Josh Wilker is the author of the blog Cardboard Gods — and more recently, the book “Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards.”
A few weeks from now, if all goes well, I’m going to become a father. This would finally make me an adult, I guess. A man.
I’m old for a first-time father. I hit the legal age of manhood, which is to say the age at which it becomes legal to buy and consume alcoholic beverages, way back in 1989. Shortly thereafter, as a new decade was getting underway, I exited college and, at least according to the general understanding of such things, officially began my adult life, which is to say I got a job.
At this job, at a liquor store in Manhattan, my most common duty was ringing up sales on a cash register at the counter near the front of the store. There wasn’t a constant stream of customers at that store, so I was never chained to that duty. But it seems to have been the one among all my duties—which also included sweeping up, restocking shelves, stacking full boxes of wine or liquor in the basement, breaking up and tying empty boxes in the basement, eyeballing potential shoplifters, recommending wine, and going on deliveries—that has lodged itself in my subconscious mind. I still have dreams every once in a while in which I’m back at the cash register trying to ring up a sale, and in the dream I keep fucking up the sequence of buttons I’m supposed to push, and the register locks up, and I can’t figure out how to fix it, and a line of customers builds up behind the counter, growing angrily impatient at my flustered ineptitude: an anxiety dream, a dream of being helpless in the adult world. Long stretches go by where I don’t have this dream, suggesting that such deep-seated anxieties are behind me, but I just had it again last week.
I got paid in cash from the store, a few twenties every Friday, and to that I added whatever crumpled bills I’d get as tips while on deliveries. Sometimes the deliveries were made on sunny mornings to dark apartments with mortuary aromas. One old woman, a regular, would usually start to cry whenever I delivered a bottle to her.
“I just lost my sister,” she would say, sobbing. The first time she said it, I thought the “just” part was true, but after she kept looping around to it again and again on most every delivery, I understood that it was something she couldn’t break out of, and that even if it had happened a half a century ago it was still happening.
He seemed to us to have gravity, to emit an aura of boldness and confidence
Last week I had a dream that I was back in the house I grew up in, and someone had left the door to the outside open, and both of my cats were near the door, curious, clearly on the brink of darting outside. That house was near a road that killed animals. In the dream, I slammed the door shut but there was this sense of unstoppable disorder, a guarantee that the door would be left open again and there’d be no way for me to keep my cats safe.
I spent my liquor store pay on rent for the apartment I shared with my brother and also on cheap starchy food and booze. I found comfort in my Sunday hangovers. They defused the anxious promise of that day, my one day of the week when I didn’t have to put in a shift at the store. The Sunday hangovers gave me the feeling that I had some gravity, that I had some connection to the ground. Sometimes on Sundays my brother and I would meet our dad at a diner on First Avenue. We had not grown up with him and the Sunday breakfasts were partly an attempt to make up for lost time, I guess. The diner served kielbasa as a breakfast side, and the giant split-open sausages made, along with eggs and toast and hash browns, for a gigantic breakfast feedbag, and my brother and I would chow down identical heart-attack meals while our father, who’d battled high blood pressure and heart issues, lectured us on our bad eating habits and nibbled butterless pancakes. I don’t remember what else we talked about.
In those days my brother and I fixated on a player who was holding down the first base position for on our favorite team, the Red Sox. His name was Carlos Quintana. He seemed to us to have gravity, to emit an aura of boldness and confidence, but quietly, modestly, a guy to be counted on, a man. We called him that, a man. We said, Here is a man. He was one of those players who for whatever reason always seemed to come through in crucial spots whenever we happened to be watching, and so for that reason we developed great confidence in his abilities. We wanted him to be up in a big spot. He had cajones, we said. He was not afraid. He would come through.
Two nights ago I had a dream where I couldn’t find a place to be. First I was looking for a class, geometry, and I kept getting shuttled to different rooms, different sections, each day another classroom to search for, and I kept falling farther behind. I ended up in a class full of middle-aged adults crowded around tables, a class that would again turn out to not be my correct class, though I didn’t know at first, and so I searched for a seat, and the only table with an open chair was one that was otherwise surrounded by people who were weeping.
Carlos Quintana’s numbers do not seem all that impressive in retrospect. He had no speed and didn’t have a whole lot of power, either. He was young, though, and so he was promising, and had that one quality I most lacked, solidity, so it was easy to imagine that the Red Sox had found a franchise cornerstone for years to come. This solidity proved an illusion, as it always will, though usually in not so spectacular a fashion as happened with Carlos Quintana, whose career was derailed by injuries suffered in an offseason car accident while rushing to the hospital to get care for his two brothers, who were bleeding from gun-shot wounds. Quintana missed the entire 1992 season, and in 1993 he came back but, still affected by the injuries from the accident, performed poorly in his sporadic opportunities (Mo Vaughn had grabbed the regular first base job in Quintana’s absence), and his major league career came to an end.
Last night I had a dream that I was driving and I couldn’t find the brake pedal and was hurtling toward an intersection where the light was about to turn red.
Sometimes after those kielbasa breakfasts on First Avenue we’d walk with our dad through the Lower East Side, where he’d grown up, and he’d tell us all the things that had changed. Everything had changed. He’d go back to his apartment and my brother and I, if it was a nice day, would wander into Tompkins Square Park and sit on a bench. Did this ever actually happen? It seems like it could have, but who knows—nothing is solid, least of all memories. But let’s say that my brother would have bought the bulging Sunday New York Times. We’d share out the sections. Bullshit time, nothing time, life will last forever time. An article about a Robert Altman festival, a review of a Don DeLillo novel, a box score featuring Carlos Quintana knocking in some runs.
“What a man,” I would say, and my brother would understand.
“The Q,” he would reply.