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
“The same things we all do,” he replies. “The sun, the moon.
The rain god. The god of growing. The Jaguar, for its fleetness
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
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
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
“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
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
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:
Painting: Aurora Caro Eng – detail