Like usual, Walt stayed under the covers until he heard twittering from the earliest birds. By the time he’d used the bathroom, made his bed, changed into clothes, and fixed coffee and toast, the first blush of dawn had just begun paling the eastern sky above the neighborhood’s rooftops. He brought his breakfast outside and took his regular spot on the front step with it. As he ate, the silhouettes of newly-budded tree branches nodded in the yard on the small breeze. Gradually, he could make out the crosswalk fifty or so yards down the street that linked the elementary and middle schools. Her crosswalk. The one she’d guided elementary students across every hour during the day for P.E. classes at the gym they shared with the middle school. No one was out. Except for the birds and the occasional passing car or barking dog, it was quiet.
When Walt finished his breakfast, he returned to the kitchen, washed his dishes, and went into the bathroom again. He stared in the mirror as he brushed his teeth, the stubble on his head more salt than pepper, the skin under his tired eyes loose and sagging. It had grown more so since he’d retired from the library down the street beyond the schools a few years ago. Walt blew out a breath, then used the back door to go into the garage. He pulled the string on the tin-shaded lamp over his workbench and a cone of light lit the pieces of the bird feeder he’d been making. He blew away sawdust, turned on the old radio to his classical station, selected a hunk of sandpaper, and started smoothing the section of roof he’d left off on the previous afternoon.
Walt finished the feeder a little before eleven. Its design was simple, basic: a hollow house with wire on top and a wider, drawer-like bottom to hold the seed and provide a perch. He filled it with birdseed, turned off the radio, and carried it through the back gate and down the sidewalk towards the crosswalk. The replacement crossing guard, an older man like Walt, sat in a folding chair on one side of it. Flowers, cards, and candles were clustered against the fence that separated the elementary school playground next to him. Someone had even placed a framed photograph against the fence; she was young in it, perhaps thirty, about the age Walt had been when she’d started there as the crossing guard.
The fence was made of iron bars three inches apart that were joined by crossbars along the top connected to brick pillars every dozen feet. The playground was empty, though Walt knew it would soon be filled with students frolicking during their lunch recess. The replacement guard raised a hand to Walt as he stopped in front of the collection of remembrances. Walt returned the gesture then fitted the feeder’s wire over the bar in the fence directly above the collection. The replacement guard regarded him as he straightened it against the bar.
“I’m told she used to feed birds here all the time,” the replacement guard said.
Walt looked at him. “That’s right.”
“Did you know her?”
Walt felt a heat rise behind his eyes. He said, “Just to nod and smile.”
The replacement guard did both those things. He pointed to the collection at the base of the fence. “I guess she was someone special, though I’m told she lived alone.”
Walt nodded. He said to himself: like me. He thought about passing her each day on his way to and from the library all those years and never having the nerve to say a word to her. Those eyes, that quiet, gentle manner. Regret overwhelmed him.
“That’s a nice bird feeder,” the replacement guard said. “Nice way to remember her.”
“You going to keep filling it with seed?”
“Good for you.”
Walt felt his lips purse. He nodded again and said, “Take care.”
Walt turned around and headed back to his house. He fixed himself a peanut butter and banana sandwich, poured a glass of milk, and made his customary trip with them out onto the front step. By then, happy shouts from students rose from the playground. A pair of orange-breasted robins flew by overhead in that direction. Walt watched them swoop down to the perch on the feeder, watched the replacement guard follow their descent, watched him chuckle and shake his head. Until a week earlier, Walt had eaten his lunch there almost every day and watched her scatter birdseed at her feet on the sidewalk. Not anymore.
Walt took a bite of sandwich and washed it down with milk. He didn’t know what he’d do with the rest of the day; now that the feeder was finished, he had no plans. Really no idea either how he’d fill the days and years ahead. Nothing but time lay before him. He watched one of the birds on the feeder lift off and fly away. A moment later, another replaced it.
William Cass has had more than 190 short stories published in literary journals including december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.