I shoved my dollar and twenty-five cents deeper into my pocket and piled out of the backseat, R.J. right behind me. I had to work to keep my face from smiling. It didn’t pay to smile around Dad. He’d find a way to squash happy like a mosquito.
Dad slammed the door of our Plymouth a second after Mom shut her door.
We stood under a leafy canopy in front of the drive-in movie theatre. Saturday Swap Meet winked from the marquee in the nine a.m. sun.
“Meet back at the car at Noon,” Dad said, even though we hit the swap meet at least once a month and I knew the drill. Mom, Dad, and R.J. always started on the back row and worked their way methodically to the entrance. If I found clothes or something that cost more than my budget, I looked for the only man at the swap meet wearing a pith helmet as a sun visor. But Mom was the one to ask for money.
Dad turned to give R.J. his usual lecture about keeping in one of his parent’s sight lines.
I motioned to Mom that I was taking off and slipped into the crowd, eager to exercise my eleven-year-old right to exit Dad’s sight line. I ducked into the nearest aisle and hot-footed it past Christmas tinsel, tires, and tools. The more sunshine splashed between me and Dad, the better. My pace slowed as I passed a basket of Rice Krispie treats wrapped in waxed paper, but I pressed on to the far side of the lot.
My eye caught on a brown felt beanie bearing the Girl Scout emblem on a table of clothes. I smiled, remembering second grade, sitting Indian style, knee to knee, at Brownie meetings, chanting, “Keep in rhythm, jolly, jolly rhythm.”
The next stall’s comic books overflowed a bed sheet onto the pavement. Someone had scrawled 5 Cents Each on notebook paper atop the haphazard pyramid.
I plunked down in the shade of the Brownie beanie table and calculated how many comics I could buy for $1.25.
I tossed aside Spiderman, Superman, Batman, and a Green Lantern, the shiny covers toasting the pads of my fingers. I started a maybe pile with Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mad Magazine. I grabbed an Archie for a yes pile. The Jetsons, yes. I shoved a tower of dinosaur comics out of my way. I’d rather read the twelve times tables. Yogi Bear, Richie Rich, and Flintstones went into the yes pile. A half hour later, with ten comics cradled to my chest, I crawled out from under the table.
Midway down the aisle, sun sparkled off the fairytale spheres of a rack of clackers. I glanced at the $1 sign atop the rack, fingered the three quarters left in my pocket, and swallowed my disappointment.
On the next row I cheered up when I spied a stack of Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew books tied in a bundle.
I asked the lady eating arroz con pollo—complete with peas like Mom made it—how much they cost.
She sized me up. “Venti cinco centavos.”
I sprinted through my elementary school Spanish to translate. Then I bit down on my bottom lip and my glee, not wanting her to realize what a deal she was giving me. I dug a quarter out of my pocket, handed it to her, slid the stack onto my comic books and walked coolly away. Inside I turned cartwheels.
Blue coin collector’s books like the ones Dad used to save his old coins fanned out on a table.
An arrow of guilt pinged through me as I remembered pilfering Wheat Pennies from their cardboard slots. I exchanged them at the corner store for butterscotch candy wrapped in golden plastic that crinkled when I opened it. Sometimes I bought butter-rum lifesavers and Three Musketeers candy bars if I got into the Buffalo Nickels or Roosevelt Dimes.
I eyed the books as the sun cooked the crown of my head and snaked sweat down the side of my face.
Dad’s coin collection had long been boxed up and stored, but I’d never gotten the courage to tell the priest the truth in Confession. I still felt guilty, even though God knew I was sorry.
I ducked into the dim snack bar and plowed through the scents of popcorn and hot dogs and Coca Cola to the water fountain. I wasn’t even tempted to buy a treat. I didn’t deserve one.
I asked a little girl with a Barbie watch what time it was. She stared at the dial and scrunched her forehead, then shot out her wrist to me.
Ten twenty five. I race-walked away from my guilt and headed for the last row against the movie screen.
At the bottom of a pile of toys, I spied a clacker ball, the string disappearing beneath a three-wheeled plastic lawn mower. I cupped the ball and tugged, then I moved the lawn mower, a hula hoop, some Fisher Price people, and a Candy Land game held together with masking tape. I tugged again. The second ball emerged tangled in a slinky.
I painstakingly unwound the fouled string until I dangled the intact clackers from my finger, gently moving the string to make the balls smack together. I held them up to the big lady in a bird of paradise muumuu, sitting under a beach umbrella.
“Fifty cents,” she said in the same tone of voice she might have said, “Get lost, kid.”
I forked over the money and scuffed my sneakers across the sandy asphalt toward the entrance, mystified that God gave me things I didn’t deserve.
A row of pogo sticks leaned against an El Camino covered in bumper stickers. Dad had bought my pogo stick—now stashed in the storage barn—at the swap meet, maybe from the same guy with Jesus hair and a Miami Dolphins T-shirt.
Along with the pogo stick, Dad built me a cache cool toys: stilts he spray painted silver to match the scooter and skateboard he’d made from spare lumber and old roller skates, the paint cans he’d fashioned into over-sized elevator shoes.
Sure Dad had his moments, but I wasn’t innocent either.
I sat on the grass and leaned against the shady fender of our Plymouth, recriminations silenced for the moment. I arranged my bounty in reading order and opened Archie at Riverdale High on my lap. I rubbed my thumb over the smooth plastic clacker ball.
For all the whining I did, I didn’t want to swap my life for another kid’s.
I’d take my Dad, my troubles, over anybody else’s.