it wasn’t so much the shag carpet or its color – red, his favorite, but its proximity to mom and dad’s bedroom, across the hallway. He was the youngest of three boys and so he, via some ancient tradition, had first dibs on bedroom selection. He could have picked the one at the end of the hallway, the one with a porch and a get away gutter angling down towards street level, to smooch a secret love in the future shadows of an Elm or sniff paint thinner and watch the sun set below the telephone line or endless other dreams-dooms-destinies, but he didn’t want that freedom. Instead, he wanted to be close to mom’s long ear lobes and dad’s hunchback gait and they responded to his love and loyalty with box after box of baseball cards.
Kids called him Crucible Joe because of his scrunched up face, some hidden turmoil they deduced, but it was far from true because in reality, inside, the Crucible felt lucky…every waking day a triumph over death and with box after box of baseball cards, a veritable jubilee. He didn’t care about the player or photograph or stats on the back, only that he had lots of them, an existential blanket before he knew what existential meant. He placed them on the floor, in one long, meandering horizontal stack like an endless chain of train cars, a reminder that he was not alone.
But he was alone, day after day, year after year, until the Burnes boy got wind of his collection and snuck in through the first floor window and tiptoed up the steps. The Crucible’s door was always open. Burns didn’t waste any time either. He got right down to it, preaching the Barcelona experiment, the ancient barter, anarchy, and then he grabbed a few cards, slid them, one at a time, in his palms, oohing and ahhhing, in intervals, like a sophisticated song appreciating rain…a hum dance under the moon. Crucible Joe suddenly knew these cards were more than a material warm shower in a cold, lonely world, born alone die alone. They were an attraction, a talisman, a mysterious totem.
Burnes removed a 1974 Topps Traded to New York Lou Pinella and “that look of Spanish gambler,” he remarked….then a 1983 Lenn Sakata and his “perfect stab at the second sack” and on and on went Burns, from 1962 Eli Grba to 2019 Eric Sogard, their glasses, “their microscopes,” ruminated Burnes, “in love with details.”
Burnes offered a “surprise” in exchange for the cards and the sound of that word “surprise” conjured in Crucible Joe’s mind, images of his mom’s ox tail soup and so he nodded his head yes. Trust took flight. Burns walked to the window and removed his cap, tapped his forehead twice, a third base coach signal to someone or something down below.
She appeared, fat as grapes, lips like worms, wearing birkenstocks with white socks and a black hat with a peacock feather aiming out the back. She was Clarissa the Rat, an old truck stop handle, from her days as a well worn lot lizard. She sat down on the floor, lotus position with ease, flexible for a lady of her girth, cottage cheese arms and the smell too. She removed a stack from her front pocket, a stack of cards, but not baseball cards or playing cards or Tarot cards. These were strat-o-matic cards. She spread them out on the red shag and began to explain, rules of this simulated dice baseball game, and soon they played and she returned the next day and the day after and Crucible Joe was suddenly not alone.
And like the Baltimore Colts fleeing in the night, inconspicuous, Crucible Joe flew the safety of the family coop. He and Clarissa rented a motel room, 70 dollars a week. He turned to a life of decisions, to hit and run, bunt, or hit away? Replace a pitcher? Double switch? Infield in? The stress of managerial tinkering took a toll and so Clarissa the Rat offered scotch and with that first sip, he slipped under the gateway into a marriage with the bottle, a life of strat-o-matic, booze, welfare checks and Clarissa the Rat, she in the East, he in the west, two dugouts of the same diamond. And in the halls of erudition and down by the dirty river, an amor fati shimmered.