The Wrigleyville Crossing Guard

We are between Christmas and New Year's Day so not much is shaking in baseball. Here's a very short story to help us escape the winter blues for a minute or two.

(Note: The following is fiction. The characters and events depicted are not based on anybody or anything in our real world at all.)

She wore a standard-issue neon yellow-green reflective crossing guard coat with thick matching mittens. A furry black trapper hat almost completely covered her forehead, its flaps pulled down over her ears against the December chill. Stepping brightly and holding aloft a stop sign attached to a short pole, she guided the young students halfway across Southport Avenue toward their school. When the children arrived on the far curb, she turned and retraced her steps back to her side of the street. I watched as I waited for the light to change, making sure none of the kids strayed off the sidewalk and into my lane of traffic.crossing-guard-arm-with-stop-sign

Each week since school resumed after Thanksgiving I noticed her as I drove to the Jewel a block away at Waveland Avenue. She was the new crossing guard, but there was something comforting about the way she cheerfully guided her charges to safety each morning. She had quickly become a familiar figure along Southport, as if I knew her personally.

A black Honda SUV approached on Grace Street, to my left. The driver lightly tapped the horn in greeting. The crossing guard waved and smiled. It was the wave I recognized.

“Holy crap,” I said aloud to myself. “It can’t be.” I stared at her. The height was right. Her gestures were right. She looked heavier, but so was I, and it could have been the bulk of her winter garb that obscured her figure.

She used to greet or say goodbye to me with the same peculiar motion, her right elbow bent, her arm moving like the dial of a clock, and her hand rotating on her wrist. Her own version of the papal wave. I had considered it our own private shtick. It hurt a little to see her use it so casually with the driver of a passing car, and then I realized that she had no doubt used our wave with dozens of people over the decades since we had last seen each other, and, no doubt with many others before we met.

Someone behind me tooted their horn, but it wasn’t to say hello to the crossing guard. The light had turned green and I was holding up rush hour traffic. I proceeded through the intersection, pulled over just beyond Grace, and put the car in park. I watched her in my rear view mirror. When the last of the kids had entered the building she tucked her stop sign under her arm and walked in my direction. I picked up my cell and pretended to be checking email or texts or whatever, my eyes darting back and forth from my mirror to my phone. She might have glanced at me, but never slowed her gait, continuing toward Waveland Avenue where she turned east, toward the ballpark. It was her gait that convinced me it was her.

No wonder she looked so familiar.

What to do? Pursue her on the street? She was already out of view and at least half a block away. With my new titanium knees barely a month old, I was in no shape to run after her. Serious consideration would be necessary back home on my couch. I was way too old for thoughtless spontaneous behavior.

I glanced in my mirror one more time and noticed a mailbox at her corner. That was it. Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, I would mail something just before she left for home, or wherever she went on Waveland Avenue. She still lived in Chicago, I was surprised to see. Perhaps she had moved back from … where? Long ago I heard that she had moved to Florida, or the Bahamas or some other vacation destination, to work on cruise ships.

Half an hour later, after doing my weekly shopping, I sat on my couch considering my options and remembering our time together. It wasn’t long, maybe six or seven months about forty years ago. Our parting was amicable. No fighting, no recriminations. She was going to move on and so was I. Since then I’ve often wondered whether if we had continued dating we would have married one day. I was certain she had found someone (it was no doubt why she wanted to work on a cruise ship!), and was perhaps a grandmother by now, while I had remained a bachelor, at least until now.

Facebook! She just might be the kind of person who enjoyed social media. She was that kind of girl. Girl? She must be 65 by now.

Sure enough, I found her Facebook page by searching her maiden name. She listed herself as single, but with three children and four grandchildren. Almost all of her posts involved her family, but there were a few with old friends at reunions or casual get-togethers at restaurants. No photos of her with a man, I was happy to discover.

The next morning I pulled over across Grace from her corner and noted the time she left for home. Was I stalking her? No no no no. I just wanted to be sure that my plan for “running into her” was sound.

That afternoon I got a haircut. The barber asked if he should trim my beard, which I thought to be a good idea. When he held the mirror up for me to inspect his work, I was horrified to see how white my beard had become. Even short, it said very loudly that I was on the far side of sixty.

But what of that? She knows how old I am.

On the fateful day, I parked a few doors from her corner and watched my car’s clock, giving myself two minutes to reach the mailbox, and her sixty seconds to cross Grace Street and meet me there. I snapped my clip-on flip-up sunglasses off my black-rimmed trifocals. At exactly the right moment I turned off my engine and got out of my car. I watched her cross the street, the stop sign tucked under her arm signaling that the last tot was safely in school. A few paces from the mailbox I reached into my coat pocket for the fake envelope that I planned to “mail.”

It wasn’t there.

Panic.

I stopped and patted myself down searching for the non-letter. I sensed that she noticed me. She stopped and said, “I hate it when that happens.” Still lovely, her face radiated with the mischievous smile I had seen so often so long ago. She had aged, but to me only twenty of the forty years since we parted.

“I was sure I picked that letter up off my desk before I left my apartment,” I replied, and then realized I didn’t need a fake envelope after all.

“Oh my God!” she said. “You’re …”

“Hello,” I said, confident that my ruse had worked.

“You’re Joe … But you can’t be because he lives in Florida during the offseason.”

I felt my face collapse. “No, I’m not him.”

“You sure look like him. I bet you get that a lot.”

“Well, now and then. Especially at the ballpark during games.” I squared my shoulders. “But I like to think he looks like me. I’m older and looked like him before he did.”

“But you look younger than him.” She laughed and started walking toward Waveland Avenue. “Must be kind of fun to look like a Chicago hero. Have a nice day, Joe! And bring home another winner.” I limped back to my car and drove home.

As each day passed, the thought of trying a second time to reconnect seemed less and less like a good idea. But I toot my horn whenever I pass her corner. She responds with her papal wave, and that smile.
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Did you enjoy my piece of fiction? If so, I wrote a book titled Called Out: a novel of base ball and America in 1908 that's getting excellent reviews. It features the 1908 Cubs among others. And it's only $15.95 (cheap). Want a signed copy? Click here and order it from The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, Chicago (or visit them in person! 4736 N. Lincoln, Chicago). On the checkout page scroll down to the message window and tell them you want a signed copy. I'll swing by the store and sign it for you and they will ship it.

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