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Monday, October 1, 2012

Perfect Corners, Brian Kayser

    “I can’t even give you half book value for this,” the dealer said, holding my 1975 Topps Nolan Ryan baseball card to the light. “The centering's off on the sides.” He handed the card back to me.
    I held the plastic case in my hand, staring back at Nolan Ryan’s intense gaze, obviously a pose. I never noticed the players in the background or the empty bleachers. The card brought back memories of my mother, how she’d open the door, leaning into it with a brown grocery bag, the hinges squeaking as she entered. I’d help her with the groceries, turning away from whatever baseball game was on TV. After we put everything away, she’d reach into her purse and say, “Oh, I forgot something,” and pull out a pack of baseball cards, the waxy wrappers and stale gum a thumbprint of my childhood.
    My collection grew over the years. By the time I was old enough to make money for myself, I’d go to the store with her and drop whatever cash I had on the counter and grab as many packs as I could. I’d jam them into my pockets and open them on the ride home, flipping through the cards like a Vegas card dealer, looking for Padres and Angels, my favorite teams. The cards were in shoeboxes under my bed, the same way I envisioned gold bars were kept at Fort Knox. I didn’t have any real system for keeping them organized until I got older. Sometimes Dad and I would sort them by teams, other times by talent. “This guy is terrible,” he’d say, flipping a card over and reading his stats. “Hasn’t even hit .250 in five years. Dead weight.” He’d lay on the carpet in my room, his head resting on his hand. I remember when he pulled out my Nolan Ryan card, the same one the dealer dismissed with barely a glance, holding it on its sides with one hand, pointing to it with the other. “Now this guy, this guy here, he’s gonna be something,” he said. “You better hang on to this.”
    “I can’t let it go for less than book value,” I told the dealer. “It’s Nolan Ryan.”
    “Can’t do it,” he said, ringing up a customer. I placed the card back in the shoebox, the same one I stashed under my bed, although this time most of the cards were in protective plastic cases, the hard plastic edges framing them like miniature paintings. “You must not want to sell it negotiating like that.”
    I left the store, the bell ringing behind me, shoebox tucked under my arm. I could say I tried. A feeling of relief washed over the guilt I felt, holding the cards of my childhood heroes out for appraisal like common junk. I started the car and pulled out of the gravel parking lot, leaving behind a cartoon-like trail of dust.
    Mary would lean her head to the side, the way she always did when she did when she didn’t get something she wanted, when she came home from work tonight. I knew that. She’d ask how much I’d made from the cards, talk about what a nice dinner we could have with the extra money, maybe even pay for the wedding favors. She’d been asking me to do something with my shoeboxes since she’d found them in the attic. Said they were just taking up space and we, she emphasized “we,” should make money on them while there were still fools willing to buy pictures of athletes on cardboard.
    I sat on the couch with my shoebox and watched the afternoon game on cable. A lot of the players I hadn’t heard of, but I enjoyed the slow rhythm of sounds; the announcers between pitches, the sound of the ball as it smacked the catcher’s leather or wooden bat of the hitter, the constant murmur of the fans. I stacked my cards in piles of three in terms of what I wouldn’t sell, couldn’t sell, and could sell but didn’t want to. The third stack was the shortest.
    “Have any luck today?” Mary asked, placing a plastic bag of take-out on the counter.
    “Not really. Doesn’t seem to be a seller’s market right now.”
    She cocked her head to the side. “Does it matter?”
    I didn’t answer. The Nolan Ryan card stared back at me from the top of the “Can’t Sell” pile.
    “I would like to see you make more of an effort to sell the cards,” Mary said. “They’re not doing us any good.”
    “What if we have a son?” I asked.
    Mary took her plastic container of food out of the plastic bag. She held it like the bottom could drop out at any moment and leave her covered in sweet and sour chicken. “We’re not doing this again, are we?”
    I remained silent. On the TV, the batter had a 3-2 count. He was digging his cleats in, his back arm extended to the umpire asking for a time out. The camera zoomed in on the pitcher, who spit in the dirt. I didn’t recognize the pitcher or the batter, but I recognized the importance of the pitch.
    “I’m not going to stand around and try to talk to you if you’re going to be rude,” Mary said. She opened the back porch and sat at our patio table, staring at her phone as she shoveled chunks of chicken into her mouth.
