Fiction

Karl Wallenda’s Watch

by Bill Meissner

 

 

Each step should be precise and tight and complete, he thinks,

the sides of the foot cupped around the wire as you walk the toward

the middle. Each step should be graceful and exact, and so

silent that you can hear the gasps of the crowd below, a sound

like fluttering wings.

 

The dream fades from Chance’s mind. He finds himself in a

circus museum, staring through a glass display case. Inside it is

the wrist watch Karl Wallenda wore when he fell to his death.

“Look,” he says to the woman he loves, who tours the museum with

him on their weekend getaway, “It’s Wallenda’s watch.” But

when he turns toward her, he sees that she has walked further down

the display and doesn’t hear him above the off-key circus music

piped through the overhead speakers. “Look,” he says again, but

she’s already turned the corner and entered another room of the

display. It bothers him lately that, he never seems to speak to

her at the right time, and that she never seems to hear him.

 

For the past couple of years, Chance has had the recurring

dream of walking a tightrope, a silver wire strung over a dark

canyon. In the dream, he’s standing on the brightly painted red and

yellow plywood platform, concentrating on the wire that’s perfectly motionless,

like a silver crack in the sky. He places his first shivering

bare foot on it and leans his weight forward. He knows the crowd

is down there, their upturned faces like pebbles at the bottom of a

clear stream, but he doesn’t look at them. He follows with his

left foot, and he lets go of the support ropes on the platform as

drops of sweat burn his eyes. Before he knows it, he’s halfway

across, staring straight ahead as he knows he must, the soles of

his feet finding the wire ahead of him. In the dream, he always

thinks how it’s easier than he thought it would be—this being

halfway. He’s an artist now, and it’s a slow, graceful float over

the canyon below, as if he were a bird, gliding. Before he

realizes it, he’s almost to the gray platform on the other side.

That’s when the wire begins to waver, as if there’s an earthquake,

as if the whole earth is shifting its weight left, then right, then

left.

 

At that moment the wire suddenly widens and flattens and

Chance wakes in a bed next to the woman he loves, and he feels the

sweat on his face, the adrenalin making his heart squeeze hard like

a fist grasping to hold on to something.

 

He always wakes at that moment when the wire wavers.

 

He never knows if he falls, or if he makes those final

steps onto the other platform, never has the chance to hear

the applause from the tense audience, gathered below at the edges

of the canyon. He sits up in a bed that’s still and solid and

unmoving. And when he leans over and kisses her, it finally brings

him back to pure, sweet consciousness.

 

* * *

 

One night, when he woke from his dream, his kiss woke her.

 

“Why did you kiss me?” Grace whispered.

 

“So I know I’m not falling,” he said.

 

“Falling?” she said, her sleepy voice becoming more practical.

 

“Why would you be falling?”

 

He never answered her question, didn’t really how to respond.

 

After all, he’s never told her about this recurring dream; he just

keeps the falling inside himself, where it belongs.

 

* * *

 

Today, in the museum, Chance stares through the glass case at the

pictures of The Flying Wallendas, sees them on bicycles on the wire, sees

the famous seven-person chair pyramid, a tight-rope act which they performed

without a net. The pyramid collapsed one day, dropping several

of the family members to their deaths. He cringes when he reads

the placard which describes the accident. Chance wonders a lot lately

about life’s straight lines that seem to lead you forward, and the

way you have to balance to stay on. He tries not to think about

falling off. He is always honest with himself except when it comes

to the falling.

 

The placard describes how Karl Wallenda—known as The

Great Wallenda—was injured in the incident and,

and, after recuperating, got back on the high wire again.

All the survivors stepped back on the wire again to perform

more circus shows. What must have been going through their minds

when they climbed back onto that wooden platform and touched their

toe to the wire again? Chance wonders. They couldn’t have allowed

their minds any image of that deadly fall. All they could possibly

think was toe to wire, next step, next step. That’s the only way

to approach it, he thought: one step after the other, shoulders

arched back proudly. Never a thought of the darkness below.

Confidence was their only net.

 

At the front of the display case is the watch worn by The

Great Wallenda at the time of his death. Chance can hardly get

himself to study it, but he forces himself: It’s a simple watch,

with a plain black leather wristband and a small, delicate silver

watchface. Chance is amazed that the crystal of the watch is not

cracked or broken. The placard tells that Karl, at age 73, walked between

two ten-story buildings in Puerto Rico when a sudden gust of wind

caused the wire to sway. He was holding his balance pole, but that

didn’t help—the pole suddenly tilted to one side, pulling him, and he fell.

