Thanksgiving had just ended when the weather report predicted a major snowfall overnight. With the Midwesterner’s prescience of being snowed in (and possibly losing electric power), people were crowding the Target, stocking up on supplies of food, candles, bottled water, board games, and liquor—if not to stave off species extinction, at least to have a good time getting through the storm. As Assistant Manager, I was pitching in to handle the crowd, working checkout. After eight hours of facing the onslaught, with just one person left in my lane, I gratefully switched off my light and smiled at my last customer, a tall, pleasant-looking man whose cart was loaded not with self-preservation supplies, but with bags of birdseed and suet cakes.
“Friend to the birds, huh?” I said, scanning the big bags he plopped down on my conveyer belt. “Nice of you to think of them.”
“Yeah, well, it’s either feed ‘em or invite ‘em in,” he shrugged with a loopy smile, and looked at my name tag. “Laurie. Hi, I’m Greg.”
“Hi.” I smiled. We made small talk about the oncoming storm and he left, and I thought no more about him as I dashed for the break room to get my coat before heading out to pick up my kids and plan our own snow day survival.
The day after the blizzard, roads were plowed with Wisconsin efficiency and life resumed. I was shorthanded due to the storm, so was once again working a checkout lane when the guy came through again, this time with just a pack of gum.
“You came in just for gum?” I laughed. “That’s not a habit, it’s a problem!”
His grin was sheepish. “More to see you again,” he said. “I don’t mean to creep you out, but I was wondering if you’d like to get coffee sometime.”
My guard went up. “I don’t know you.”
“And you never will, unless we get to talk.” He pointed to the coffee shop near the entrance. “How about there? That’s safe, isn’t it? I promise. Just coffee, and then you never have to see me again. I’ll get my gum at Wal-Mart.”
I pondered a moment. He seemed nice. And I figured anyone who took care of the birds couldn’t be too bad. I shrugged. “My break’s in half an hour.”
We had coffee, and then the next day, too. We talked and laughed; he seemed very nice, and I relaxed my guard a bit. He came in every day after that, even when I was off. I knew because Dee told me that when he didn’t see me he asked when I was working. At first this alarmed me, but Dee laughed. “He doesn’t seem like a stalker, Laurie. Just kind of lonely. For God’s sake, give him your number, will you, so he can stop wasting a trip on your day off.”
So we exchanged emails and put our phone numbers into each others’ phones. For Christmas he sent me an e-card of a bunch of birds in mufflers and the message, “Here’s to a flurry Christmas and a chirpy New Year.”
There was something endearing about him, something open and self-effacing. Still, I was hesitant—once burned and all. I told him I was divorced and had kids but didn’t mention my pains and fears for them. He told me he was a widower and that he was a businessman. Ashamed by my lack of faith yet bolstered by the horror stories on the news, I Googled him and found out more: that he owned a chain of popular dry cleaners that had been honored by the Village for starting and stocking a local food pantry; that his wife had died of a lingering illness, and that he had started a scholarship in her memory at the local high school; that he contributed regularly to local charities; that he was a high school baseball umpire and also volunteered for the summer Little League program.
He was easy to talk to, and I found myself opening up to him about my life: my concerns for my eight-year-old Nate’s reaction to my divorce, and my fears for my six-year-old daughter, Hannah, who had lost most of her hearing after a severe ear infection. He asked questions, but more, he listened. He never pushed me, and I appreciated his taking it slow. I didn’t tell him much about Zach—there wasn’t much to tell. My ex had taken a powder right after Hannah was born, saying he couldn’t be tied down. Greg talked about his wife, too, and I could see his pain as he talked. They’d never had children—her illness had not allowed it, and they’d felt adoption wouldn’t be fair to the child who would lose a mother.
We went to movies now and then, or out to dinner, and finally in January, he said, “I’d like to meet your kids. Unless you think I’ll be a bad influence on them,” he added, giving me a puppy-dog look that made me laugh and give in.
“Good,” he nodded. “Tell you what. Why don’t you all come over to my house on Saturday, and I will make my world-famous chili?”
I hesitated, but I liked him and realized that if I was going to continue seeing him, I had to take the plunge some time.
My kids took to him immediately, and we spent the afternoon at his family room windows, watching birds flocking around his many feeders. He had presented Hannah with a cheery stuffed bluebird and Nate with a bird book, and the three of them set to finding pictures as he explained about the avian visitors. Nate and Hannah were fascinated; I was enchanted, but wary.
