My son runs over to me on my little patch of schoolyard that nobody else has thought to claim, possibly because it appears to be right in the middle of a soccer goal to judge from the number of balls colliding with my head, and possibly because of the gum and gooey other things I can never wash out of my pants – my son runs over to me with a couple of other fourth graders, holding a varnished slab of wood in both hands, and looking amazed. I don’t know if he wants to show it to me, or smuggle it into his backpack which I am in the habit of using as a pillow against the fence. It has occurred to me just recently that my days of sitting here this way in any kind of schoolyard without seeming kind of creepy are shortly coming to an end. Eleven years like this! I don’t know if I’ll miss it. The slab of wood, I see now, is a kind of a plaque with a name embossed onto it, and a smudgy strip of tape behind glass. Everyone’s a little breathless.
“LeBron James touched this thing.”
“It’s not coming home.”
“A kid gave it to me.”
“Where? You can’t even see any fingerprints.”
“Look, it says here.”
“It’s a block of wood.”
“The kid said.”
“It’s not coming home.”
Much slumping and sighing. No tears. We’ve come a very long way. “Give it back to the kid. I’m sorry. Go on. Here, you can kick me in the head with a soccer ball if you want.”
No use mentioning right now all the heaps and archaeological layers already collected in our home. And no use performing an inventory either: what makes one rock less valuable than any other once you have carried it around in your pocket for any length of time, and they’re all about a billion years old? Metrocards – they might still have a hundred dollars on them! Computer parts – state secrets? And balls of crumpled paper – Lord, we could build a human size nest in our apartment from all the notes that people have written to themselves and somewhere forgotten.
Bolts and springs, and and business cards from places I’m sure we’ve never been. Broken glasses and brooches and ear buds. Bones and teeth, and arms and legs and pointy weapons from action figures that would probably add up to a pretty fearsome hybrid if anyone had the mind, which of course they never do.
Though perhaps it speaks to the integrity of all these bits and pieces that their valuation does not depend on fitting them with something else, and here I see a stubborn act of hopefulness, even belief. Not leftovers, these, or loose ends, but ends. “No, it’s cool,” I have heard more times than I have had the energy to argue, as though to break it down any smaller – into rareness or shininess or aliveness – would be to squander its improbable spell.
More than any other author and illustrator of children’s books, William Steig made a career out of capturing the magic in everyday artifacts, mostly by declining to analyze them, whether it was a necklace found at the dump which a garbage dog becomes matter-of-factly convinced will lead him to his true love (in Tiffky Doofky), or a shiny red pebble that grants even the most fleeting and regrettable wishes (in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble), or a simple rusty nail that you can suddenly turn into – “zingo!” – by simultaneously scratching your nose and wiggling your toes (in Solomon the Rusty Nail). You either buy these premises or you don’t, but this author is not going to waste a lot of time trying to sell them to you, and it’s kind of amazing how fun these stories turn out after you have taken that initial leap of faith. Though I count myself a skeptic about almost everything religious, I am ever a little in awe – maybe envious – of people who wear their unlikely convictions without a frown, and wonder at my weird good fortune of once in while being able to borrow some over the years. A kid gave it to me, though I don’t think he’d mind me sharing it with a friend.