fantasy worlds, starring other people

funny hat
Originally uploaded by Liz Henry.

The crossing guard wasn’t at Moomin’s school today. I dread seeing her like you wouldn’t believe. I hope she has found something satisfying to do with herself.

I used to idolize Mrs. Bolla, the crossing guard for my elementary school near Detroit. People would talk about her with a funny awe as if she were a hero. Maybe she worked as a crossing guard for free, or had set up independently on that corner because her own child was killed at that very intersection in a horrible tragedy. She had short, marcelled, iron grey hair under a military-looking cap, and wore a navy blue uniform with goldy bits that also looked military. I wonder if she had been a WAVE or had been in some other war. Brisk and kindly… remembering our names… very no-nonsense. I would make up stories about her past and try to imagine her house where I was sure she lived alone, with pet birds and african violets in pots in the kitchen and everything just so. Of course I have no idea if she lived alone. But in my mind her husband, Mr. Bolla, had also died in a tragedy that people probably didn’t mention because it was too horrible for small children like me to know. I imagined some unusual circumstance, perhaps an atomic bomb not TOO nearby or a violent thunderstorm combined with circumstance and luck – to where she would have to bring me home with her like Dr. Doolittle bringing home Tommy Stubbins after bumping into him in the rain. I would be lost in one of her old uniforms and a fuzzy bathrobe while she dried my own clothes in front of a fire and served me tea. We’d talk about books and politics. She had had a funny feeling I was unusually clever and interesting… what luck… Gradually I would become indispensible in her life. Her pet birds would perch on my finger, I would create a system for organizing her books and my intelligent enthusiasm would remind her of the youthful happiness she had lost – if only she had had a daughter like me! But how much better that we could be friends. Perhaps she would teach me a crucial skill like real magic, travelling in time, or tying complicated knots.

The crossing guard at Moomin’s school was not like that. Instead she had a ragged smoke-smeared voice, bleary eyes, and a hacking cough. Kind of haggard and leathery, like Mick Jagger. When I got back from helping with hurricane stuff, which she somehow heard about, she would say… every day… with a searching and worshipful gaze… “are you still helping the katrina people?” And more than once she went into excruciating… tedious… detail about how noble I was, while I scuffed my floppy pink boots and looked everywhere but her hideously adoring eyes. “Thank you! Thank you… for … mostly people don’t want to help… people like me…” The conversation recurred for a while then died down to a specially meaningful, heavy, wet “Hello… how ARE you…” and perhaps a remark about Katrina or the weather – which I dreaded and which she would whip out twice a day. From halfway down the block she’d be staring and waiting to pounce on me with it. Then as I came back down the hill to get back in my car she’d do it AGAIN as if she had forgotten she had just greeted me 15 minutes before from the other direction.

So every day for many months I have felt guilty about the dread and loathing I have for this trivial daily incident. And I am sure she is a halfwitted, completely addled ex-junkie who got sent by some welfare agency to do this job of being a crossing guard and I should have been the cheery light of her life along with the laughing throngs of happy children, instead of finding her unbearable. Oh the guilt of knowing that in her mind she is probably sipping tea with me in the kitchen after having saved me from escaped circus animals and exhibiting the nobleness of her characters and I’m teaching her the secret of life. It serves me right for imagining my cosy life with Mrs. Bolla.

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