Chance pictures the moment: Karl’s outstretched fingertips

reaching for a wire which might as well have been a thousand miles

away.

 

He wonders: What went through Karl’s mind as he fell to the

pavement 121 feet below? Did he close his eyes? Did he

concentrate with all his powers, trying to transform solid concrete

into a layer of sponge? Did he hear someone in the audience call out to him,

a soft voice, as if to break his fall? Or did he simply accept

that this was his fate: to be destroyed by what he loved most, and

to know that if he had the chance to live his life again, he would

climb back on that wire. He would climb back on it again and

again. He would do what he loved, no matter if his fragile bones

shattered a thousand times.

 

The hands of Wallenda’s watch read ten after twelve. As he stares

at it, Chance wonders: did the watch stop at ten after twelve, exactly

at the moment when the pavement rushed up to meet Karl? Or did it

keep running for a while, pulling Karl’s spirit into the future for

a few minutes or hours before it finally wound down?

 

Chance’s mind races—he wants to ask Grace these questions,

he wants to tell her his dream, but she’s already walked further

along the circus displays and has turned the corner into the next

room. As he walks down the narrow, picture-lined hallway to look

for her, he finds himself placing one foot in front of the other,

delicately, along a seam in the concrete floor.

 

When he turns the corner, she’s there, standing in front of a

brightly painted red and yellow circus wagon. She looks up at him,

her eyes large, blue, two pools of sky.

 

“What’s wrong, Chance?” she asks, her voice melodic. “You

look pale, like something terrible happened.”

 

“It did,” he says. “The Great Wallenda died. He fell from

the wire and was killed.”

 

A puzzled look washes across her face. She puts her hand on

his shoulder. “I know that,” she says. “But that was a long time

ago. You say it like it just happened.”

 

He looks down at his feet and sighs. “I feel like it just

did. ”

 

He looks into her eyes and he wants to say more. She’s always

so certain about her career in business, confident about her life, her

direction, thinks Chance. He wishes he could explain everything

to her, but just like the Great Wallenda couldn’t find the wire as

he fell, he can’t find the right words.

 

* * *

 

Back at the motel, he tosses in the bed for a long time,

unable to sleep. He looks at his wrist, notices that he forgot to

take his watch off before bed. He stares at the face of the watch,

its faintly glowing hands already past two a.m..

 

He knows he might have the dream again when he falls asleep,

knows he might be taking those steps across the middle of the tightrope,

that, even though it’s only a few yards long, will seem to stretch into

infinity. One foot in front of the other with exact gracefulness,

and, when he approaches the far platform, everything will begin to

waver. Knows that he’ll suddenly look clumsy up there, not an

artist at all—his whole body wobbling like a top that’s lost its

spin, knows that the darkness might rise up from the canyon to

swallow him and that he’ll feel no balance, no balance at all.

But right now that doesn’t matter. Right now what matters is

that he’s close to the woman he loves. He slides his arms around

her, and kisses her cheek. She jolts slightly, as if waking.

 

“I was dreaming…” she whispers, her voice sounding suddenly

frail.

 

“Dreaming what?”

 

“I dreamt I was in the middle of a tightrope wire. It must

have been the museum. And what you said about Wallenda.” She

pulls back from him a moment and he sees, for the first time, a

fear, a doubt behind the beautiful, unbreakable bones of her face.

He hates to see that look on her face, but he loves her for it, too.

She clicks on the lamp, sits up in bed and seems to shiver.

He notices, for the first time, a slight tint of gray on the side

of her hair.

 

“Don’t worry,” he tries to assure her. “It was just a dream.”

 

He thinks maybe this is the time to tell her about his dream, about

the strange coincidence of common dreams, but then he decides that

maybe it would upset her more. So he keeps quiet about it. Maybe

he’ll tell her first thing in the morning, or on their long drive

home. The words will rush out, and he’ll tell her about Karl

Wallenda’s watch, and how far he fell, and how the crystal wasn’t

even shattered. And maybe she’ll tell him her worries, too, her

wavering. Maybe she’ll admit that her life, which always seemed

to stretch so far out in front of her when she was young, doesn’t

seem so endless any more. Maybe they’ll tell each other that

there’s no holding still, there’s no guarantee that, once they

reach the great middle, they won’t lose their balance and fall.

