Fiction

The Descending God

by Bill Meissner

(an earlier version of this appeared in the Mid-American Review)

 

He will tell you his name is Hernandez, that he plays center field for the Playa del Carmen Municipales in Mexico.  He’ll tell you what he wants most is to run across the field in center, to make a diving catch, and to land in a center field filled with lush, deep grass.  But there are no green fields in the league where Hernandez plays.

Today, before the game, as he looks out over his outfield, he sees very little grass—only clumps of stubbly green scattered around the hard-packed tan dirt of the outfield.  The lonely, thick, bristly blades claw their way up into the one-hundred degree afternoon heat on Sundays as the Playa del Carmen Municipales host a neighboring team from Cancun or one of the smaller beach towns to the south like Acumal.  Still, Hernandez will try his best, as he does every day; along with the rest of the players, he’s heard the rumor that an American baseball scout is in the stands to watch today’s game.

Hernandez knows where the beautiful ball fields are—in El Norte, in America, like the field of the Nuevo York Yankees, where the grass grows to a rich, vivid color, a color that soothes your eyes just to look at it.  In El Norte, the ball fields have grass that’s watered by sprinklers each day.  It’s grass that would caress your toes as you walked through it barefoot, grass where you could lose yourself, grass where you could fall to your knees and roll, grass that’s so beautiful and succulent, you could almost die in it.

Not so here, on the Playa del Carmen municipal field—off Calle 20,  blocks away from the congestion of tourists in rented minivans headed for the beach or the resorts.  Here, the infield dirt—or el concreto, as his buddy Jorges Castillo once called it—seems to spread, as though it were a living, growing entity, farther and farther into the outfield each year.  Hernandez sometimes gazes at it and wonders if soon the whole field will be dust and pebbles, pebbles and dust.

As he plays baseball each Sunday during the summer, Hernandez believes there’s magic in his blood.  He believes in magic; it comes from his Mayan ancestors, centuries ago, who, before they passed from this earth, calculated the rise and fall of the sun, the rise and fall of seasons, invented the calendar.  His mostly Mayan ancestry—mixed with a little Spanish—makes him small, and tubby for an outfielder, with short arms and stubby fingers.  “El Gordo Chihuahua,” some of his teammates call him—the Chubby Chihuahua.  His Mayan ancestry gives him less agility as an outfielder than a taller, sleeker player, like some of the Cubanos or the players with African heritage, but he believes he makes up for it with the magic.

He can’t throw the ball fast, but he can throw it far, and accurately; the way lightning is accurate when it chooses a place to strike.  From the outfield, he can throw the ball right to the catcher’s glove, see it center there, as if in the middle of the Mayan calendar.  Hernandez does not sprint gracefully toward a ball that’s rolling toward the wall; he tracks the ball down diligently, getting there in due time, with no wasted motion.  He chose his number—00—for his tattered gray jersey because his Mayan ancestors invented the zero.

“Why zero zero?” Jorges, the big first baseman with the wrap-around snake-eye sunglasses once asked him.

“Because I’m nothing yet,” Hernandez replied.  “I’m nada nada.   I’m still waiting to become something.”

“To become what?” Jorges questioned.  “What, Hernandez?”

“I don’t know yet,” Hernandez answered.  “A Major Leaguer, maybe.  A ballplayer with green grass beneath his feet.”

Jorges shook his head and mumbled, “Ay, Hernandez.  When will you ever learn?  When will you grow up?”

Hernandez just gives his rounded shoulders a sheepish shrug.

At 37, Hernandez is the oldest man on the team, the one who sweats the most when he runs, the one who hears the air wheezing from his lungs after a short sprint to first base.  But he’s also the one who smiles the most, the silver edges glistening at the bottoms of his big front teeth.  El Viejo—the Old One, as they sometimes refer to him—is the player with the most spirit, everyone on the team agrees, the player with the most hope.  Esperanza.  Hope for what? Hernandez sometimes ask himself.  For what?  For a green and succulent future?  To run and run through that future and never slow down?

