Fiction

El Relampago

by Bill Meissner

 

 

His name is Rivera, and he lives just a mile down the road

from Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan ruin, and he plays baseball in

the Mexican winter league.  But more than anything, he wants to play

in the American Major Leagues.  His name is Rivera, and he’s a

small, lithe man who fields well but does not have great batting

power, so he’s learned to develop his one strength, and his

strength is his speed.

 

When he runs the base paths, he thinks of himself as the speed of sound,

speed of light, speed of time.  He’s come to be known as the best base stealer

in the Mexican Leagues.  El Relampago, his teammates call him.  Lightning.

 

“You could be a legend in the American Big Leagues,” Luis, a teammate,

once said to him,  “if they’d only give you a chance.”  Though he shrugs, he

knows he would love to run after that chance, knows he could catch up to it,

no matter how far out of reach it might be, knows he would dive for it the

same way he leaps head-first into second base when he hears the ball hissing

toward the glove, his outstretched fingertips there in plenty of time to fall in

love with the worn canvas bag.

 

Summer evenings, with the baby asleep, his wife might sit in

the doorway and gaze at the road toward Merida, watching the last

bus filled with tourists roar past, a wake of blue exhaust rising.

And Rivera might lie for a few minutes in a hammock tied between

two trees beside his small farmhouse and gaze at his wife and

child, their dark brown beauty framed by the crooked doorway.  As

the chickens run beneath him in a squawk of feathers, and the

scruffy dogs chase their tails by the shed, he thinks about the

major leagues:  the shiny helmets, the bats which are not chipped,

their veneer smooth on the barrels, the cleats with white

shoe laces–not the dust-brown laces on the scuffed cleats he wears

when he plays for his Yucatan team.  For most men in the

countryside, this time after dinner is a time of rest, a time to

relax, to think of sleep.  But this evening, after a few minutes in

the hammock, Rivera swings his feet to the ground, walks over and

kisses his wife.

 

“Corriendo?” Jacinta asks, as she always does.  “Running?”

 

“Si,” he replies, and as he hears her voice behind him call

“Always running,” he is already cutting a diagonal across the

yard, leaping over the rusted oil drums in the ditch and jogging

down the road toward Chichen Itza.  As he runs the mile down

the dirt road from his house, the famous Mayan Pyramids begin to

rise up from the jungle growth.  He sees them ahead–massive ruins,

some of them vine-draped, lifting their stone shoulders into the

steamy air, silhouetted against the rolling gray and white clouds

in the distance.  All but a few of the tourists, with their

crisscross of camera straps, have left on the busses to Merida,

and, near dusk, he is practically alone at the ruins.  He lopes to

the Great Ball Court alongside the pyramid and pauses to stare at

the carvings in the stone.  The stone hoop is thirty feet above the

court on the wall.  To make a score, the players had to bounce the

ball through that hoop without using their hands.  They had to be

fast, and agile, and strong.  “The winners took all,” he says all

day long to the tourists, “and the losers were sacrificed.”  Rivera

stares at the stone carvings where the winners, lifting triumphant

swords to the sky, hold the losers’ heads by their hair.

 

Summer afternoons, Rivera works part-time as a tourist guide

during the off season, leading overweight Americans from their

American Express busses through the ruins of a great culture.  “I

am called Rivera,” he says at the beginning of the tour and also at

the end, “I am your guide, and I also play baseball, or, as we call

it, beisbol.”  He tells all the stories he’s heard about Chichen, the

legends and half-truths spoken by the elders and Mayan ancestors, and

then he tells them the experts’ explanations which he’s studied in books

at the University of Mexico.  The tourists gaze in wonder at the

ruins of the limestone city beyond him while he narrates.

He explains how the pyramids were built from the ground up.

Centuries ago, the first primitive settlers built crude shrines in

this area, and each new generation added their shrines and temples

to the base.  “Here,” he narrates with his strong Mexican accent, “the

buildings are unique.  You find culture upon culture.  Civilization

upon civilization.”  As he stares into the puffy faces of the

tourists, he thinks how there is so much they don’t know.  Life is

quick, it’s easy and convenient in America, he thinks.  There is so

little history.  Two hundred years, and before that, nothing.  A

blink of an eye.

 

“What did they worship?” a tourist occasionally asks.  This

week, it was a broad man, his breasts bulging through his sweaty

knit shirt.