He clicks off the light, touches her hand and they embrace

across the canyon of the bed. He feels her breath on his sweating

neck, feels her thoughts intertwine with his like a strong, tight

cord, feels the tingle of static electricity in her skin.

He hears his voice, her voice calling out from a distance, as

if they were watching someone falling, or as if they themselves

were falling.

 

She sits up suddenly and says, “Talk to me.”

 

“About what?” he asks.

 

“Anything,” she sighs. “Just talk to me.”

 

For a few seconds, he doesn’t say a word, just closes his

eyes. It occurs to him that now, right now, is the time to talk

about everything. He pulls her tightly to him and feels her hands,

like nets, pulling him at the same moment. They balance there together,

as if it will always be this way between them: catching each other,

then falling, then catching each other again.

 

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

 

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].

“Karl Wallenda’s Watch” is included in Meissner’s newly-released chapbook of stories and poems, THE GLASS CARNIVAL, published by Paper Soul Press,  Pittsburgh, Pa.  [papersoulpress@gmail.com].

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

Three of Meissner’s poems and a trailer for SPIRITS IN THE GRASS are on youtube, accompanied by images and music.

 

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

Samuel46detail from  Merida Daytime by Samuel Barrera

 

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Poetry

The Barbie Revolutionaries

by Bill Meissner

In 1992, an activist group broke into the Mattel factory and
“switched the voice boxes of 300 Barbie Dolls and GI Joes”
–Boston Phoenix
[4/12/10 poems 2005]

How do you feel, Teen Talk Barbie, now that you can say
“Let’s go get em!” instead of “Math is hard?”
Do your slim arms and spindle legs feel
stronger and steroid-enhanced? Do you feel like you could punch
your way out of the clear showcase of your box?
Do you have the unexplainable urge to organize a commando raid
on the factories of American Girl dolls, to destroy them
before they reach the end of the assembly lines?

Equal rights, Barbie: now you can aim an M-16 at the enemy, too.
When the five-year-old girls in pink My Little Pony t-shirts
see you spring out of the box with that
black and green camouflage paint on your face,
how loud will they scream?
And what will their confused fathers say, staring at your anatomically
perfect body sheathed in a scanty dress,
when their daughters pull the voice box string and you growl:
“Dead men tell no lies!”

And Joe, does it puzzle you,
inside your explosion-bright cardboard barracks, why you suddenly
think about slipping on pink fatigues? Or when you picture yourself
browsing through a rack of prom dresses?
Do you feel your testosterone-starved triceps begin to sag?
Stacked with your platoon on the factory shelves,
you used to dream of bullets and blood,
but now it’s only lipstick cases and rouge.

Joe, you’ll permanently scar the little boys in Zubas
poised in back yard forts with plastic guns and mini-grenade launchers
when you command: “I like to go shopping with you!”

Barbie and Joe, how far will your voices carry?
In the next decades, there’ll be Baywatch Barbie, Malibu Barbie,
Lingerie Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, and if you study really really hard,
maybe even Math Barbie, but probably not Lady GaGa Barbie.
And Joe, for you there’ll be Desert Storm and Operation Iraq—
you’ve got plenty of fight left in your always-clenched fists.
You’ll have smart bombs and night vision: a whole new terror
waiting out there for you to destroy.

But until then, Barbie and Joe, you just lie
behind cellophane windows
until the tiny urgent hands, desperate for your model,
open the flaps and lift you out.
Then you’ll smile at them with pre-formed plastic lips,
just waiting for them to pull the string on all that silence.

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

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

Three of Meissner’s poems and a trailer for SPIRITS IN THE GRASS are on youtube, accompanied by images and music.

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

Angie23

photo by Angela M Campbell

(Editor’s note – When we last presented some of Bill’s poetry, we illustrated it with this photo. By coincidence, he had been working on a new collection, which includes The Barbie Revolutionaries, and here it is. It only seemed appropriate to reuse this photo.)

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Poetry

The Contortionist’s Teenage Daughters

by Bill Meissner
.
We are all high wire, all trapeze,
and he is always on the ground, wrapping himself
around himself. Come down,
He tells us. Girls can topple from those heights.
Enough tiptoeing and leaping, he says.
There’s not enough space for flying,
no room for more people in the air.

But Father, we answer, we want to be up here, where danger
holds us in its net. We love to be where we can feel
the stars, glimmering like sequins on our tights.

.
It’s a long ways to the hard sawdust below,
he replies. If I fell, my bones—like soft noodles—
would never break. But your bones are much too
thin, and made of glass.

