Today was going to be a good day for Kirk Fitzpatrick; he could feel it from the moment he rolled out of his dusty bed in the attic and his feet hit the well-trodden floorboards. An El train thundered past the grimy window, belching soot from its coal-powered engine, but even that couldn’t dampen his spirits. The floor was cold; his breeches had not yet dried from yesterday’s washing, but he put them on anyway.
A tangible sense of excitement hung in the air like a gust of Chicago’s famous wind, and Kirk could feel the tension as he opened the front door and brought inside the quart bottle of milk that had been leaning unceremoniously next to the trash bin and the morning’s edition of the Chicago Tribune. Just as he was about to flip the paper open to the national section, a voice hollered at him from across the street.
“Oy, Kirk!” the shrill female voice turned out to be from Mrs. Hollenstein, yelling at him from a fourth-floor fire escape across four lanes of asphalt. “Kirk!” Her flabby arms waved at him and the pink nightgown she was clad in fluttered in the breeze.
Kirk sighed. “Good morning, Mrs. Hollenstein,” he returned the wave half-heartedly and tried to go back inside, but she wouldn’t have any of it.
“Kirk, wait one second,” she hollered, hitching up her gown and running down the fire escape. She deftly dodged two newsboys and a fire hansom while Kirk bemusedly waited. “Have you heard the news?”
“The Cubs,” she gesticulated to the copy of the Tribune that hung limp in his hands. “They’re playing today!”
Kirk laughed. “Of course they’re playing today, Mrs. Hollenstein,” he muttered. “It’s game day.”
Even if it wasn’t game day, however, Kirk would have known about the Cubs — or “the Cubbies“, as they were informally called — along with everyone else in Chicago. Baseball was big. The Cubs were even bigger, and Wrigley Field, with its thousands of bleachers and eclectic atmosphere, positively enormous by any figure of the imagination.
Given this, it would take a slightly stupid, amnesiac person such as Mrs. Hollenstein to even have the galls to ask the rhetorical question, “Are the Cubs playing today?”.
She blinked. “Oh, right. Well,” she suddenly seemed a bit confused and attempted to waltz away, bumping into the porch in the process. “I hope you enjoy the game.”
Kirk watched her retreating back, making sure she didn’t make a U-Turn to inquire about stock prices or asking for half a cup of sugar before going inside. (She had done that before on multiple occasions.)
Baseball. Everyone loved it — except for a single person living in the tenements of the South Side, who was currently riffling through the national section of the Tribune. Kirk kept telling himself he should, too, but he just couldn’t get into it. There were plenty of balls to go around for everyone, so why was everyone fighting each other for a single morsel? He sometimes felt tempted to buy a giant bucket of baseballs and fling it into center field during a game, just out of sheer cussedness.
His unfounded optimism from earlier in the morning dissipated as the Tribune‘s sports page announced in heavy, bold, letters, “BROOKLYN DODGERS HEAD TO WRIGLEY FIELD IN BATTLE FOR LEAGUE CROWN”.
Fuck the Cubs. Fuck the Dodgers (this was a much less dangerous sentiment in Chicago). In fact, fuck Mrs. Hollenstein too, while he was at it. Fuck everything that intruded into his nice, quiet, ordered life.
His breeches had dried by this point. Kirk figured he might as well swing down to the drugstore to pick up some groceries. You never knew about Mrs. Hollenstein and that sugar.
The day was getting warm; as Kirk strolled down the sidewalk, hands in his pockets and the air smelling of the first hint of late-autumn flaky snow, he could hear anxious titters and excited voices around him. He didn’t have to wait long to find out what they were talking about. “Hey, mister!” a shining, boyish face peered down at him from a second-story window. “Catch!”
Kirk barely had time to do a double-take before the boy threw down a roughly watch-sized object. He caught it in his hand; it was a small, clay figure of a baseball. It was somewhat oddly shaped, and grey.
“Thanks, kid,” he yelled halfheartedly, making to throw it back up. The kid shook his head. “Nah, you can keep it. I’m givin’ them out for free. By game time tonight, everyone in Chicago will have one!”
Kirk chortled and pocketed the clay into his breast pocket. He adjusted his hat and moved on as the sun slowly made its way up the Lake Michigan sky.
