Excerpts from The Plátano Wars
A young boy named Willie Rosa uses his incredible baseball talent to cope with the challenges of immigration and assimilation in America.
The Stake Out (February 28, 2016)
Grand Street from Union to Bushwick was a busy stretch filled with small boutiques, travel agencies, furniture stores, driving schools, and several shoe and clothing stores. On any given Saturday, half of the Southside of Williamsburg would be out on the street shopping. When I first arrived years ago, many of the shopping bags had the Collado Brothers Supermarket logo on them. Yet, little by little, the Collado Supermarket bag was becoming extinct. There was a new king in town, Los Pesaos Supermarket bag.
Los Pesaos Supermarket was a hit with the neighborhood. The quality products and low prices were attractive. Candido, Negro, and Plinio made sure to get all the best foods and nothing stayed on the shelf for long. If food was not bought right away, it was thrown out as soon as it expired. There were some weeks the supermarket threw out more fruit than it sold. Candido used his connections to bring in meats and cheeses from Manhattan. Some customers could not even pronounce some of the foods like Foie Gras, Filet Mignon, and Pâté. Still they appreciated the lavish comfort at Los Pesaos as if they were in a Manhattan-style supermarket.
With every day that passed fewer people crossed the doorway of the Collado Supermarket. The place became outdated. There was no music. The canned food on the shelves was fine, but the fruit and vegetables in the stands were a mixed bag of young, past maturity, and old produce. The meats in the butcher’s display case were going from bloody red to muddy brown. To make matters worse, their store on Union, the one Plinio to sold Pablo, was also losing customers, because Negro was gone. They were now coming to Los Pesaos to get their favorite sandwiches.
Life could not have been better for Los Pesaos. The only problem was that in the first year of the store, there were seven break-ins. Two months into the new year there were three more. Plinio hated that the thieves were able to get around the security system but what really made him mad was that the thieves never stole anything. There was no money to rob. Plinio took the day’s earnings to the bank himself with a loaded pistol tucked into his pants. Instead the security cameras caught the masked criminals popping beers and sodas, ripping open bags of chips, knocking displays to the ground, stepping on fruit, and opening containers.
The police were called every time but there was nothing the cops could do except file reports and suggest that the store get better security. Seeing their product spilled on the floor was enough to make Candido, Negro, and Plinio take matters into their own hands. They decided to huddle up each night in their office in back of the butcher shop, hidden behind a reflective glass window. They took turns sleeping and keeping watch, each one with a fire arm. Plinio had a silver .38 revolver, Candido a .45, and Negro a sawed-off shotgun plus a machete sheathed into his belt. They maintained a righteous vigil for the crooks for over a month.
Meanwhile at home Jackie, Leonora, and I had our routine. Each night while Leonora made dinner, Jackie practiced his instruments, strumming rock songs on his guitar strings and clanging classical music on his electric piano. I worked out, doing push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, squats—any exercise that could be done in our room. I ran sprints with my shoes off in the hallway of our apartment so not to disturb the neighbors. I stood in front of the mirror practicing my swing, listening to Ricardo’s voice in my head breaking down every little detail from my stance to the way I held the bat. I pictured myself in Yankee stadium, my name resounding through the public address speakers as I stepped up to the plate. It was a silly dream to have, given that I wanted to leave New York, but if the Yankees did pick me up it would be worth staying. It was as clear as glass in my mind. I would play for the Yanks in the summer. Then when the season was over and fall gave way to the cold, dark days of winter, I’d pack up and head to Esperanza, where I would sit in a rocking chair at my grandparents’ house eating my grandmother’s cooking while a Caribbean breeze cooled my food.
When Leonora was done cooking, Jackie and I met her at the dinner table where there were four place settings. Leonora, unsure when the overnight vigils at the store would end, kept putting dinner out for Plinio whose food sat there getting cold. During dinner Leonora, Jackie, and I talked about our day. She told stories about interesting new customers who came in bakery, the new recipe she was perfecting. He went on about the new piece of music he was learning and the crazy teacher who wanted to blend all styles of music into one composition.
My contribution was small compared to Jackie or Leonora’s. My classes were boring except for my science class where we were building a model suspension bridge. “This family might have an engineer in it yet,” said Leonora with a smile. I told her stuff I thought she wanted to hear. I could not tell her that I spent most my days hammering some kid in the face or as a punching bag for Conan’s fists.
