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Living Up The Street: Narrative Recollections - Part 2 (pp. 33-62)

Author: Gary Soto

Deceit

For four years I attended St. John’s Catholic School where short nuns threw chalk at me, chased me with books cocked over their heads, squeezed me into cloak closets and, on slow days, asked me to pop erasers and to wipe the blackboard clean. Finally, in the fifth grade, my mother sent me to Jefferson Elementary. The Principal, Mr. Buckalew, kindly ushered me to the fifth grade teachers, Mr. Stendhal and Mrs. Sloan. We stood in the hallway with the principal’s hand on my shoulder. Mr. Stendhal asked what book I had read in the fourth grade, to which, after a dark and squinting deliberation, I answered: The Story of the United States Marines. Mr. Stendhal and Mrs. Sloan looked at one another with a “you take him” look. Mr. Buckalew lifted his hand from my shoulder and walked slowly away.

Mrs. Sloan took me into her classroom where, perhaps, the most memorable thing she said to us all year was that she loved to chew tar.

Our faces went sour. “What kind of tar?”

“Oh, street tar—it’s like gum.” Her hands were pressed into a chapel as she stared vacantly over our heads in some yearning for the past.

And it was an odd year for me because there were months on end when I was the sweet kid who wanted to become a priest. In turn, there were the months when I was your basic kid with a rock in his hand.

When the relatives came over to talk to me and pat me on the head, they often smiled and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up.

“A priest,” I would say during those docile months, while if they caught me during the tough months I would answer, “A hobo, I think.”

They would smile and chuckle, “Oh, Gary.”

Although I was going to public school, my brother, sister, and I were still expected to go to church. We would dress in our best clothes, with Debra in a yellow bonnet that she would throw into a bush just around the corner. “Stupid thing,” she muttered as she hid it under the leaves with the intention of getting it later.

After a month or so Rick and Debra didn’t have to go to church; instead they lounged in their pajamas drinking hot chocolate and talking loudly of how they were going to spend the morning watching television. I was, as my mom described me, a “short-tail devil in need of God’s blessings.”

So each Sunday I put on a white shirt and stepped into a pair of pants that kicked around my ankles, my white socks glowing on my feet in the dark pews of St. John’s Cathedral. I knelt, I rose, and I looked around. I muddled prayers and knocked my heart with a closed hand when the priest knelt and the altar boy followed with a jingle of the bell.

For the first few weeks I went to church, however reluctantly, but soon discovered the magazine rack at Mayfair Market, which was only two blocks from the church. I read comics and chewed gum, with only a sliver of guilt about missing Mass pricking my soul. When I returned home after the hour that it took to say a Mass, my mom was in the kitchen but didn’t ask about the Mass—what the priest said or did I drop the quarter she had given me into the donation basket. Instead, she handed me a buttered tortilla as a reward for being a good boy, and I took it to eat in my bedroom. I chuckled under my breath, “God, this is great.”

The next week at the magazine rack I read about Superman coming back to life, chewed gum, and took swigs of a Coke I had bought with money intended for the far-reaching wicker basket. But the following week I came up with another idea: I started happily up the street while my mom looked out the front window with hands on hips, but once around the corner I swung into the alley to see what I could do.

That Sunday I played with Little John, and the following week I looked through a box of old magazines before dismantling a discarded radio. I gutted it of its rusty tubes and threw them, one by one, at a fence until a neighbor came out and told me to get the hell away.

Another Sunday I went up the street into the alley and climbed the fence of our back yard. Our yard was sectioned into two by a fence: The front part was neatly mowed, colored with flowers and cemented with a patio, while the back part was green with a vegetable garden, brown with a rusty incinerator, and heaped with odd junk—ruined bicycles, boards, buckled wheelbarrows. I climbed into the back part of our long yard and pressed my face between the slats: Rick was hoeing a flower bed while Debra was waiting to clean up with a box in her hands. My mom was washing down the patio.

I laughed to myself and then made a cat sound. When no one looked up, I meowed again and Mom looked in my direction for a second, then lowered her eyes to the water bouncing off the patio. I again laughed to myself, but quieted when Rick opened the gate to dump a load of weeds into the compost. I was smiling my evilness behind an old dismantled gate, and when he left I meowed again, chuckled to myself, and climbed the fence into the alley to look around for something to do.

