Baseball at the Fork

LookEarly in the spring semester, in the middle of eighth grade, Carlos moved from Oriente, Cuba’s easternmost province, to Habana. He brought the rains with him as it poured for weeks after he arrived. At school, he kept to himself during recess. He sat alone under the overhang outside the classroom, running the risk of getting hit on the head, by falling plaster. He stared at the park across the street while curtains of water dropped loudly at his feet, just beyond the concrete steps. The coolness of the rain reminded him of home.

Where he came from, most people were dark like him. He thought of that often because he was now the only black kid in his class. As his parents often reminded him, Carlos believed that the mere color and sheen of his azabache skin warded off evil. But it did little for the void left behind when no one made much of an attempt to talk to him.

The first day after the rains passed and the skies cleared, the morning recess bell rang. Carlos watched all the kids bolt out to the yard like racehorses from the starting gate. He followed them out. The grass, where all the boys gathered to pick sides for a baseball game, remained spongy and moist underfoot. He stopped and leaned on the round cement column holding up the overhang at the edge of the walkway outside the classroom. The girls grouped nearby pointed at them and giggled. No one considered picking Carlos, and the girls didn’t point at him either. He slid down the column into a squat and ran his fingers along the edges of the wide, dewy leaves of grass.

Carlos saw that the first person picked at game time was Jaime, a redhead kid with bucked teeth and a purple birthmark the size of a thumb right above his left eye. Jaime wasn’t too coordinated but he was the one that brought the tennis ball they used for the game. Carlos knew that was important. It’d been ten years since the Revolution, and still there were few real baseballs to be had. A tennis ball was the closest thing to it.

The games went on for a couple of days. The teams remained the same playing the best of three or five games until a team won. Then they picked sides again and started all over. For Carlos, baseball was like religion. He swore that he learned balls and strikes before he learned to say Papá. Still no one picked him, and he just stood there, and watched.

On the third day, Jaime didn’t show up to school. During recess the kids wondered out loud what they would do if Jaime didn’t come back. Carlos heard some of them say that Jaime and his family had left the country. He decided to speak at last.

“I have a baseball.”

He may as well have said that he was Superman; everyone stopped and walked over to him. Rene, the tallest of all the kids, with a crew cut, and long sinewy arms said, “What do you mean you have a baseball? A real baseball?”

He’d noticed that Rene had the habit of scratching his temple whenever he spoke.

Carlos hesitated. “Yeah, a real baseball. In fact I have two,” he said. His voice rose at the end. By then Carlos knew that people from Habana didn’t speak like him. Like everyone from Oriente, he spoke slower, with an almost musical tone. He’d learned that in Habana the language was spoken fast and choppy with plenty of posturing, and hand waving.

Rene, his index finger reaching for his temple said, “There is no way. You just got here from the provinces. No one from there has one, let alone two real baseballs.”

“Shit! I got two balls too, you don’t hear me bragging about it,” said Jorge, the only portly kid in the class.

“We ain’t talking about those balls Jorge. Besides, I hear yours are still bald and missing the stitching,” Rene said.

Jorge shot back. “It didn’t seem to bother you when you were playing with them.”

Carlos laughed with the rest of the kids. Rene, his lips pressed tight turned and glared back at him, “You don’t know me well enough to laugh at that.”

Carlos pulled back his laugh into a reluctant smile. Slipping his hands into his pockets he stared over Rene’s shoulder into the distance.

Rene looked down at him, “I think you are full of shit. I don’t think there are two baseballs in all of Oriente.”

“If there are, I’ve got both of them.”

“You think you’re funny?” Rene stood erect and pushed his chest out.

“No. I’m just telling you the truth. I have bats too.”

“Wood bats?” Rene retreated, this time scratching harder just above his ear.

“Yeah.”

“What else you got?”

“Catcher’s stuff. Shin guards, chest protector, and a mask.”

Rene looked back at the rest of the kids, their eyes wide, and their mouths open as if wanting to swallow the whole idea. No one knew exactly what to say until Armando, who they called Mando, a mild mannered kid, always measured and never abrupt, seemed to struggle to contain his excitement “Where do you live?”