The more nights Plinio stayed away the more elaborate were our dinners. It started out simple at first, roasted chicken, bistec con cebollas, moro, mangú with fried cheese and onions. Then as the weeks passed, we began having perníl, turkey, baked ham, patelles, pastelillos, and pastelón. It was as if Leonora hoped that the sweet aroma of her food would travel the length of Union Avenue down to Grand Street, into Los Pesaos Supermarket, past the reflective glass of the office and into the nostrils of her man, lying on a hard concrete floor in a sleeping bag next to two other men, and bring him home.
One night she made lasagna, yellow rice, and coconut salmon for dinner. Leonora was staring at Plinio’s untouched plate when Jackie asked her what was wrong, Leonora looked at us. There was no one else to unburden herself to except us. “I’m worried about your father.”
“Ah, he’ll be fine,” I said, stuffing my face. “They’ve got guns.”
Leonora frowned and shook her finger at me. “Nothing good ever came from a gun.”
“What do you want them to do? Keep getting robbed? They’ve got to fight back,” I said.
“Oh really? Well sometimes men need to do some thinking before they go off and start trouble.” She tapped her head with her finger and she gave me this look like she knew about me. I worried that maybe I had not done a good job getting all the blood off my clothes. Maybe she no longer believed that my bruises came from boys simply playing too rough. We held each other’s gaze for a long time, probing, searching, neither of us wanting to look away first.
“You’re right mamí,” said Jackie. “But I’m sure papí will be alright. The thieves probably got tired of messing around and stopped breaking in. You’ll see. Papí will start coming home soon.”
Leonora leaned over and kissed him. “You’re right, mi’jo. This will all be over soon.” I huffed and stuffed a forkful of lasagna into my mouth. Leonora and I went back to staring at each other, as I wondered if Leonora believed her own reassurances.
Jomayra (January 31, 2016)
The fights continued all winter long. There were little pushing affairs where guys were more interested in barking at each other than actually throwing punches. There were one-on-one wrestling matches. There were fights that played to large crowds under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway or over by the park on Marcy Avenue and Metropolitan. Then there were the big clashes with three or four kids rumbling it out. Conan could be found in the middle of most these skirmishes, especially if one of Los Pesaos was involved. Most of the time, it broke down to just him and me going at it, beating the hell out of one another until someone broke it up. I left all of those encounters the loser, bloodied and bruised, achy and swollen. My only satisfaction came from knowing that at least I gave Conan some bruises of my own.
I was coming home one day after one of these fights, when I ran into Jomayra. She was at the top of the stairs on the third floor talking to one of the neighbors when she saw me laboring up the stairs.
She ran down to meet me. “Willie, what happened?”
“Nothing,” I said, trying to cover my face with my shoulder.
“Really? Well nothing sure bleeds, a lot.” She stuck her head under my arm and boosted me up. I was going to tell her to leave me alone but it felt good to have the support. Jomayra wanted to take me to her house but I did not want Juana Elena to see me all messed up. We walked up to my apartment where I had a system all set up to keep the fights from Plinio and Leonora. First, I would wash myself. Then I would use liquid laundry detergent to wash off any bloodstains from my clothes. Anything that did not come off with water and soap was blamed on the roughness of the other kids in gym class. Leonora had already threatened more than once to call the school and complain that my gym teacher was letting the boys be too rough with one another.
Jomayra helped clean me up. She insisted that I lay down on our couch. She stripped me down to my underwear and socks. I put up resistance at first but she was persistent and I was too banged up to care about her seeing me semi-naked. The cold plastic covering on the sofa cooled the inflamed welts on my back as Jomayra washed the bloodstains from my clothes in the bathroom. She came back with a pan of warm salt water to clean my face, arms, and back. Then she rubbed alcohol on my cuts.
“Coño, damn it that hurts,” I said.
“You were man enough to get the cut. Be man enough to take the medicine.”
“Fine, do it.” I did not make a sound, no matter how hard she pressed the alcohol soaked cotton into my lip. There was no mercy in her fingertips, but her large eyes told me it would be over soon.
When she was done, she flashed a bright sunshine smile. “There, all good.”
“Gracias doctora. Thank you doctor,” I got up and went to my room to get some clothes. Jomayra followed me. She stood at the door while I got dressed. She wondered out loud who I had been fighting.
“Take a guess,” I said.