This would continue all through the summer of my twelfth year, and by fall Mom said I didn’t have to go to church because she had seen an improvement in my ways. “See, I told you, m’ijo,” she said over dinner one night. “The nuns would be very proud of you.”

I swallowed a mouthful of beans and cleared my throat. “Yes, Mom.”

Still, when relatives showed up at the door to talk to my mom in Spanish, I hung around to comb my hair and wait for them to open their purses or fiddle deeply in their pockets for a nickel or dime. They would pat my head and ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. “A priest,” I would answer, to which they would smile warmly, “Oh, Gary,” and give over the coin.

Catholics

I was standing in the waste basket for fighting on the day we received a hunger flag for Biafra. Sister Marie, a tough nun who could throw a softball farther than most men, read a letter that spoke of the grief of that country, looking up now and then to measure our sympathy and to adjust her glasses that had slipped from her nose. She read the three-page letter, placed it on her desk, and walked over to the globe to point out Africa, a continent of constant despair. I craned my neck until, without realizing it, I had one foot out of the wastebasket. Sister Marie turned and stared me back into place, before she went on to lecture us about hunger.

“Hunger is a terrible, terrible thing,” she began. “It robs the body of its vitality and the mind of its glory, which is God’s.”

Sister Marie cruised slowly up and down the rows, tapping a pencil in her palm and talking about death, hunger, and the blessed infants, which were God’s, until the students hung their heads in fear or boredom. Then she brightened up.

“With hunger, heavier people would live longer—they have more fat, you see.” She tapped her pencil, looked around the room, and pointed to Gloria Leal. “If we didn’t have any food whatsoever, Gloria would probably live the longest.” Hands folded neatly on her desk, Gloria forced a smile but didn’t look around the room at the students who had turned to size her up.

Sister Marie walked up another row, still tapping her pencil and talking about hunger, when she pointed to me. “And Gary … well, he would be one of the first to die.” Students turned in their chairs to look at me with their mouths open, and I was mad, not for being pointed out but because of that unfair lie. I could outlive the whole class, food or no food. Wasn’t I one of the meanest kids in the entire school? Didn’t I beat up Chuy Hernandez, a bigger kid? I shook my head in disbelief, and said “nah” under my breath.

Sister Marie glared at me, almost bitterly, as she told the class again that I would be the first one to die. She tapped her pencil as she walked slowly up to me. Scared, I looked away, first up to the ceiling and then to a fly that was walking around on the floor. But my head was snapped up when Sister Marie pushed my chin with her pencil. She puckered her mouth into a clot of lines and something vicious raged in her eyes, like she was getting ready to throw a softball. What it was I didn’t know, but I feared that she was going to squeeze me from the waste basket and hurl me around the room. After a minute or so her face relaxed and she returned to the front of the class where she announced that for the coming three weeks we would collect money daily for Biafra.

“The pagan babies depend on our charitable hearts,” she said. She looked around the room and returned to the globe where she again pointed out Africa. I craned my head and pleaded, “Let me see.” She stared me back into place and then resumed talking about the fruits of the world, some of which were ours and some of which were not ours.

The Beauty Contest

It had been a sticky and difficult week of two nose bleeds from bigger kids when Karen, the coach at Romain playground, announced that there was going to be a children’s beauty contest. I was in the elm tree above the picnic table where we played Old Maid and Sorry. Two kids were bent over a game, and I was bombing them with small pieces of bark, thinking all along that their shaved or tangled heads were World War II Germany. They laughed when the bark landed quietly as flies, and shook them from their hair so I would do it again.

I asked the coach what a “beauty contest” was, and she answered that it was like a game to see who was the best looking. “But you’re too old, Blackie,” she told me. “It’s for little kids.” Since I was nine I dismissed it from my mind and went on dropping bombs, but later, when I returned home to smack together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I thought of my smaller brother, Jimmy. A tough kid, he was jumping up and down on the couch with a sandwich in his hand—a chipped front tooth showing gray when he was ready to bite. As I worked on my second sandwich I thought more and more about entering Jimmy. Strong build, a chipped tooth, half Mexican and half white—he might win, I thought.

Jimmy was not yet four, so when I told him about what I wanted him to do, he said OK. I ran to his drawer and searched for a bathing suit—an orange thing with an anchor in the front and a paint stain on the back. Undressed, he tugged his way into it and that afternoon he practiced walking.

