Authors: Andrew Hood
For Telly the Woman, and for Teets Meru and Milo “Gavin” Hopkins. The best family a guy could ever had.
“Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the workâthe big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from the outsideâthe ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from withinâthat you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
, “The Crack-Up”
“He called the shit poop!”
“I'm gonna hit the can like it hit me first,” my mom says. “Man the booth, Pickle.” She squats, ducks under the table and pops back up on the other side. Jingling her keys, she disappears down the aisles of other booths.
Like it hit me first
is one of my mom's classic phrases. She's been using that since I can remember being embarrassed of her. It's an okay one, as far as go-to phrases go: not quite smart and not quite funny, but just enough of both of those to elicit at least a smirk. Unless you've heard the hell out of it, then your mouth screws up another way. “Night, Pickle. I'm gonna hit the hay like it hit me first. Don't stay up too late.” “Buckle up, Pickle, and let's hit the road like it hit us first.” “I'm not against you drinking, Pickle, but keep in mind how your dad would hit that bottle like it hit him first.”
Sean's splitting has inspired a new number in her repertoire. Everything has to be manned all of a sudden. “Man the apartment, Pickle, while I go out for spaghetti sauce.” “Man the car, Pickle, while I run in here for a lotto ticket.” “Man the basketball, Pickle, while I go see if those two black kids want to play two-on-two.” As if this one guyâwho even when he was around was never around muchâhad his finger stuck into a crack in some hypothetical dam. And now that he's hit the road like it hit him first, someone else has to plug that hole so everything doesn't just gush and break through and drown everything else. It's like, “Here, Pickle, man the world while I'm gone, will you?”
While my mom's hitting the can like it hit her first, this big pile of human being comes up to our booth I've been left to man. He's got this mustache on his face, but it doesn't look like a mustache he grew. More like he couldn't grow a beard.
“What've you got?” the pile of human being wants to know. He looks sad about the boxes we've got opened on the table, and a little tired about them. The good burgundy tablecloth that's been in the family since before Christ pissed the bed does not, as my mom insists, help.
“There's some baseball,” I tell him. “Some basketball, some hockey. Some of everything. Some cards from Desert Storm are in there, too, I think.”
“But what've you
?” His eyes look like they've been thumbed into his head, like the sunken coal eyes of a snowman.
“We've got what we've got,” I say.
The pile sighs like air escaping from a vinyl chair when it gets sat on. This has to be his first time at this collector's show, to be coming to our booth at all, let alone asking me what we've got. Every month it's the same hoarders and sad sacks and single dads who come, and they all know that my mom and me don't have anything, and that even if we did have anything, we wouldn't know we had it. These limp, sweaty guys come to the booth to flirt with Mom, suck in their guts and maybe buy a card on the off chance that it might improve their chances, but that's about it. You can't improve a chance you don't have.
The last Sunday of every month, for the five-dollar fee, my mom and I set up our pointless booth at The Arena. This place isn't even called The Arena, that's just what it's been dubbed. Where the name was supposed to be there's just a big blank space. For a while there was a weird-looking dick that someone had spray-painted in that spot, so it was known as the Big Green Dick Arena. Another week and someone else climbed up there to add different-coloured nuts to the dick. And later someone even went to the trouble to add curly hair to those balls. But now the space is blank again.
This is the hockey rink that Corbet's OHL team was supposed to kick ass on. I don't know what goes on, whether they melt the ice or just put a flooring over top of it, but there's always a wet chill here and that sweet chemical smell that all indoor rinks have, folded into the reek of locker room. The team this whole facility was built for was going to be called The Corbet Combats and something with a bat was going to be the logo. There was even a competition in The Mercury to design some lame mascot. I don't know if someone down at City Hall bungled the math or what, but the way it worked out was the town had enough money for an OHL team or for an arena, but not for both. So we got the arena for a hockey team, but no hockey team. Now The Arena gets rented out for kids' birthdays, school skating parties, the circusânot the good circusâNeil Diamond that one time, Tom Jones that other, and, every last Sunday of the month, this glorified garage sale.