.
We ask him: Father, how will we know what’s up there,
near the curve of the canvas sky, if we never climb?

.
No need to know, he replies. The air is too rare,
and the spotlights will blind you.
Look: on this solid wooden stage, I can shape my body to become
the slight waves on top of a calming pond,
or imitate the alphabet. Watch me: I can be all words at once,
but you, balanced on a wire, are only two: a gasp, or a scream.

.
When will we ever know how fast our hearts can race, we ask,
if all our lives we’re grounded like clumps of
children’s putty stuck to a sidewalk?

.
Just listen to your father, he calls:
let your spines ripple the way they’re supposed to.
Let exotic birds flutter and fly,
let them own the wind,
let them spiral
toward the sun, if they must.
You should just stay nearby, tying yourselves into bows of flesh,
soft pink gifts the world will admire.

.
Sorry, Father, we answer, but we can no longer hear you
with the rush of sunlight in our ears.
So we just pirouette, dancing on thin breaths of air.
Look—we turn our faces upward and smile, certain
about what we’ve suspected all along:
The sky is a place for girls,
and dreamers never fall.

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

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

Three of Meissner’s poems and a trailer for SPIRITS IN THE GRASS are on youtube, accompanied by images and music.

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

Angie23

photo by Angela M Campbell

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Poetry

Sunday Afternoon Musicians at Pancho Villa’s Restaurant & The Arrowhead

by Bill Meissner

.
SUNDAY AFTERNOON MUSICIANS
AT PANCHO VILLA’S RESTAURANT

The three caballeros lean into the song, their lips almost
touching the mics. Their guitars wake the small speakers
with loud chords—an upbeat melody,
words only in Espanol. On the cracked plaster wall,
posters of Pancho Villa and Che Guevara
watch over their shoulders.
Dressed in matching blue shirts splashed with pearl buttons,
the caballeros sway, their black cowboy hats rocking forward and back
like small fishing boats off the shore of Celestun.
Their harmonies are a little off key, but
we don’t mind, two gringos, sipping Dos Equus. We nod and listen,
feeling the bass guitar’s vibrations rise through the wood bar
and into our elbows while the scents of salsa, fried tortillas
and smoky chipotle wrap their arms around us.
Though we don’t speak their language, we wonder
if these are Mexican love songs.

Two small children—the boy in a starched shirt
and black pants, the girl in a lacy white only-for-church dress—
leave their parents’ table and begin to dance in the aisle.
Too young to know dance steps, they just bob and jump,
their faces lit with smiles that could stretch for miles.
Love songs, we think as we whisper, our lips almost touching.

After the gig, tres caballeros put their guitars to sleep
in black cases, then slide onto vinyl chairs
near the makeshift stage. The waitress lowers
a round of bloody Marys in tall frosted mugs filled to the rim.
The men toast, while, behind them, the boy and girl
keep hopping and dancing,
the music still playing inside them. They’ll dance
and dance long after the music is over.
And finally we’re sure of it: they’re love songs, all of them.

.
THE ARROWHEAD

Back from his hike, all Dad gave me was a chipped stone, its edges
like a jagged mountain range, so I’d know
the soil I walked on every day was deep. All he gave me
were words I didn’t understand: Ojibwe, Hochunk, Wonkshiek.
All he gave me was a stare, its point sharp enough to cut.

I was a junior high son who only thought about
hanging out with my buddies by the river, the growl
of mufflers on Chevys, the colors of the girls’ blouses in my class.
I knew just a dozen of years, not six or seven hundred.
I was a boy who lived in water, not in stone.

He ran his pudgy fingers over
the rose-colored surface. Like ripples,
almost, he said, his voice filled with awe. Like there’s a current, or
a wind blowing across it. He studied the stone
as though it could show him which direction to go.

Now his words are sealed over inside that quartz.
I hand it to my son, this stone,
pointed enough to draw blood. Beneath
his fingers its surface must feel
like ripples, almost.

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

Three of Meissner’s poems and a trailer for SPIRITS IN THE GRASS are on youtube, accompanied by images and music.

 

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

Kreso14art by Kreso Cavlovic

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Poetry

Where the Road Takes You

by Bill Meissner

 

You don’t need a map.

The moment you step out your door,

the road takes you where you need to go:

It leads you to ancient pyramids,

lifting their shoulders and rising from the mist, to

unearthed ceramic faces

waiting to open their eyes to you.