“Leave your hands at your side,” I instructed him as he marched from the kitchen to the living room. “Look left and then right, like you’re going to cross the street. Yeah, that’s good—and smile like you’re going to eat some chicken. They want to see that tooth.”

I combed his hair and shined his face with Jergen’s lotion and made him walk until he got it right. After that we turned on the television and waited for the week to pass.

On the day of the event I dressed Jimmy in his bathing suit with a clean T-shirt and lent him my rubber thongs. They were too big, like snowshoes, but I thought them more appropriate than his high top tennies. I slipped into hemmed cut-offs, a white shirt, and shoes that gleamed black as roaches. I smeared his face with Jergen’s lotion and combed his waxed hair until it followed a stiff but clean grain. As we walked through the street a few neighbor kids were playing a game of “pickle”; they stopped for a few seconds to ask where we were going. Why were we so dressed up? They looked at us in awe, and I felt important at telling them that we were off to a “beauty contest.”

We got to the playground just as mothers arrived in station wagons—mothers in bubble-shaped sunglasses, straw hats with different fruits on the brims, and sharkskin skirts. Cameras dangled from their wrists; purses were pressed under their armpits. Some banged aluminum folding chairs from car trunks and set them before the swimming pool where the contest would be held. Jimmy and I looked happily at the balloons that tossed softly on the gate and the strings of plastic flags—those familiar ones from used car lots —drooped on the fence.

Jimmy and I sat under the elm with Rosie, Raymond, Caveman and a few others, and although none of us said anything we were awed by the blond and fair-skinned kids in good clothes. They looked beautiful, I thought, with their cheeks flushed red from the morning heat. The kids stood close to their mothers and wore fancy shirts, sundresses with prints of zoos or bright balloons, and tiny hats—sailor, farm boy, or grassy things with plastic animals holding hands.

With a bullhorn the coach called for the girls to line up. Mothers bent to give hugs and whisper lastminute instructions to their daughters before they were pushed gently through the gate where the coach smiled, pinned numbers on the backs of their suits, and lined them up by height. When they were called out to walk around the pool, some of them looked scared as they searched for their mothers, who clung to the fence or took pictures; other girls looked down at their feet, with fingers in their mouths. They paraded around the pool until they had been sized up by the three women judges who scratched notes behind card tables. The girls were then asked to sit down on the lawn that outlined the pool as the boys were called through the bullhorn to make a line at the gate.

Jimmy and I ran to the gate. I reminded him what to do and, somewhat scared by it all, he nodded his head “yes” and tugged at his bathing suit. The coach called for the line to march in, and it moved slowly into the pool area with most of the boys looking down at the blue of the water, not at their mothers.

Because he was the smallest, Jimmy went out first and did as I had instructed: He looked left, then right; he smiled like he was going to eat chicken, pulling back his lips to show his tooth. He walked stiffly before the judges and took his place behind the tallest boy.

I clung to the fence, with Rosie and Caveman at my side, as one after another the boys marched around the pool and past the judges who tapped their pencils and looked at one another before they scratched notes. Rosie touched my arm when one of the boys, just before he was called, put on a pair of sunglasses with pistols at the corners. As he started, I heard laughter from the elm tree and the words: “Sissy boy.”

When all the boys had circled the pool, they, too, were asked to sit on the lawn with the girls who were reddening like crabs from the warm weather. The judges craned their heads together, whispered seriously, and then whispered again.

With the bullhorn the coach asked for the boys and girls to join hands and parade around the pool. They looked at one another, unsure of what she was saying. The coach talked with the bullhorn again, but still they were confused at what to do. One kid stepped up to the edge of the pool and, looking up at the coach, asked: “Do you want us to jump in?”

The coach climbed down from her station, smiling and shaking her head as she passed the parents to go over to explain to the kids what they were supposed to do. Finally, hand in hand, they paraded awkwardly —the boys looking at the water and the girls waving at their mothers.

The judges converged behind the children who once again had lined up by height. One judge took control and waved a paper crown of glitter over the girls while the parents clung even harder to the fence. When the crown dropped softly on a little girl with curlicues, moans were let out. One mother squeaked, clapped her hands like a loud rain, and looked around for someone to share her excitement. The other mothers looked away and tapped the cameras in their palms. When another crown dropped on a boy’s head, there were more moans. Another mother smiled but contained her happiness as the boy was given a trophy and tickets to see the Fresno Giants. Raymond, who was lost in the green leaves of the elm, called down at the winner: “You’re a sissy.” A mother searched the tree, with a sour and disgusted look, but couldn’t spot his brown legs.