“Jesus, it’s been months now. When is it gonna stop?” It was never going to stop, not as long as Conan and his boys keep messing with us. Conan and his guys went around school all day picking fights. If you walked down the hall and they were there, they messed with you. If you were on the lunch line, they would knock down your tray. You could not even go to the bathroom without one of them jumping you while you’ were peeing. “And you guys never pick fights?” she asked leaning on the doorframe with her hand on her hip. She was wearing her school uniform, a red pleated skirt, a white shirt, orange tie, and navy knee high socks and sweater that covered the two small hills in the valley of her chest.
“I’m not gonna say we never start stuff. Sometimes it’s payback for something they did to us. Sometimes it’s because one of them is ill grilling us.” I said putting on a fresh pair of jeans and a Yankees t-shirt. Jomayra looked at my beat up face and shook her head. She had never imagined that I would end up like a tiguere from the street, fighting all the time. To her I was so different.
“What happened to the kid with the innocent eyes I met on his first day in New York,” she wondered.
I shrugged. “That’s what happens when you put a house dog with the wolves.”
She came inside the room and hugged me. “You’re not an animal, Willie.” Her arms pressed against the black and blues on my back. I winced slightly. It felt weird having her touch me. I was going to pull away but instead I put my arms around her. My face burrowed into that patch of curls she had wrestled into a ponytail. She smelled like strawberries and I breathed deeply, taking in all I could, until a sensation inside me grew too intense and I had to wriggle free from her and out of the room.
Fight (January 24, 2016)
It was now summer vacation. My not going to school at Our Bishop of the First Church eventually blew over. I had threatened never to go to class if I was forced to go to school there, so I was allowed attend John Roebling instead.
Yet, I was only one of Plinio’s worries that summer. The supermarket had been broken into three times since the grand opening. One time the thieves got a few dollars. Canned goods were taken, displays overturned, and items on the shelves knocked to the ground. Another time, all the milk containers were opened, and cans of fruit and vegetables were spilled out onto the floor. The break-ins cost Plinio money, inventory, and time. He was forced to put in a security system with cameras, and the break-ins stopped for a little while.
The robberies made Plinio decide it was not the right time to take a vacation. Leonora agreed. Therefore there was no trip to Esperanza that summer. Their decision put me in a funk. I walked around the house without talking to people. Dinners went half eaten. Doors were slammed when I left or entered a room.
At my graduation from St. Michael’s, I spent most of my time hanging with the Cepeda twins and their folks. The only time I stood next to my family was for pictures. Despite the happy occasion, no one smiled in the Rosa family photographs. At the Chinese restaurant after the ceremony, we were so silent you would have sworn we were monks.
The only way I could exorcise the funk was to play baseball. I was back working out with Ricardo. This time I did not ask for permission. Plinio would not give it anyway so I went back to sneaking out of Jackie’s music lessons. This time around I insisted the twins be allowed to come with me. When Ricardo said yes, Conan demanded to bring his friends and he brought Raymond and Anthony.
The twins and I were still playing in the Collado Little League. It was our last year and we wanted to go out as champions. As usual, Ricardo worked us out hard, probably harder than it was legal to push teenagers. I thought the new guys were going to quit after that first day but they stuck with it. We were all eager to learn from Ricardo. We knew he had played in the Major Leagues. Anthony and Raymond asked him about it all the time but all Ricardo said was, “I was young. I had a fun time and it ended badly.”
The summer of 1988 Los Pesaos recovered from our awful start to become champs for the second time. Plinio and I didn’t speak throughout the whole season. During games I wouldn’t even look at him. Signs to steal a base or to hit-and-run had to come to me through another player. After we won the championship Los Pesaos went crazy hugging each other, jumping around, piling on top of one another, but even winning couldn’t melt the ice wall between Plinio and I. We stayed on opposite sides of the celebration—I hung with the twins, Speedy and his brother. Plinio stayed with some of the other guys on the team.
We lost again in Williamsport. That same reporter from the year before was back. The story this time was. “The young boys from Brooklyn lost once more to a team from the orient. Just like in yesteryear when those lovable bums from Brooklyn could not defeat their powerful rivals from the Bronx, for the second year in a row these kids from the Southside could not overcome the beasts from the East.”
The season ended. There were only a few weeks until the start of school. I kept practicing with Ricardo but instead of going one day a week, I went six. Five days a week it was just the two of us. I had asked Ricardo to keep it that way. I had a pain in me that could only be burned out in the fires of exhaustive workouts. Ricardo was happy to have a student to mold and I was happy to let him. He said hit, I swung with abandon until my wrists swelled. He said run and I ran until my lungs burned. He said jump and I tried to touch the clouds.
