Thursday, October 25, 2018

An escape in Saltillo.

Karmen and I walked to Tino’s. It was the first time we had walked anywhere together and we weren’t sure, when our shoulders brushed together or our hands grazed each other’s if we should hug or hold hands, or if we should just continue being scared and walk to Tino’s alone together.

Tino’s was a shack of a place that was mentioned in the contract I had signed with the Seraperos. Tino was to provide me with two chicken dinners a week. Those dinners—and $50 a week was my pay for playing ball when I played my one summer so many summers ago.

Karmen was wearing her white dress, with eyehole lace around her neckline. Over her dress she had on my teal-green Seraperos windbreaker, the one I had thrown over a forest-green steel railing that separated the playing field from the stands at Estadio de Francesco I. Madura, the home of the Seraperos.

We walked in silence, not sure what to say, not sure how to start.

“Are you from around here?” I asked her, in my worst American-Spanish.

“No,” she answered solemnly. She looked down at the sidewalk. “I am from the countryside where there are no jobs, only babies for women. I came to Saltillo to make something of myself.”

“I came,” I said, “to play baseball.”

“You came to escape,” Karmen said in English.

That stopped me. I could have played baseball in a dozen different places—from after-work leagues with fat men in sweat-stained t-shirts, to semi-pro, to Single A in the states, far out west, maybe, to perhaps playing college ball, like my parents had wanted me to do.

Instead, I took three-hundred dollars I had saved and took a Greyhound bus from Port Authority in New York City to Corpus Christi, Texas, where I switched to another bus to try my luck in Saltillo. I had my money, a small canvas duffle with my clothing, two paperbacks by Thomas Wolfe and Moby Dick and The Bridge at San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. I had my Rawlings “Finest in the Field” infielder’s glove, and a pair of black leather spikes with only one season of wear on them. I also had a note from Mr. Babich, my high school coach, translated by Senor Cowan, my high school Spanish teacher.

“George is a big strong boy and an excellent baseball player,” it read. “He makes contact as a hitter and shows good power. He has a strong arm and is no liability in the field. He would be an excellent addition to your team. He has the will and the talent to win.”

I snuck out of my parent’s empty house just four weeks earlier. Against their slurred bile that my deferring admission to Columbia University in New York City to instead play ball in Mexico would ruin my life.

“You’re making your mother sick,” my father yelled at me in hushed tones.

“Your father is not a well-man,” my mother answered, like a street gang piling on a crippled man.

I had skipped a grade when I was young—going from fourth to sixth without stopping at fifth. So though I had graduated from high school at 17—a year younger than most of my classmates, I wasn’t following the plan.

Instead I lit out, as Huck would say, sending a postcard of farewell from the small post office in Port Authority.

“Off to chase a dream,” I wrote breezily. “Off to see the world. Off to be my own Hemingway. I’ll stay in touch and see you in November.”

And now two-thousand miles later, I was walking with Karmen Rodriguez, a ticket-taker for the ball club down a dusty street to Tino’s.

“What do you escape from?”

We had reached Tino’s and I swung in the screen door and let Karmen enter first. The place was small, maybe 20-feet square and was lit by some poorly-hung Christmas lights over the bar that no one bothered to take down, and the red and green hissing glow of various cerveza signs.

“Jorge,” Tino said. “Su esposa?”

I laughed. Karmen did too.

“Mi amiga, solamente.”

Karmen and I sat in the middle table of nine, like it was the most valuable spot in a tic-tac-toe game of tables.

“Dos cervezas, por favor,” I said, while Karmen nodded, “Y dos pollos.”

Tino had a jukebox in the corner. “La Rosita,” a Latin number by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster with a marimba back-beat was playing softly. A ceiling fan seemed to spin in time to the percussion. Webster's tenor sax sounded like the low growl of thunder coming from the lonely mountains. Even the buzzing of the neon beer lights seemed in step with the tune.

We listened to the music, we drank our beer and ate our arroz con pollos. Tino pulled up a chair and bought us beers. We laughed. Drank some more. And laughed some more.

I had escaped.


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