“Crossing Guard” is the story of a man with regrets. A man who believes he can pinpoint the moment that his and his friends’ lives fell apart. Can we be forgiven for wrongs committed in the fearfulness of our youths? Who are we afraid of? Sometimes, we can’t forgive ourselves. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
Usually Mr. Nelfin was standing at the crosswalk ready to guide us across the street with his yellow reflective vest and his stop sign, so we could spend another day tormenting poor Edward Fountain for bringing sandwiches that his mom had removed the crust from and cut into four even triangles, and tug on Mindy Prince’s pigtails as she walked down the hall to go to her speech therapy session. Whether it was raining or snowing or so humid we wished we could pull off our skin, Mr. Nelfin trudged out to Lincoln Avenue and made sure that every last kid reached the other side, even the kids whose parents were divorced and never made it to school on time, and he was still there when we were released from detention—Doug and Randy and Nick and Tyler and I—and all of the dorks got out of band practice; and Doug’s mom said he did all of that for free. She said we should be nice to him, that he cared about us, that he had pride in his community. Years later, I learned that his wife had died of cancer before any of us were born. She’d worked at the school for 38 years in the front office where we went when we had fevers or scraped our knees or needed a bathroom pass or had to talk to Principal Godfrey whose office smelled like pepperoni and cheese pizza and we’d laugh about how hungry we got whenever we saw him. Mr. Nelfin was a permanent fixture on Lincoln Avenue, his bulbous nose and the hair that poked from his ears. But this morning, we stood there watching the cars slip by, wondering which of us would be the first to step into the crosswalk without him.
I bet Mr. Nelfin’s head is full of hair, Randy said. On the inside. And he steals a piece from every kid he’s ever taken across the street and shoves it up his enormous nose.
And now it’s coming out his ears, Doug said and we shook our heads. Doug was always pointing out the obvious.
None of us had ever seen anyone like Mr. Nelfin and we were desperate for a way to explain him. His skin hung from his cheeks. He was completely bald but for a pure white strip that encircled his head. His back had a permanent hunch that we imitated on the weekends at Birch Park, between writing curse words with markers on the rocks that lined the trail or pissing down the little kid slides. He shuffled as if his knees no longer had the ability to bend, the heel of one foot never passing the toes of the other. He kept us behind him and we could see the faces of the drivers always a breath away from plowing us over so they could get to their desks and drink coffee and talk about how they wished they were home. I assume it was the same for them then as it is for me now. Though when I’m home the quiet is so encompassing that I wish I was back at work. Sometimes, I’ll type the names into a search engine. Tyler is the only one of us who has had success. Even after all this time, Mr. Nelfin is steering me toward every bad decision, every wasted opportunity. After he died they installed a pedestrian light and we had to hit the yellow button and wait forever for the little glowing walking man to appear and it felt so impersonal.
It was Tyler who saw Mr. Nelfin first, sitting in a bright blue lawn chair across the street under the shade of a tree. His reflective vest was bunched under his arms and the stop sign was lying on the grass next to him. Tyler was the tallest of us and his parents made the most money. I remember him best even though he moved away the next summer and none of us ever heard from him again. I wanted his perfectly straight brown hair that he spiked at the top and his faded jeans and Converse shoes. I wanted a mom who sunbathed out back in a pink bikini. I wanted a dad who drove around in a red convertible. I wanted a Labrador retriever that I could take to the forest preserve and it would swim in the small lake and fetch sticks that I found lying under trees. But mostly, I wanted to talk like Tyler, as if every conversation bored me, like there was no one who could interest me enough to care. I’m pretty sure we all felt that way to varying degrees. We were the only ones waiting to cross and though the weather had been getting warmer after a cold winter, the wind stung our cheeks and Randy turned up the collar on his red and green flannel shirt. Or he may have copied Tyler who had his collar up that day. Randy’s parents fought every night, beating each other while Randy hid in his bedroom. He wanted Tyler’s life most of all. Once, in a bar hundreds of miles from where I grew up, I saw someone exactly like a grown-up Randy with his small hands and his rotund face and the ears slightly too low on the sides of his head and I realized I didn’t want to talk to him. I was happy that I had grown out my hair and that my beard covered my face and if it was indeed Randy slouching in a stool with a beer and a shot in front of him, he would never recognize me.
Even though he missed by a mile, Randy was the first to throw one of the small rocks jammed in the dirt along the sidewalk. But Nick was the first to hit Mr. Nelfin, a glancing shot off of his knee that caused his head to tilt slightly as if his muscles had been removed. We all gave it a try, tossing the rocks in a high arc over Lincoln Avenue as the morning traffic rushed by, but no one else came close. I don’t know when we got so brave. I remember a time when I had to leave my closet light on at night and couldn’t sleep if my dad wasn’t home from work. But after Nick’s rock didn’t wake Mr. Nelfin, we all had to try. Each one of us wanted to be the one that hit him hard enough to make him struggle to his feet, and if we were lucky, maybe scream a profanity. Nick couldn’t stop grinning and claiming himself the winner, turning the whole thing into a game. Everything was a game, like the time we competed to see who could climb highest in the elm tree in front of Doug’s house and Nick climbed up so high he couldn’t get down and we could barely make out his slight form perched near the top. We heard the fear in his voice when he called out for help, so we took off, leaving him there until Doug’s dad got home and called the fire department. As soon as Tyler stopped throwing rocks, we knew the game was over. I bet he can see us, Randy said. He wants us to try to cross without him. For every kid that gets hit by a car, he gets 10 extra years on his life. How else do you think he can stay alive so long?