Mando, with blondish hair and a fine angular face, tended to wear his pants a little tight over his slender legs. To Carlos, he appeared to be older and more mature than the rest of the boys.

“Why do you need to know that?” Carlos said.

“No reason. Just wondered.”

“On 187th street right at the corner where the number 50 bus turns to leave town.”

“I live right around the corner from you.”

Carlos already knew this. He’d seen Mando on his way home at times, but he always kept his distance.

The bell rang and Mando strode alongside Carlos. “How did you come up with all that equipment?”

“My Dad.”

“Nice, I wish my dad got me those things.”

Carlos wondered if he should have admitted to having all that stuff. He resented the fact that he had to move to Habana and leave all of his childhood friends and memories behind. He always thought he would return but after the long, butt-numbing train-ride to Habana, he knew it would be a while before he did so. So he was stuck here with all these strange white kids, trying to start a new life. He’d considered keeping it all to himself but he was tired of being left out of the games.

After school that day, Mando and Carlos walked along 187th. Most of the other kids waited for the bus. When the bus passed, Rene hung out the bus window and yelled something at the two of them. Mando flipped his middle finger at him.

“Is he as tough as he pretends?” Carlos asked.

“He’s big, that’s all. Everybody is afraid of him. But you did good.”

“What do you mean?”

“You didn’t back down.”

“I’m not afraid of him.”

Carlos wasn’t altogether fearless. But what fear he felt had less to do with people than with places. His fear was about forgetting home.

“It showed,” Mando said.

They walked side by side in silence for about a block before Mando asked, “You miss home?”

“I do.”

Habana gave him the impression of a place that stood on the reputation of its long gone cosmopolitan beauty, the one that he sometimes heard his parents and their friends talk about. To him it was just crowded and grimy. And it didn’t smell like home, where the air was crisp and clear. He missed the view of the mountains piercing the bluest of skies and the lushness of all the green that surrounded him in Oriente, where everything seemed pure, true, and honest.

“What do you miss?”

“Everything.”

The people in Habana didn’t seem as friendly. He thought Mando was nice. But he couldn’t help but wonder why he hadn’t talked to him before he told them about the baseball equipment. Was it because he was new or because he was black? He thought about it and chose to believe that Mando was just shy.

“Do you think you can bring some of the baseball stuff to school?”

“I don’t think so. It’s too much to carry.”

“I can help you if you want.”

“Thanks, but no.”

“How about we play on the weekend?”

“That’s a better idea. Where?”

“At the fork. Near your house.”

“On the street?”

He didn’t like the idea of the ball getting scuffed on the asphalt. The pristine white hide and the red stitching getting worn and the ball falling apart. How would he explain that to his father? He wasn’t sure that it was a good idea but now that he told everyone about it. He had no choice.

The following Saturday, early in the morning, Carlos threw all the equipment into a large canvas bag and headed to the fork. It was still early but by the time he got there kids were already sitting on the curb waiting. Rene with his back to Carlos, stood over them talking and waving his arms around like a bird about to take flight or a hurricane gathering wind. Rene stopped, when he noticed all the kids looked past him, when Carlos approached.

“You guys ready?” Carlos said.

Mando sat on the curb with his glove on. He remained seated as the other kids crowded around Carlos and his bag. Carlos reached inside the bag and brought out the whitest, roundest, most beautiful baseball any of them had ever seen. They all reached to touch it. Rene scowled at them. Carlos tossed it to Mando, who grinned as he caught it. He took it from his glove, turned it, and held it up to the sun.

They chose sides. Rene and Mando were the captains. Mando selected first. He pointed at Carlos.

“We’ll be Industriales,” Rene declared with a finality that left no room for argument. Carlos wasn’t a fan of them but he knew Industriales was Habana’s favorite baseball team, perpetually in the running to win it all.

“We’ll be Orientales,” Carlos said.

“Of course, you would want to be them. But you’re in Habana now, Oriente.”

“We hate Orientales.” Carlos couldn’t tell if that was meant for people from Oriente in general, or the team Orientales.

Mando said, “Sorry friend, we can be any team but that one.”