Lately, time speeds up for Hermandez:  the older he is, the more quickly things seem to pass.  He knows that the Mayans knew time well, etched it in the hieroglyphs of their calendar; they calculated dates a thousand years before their existence and a thousand years after.  Hernandez knows time, too, day by day, year after year, its pace quickening.  An age spot here, on his forearm, another one there, on the back of his throwing hand.  He rubs a little dust on the spots so they blend in.

 

Today, before the game, the word spread quickly through the Municipales’ dugout:  a scout for an American minor league team, affiliated with the New York Yankees—is in the grandstands for the game.  He is a tall, thin man, with pale, sunburned skin, and he stands out clearly in the wooden grandstands—unlike the rest of the fans, he is wearing sporty beige shorts and a yellow knit shirt and a Calvin Klein cap with the letters NYC.  He does not shout out at the players through megaphones—fashioned of plastic quart bottles of Coca Cola that were cut in half—as some of the regular fans do.  The man has spoken to the Municipales’ manager, and though the players are buzzing and excited—especially Hernandez—the manager warns them that he’s not sure if the man is on a scouting mission or not.  He is staying at a fancy suite in the Hotel Continental in the Playacar complex.  The hotel has entry gates watched by guards in uniform, who let the tourists into the manicured tropical grounds.  The manager added that the scout doesn’t drink the local Cristal Agua, but only Perrier sparkling water prepared in the USA or else Corona Extra.  He did not help himself to the Sol or Superior beer bottles submerged with melting blocks of ice in the murky water cooler beneath the grandstands, as the manager suggested.  Cervesa es libre, the manager insisted.  “The beer is free.  On the house.”  The scout simply declined on the offer with a wave of his hand.

 

Sometimes, after the games, Hernandez sits on the top row of the bleachers with his back against the corrugated tin of the grandstand and pictures ancient priests, standing at the top of the pyramid, sacrificing something and praying to Chac, the patron god of rain and lightning, then turning their broad, flat faces toward the sky and hoping for rain.  Blood pools on the pale limestone altar, then Chac is appeased, and the rain falls down, watering the crops, and the corn grows tall.  Sometimes Hernandez shakes his head, wondering just how much had to be sacrificed to get the rain to fall.

Then he gazes out at the field, sees how much it needs rain this Julio, sees how dry and cracking the soil is.  If you scuff your toe on the outfield it sends up a little dry puff of tan dust.  Clouds of dust—not rain clouds—are all that floats over this outfield.  Yet he’s proud of the field, he loves it, in all its dryness, because it’s the only field he knows.  He loves it, despite the broken glass that litters the left field foul line—the shards of green and brown from Coke and Superior bottles.  Loves it, despite the tumbling clear and green plastic bottles of Coca Cola and Manzanita Sol apple juice and Sangria.  Despite the pieces of paper and the candy wrappers that circle crazily around themselves in the tiny whirlwinds at the corners of the park.  Loves it, despite the half-foot long chunks of concrete that always seem to appear near the cement outfield wall in left, not too far from where he plays.  He thinks road crews or kids might be throwing them over the outfield wall.  The uneven chunks keep appearing on his field each Sunday, as if some huge wall somewhere is crumbling, piece by piece, and each Sunday Hernandez totes them toward the foul line.

“What are you, grounds keeper today?” his third baseman might quip as he sees Hernandez cleaning up the outfield.

Hernandez might grumble as he tosses a shard from a beer bottle into the rusted tin drum near the dugout.

Hernandez knows well the stories of how his Mayan ancestors took rocks—huge limestone pieces—and carved them into blocks, then, even with their primitive technology, placed one on top of another to make amazing pyramids to honor the sun and moon and the rain god.  These pyramids survive in Chichen Itza, and even in the smaller ruins to the south of Playa like Coba.  Some pyramids stretch for the sky at a height of over one hundred sixty feet.  Tourists from American Express with spindly legs, trying to climb them too fast, get heat stroke.  The pale crème colored palaces rise high toward the sun, and sometimes there are tabernacles on their top platforms, and carvings of a menacing Chac, his half-closed warrior eyes glaring, a serpent in his hand to represent lightning.

