Friday, May 10, 2024

Writing. Writhing.


Some years ago when I was playing ball, I ran into a bad stretch where I couldn't hit a grapefruit with a tennis racket. As a ballplayer might write, I think the start of my miasma is that for two consecutive days in a row, I was dusted off with a couple or four fastballs, all of which made me eat dirt and had me more than a bit fearful of the steady discord of chin-music.

Of late, I've been working on pulling together the hundred-or-so Saltillo stories I've written, and laying them out in book-form. A friend of mine, a literary editor whom I asked for help, gave me the title, Born on Third, though I'm not sure that will stick. 


The phrase implies being birthed with a certain degree of privilege, and that wasn't me. I was born in a six-story hospital building in Yonkers, New York--abutting the Bronx, and if I'm not mistaken my mother had me walk home from the jernt given as I had ink on my feet and all and she didn't want to muss the vinyl upholstery in her Plymouth.

On the other hand, I was in a sense, born on third, in that I came to life as seventeen-year-old manning la Esquina Caliente--the hot corner--for the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League (AA) for my manager, Hector Quetzacoatl Padillia, Hector Quesadilla, having run away from my parents' home so I could play a season of ball before matriculating into Columbia University just a semester late, but gained command of passably fluent gutter-Spanish. I'm your man if you're ever having a conversation with a Spanish gutter.

Running away from the sonic-boom silence of my parents' crucible and Greyhound busing, running like the dogs of hell, to a small Mexican city in Coahuila state, Saltillo, primarily because they were the newest team in the league and had the smallest stadium, so I figured, and wasn't entirely wrong, they'd be the worst team in the league and, therefore, the easiest to win a spot on.

So now, in between the demands of running my own small business in the bird-chirp wilds of the Gingham Coast in Connecticut, where my wife and I moved to flee the unknown ravages of Covid-stricken New York, I am collecting the top-most of my hundred Saltillo stories and seeing if I can form them into some sort of book, or as we might pompousify in advertising, my profession, some sort of book-like-object.

Mostly, I view the world as a pay-as-you-go place, and I'm not looking to feed my vanity by publishing something. I'll be as clear about this as the ice in a dry martini, I won't bother if someone somewhere doesn't think it could make me rich and I could wind up like some latter-day Eudora Welty, with all the welts to prove it, not to mention maybe a television mini-series or some prime-time post-Salinger ethnography about growing up dead in the dead-from-the-neck-up mall-scape of Vietnammed amerika.

Organizing doesn't come naturally to me, I am much better, and always have been at leaving places than in sticking around and making them work. Because of that, and because the internet saves everything, I have millions of words scattered in digital shoeboxes with as much shape and form and a pile of windblown autumn leaves. Who's had the time to make sense of them all--and why should I? Nothing I know, in-or or or-ganic has a semblance of order, why should I be any different. Why should I form a chronology when my whole life was out of sequence, being born old and dying while never once having had the chance to be young.

What prompted all this perseveration was a phone call I got just the other night from Dr. Jesus Verduzco. Verduzco, whom we all called Doc, was a scrub utility infielder, mostly shortstop, who was 24 when I knew him and the sole college graduate on the squad. In the off-season he was a medical student at Tecnol√≥gico de Monterrey. 

Now, nearly 50 years later, Verduzco is retired a retired doctor--a cardiologist--and living in a pricey Monterrey suburb with views of both Cerro de las Mitras and Cerro del Topo Chico mountains, a fat wife and a dog he named Hector, after our old manager.

"Jorge," he began, "I have been reading your blog. As a ballplayer, you played like an English professor. And as a author, you write like a ballplayer."

I laughed at that. Even back when we were on the Saraperos, I knew better than to go against the good doctor's advice. 

"Send me what you have. And loosen it up a little. You should write like you used to hit. Relax at the plate."

"Relax at the keyboard," I clarified. "That's harder. The fastballs aimed to your head come from all angles."

And so, with Verduzco as a spur, I clipped two-hundred-and twenty-five single spaced pages together and mailed them off, including the following, my latest, written just now, because the ink on something, I believe, should always be wet if you're really working.

Thanks to those heaters aimed at my head because I had gone five-for-seven in the previous night's doubleheader, at once I something happen to me that had never happened before. 

For the first time I was afraid. 

Afraid of being clobberated by a ninety-mile-per fastball, right in the spot where the ballistic plastic of my batting helmet ended and my maxilla began. I was never afraid before of a ball aimed at my head, but now, having french-kissed four-times the Mexican dust and crusted the inside of my sinus with the fine-mist of infield dirt, I developed a tic, a nervousness, a shell-shock, a fear of life itself. Because what is life if not a baseball aimed temple-high with a license to kill?

My batting average fell like the mercury in the desert night in the thermometer screwed to the doorway outside the front door of the small cinderblock house I lived in that summer with Hector, my manager, Teresa, his wife, and Karmen, my summer's inamorata and my first.