 

“The same things we all do,” he replies.  “The sun, the moon.

The rain god.  The god of growing.  The Jaguar, for its fleetness

of foot.”

 

When he says this, the tourists always give him a puzzled

Look.  Then they might turn away, maybe snap a photo of their tour

bus, a photo which they’ll look at later to see that it’s over-exposed,

the red and blue enamel faded.

 

Early summer mornings, before the tourist busses arrive,

Rivera practices base running on the jungle-surrounded ball field at the

edge of Piste, the little village close to his farm.  Rivera stands

a few feet off first base–a warped square of wood–and imagines a

pitcher, trying to pick him off.  At just the right instant, as the

pitcher tips toward home, he breaks.  He practices it over and

over:  the balancing, the waiting.  You must be in perfect balance,

he thinks.  Perfecto.  If you’re caught leaning, you’re dead.

Then, the instant his imaginary pitcher makes the slightest move

toward home, Rivera lunges, the piston of his left leg driving him

into motion.  He digs toward second, digs, head down, his legs a

blur, clumps of clay flying from his cleats and thumping against

his back, and he’s there.  Later, he might practice his evasive

slide, a quick sweeping motion along the outside of the bag as he

grabs it with his left hand.  In this way, he builds one skill upon

another skill.  He knows they all add up.  When they all work

together in a game, he’s fluid, he’s pure speed moving down the

baseline.  No one could throw him out, no one.  He must believe

this.  He is Rivera Ligero, and he could be the fastest man in

baseball.  Speed, they’d call him, if they saw him run.  El Rapido.

When he looks up, he’s surprised to see the small children from

the village who have gathered around to watch, their broad brown

Mayan faces smiling in awe.  As he dashes from first to second,

they laugh and try to run along with him, though they can never

catch him.  “Why do you run?” one small boy, barefoot and dressed in

torn shorts, asks.

 

“Why do you see though your eyes?” Rivera responds.

For a moment, there’s a confused look in their high cheek boned

faces; then they giggle and smile.  After the kids tire of

chasing him and walk away to other games, he runs wind sprints alone

on the field.  He runs hard, pushing himself until his heart beats so hard

it feels as though it might burst from the narrow cage of his ribs.  He runs,

runs some mornings until his lungs draw in the whole smooth Mexican

sky.

 

Rivera often daydreams about being approached by that Latin

American scout who he thinks he sees watching the Yucatan games,

taking notes in a notebook.  Rivera leans toward that day, he longs for it,

he often envisions it–a real team in Texas or Arizona, a place to hang your

uniform besides a peg on the wall of the rusted tin shed they call

their locker room.  Rivera sometimes thinks he would sacrifice

anything to make it to the American Major Leagues.  He knows that

if he does not make it with a team–even a single-A team in the

States, he will die a little inside.  He will die a little, as if a

part of himself were cut out from his center and tossed to the

sun-beaten grass to dry and wither.

 

Summer afternoons during the off season, he guides the

tourists through the remains of an extinct city.  The broad backs

of the tourists’ khaki shirts are always dark with sweat as,

puffing, they sidestep through the maze of excavated buildings and

walls of Chitsen Itza.  He describes the Temple of the Jaguar.  The

Mayan worshipped the Jaguar for its quickness, its agility, its

beauty, he tells the tourists.  The Mayans built many shrines for

the Jaguar, and they sculpted Jaguar effigies in valuable stone,

but none so perfect as the black Jaguar found in the temple in the

great pyramid at Chitzen Itza.  “Take your time,” he tells them.

“Slow down.  Mira.  Look.”

 

In the Mexican winter league, Rivera’s team from the Yucatan,

the Jaguars, plays teams like the Tomateros and the Yanquis on

fields with hard reddish dirt infields, the tropical grass growing in

raised hollow clumps in the outfield.  Once a large green iguana

had to be removed from center field, its tail flopping.  In the

towns further north, like Mexicali, the spikes of cactus rise just

beyond the outfield fences, and snakes curl in sun spots beneath the

bleachers.  Before the games he sits on the bench with his friends,

Manny and Antonio and Luis.  Rivera knows their

longing.  They talk of playing American baseball all the time, of

contracts and staying in carpeted hotel rooms with large, clean

showers and big, flat-screen television sets, of getting rich with the

Yankees or the Dodgers.  They dream of riding in shiny cars and

wearing gold chains and eating dinners in restaurants with cloth

table cloths and glistening silverware.

