Monday, October 2, 2017

A trip through the desert, through the night.

One night, long ago, as I labored during my lone season playing for the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League (AA), we boarded our beaten team bus after a night game somewhere and set off through the dark and through the desert to play the next day somewhere else.

It doesn’t matter where we were or where we were going. It was that part of the season where games and cities blur together and life, it seems, is like looking through a grimy window in the rain—dim, dull, blurry and refracted, a vision of emptiness, full of monotony, signifying nothing.

We piled on the bus, I don’t know if we had won, or if we had lost, and we settled into the sticky heat of our green vinyl bench seats. I had, since my first days on the team and ever after, a seat that was my seat, not assigned—we sat where we wanted, but mine nonetheless. It was two back from the front, on the driver’s side, just across from where Hector Quesadilla, my manager would settle.

Many nights and many bus rides were gregarious affairs with my team-mates raucous and drinking, and playing music and singing songs. Teolindo Acosta, a scrub outfielder sometimes brought along on long trips a small drum-set, with a cymbal and a snare and would play along with Angel Diablo, our shortstop who had a guitar and Tito Puente who exhaled into a harmonica. Other nights we would sing, loudly, to the crackle of someone’s AM radio playing one two-minute song followed by eight minutes or ten of commercials for divorce lawyers, automobiles, or, mostly, this political candidate or that—each of them promising their own brand of splendor, each of them delivering corruption worse than the one before.

This night we were a sad team, a sad team of tired men. We were tired or the road, tired of long rides trying to sleep while riding in the teeth-clattering jostle of a 20-year-old school bus that should have been scraped 19 years ago. We were a sad team of tired men, and to a man, we assumed our seats, and slowly fell asleep as the miles peeled away like the skin of an old, browned orange.

Before long, the bus was quiet, save for the cacophony of its diesel engine, the squeaking of its springs, and from the desert outside the veritable thunder of a trillion cicadas protesting the radiating heat of the night.

Gordo Batista, our bus-driver and third-string catcher was up in his seat, trying to stay focused on the road, staying awake through the night by counting the dead bugs on his windshield. I lay down on my vinyl, my 6’2” frame on its 4’ expanse, and across from me sat Hector.

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but Hector was having none of it. He picked up a bat from the bat bag in the seat behind him, and a ball, and he lightly batted the ball with the bat, like a ping-pong player can do with his racket or a tennis player, his.

“One-hundred,” he said. “I have bounced the ball, one-hundred times. I believe that to be a new world record.”

I had tried Hector’s game once while waiting out a rain delay. I could never do it more than 14 times.

“I will next do two-hundred. You count, Jorge Navidad.”

I craned my neck to watch him.

“157,” I said when the ball went askew. “I believe that to be a new world record.”

I lay back down, my feet on the floor, and I looked at the ceiling. Hector stayed seated, putting his bat back in the bat bag.

“I have many times driven through this desert,” he began. “And driving through it is much better, I will tell you, than to walk through it.”

I could hear him as he lay down on his bench seat.

“When I was born,” he said, softly, in a whisper, so only I could hear. “When I was born, my father went away. Just after I was born. My mother had nine sons, enough for a baseball team. And my father went away, like I have gone away. He went away to play baseball in minor minor leagues of Mexican baseball. Compared to the cities we play in and the stadiums, this was nothing. But like you, he loved to play baseball, he played for two pesos or three a game. He would have played for nothing because to be a great ballplayer, like Bobby Avila, that was his dream.”

“Bobby Avila who played for the Indians, yes?” I asked.

“Not that Bobby Avila who played for the Indians. This was Bobby Avila’s father, who because he was dark-skinned could not play for the Indians or any other team en el Norte, though there was never a finer player ever.”

He grabbed again a bat from the bat bag behind him. He sat balancing the bat upright on two fingers as the bus rattled through the dead of night.

“Few sons are the equals of their fathers; most fall short, all too few surpass them.”

I was startled by those words. “That is Athena in Homer’s Odyssey, yes?”

Hector said nothing and kept balancing the bat against the swaying of the bus on the broken asphalt of a two-lane desert road.

“I had eight brothers and we lived all of us sleeping two or three on a mat on the floor around the bed where my mother slept. Nine of us in one small room in our small house.

“As I grew older, more and more of my brothers left to try to make their way in the world. I left when I was 15 to play baseball in a small town called Comitan, in Chiapas down against the Guatamalan border.”

“My Mexican geography is bad,” I said.

“We would play small teams from other places in the league, Tapachula, Arriaga, Tonala. Little cities without a single traffic light. On somedays we would take our bus, a bus more-older than this one, into Guatamala and play teams of Indians for ten American dollars for the whole team a game.”

I lay still on my seat and closed my eyes and listened to Hector’s soft Spanish.

“We played sometimes four or five baseball games a day, against anyone who would play us and anyone who would pay us. After the game we would find some beer and some rice and some beans and we would board our bus and find another game to play.

“When we could stay in a town, in the houses of the opposing players or in the town hall because there were no hotels and we had no money to stay in one anyway, I would put on my baseball-playing spikes, which were the only shoes I had, and I would walk out of the little town we were in, usually, that was a walk of no more than half a kilometer or a whole one, and wander into the hills or the scrub trees of the mountains and into the desert.”

There was some noise from the back of the bus. One of the boys was having a nightmare and in his sleep screamed aloud. Someone near him shook his shoulder and woke him. In minutes, everyone was again asleep, and again it was quiet.

“One night in the desert, I saw many javelinas, and bobcats and even, though in the desert, a lonely mountain lion looking for his supper.

“I walked deep in the dark into the desert, the sky one-hundred million stars like as many grains of sand in the desert. I would, in every town, at every stop, every chance I could, I would walk deep into the dark and then deeper into the dark, sometimes following a paved road, more often just walking deeper and deeper, not knowing, or even thinking about how I was to find myself back to the town and back to my team-mates.”

Batista slowed the bus going into a sharp turn and grinded the gears as we headed up a steep climb into yet another Mexican city. We wound our way up and up, circling our way up an old volcanic peak. I listened to the monotony of the old diesel engine, the regularness of the wheezing machine climbing into the darkness, the engine wheezing deeper with each foot of ascent.

I listened to the engine, the engine chug chug cough chug. I listened for signs that the engine would say ‘no more.’ That the engine would conk out and die against its old-age and its steep climb, and the dust a thousand small Mexican towns and unpaved Mexican roads. I prayed the engine would last the night because the night was long and our trip was longer and I did not want to spend my night on the side of a sad road, watching Batista and both Medrano brothers, Leo and Efren, who knew something about engines, working to make the machine start again.

“Into a hundred deserts, up a thousand mountains, through ten-thousand jungles and forests I would walk in the night, my baseball spikes digging into the ground as I searched and searched through the invisible darkness for the things I never knew.”

We were going downhill now, and the engine pulled its tongue in and chugged less loudly as Batista downshifted the big machine to brake the speeding bus.

Hector began again. “In the desert, in the mountains, in the forests and in the jungles, in a thousand wooden ballparks, in a million tilted towns, I have searched and searched.”

“Searched?” I said dumbly.

“Searching,” he said, looking out the dirty window, as we, through the night, through yet another night, drove on.

No comments: