June 27, 2010

Tossing Rosebud on the Fire


When I heard my dad’s voice on the phone at nine-thirty Monday morning, I went cold. They never call me that early. Worse, it sounded like he was calling alone—my mom wasn’t on the extension, the way she usually was. I could sense just from the way he said “Jim?” that something was terribly wrong.

            Then he said “We’ve got a big problem here,” and that only made everything worse. Immediately my mind started ticking through all the horrible possibilities: death, illness, an accident, a fire, a natural disaster, financial ruin. It could’ve been anything, and whatever it was, it wasn’t good. This was no way to start a week.

            “What is it?” I asked finally and tentatively. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.

“Well,” he said, “there was an ad in the paper this morning . . . ”

            That’s when I began to relax and finally let my breath out. When my dad brings up either an advertisement or the local paper, I know he’s just being a goof who deserves a smack.

            “ . . . and there’s a dealer in town today who wants to buy antique toys.”

            I immediately saw where this was going, and the threat level jumped again. All the relief of a second earlier vanished. “What did you want to sell?” I demanded, my voice perhaps a bit too shrill for a man my age.

            My parents, see, being the nostalgic types, have held onto a number of the toys I played with when I was a kid. Those that hadn’t been completely demolished or sold at rummage sales, anyway. If they survived past my tenth birthday, it’s likely my parents still have them. My dad keeps them all in a cardboard box in the basement, and drags them out most every time I visit (along with my old drawings of G. Gordon Liddy and houses on fire), and we all have a sentimental chuckle.

            There was an old Lionel train, a vinyl carrying case full of Matchboxes and Hot Wheels, a collection of antique wind-up cars my dad brought back from his tour in Germany, some German Matchbox knockoffs, a monkey that skipped rope, a clown that played the drums, a few other things that were likewise made out of metal and pointy things and therefore could never be sold today. Most of them were broken in some decisive way. I played with my toys hard, and rarely in the way the manufacturer intended, eventually over-winding springs or overwhelming the battery-powered motors. I mostly used the electric train to run over things I’d placed on the tracks. I’d eaten most of the tires off the Matchbox cars, or smashed them with hammers or bricks in order to simulate “a terrible car accident.” That my parents still had the toys they had was astonishing—usually when I broke something, I broke it beyond all recognition. Just goes to show how sturdy some things used to be.

I guess that’s why I felt a little pang of something—loss? regret?—when my dad said he wanted to sell them to a toy dealer. Only part of it had to do with the fact that toy dealers are worse than rare book dealers when it comes to shystering the unwary out of treasures.

            The real reason is that apart from these columns, I think I do a fairly thorough job of erasing my life as I go along. Records, communications —as much as I can, I regularly stop and wipe it all out. I realize that in this age of electronic whatsits, doodads, and untouchable databases it’s an utterly futile and foolish gesture, but it makes me feel better, somehow. And while I’m hardly a Charles Foster Kane, within this little delusional microcosm I’ve created, those toys are, in a very real way, my Rosebud.

“He’s looking for old metal and mechanical toys,” my dad said, “and I just wanted to make sure it was okay with you before I went over there. These are your toys, so you’ll get any money that comes out of it.”

            I had to remember that my folks were getting older and probably just wanted to clean out the dusty crap a little bit. If they could get something more than the buck-fifty all those things would likely pull in at a garage sale, why the hell not? Lord knows I didn’t have the room in my place—and what would I really do with a case of smashed Matchboxes, anyway? Plus, even that buck-fifty sounded pretty tempting at this point.

            “All right,” I said. “Go ahead—but not the big green car that poots the steam out of the hood. I love that car.”

            “But it’s broken.”

            “I don’t care—I love that car. And don’t take a penny less than $12,000 for the rest.”

            “Okay,” he agreed. “I’ll leave the green car here. And we’ll start negotiating at $12,000.”

            Before we hung up, he promised he’d give me a call if he got anything for the box o’ crap.

A few minutes later I started to worry. My dad, see, is a trusting fellow, and has never been a real sharp haggler. I got the idea he wasn’t really up on how much some of these things were selling for on eBay. I was afraid he was going to call and tell me the dealer had given him three magic beans for the whole lot. But I also knew he watched that Antiques Road Show, and hoped some of it had stuck.

            Well, it was too late to worry about it, so I got back to work.

            Two hours later he called again. The guy hadn’t taken everything. He didn’t want my old Lionel train. He did take most of it, though—he even took all the smashed-up Matchboxes (for the carrying case alone he said, which I don’t believe for a second). He took the drumming clown and that rope-skipping monkey, too. And while my dad didn’t get the $12,000 I’d asked, he did get a few hundred out of the deal, which I guess ain’t too shabby, even if this guy is gonna turn right around and make a fortune off my childhood.

            The more I thought about it, though, those nostalgic pangs started to fade. Because to be honest, that drumming clown always scared the shit out of me. I didn’t much trust that monkey, either. And my folks still have my drawings of G. Gordon Liddy.


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