I had been enchanted with Zach, too, and he had broken my heart. How could I let myself be open to that pain again? I had to be sure I could trust again. Greg was calm and comfortable, and it would be so easy to just let it be, but I had that nagging voice telling me I needed a lightning bolt. I was superstitious, and I wanted a signal: a sign that it was right to let him in.
When the kids started asking about him every day, I realized that even without my total immersion, he had become part of our lives. And his arms around me felt so right, I found myself fitting into his spaces, even as I resisted falling completely in. He began to become part of our routine, often coming over to cook dinner, listening while Nate, Hannah and I studied American Sign Language.
We were having trouble with that. Hannah refused to use ASL, pouting and crying when I insisted. We had been told that surgery, when she was older, might restore her hearing, but the doctors offered no assurance that it would work, so I wanted her to be prepared for a life of muffled silence, just in case. I tried in vain to get her to use her hands to talk, but she resisted. Worse, she was having trouble with reading, and was starting to close down, becoming stubborn and having tantrums. I lost sleep worrying about her falling behind in school.
Spring arrived, and with it came youth baseball. Hannah had refused to join any kind of team, and instead seemed to withdraw into her dolls. Nate joined the Minors, a step designed to transition children into the more competitive world of Little League. I went to all the practices and worried about neglecting Hannah, but Greg came along and took her for walks or to the playground. She seemed to enjoy the outings, and I noticed they had developed a bit of a bond. “We work a little on sign language,” he told me. “Just a little at a time, like a game. I think I enjoy it as much as she does.”
When the baseball schedule started, Greg joined Hannah and me on the bleachers. One warm day, the umpire didn’t show, and our coach, Bob, announced, “Sorry, folks, without an official umpire, we can’t have an official game.”
Greg stood up. “Hey, Bob, I’ll do it,” he said. The coaches all knew him and agreed, and he stepped down to the diamond and donned the protective vest and facemask.
“Play ball!” he called out, and the game ensued. Though the kids were little, they were serious players, most with practiced skills. But one boy on our team, Jimmy, couldn’t seem to get
a hit, earning some grumbling from the stands with each strikeout. The fourth time he came up to bat, the grumbling got louder, and with each strike, the groans and comments grew. Sometimes parents can be cruel when it comes to competitive events. They weren’t nasty remarks, but still, I saw the child’s mother a little ways down the bleachers and cringed with her at each complaint. When he struck out yet again, Jimmy’s shoulders slumped as he turned from the plate. But Greg stopped him.
“Stay there,” he ordered, then turned to the stands, announcing, “He swings until he hits it.” His set jaw dared anyone to refute his command. “Any objections?”
The crowd was shocked into silence, but Greg stared them down, and a smattering of applause took the place of the grumbling. Greg went back to home plate and called to our coach, “Bob, do you mind if I do a little ad lib coaching?” Bob grinned and shook his head. Then Greg showed the child how to hold the bat. I heard him say in a low voice, “Choke up your hands. Now get your elbow up. Higher. Swing straight across.”
The child nodded, Greg reset his mask and the game resumed. Strike four. Strike five, six, seven, eight. Suddenly, I heard Nate call from the dugout, “You can do it, Jimmy!” He started to chant, “Jim-my! Jim-my!” The other kids picked up the call, and even the opposing fielders joined in. Suddenly, the bleacher crowd started calling encouragement to the child. His mother sat beaming, and I found I was smiling, too.
Jimmy set his shoulders and nodded at the pitcher, who sent a soft lob. Bat met ball: just a wobbler, but the whole place—both sides—erupted in cheers. Jimmy ran—he was fast and just beat the throw to first and stood wriggling, almost dancing on the plate. I was grinning and cheering with everyone else.
Greg turned to look at us and waved. Then he looked at Hannah and his hands formed in ASL, “See what you can do when you keep trying?”
As I watched, amazed, Hannah’s hands replied, “That was awesome!” Obviously, Greg’s “little at a time” had made some impression on my recalcitrant girl! Then Hannah signed, “I will try harder, I promise. I love you.”
His hands responded, “I love you, too.”
And I knew I had my sign.
Joyce Becker Lee received her MFA from Northwestern University, where she was nominated for The Best New American Voices. Her publishing credits include, among others, The First Line, Cicada, MemoryHouse, Prairies North, Folklore, Escape Into Life, Jerry Jazz Musician, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dog Did That? Her first collection of short stories, Casualties, will be published in 2023 from Tortoise Books. She lives and writes in the Chicago area, where she heads her local Arts Commission. Above all, she is a devoted Bubbe to her three grandchildren.