When her only son moved out into the world, Sharon’s excitement surpassed her sorrow by several dozen paces. When her only son told her she’d be a grandmother, serenity settled over her like a homemade quilt of austere texture. Life was all about one foot in front of the other foot, one breath at a time. The magic number, then and now and always, no matter the actual number of people tagging along on the journey, and Jim Ridenhour understood, and Dana Hirschberg understood, so Sharon was pleased.
She fancied a lack of soft bones in her skeleton, thanks to an acute awareness of Earth’s ways that came with several decades of living actively in it, with it, recognizing the roles that natural ability and applied labor played while only rarely, faintly recalling the times that serendipity strolled onstage to steal the show. Was she to blame for seeing only one direction on the road, for neglecting to peek up at the rear-view mirror and see how horror tailgates bliss the entire trip, disdainful of stops for rest and fuel? Perhaps she had been mentally lax in allowing herself to be lulled by the vision ahead and the rumble underneath.
Friends and family worried about Sharon. Fewer figures are cut more tragically than the grieving mother. Phones were lifted, buttons were pushed. Visits were paid, flesh was pressed. Sharon was most appreciative of those who spoke sparingly, remembering her childhood, how her parents stressed that an abundance of crops did not necessarily require an abundance of seed.
Sharon returned to her spot behind the front desk at Allegheny Dental Care after one week’s leave, only to hear her boss insist, as the lunch hour approached, that she work only half-days for a week more. Sympathetic eyes, a warm tongue, and a vulnerable posture conspired to weaken her resolve.
Well-meaning solicitude proved a minor inconvenience. Not everyone understood the myriad of ways that grief could attack a person, the variety of coping mechanisms that a person had at their disposal, or the emotional process which helped them determine the best management plan.
More bothersome were the odd little incidents. By her own unreliable count, Sharon had been witness to a half-dozen perhaps inexplicable occurrences since her son’s death. The car radio showed signs of impatience; the bedroom television lost itself in fits of whimsy. The familiar whispers in otherwise silent rooms. All remained secrets. She was afraid of them, but more afraid for them.
Her mind wrestled with the sinewy reality: her son had given the world the best he ever would by the age of nineteen, when he allowed himself to become the second-most important person in his own life. Even if permitted additional years, even if the majority of the days comprising those years had been spent as a family man who changed the world in sweetly stealthy ways, what more could Jim Ridenhour have accomplished?
Perhaps the apex was just a point on an unobservable map and the ideal was just a fairy tale dreamed up by bitter-hearted overseers who wanted to create a generation of people scared to go to sleep without a story to influence their subconscious.
In the foyer sat the three boxes retrieved from Jim Ridenhour’s storage unit that didn’t contain X-rated VHS tapes. They instead contained paraphernalia featuring and celebrating the favorite son of Baltimore, a tall walker and big stick-carrier beloved by Jim since childhood. Items that Sharon trusted to help with the immediate care of the little girl he left behind.
A little girl who would be arriving in just a few hours to spend the night at Grandma’s.
“Tracy! I need help here!” Sharon kept her gaze low as the footfalls went from faint to frantic, raising it only when her daughter was inches away, arms full of the Dr. Seuss books she’d devoured as a child, precious memories she refused to let see the inside of a bin.
“Do you think Kayla’s too young for Seuss? Or is that the dumbest thing I’ll say all day?”
Sharon considered the first question. “She’s over a year old…hmm…start slow. Hop on Pop. That’s a good one. You have to ease her into such a magical world.”
Tracy gave the books an adoring twice-over. “This is practically a complete collection. All the classics, some overlooked gems. You know what’s missing? Oh, the Places You’ll Go! A friend of mine got a copy of that for a graduation gift. Ech. I want to thank you, Mom.”
“For not giving me a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! for a graduation gift. You’ve never believed in lying to your children. I appreciate that.”
“Are you coming down with a cold?”
“I hope not. I don’t want to give it to the rugrat. I’ll chug some Day-Quil to make sure.”
Sharon’s nose crinkled. “There’s some Schnapps under the sink, in case you want to really make sure. While I’m out, do you think you can remember to get the space heaters out of the attic?”
“Sure. Is anyone coming today to look at the furnace?”
“Tomorrow,” Sharon muttered.
