Monday, March 4, 2019

A sleepless night in Saltillo, 1975.

Most nights, if there were no extra-innings, a home game would wrap up around ten. There’d be some chatter in the locker room, a beer or a coke and a shower and usually Hector, Karmen and I would take a taxi back to Hector’s small cinder-block home just two miles from Estadio de Beisbol Francesco I. Madura.

There were some warm, sweet, soft nights when the three of us were feeling good, when we had won a game we might have lost, or if I had gotten two hits or had made a nice play in the field, or if Hector had made a nice move as manager, pulling an arm at just the right time, or subbing in a pinch-hitter who lined an opposite-field double, where we'd walk home, cokes in hand, me, maybe holding Karmen’s small hand, or all three of us singing a sad Indian song that either Karmen or Hector had grown up with, and laughing when we should have cried.

Either way, taking an old green Datsun taxi cab, its front window fringed with small cloth balls, its horn honking an old ice-cream melody, or walking, we would get to Hector’s home around 11. Teresa would have a large glass pitcher of lemonade sweetened with too much sugar and two steaming pots of rice and beans mixed with roasted chicken and spices, or some fish with its head still on, its eyes staring like a junior high Vice Principal.

Sometimes, Guillermo Sisto, who was just a bit younger than Hector himself, and who had played with Hector when they were both boys in the Mexican League, would walk and ride and sit with us. He lived in a small house just down the broken cobble road from Hector and Teresa.

He, and Karmen, and Hector and Teresa were my friends and my family. The only love I had ever had in my life. And looking back from almost 50 years distance, my first love and therefore, maybe my most important.

Most of the other guys on the team, married or not, would drink, carouse and whore after the game, home or away. There was a dirty bar not far from the gates of el Estadio, it had no name, the place, just competing neon in the front window blaring cervezas frias and American music crashing through the door open to the crooked street. It sold beer and a half-hour with a long-lashed girl for about the same price. It had rooms in the back, about 8x4’ each with glass beads as doors and a small low bed for the job.

But Hector, Karmen, Teresa and I would land at Hector’s home and eat and drink and talk about the day and the game. Then, my plate cleaned of food, I’d wash the dishes in the sink and Karmen and Teresa would dry, and I’d hug Hector good-night and Teresa, too, and head into the small bedroom off the kitchen that I shared that summer so long ago with Karmen.

I peeled off, most nights before everyone else, and turned off my lights and tried to fall to sleep. Even as a young man I was a bad sleeper. More often than not, I would fall asleep in three minutes and sleep the sleep of the dead, for about one hour or two.

Then I’d swat the other side of the bed, and see if Karmen had joined me, feeling for the smallness of her body. Ah, she’s there, I’d say. I’d think of waking her to talk about the game or about life, or about a letter I had received from a friend or another friend back home. Friends who were safely enrolled in this New England college or that, ten worlds away from me, who went to football games on Saturdays with doe-eyed co-eds bursting out of their tight-knit sweaters. I knew that before long, I would be in similar circumstances, staring in class at Moll Flanders or Tess d’Urbervilles underlined and dog-eared and trying to understand why that was a better education than playing ball south of the Rio Grande.

I pressed the small of Karmen’s back, its warmth and softness like a warmth and softness I had never felt before. I didn’t wake her. Instead, I’d stare up at the dark ceiling and I count my pain.

These were the pains of a long season of too many games and long bus-rides on winding mountain roads, head leaning against the dirty safety glass and staring into the desert or the cactus or the mountains, back stuck to the vinyl in the heat.

Most often I felt a dull headache. I had been hit in the head by a bat early in the season, dead on the forehead and carried that pain with me when I thought about it, when I wasn’t busy with something else. Then my right shoulder, which was sore because I horsed around that night or another and threw batting practice for too long before a game. My left shoulder sore from having slid badly into second. My right-hand wincing from a line-drive down the line that I tried to barehand into a play. My left pulsing from an inside pitch that caught my meat part before I could get out of the way.

My knees were sore from running too much in the outfield, more habit than exercise. My left foot scabbed from having been spiked on a play at third, right through the worn leather of my old black Riddell spikes.

I would leave my room and trip into the kitchen in the dark. Teresa would leave a small glass of chamomile tea for me sweetened with honey on the counter. It was to help me fall back to sleep, the chamomile she had picked herself from an empty lot not far from their tidy home. I would read Hector’s newspaper at the kitchen table. I was not much good at Spanish but could slowly make my way down its columns and at least get the main idea of what was going on.

