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