At the top of several pyramids is the carving of the Descending God—Hernandez’s favorite Mayan image.  The Descending God leaps from the tops of the pyramids toward the earth, his hands clasped in front of his face like a diver.  His grandfather told him that the Descending God is diving to the spiritual world.  “In the ancient days,” his Grandfather said, “a man would dive from the top of the pyramid in a ritual sacrifice. Sometimes he took with him an offering of a lamb or a chicken.”

 

When Hernandez goes for a baseball in the outfield, he has to time it just right.  He has to stretch as far as he can, and to time it so the ball will land gently in the palm of his old thick-fingered leather glove, has to make sure it sinks deep into the pocket, his bare hand clapping on top of it so the ball isn’t jarred loose when his stocky body hits the hard ground and rolls once or twice.  Any good ballplayer must learn to do this, he tells himself, any ballplayer worth the salt of his sweat.

But once, just once, Hernandez would like to rise up from the ground without the bloody scrapes, without the grains of sand and grit imbedded in his skin.  He smiles as he rises, yet he feels himself weaken each time the blood drips from his skin.  Each time it drips from his body, he loses something.  Just once, Hernandez would like to leap for a ball in the outfield  and then rise up stained with green, and whole, and perfect.

 

The high priests were like spirits, his grandfather once told him—they could walk right through walls.  It was amazing, how much his ancestors could do with so little—they could build huge limestone cities in the middle of the jungle flatlands where there were no indigenous stones, they could invent the zero and devise complex mathematical structures.  They were great astrologers and could calculate—to the minute—when the sun would appear on the horizon on the solstice, and when Venus would rise.  “The Mayans were fantastico,”  his grandfather exclaimed.  They were proud and regal and built a great civilization, with cities of a hundred thousand that rose from the jungle.  Then there are those beautiful, proud Mayan words, the lost language Hernandez no longer remembers.  His grandfather—a Shaman in a village—taught him when he was a small boy.   Learn these words, his Grandfather said.  Learn them, remember them, use them.   Kukulkan.  K’ich’ean.  Quetzalcoatl.  Ix Chel.  They will make you invincible, no matter what happens.   A few years after his grandfather died, the language was lost to Hernandez, its strange, musical sounds with its Xs an Zs and Chs, each word sizzling like cicadas hiding in the undergrowth at dusk.  The words told of histories, prophesies, songs, science, astronomy:  words filled with magic, words filled with fire, with lightning.  Hernandez always wanted to be that good at his game, as good as the Mayan words that described the world.

 

Today’s game does not go well for the Municipales.  The team from the neighboring resort town of Akumal beats them by the score of six to one.  The Municipales get only two hits off a long-armed fireballing Akumal pitcher named Ruben Cortez, who everyone suspects is not just part Spanish, but also part Cuban, like El Duque, the great Cuban pitcher for the American big leagues.  To add to their insult, they make four errors in the infield.   Hernandez suffers a nondescript game, going 0 for 4 at the plate and fielding only three easy fly balls.

After the game, Hernandez, thirsty and soaked with sweat, unbuttons the top three buttons of his jersey, exposing a cheap gold-plated chain and a pale barrel chest, and drinks greedily from the bottles of Sol, pulled from the cooler where they float, clinking against blocks of ice.  The entryway of the grandstands is crowded with laughing and drinking ballplayers from both teams.

“I am the center fielder,” Hernandez says in Spanish to Jorges Castillo and some of the other players gathered in a group.  He taps his chest with his stubby index finger.  “I am not the best you’ve seen, but I’m not the worst, either.  Si?”

The players chuckle.