 

But Rivera’s dreams of the major leagues are not about the

money, like his teammates.  His dream is a simple one:  He just

wants to feel the soul of a major league field rise up through his

legs as he leads off base for the first time.  He hasn’t thought

about it beyond that simple moment:  just being there, in a huge,

clean stadium, to get the chance to lead off first base, all his

muscles alert and balanced, though he would look so casual.

Some days, Rivera notices the hope in his teammates’ brown

eyes.  It’s the same hope he saw in the small girls’ eyes as they sold

trinkets–cloth pouches and brightly-colored woven bracelets–on the

streets of Tijuana.  When he visited there once, the small, smudge-

faced girl held the trinkets out to tourists, and said, in English, “Three

for a dolla?  Three for a dolla?” while the tourists brushed past her

without looking.  But  Rivera looked into her eyes as she turned toward

him, and he saw the depth of pain in those brown liquid pools.  He saw

his whole country in her eyes.  He wondered how long it would take to

leave her poverty behind–probably her whole lifetime.  He pulled out a

200 peso bill and bought some brightly-colored bracelets from her to

take back to his wife and a small toy for his two year old son.  He let

the girl, who gave him a hesitant half smile, keep the extra pesos.

 

Rivera set a record for base stealing last season; sometimes,

before the catchers even looked up and realized it, he was standing

on second base.  “El Jaguar,” his teammates call him with a

laugh.  “Too fast for your own good, that’s what you are,” jokes

Luis, the scrawny catcher.  Between innings, they sit on the bench

and snack on thin tortillas, drink papaya juice or horchata.  After

the games, Rivera and his amigos often buy helado or sopapillas

from the concession stand, the honey dripping on their palms like

yellow pine tar.  Or, after a home game, they might stop for Dos

Equus or tequila at the local cantina.  “Too fast for words,” Luis

jokes to Rivera after a couple of cervesas.  “You run so fast you

could outrun time.  The rest of us grow old quickly, but not little

Rivera.  He’s so fast he could run and leave himself behind.”  Once,

when Rivera was looking the other way, a small goat ambled through

the open adobe doorway and drank from his glass of beer at the low

wooden table.  When Rivera turned back to his glass, the goat bolted

out the door, and they all laughed until tears rolled down their cheeks.

 

The Mayan culture fell into ruin, and no one really knows why,

Rivera tells the tourists.  “The Mayans were fantasticos,” he says–

they invented the zero in mathematics, they devised an accurate

calendar, developed sophisticated festivals and sports.  They had

all the riches of wealth and the arts.  A huge cultural city with

five hundred thousand people existed right where you stand, he

tells them, and then suddenly it was gone.  Time passes so quickly,

and the civilization was gone.  Now, all that is left is a few

ruins above ground and its soul, below the ground.  A mystery.  No

one knows the secret.  “Was it war?” he asks.  As he pauses a

moment, timing his delivery, confused looks cross the faces of the

tourists.  “Were they forced out by an inferior, warring tribe?

Was it famine?  Was it the sacrifice of the strongest young males,

their hearts ripped out for all to see?”  He pauses for five seconds,

timing it just right.  No one,” he says slowly, and with drama, “no one knows

for certain.”

 

Rivera leads off third base, the large stadium surrounding him

filled with cheering fans.  When he takes off toward home, the

distance between third and home seems to lengthen as he runs, as if

someone was pulling the earth out from under him.  He runs and runs

and runs, panting, but he doesn’t seem to get any closer.  It’s

then that he wakes from the dream, sweating in his small bamboo house

with the thatched roof.  It’s then that he wakes up and touches his numb legs,

runs his fingernails along the shin bones to make sure they’re still there.

“Rivera?” his wife’s soft, half-sleeping voice whispers.  His

thrashing has wakened her.  “What is it, Rivera?  El sueno de

correr?  The dream of running?”  He nods yes.

 

“Running,” she says, exasperated.  “Always running.  Running

when you’re awake, running when you sleep.  What will it take to

slow you down, Rivera Ligero?  What will it take to catch you?”

“No one will catch me,” he says.

“Not even me?” she asks, the disappointment weighing down her

voice.