    We’d dated for six months before I proposed at The Char House a year ago. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. I hadn’t met anyone in college, always the single guy tagging along as my buddies slowly disappeared into relationships, removing themselves from our group to focus on their girlfriend, then trying to integrate back into the group with the girlfriend attached and their personality altered, softer, more accommodating to what they thought their girlfriend wanted. I thought I’d find someone in college too, it just never happened. I’d met Mary at a 5K my company was sponsoring, she running, me manning the oranges and bagels. What I initially found attractive in her I still did; the bounce of her black ponytail, her high cheekbones, full lips.
    During the six months of dating, I ignored the important questions about money, kids, and anything else the men’s magazines said can tear apart relationships. After the engagement, I assumed when the time came to make the decisions, we’d agree on all the important issues. What I didn’t expect was Mary’s steadfast vehemence against bearing children, something she didn’t reveal until after the engagement. She’d been speaking out against kids with a more intense vehemence as the wedding date approached. Having a kid was something I always wanted. She could change her mind. And if she didn’t, I thought I could win her over. I learned it’s not like selling a juicer on late night TV. You can’t talk someone into something just because you really want it. I told her I just wanted a kid, someone I could explain the world to, push on a swing, share ice cream with. The first night I mentioned it, Mary rolled over in bed, away from me and squirmed every time I tried to hold her. The next morning, neither of us spoke at breakfast. I don’t even think I sat. All I remember is making up an excuse about having to be at work early.
    We didn’t speak of having children again until Mary discovered my collection when she went up to the attic on a rainy Sunday, bringing down boxes to organize.
    “Are you ready to talk?” Mary asked, putting her leftovers in the fridge.
    “Sure,” I said. I didn’t know what we’d talk about, but I knew how it would end.
    “It’s not fair what you’re doing, just so you know. We talked about having kids and we agreed.”
    “I don’t remember signing anything,” I said, defensive.
     “We said we weren’t the type of people who were going to have kids. We said that.” Mary clapped her hands as she pronounced each word for emphasis. Her head leaned to the side.
    “I thought you’d come around,” I said. “I really thought you would.”
    Mary grabbed her keys off the counter. “I’m going to the gym. Enjoy your fucking dinner.”
    “Don’t puke,” I said. I took my keys off the counter too.
    The gravel parking lot of the card shop was empty, save for one car parked on the side. I walked in, the bell’s jangle announcing my arrival.
    “I’m closing in ten minutes,” the owner said. He sipped a soda. Empty cans and card wrappers filled the garbage basket behind him.
    “I won’t be long,” I said.
    “What are you trying to unload this time?”
    “Unload?” I didn’t understand what he meant right away. “Oh, nothing. I’m not trying to unload anything. I’m just here to look.” I walked around the store. A cardboard cut-out of a younger Michael Jordan stood in a corner of the shop. He was wearing his Bulls uniform holding a ball with one hand, other hand on his hip. The ink was fading after years of exposure in the sun, the colors giving Jordan a bleached effect. Against one of the side walls were shelves filled with cardboard boxes, the year, brand, and price on the side.
    “Are these all complete sets?” I asked.
    I pulled a set of 1997 Topps baseball off the shelf. “Mind if I look through?”
    “Go ahead,” the owner said.
    I pulled a stack of cards from the middle out, glancing at the players. I had stopped collecting cards in the mid ‘90s, caught up in college, girls, beer. Any extra money went to the beer and pizza fund. My father never stopped collecting, but he slowed down when I went away. Said it wasn’t as much fun anymore. He’d tell me about great cards he’d pull, deals he’d worked out with Mike, the owner of Legend’s Sports Cards, the store that opened down the street when I was in middle school. I’d listen over the phone, but as I became more busy, I stopped asking what he was collecting and he stopped telling me. After graduation, when he showed me his collection, I noticed everything stopped around 1995.
    “Ken Caminiti.” His goateed face looked alive, youthful. “Shame what happened to him,” I said, referring to his suicide.
    “Hell of a player.”
    “I used to see him play when he was with the Padres. Almost caught one of his foul balls.”
    I continued flipping. “J.T. Snow. I forgot about him. My father loved his father. What was his name?”
    “Jack. Jack Snow. Great receiver.”