I was disappointed. Rosie and Caveman ran away to play on the swings without saying anything as I stepped away from the fence and sat under the elm. Raymond dropped a piece of bark on my head and made the sound of a bomb exploding. Without looking up, I told him to leave me alone, and he did. The tree shook as he moved to a higher limb.

The Prince and Princess again went around the pool while a reporter from the Fresno Bee on one knee took pictures. At the ceremony’s end, the gate was swung open and the losers were handed ice cream sandwiches as they left to join the onlookers. The coach spoke through the bullhorn, thanking everyone for coming. From a top branch Raymond called his own thanks through cupped hands: “See you later, alligator; after awhile, crocodile.” He laughed at his joke and the tree shook again as he moved to another branch. The coach, Karen, walked over and, shading her eyes, squinted into the branches. Raymond dropped a piece of bark on her and made the sound of a bomb exploding. “Raymond, is that you?” she shouted.

“Raymond, is that you?” he mimicked. “Get down here right this minute,” she warned. “Get down here right this minute,” a branch said. More bombs fell, followed by explosions.

Karen shook her head at the mothers who were gathering chairs and lugging ice chests back to their station wagons. “These kids are so terrible.” She shook her head, tsssked “Is he in trouble,” and sent me to the game room for a football to knock Raymond from the tree.

Baseball in April

For three springs my brother and I walked to Romain playground to try out for Little League, and year after year we failed to impress the coaches. The night of the last year we tried out, we sat in our bedroom listening to the radio and pounding our fists into gloves, and talked of how we would bend to pick up grounders, stand at the plate, wave off another player to say you got the pop-up. “This is the year,” Rick said with confidence as he pretended to back hand a ball and throw out the man racing to first. He pounded his glove and looked at me, “How’d you like that?”

At the tryouts there were a hundred kids. After asking around, we were pointed to lines by age group: nine, ten, and eleven. Rick and I stood in our respective lines, gloves limp as dead animals hanging from our hands, and waited to have a large paper number pinned to our back so that field coaches with clipboards propped on their stomachs would know who we were.

Nervous, I chewed at my palm as I moved up in the line, but when my number was called I ran out onto the field to the sound of my sneakers smacking against the clay. I looked at the kids still in line, then at my brother who was nodding his head yes. The first grounder—a three-bouncer that spun off my glove into center field. Another grounder cracked off the bat, and I bent down to gobble it up: The ball fell from my glove like food from a sloppy mouth. I stared at the ball before I picked it up to hurl it to first base. The next one I managed to pick up cleanly, but my throw made the first baseman leap into the air with an exaggerated grunt that had him looking good while I looked bad. Three more balls were hit to me, and I came up with one.

So it went for me, my number flapping like a single, broken wing as I ran off the field to sit in the bleachers and wait for Rick to trot onto the field.

He was a star that day. With the first grounder he raced for it and threw on the run. With the next ball he lowered himself on one knee and threw nonchalantly to first. His number flapped on his back, a crooked seventeen, and I saw a coach make a check on his board. He then looked serious as he wet his lips and wrote something that demanded thought, for his brow furrowed and darkened.

Rick lunged at the next hit and missed it as it skidded into center field. With the next hit he shaded his eyes for it was a high pop-up, something that he was good at, even graceful, and when the ball fell earthward he slapped it with his toe and looked pleased as his mouth grew fat from trying to hold back a smile. Again the coach wet his lips and made a check on his clipboard.

Rick did well at fielding. When the next number was called, he jogged off the field with his head high and both of us sat in the bleachers, dark and serious as we watched the others trot on and off the field.

Finally the coaches told us to return after lunch to take batting practice. Rick and I ran home to fix sandwiches and talk about the morning, then what to expect in the afternoon.

“Don’t be scared,” he said with his mouth full of sandwich. He was thinking of my batting. He demonstrated how to stand. He spread his legs, worked his left foot into the carpet as if he were putting out a cigarette, and looked angrily at where the ball would be delivered, some twenty feet in front of him at the kitchen table. He swung an invisible bat; choked up and swung again.

He turned to me. “You got it?” I told him I thought I did and imitated his motion as I stepped where he was standing to swing once, then again and then again, until he said, “Yeah, you got it.”

