In 2012, we published David Bersell’s story “Camp,” a tale of missed connections and physical endurance. Today, we’re excited to be publishing “Card Music,” an excerpt from his new book The Way I’ve Seen Her Ever Since, out now on The Lettered Streets Press.
My mother’s hands move over the dining table as if playing an invisible musical instrument, something between piano and drums. She lifts a baseball card from an unsorted pile, glances at the name, then sets it on top of another stack. Her eyes are already on the next card, hands in constant motion. Origami cranes over a dark pond. I think of her favorite animal, the hummingbird, tiny and powerful. I hear the chatter of its wings, feather on top of feather, as cards tap the glossy wood. My family ate together at this table, meat, starch, and two vegetables, every night. Now my mother and I finish leftovers for days. She only knows how to cook for a family. It’s my job to clear the table and pack what’s leftover in containers. Then we sort cards.
The morning my father left, when I was sixteen, he gave me his lifelong collection of baseball cards. No reason was offered. In the years after I didn’t look at the cards but wondered what they could tell me about my childhood and the man who raised me, the man I’d forgotten.
We grab handfuls from the storage totes colonized in the living room since I moved home after graduating from college, three months ago. We separate by the first letter of each player’s last name. Then each letter is alphabetized. We lean the cards in shoeboxes, rows crafted from cardboard. Yellow Post-its mark A through Z. The process is repeated with another batch of cards, every day. This is how my mother spends her summer off from working as a special education aide, listing to Carole King and sorting cards, even when I’m at work or out with friends. Already, she’s helped me organize most of the collection.
When she asked if she could help me at the beginning of June, I thought about telling her it was my past I wanted to put in order, but I said yes because she is my mother, because the enormity of the project overwhelmed me, and because my stories are hers, too.
My mother grasps a card: Jack McDowell. She needs surgery to repair trigger thumb but rarely wears her brace. Frank Thomas. “I know him, right?” she says.
I wonder if her skin still feels smooth as polished stone. During my early childhood, when my father traveled for work, I slept in my parent’s bed, on his empty half. It was a treat to crawl under the covers of the king-sized mattress and sleep next to my mother’s warmth, her arm over mine. In Florida, we played a pool game where she would stand in the shallow end with her legs shoulder width apart and I would try to swim between without bumping her.
Now that I no longer know my mother’s touch, I need to understand her in deeper ways.
She wears a gold band on her right ring finger. Her mother gave it to her on the day of my sister’s birth. Ozzie Guillen. I was too young to know either of my grandmothers well before they died. I barely remember my mother’s father. Bernard Gilkey. My father barely remembers his own. Jim Rice. As the youngest in my family, when we moved from Illinois and tumbled state to state, I didn’t maintain relationships with my piles of cousins and aunts and uncles. Andres Galarraga.
My mother’s face is rounded now, hair bottle black. She peers through thin gold frames, eyebrows penciled in above. She’s a quarter Mexican and a quarter Chinese, the rest of her heritage a European mix, so her skin always looks almost tan. The history of her ancestors, our history: a former stowaway working the railroad across America, an arranged marriage, nuns stinging skin, sleeping three to a bed, the sweet smell of sawdust.
Their names are on my lips.
Cal Ripkin, Jr. Fred Lynn. Cecil Cooper.
“What?” my mother says.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“I took out my ears.” She’s half-deaf and her hearing aids look like electronic clam bodies, grotesque and natural on the table. She picks an antidepressant from its silver foil bed. The pill’s a baby’s tooth, an orb of wonder.
She breathes in a sip of water.
My mother recently traveled to Chicago for her best friend’s funeral. She says that many of her friends take “something.” “Life’s too stressful,” she says. “My generation, we’re just not made to live go-go-go with all this technology.”
“Well my generation was raised on pills and will probably never get off them.”
“A lot of people thought I should have put you on something after the divorce.” Her hands stop moving.
Was I that sad?
I remember smoking 7-11 cigars, fire on my tongue, and faking sick, sticking my finger down my throat so I could skip school. I remember crawling under the blankets in the afternoon, pretending my bed was a boat in the middle of the ocean, gripping the mattress, feeling the weight of the waves. A friend calling. Hannah Cyr. Another party. Knowing I would go even though I didn’t want to.
My mother’s hands resume their pace.
The sliding glass door is open to the porch, but all I see is night. My mother’s potted flowers and tomato plants rest in the dark. She likes color and the practice of filling empty juice bottles with water and moving from plant to plant until what she carries is empty.
I want to ask her why she wanted to help with the cards and about my father, but I’m too scared. Their past, as I know it: he was her manager at an Osco drugstore. He’d liked her for weeks and one night after work, he finally stammered, “You, uh, want to go for White Castles,” the tiny square hamburgers, grease and pickles and onions on a steamed bun. They wore afros, were skinny as matches. At parties, she used to sit on top of the refrigerator. People called her “Mouse.” My father used to take her to White Sox games at old Comiskey Park. They sat behind home plate. She didn’t know how he could afford the tickets. Then one game another couple asked them to get out of their seats. My mother and father walked all the way to the top of the stadium. I see the cement steps, my mother’s small shoes bounding over and over.
Two years later, they were the first of their friends to get married, and they bought a house and hosted barbecues and pool parties and invited everyone over to watch Monday Night Football and play pinochle. They bought two dogs, Snoopy and Holly, AKA Hollywood, AKA Woody. I envy that life like the first hour of a romantic comedy, all montage and pop song and anecdote.
No radio tonight. Just card music. Tap, tap, rest.
I say, “Why do you like sorting cards so much?”
“It relaxes me. I need a summer like this, a slow summer.”
“But you don’t even like baseball.”
“Yes I do. I see old White Sox players I recognize. I used to listen to games on the radio with my dad.”
When I started this project, I wanted the cards to give me big truths, but they can’t replace years of conversation, and I let my mother do most of the sorting, but here, at the table, in summer, she and I are together.
Stacks of cards rise all over the table like skyscrapers breaking through the blue. My mother’s hands exhaust me. In college, beside her job in the mail room, she typed classmates’ papers and cut hair. She won burgers hustling guys in foosball at Andy’s Place.
Growing up, I liked to watch her cook, pushing paring knife through green bean and against thumb.
I asked how she did it without cutting herself.
“Years of practice,” she said.
Her hands work with precision and endurance. Her hands work in ways mine do not.
I say goodnight and leave her with the cards.
I close my bedroom door and lie in bed. I stare up at the black. I have been here before. This is the hour of memory, of fantasy, when time slows and starts and I am the river bottom whose rocks steer its motion.
My mother will sleep across the hall when she is ready. She will push in her chair and turn off the lights, and she will rest, wearing a sleep apnea mask to help her breathe, with her door open so the wind sweeps our home cool and clean.