The bus rumbled through the still dark of the desert. Gordo Batista, our third-string catcher and full-time bus-driver was successful in hitting, with various of the vehicle’s nearly bald tires, every hole, every rut, every rock in the dust. We bounced around and shook and rattled and tried, without luck, to sleep through the night, mostly to no avail for the shaking.
I sat alone in my usual seat, two back from Batista and across the narrow aisle from my manager, Hector Quesadilla. Hector played a game he played when he was thinking. He was the best in the world at this game.
He would take a bat, a small one, 31-ounces, something like what Angel Diablo our short-stop used and he’d take an old baseball out of an even older green canvas duffle. Then he’d bounce the ball off the end of the lumber, ten times, 20, 50, 100 or more, like he was handling a ping-pong racket and ball.
“My record,” Hector said, “is 148 bounces. No one in history can come within 50 of my mark.” I tried many times. I never got more than 15.
“Some years ago,” Hector began, “when I was coming to the end of my career as a player, I heard some of the boys on the team call me something I had never heard before.”
Gordo steered the bus into an especially large hole. Some of the boys who were sleeping woke up, startled. One, maybe Ibarra way in the back, screamed. He must have been having a nightmare and the bump scared him out of a bad dream and into a worse one.
Hector picked up a scuffed ball and began again bouncing it against Diablo’s bat. I counted up to 44, then lost count as Hector started speaking.
“I heard to boys saying as I passed, ‘there goes Hector Quesadilla. He is not just another ballplayer. He is una leyenda—a legend.’ ‘Yes,’ said the other boy. ‘He is a living legend. He is another Beto Arroyo.’”
Beto Arroyo was a star of the Mexican League in the 30s and 40s. He had speed, power and grace. Were it not for the color of his skin, he would be mentioned in the same breath as DiMaggio.
The ball bounced askew off of the bat Hector was handling, and as the creaky bus climbed a steep and winding hill, the ball rolled down the long aisle of the bus, from the front to the wide single bench seat at the back, where six boys could sit across, or two could lie across.
“Una leyenda,” I said, laughing. “Did that make you feel old, Hector? You were 40 and playing with boys half your age.”
Now Hector laughed.
“Some of the boys, I had played with their fathers. I was older even than their fathers. Yes, it made me feel old,” Hector said. He put down Diablo’s bat and reclined in his seat, his back and ass lay flat against the worn vinyl, his feet planted on the floor.
“You cannot be called a legend,” Hector said, “and not feel like Methuselah. Even though I could run faster than many of my team-mates, and hit the ball harder, and throw straighter…”
“No one wants to be called a legend,” I said.
Hector laughed low and deep and phlegmy. His laugh sounded like the growl of the bus’ wheezing diesel. He lay silent on his bench seat.
“You will remember this, Jorge Navidad. Because you, too, will be afflicted someday as I was afflicted back then.
Gordo headed the bus up a steep hill. He grinded through two gears, then three. For a moment it seemed that the bus would not crest the incline. I listened to the engine complain like a sailor shut out of shore leave. It coughed a tubercular cough.
“You listen to me, Jorge. You don't get to be old being a fool. There are hundreds of dead men, young and wise. But no old fools.”
Gordo steered the bus down a long winding hill and downshifted the gears with a noise to shear the gear-teeth off.
“You don’t get to be old being a fool.” And again, he picked up Diablo’s bat and bounced the ball through the night.