When I was eight, my dad told me that he was a secret agent. He claimed to work for the CIA, and that when he left on road trips for business he was really going on trips to assassinate terrorists and drug kingpins.
Maybe he saw a tinge of doubt on my face (I had passed the age of reason, after all), so he showed me a gold badge stamped with the words U.S. GOVERNMENT on top and SECRET AGENT on the bottom, the words curling around within the badge’s border so that they almost met.
I promised that I wouldn’t tell a soul. Naturally, I told every kid at school who would listen to me. On the drive home from a meeting between my folks and Principal Frawley – during which I was seated outside the door of Frawley’s office, straining in vain to overhear what the grown-ups were talking about – Mom laid into Dad, telling him that she couldn’t see why he’d thought it a good idea to fill an impressionable young mind with such foolishness. She was utterly embarrassed, she said, that her son had been telling people at school that his father was a killer. Dad just laughed, giving me a wink in the rear-view mirror. Later, he showed me the badge again, letting me hold it. It wasn’t real gold, as I had thought, but cheap tin painted gold. He said I could keep it, and I did, though I lost it between that day and junior high.
“You still got that badge, Pete?” he would ask sometimes. “Yeah, Dad,” I lied. “I still have it.”
My dad wasn’t a secret agent; he was a novelty item salesman. He bought his stuff wholesale: tiny plastic baseball caps, sticker books, iron-on patches, fake vomit, glow-in-the-dark keychains. During the holiday season, he bought little plastic turkeys and cheap Christmas ornaments. That’s probably where he got that secret agent badge, from an entire lot that he bought cheap and sold for almost as cheap. He would take the train into the city and spend his days walking the streets of Chicago hawking his wares. He sold to mom & pop stores, ethnic markets, to anyone willing to write a check or hand over some cash for things that nobody would ever love, vulgar little items that shouted “I didn’t cost much!” to the people to whom they were given, and most of which would break or all apart before long.