As I described in my last entry, I’m from a small town. So small in fact that I’m 99% sure that if you were to ask me if I knew someone from said small town, the answer would be yes. Of course, you would have to allow me the handful of names that have moved there since my departure, but, for the most part, it’s full of families that have lived there since I was a child. Even though it’s grown a little bit since then, the integrity of the town is still very much the same. All but one or two of the structures that stood when I lived there are still standing, with the additions of a few more business around them.
One such structure that has since become repurposed is the building the local IGA store was. For those of you not in the know, that stands for Independent Grocers Alliances. Think stories of Piggly Wiggly or other small time stores that really can’t compete with your Krogers, Fred Myer’s, or King Soopers, all of which are owned by the same company by the way. The store in question here was known simply as Levels.
It wasn’t fancy at all, in fact, it was far from it. When you walked through the automatic doors, if they worked, you were hit directly in the face by the smell of stale air conditioning, cigarettes, and regret. It was a small town store at it’s finest. Somewhere in the middle of that store, my parents told me the first lie I can remember. It wasn’t about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, I don’t fault them for those, rather it was boldly declaring that Shasta Cola was just as good as Coca-Cola. Upon tasting the difference between the two, I questioned if they even loved us.
Funny little word, “us”. Those two little letters butted up against each other was the answer to my question. We were told Shasta Cola tasted the same because there were five kids under the roof and my parents were working with a fixed income when it came to bills and groceries. So, if we did get cola of any sort, it was always Shasta, because that was what they could afford. Nevermind the fact that somehow, by what I can only assume was the abundance of the Lord, a 12 pack of Coke always made it into the basket for my parents. I think that is why I have trust issues.
Dinner time in our home was always an event. When feeding five kids there were always staples on the menu. Hamburger Helper, spaghetti, goulash, chili mac…….come to think of it, it was all just meat and noodles. We would sit around our dinner table and like a game of Russian Roulette, my dad would pick one of us to pour him a Coke. When it was my turn, I would always sneak a sip in the kitchen before I brought it out to the table, that, as it were, was when I figured out the lie.
On one such occasion the hand of the almighty choose yours truly to pour his soda for him, and as I opened the 12 pack I noticed a pack of cards glued to the top of the cardboard that I ripped away. My heart stopped for a brief moment as I had to devise a plan to keep these for myself. As luck would have it, I was the only one of the five kids that cared anything about cards, but my brother was greedy, and I knew he would try and finagle them away if only because I wanted them.
What was I to do? I couldn’t take them back into the dining room for all to see, that would spell certain disaster. I couldn’t whisper to my dad because that would let the other four know I was up to something. So, I slipped the pack in my pocket and waited until the timing was good to bring it up to dad.
Dinner was excruciating, not because we were having meat and noodles again, but because I was sitting there with a pack of unknown goodness burning a hole in my pocket. I’m sure all of you know that filling. It’s like picking up a blaster while you’re out shopping and not being able to contain yourself when you get back to the driver’s seat of your car. You have to rip it open, but not before you share a picture of it in every Facebook group you are in with a status update that reads something ridiculous like, “Retail Therapy” or “Lunch Break” because you need as many “W’s” as possible before you tear back the thin film of plastic to get into the $20 that you most likely just wasted.
This, however, was the early ’90’s and blasters were not yet available, but the inside of 12 packs of Coke, around Halloween, were ripe for the picking. All I knew in that moment was there were cards in my pocket, and I had to keep cool through dinner so that I could have them. We finished eating, cleaned up the kitchen, and started to get ready for bed. Everyone dispersed to their own corners of the house, but I hung out with dad for a moment. It was then that I pulled the pack from my pocket and told him that they were from the new 12 pack of Cokes in the kitchen and I asked politely ( you get more flies with honey) if I could keep them.
The air grew thick with anticipation as I waited for what seemed like forever, but in reality was mere moments. My dad smiled a smile that only he could, and said come with me. He took me out to his work truck and handed me another three packs that he had been saving for me. He knew all along and was waiting until the moment was right to give them to me.
We sat outside in the cool evening air of a fall Texas sunset and opened four packs of the most worthless football cards since Pro Set. I remember the Emmitt Smith and Steve Atwater cards, but what was most important in that moment was the time that I was spending with my dad with no interruptions. Being a middle child is hard, being a middle child of a blended family is even harder. The man I was opening those packs with was actually my step-dad, but he never once treated me as such. He died within four years of that moment, and as I was standing next to the plot they buried him in I tossed in the Smith and Atwater. That moment was ours, and I wanted to make sure he carried it with him to the other side.
My oldest son isn’t into sports cards at all. I’m pretty sure he couldn’t care any less about them. He does, however, really enjoy superheroes, so every chance we get we open a pack or two of whatever random superhero packs my LCS has. The contents never matter to me, rather the experience he has flipping through those cards, and every time we do it the smell of a cool fall Texas night fills my nose, if only for a moment.