Saltillo, which had been a sleepy town for so many centuries after the Spaniards had come and gone was growing now. A factory built by Chrysler was running on three shifts, turning out black soot and minivans in equal measure. The factory befouled the air, befouled the homes, befouled the smallness of life, but it provided jobs. And jobs and money were what people thought they wanted, many decades before they grew to realized how much jobs and money cost them. But by then it was too late. They were addicted to jobs and money and wanted more from each, while all they could provide was less.

I drank my tea, sipping it slowly, hoping to feel a tiredness overcome me each time I swallowed, but I had no such luck.

In a moment, or an hour, or two, I heard some noise from the narrow wooden porch that ran across the front of Teresa and Hector’s small home. An animal, I thought, displaced by the new factory,  or maybe the wind had blown an old broadsheet of newspaper up from the street and it was rustling across the wooden slats of the small fence that separated the small porch from the struggling front yard.

I drank a bit more of my tea when I heard the screen door to the porch swing open and then the heavy wooden front door swing in. I stood up against an assailant, but it was only Guillermo Sisto, my road-room-mate and best friend on the team.

Hector brought Sisto in about twenty games into our season. Sisto was playing in his 22nd year in the league and had played for a total of 50 teams—some of them three or four times. On the Seraperos, Sisto filled in anywhere we needed a man, and was like an extra coach and advisor to Hector.

Sisto had the locker next to mine down at Estadio Francesco I. Madura, and like me, he showed up at ballparks early. We would run together in the outfield, take BP together, warm up and play pepper together.

“Jorge,” he said, taking a seat across from me at the small table, “you cannot sleep?”

“Everything hurts. Every bone, every joint, every muscle.”

“I have a saying,” Sisto said, opening the refrigerator and pouring himself a glass of lemonade. He sat down again across from me. “You want some lemonade, too.”

“I’m ok.”

“My saying is simple and true.” He drank down most of the liquid in the glass and wiped his mouth with the back of his large right hand. “If you are a baseball player and you wake up and nothing hurts, you are dead.”

I laughed and sipped at my tea.

“It is pain,” he said. “It is pain and pressure and aches and hurts and ground balls that jump up and bite you like a snake.”

“Or sharp line-drives down the line that you try to barehand.”

“Yes. The worst are the bad hops that get your Adam’s Apple.” He rubbed at the coiled cartilage in his neck. His neck was thick and strong. He was rubbing at a thousand bad hops.

“You choke, you lose your breath, you worry if you have bitten down in shock and lost your teeth,” he said. “But there is the ball on the ground, and the runner running, and it is your job to try to make the play.”

I nodded. I’d been playing for just a season and Sisto had been playing for decades. But still, I knew what he meant. I was young and he was old, but still I knew what he meant.

He finished the remainder of the lemonade Teresa had made. He rinsed his glass in the sink, scrubbed it with a brush, then wiped it dry with a towel. He put the glass back in the shelf he had taken it from. To his left there was a small wicker bowl. He removed an orange from the pile of fruit and sat down again across from me and peeled it.

He slowly separated the orange sections. He pushed three slices my way while he ate the remainder. He spit the seeds into his hand then lined them up in a straight row on his paper napkin.

“Jorge,” he said lining up his seeds, “that is life. It is aches and pains and hurts.”

I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do. I got up from my seat and cleaned up my pit-filled napkin and Sisto’s.

“Not a very optimistic view.” I opened the lid of the trashcan by stepping on a small lever close to the floor. The lid crashed down with a bang and I sat again.

I had been up for two hours. It was 4AM and I was finally beginning to feel tired.

“Jorge, you are a young man, but you too feel the aches and pains and hurts.”

“I was born old, Guillermo.”

“Yes. Hector and I, we talk about that. Why you do not whore with the boys. Why you show up four hours before the game into the clubhouse. Why you are just a 17-year-old boy, but you play with the vision of a man who has twenty years in the league, you see things that other players do not see.”

“Like you do,” I said, “And Hector. Because we look and we think. It is different from just looking.”

Sisto pushed away from the table and walked slowly to the front door. He then stepped back to me. He hugged me and hugged me again, good night.

“We have all been hit in the Adam’s Apple by many bad bounces,” he said.

“But still,” I said, locking the door as he exited Hector and Teresa’s small home, “still, we play.”

I returned to Karmen and slept for six hours the sleep of the dead.


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