Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Killing snakes.

When you're just 17 and laying in bed in the deep of night next to your mostly-unclothed first inamorata, there's very little about the scenario that's not steeped in the seamiest and most-unleavable prurience.

I was in such a state, in the small bedroom I shared with the girl in the white dress, Karmen Rodiguez. The room was as dark as a nun's closet. The street outside of Hector's tidy cinderblock home was as yet without streetlights. They hadn't yet arrived at that part of the still-small city of Saltillo. This is before Chrysler built a giant assembly plant in the as-yet-smoke-free town, and before all those  whose family had lived in the mountains for one-hundred generations left the homes of their ancestors to make American wages.

The only sound in my small room beside the soft mechanical monotony of the cheap electric fan I had bought to cool things off, was a symphony of a trillion cicadas just outside my window vying for orchestral prominence against a similar-sized cacocph of hand-wringing crickets. 

The insects called and responded, as orthoptera do. They woke all the sad Mexican ghosts that lived in the empty fields that abutted Hector and his wife Teresa's small plot.

I looked over at the ever-provocative Karmen, my eyes straining to find a bit of light to see the full splendor of her nubility, all sixty-one inches and 110 pounds of it. Most nights when we were together after a game, in flagrante delicto or out of it, I felt twice her size, all sinew and long muscles like rebar. There were times when I thought despite all my attempts at gentleness and gentility I would fairly crush her.

"You should live in a tea cup," I would say to her. "You are just the size to live in a tea cup."

"A cracked tea cup," she would laugh. "With a chip on the rim where I bumped my head and a broken handle. An excuse for you when you drop me."

When you're born left, the notion of being left again is never far away.

I heard against the plateglass by my pillow a rapping against my rest.


"Jorge," said the voice from the dark. "Wake up and let me in. I need to talk."

"Who is this," I said sotto voce, so as not to wake Karmen. She stirred despite my best attempts.

"Who is it, Jorge Navidad?" she rasped. "Come back to bed."

There was knocking now at the door. Insistent.

"Jorge," came a voice from Hector's small front step. "It is Abreu. I need to talk with you."

"Fernan, it's two in the morning. What do you need me for?"

"I need to talk with you." I opened the door and Fernando Perez-Abreu, the ninth-string utility infielder on a team with just two strings came into the house. He was carrying two well-pine-tarred Louisville Sluggers. He wiped his thin soles on a welcome mat.

"Let us go into the desert," he said, handing me a 34-ounce bat. "Let us count the stars and see the lights and wait for the rattlesnakes and when we see them we can kill them with our bats."

"Fernando, I don't kill snakes."

"You must come with me. I cannot kill them alone. A man on some nights needs a friend."

"And you chose me." In my bad Spanish, I worried that my sarcasm wouldn't come through. 

"Yes. I choose you."

I kissed Karmen and threw on some clothes I had left crumpled up on a chair on the side of my bed. Fernando and I each carried a bat and walked into the loud silence of the desert. It was lit by a Long Island Expressway of stars, each screaming against the dark.

"I saw my father tonight in a dream, a dream of a million nights, a dream of my father the snake coming to me out of the darkness like a thousand deaths."

We walked saying nothing, our ears alert against the jazzband shake of the rattler's fanged ass.

"My father, when I was a boy, would drink and drink and drink and then he would return home and beat me in my bed. He would drink anything he could find. Turpentine. Anything.

"He would beat my face bloody with fists the size of pig's feet. My mother would not help me. My brother would not help me. They said he did it because I was dumb and lazy. It happened twice a week."

Fernando heard a snake and saw it slither against a boulder. He leapt after it and smacked at it with his bat, raising a cloud of sandy dust, but missing by a yard. Then he walked backed over to me.

"He beat me twice a week, until I turned fourteen and started sleeping with a bat next to me in my bed like it was a woman. He came one night and I swung hard with the bat and hit him in his left knee. He fell like a shooting gallery duck in an amusement palace. I held the end of the bat against his forehead and pressed his forehead red. I left my home that night at fourteen and never came back."

We walked in silence deeper into the dark. Now I heard a snake in front of me. It sounded like an old loose-limbed Black tap dancer practicing his soft-shoed craft on sand spread on the stage floor. Brushes on a snare drum. 

I swatted at the ground in front of me and scared it away. "On purpose, you missed," Fernando said. "You would not miss if you were me. In my dreams at night, I see snakes with the tongue of a viper in the head of my father. He is hissing with his fists."

There were times when we rode on the team bus, helmed by Gordo Batista, our driver, mechanic and third-string catcher, when all on the bus but Gordo, Hector and myself were asleep. We would drive through the darkness through the mountains through the night and out of the diesel click-ping-click-ping of the old bus' engine we would hear a scream like an air-raid siren. 

"Basta. No. Basta." Fernando screaming at the snake-father-ghost that stood over him the moment he would close his eyes.

I saw far in the east the beginning tiptoe pink of rosy-fingered dawn. 

"We must return to our beds. I have my woman to kiss awake. And tonight we have a game. Torreon, I believe. Occento is on the mound--he is sneaky fast."

"We return to our beds. You to your woman."

We walked quietly until the sky was light and we reached the crooked edge of the erupting city of Saltillo.

"We return to our beds," Fernando repeated slowly, each word taking a minute. "We return to our beds. You to your woman. Me to my snake."

We walked in quiet through the desert until the sun began to warm the air. When we arrived at Hector's home, Fernando hit the asphalt street in front of Hector's house with his bat. And then again. He felt the recoil through his arms and shoulders and felt powerful, like Thor.

"You to your woman," he repeated. "Me to my snakes."

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