The pile's got a shoulder bag, one of those cheap-ass ones they give away at conventions, and when he adjusts it I see that his left hand is a little itty claw. The other hand is in okay shape, though something about the little stubby fingers brings baby penises to mind. So with his baby penises he goes through every single card in every single box of Sean's collection. He's one of these guys who needs to find out for himself that we have nothing. And I've got to stand there like I'm listening to someone tell a joke I've heard a million times because this is my booth to man now, my worthless cards to man. And the pile is mine to man now, too.
I get the feeling that in life you're rarely lucky enough to know just where the shit has come from that gets cut up and thrown by the blades of your fan. But I can tell you that all of this is Ben Rooney's fault. Ben Rooney was this guy Sean worked nights with at the chainsaw factory who just disappeared one day. What happened was Ben Rooney sold his lifelong baseball card collection for a million dollars apparently and then hit the road like it had hit him first. A wife and daughter were left behind. I knew Claire Rooney. She went to the same school as me for a few years, though this was before her dad scrammed. She was that girl who in kindergarten would come in from recess during the winter and, starting with her snowsuit, take off all her clothes, all the way down to her doll body. Her dad was never heard from again, though I heard about him all the time, because fucking Ben Rooney became this big hero for Sean. And that's the source of this huge load of elephant dook that got chucked at my fan and sprayed pretty much all over everything.
“I swear to God,” Sean started saying. “A million dollars.” Like swearing to God meant anything. Swearing to God for him was just the same as saying “excuse me” in the tail end of the belch he'd sneak up and put in my ear.
With dollar signs twinkling in his eyes, Sean started buying baseball cards like rations before a disaster. In his mind this was as good as buying money. Seriously: like buying fucking money. Like he was going out and paying one dollar for ten dollars. That's what he'd figured out from that Ben Rooney story. I would never ask Mom what on earth she was doing with such an impressive dope because I have this tickling suspicious that I'm the answer. The other answer is that it takes someone just a bit stupider to be with someone so stupid. Either way, I try not to ask anyone why they do anything they do.
Instead of playing catch or something with me in the backyard we didn't have, or taking my mother out to fancy restaurants this town doesn't have, Sean would be sitting there cross-legged in the den unwrapping the cards and stuffing them right into a box, the foil of the packaging glittering around him like fancy garbage. On the off chance there would be a hard, dusty blade of gum included, he'd give it to me if I asked before he stuffed it into his own breathing mouth. Card gum you've got to incubate and soften in the hot wetness of your mouth before you can even threaten to dream of trying to chew it. But in all that time it takes to get soft, you end up realizing you don't want it anyway.
When he took off, like his hero Ben Rooney, Sean had amassed twenty-nine boxes of sports cards. Who knows what he spent. But, unlike Ben Rooney, Sean left all his cards behind when he left. He must have realized what they were really worth. The drool on his pillow on the couch hadn't even dried when Mom packed up those boxes and spirited them to Toronto and to the first comic and sports memorabilia store she found in the phone book.
Rudyâthe owner of Rudy's, where we took Sean's boxes of currencyâhad to peel the cards off of each other. Sean must not have even looked at the cards, not caring what they were or what they were about. The cards went from package to box untouched, unenjoyed. Just money in the bank to him. I pretended to browse the stupid store while Mom watched Rudy like a hawk that has no idea what a hawk eats.
Rudy, who was dressed entirely in denimâand I mean entirely: a snap-up denim shirt under a fraying denim jacket covered in buttons of all the major league ball teams, and jeans, and a denim hat from the '88 Calgary Olympics, and even his beard was that yellow colour that jeans become when they rotâRudy offered us $300 for all twenty-nine boxes. Mom lost it.
She started screaming and all the grown men in the store looked up from the comics they were reading and the action figures they were playing with. How dare Rudy try to take advantage of a destitute and heartbroken widow who was selling her beloved husband's beloved collection to take care of her ailing, beloved son, who had contracted AIDSâthat's right! Goddamned, fucking AIDS, Rudy!âfrom the blood transfusion he needed after the car crash that had killed her beloved husband? “Fuck you, Rudy!” Mom yelled, as if her and Rudy went way, way back, and she stormed out. She sat out in the car and left me, goddamned fucking AIDS and all, to lug the twenty-nine boxes from Rudy's counter back out to the car.
