Ross couldn’t get Puck and his daughter Addie out of his mind. He was a good-looking, roughhewn man. He stood out from the mostly ordinary residents of Coldbrook Bend.
Most of the hardworking men weren’t handsome, and the good-looking ones walked around town with their noses in the air. Puck was different. As Addie grew older, Ross knew that she would be proud to introduce Puck as her father.
His hair was buzzed tight on the sides of his head, and, understandably, it looked like Puck hadn’t shaved for at least a week. Still, Ross remembered a sparkle in those weary eyes.
Addie was adorable. She had that bright-eyed baby look that swept into utter fury at the drop of a hat. When the keys dangled in front of her face, Addie’s smile returned before the tears could dry on her little cheeks. A lilting giggle accompanied the happy, cooing sounds..
That night, after lying in bed unable to sleep for an hour, Ross got back up. Wearing only boxer shorts, he padded to the second bedroom of the apartment. It was a makeshift art studio. Old area rugs splattered with paint covered the hardwood floor. A large easel sat in one corner of the room, and three nearly completed canvases rested in a stack near the door.
Ross had one fresh, empty canvas remaining before needing to return to the art supply store in Rochester. He propped it up on the easel and set to work preparing the paints. On most days, Ross was too tired and distracted at the end of a workday for painting. It was important to take advantage of sudden bursts of inspiration even though they might carry him into the wee hours of the morning without sleep.
The process of first sketching the basics and then planning the colors filled Ross’s chest with pleasurable, warm sensations. He couldn’t remember for sure the last time that an idea throbbed in his head so hard that it had to be committed to canvas. When Ross pulled ideas like that out of his mind, he knew that they were the genesis of his best work.
It was nearly 3:30 a.m. before sleep finally crept forward urgently enough to force a return to bed. Before turning off the light in the studio, Ross looked at the image of Puck and baby Addie he’d created. It was abstracted into a vibrant display of blues, purples, and grays. The specific people might not have been immediately recognizable, but he successfully captured their mood and emotion. Ross was confident that someday he would find Puck again and share his creation.