Carlos looked around at the other kids. They shook their heads.

“They suck,” said one.

“No way,” said another.

A third shouted, “If you’re going to be them, don’t pick me. I ain’t playing for them.”
They went with Azucareros, not a Havana team, but one of the better teams in the league.

Mando set the lineup; Carlos would bat seventh and play right field. He knew that fewer balls were hit to right field than anywhere else. It was where teams placed their worst player. He didn’t belong there. He was better than seventh place in the lineup but he didn’t argue. Mando put on the oversize catcher’s mask and chest protector. Carlos tightened the straps in the back and tapped Mando’s head when he finished. When he turned back to Carlos, not even the metal web across the front of the mask could hide Mando’s smile. Mando punched his catcher’s mitt repeatedly, and yelled, “Let’s play.”

Rene’s team batted first. The first two batters bounced out. Then Rene came to bat. Carlos watched Rene retrieve the bat, wrap his hands about the knob, and lift it high in the air. Rene eyed it as if witnessing something holy about to ascend. He stepped into the batters box and seemed to transform into a different person from the mouthy kid he tried to be, narrowing his eyes and tilting his head with a serious look that Carlos hadn’t seen before. His batting stance was symmetrical and balanced. He gripped the bat tight and held it high and still, with the top hand slightly lose. Rene took the first pitch. He swung at the second pitch and missed. He stepped back and slid his hand along the barrel of the bat with a gentleness that belied his effortless, yet savage swing. Rapt by how calm and confident Rene looked, Carlos thought this was exactly where he belonged. When he finally swung, the ball jumped off the bat with the hollow, compact sound that comes only when the ball strikes the meatiest part of the barrel. All the kids turned their heads to watch the flight of the ball, like a white comet streak across the afternoon sky. Rene, his stride as graceful as his swing, trotted around the bases while the ball rolled down the street, chased by the center fielder.

Carlo’s first turn at bat came in the third inning. As he approached the plate he glanced at Rene, who was playing third base.

Rene looked back at him, took two steps closer to home plate, and said, “You can’t hit it by me, Oriente. Orientales can’t play, that’s why they’re always in last place.”
Something in Carlos’ stomach boiled up into his chest. He picked up the bat and felt the handle still moist from the previous batter who’d just struck out. He grabbed the head of the bat, slid the handle up and down between his legs, pressing his inner thighs tight to dry it. He stepped into the batter’s box, felt the weight of the lumber sway as he shook his bat like he’d seen Marquetti – the league’s home run leader – do on TV. On the first pitch, Carlos swung so violently that he almost fell, lining the ball hard past Rene, whose quick reflexes weren’t enough to make the catch. As he rounded first base on his way to second, he looked over to third. Rene had the same stern look of concentration, he’d had when came to bat. He tapped his glove and looked to second base where Carlos stood as the ball came back to him. The next hitter hit a long fly ball and Carlos raced home and felt Rene’s eyes on him as he ran past.

Carlos saw the awe in the kids’ eyes each time they handled the baseball, a real baseball, for the first time. They often threw late to the base, because they held onto to the ball too long. Long enough to sense the smoothness of the hide, the preciseness of the stitching. He saw other kids tap the ground with the bat before waiting for the pitch, mimicking their favorite players.

Carlos was aware that most of them and their families were waiting for their turn to leave the country. He wondered if making friends was worth it. Eventually they’d all be gone, and they’d feel what he was feeling. Maybe then, they would understand him. He’d already left his home.

They played until the sun went down and could no longer see the ball, which by then was scuffed, just as Carlos had feared. He thought the ball could last a few more games. But maybe it wouldn’t, maybe it would all come apart.