We returned to the playground, and I felt proud walking to the diamond because smaller kids were watching us in awe, some of them staring at the paper number on my back. It was as if we were soldiers going off to war.

“Where you goin’?” asked Rosie, sister of Johnnie Serna, the playground terrorist. She was squeezing the throat of a large bag of sunflower seeds, her mouth rolling with shells.

“Tryouts,” I said, barely looking at her as I kept stride with Rick.

At the diamond I once again grew scared and apprehensive. I got into the line of nine-year-olds to wait for my turn at bat. Fathers clung to the fence, chattering last minute instructions to their kids who answered with, “OK, yes, all right, OK, OK,” because they were also wide-eyed and scared when the kid in the batter’s box swung and missed.

By the time it was my turn I was shivering unnoticeably and trying to catch Rick’s eyes for reassurance. When my number was called I walked to the plate, tapped the bat on the ground—something I had seen many times on television—and waited. The first pitch was outside and over my head. The coach who was on the mound laughed at his sorry pitch.

At the next pitch I swung hard, spinning the ball foul. I tapped my bat again, kicked at the dirt, and stepped into the batter’s box. I swung stupidly at a low ball; I wound up again and sliced the ball foul, just at the edge of the infield grass, which surprised me because I didn’t know I had the strength to send it that far.

I was given ten pitches and managed to get three hits, all of them grounders on the right side. One of them kicked up into the face of a kid trying to field; he tried to hang tough as he walked off the field, head bowed and quiet, but I knew tears were welling up in his eyes.

I handed the bat to the next kid and went to sit in the bleachers to wait for the ten-year-olds to come up to bat. I was feeling better after that morning’s tryout at fielding because I had three hits. I also thought I looked good standing cocky at the plate, bat high over my shoulder.

Rick came up to the plate and hit the first pitch on the third base side. He sent the next pitch into left field. He talked to himself as he stood in the box, slightly bouncing before each swing. Again the coaches made checks on their clipboards, heads following the ball each time it was smacked to the outfield.

When the ten hits were up he jogged off the field and joined me in the bleachers. His mouth was again fat from holding back a smile, and I was jealous of his athletic display. I thought to myself, Yeah, he’ll make the team and I’ll just watch him from the bleachers. I felt bad—empty as a Coke bottle—as I imagined Rick running home with a uniform under his arm.

We watched other kids come to the plate and whack, foul, chop, slice, dribble, bee line, and hook balls to every part of the field. One high foul ball bounced in the bleachers and several kids raced to get it, but I was the first to latch a hand onto it. I weighed the ball in my palm, like a pound of baloney, and then hurled it back onto the field. A coach watched it roll by his feet, disinterested.

After tryouts were finished we were told—or retold, because it had been announced in the morning—that we would be contacted by phone late in the week.

We went home and by Monday afternoon we were already waiting for the phone to ring. We slouched in the living room after school, with the TV turned on and loud as a roomful of people: Superman at three o’clock and The Three Stooges at three-thirty. Every time I left the living room for the kitchen, I stole a glance at the telephone and once when no one was looking I picked it up to see if it was working: a long buzz.

By Friday when it was clear that the call would never come, we went outside to the front yard to play catch and practice bunting.

“I should have made the team,” Rick said as he made a stab at my bunt. He was particularly troubled because if anyone should have made the team it was him, since he was better than most that day.

We threw grounders at one another; a few of them popped off my chest while most of them disappeared neatly into my glove. Why couldn’t I do it like this last Saturday, I thought? I was mad at myself, then sad and self-pitying. We stopped playing and returned inside to watch The Three Stooges. Moe was reading from a children’s story book, his finger following the words with deliberation.

“Does the doe have a deer?” read Moe.

“Yeah, two bucks,” laughed Larry.

Moe pounded him on top of the head and called him a “knuckle-head.” Larry rolled his eyes and looked dizzy.

We didn’t make Little League that year, but we did join a team of school chums that practiced at Hobo Park near downtown Fresno. Pete, the brother of Mary Palacio, a girl who was head-over-heels for me, told us about the team, and after school Rick and I raced our bicycles to the park. We threw our bikes aside and hit the field. While Rick went to the outfield, I took second base to practice grounders.

“Give me a baby roller,” Danny Lopez, the third baseman, called. I sidearmed a roller and he picked it up on the third bounce. “Good pickup,” we told him. He looked pleased, slapping his glove against his pants as he hustled back to third, a smile cutting across his face.

