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I knew a man in Radford who had turned his garage into a makeshift museum. It was open for most of the day, Monday through Sunday, and the entrance was always free. The curator was our neighbour, a man in his late forties named Bill Storms.
Bill’s garage-cum-gallery featured all kinds of memorabilia from the United States – baseball figurines, old American candy wrappers, authentic interstate signs, war medals, Eisenhower campaign badges; all kinds of stuff. As children, we had never seen any of these things before, not even on television. Our main objective was to get our hands on one of those flashy baseball cards he had so we could show it off at school. But this was a museum. The things were not for sale. Bill was invariably generous, but he kept a record of his memorabilia and a close eye on everything he owned.
Simon Moussoulides and I spent a lot of time there. It was a big garage, could fit four cars back to back. Simon always sat, legs crossed, across from the baseball and basketball exhibit. I mostly enjoyed looking at the vintage toys section. There was this miniature barn, and the toy animals looked so lifelike. I was morbidly fascinated by the big-eyed Humpty Dumpty sitting on the shingles of the barn roof, which I found a little frightening. I always believed it would one day slide off and fall to the ground, crack, and all kinds of flower bugs and spiders would come crawling out.
Bill didn’t leave us by ourselves, though he had come to trust us. He enjoyed telling us the stories behind the things he had. “That Humpty came from a place called Cincinnati,” he told me. “It’s a big city and people are very stressed there, so the council set up this convention for adults to help them relax. There was a nursery rhyme act that a local toyshop was organising and that’s where I saw it. I had to visit the store and buy one for myself.”
We had never heard his kind of accent in Radford before. It wasn’t British, and it explained how Bill came to own such a large collection of American souvenirs. While he was telling me the story, I saw Simon rise from the corner of my eye.
When we left the museum, Simon revealed what he had stolen. He took it out from his jacket pocket and the card flashed bright in the sunlight like daytime delinquency, which it was.
I wasn’t at all surprised with what Simon proceeded to do. He told the other kids at school that his parents took him to America over the summer and bought him one of the rarest baseball cards in existence. Everyone knew that Simon’s parents were well-off. They owned the Victorian house at St. Columbus Close, so the others believed him.
Nobody knew who Mickey Mantle was, but that was the name on the baseball card. But we had all heard of New York one way or another and we imagined it to be a kind of Shangri-La where the prettiest and most successful people lived. When we saw on the card that Mickey Mantle played for the New York Yankees, we knew he was a big deal. Plus, the card flashed so brightly, it couldn’t have been anything but valuable.
Surrounded by a flock of new admirers, like pigeons necking at crumbs, Simon looked at me and smiled. “I’m getting another one,” he said.
My parents lived in a cheap street house that my dad had won at an auction. It cost him everything he had, which was practically nothing. He couldn’t afford the renovations it desperately needed. When he had saved enough to start rethatching the roof or refurbishing the cladding, something essential always broke – the plumbing, the convector radiator, the water heater – so he had to put off the other, less essential fixing.
In the house, I often felt like I was in the way. While my parents’ hands were busy, mine were at my sides as I watched the two of them work and exhaust themselves. I tried to spend as much time outside the house as I could.
On the other hand, Simon enjoyed spending time at home. He had a golden retriever, a large yard, and an eclectic collection of videotapes. He never invited me over. Most often we encountered each other at Bill’s museum, which is how we became short-lived friends.
My father once saw me in Simon’s company and he later told me to join him in the backyard under the pretence of needing help in the shed. He asked me about him.
“Did he ever spit at you?”
It was a strange question that I kept thinking about for many days and nights. I shook my head.
“I can tell a spitter when I see one,” Dad said. “And don’t you spit back when he does. Kids like him have a way of corrupting kids like you, but he’ll get out of it squeaky clean and you’ll be chin-deep in trouble.”
My father was angry then and he smacked the trowel against the potting table to get the muck off it. He told me to run along, and so I did. I went to Bill’s because I always felt at home at Bill’s.
Bill looked exhausted and his eyes were drooping sad, but he still smiled when he saw us walk in on Sunday. He would never think it was one of us who had stolen the card.
We observed that he had a new exhibit. It had jazz instruments and bar signs, photographs of black people. I was looking at two tin wind-up toys of black men standing on matchbox-sized boxes. Bill came over and wound the toys up, and they started dancing a jig.
“Neat, huh?” Bill said. He pointed at two jars on a top shelf shaped like big black women in red dresses.
“Those are called Mammy jars,” Bill said. “Some people think they’re racist but I think they’re important.”
“What’s racist?” Simon asked.
Bill smiled at him and put a warm, avuncular hand on his shoulder. It was annoyance I felt more than jealousy because Bill was treating someone who had robbed him with tenderness, and I didn’t think it was fair that Bill didn’t know the truth.
“Thinks of it this way,” Bill said. “Your friend here has darker skin than yourself. Wouldn’t it be nasty and awful if you stopped being his friend because he doesn’t look like you?”
Simon stared at me and it seemed as if he were noticing my blackness for the first time. He sized me up and it felt like, in that moment, he had decided whether he would be racist or not for the rest of his life.
The jiggers stopped dancing, and we stood in silence in a patch of sunlight that was coming through the raised roller shutter. I couldn’t look Simon in the eye. I thought that the jiggers behind me were so daft that I wanted to smash them, but they were Bill’s, not mine, and he thought they were important.
“You boys want something to eat? I have Cornish pasties, still warm,” Bill said.
Simon and I both nodded, and Bill turned to the blue door at the far end of the garage. He turned around again, remembering something. His eyes drooped once more. “Mind the stuff if someone comes in. Someone swiped a $15,000 silk card this week.”
I flushed and looked away. I fixed my gaze on the concrete until I heard Bill go through the door.
