Continued from February 11, 2004

Sixth Grade

Baseball cards were my passion. I scrutinized lists of prices, marking their fluctuations, tracking the statistics I thought affected price most. Nick and I went to the baseball card shop every weekend and most weekdays, if our moms let us. We fancied ourselves con men. We’d buy waxpacks and open them, glean the good cards, iron them shut and resell them in the hall between periods. I spent a few heady sleepovers learning to mimic the insouciant perfection of an adult autograph, and ruined literally thousands of low-priced baseball cards until I could do something passable. Sold some of those.

On the weekends the baseball card store was packed. 20-30 kids easy. Ken, the proprietor, was an obese man in his thirties with glistening oily hair and thick plastic glasses. Nick and I had boxes we’d fashioned out of cardboard, about half as big as a shoebox, and festooned with stickers of team logos. These contained our choice cards and were much admired. During peak hours, the scam was get Ken to make offers on some of our collection. “How much for the Frank Thomas Upper Deck rookie, Ken?” "I’ll give you 7 dollars for that, guy.” "Anyone else? Anyone want a Frank Thomas rookie for 10 bucks?” So it was that sometimes the whole store would follow Nick and I outside, leaving Ken red-faced and impotent. Later, when I got my license, I worked as a pizza delivery guy and Ken happened to be my boss. Sometimes when I worked closing shift, I would sit across from him in a booth, listening to Beatles records and feigning interest in his Matchbox car collection.

So this one day, Nick and I got the tip-off at school that 7-11 was selling packs of Skybox basketball cards – a new brand of glossy, high-quality cardboard sports cards selling at 2 bucks a pack everywhere else – for 50 cents. This was unbelievable, but our source was reliable so we both decided to walk to 7-11 after school and seize this opportunity. I was already doing the math.

It was a cold day in November. The leaves were starting to bleach out into the monochrome of winter and the sky was grey. To get to 7-11, you had to walk through a park on the older side of town. It featured scruffy tracts of suburban woods where there were always porn and spent condoms if you wanted to build a fort or something. There was a big lagoon that smelled like sulphur in the summer. A sledding hill with a sad, sagging fence defining the permissible side to sled down. A playground from which the 'Tornado Slide', the only fun thing there, was removed when I was 7 because some kid died falling off the side. Couple baseball fields and goose shit and fire pits and picnic tables and an outdoor pool. Some low-income apartments around the perimeter. Nothing special, really.

So we walked through the park, down the feeder road, past the parking lot blinking with broken glass, past the baseball field where I went 0-4 during the championships a few years ago, past the cabin where the retard camp met in the summer that always smelled like burning tires, crunching around the gravel path that circled the pool, all tarped and quiet. The shortcut took you through a gap in the fence in 7-11’s back parking lot. It was already getting dark.

Sure enough, there were about 20 packs left all stickered at 25% of their rightful price. Nick and I had to struggle to repress our give-away, greedy laughter. That's 15 bucks profit each, I would have told you then. I shoved the shiny cellophane packs into the pockets of my stonewashed jean jacket with the flannel lining. It had a vest sort of built in and lots of pockets and snaps. Underneath I wore a black hooded sweatshirt. Everything was right with the world.

We walked back the same way. Nick noticed him first. "Dude, don't look but isn't that guy on the other side of the street kind of weird?" Nick stuttered and was small, having a very late birthday for our grade. He was also brilliant. We composed a gritty, true-crime choose-your-own-adventure-style computer game for a contest and I remember arguing with him about word choice: "Even if brandished is a word, it's just weird. Why not 'held' the gun?" "'Whilst'? Fuck you!" Our family had that stupid toy with tons of blunt pins that you could lay over your hand and see what you'd look like as a pointillist sculpture. When I put it on my face, he'd often get what he could only call a weird feeling and he'd have to go home. We burned shit like toilet paper and leaves. I remember numerous times that I had to call my parents when we were alone because there was a suspicious car in the street, or some weird guy walking around or someone who just came to our door in this brown uniform and waited there forever. The world was a dangerous place, and we were dangerous men.

"Dude, seriously, I think that guy's following us." I laughed dismissively. I liked to pretend to be tough, because I was wrong in most of our arguments and at least tough was something. It was getting really dark. I snuck a look. There was a guy on the other side of the feeder road matching us pace for pace. He had long, flappy blond hair and could have been 20 to 40. He was one of those guys. I could have sworn he returned my gaze. "He’s not following us. Let's just walk over this way, around the pond.” We started arcing off right, away from the road and towards the pond and the sled hill. “See” I said, "he’s gone.” I looked back over my left shoulder and he wasn't there. “Dude, he’s right there.” Nick pointed straight to my left. The guy was walking really fast towards us. He’d crossed the street and he was coming right at us. “Oh fuck, “ I said. “Run!” So we ran towards the edge of the lake and over this shitty stone waterfall/bridge and through backyards and I never looked back knowing it would be like all those dreams where suddenly your feet get leaden and you just …can’t … go … any … faster. Sometimes I thought I heard him breathing hard behind us. I ran as fast as I could.

We ended up near this kid Kevin's house. He was a year younger than me but we’d been friends for a long time. His mom had undiagnosed manic-depression which I interpreted at the time as being really peppy and cool for an adult. Anyway, she called the police for us and Nick and I gave our best description. The police said it was probably nothing, but they’d keep an eye out. For some reason I lost interest in baseball cards soon after that.