Rick practiced pop-ups with Billy Reeves. They looked skyward with each throw in the air, mouths hanging open as if God were making a face between clouds.

When Manuel, the coach, arrived in his pickup, most of the kids ran to meet him and chatter that they wanted to play first, to play second, to hit first, to hit third. Rick and I went quiet and stood back from the racket.

Manuel shouldered a duffle bag from the back of his pickup and walked over to the palm tree that served as the backstop. He let the bag drop with a grunt, clapped his hands, and pointed kids to positions. We were still quiet, and when Pete told Manuel that we wanted to play, I stiffened up and tried to look tough. I popped my glove with my fist and looked about me as if I were readying to cross a road. Because he was older, Rick stood with his arms crossed over his chest, glove at his feet. “You guys in the outfield,” he pointed as he turned to pull a bat and ball from the bag.

Manuel was middle-aged, patient, and fatherly. He bent down on his haunches to talk to kids. He spoke softly and showed interest in what we had to say. He cooed “good” when we made catches, even routine ones. We all knew he was good to us because most of the kids on the team didn’t have fathers or, if they did, the fathers were so beaten from hard work that they never spent time with them. They came home to open the refrigerator for a beer and then to plop in front of the TV. They didn’t even have the energy to laugh when something was funny. Rick and I saw this in our stepfather. While we might have opened up with laughter at a situation comedy, he just stared at the pictures flashing before him—unmoved, eyes straight ahead.

We practiced for two weeks before Manuel announced that he had scheduled our first game.

“Who we playing?” someone asked.

“The Red Caps,” he answered. “West Fresno boys.”

By that time I had gotten better. Rick had quit the team because of a new girlfriend, a slow walker who hugged her school books against her chest while looking like a dazed boxer at Rick’s equally dazed face. Stupid, I thought, and rode off to practice.

Although I was small I was made catcher. I winced behind my mask when the ball was delivered and the batter swung because there was no chest protector or shin guards—just a mask. Balls skidded off my arms and chest, but I didn’t let on that they hurt—though once I doubled over after having the breath knocked out of me. Manuel hovered over me while rubbing my stomach and cooing words that made me feel better.

My batting, however, did not improve, and everyone on the team knew I was a “sure out.” Some of the older kids tried to give me tips—how to stand, follow through, push weight into the ball.… Still, when I came up to bat, everyone moved in, like soldiers edging in for the attack. A slow roller to short, and I raced to first with my teeth showing. Out by three steps.

The day of the first game some of us met early at Hobo Park to talk about how we were going to whip them and send them home whining to their mothers. Soon others showed up to practice fielding grounders while waiting for the coach to pull up in his pickup. When we spotted him coming down the street, we ran to him and before the pickup had come to a stop we were already climbing the sides. The coach stuck his head from the cab to warn us to be careful. He idled the pickup for a few minutes to wait for the others, and when two did come running, he waved for them to get in the front with him. As he drove slowly to the West Side, our hair flicked about in the wind, and we thought we looked neat.

When we arrived we leaped from the back but stayed close by the coach who waved to the other coach as he pulled the duffle bag over his shoulder. He then scanned the other team: Like us, most were Mexican, although there were a few blacks. We had a few Anglos on our team—Okies, as we called them.

The coach shook hands with the other coach and talked quietly in Spanish, then opened up with laughter that had them patting one another’s shoulder. Quieting, they turned around and considered the field, pointed to the outfield where the sprinkler heads jutted from the grass. They scanned the infield and furrowed their brows at where shortstop would stand: it was pitted from a recent rain. They parted talking in English and our coach returned to tell us the rules.

We warmed up behind the backstop, throwing softly to one another and trying to look calm. We spied the other team and they, in turn, spied us. They seemed bigger and darker, and wore matching T-shirts and caps. We were mismatched in jeans and T-shirts.

At bat first, we scored one run on an error and a double to left field. When the other team came up, they scored four runs on three errors. With the last one I stood in front of the plate, mask in hand, yelling for the ball.

“I got a play! I got a play!” The ball sailed over my head and hit the backstop, only to ricochet in foul ground on the first base side. The runner was already sitting on the bench, breathing hard and smiling, by the time I picked up the ball. I walked it to the pitcher.