 

“Well,” he says, laughing, “Maybe you.  Maybe just you.”

 

“Sometimes,” she sighs, “sometimes I’m afraid you’d give up

anything to get to the Major Leagues,” she says.  “Sometimes I think

you will run away and leave me behind.”

 

Without another word, he turns toward her, and embraces her.

He inhales her fragrant scent of hyacinths and jungle flowers.

He kisses her on the lips and her lips push back at him; the kiss tastes

of sweet, ripe papaya, and soft, warm clay.  “Jamas suenas de mi?”  she whispers.  “Am I ever your dream?”

 

“Si,” he answers, “Siempre.  Always.”

 

They make love in the humid darkness.  The flowing curves of her

Tawny, pliant skin rise and fall beneath the touch of his fingertips.

Afterwards, panting, they stare into the deep brown of each other’s eyes, and

nothing needs to be said.  There are no words to translate what they’re feeling.

 

The next morning, at Chichen Itza, Rivera leads the tourists to

the Sacred Cenote, where human sacrifices took place.  The Cenote is

a huge well, a hundred feet in diameter, and two hundred feet to the

brown, algae-coated water below.  The walls are slick stone.  “A

mysterious place, full of questions,” he says.  He explains that

beneath its murky waters, explorers have found some answers:  excavators

found gold jewelry, precious stones and human bones.  It is thought

that the sacrificial victims were drugged and then thrown into the

Cenote, where, because it was impossible to climb out, they drowned.

The sacrifices appeased the Rain God in times of drought, he explains to the

tour group; it assured rain and a fertile planting season.  “The clay is slippery

near the lip of the Cenote,” he warns, “so do not venture too close, my

amigos.”

 

As Rivera’s one-hour tour nears its end, he has to slow down for

the out-of-shape tourists, who begin to puff and pant.  He slows down

for them, and then gazes at the great pyramid and thinks about the

levels upon levels of the stairs.

“Anybody ever climb that ol’ thing?” an overweight, out-of-breath

man once asked him during a tour.

 

“Si,” Rivera answered.  “I do.”

 

The tourists who visit Chitzen Itza love Rivera’s tour, his

banter and jokes, his quick, encompassing smile.  “Brilliant,” one

couple remarks at the conclusion of the tour.  “You should work as a

guide full-time.  You should do this for a career.”

 

“No, no,” he replies modestly.  “It is only a seasonal job.  My

dream is to play American baseball.  If you know of any American

scouts, please tell them about me.”  Then he pushes himself to add,

“Some call me El Relampago, the fastest man in Mexico.”

They nod and give him polite smiles and snap digital shots of him

before they board the bus back to Merida to their luxury hotels and

their flights back to New Jersey or Michigan or California.

 

Some nights Rivera dreams of storm clouds sliding quickly

overhead, and the rain falling.  The clay beneath his feet turns

quickly to mud and he can feel his feet slipping.  He tries to

pivot on his heel, tries to turn and climb away from the edge, but

the more his legs try to move, the more he’s slipping backwards into it.

In the dream, he’s not quick enough–everything moves in slow

motion, as if he’s a stone statue trying to break out of its mold,

and he hates that feeling.  He’s weighted down with gold necklaces

and bracelets, and a mask of gold hinders his vision.  Then,

suddenly, he’s falling, falling head over heels in the humid air,

the brown limestone walls of the Cenote rushing past him.  He’s falling, and as

he strikes the water, he wakes and sits up in bed, his forehead damp

and sweating, his heart throbbing in his chest like a bird caught in

a cage too small.  His wife’s hands rush to him, touching his

sweating forehead, calming him.

 

“Corriendo?” she asks.  “Estabas corriendo?  I love you, Rivera.

Don’t run away from me, or from your young son.”

 

This evening, after dinner, he kissed Jacinta as she sat

on the doorstep, and began his run toward Chichen Itza just before

dusk.  When he arrives at the grounds, he’s alone, except for a few

local children playing kick ball.  One boy, recognizing him from the

time he practiced on the Piste field, waves.  Rivera waves back,

then jogs up the great pyramid, step by step, working his legs.

