Bottle Caps by Stuart Dybek, 1984
The magic trick:
Spending most of the story kind of reveling in how special and precious the narrator’s childhood memory of collecting bottle caps is only to flip that feeling on its head and welcome the reader to revel in their own childhood memories
Simple story today. Almost a poem. It’s barely more than one page.
The narrator captures a memory in which he turns something small (collecting beer bottle caps) into a larger world of childhood imagination. But I like the change (fair to call it a plot twist?) where we see that his brother also is using the bottle caps to create a different kind of world. This isn’t a memory limited to the narrator. It’s an invitation to the reader to remember his or her own goofy, creative, wonderful childhood weirdness. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure is… another man’s different kind of treasure. And that’s quite a trick on Dybek’s part.
By July, I had too many to count. The coffee cans stashed in the basement began to smell—a metallic, fermenting malt. I worried my mother would find out. It would look to her as if I were brewing polio. Still, the longer I collected, the more I hoarded my bottle caps. They had come to seem almost beautiful. It fascinated me how some were lined with plastic, some with foil. I noticed how only the foreign caps were lined with cork. I tapped the dents from those badly mangled by openers. When friends asked for bottle caps to decorate the spokes on their bikes, I refused.