Eric lay upon his bed, thumbing through a stack of baseball cards. He cherished the cards, each one: even though some of the athletes represented never played more than one or two major league seasons. To Eric, they were famous because he had their cards.
He loved to ponder the individual signatures of the players; to inhale the faded perfume of bubble gum: brittle, flavorless pink gum, which was included in the packs of six cards he would purchase from the corner market. He was so familiar with them, he needed only to see a corner of a cap or a piece of a mitt to identify the player whose photograph graced one of the green or blue or red or yellow cards.
Eric regarded his cards as friends. Each name and face were like those of uncles or next-door neighbors. And all were Eric’s heroes, because each had a face and form etched upon the front of a brightly colored card.
Shifting around on his bed, Eric flung a card toward the bedroom wall. Hovering lightly, while gently spiraling down, the card drifted to the floor. In a drowsy Summer’s daze, he watched it fall. He sang to himself a faint melody, a composite of several heroic tunes he favored.
Once the card had settled from its flight, he flicked another toward it with some precision: imitating a game he had recently learned from Jerry, the boy down the street: the object of which was to flip a card on top of another card. Between adversarial opponents, the covered card would become the property of the coverer.
The second card glanced off the wall, alighting close to the first, nearly touching: almost a cover. Deftly, Eric tossed a third card in the direction of the first two. It swiftly skimmed the air, skidding atop both cards on the floor.
Scooping the cards from the floor, he smiled smugly, imagining himself the victor in a match of skill with an invisible foe. Eric sat on the edge of his bed and wheeled a card, like a sawblade, against the wall. The card smacked the wall smartly and plummeted. As he was about to play his second shot, he heard his mother sobbing in the hall outside his bedroom door.
She entered his room without knocking and plopped down next to him on the bed. She was crying heavily, in a way he had never before seen her cry.
“Oh, Eri,” she bawled, “I don’t know what to do. I’m so confused.”
Eric stared down at the stack of cards in his hands, unable to look at his mother. He felt so helpless whenever she was upset. It always startled him to see her in tears, for he was under the impression that adults were not supposed to cry. His father had told him, many times, that real men didn’t cry. Nor had Eric ever seen his father cry. When his mother cried, it confounded him. For he would then feel like crying too.
“What am I gonna do, Eri? Jesus, what am I gonna do?”
“What’s the matter, Mom?” Eric asked, not so much to find out, as to get her to stop crying.
“Oh, Eri… Eri, it’s… It’s so complicated. Your dad and I. I. Oh…” She trailed off and started weeping again, uncontrollably.
“What’s so complicated Mom? Do your gallstones hurt again?” He remembered well her agonized wails as Dad and the kids drove her to the hospital last Winter. He restlessly shuffled the fan of cards between his hands.
“Do you want me to call the hospital?”
“No, Eri. No. It’s not gallstones honey. I’m in trouble. And I don’t know what to do. Everything’s a mess, Eri, a big ugly mess and I don’t know what to do to clean it up.”
“What’s a mess, Mom? What kind of mess?”
He remembered the mess when the family first moved to Oregon, and Mom was in labor with Jimmy. And she lay in the empty bathtub, groaning and yelling “Jesus God! Oh God!” Writhing frantically, she screamed as her water broke, “Oh God, what a mess!” Eric and his brother and sister stood at the side of the bathtub, powerless to comfort in the least their moaning mother; until Dad came home from work, to take her to the hospital.
And he remembered how lonely his parents were then. His whole family was lonely because they didn’t have any friends in Oregon. Mom had explained to him then that she and Dad were lonely. And she cried when she told him that.
“Are you lonely, Mom? Are you gonna have a baby?”
She placed her arm around the boy; with her other hand, pushed his brown plastic glasses up proper on his nose. She kissed his oblivious cheek, wiping her tears into his straw-blonde hair.
“No, I’m not pregnant. Thank God!” She laughed.
For a moment the air seemed still and clear. Eric shied from his mother’s smothering hug and sighed: maybe her emotional tide was beginning to ebb. She was quiet for a moment, gaping blankly at the baby blue wall of Eric’s room. Thinking. Then, suddenly, she erupted into great quaking sobs.
“Eri, I don’t want to lose you. I can’t stand the thought of losing you all. You’re my family. But your Dad and I haven’t been getting alongÑ not for a long time.” She stopped, becoming quiet again, deep in thought.
Eric felt his heart racing ominously. He sensed a dense dark cloud circling above them. He wanted to run away from the frightening static in the air, certain that doom was floating there between the two of them in his room. He wanted to escape the suffocating dread, but his mother held him fast in the embrace of her dismay. Her hand grasped his shoulder; her fingers tightly clasped his arm. She began to shudder.
“Mom,” Eric whimpered, “why are you gonna lose us? Are you goin’ someplace?”
She broke down again into childlike cries which even her thirty-one years could not disguise.
Eric, tearless, examined his mother– bewildered by her torment. He clutched his cards, as his mother clung to him, blubbering and sniffling.
“Eri,” she burbled, “last year when we lived next to Bob and Irene. Bob and I… we…”
Eric thought about the Wolfe family. Bobby, Billy and Cindy were his friends then. The two families went on camping trips together. To Eric, Bob and Irene seemed to be friends for his parents. His parents seemed happier than before, when they had first come to Oregon.
“What did you and Bob do, Mom?”
“Honey. Bob and I, we had an affair.”
Eric searched his mind for the meaning of the word, but could find none.
“And we’ve continued to have an affair ever since. And he wants me to divorce your Dad and marry him.”
Eric’s thoughts began to swirl deliriously. He nodded dumbly, screwing up his face in fear and disbelief.
“Are you gonna divorce Dad, Mom?” Eric inquired. “Are you gonna marry Bob Wolfe?”
His mother cried and said, “I don’t know honey. I don’t know what to do. It’s hurting your father. And it hurts me to hurt him. And I don’t want to hurt you kids either. I don’t know what to do.”
Stricken to muteness, Eric eyed his mother ruefully, as if she were dying right before him. He felt betrayed, abandoned and helpless.
“Mom,” he whined. “Mom,” he choked. “Mom I don’t want you and Dad to get a…”
“Oh, honey,” she hugged her son hard. “Eri, I’m so confused. I don’t know what to do. I love Bob. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. Irene wants to kill us. It just happened. Oh God!” She wept deeper, squeezing Eric even harder. “Eric, honey, what am I gonna do? What should I do Eri?”
Puzzled, hurt and overcome, Eric turned toward his mother and pleaded, “Mom I’m only seven years old. I’m just a kid. I don’t even know what you’re talking about;” while bursting into hot, frustrated, real tears of his own.
Disconsolate, his mother left his side, hiding her face in her hands in humiliation. She exited the room feeling friendless, hopeless. Crying.
Eric peered through squinted tears at the orange pastel shadows shading the walls of his room in the late afternoon. Prisms and rainbows cascaded in his clouded eyes as he cried to himself, disheartened and discouraged. He held the stack of baseball cards in his lap, inspecting the bright blue card at the top of the pile.
He noticed that it was Robin Roberts. Eric knew it was Robin Roberts by the color of the card, and the fragment of mitt he could observe between his fingers’ grasp.
He uncovered it to see that he was correct. It was Robin Roberts. He whipped the card against the wall. Slowly, it descended to the floor.