If the road narrows, and detours, follow it

through the green maze of a jungle,

to rivers that roll past

clear as the first sunlight.

Pause there.  Let your eyes drink.

 

If road turns to cobblestone, then walk on it

to villages where barefoot children circle you with laughter,

where women, selling dyed yarn, wrap

you in deep reds and blues and greens.

Let your mouth curl around the names

of places your lips have only tasted in dreams:

Uxmal.  Chichen Itza.  Tlaxiaco. Chichicastenago.

 

Carry each of the roads you’ve traveled along with you

in case you need to go back that way.  Keep them

in your dusty suitcase, tuck them

into the folds of your brain.

 

When you reach each destination,

touch it with your hand print, always remembering

that the closest distance between two points

is the space between your fingertips.

 

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

 

Bill Meissner 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. His first novel, SPIRITS IN THE GRASS, won the Midwest Book Award. Also, he loves traveling in Mexico–including San Miguel de Allende–and has visited Merida on two occasions. To learn more about Bill Meissner and his books, please visit his website at http://web.stcloudstate.edu/wjmeissner.

 

Art by Jim Fuess

 

 

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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

 

 

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Poetry

My Father the Contortionist and The Pen, The Poet, The Middle

by Bill Meissner

 

MY FATHER, THE CONTORTIONIST  

My father was a contortionist,

circling his hands until they became the smooth amber steering wheel

of a 1959 Rambler.

He traveled from town to town, bending himself around

a sales pitch for washing machines,

until the whitest shirts rose like genies from that enameled tub.

He hung from a clothesline for a moment, rippling in the breeze

just so customers would see what he meant.

My father was a contortionist, though

there were no sideshows, no gasping audiences:  only him,

stretching himself flat

along the endless asphalt highways of central Iowa.

At night, in a small motel, he’d disguise himself as

the buzzing neon tubes above the doorway.

Mornings at the cafe, he’d amaze the waitresses by diving

into his coffee cup, doing backstrokes in the brown whirlpool.

 

When he’d call during those long road trips,

Mom held the phone in her stiff, shaking fingers

as we three kids crowded around her.  We watched him squeeze himself

through a thin black wire and then emerge, large and whole,

right there in our pale green kitchen.

All day his deep voice would keep sounding from

toaster or dishpan or closet, easing our loneliness.

 

He was a contortionist, the smile on his lips arcing toward the sky

each time the car broke down, each time he lost a job,

each time he slid his body into a small cardboard box

and somehow moved himself

from house to rental house.

P.T. Barnum would have loved him and splashed his image

on a thirty-foot tall billboard:  The Amazing Traveling Salesman.

Watch him spread his body thin and transparent

 as a windshield, the barker with a megaphone might call,

     Thrill as he reaches out to the horizon and holds it still,

Be amazed as he drives an old car across the entire earth,

     proving that it’s flat, then

     returns home to circle his thick arms all the way around

     a house with a leaning front porch.

     Watch as he holds a family steady

     for the whole world to see.

 

And marvel as we hug him back, firmly but gently,

careful not to shatter the glass bones

we always knew were inside.

 

 

THE PEN, THE POET, THE MIDDLE

 

In the middle of my trip across the country,

my car got a flat tire, punctured by a

pen abandoned on the highway.

It was an ordinary blue Bic, but with a sharp point.

Waiting for a tow truck, I thought about how that pen might have

been trying to write something on my tread.

What it wanted to say, I’m not sure.  Maybe Slow

down.  Or else Speed up, you’re going too slowly.

 

Or perhaps it really didn’t plan to write anything at all.

Perhaps it was simply out of ink, the tip

of its stained mouth closed and silent after scribbling

hundreds of poems, and some wandering writer, traveling west, tossed

it out the window because it couldn’t say

what he or she needed to say.

 

But it wasn’t out of words.  As I pried it out of my tread,

like a surgeon pulling a bullet from a victim,

the pen snapped in half, and out seeped

a bleeding blue river, a

river that trickled at first, and then flowed,

branching into tributaries

on the finely-etched lines of my hand.  It seemed to

 

spell out an important but unreadable

word on my palm,

as if it still had a lot to say,

as if I still had a long ways to drive

gripping the wheel

with these blue and yearning hands.

 

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

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. Cloud State University 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

 two poems bill meissner_Painting Aurora Caro Eng detail from REGOCIJO

Painting: Aurora Caro Eng – detail from REGOCIJO

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