25 January 2014

Baseball Cards from Heaven

Helen, Kate (Steven’s mother), and Steven (10 years old) are walking down Tabor on their way home from something or other. It’s a little after 9, late June 1968, not yet dark. 

     Helen was animatedly telling a story that had Kate laughing so hard she doubled up and had to stop walking. The story was about something that happened to Helen in High School, and Steven had lost interest. He was running a little way ahead, chasing the first fireflies of the summer, when a speeding car jerked to the curb and slammed to a stop. The smell of bubble gum crept over Steven, as three men in their late teens hopped out of the car. The men were laughing wilding, shoving and punching each other.

      “We showed that asshole, din’t we,” bellowed the tallest one.

       “He’s lucky we din’t lay him out,” roared a smaller, thick set man. “Him riding us like that all the time.”

       “That piece of shit think’s he’s God and that working on the line at Fleer’s is the best job ever,” said the third.

    “Yeah, well,” said the first guy. “He’s gonna have to work the damn line himself with us three quit.”

      Steven eased back toward Helen and Kate who stepped on either side of him and eyed the three men suspiciously. The men saw the women and stopped, the first one’s hand pulling the door of the Tabor Lounge half open. Music and loud voices spilled out of the bar. A sour beer smell mixed with the bubble gum aroma.  

    “You ladies like a drink?” asked the quietest of the three men. “The party’s on us.” 

    “Thanks anyway, boys,” said Kate. “We’re on our way home.”

      The thick set man stepped forward blocking the sidewalk. “Oh come on,” he said. “It’s early. A beer or two won’t kill you.”

     Helen stepped forward, her face clouded with anger. 

     Before she or the thick set man could speak, the other two men grabbed the man’s shoulders and shoved him into the bar.

     “He don’t mean nothing,” said the tall man, raising his palms toward Helen and stepping back to give her room. “We all just quit a really lousy job and we’re a little worked up. No harm done, right?”
Helen nodded agreement slowly, but was still angry. Kate and Steven had joined her and the three started to walk away.

    “Wait a minute,” cried the third man. They turned to see him reaching into the backseat of the car. He pulled out a large, flat rectangle of cardboard, about two by three feet. In the dim light, Steven could see that something was printed on the cardboard, but he could make out the details.

    The man walked up to Steven and held the sheets toward him. “You collect baseball cards?” he asked.

    Steven nodded. 

    “Here you go,” the man said, and he pressed the cardboard into Steven’s hands.

    Steven tilted the cardboard toward the light of the Schaefer’s and Ballantine signs that hung in the bar’s window. He was stunned. Orange and blue neon light  played over uncut sheets of Fleer’s baseball cards. He stared at the two men who were smiling back at him, not so far removed from being ten-years-old boys that they couldn’t recognize the amazement Steven was feeling.

    “Thank you,” said Steven in a hushed voice, his eyes fixed on the sheets.

     “Enjoy them, kid,” said the tall man, turning to enter the bar.  He looked at Kate and said with a shrug, “They fell into our car when we quit that dump.”

      Kate put her arm around Steven and led him away toward home. Helen stayed for a moment, considering the two men who returned her frank look. “Watch out for your friend tonight,” she said. “He’s really wound up.”

     “We always do,” said quiet man. “Somebody has to.”

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