The game ended and Carlos was left alone to pick up and pack the equipment on his own. Even Mando left, claiming that he had to be home for dinner. The fork was mostly dark by then, save for a single yellow, flickering streetlight overhead. He gathered the catcher’s gear, the bats, what was left of the ball, and dropped it all in the bag, which seemed heavier than before. His lone shadow disappeared as he walked out from under the light to make his way home. He heard people talking when he walked past half-lit houses.
Back in Oriente, he never went home alone after playing. Angel, his best friend, always helped him bring the gear home – granted maybe Angel was hoping that he’d gift him a ball, but Carlos never did. While Carlos was satisfied that his team won most of the games that afternoon, there wouldn’t be more games. It was best not to risk ruining another ball, not unless they played the game on grass. He couldn’t imagine where that would be. Habana seemed to be all concrete, asphalt, and full of people that didn’t look him in the eyes. He missed his friend Angel’s laughter, a rail of a kid with misaligned teeth that he displayed proudly each time he smiled, something he often did, and a cowlick of matted hair that covered most of his forehead. He remembered Angel joking and laughing when they had duck and cover drills at school, preparing for the inevitable Yanqui bombing. “I don’t get it,” he said. “This desk doesn’t even protect me from your farts!”
Carlos missed home more each day. He didn’t quite understand why his family had moved at all. It had something to do with his father’s job, but he didn’t care. Why couldn’t he have stayed back with his aunt, or his grandmother?
“They don’t need the burden,” his father Bebo, an imposing, muscular black man with a thunderous voice told him when he asked.
He’d heard of some people leaving for Habana, and some leaving the country altogether. But no one he knew. It didn’t make a difference, leaving home was leaving home.

“It’s not the same,” Bebo had said. “If you leave the country, you’ll need to learn a new language. Besides, you’ve seen on TV how they treat blacks in the US, why would you want to go there?”

He’d seen news clips of black people marching and being sprayed with water hoses (which actually looked like fun) and chased by dogs, while the lily-white commentators denounced the racist Yanquis. But it was all like a movie, the people, just like everything else in it, seemed like muted versions of black or white. It just didn’t seem real. His world was filled with color and he knew that the people he lived with, and among, were more colorful and vibrant than those pale shades of grey he saw on television. In that sense he didn’t have any desire to go either. But he remembered going on a field trip to see the fence that separated the US base in Guantanamo, from the rest of Cuba. He wondered how it was that there was another country inside his own. From a distance, it seemed like the rest of Oriente. And it looked peaceful and quiet, unlike what he heard and saw on the news. The Yanquis didn’t seem so bad to him.

Carlos arrived at his house, sweaty and hot, with his shirt draped over his shoulder. With a hall that ran from front to back, through all the rooms except the bathroom, which was off to one side, the house reminded Carlos of his train ride to Habana. He walked into the living room where he never sat, through the beaded curtain that led into his parent’s dreary bedroom and past the bathroom — the only place where he could find privacy, and consequently where he did most of his thinking. He pulled the cloth curtain at the end of the hall aside, and walked into the kitchen. He found Bebo sitting at the table across from Carlos’ mother Amalia. His bedroom, just beyond the kitchen, with a single barred window high up on the wall facing the house next door, rarely got any sun. This arrangement was familiar. Their house in Oriente had a similar layout, except that his bedroom there had a larger window and was bright most of the day. He missed that too.

“Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you to eat dinner,” his mother said.

“Playing baseball.”

“I can see that,” Bebo said. “Go ahead and clean up so that you can sit down and eat.”
Carlos dropped the canvas bag in his room, washed his hands, and sat at the table. Amalia brought out a pot of black beans. Unlike Bebo, Amalia was short and slender. Sometimes Carlos wondered what people thought when they saw his parents together, he large and imposing, she short and skinny. Even to him, they were an unlikely couple.

“Who won?” Bebo asked.

“We did,” said Carlos. He didn’t tell him about the ball that was ruined on the street. He didn’t want to hear his father raise his voice and warn him, as he had many times before, that he didn’t have an endless supply. “I don’t think that we’ll play again though.”
Bebo put down his fork, “Why do you say that?”

“They don’t like me,” he said.

“Of course they do. You got all the equipment.”

Amalia reached for the rice and spooned some onto Carlo’s plate, who immediately took a mouthful. “That’s not a good reason to like someone, Bebo,” she said.

“It’s a way to at least get to know them.”

Carlos, still chewing said, “I don’t want them to like me just for that. Besides, they’re all leaving anyway.”