The young girl sprinted to the living room to hastily deposit the books onto the couch, to the kitchen to snatch her coat, and back to the foyer, where her mother awaited, having not moved even a half-step in either direction.
“Tracy, you’ll exhaust yourself before half the day is over.”
“Those boxes don’t look all that heavy, Mom.”
“They aren’t. But I want to get them all out in one trip. One of us can take two, and one of us can take the other one. But just one of us can’t take all three.”
“Ah. Got’cha.” Tracy bent over and picked up a single box. “See ya outside!”
Concerning sports, Sharon hated them, all of them, for encouraging misguided aggression and monumental corruption. Yet, she didn’t deny her son his own athletic experiences. Said experiences never extended beyond middle- and high-school softball, which made it easier for his mother to stomach. That and how, win or lose, Jim always had a smile on his face come competition’s end.
She knew Jim rooted for the Baltimore Orioles. His collection, however, missed her radar. Surprise did not cause conflict or a sudden burst of sentimentality. Sharon agonized zero seconds over the what to do with the boxes once informed of their existence. To assure she would not be hustled, Sharon consulted the sports-savvy husband of a friend, the same man who in the last year also saved her several hundred dollars in superfluous auto repair. He’d examined the goods and insisted that Sharon not exit any sports collectible shop with less than four hundred dollars. He further explained what the true treasures were, so no slick talker could snake scaly words around Sharon’s mind, no delusional entrepreneur-in-dreaming could use her grief as a stepping stone, no self-styled sports maven could deny her an iota of justice.
She would not be fighting alone. With her, packed inside cardboard, was Cal Ripken, Jr. Despite Sharon’s distaste for athletes and athletics, she knew Cal Ripken, Jr. Anyone who lived in the state of Maryland knew Cal Ripken, Jr. Since his debut on a Major League Baseball diamond in 1981, he’d been a perennial All-Star, racking up the sort of statistics and cultivating the type of reputation that created a local legend. He’d cracked into the national consciousness the way so many eventually do–in relentless pursuit of history. September 6, 1995 (just nineteen days before the inside of Jim Ridenhour’s head exploded), Ripken played in his 2,131st consecutive major league game, breaking a record that had stood for fifty-six years, and had long been considered by fans and media as unbreakable.
An embodiment of old-school baseball and old-fashioned American values–show up, shut up, do your job–Ripken was beloved nationwide. A humble, hardworking millionaire, he didn’t bash 450 ft. long home runs on a regular basis. Nor was he a Tasmanian Devil on the base paths. His fielding ability, however, was best described with superlatives, especially considering that at 6′ 4″ and 200 pounds, Ripken was regarded as “large” for the position of shortstop.
Sharon, if pressed, would admit to finding him somewhat cute.
West End Collectibles stood in the middle of a three-store strip on the 1200 block of Washington Street. All of the businesses had been open for over an hour by the time Sharon arrived, yet hers was the only vehicle in the parking lot.
She killed the engine and went over, once more, the words she would say once inside. Or, rather, how she would say them. A quick glance into the rear-view mirror confirmed the top-notch camouflage job.
She smoothed out the front and sides of her flowery V-neck, then placed the first two fingers of her right hand at the pulse point of right wrist. Within seconds, Sharon’s vision lost focus as her breaths became shallower. In one minute, she had synchronized her beats with her breaths.
Autographed “action shots” of sports stars livened up raw pine walls. Horizontal display cases constructed of gleaming wood and glass ran along the sides of the shop, filled with trading cards of certain vintage and significant value. Two tables at the rear offered up “game balls,” commemorative coins, and sundry promotional items from the past three decades of high-stakes competition: baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey, and NASCAR.
The woman who set bells off with a simple push saw 2500 square feet of guy stuff. A man with tight curls atop his head and loose skin hanging from his face stepped from behind the cash register. A bright red shirt stretched valiantly over his gut. His legs seemed to be the rightful property of a thinner man.
Clearly unused to a feminine presence within the walls, the man licked his lips and continued speaking at an unseemly volume.
“May I help you?”
“Yes, I have a few boxes in the trunk of my car. They’re not very heavy, but they contain some items that might interest you.”
His smile sent ants scurrying along the skin of her arms. She smothered a cough and followed the jolly sports-guy outside. Once back indoors, she followed him behind the display cases.