It hits me now all these years later how much he trusted us. Perhaps he didn’t think kids our age would really appreciate the value of that kind of money. Looking back, I don’t think I really grasped it, but he was wrong about Simon because he kept whispering that he was rich before shuffling to the basketball exhibit and taking a Magic Johnson card off the shelf.
“Put it back,” I said.
I knew Simon’s parents didn’t need the money and I also knew that Bill Storms didn’t need someone robbing him once a week, especially if those cards cost an inordinate amount. Simon didn’t seem to care, and he pretended like he hadn’t heard me. He looked at the flashing card like it was a dead cat on the road, guts out and everything. His eyes were wide in a kind of ghoulish curiosity.
Bill came back with a plate of two steaming Cornish pasties. Simon had already slipped Magic Johnson in the back pocket of his jeans.
The word racist was the only thing that came out of Simon for two straight weeks. I suspected that he just enjoyed saying it and that he had forgotten the true meaning of the word. But he did something awful with it just the same. He started a rumour at school that Bill Storms, the curator of the American museum, was racist.
The kids at school told their parents, brothers, and sisters about the new word they had learned and they even mentioned Bill Storms’ name because Simon had instilled in them the notion that the word and the man were somehow inexorably connected.
I thought the gossip would die out eventually as everything else usually did in a matter of days, but it didn’t. It grew into something uncontrollable like a big fire that wouldn’t be quenched. In fact, it was a fire that consumed Bill’s museum. I was walking home from school one day and I stopped by and saw the charred remains. Bill was pulling soggy cardboard boxes across the front lawn. He saw me and glowered, told me to bugger off.
It hurt to hear him say that, to see him glare at me as if I were responsible. It was my first heartbreak. I felt a lump in my throat, a fat, barbed conch that sang the ocean in my head.
I saw it from the pavement – half of Humpty Dumpty’s face was on the ground just outside the garage door. I ran to it and knelt down on the grass. There weren’t any spiders crawling out from underneath it. It was made of clay and the big eye on the broken piece had run like a fried egg. A chunk of Humpty’s upturned shirt collar was still intact and attached to the face. I picked it up and turned it over in my hand.
“You can fucking have it,” Bill said from behind me.
I put the face back on the ground and stood up. “I’m sorry,” I said, and ran home. That was the last time I saw Bill. His disappearance was followed by another rumour that he had gone back to America.
Simon wrapped his cards in sheets of plastic so the clammy fingers of the other kids wouldn’t damage them. Unlike the Bill Storms rumour, the fascination with the American cards died out rather quickly, even though Simon tried to prolong it as much as possible. He brought new lies to school about his trips to New York and the Empire State Building.
I always thought that Simon had everything he wanted and I had always accepted that, but I wouldn’t let him have America. That was Bill’s.
I challenged him in the schoolyard in front of everyone. “He’s lying. He’s never been to America,” I said. The other kids had been cultivated by the intricate and plausible stories that Simon had supplied, so it was hard for them to accept my interjection. They laughed and said I was jealous. They turned their back on me. It was only for a moment that Simon’s lips trembled with insecurity.
I ran off in fury to the empty classroom. The light inside was dim. The afternoon quiet was maddening as if I expected the blackboard and the desks to be rocking and shaking in sympathy. My eyes locked on Simon’s desk. I climbed on top of his chair and scraped my muddy shoes against its surface, hoping that any millipedes or lice that were lodged in the grooves of my shoe soles would fall out and bite Simon in the ass.
Simon’s bag was leaning against the leg of his desk. I picked it up. It was a leather satchel with green piping and a twin buckle strap. It smelled like the flaking steering wheel of my father’s work van. I twiddled with the buckles, and it was some time before I figured out how to open the bag. When I did, I slipped my hand in the front slip pocket where I knew he kept the cards.
I pulled them out and studied them. I had never truly looked at them before. For a moment I thought what it would be like if I had them to myself, but there was nothing I wanted except to spend a whole day in Bill’s museum. Then I thought about taking the cards so I could return them, but Bill was gone. I slipped the cards back into the satchel. I wiped the soil and muck from Simon’s chair with the back of my hand.
I spent a lot of time outside Bill’s house after that, the roller shutter twisted out of shape. The glass windows looking into the empty rooms were covered in grime. They looked like liver spots. Already, Bill’s absence had grown old.
Humpty Dumpty’s remains were still there on the lawn. Humpty looked at me with his one, melted eye. I eventually picked it up and took it home. At first, I felt like I shouldn’t have, but Bill did say that I could fucking have it.
It was not a consolation prize because I didn’t think it would bring me any comfort when it would look down at me from a top shelf in my bedroom, but it served as a reminder of the bric-a-brac American. Bill had said that it was used to help stressed adults breathe easy. I offered it to my father, but he threw it aside and said he had no use for it.
One night, before bed, I told him that he was wrong about Simon. He was not a spitter.
“Well, I’m glad, son. I really am,” he said, and he patted my cheek with his rough hand. It smelled like wax and sod and leather. He smiled at me then, and I thought about the flashing cards in terms of dollars for the very first time.
He would definitely have had use for that. I told him everything then, about Bill, the cards, and the fire that had taken everything away.
My dad didn’t speak for a very long time. His lips kept moving as if he were chewing my story, picking out the flavour. He looked at Humpty’s broken face on the shelf.
“How does it go, do you remember? All the king’s horses – ”
“And all the king’s men – ”
“Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
My father laughed and kissed me goodnight. He turned on my nightlight and left the door ajar. I waited for his shadow to retreat from under the door, and then turned off the nightlight – I always did this after having heard him complain to my mother about the utility bills.
And besides, I wasn’t scared of the dark anymore. I knew Humpty Dumpty was looking out for me with his one big eye.