The story is something of a legend in my family. It’s been told so many times it’s taken on a mythical quality: a great storm, a valiant hero, a quest into the great unknown.
My mother transforms whenever she tells it: when she wants to communicate emphasis, oh how she arches her back so; how she makes large, sweeping gestures with her hands, as if she’s telling tales about Anansi the Spider and his trickster ways, or about the rebel, Three-Fingered Jack.
“You know the story, right?” she asks. “About the doll?”
It was December ’95, three days before Christmas, and my mother, Tina, was on a mission. She’d finished shopping a week before (“That’s how I stay. Very organized.”) and my present was going to be a wooden tool bench and The Lion King on tape.
“But I really wanted that doll for you,” she says with the passion I’ve come to expect from the story. “Baby Tumbles Surprise. The commercial was everywhere. Most of it was of this blonde baby doll that could tumble over and over, but at the very end, they showed that doll sitting next to the Black doll with her hair in pigtails. I knew I had to get it for you.”
Tina had been searching for weeks, standing in lines alongside parents as harried and desperate as she was to check every store she could think of: one at the Eaton Centre, twenty-five minutes away from where we lived, one at Yorkdale, nearly an hour-and-a-half away from our neighbourhood. She even tried that new bookshop on Bathurst we spent hours in on Saturdays—the only store I’d ever been to where every face on a book cover was a face like mine. She trudged through sleet and snow and wind and ice.
“You think you know winter? Back then, every day in December was like that song, that ‘White Christmas’ song, snow high to the waist, kids tobogganing down sidewalks, people skiing to work.”
I always want to point out that I was actually alive during this time and that the only memory I have of a winter that rivalled the Great Winter of Narnia is from ’99, when army tanks plowed through the snowy streets and the rest of the country laughed at us.
But I don’t. That isn’t part of the story.
Her lack of luck finding the doll was not surprising. Two years before, when the American Girl series introduced Addy, the nine-year-old born into enslavement she then escaped from, Tina had to order the books from the States. The sewn doll I always stared at on the living room bookshelf, clothed in the traditional bandana dress, was a souvenir from when she’d taken me to visit family in Jamaica. Toronto would not usually be the first place she looked for a toy such as this one, but that year was different. She’d actually seen the doll advertised in a Toys “R” Us flyer. Stores in the city stocked this toy; Tina simply never got to them quick enough.
“But I’m too stubborn to let that stop me.”
She’d made her way to the Toys “R” Us at Dufferin Mall, allowing the jostling crowd to move her inside like a giant wave. She was immediately dizzied by the commotion—the bright fluorescent lights, the loud, frantic chatter shrill like harpies’ screeches. Tina tried to find her way to the section she needed, marvelling at the line to the checkout that snaked around the wire racks and into the aisles, requiring three sales associates to keep it orderly.
There was a woman in line, her blue shopping cart stuffed with different soon-to-be presents, and on the top: a blue and pink box with a doll mid-tumble on the front.
“How my heart did leap!”
But the woman noticed her gaze and shook her head. “I’m sorry, sister, I got the last one!”
Tina had to check for herself. Maybe a doll was hidden in another section or maybe there was one left in the back and maybe, just this once, fortune would choose to brighten her day.
“It did not.”
My Aunt Penny and Uncle Odis were watching me and my cousin Leta while my mother went on her fool’s errand. When she came back to the apartment, she saw Leta sitting on one side of Uncle Odis, watching TV, and me standing on the other side of him, tracing the star and feather designs of his hi-top fade like I was memorizing a secret code.
Aunt Penny was in the kitchen next to the front door and my mother spoke to her as she took off her boots.
“Nothing. Couldn’t find a single one.”
“Not a one? It’s like it’s more popular than the other doll!”
Uncle Odis opened his mouth to say something and—no word of a lie—with me sitting in the middle of the living room floor, the commercial came on. Girls with their pink cheeks and blonde and brown hair squealed, “She tumbles just like me!” They tipped the doll forward and it somersaulted, making them giggle, and the girls started tumbling alongside Baby Tumbles Surprise.
Now, depending on who tells the story, my reaction varies. My aunt says I clapped my hands and laughed.
“No, not laugh,” says my mother. “You squealed.”
The way Uncle Odis tells it, I stood up and ran over to the TV, planting my palms on the screen, jumping up and down in a dance because the commercial excited me that much.
That was when he knew what he had to do.
“Actually, they might have it out in the suburbs, you know,” he said. “Brampton, maybe. A lot of we up there now so maybe they ordered more to reflect the population, nuh so? I can go out there and check.”
Odis did have advantages neither Tina nor Penny shared; he was tall like sugarcane, good for reaching shelves, and he had a car.
“The weather is looking bad.”
“Don’t bother yourself with worry. I’m a good driver.”
The highway was perilous; sheets of ice and snow fell off trucks that lumbered forward with mechanical groans. To avoid impact, Odis had to either stop in time or change lanes with a precision made difficult by the flurry of white that blanketed his field of vision. He’d been honked at, he’d been cursed, he’d been tempted to do both but chose to keep his eyes on the road.
The first store was pure ray-ray. Chaos. He nearly tripped over running children, and more than once someone knocked into him while carrying a toy over their head to keep other customers from trying to grab their prize. The sales associates ran up and down aisles, most shelves were entirely empty.
He called from a payphone in the mall, shouting over the masses and plugging his free ear with his finger to hear better.
Penny sat with my mother at the breakfast table, the Yellow Pages open in front of them, and she moved away from the phone to say, “He couldn’t find it there.” When she spoke to Odis again, she gave him another location to check and he promised to call back with news, good or bad.
