Neighborhood: Featured, Staten Island

During break time, I approached my classmate Andy Saperstein and asked if I could see the four-inch stack of baseball cards he had brought to school that day. It probably had one hundred and fifty cards in it, all new, the corners sharp and crisp. Andy, well-recognized as the best student in Mr. G’s fifth grade class at P.S. 30, was a pleasant, self-effacing kid, who let me take the stack back to my desk and peruse its contents at my leisure.

There was an intimacy and excitement in being alone with those cards at my desk. It felt like when my neighborhood pal Pat Wynne and I would go down to the basement, under the stairs, in the darkest most hidden nook of my Staten Island home, to say in whispers all the curse words we knew. As I flipped through Andy’s cards, I passed them from the top of the stack to the bottom, except for the ones that I needed to enhance my collection. Those I tossed into the black hole of storage beneath my desk. I only took about fifteen, which did not make a noticeable dent. As an extra precaution, before giving the stack back, I returned the cards of the two or three better-known players, those that I thought he might miss if he was even half as hip to baseball as my brother Joe and I were, which I doubted. I was not depriving him of anything he really wanted, I told myself, just a few no-name players that only meant anything to true connoisseurs.

Back home that afternoon, while Joe and I did our homework at the dining-room table, hoping, as usual, to finish quickly and have it checked so we could go out and play for a couple of hours before dinner, the phone went off like a bank alarm. Mom dropped what she was doing in the kitchen to pick it up, even more promptly than usual, because Dad was home that day, writing his newspaper column in the upstairs bedroom, and he did not like disturbances.

“Ah, yes,” I heard her say, in a pleasant but slightly ponderous voice, adding a woman’s first name that I did not recognize at all. “How are you?” A series of increasingly grave “Mmm hmms” followed by, “Tell Andy not to worry. My husband and I will talk to John right away.”

Mom, normally the picture of poise and bustling efficiency, could lash out if you put an unnecessary monkey wrench in her day-to-day routine of interminable housework. When she put the phone down, I expected a good hard smack, or a ferocious reprimand, or at least a show of exaggerated scorn, all of which would have flipped the lid on the pressure cooker of guilt and shame that was now simmering in me. Such an outburst of justified temper from her would have left me profoundly relieved, after the initial fright.

But when she appeared in the dining-room doorway to confront me, she only stared. In the dead silence that stretched out between us, it was as if the righteous flame that normally burned within her, the pilot light to the furnace of the extraordinarily honed machine that kept our family always happily humming along, was extinguished, leaving only a thin wisp of black smoke behind her eyes.

I made no attempt to explain myself. Giving an excuse would only have made matters worse. Finally, she turned to go upstairs to speak to Dad. As she climbed the stairs, he let rip with a burst of typing that sounded like distant thunder. I could picture him up there, a two-finger typist, on the edge of his seat, fingers pointed, ready to unload.

Joe, to whom I had shown the cards under the pretense of having won them in colors, a game of lucky windfalls and big losses, kept his head down and his eyes on his homework, no doubt as ashamed and reluctant to know the details as I was to tell him.

Since the previous year, 1977, when each Topps card had come with the player’s facsimile signature scribbled across his image, I had gotten in the habit of practicing my autograph. I would dash it off with a nonchalant wiggle of my ballpoint, trying to hit on just the right amount of illegibility so that it smacked of authenticity. In the margins of my blue binder, as well as on the front and back covers, and on the subject separators, were dozens of samples of my signature that I would compare in spare moments. As I waited for Dad to come downstairs, and for the axe to fall, I copied my favorite random samples, finding momentary solace in the looping flourishes that tapered off into ever less jagged EKG tracings, before finally flatlining.

I heard my parents’ bedroom door open and then the floorboards creak, as Dad slowly descended the stairs. At the bottom, he went straight to the foyer closet for his spring coat, refusing to look at me.

“Go get the cards that aren’t yours,” he said, in tones normally reserved for apathetic bank tellers who kept him in interminable lines on Saturday mornings, rather than on the ballfield with his sons. “Foolishness” was his word for anything that distracted him from God, family, or work. Words like “disgraceful” or “degenerate” were even worse. I knew all three could apply to the number I had pulled that day, but I guessed that he was probably too fed up to utter them. Sometimes, before I would leave the house to go out to eat or on a day trip with another family, Dad would pipe up, “Don’t besmirch the escutcheon, old boy!” – half-joking of course, but now I had gone and actually done it.

As we got in the car and drove off, the silence between us throbbed with the unsaid. Andy’s cards were in a white envelope on my lap. The school year was coming to a close; it was late afternoon with the sun still high in the sky. Dad, Joe, and I had started our spring training a month or so before. Every year, we would be out on the Clove Lakes Park ballfields when there were still patches of melting snow on the grass. If while giving us outfield practice on those wet and frigid afternoons, Dad hit a fly off the end of the bat, he would wince, clamp the bat between his knees, then tuck his hands under his armpits until the stinging went away.

I longed for an armpit to crawl into now, as we left Westerleigh and pulled onto Willowbrook Road. No sign of willows, nor of brooks, just an apparent infinity of attached and semi-detached homes, with an occasional school, church, or synagogue to break the monotony.

When we got to Andy’s street, all the houses, recently built, looked the same. Dad crept along, craning his neck and straining his eyes until we found the right number above the door. He parked, we got out of the car, and he pointed me up the path leading to the Sapersteins’ front stoop, waiting for me at the bottom while I rang the bell. I had no idea who or what to expect, or what I might possibly say besides sorry, or if I would even manage to squeak that word out.

The door opened, and a beautiful, big-eyed woman with thick black hair cut close on the sides to look like wings, bent down from the waist and touched my head exactly where a fairy godmother might have with her wand, to make me disappear. As I passed the envelope over the threshold, she actually thanked me for the stolen loot, calling it a “misunderstanding.” Such roundaboutness stung worse than the truth, as it meant I had done the unspeakable, committed a crime that nobody, not even the mother of my intended victim, could call by its rightful name.

Back home, nobody said another word about it. I had expected to be grounded or deprived of something, most likely my baseball cards. But my punishment turned out to be that I would not be punished at all, as though living with myself and the repercussions of my actions was punishment enough.

In bed that night, I pictured a public shaming at P.S. 30 the next day, my classmates pelting me with spitballs fired from the barrels of their Bic pens, and the teachers looking the other way. But during first period gym class, when Mr. G made Andy kickball captain, he chose me for his team, putting me in centerfield, where he knew I liked to be. The fact that he never said boo about my crime to anyone, and that he continued to treat me with the same humble self-effacement as before, rehabilitated any criminal impulses in me once and for all.


John Julius Reel is the author of My Half Orange: A Story of Love and Language in Seville. He lives in Seville, Spain, where he teaches writing to study-abroad students and works at Canal Sur Radio, part of the Andalusian public broadcasting network. He can be found at .

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