Sharon stood, legs stiff, arms crossed tightly below her breasts. The ants had relocated to the back of her neck. Not once since she’d popped the trunk had the employee looked directly at her or even spoken to her. She decided to accept his incessant eyebrow-raising and jaw-clenching while examining the goods as positive signs. Dollar signs.
He grunted and rose to his full height. He walked over to the cash register and returned with a calculator. Sharon adjusted her own stance, resting her back against the display case, arms hanging at her sides, fingers tentatively touching the glass behind her. Maybe he’d take note and request she respect the merchandise. But who would dare speak so callously to a grieving mother?
So Sharon told the unsuspecting merchant the circumstances leading to her presence in his shop on a suspiciously lovely Sunday in October. Her recitation was dry and terse and drained the man’s face an alabaster hue.
“Oh. My condolences, ma’am. Your son certainly had some very interesting items of, uh, interest.”
One step forward was all Sharon could take, so she took it, standing so close to the man she could feel the waves of discomfort pulsating from him. She watched as he opened the smaller boxes contained within a larger one, examining sheathed trading cards, considering conditions.
Sharon couldn’t help her curiosity, speaking up several times. His vague replies were nowhere near as frustrating as his sudden switch in demeanor was gratifying. She imagined that while the man likely dealt with people bringing in the goods of loved ones, those people (men and women both) were content to be steamrolled by the expertise of someone who had the keys to the front and back doors of a shop.
“Okay. We have Orioles teams collections, Topps brand trading cards, from the years 1983 to 1992. Ten in all. Kept in cardboard boxes. Very good to near mint. Eight dollars each, eighty dollars total.
“One issue of Sports Illustrated, dated 5/5/95, Cal Ripken cover. Five dollars. One issue of Sports Illustrated, dated 9/11/95, Cal Ripken cover. Five dollars. Unopened box of Wheaties brand cereal, featuring Cal Ripken. Ten dollars.
“Donruss brand rookie card, Topps brand rookie card, Fleer brand rookie card. All kept in screw-downs. Near mint. Thirty dollars each card, ninety dollars total for all three.
“Topps brand ‘Traded’ rookie card. Now, this one’s rarer than the other Topps Ripken rookie. You see that there are actually three players featured on this card?”
Sharon stared, wondering why such a thing should be so scarce. “Who were Bob Bonner and Jeff Schroeder?”
“No one knows.”
“They never amounted to much?”
He smiled and tapped calculator keys. “Protected. Near mint. One hundred and eighty dollars. Which brings us to a total of four hundred and twenty dollars for everything you’ve brought me today.”
“It’s a good market for Ripken collectibles,” he continued. “He’s a hot name. The O’s didn’t make the playoffs, but he was the biggest story of the year. It was a real feel-good moment for baseball after what happened last year.”
“What happened last year?”
“The season was cut short due to a strike. There was no World Series champion for the first time ever. Fans were down on the sport, the media guys were down on the sport, all the greed. Ripken stepped up and showed everyone what’s so great about the national pastime. He made people proud to be baseball fans again.”
“Oh. I think he’s kind of cute.”
Hitting all three red lights on the drive back home could not quell Sharon’s glee. The house on Nottingham Road that used a Confederate flag in lieu of curtains was unable to kill her joy. Pesky thoughts intent on spiking her blood with vinegar proved ineffectual. She felt completion. She felt the arms of her son. She thought of life and death and love and dinner.
Somehow a surplus of canned ravioli accumulated in her kitchen cabinets…that would be for Kayla, as much as she wanted. Sharon and Tracy would pick up a pie.
Hundreds of dollars for…pictures of an overpaid player of silly games. Sharon wouldn’t have bothered to try and make sense of it even if she had the time.
Two turns from West Side Avenue, the car radio began its Sydenham’s shimmy. From commercial to guitar solo to commercial to drum break. At last, it stopped, on “Layla.” As the agonized cries of the lustful, guilt-ridden antihero filled the inside of her car, another sound sputtered forth, a sound that Sharon could never remember making at any other time in her life, a half-laugh half-sob that seemed to feed on itself.
Jennifer Benningfield’s stories have appeared in several publications,
including Black Dandy, The Sonder Review, Vagabonds and Fiction On the
Web. A lifelong Marylander who has been in the (mostly) benevolent
thrall of words since receiving “Green Eggs and Ham” as a birthday
present, her writings can also be found online at