I went two games, then three without so much as a tickle on the horsehide from my Louisville ash. I stood in the dust of the batter's box frozen like a Mykonos bronze, still like Dorothy's Tin Man, holding my ash as his axe, without the oil, unable to move.

When plummets happen, as they do, as they often do, along with them comes advice, like Verduzco's "relax" advice above. One man suggests I choke up on the bat and smack at the ball, just to make contact. Because good things happen on contact.

Garibay, the best batter on the team, he had a cup of coffee with the Royals in the early 80s, had me moving back in the box. Adame had me crowding the plate. Salome Rojas, who swatted 22 home runs that season gave me a lighter bat and suggested dropping my back elbow closer to my rib cage. "Brutus" Cesar, who on a good day could barely hit his way out of a paper sack, suggested nearly the opposite, heavier lumber and a higher elbow.

Like some Newtonian codicil, for every bit of advice I received there was equal and opposite counsel from someone else. After a time, it wasn't the afraidness that had me froze, it was the cognitive cacophony, which was even worse. 

I sat on the bench, motionless, on my way to another oh-fer, my fourth in a row or maybe fifth. Hector, with a ratty towel, wiped the pine beside me and parked his Aboriginal ass along side my Cossack-raped model.

"It is not the baseballs that have brought upon you a ringing in your ears. It is not the clunk-cussion."

"No. I wasn't clunked at all. They missed me each time."

"It is the voice-cussion."

"Voice-cussion."

"A concussion of voices. It is the worst of things that can befall a human. Once I heard from a utility man, Federico, a story. When I played for Los Diablos--he played for el Leones. We had an off-day between two double-headers and he got permission to go to his village, twelve miles or fifteen from Merida, to take out his uncle's boat and go fishing."

"An off-day during the season? I would sleep like an accident victim."

"Alone he took out the small palapa with a one-and-a-half horsepower engine. He was in the current when the engine died. Then he almost died. The sea taking him seventy miles over four days to Batista's Cuba. This was 1957, I believe."

"The year I was born, I believe."

"Federico had passed out in the boat from the sun and he had no water or food only a rifle against the sharks and the afraid. The voices he heard out at sea, the Selkies and the Sirens became a voice-cussion. All the things he did and even louder he heard the voices of the things he didn't do."

"More than missing a relay?"

"Yes. Much more. When he washed ashore, the Batistas took Federico and they asked for his identification. They were afraid he was a spy from Fidel. A Barbudos down from the mountains looking to cause trouble.

"'I have no identification,' Federico cried. 'I am a baseball player from Mexico and was fishing when a storm came and blew me to here. Who takes identification with them when they are looking for fish?' 


"The Batistas did not believe him, of course. Worse, by this time, his family had given Federico up for dead. They had for him a funeral and cast flowers into the sea. Red bougainvillea which grew wild in the dirt alongside the half-built homes.
"

"I think," I answered somberly, "there have been funerals for me since I ran to play baseball here."

Hector knew.

"Maybe also funerals for my hitting ability which has vanished like smoke from a fire in the wind when those balls came at my head with tombstone markings on them."

"You are hearing still those baseballs, Jorge. You are hearing the voice-cussions, Jorge Navidad. Each red cross-stitch wants to see you dead on the ground in the dust in a heap like a pile of old clothing."

He kicked at the dust in front of the bench like he was kicking at that pile of clothing. 

"But you are not a heap in the dust. Do not kick at yourself."

We sat in silence as our side was went down. I creaked to a standing position and began up the dugout steps.

"Let me tell you something about managing a team of 25-man-boys. When it is inning eight and you are winning eleven runs to two, it is easy being a manager.

"But when the short stop stops stopping, your pitchers stop pitching and every man-boy hates every other man-boy on the team, and they all hate you, and you have seven games in five nights, all on the road, that is when you become a manager."


Hector again kicked at the imaginary heap.

"It is the same with being a hitter. When you are hitting, there is not much to being a hitter. It's when you stop hitting that you become a great hitter. Because then you have to become again a hitter. Then you have to decide if you are or aren't."

Hector looked up at me. He gave me a 200,000 word pep talkin the form of a simple nod.

"Go back now to la Esquina Caliente. Go back now to la Esquina Caliente. Say, 'hit to me the ball. Hit to me the ball like it has been shot from the cannon of Porfirio Diaz, firing cannons at the people because they clamored for the bread stolen from them by the rich. Do not worry about the killing or the velocidad or the force of the afraid. Do only what you have always done. Stand up and be not afraid of the afraid. You have to love the afraid and say to the afraid I am not afraid of the afraid."

I ran out to my place, arriving the same time as a slow warmup grounder. I hopped, stooped, hopped and zinged it to Salome Rojas at first. The ball stung his hand through his old glove.

"Be not afraid," I repeated, catching the iambics of Hector's words. "Be not afraid of the afraid." I caught also the bouncings of another infield-warmup grounder. "I am not afraid of the afraid. I am not afraid of the afraid. I am not afraid of the afraid."

How'd I do, Doc?

--









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