I bet Doug gets hit, Tyler said.
I don’t think so, I’m the fastest one here, Doug said and we laughed because he always said that when he was desperate for us to notice one good thing about him. Since it was the only thing he could come up with that he could do slightly better, none of us acknowledged it.
I nominate Doug to go first then, Randy said. Since he’s so fast.
But Tyler took the first step. We lined up behind him, none of us wanting to look like a girl, staring at Mr. Nelfin, waiting for him to finally lift his stop sign. The two lanes closest to us stopped first and it wasn’t until we had almost reached the double yellow line that the far two lanes stopped. Mr. Nelfin didn’t move, his head still tilted down. As we got closer, it looked like his eyes were open. Had we made a mistake? Had he been awake the whole time, plotting to tell Principal Godfrey about the rocks? We knew that Tyler had one more strike before expulsion, after the time he’d snuck into the girls’ bathroom and went into a stall and made farting noises; he only got in trouble when Brenda Trapson caught him looking under the stall she was in. None of us said anything as we dropped our bags on the sidewalk and swished through the dark green grass until we were a foot away. Why is his mouth hanging open? Randy asked. He can hear you! Doug said. We all looked at Mr. Nelfin’s bright blue eyes, trained on the ground next to his left foot. You okay, Mr. Nelfin? Nick asked.
The only one I kept in touch with was Nick, even though we ended up at different high schools. The summer after our senior year, just as he was packing for college, he had a seizure in his sleep and suffocated in his pillow. If he hadn’t slept on his stomach he would have survived, and I always remembered that detail and even took to sleeping on my stomach after Claire left me, hoping the same would happen to me. Doug, on the other hand, died alone many years later on a fishing boat in Michigan; a sudden heart attack and an empty bottle of sleeping pills tapping against an empty fish bucket. I see Mr. Nelfin a lot these days, the milky eyes, the open mouth. He gestures for me to cross even though cars are whizzing past him, missing him by inches, and I just watch him, never once taking a step, and then there are fewer and fewer cars, and he gestures until there are none. Only him in his reflective vest and the crosswalk twisting beneath him.
He’s dead, Tyler said, but he didn’t sound upset or scared or even bothered. The rest of us didn’t want to believe it. But we all knew it had to be true. Randy bent and plucked some grass and stuffed it in Mr. Nelfin’s open mouth, one piece sticking to his lip and the rest falling onto his chest. No one said anything, so he did it again. And then Nick rammed his shoulder into Randy’s side, and even though Randy was much bigger, he fell crashing to the ground with Nick writhing on top of him. Randy’s legs thrashed on the grass and at one point, his foot kicked the edge of the lawn chair where Mr. Nelfin was sitting and we thought for sure they were going to tip him over. Doug leaned forward and brushed the grass off of Mr. Nelfin’s chest, but he couldn’t bring himself to knock the blade off of the bottom lip. Nick and Randy wore each other out and both rolled onto their backs breathing heavily and as the wind picked up again, Randy slapped the back of his heavy hand on Nick’s chest, and Nick started coughing loudly. Which is why we didn’t hear Mr. Nelfin at first.
Doug jumped back like he’d been burned and Mr. Nelfin’s eyes rolled in their sockets, looking in vain for someplace to come to rest. Randy and Nick scrambled to their feet. He’s trying to say something, Tyler said. We huddled around him until we all heard it at once, as clearly as if one of us had said it, Mr. Nelfin said: Help me. And that’s when Doug ran toward school, forgetting all about the bag he had begged his parents to get him for the school year that held his vitamins and all of his lunch money for the week. Randy was only a second behind, though he remembered to grab his bag, and we think Doug’s too, because Doug never saw it again though Randy denied it when we met up in the boys’ bathroom that afternoon and agreed we weren’t going to tell anyone that we had seen Mr. Nelfin that morning. Help me. Mr. Nelfin tilted his head again and tried to look at us. What do we do? Nick asked quietly. Tyler was the only one who remained calm. I think we should get to class, Tyler said. And then Mr. Nelfin’s eyes focused for a brief moment and he looked right at me.
I’m still standing there, all these years later, watching Mr. Nelfin’s eyes cloud over and his last breath scrape from his throat. All of the pebbles we had thrown are strewn around him; the stop sign is face down in the grass. I’m still unable to do anything but watch him die. Over and over. I was never again given the chance to change the course of anyone’s life. And when it’s finally my turn to sit in that chair, no one will even notice that I’m gone.
—photo Flickr/Evil Erin