She didn't say it, but I could tell that Mom, in her heart of heartsâyes, the heart that she has inside of her heartâI could tell that in there she actually believed that after one look at all those boxes, Rudy would open his register and count out one million dollars for her, bill by bill. Like Rudy would take the top off the first box, and this golden glow would bathe him like the bath he needed like we needed a million dollars. Rudy? Dressed-all-in-denim Rudy? The heart inside of your heart is full of shit. Ask around.
As he stacked the last few boxes into my arms, Rudy, a bit jittery from having been screamed at, gave me a message to give to my mom. The economy of baseball cards is just like any other economy: it depends on lack. Not many people collected cards in the 50s, say, or their moms threw all the cards into the trash, so cards from then are hard to come by. The harder a card from that time is to come by, the more some guy who's sporting wood for that stuff is willing to cough up for it. When everyone realized how much some people were willing to pay for these useless things, they started holding on to their cards, dreaming of their own million-dollar payoff. But because everyone is collecting now, nothing is rare, and so a collection like Sean's is barely worth the cardboard it's printed on.
I said thanks to Rudy and assured him that I really didn't have AIDS. “Yet,” I added, and winked, and the look he gave me said that his friendliness was spent and now it was time to get the fuck out of his store and leave him to surf online undisturbed for that rare pair of denim underwear he needed to complete his set.
I passed Rudy's message on to my mom on the drive home, but telling my mom anything she doesn't want to hear is like trying to give a cat a vitamin. Her fuckbag husband's cards were worth a million dollars and that was all. The next weekend we had a booth at the Big Green Dick Arena, and the new challenge set before me was getting my mom to understand the difference between a booth and a fold-out card table.
From out of twenty-nine boxes and from out of who knows how many cards, the pile, with his baby penis fingers, plucks out just this one card.
“I'll take this,” the pile says, and holds up the card like he's a magician who has just found my eight of clubs in the deck.
“Okay,” I say, and I fix my stare on his deep snowman eyes, but only because I'm trying to ignore the way that his claw has something like a slimy sheen to it.
“So how much?” the pile says. He makes for his fanny pack, which is a NASA fanny pack.
“I don't know.” But I'm not thinking about the card. I'm thinking about an astronaut, done up in all his expensive hubbub, wearing one of those crappy fanny packs.
“I'll tell you what: I'll give you five dollars for it. It's not even worth a buck, frankly, but I don't like breaking bills.”
“Let's see it,” I say, and take the baseball card from him. It's some guy named Rance Davis, a player for Seattle. His action shot has him in mid-swing. “Who is this guy?”
“Nobody's nobody,” I say into the pile's eyes, but even against all my best trying, I steal a glance at the claw.
“Davis played like two games in the majors before f'ing his knee for good trying to steal home,” the pile says, like this is common knowledge and I'm an idiot for not knowing. “He might have been somebody before, but now he's nobody.”
The pile's good hand is out, his baby penises squirming, eager to take the card back. He's getting nervous, you can tell. The pile's starting to quiver like there's something else alive inside of him that's moving around in there, trying to fit in him better.
“If this kid's nobody then why do you want the card?”
“I couldn't give a crap about Davis. He's just the last card I need to finish the '03 Upper Deck season.” The pile actually makes a little lunge to reclaim Rance but I rear back. I'm not done with it.
As much as I think professional athletes are overpaid and just plain unnecessary, I can still appreciate that what they do's not easy. A guy doesn't just fall into playing major league baseball. The majors are no chainsaw factory. From when before you can make decisions about what you like or don't, you've got to be irrevocably committed to this stupid, silly lifestyle. I know these majors-bound kids in school, and they're just as weird and destroyed as the military-bound ones. You live your life with blinders on, and you work so foolishly hard against the foolish odds that all that foolish work will just lead up to nothing because hardly any-fucking-body makes it to the major leagues, and even most of the guys who do make it all the way there end up being these anonymous henchman types like this Rance Davis guy the pile is so goddamn engorged for.