Three quarters of the way up, he passes the Tabernacle of the

Jaguar, that legendary beast, and keeps climbing.  The dark stone

stairs are tall, and he must pull his knees high to reach each

step, but it can be done.  At the top, he pauses, panting for

breath, and looks across the ruins to the steamy, vine-choked jungle,

so green, and so impassable.  Below, the sound of the children

bounce the ball rhythmically off the base of the pyramid with a

hollow thumping sound, a heart beat.

 

He watches the storm clouds moving toward him from the

distance, and at that moment, he wonders if he could ever leave

this place, this land outside Piste, its rich, tangled green

beauty.  He wonders if what Luis says is true–maybe he’s too fast

for his own good, the way he yearns so much lately for America and

the Major Leagues.

 

He ponders the mysteries of the Aztecs, the Toltecs, the Mayans,

and wonders if maybe he could be the one to figure our the secret of

why they disappeared.  Maybe he knows their secret right now, without even studying.  They ran.  Maybe they had visions of a better life, and they picked up and ran to find it.  Perhaps they searched for better crops, better land.

Perhaps they ran from the love the land gave them.  Perhaps they were

just too full of their own riches, their own visions.  They ran, and

by the time they got where they thought they wanted to be, they turned around,

and it was too late to go back where they came.  They had sacrificed

everything.  They ran so far they got themselves lost, and one by one, they

disappeared in the jungle and perished.

 

He finds himself standing in front of the Tabernacle of

the Jaguar at the top of the pyramid.  He’s staring into the jade jaguar’s green

eyes as if they will tell him the secret.  But the sleek jaguar reveals nothing.

It’s carved of solid stone; its quickness is held forever.

Turning to look out over the landscape, Rivera watches the

those spears of yellow lightning stab into the horizon from the

rolling thunderhead clouds.  After a few minutes, the children are

gone, and he thinks he sees a person standing below who looks a lot

like Jacinta.  Jacinta, the one who never runs from him, the one

who loves him.  She’s standing there, waiting for him at the base

of the pyramid.  She cups her hands as if to call to him:  Who do

you love, Rivero Ligera?  But he cannot hear the words because of

the tumbling roar of thunder.  He pauses there on the top, and he

knows she’s waiting for him to take a step down toward her.

 

Rivera finds himself in a major league stadium, the

stairways to the upper deck like the high steps that lead up a pyramid.

He’s been here so many times before in his dream, in San Diego or Los

Angeles or Texas, that he’s not sure if this one is real, or just

another vision.  But the smooth white jersey squeezing his skin tells

him it’s real, the new white shoe laces on his shiny shoes tell

him it’s real, as does the touch of the hard-packed, groomed infield

beneath his cleats, the clean canvas corner of first base that

caresses his toe.  He sees Jacinta’s face, his young child’s face in

the front row in the grandstands, looking into his eyes.  Love, he

thinks, love is stronger than speed, than time.  Love, my

destination.

Rivera leads off the base; his heart is already beating

rapidly, yet he hasn’t run at all.  He sets his brown eyes intently

on the pitcher, and waits. Waits for that first infinitesimal move

toward the plate.  When the pitcher begins his motion, time seems to

slow, to pause a few seconds.  Inside that moment, though it feels a

little like his legs are made of stone, Rivera takes his first step.

 

 ************************************************

 

Bill Meissner’s first novel, SPIRITS IN THE GRASS, about a small town ballplayer who finds the remains of an ancient Native American burial ground on a baseball field, was published in 2008 by the University of Notre Dame Press and won the Midwest Book Award.  The book is available as an ebook from the UND Press.  Meissner’s two books of short stories are THE ROAD TO COSMOS, [University of Notre Dame Press, 2006] and HITTING INTO THE WIND [Random House/SMU Press, Dzanc Books ebook].

Meissner has also published four books of poems:  AMERICAN COMPASS, [U. of Notre Dame Press], LEARNING TO BREATHE UNDERWATER and THE SLEEPWALKER’S SON [both from Ohio U. Press], and TWIN SONS OF DIFFERENT MIRRORS [Milkweed Editions].

He is director of creative writing at St. CloudStateUniversity in Minnesota.  His web page is:  http://web.stcloudstate.edu/wjmeissner/

 

His Facebook author page is:

           http://www.facebook.com/mobileprotection#!/pages/Bill-

Meissner/174769532541232?sk=info

fiction bill meissner_Painting Aurora Caro Eng detail

 

Painting: Aurora Caro Eng – detail

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