The city streets were worse than the highway. Odis had to drive in neutral to keep from sliding on black ice. The winds were so strong they rattled his windows and swayed him a little off course. SUVs were crashed into snowdrifts and—Odis pressed his foot on the gas when the traffic light turned green but all he heard was revving, his tires spinning in the snow.
“Woy! He got stuck! On less than a half tank of gas too! Can you imagine?”
He stopped and started. He braked. He took the car mat from the passenger’s side and put it beneath a wheel in the hopes of gaining traction, because this blasted car could not be what stopped him from fulfilling his errand. Finally, the driver behind him stepped out to help push his car out.
The lights in the apartment began to flicker on and off and the TV cut in and out, going from black screen to regular programming. Leta convinced me it was because a ghost was haunting us.
“Leta,” said Penny. “Don’t frighten her with duppy story.”
Whenever the phone rang, Tina and Penny would gasp, their anticipation so potent it affected us children, clueless to the cause of our mothers’ agitation. Each time they took the call, we would turn away from the television, poised to mimic their reactions, to scream if they screamed, to sigh if they sighed—it was always a groan, a head shake and then Leta and I would hang our heads, a moment of silence for what we felt but did not know, and return to watching TV.
Odis would assure Tina each time. There were more stores he could try and, if there was time, he would even drive to Mississauga, but the stubborn hope Tina had clung to for the past two weeks was ebbing away.
This was the last store. And Odis was trying something different. He hovered next to the cashiers, ignoring the people in line whose expressions both warned and dared him to try and cut in front of them. Behind the cashiers were shopping carts brimming with different toys and at the bottom, pressed against the metal bars, was the box he’d been searching for, his white whale, his golden table: Baby Tumbles Surprise.
A sales associate half-walked, half-ran to the counter but Odis intercepted her before she made it, asking—in all politeness—if she could maybe just hand him over that doll from that cart. Some of the customers in line who had side-eyed him now sniggered with disbelief at his audacity.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but you can only take products from the floor. You can go see if there are any left on the shelf.”
Odis was confused. Even though the doll was right in front of them, even though he could clearly see it just out of his reach, even though he’d been the customer who saw it in that shopping cart, she couldn’t simply hand it to him?
“I’m afraid not, sir. You can only purchase items that are on the floor. Other people have also asked about this item.”
He did not move from his spot. There could be a doll on the shelf but he knew for sure that there was one at the cash register, and he didn’t want to take his eyes off of the shopping cart. Especially if there were other people lurking around the store, waiting to spring out and reveal themselves when the doll made it to its destination.
“You know it might’ve actually been two hours, he waited there.”
“Ahlie,” I say.
“Not ah lie mi ah tell.”
If Odis is around, he agrees to a conservative number at first—“I stood there maybe three-quarter hour to an hour”—and then the wait time gets longer. “No, wait, it must’ve just felt like an hour but I did stand there for two hours, keeping my eyes sharp, watching them.”
All of the toys had been sectioned off into different carts depending on their category, and Odis tracked the one with the dolls. He followed from a respectable distance, he didn’t want to make the young man pushing the cart anxious, who already had a lot to deal with, firmly reminding customers that they couldn’t reach into the cart and take what they wanted.
The doll aisle was impossible to get through; the crowd barely made space for the man and his cart and nobody tried to accommodate Odis. He was blocked by bodies. Shoved backwards. Elbowed or nearly elbowed. There were hundreds of dolls and everyone wanted the same ones. Quickly, Odis was pulled into the swarm of limbs. No! He was losing the cart. It was getting further and further away. Odis battled the horde, a man pushing against the current, and he was about to make it. The cart had stopped at its destination. He was just there, a few feet away. The doll had just been shelved—
A woman snatched the box.
She took it just as Odis moved to pick it up, his hand grabbing nothing but air. He was devastated. There were no others of the same doll on the shelf, just two of the blonde ones that the customers around him were struggling to get their hands on. Odis stood there, his shock allowing the crowd to jostle him as people clamoured for their gifts. He was not done. He couldn’t be. He would just have to find someone who worked there and ask all of the inane questions, he would search every shelf in every aisle just to be sure.
Odis looked around for a way out of the aisle, raising his head, moving it left to right, peering above shelves to scout the best exit, and then he saw it.
Pushed to the very back of the very top shelf, fallen on its side, unnoticed, was another box. Another Baby Tumbles Surprise. Most people would require a ladder to see that high and that far.
But not Odis.
He had to stand on tiptoe, crane his neck, extend himself further than he’d ever had to before, stretching his hand over the heads of the other customers, but he did it. He grabbed the box and brought it to his chest, cradling it, protecting it as other people groaned or called for a sales associate to get a ladder, to check the back.
Odis knew what his expression looked like to the frantic customers around him. Apologetic but triumphant.
There was no payphone by the store so Odis had to pull into a gas station and ignore the years of chewed gum and graffiti and stickers that corroded it. He called the apartment.
“I found one!” he said. “I got the last one!”
The screams were so loud he had to move his ear from the receiver, and he chuckled when he heard my mother singing “Wind Beneath My Wings.” The joy was so infectious, Leta and I started screaming too, I remember that even more than getting the doll itself. The laughter, the excitement, the euphoria, the stuff of legends. ⁂
Zalika Reid-Benta’s debut short story collection Frying Plantain won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in literary fiction in 2020. Her debut novel, River Mumma, a magical realist story that incorporates Jamaican folklore and a contemporary Toronto landscape, was released on August 22, 2023.