Then Hernandez turns and tips his head toward the sky.  “Praise the sun god,” he says, bowing his hands extended, “and praise the rain god.”

“You and your Mayan rantings,” says Jorges.  “You and your crazy Mayan magic.  You learn that from your grandfather?”

“Of course.  Where the hell else?”

Jorges shakes his head at his friend.  “Soon, after too many Sols, you’ll claim you are the Descending God.  You say that after every game.”

Just then they see the American scout, making his way through the crowd, his shoulders high above the short ballplayers.  The scout nods politely to the players who talk loudly and brag and laugh, their tipped-back ball caps sporting the names of local merchants.  When Hernandez sees the man coming, he rushes up to him.

“You did not see my best fielding,” Hernandez says to him in Spanish, and when the scout squints at him, Hernandez tugs on Jorges’ sleeve.  He knows Jorges speaks a little English and will help him translate.  “You did not see my fielding skills,” he says again in Spanish, then elbows Jorges.  “Tell him, amigo.”

Jorges translates for Hernandez with his thick accent, and the scout shakes his head.  “I’m only here on vacation,” the man says, rubbing the back of his neck, which is red with sunburn.  “I’m not scouting.”

“Solimente una tourista,” Jorges says.

Hernandez pulls Jorges aside.  “I caught nothing but routine fly balls today,” he says insistently.  “I want to show the scout what I can do.  I want to show him the real me.”

The scout tries to brush past the two men and toward the exit gate.

“You will watch me a few minutes, no?” Hernandez says, following.  “I am the best center fielder in the Yucatan.”

Jorges translates, and the scout gives him a tight-lipped smile, then shrugs, as if he doesn’t really understand Jorges’ translation.

“Tell him I am the Descending God,” Hernandez says to Jorges,  almost pleading.  “Tell him that.”

“You are loco, Hernandez.”

“Tell him, Jorges.  Just tell him that.”

Jorges, too embarrassed to say something so silly to the American, but still trying to help out his old friend, says instead “He is a god among outfielders.”

“Okay, okay, what the hell,” the American says reluctantly, holding up his big hand with the slender fingers.  “But I’ve only got a minute.”

Hernandez turns and runs toward the sheet metal dugout where the scuffed wooden bats lean next to a cluster of baseballs.

“Hit me some, Jorges,” Hernandez says, pulling his glove onto his thick fingers.  The glove looks too small for him, like a child’s, but it fits.

Hernandez jogs toward center, his rotund belly jostling.

Jorges shakes his head in resignation, sets his bottle of Superior on a warped bleacher, and picks up a 34-inch bat that suits his stocky frame.  “Go ahead. Make a fool of yourself.”

“Senor scout,” Jorges says with a laugh, sweeping his hand toward Hernandez.  “Let me present to you Hernandez, best outfielder we have ever seen in Playa del Carmen.”  The other players cluster around Jorges and the scout.

“Mira!  Look!” one of the men who speaks English jokes.  “He can run half as fast as the great base stealer Ricky Henderson.  He can throw the ball at almost fifty miles an hour!”

Hernandez reaches a cleat-marked spot in center, about thirty yards from the concrete chunk that’s lying in the dirt near the wall.  He puts his hands on his knees, feet balanced apart, and nods at Jorges.  Murmuring to each other, the men from both teams circle around Jorges to watch the spectacle, and one of them picks up a catcher’s mitt.

Jorges tosses the ball high in front of his face, sweeps the bat around, and hits a high pop up that begins to fall between second base and center.  Hernandez gets a late break on the ball, runs in, and straightens up as the ball lands in front of him and bounces over his head on the hard-packed dirt.  The men laugh as he runs the ball down, throws it weakly, but accurately, back in.  “He is old,” one of the men mutters to the scout in broken English.  “Thirty seven anos.  He is the oldest man on the team, but he is trying to prove himself.  All his life he believes he will play for the American leagues.  But he has few talents.”