He liked the Walgreen’s on the corner of State and 31st. Granted, there were closer drugstores, but he had been coming to this particular one since he was a child. Also, he knew where everything was and how much they cost, and so didn’t have to interact with the grocer any more than was strictly necessary. He like that very much, and as per usual, he hummed as he strolled to the canned goods section for some green beans, paying no mind to the neighborhood gossip that surrounded him like chattering whippoorwills.
He was about to pick up a pound of russet potatoes when he heard her voice for the first time.
The first thing that stood out to Kirk about her greeting wasn’t the simplicity of it, nor the disinterestedness in her voice. No, it was the way she pronounced the word: she elongated the “i” sound so that the greeting began strongly, yet ended on a dulcet, flirtatious tone that trailed off seductively into the air.
That was the first thing that Kirk noticed. The second thing was her eyes. They were as green as the trees in Jackson Park on a warm, breezy summer day and as deep as the great lakes, with a strange, luminous air that kept Kirk from staring too long at them. They were absolutely enchanting, even more so when framed by her wavy, black hair.
Later, he would look back on this moment and wish that he could’ve thought of something better to say. For the moment, however, all he managed was a grunt and a “hi” in return.
She smiled and motioned to the potatoes with a wave of her hand. “Excuse me.”
Kirk blinked. “Oh.” He stepped haltingly to the side. “Sorry.”
Vastly aware of her gaze on his back, he stiltedly walked over to the nearest aisle and began browsing through — and this he didn’t notice until it was too late — the sports magazines.
He nearly predicted the question before she asked it. “Oh, are you going to the — ”
She didn’t have a chance to finish this sentence, because at that moment, Kirk erupted. “No, I’m not!” he said, roughly shoving the magazine back where it belonged. “I’m sick and tired of baseball, that’s what everyone only talks about around here, for Pete’s sake,” he yelled to the now-quiet drugstore. “God, I wish I could escape to someplace where they didn’t have baseball, like Shanghai.”
Kirk wasn’t at all sure if Shanghai actually existed, let alone if they had even heard of baseball. He had heard the name on the radio once and thought it sounded suitably exotic. But none of that mattered, as he quickly found out, because a few seconds later, he found himself on the sidewalk under the Chicago sun, run out by the pharmacist and a hefty housewife with a measuring stick. Some of the potatoes fell from his grasp and rolled into the gutter.
Kirk dusted himself off, re-creasing his breeches. “Huh,” he snorted. He could do without them. Like he always told himself in the mirror every morning, the worst part about Chicago was the Chicagoans.
Or, at least, that’s what he used to think, as he saw the girl with the glimmering eyes come outside to chase after him. “Hey,” she yelled from across the street. “Wait up.”
Kirk waited, with what he hoped was a patient, slightly bemused stare. “Hi,” he said, once she was within hearing range — not too close, though. “Who are you?”
The girl smiled breathlessly (she had been running). As she opened her mouth to say something, Kirk’s mind ran through the hundreds of different permutations of greetings and began formulating his own replies. However, he couldn’t have predicted what she would say next:
“I absolutely despise baseball.”
Kirk blinked. That came out of left field, he thought — and then immediately swore at himself for using a baseball analogy. “Well,” was all he could muster for a few seconds, “I’m glad to hear that.”
The girl sighed. “Sorry,” she said now. “I know this was really stupid of me, to come chase after you and everything.”
Kirk almost agreed out loud, but then he looked into her eyes and promptly swallowed whatever he was about to say. “Mmm,” he said instead.
She continued, nevertheless. “It’s just that, you know,” she gestulated with her hands, her hat carelessly askew on her head. “Everybody here loves baseball, and I just don’t care for it. Never have.”
Kirk smiled; for some reason, looking at the hat instead of her face made it easier to concentrate on what she was talking about. “I know what you mean,” he said, sticking his hands into his pockets. “It’s outrageous, isn’t it?”
She nodded once, then shrugged. “I guess I was just happy to meet someone who was like me.” Her eyes raked over Kirk from top to bottom. “Well, see you, I guess. Sorry about the potatoes.”