    “Wow, Gary Sheffield.” I held the card, looking at Sheffield swinging, his bat almost at full extension. He wore a Florida Marlins uniform, something I had never gotten used to seeing him in. When he played for the Padres, he was one of my favorite players. I had all of his cards in a pile in one of the shoeboxes.
    The owner said nothing. He had his back to me, rearranging packs in boxes. I grabbed his baseball and football price guides off the shelf. “What packs are selling well these days?”
    “These ‘Memoirs,’” the owner said. “They’re $25 a pack, but you have a one in two chance of getting an autograph. The boxes are going for $500.”
    “What about Topps? Does Topps still just do Topps?”
    “Yeah, we still sell those. They’re not very popular. No autographs or special cards.”
    “But do they have stats on the back?”
    “Yep, but that’s about it though.”
    I paid for the set of ’97 Topps and a box of the most recent Topps. I called my father’s nursing home as the bell rang behind me. I heard the deadbolt fasten as soon as the door shut.
    “Dad? Hey, it’s me. What are you doing tomorrow?”
    There was a pause on the other end. I wondered if I woke him.
    “Nothing? Good. I’ll be up in the morning.”
    I packed the cards out of sight in the trunk and drove home. I put my visor down, the setting sun burning bright in the rush-hour traffic, its reflection off the blue sedan in front cutting under the visor. My phone buzzed, a text from Mary: When are u coming home. I threw the phone on the passenger’s seat and continued driving. There was enough cash in my wallet for a couple slices and a soda. Mary didn’t buy soda ever since she read an article about how soda takes calcium from bones. Instead she treated soda like the mention of an estranged member of the family, grimacing when I’d order one at a restaurant, taking it out of the cart and placing it on a shelf when we went to the grocery store.
    That night Mary asked if I was going to budge on “the kid issue.” I told her no, I didn’t think so. She said, “Okay” and turned over. When I woke, she wasn’t there, and I didn’t call. The relationship had no momentum, no legs. It was more obvious to me today as I stared at her various perfumes and lipsticks that took over the bathroom counter.

    It was a three hour drive to my father’s nursing home. I left early in the morning after a quick stop at Dunkin’ Donuts. In front of me a father stood with his son. The boy had a hat that was too big for his head and fell over his ears. The father picked the boy up under his arms and held him over the counter as he picked out a doughnut, which the clerk handed him. By the time it was my turn to order, pink frosting speckled the kid’s face. I ordered extra Boston Cremes, my father’s favorite.
    The nursing home had its familiar smell, sterile yet musty. I shared the elevator with a man in a wheelchair and his nurse. The man’s skin sagged, a plastic tube tucked under his nose. The nurse was young with bright red lipstick and large hoop earrings. The cards were tucked under my arm like a football.
    My father was alone in his room, his breakfast tray atop his dresser, the crumbs and silverware waiting to be taken away. It had been a month since I had last seen him. I always had an excuse to not make the drive, and I suddenly felt very guilty for this. He sat in the easy chair, his arms resting on the arms of the chair. The TV was angled towards him, but I could hear the Sports Center announcers.
    “Hey, old man,” I said, my term of endearment for my father for as long as I could remember.
    “Hey, Sport,” he said. He leaned forward, his thin arms pressed against the arms of the chair as he rose.
    We hugged. His body felt smaller. I could feel his ribs, hear his short breaths. But his eyes were clear like the water poured from the filter on the commercial that played in the background, full of life, vitality. “A five layer filter,” the commercial promised. I thought about taking my father out of the nursing home, if he’d let me take care of him.
    “I brought you something,” I said. I held the boxes of cards. He had a perplexed look, almost like he wasn’t sure what I was holding. The look changed when I opened the set of ’97 Topps and he pulled out a stack of cards.
    “Tony Gwynn. I miss seeing him in that Padres uniform. Remember we stayed in line for two hours at that card show in ’92 to get his autograph?”
    “Yep,” I said, remembering how bad I had to go to the bathroom that day. I was afraid if I got out of line I’d miss my chance to meet my idol. I remember Dad stood with me as we waited, how he handed his throwaway camera to the person behind us to take a picture, each of us on one side of Tony, smiling, his broad shoulders a threat to devour us. “Great player.”
    “Hell of a player,” Dad said, flipping to the next card.

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