Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Thanksgiving game with Sisto.

On Thursday morning early, Thanksgiving, I woke up and walked out onto the broad porch that ran along the front of Teresa’s concrete block house. Sisto was there already. He was sitting on a white rocking chair and had a colorful Serape covering his legs. 

Serapes were what had made Saltillo famous. No wonder the ball club I joined back in 1975 was the Seraperos--the serape-makers. Saltillo was also known for Saltillo tiles. You've likely never heard of anything called that by name, but you've probably walked on them at every Mexican restaurant you've ever been to.

Alongside the rocking chair Sisto had placed a small brown paper bag full of loose change he had accumulated through the year. There were maybe one-hundred centavos, various denominations of pesos and sundry slugs in the bag. He had also brought a small enameled bowl with a cracked blue and white design. It was the same bowl we had used the last time we played.

I gave the man a hug, an awkward hug because we are hand-shakers not huggers. But somehow a hug seemed called for.


He nodded and I returned to Teresa’s kitchen and prepared a large mug, sweet, for Sisto and an equally large one, black, for myself. I rested those on the small dining room table and crept into the bedroom I had shared with Karmen, my inamorata so many years ago and I now shared with my wife.

From my worn duffle I brought out a small paper bag like Sisto’s, also filled with one-hundred coins or so, mostly quarters, a habit from my laundromat days so many decades ago when I resided in various run-down Upper West Side tenement buildings without laundry facilities.

I went back out to the porch and sat alongside Sisto.

“This is a fight to the finish,” Sisto said. “The greatest game of coin in a bowl since the sport began so many eons ago.”

“Your father played the game,” I agreed, “And his father. And his father. And mine too. With long beards and hunched backs, mine played with kopeks from their small shetls in the Pale of Settlement. Kopeks the Cossacks had thrown their way after raping our cattle and our women. In that order.”

“And mine played when they had no coins. When all the coins were stolen by the Church and the landowners. We had no land, land that had been in our families since Axayacatl ruled these lands before the bearded ones came. We had no land and we were forced to play with invisible coins.”

“But,” I said solemnly, “still we played.”

“And still we play today,” Sisto said, removing a silver centavo from his bag. "Still we will play when we hear the last ding-dong of doom. We will not only play, we will prevail."

"Senor Faulkner," I said with deference. Then I took the enameled bowl and placed it on the green of Teresa’s small yard. It was about fifteen feet from each of us.

“Que empiecen los juegos,” Sisto said.

“Let the games begin.”

Sisto tossed first and his centavo hit the center of the old bowl and richocheted out.

“A nice shot. You have been practicing.”

“You know me, Jorge. What I lack in talent I have always made up in practice. And I am 87. I must practice.”

I tossed a quarter that was wide left a good three feet.

“There are no strong men in the city,” Sisto mocked. “But pretty women go there.”

He tossed again and nicked the bowl, short.

I tossed and missed again but closer this time.

We went on for fifteen minutes until Teresa’s yard was covered in Mexican centavos and pesos and various American coins. Our bags were nearly empty.

“The stakes now are high,” Sisto said.

I heard some noise behind me in the kitchen. Teresa and my wife, Laura, had begun preparing our meal for that afternoon. They cooked in the kitchen like old friends, like sisters, like family. After a short while my wife came out with Teresa's sweet lemonade and removed our coffee cups. She kissed us each then left quickly. Coin in a bowl is not something generally enjoyed by the uninitiated. 

Sisto ringed one around the bowl and it rested on the bottom.

I got up slowly, grabbed Sisto’s paper bag and began collecting all the hundreds of coins we had tossed.

“There is something wrong with Teresa’s yard,” I stage-whispered to Sisto. “It is lower than the last time we played. The coins are harder to pick up.”

“I noticed too when I put on my shoes in the morning, my feet are further from my hands and my floor is lower from my bed. It is harder to reach.”

I picked up the last of the coins and brought the bag back to Sisto.

“By the bush there there are two,” Sisto said. He wore no glasses but he could see.

I got them then sat down again.

“I have 12 coins left, or 15. Give me the honor of a rematch.”

“We play,” said Sisto, “until one of us is wiped out or Teresa and Laura are serving us their famous chicken.”

I tossed and rimmed the bowl. Sisto did the same.

In short order there were twenty coins on the field of battle and with my last, I landed one plop in the middle of the bowl.

“This time, the winner picks up the coins,” Sisto said. And I did, with a moan each time I bent.

“You are no obrero, my friend.”

“As we used to say, ‘I move like a rusty gate.’ Every hinge in my body aches like Prometheus.”

“I know that pain. We have all grown rusty from too many innings. But I will tell you something, Jorge. I am doing nothing now that I have not done from the moment I began playing ball as a professional in 1946. I played for teams that had no names and no uniforms, in towns that had no electricity and are no longer in the mountains, the buildings having blown away like dreams when you wake too soon.

“But even then, when I would get paid ten centavos or a peso or like you with a meal, a chicken or a plate of tortillas, I learned something. I played for 50 teams in a dozen Mexican leagues. I started when I was 15 and stopped coaching when I was 71. For 56 years and until today I have done the same thing.”

We began slowly tossing our coins. The clattering in the kitchen was growing louder. My wife subscribes to the notion that to cook well is to cook noisily.

“If I made eight, I would spend four. I never had need for many things. I never wanted things that I wished I had. I never saw a big car or a man in a fine suit with a tall woman and said, ‘that, I wish I had.’ I was happier making eight and spending four.”

Once again, I was almost out of coins. Sisto’s bag was still 3/4ths full.

“Watch this.”

He took a centavo and landed it in the bowl. Then another. Then another. Five in a row in all.

“I study everything. Like you when you played ball. Like you, I know every angle, every pitch, every weakness, every strength. More important I know what I can do and what I can’t do. So I do what I do and hide what I can’t. No one but me knows what I can't do."

"It's a good strategy for life. Hide your weaknesses, show off your strengths."

“Making eight and spending only four is what I do. And now I own a piece of a factory that makes the tile Saltillo is famous for. Two owl wagons down by the Chrysler plant where the men get their lunches. A piece of property over by estadio Francesco I. Maduro and a dozen or twenty other businesses.”

I gathered the coins. His coins.

“I use Marty in Chicago, the man who handles your money," Sisto said.

"He handled my mother's money, too. He is a good man."

"He is a good man, and a loyal fan. To be a loyal fan of the Cubs is to be a good man."

"They went 108 years without having won a championship. Still, he cheered them. I admire his stamina," I added. 

"That is the kind of man who should watch over one's money. He is not interested in the quick win. He believes instead in the long road.

"He tells me I have two point seven American dollars mostly in equities. I don’t even care. I have more than I could spend in 100 lifetimes.”

I returned with the coins to my rocking chair.

Teresa yelled through the screen door that we should come in and set the table.

“Do you know what matters, my old friend. Making eight, spending four. Helping friends. Having Teresa’s arroz con pollo and Laura’s helping her.”

I hugged the old man again. This time without feeling awkward.

“And beating you at coin in bowl like no one…”

“Like no one has ever been beaten since time itself began.”

This time, Sisto hugged me. Then shook his bag of coins. Then hugged me again.

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