A passing carriage threw up the dust and yesterday’s refuse into the air, and as the girl turned around, the haze formed a kind of silhouette around her body. It was dreamlike.
She turned around, her hat still askew and gloved hands on her hips. “What?”
“I, um.” Kirk stuck his own hands inside his pockets. “I never got your name.”
The girl smiled again. Her teeth were white, but they didn’t have a chance against the gleam coming from her eyes, which could’ve penetrated solid rock. “It’s Elizabeth,” she said. “Elizabeth Wheeler.”
Kirk silently pronounced the name in his head. It felt right. Elizabeth Wheeler.
Elizabeth smirked a little, the tails of her mouth turning upward askew. “I’m sorry, I never got yours.”
“Oh.” Kirk was surprised by this, and he pondered for a moment why before he discovered that no girl had ever asked for his name before. “It’s Kirk. Kirk Fitzpatrick.”
“Hmm. Nice to meet you.” Elizabeth smiled warmly. “Maybe we can go curse out the Cubs sometime, down at Wrigley Field.”
Kirk laughed. “Maybe.”
There was a small moment of silence between them, where Kirk pondered what else he could have said to that, and how all of them would’ve been better than a simple, woeful maybe.
Elizabeth broke the silence first. “Well,” she said, suddenly distracted by a speck of dust on her jacket, “I should go.”
Kirk smiled; his mouth was still on autopilot.
“Good-bye, I hope to see you again,” Elizabeth’s glance lingered for a fraction of a second on him before she turned around.
“Wait.” Kirk said to the retreating back, for the second time in as many minutes.
Elizabeth turned around once more, although this time she didn’t step closer. The sun was fully up by now; no doubt Mrs. Hollenstein would be anxiously waiting for him to continue the chitchat and neighborhood gossip, but Kirk didn’t spare any thought for that.
“What is it?”
“Um, I’m sorry.” Kirk pinched the bridge of his nose for a second before smiling. “It’s a bit awkward for me, you know,” he said. “I did bump into you next to a bucket of potatoes.”
Elizabeth laughed; the corners of her eyes crinkled.
“And, uh,” here Kirk stumbled over his words somewhat. Girls had never been a particularly strong suit for him, ever since that hateful Jenny Gooding in the fourth grade dumped a bucket of horse manure on his head. “I’d sure like to see you again sometime.”
Elizabeth smirked slightly, as if she had known this moment was coming from a mile away. But her eyes were still smiling. “Well, maybe,” she said, letting the end of the word trail away again. “Doing anything tomorrow, Mr. Fitzpatrick?”
Kirk shrugged. “There’s the baseball game.”
She laughed; it wasn’t a quiet giggle with one hand placed gently over the mouth like women were often wont to do. No, it was a full-on booming laugh, one that rang down the street and surprised the horse standing on the corner, and Kirk appreciated her more for it.
“Be careful,” she now said, eyes twinkling. “I just might think that you’re not joking.”
Kirk was about to say that he was absolutely, completely, without-a-doubt joking, but something held him back. Instead, he just smiled. Elizabeth paused for a second. “Wait, really?”
He rummaged in his pocket for a few seconds, and took out the small, misshapen ball of clay and held it out in his palm. “Here,” he said. “It’s a baseball.”
Elizabeth laughed, but this time it was tinged with a hint of confusion and incredulity. “It’s a ball of clay.”
“Well,” Kirk fumbled with the clay for a few seconds, making it as circular as he possibly could. “It can be anything if you think about it,” He shrugged. “How about we go to the baseball game, and –”
Kirk held up a finger. ” — and laugh at everyone having fun?”
Elizabeth hesitated, then smiled knowingly. “Like the old coots we are.”
He held out his hand. Elizabeth took it. “I believe there’s a game this afternoon.”
She seemed taken aback. “How did you know that?”
“Oh…” Kirk laughed. “This old geriatric lady from across the street told me.”
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. “Got to be a story there.”
He rolled his eyes. “You better believe it. Now,” he raised a hand to flag down a taxi. “Let’s go and watch some chain-smokers toss a ball around.”
“Cynical,” she grinned. “I like it.”
The door of the taxi closing behind them, the checkered cab disappeared into the late-afternoon lazy Chicago smog.