The scout raises one eyebrow skeptically, takes a slow sip of his agua pura.

Jorges hits a fly ball, and Hernandez gets another slow jump, then runs in too far, and the ball sails over his head.

“Ayyyyy,” some of the men groan with disgust and embarrassment.

“Forget it!” Jorges shouts out to Hernandez, waving him in, trying to protect his friend from further humiliation.  “Forget it and come in.”

“No,” Hernandez shouts, straightening his back.  “No.  Hit me another one.  Not so easy this time.  Hit me a tough one this time!”

“I said forget it!” Jorges bellows, thumping the bat’s barrel on the caked dirt.  “Come in and have a beer, Hernandez.  The game’s over.  It’s not a time for playing ball.”

Una mas!” Hernandez demands.  “One more!”

“Damn him,” Jorges mutters.  “He’s a stubborn old son of a bitch,” he says, apologizing to the scout, who has already taken a step or two toward the entrance gate.  Then Jorges lifts the bat one more time, looks at Hernandez, tosses the ball in the air and takes a big swing.

In left field, Hernandez sees the ball rise up into the air from the circle of men, a tiny silhouette in the orange glow of the low sun.  He turns and begins to run backwards, and for a moment, he seems to lose the ball in the sun’s glare.  But he keeps running anyway, not seeing it, still somehow seeing it at the same time.  The ball seems to be hit right at him but deep, deep.  He knows he must run a long ways to catch this ball; he must run across centuries, across continents, across time in order to reach this one.  He is neither old nor young any more.  As he runs, he hears is the raspy sound of his own panting breath, hears the hush of his dulled steel cleats in the soil, the pounding of blood in his arteries.  He hears the cheers of his teammates by the grandstand, and beyond that, faintly, he thinks he hears the chanting of his ancestors—the high priests—at the altar of the pyramid.

He keeps running and running until he wonders if maybe he’s passed right through the wall—like a spirit—and is still running, beyond the petty, rusty, wind-swept, crumbling stadium, beyond his homeland, beyond El Norte and all its wealth, even, and onto another field.

The ball seems to be just out of reach.  Just out of reach:  like everything else in this world.  Jorge and the onlookers watch, shaking their heads.

It’s then that the ball begins to drop from the circle of the sun.  It’s then that Hernandez squints and recognizes it again:  a leather sphere, a beautiful, symmetrical planet, a world he has to catch before it falls and touches the ordinary, petty, pebbled dirt, a world he has to catch before it self-destructs, leaving only a scuff mark, a puff of dust on the dry plain of the universe.  So he gathers all his strength and leaps, and the leap takes him farther than he ever jumped.  The leap feels good and fine, swift and sure as lightning.  He leaps into his future, and descends to the earth, and as he does, he takes something with him.

He takes with him a wish.  It’s a wish that— instead of the hard-packed soil and the chunk of concrete rock rising to meet the side of his head—the  field was made of something softer, something green and flowing, something that would embrace him after all these years.  And as he comes back to earth one last time, his ancestors are there, waiting for him, smiling from among the lush blades of grass and the tall, tall corn.

 

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

 Bill Meissner’s first novel, Spirits in the Grass, about a small town ballplayer who finds the remains of a Native American burial ground on a baseball field, won the Midwest book award. He has won numerous awards for his writing, including PEN/NEA Syndicated Fiction Awards. He is the author of two previous books of fiction, Hitting into the Wind and The Road to Cosmos (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006) and four books of poetry, including American Compass (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004). He is director of Creative Writing at St. Cloud State University.  He loves traveling in Mexico–including San Miguel de Allende–and has visited Merida on two occasions. The Descending God was inspired by a Playa Del Carmen Municipales baseball game at their home stadium, which is now demolished.  To learn more about Bill Meissner and his books, please visit his website at http://web.stcloudstate.edu/wjmeissner.

 

Art by Judith Shaw

judithshawart.com

 

 

Standard
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

Standard