Brian’s little sister seemed too old to be dressed in underwear all of the time. She was forever dirty from head to foot with hair in dirty strands and Brian would alternately send her away and drag her along. His toe-head brother hovered nearby but usually kept to himself. We’d go to the store and Brian would add a pair of beat up white Reeboks to his trunks—store requirements—and tell the kids to stay home. He’d strike back at their begging until they cried. Brian was 13 and collected baseball cards. It was 1987. Everyone collected baseball cards.
Brian’s mom also collected child support and once a month came home with a whole vendor box of unopened packs—500 cards in all, each pack with a rectangular stick of dried chewing gum inside. Brian made sure we all knew about his new cache and I’d go over to watch him open it, pack by pack, first sticking the gum in his mouth, then tossing the pack wrapper aside, then sliding through the cards and stacking the occasional $2 or $3 player in front of him. The pennies, those worth their namesake, got cast to the side before he opened the next pack. My jealousy couldn’t look away.
When his mouth fit no more gum, he’d give a piece to his brother and sister and continue dividing. Brian loved the value cards. I loved the pennies. With him wasted on euphoria and sugar, I’d eventually make an offer.
“Brian, what will you trade for your pennies?”
“You got any Jose Consecos?” he’d ask.
“Any Don Mattinglys?” he’d add.
“Give me…three Jose Consecos, a Mark McGuire and two Don Mattinglys and I’ll think about it.”
“No way. I’m not giving you my Mark McGuire.” I wasn’t much of a salesman but everyone has his limit. I continued. “I’ll give you two Jose Consecos, two Don Mattinglys, and a Kirby Pucket.
He’d twist his face a bit and pause. “Give me back the gum I gave you, and add one Wade Boggs, and it’s a deal.”
Had 1987 not been a card collector’s feast year, my plan would have paid off. I’d take his pennies and let them sit for a few years and then cash in on all the players who went and made something of themselves. But we all saturated the market that year and I got my first lesson in supply and demand. Those cards aren’t worth any more today than they were then.
Before Brian could change his mind, I’d gather up my large trade pile and head home.
I’ve never counted stairs or washed my hands obsessively. Not often, at least. But I sorted my penny cards. Thousands of them. I’d order them by teams, by teams alphabetically, by player card number, by worth. I’d count them up and list the missing numbers between one and 792—a complete set—and plan to trade for them later. If I had doubles, I’d insert the one with sharper resolution in front. A few months later, more pennies in hand, I’d get them all out again and find a new order.
It entranced me; sucked me away from what lay beyond control. Unlike the football cards I gathered and shoved under the bed in a black garbage bag when I was little, I kept these pristine, placing one on top of another according to the new system and then filing them square in a shoe box with paper scraps tabbing the divisions. Not a corner frayed, mint from beginning to end. Hours would pass like minutes until my curled feet drifted off to sleep.
One evening Brian and I were going through our cards in his apartment and making trades when his mom came out of her room. She was rarely home, but tonight she was there—her heavy, naked body beneath a sheer nightgown, unashamed. She looked at me from the kitchen and then went back to her room but left the door open this time. She looked at me again and lay slowly on the bed to watch TV, or something, and Brian looked at me and then at his mom in view. We traded some more and Brian finally got up from the floor in his shorts and stained bare feet and greasy hair and quietly pulled her door closed. He was awkward about it and I wondered what it was like to be him. I prayed for Brian and his mother and his little sister. And then for me.