Prayer for Expansion, Part 1
So last night I woke up suffocating. I bolted upright in bed as I gained consciousness, my lungs empty and my nose and mouth unable to suck in any air, as if my body had forgotten how to do its most basic work. I finally broke the spell by gasping in a shred of breath as if pulling in syrup through a narrow straw, but not before thinking I might be through.
It happens once in a while. I guess it’s sleep apnea, not that I really know much about that. But thoughts about what it is, or might be, don’t occur to me during the moment of panic, nor do they help during the unsettling aftermath, when I lie awake in the dark breathing greedily and worrying about death.
It’s much easier to push such thoughts to the side in broad daylight, but at 3 in the morning the eventuality of someday not being anything forever seems as concrete and present as the pulsing colon in the digital readout on my bedside alarm clock. Near and getting nearer with each pulse.
Maybe I need a religion, a way to come to terms with these thoughts. In some ways this whole project of mine, writing about my childhood baseball cards, has been a meandering effort in that direction all along, ever since I kicked things off with an attempt at an ode to the joy and heartbreak of Mark Fidrych
If anything’s going to give me solace or guidance or support in this life, if anything’s going to serve as my religion, however flimsy, it’s going to be these rectangles of cardboard, which I’ve carried with me in a shoebox for decades, far longer than anything else I’ve ever owned, all the way into a stunned middle age, the present defined in rougher moments by the shock of having lived past the statistical halfway marker while still feeling as if life has barely begun, the past a ragged riddle of failure, the future a TV Guide grid of reruns with a fixed end, a scheduled and unchangeable time when the station will go off the air and the screen will go blank.
These moments are thin, airless, a kind of suffocation. So I’m fighting for more air, more breath, more life. I’m trying to bring about a feeling of wider horizons and greater possibilities. I’m trying to encourage expansion. But I need help.
So I’m calling on the Cardboard Gods.
The first thing that comes to mind when I say the words Kurt Bevacqua is that he was the winner of a contest among major leaguers to blow the biggest bubble using Bazooka bubble gum. This feat, celebrated in a special 1976 Topps card
that I do not own but that I was intimately familiar with (my brother must have owned it), could not possibly have loomed larger in my 8-year-old mind. It was an event that existed at the nexus of practically everything I loved most at that time: baseball; sugary candy; the 1970s Guinness Book of World Records craze for transforming nonsensical trivialities (The longest fingernails! The fattest motorbike riding twins! The most weight pulled by a man using only his teeth!) into celebrated, even somehow numinous, significance; and even the whole 1970s proliferation of crazes (the pet rock
, mood rings
) that the Guinness Book of World Records mania seemed a part of, as did, at least in my mind, the 1975 Topps bubble gum contest. And not least among the factors feeding into my infatuation with the event was the name of the event’s winner. The name was unknown to me, but at that time any and all major leaguers were gods, and the gods that were unknown were no less powerful and if anything more mysterious. More than that, the unusual collision of consonants in Kurt Bevacqua’s name was to my still-growing reading abilities like a difficult but not impossible new move to an eager karate student. It did not immediately roll off my tongue, but after a few times practicing it, I had it, and its whipping double hard-K sound cracked out loud in the changed air of my bedroom.
And Kurt Bevacqua’s feat did not fade from my mind in subsequent years but rather served as a seemingly reachable level of immortality. (The allure of records was that they would fix your name into the books forever.) His bubble was big, but it wasn’t that much bigger than the bubbles I could blow, and as the years went on I blew bigger and bigger bubbles, using more and more gum and whispering breaths with more and more subtlety into the fragile, pendulous globe that grew like a second featureless head from my own kissing lips, until I was verging on thinking that I was almost the equal, at least in blowing bubbles, to this Cardboard God.
By the time I’d come to this point, however, the feat had lost most of its magic. In the beginning, the attempt to match Kurt Bevacqua had been something I’d done in tandem with my brother. If either of us had a good bubble going, and the other was in another room in the house, the bubble blower would carefully make his way to the room where the other was and alert them to the possible Bevacqua-defeating extrusion of Bazooka with an urgent, if necessarily soft, moaning sound in the throat. The other would look up from the comic book or TV show he was absorbed in and honor the possibly earth-shaking significance of the moment with a rapt gaze and an almost prayerful silence. But as the years went by my brother’s interest in such things waned, then disappeared altogether, and so I was left to pursue Bevacqua in solitude, understanding even as I did so that I was childish, uncool, an understanding that made the ritual seem even more solitary than it already was, stripping it even of the illusion of being something the world might still be interested in.
This anticlimactic phase emptied into the wider anticlimax of the figures in my baseball cards ceasing, at some point during the spasms of puberty, to be godlike. Kurt Bevacqua was a prime example of this, my stronger understanding of the facts of baseball combining with my growing disinterest in baseball to reduce the major league careers of journeymen such as Kurt Bevacqua to inconsequentiality. By the time the persistent Bevacqua, who lasted 15 seasons in the major leagues despite the apparent accuracy (considering Bevacqua’s career BA/OBP/SLG averages of .236/.305/.327) of Tommy Lasorda’s semi-famous claim
that “fucking Bevacqua couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a fucking boat,” had his one big moment in the limelight, hitting a game-winning three-run home run in a 1984 World Series game, I was barely even paying attention. Bevacqua’s thin-membraned bubble of a career finally popped the following year. I doubt that this happened with any fanfare. I sure as hell didn’t care.