I searched his face and he was scared. He was pressed to the wall and he was falling apart. I told him he could do it. “C’mon baby,” I said, arm around his shoulder, and returned to behind the plate. I was wearing a chest protector that reached almost to my knees and made me feel important. I scanned the bleachers—a sad three-row display case—and Mary Palacio was talking loudly with a friend, indifferent to the game.

We got out of the first inning without any more runs. Then, at bat, we scored twice on a hit and an error that felled their catcher. He was doubled over his knees, head bowed like someone ready to commit hara-kiri, and rocking back and forth, smothering the small bursts of yowls. We went on to add runs, but so did they; by the eighth inning they were ahead, sixteen to nine.

As the innings progressed our team started to argue with one another. Our play was sloppy, nothing like the cool routines back at Hobo Park. Flyballs that lifted to the outfield dropped at the feet of open-mouthed players. Grounders rolled slowly between awkward feet. The pitching was sad.

“You had to mess up, menso,” Danny Lopez screamed at the shortstop.

“Well, you didn’t get a hit, and I did,” the shortstop said, pointing to his chest.

The coach clung to the screen as if he were hanging from a tall building and the earth was far below. He let us argue and only looked at us with a screwed up face when he felt we were getting out of hand.

I came up for the fourth time that day in the eighth with two men on. My teammates were grumbling because they thought I was going to strike out, pop-up, roll it back to the pitcher, anything but hit the ball. I was scared because the other team had changed pitchers and was throwing “fire,” as we described it.

“Look at those ‘fireballs’,” the team whispered in awe from the bench as player after player swung through hard strikes, only to return to the dugout, head down and muttering. “What fire,” we all agreed.

I came up scared of the fast ball and even more scared of failing. Mary looked on from the bleachers with a sandwich in her hands. The coach clung to the screen, cooing words. The team yelled at me to hit it hard. Dig in, they suggested, and I dug in, bat high over my shoulder as if I were really going to do something. And I did. With two balls and a strike, the pitcher threw “fire” that wavered toward my thigh. Instead of jumping out of the way I knew I had to let the ball hit me because that was the only way I was going to get on base. I grimaced just before it hit with a thud and grimaced even harder when I went down holding my leg and on the verge of crying. The coach ran from the dugout to hover over me on his haunches and rub my leg, coo words, and rub again. A few team members stood over me with their hands on their knees, with concerned faces but stupid questions: “Does it hurt?” “Can I play catcher now?” “Let me run for him, coach!”

But I rose and limped to first, the coach all along asking if I was OK. He shooed the team back into the dugout, then jogged to stand in the coach’s box at first. Although my leg was pounding like someone at the door, I felt happy to be on first. I grinned, looked skyward, and adjusted my cap. “So this is what it’s like,” I thought to myself. I clapped my hands and encouraged the batter, our lead off man. “C’mon, baby, c’mon, you can do it.” He hit a high fly ball to center, but while the staggering player lined up to pick it from the air, I rounded second on my way to third, feeling wonderful that I had gotten that far.

We lost nineteen to eleven and would go on to lose against the Red Caps four more times because they were the only team we would ever play. A two-team league. But that’s what it was that spring.

The sad part is that I didn’t know when the league ended. As school grew to a close, fewer and fewer of the players came to play, so that there were days when we were using girls to fill the gaps. Finally one day Manuel didn’t show up with his duffle bag over his shoulder. On that day I think it was clear to us—the three or four who remained—that it was all over, though none of us let on to the others. We threw the ball around, played pickle, and then practiced pitching. When dusk began to settle, we lifted our bicycles and rode home. I didn’t show up the next day for practice but instead sat in front of the television watching Superman bend iron bars.

I felt guilty, though, because I was thinking that one of the players might have arrived for practice only to find a few sparrows hopping about on the lawn. If he had he might have waited on the bench or, restless and embarrassed, he may have practiced pop-ups by throwing the ball into the air, calling “I got it,” and trying it again all by himself.

Fear

A cold day after school. Frankie T., who would drown his brother by accident that coming spring and would use a length of pipe to beat a woman in a burglary years later, had me pinned on the ground behind a backstop, his breath sour as meat left out in the sun. “Cabron,” he called me and I didn’t say anything. I stared at his face, shaped like the sole of a shoe, and just went along with the insults, although now and then I tried to raise a shoulder in a halfhearted struggle because that was part of the game.