Gusanos! Que se vayan! We don’t need them,” Bebo said. “And don’t talk with your mouthful.”

Amalia tightened and gave Bebo a determined stare. “ Bebo, don’t talk about them like that. I’m sure they have their reasons for wanting to leave.”

“There is never a valid reason for deserting your country. Period,” Bebo snapped. An ominous silence fell over the table as they ate. Carlos avoided their eyes. He toyed with his rice, pushing it from one edge of his plate to the other.

“How’s that different from leaving home like we did?” Carlos said, shattering the silence.
Bebo’s breathing shallowed. “It’s much different,” he said raising his voice. “Do you understand, Carlos? Leaving Oriente is not leaving Cuba. It’s not betraying your country.”

For Carlos it wasn’t all that different. He knew of no other country but Oriente. Bebo spent his life going to work and back everyday. In a way, he was still connected to home through his work. His work afforded him certain privileges – like the baseball equipment he secured for Carlos – but he had yet to notice their obvious isolation, or simply denied it. Amalia who was not the type to contradict her husband said, “It’s not, but in some ways it is betraying family, isn’t it? We’re all alone here and they’re all alone there. They depended on us.”

Bebo had accepted the transfer to Habana without talking to Amalia. “The Revolution needs me there,” he’d said, “and the decision is final.” Carlos understood that a wife had to follow her husband. It was just the way things were. But he also saw how her silent protests seemed to consume a part of her. She lost weight and seemed less certain, and more strained. Carlos on the other hand, felt that as a man himself, he shouldn’t have had to go along. But he wasn’t given a choice.

“I didn’t want to come here,” Carlos said. “You made me.”

Amalia normally would have stopped Carlos, admonished him for disrespecting his father, but not this time. Bebo on the other hand took to his power and simply said, “Well, I’m the man of this house. I decide what goes and what comes, and where it goes and where it comes from. That’s enough. Let me eat in peace.”

That night, after his parents went to sleep, Carlos went into the bathroom, locked the door, and sat on the toilet. He had no need. He just needed to think. He wondered about the word gusano. Why would they call people that when they left the country? Is that how Angel now saw him, as a worm, because he left him behind? He had an explanation: He would tell Angel that he didn’t have a choice, that his father made him do it, to help the Revolution. Angel would understand. He also thought about how betrayal had many forms, and the reasons for it were hard to understand.

He stared into the dark. His skin felt sticky, no breeze that night anywhere. He could hear trucks and buses thunder by every so often. The floor shook when the trucks struck the deep holes on the street outside. How different his life was, even the night sounds were alien to him.

Maybe his father was right. The baseball equipment was just a way to make friends. But he wanted more. He wanted the other boys to be different, more like the kids in Oriente. Maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned the baseball equipment to them, but now that he did, would he be able to take it all back? Would they not speak to him again if he did?

The next day in school all the kids talked about how great it was to finally play with wooden bats and real baseballs. Mando told him not to worry about the ball, that they would find a park to play the games. The club across the street from their school with its neglected squash and basketball courts and empty pool, did have a large expanse of grass where they could play after school.

Mando asked, “So when are we doing it again?”

Carlos paused. Dark, cumulus clouds gathered and climbed overhead like rising white smoke, they towered high above them, and soon the wind kicked up. He sighed, “My father took it all back.”

Rene reached for his temple, “What?” he said.

“He got upset that we messed up the baseball.”

“Oh come on,” Mando said. “Can’t you talk to him?”

“You don’t know my father,” he said.

He walked away from them. Rene followed. Carlos sat on the steps, under the overhang. Rene walked in front of him, looked in his eyes, and pointed to him. “Your father has no idea what a good player you are,” he said.

Carlos shrugged.

“He’ll know it when we make the National Team.”

“We?” Carlos said.

“You and me.”

Rene stepped away and sat beside him, resting his elbows on his thighs, and letting his hands hang loose. The two of them fixed their eyes straight ahead.

The air felt crisp and cool. Carlos smelled the showers coming.

A moment later the clouds cracked open and water came down hard, striking the ground like transparent spikes, drowning everything, and streaming past their feet.

They sat. They listened. They watched the rain.