He let his drool yo-yo from his lips, missing my feet by only inches, after which he giggled and called me names. Finally he let me up. I slapped grass from my jacket and pants, and pulled my shirt tail from my pants to shake out the fistful of dirt he had stuffed in my collar. I stood by him, nervous and red-faced from struggling, and when he suggested that we climb the monkey bars together, I followed him quietly to the kid’s section of Jefferson Elementary. He climbed first, with small grunts, and for a second I thought of running but knew he would probably catch me—if not then, the next day. There was no way out of being a fifth grader —the daily event of running to teachers to show them your bloody nose. It was just a fact, like having lunch.

So I climbed the bars and tried to make conversation, first about the girls in our classroom and then about kickball. He looked at me smiling as if I had a camera in my hand, his teeth green like the underside of a rock, before he relaxed his grin into a simple gray line across his face. He told me to shut up. He gave me a hard stare and I looked away to a woman teacher walking to her car and wanted very badly to yell for help. She unlocked her door, got in, played with her face in the visor mirror while the engine warmed, and then drove off with blue smoke trailing. Frankie was watching me all along and when I turned to him, he laughed, “Chale! She can’t help you, ese.” He moved closer to me on the bars and I thought he was going to hit me; instead he put his arm around my shoulder, squeezing firmly in friendship. “C’mon, chicken, let’s be cool.”

I opened my mouth and tried to feel happy as he told me what he was going to have for Thanksgiving. “My Mamma’s got a turkey and ham, lots of potatoes, yams and stuff like that. I saw it in the refrigerator. And she says we gonna get some pies. Really, ese.”

Poor liar, I thought, smiling as we clunked our heads softly like good friends. He had seen the same afternoon program on TV as I had, one in which a woman in an apron demonstrated how to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner. I knew he would have tortillas and beans, a round steak maybe, and oranges from his backyard. He went on describing his Thanksgiving, then changed over to Christmas—the new bicycle, the clothes, the G.I. Joes. I told him that it sounded swell, even though I knew he was making it all up. His mother would in fact stand in line at the Salvation Army to come away hugging armfuls of toys that had been tapped back into shape by reformed alcoholics with veined noses. I pretended to be excited and asked if I could come over to his place to play after Christmas. “Oh, yeah, anytime,” he said, squeezing my shoulder and clunking his head against mine.

When he asked what I was having for Thanksgiving, I told him that we would probably have a ham with pineapple on the top. My family was slightly better off than Frankie’s, though I sometimes walked around with cardboard in my shoes and socks with holes big enough to be ski masks, so holidays were extravagant happenings. I told him about the scalloped potatoes, the candied yams, the frozen green beans, and the pumpkin pie.

His eyes moved across my face as if he were deciding where to hit me—nose, temple, chin, talking mouth —and then he lifted his arm from my shoulder and jumped from the monkey bars, grunting as he landed. He wiped sand from his knees while looking up and warned me not to mess around with him any more. He stared with such a great meanness that I had to look away. He warned me again and then walked away. Incredibly relieved, I jumped from the bars and ran looking over my shoulder until I turned onto my street.

Frankie scared most of the school out of its wits and even had girls scampering out of view when he showed himself on the playground. If he caught us without notice, we grew quiet and stared down at our shoes until he passed after a threat or two. If he pushed us down, we stayed on the ground with our eyes closed and pretended that we were badly hurt. If he riffled through our lunch bags, we didn’t say anything. He took what he wanted, after which we sighed and watched him walk away peeling an orange or chewing big chunks of an apple.

Still, that afternoon when he called Mr. Koligian, our teacher, a foul name—we grew scared for him. Mr. Koligian pulled and tugged at his body until it was in his arms and then out of his arms as he hurled Frankie against the building. Some of us looked away because it was unfair. We knew the house he lived in: The empty refrigerator, the father gone, the mother in a sad bathrobe, the beatings, the yearnings for something to love. When the teacher manhandled him, we all wanted to run away, but instead we stared and felt shamed. Robert, Adele, Yolanda shamed; Danny, Alfonso, Brenda shamed; Nash, Margie, Rocha shamed. We all watched him flop about as Mr. Koligian shook and grew red from anger. We knew his house and, for some, it was the same one to walk home to: The broken mother, the indifferent walls, the refrigerator’s glare which fed the people no one wanted.

DMU Timestamp: September 29, 2015 02:40