That fall I was a freshman at John Roebling. The twins and I met up and headed to school together. We were joined a bunch of kids heading in the same direction. We filed into a large red-bricked building like ants into a hill. Mr. Murray had placed me in the ESL program (it was the only free seat available), while the twins were in regular classes.
My class was filled with a few Ecuadorian kids, a handful of Mexicans, and a couple of Puerto Rican kids straight from the island. The rest of the class was Dominican. Except for a few words like, “hi,” “bye,” “yes mister”, and “no misses,” none of them spoke English. I felt foreign being among all those native Spanish speakers. I now spoke so much English that I didn’t notice how much it had become a part of me. It also didn’t occur to me how much Spanglish had crept into my speech until the other kids in the class started making fun of me for saying things like “rufo” for roof, “lonche, for lunch” “chequeate for check this”, “holopiar” for hold up, “aíscrim” For ice cream and “jotdog.” for hotdog. My class stayed in the same room all day, which made me feel trapped as I watched the other students go by the classroom door. I was set free when the lunch bell rang.
John Roebling’s lunchroom was segregated. Kids sat and ate with their own, Blacks with Blacks, Poles with Poles, Italians with Italians, Puerto Ricans with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans with Dominicans. The twins were already sitting at a long white table with Flaco and Gregorio and a bunch of other Dominican kids when I got there. At St. Michael’s there were only of few Dominican students sprinkled here and there. John Roebling had five times as many just in the lunchroom.
I settled down at our table when, on the other side of the lunchroom, I heard the familiar belly laugh of the giant redhead troll. Conan had also gotten into John Roebling with the help of his uncle. He was at the table with Anthony, Raymond, and some of the other Puerto Rican kids who used to go to St. Michael’s. Conan was in the middle of the group holding court like the king at a banquet. Even as a freshman he looked older than most boys. Over the summer he had grown taller and beefier. The trapezius muscles in his back had erased his neck. His thighs belonged on a thoroughbred, his arms on an ape. He’d grown almost a full mustache, which he was showing to a flock of cute girls. I had grown a bit too and while I wasn’t the walking hill of muscle that Conan was, all my workouts with Ricardo had turned me into a sinewy rod of steel with forearms like Popeye.
As the first few days passed, the two tables eyeballed each other from time to time. Neither side wanted anything to do with the other but we couldn’t help looking at what the other was doing. At our table we wondered why all those girls were hanging all over Conan. Some of the girls at our table said they understood. They thought Conan was sexy. “That troll is sexy?” I asked one girl and she nodded. Then she got up to join the other girls at Conan’s table. A smiling Conan welcomed the girls and invited one of them to touch his arm. As she squeezed his bicep, Conan gave us a screw-face.
“Why’s he looking over here?” asked Flaco, puffing up his chest like a rooster. “This isn’t elementary school anymore. I will fuck him up.” Flaco threw Conan a head nod and mouthed the word, “What?” Conan fired back a middle finger and that was all it took to relight old embers.
The fights started the third week of school, which all the time necessary for rumors and gossip to get around. The first squabble was between Flaco and Conan. It took place on a breezy afternoon in the teacher’s parking lot behind the school. Earlier that day, Gregorio had come by my classroom and waved at me to come out. I asked for the bathroom pass. In the hallway Gregorio hit me with news about Conan and Flaco. “They’re gonna fight after school,” said Gregorio. “Flaco needs us to catch his back, make sure the other Porto Rocks don’t jump in.”
“No problem, man. I’m in there like swimwear.” I had agreed to go but I wasn’t sure messing with Conan was in Flaco’s best interest. Conan was a house and Flaco was just a skinny dude. Gregorio tried to get Flaco to squash the conflict, but Flaco was tired of getting messed with.
They met in the parking lot. Word of the fight spread quickly throughout school. Kids came from everywhere. The twins and I, Gregorio, along with a few of the kids from our table in the lunchroom walked out of school with our boy Flaco. Conan and a bunch of his friends, including the ever faithful Raymond and Anthony, met us outside. Flaco and Conan faced off. They circled each other like two roosters, puffing up their chests and kicking up dirt. They threw insults at each other and made wild gestures with their arms inviting the other to come get it. Eventually Conan accepted Flaco’s invite. It was an unusually cold September day, but that didn’t stop Conan from taking off his shirt, revealing the mountain that was his body. He moved towards Flaco who jumped sideways to avoid the troll’s rush. Conan taunted Flaco with boos, which the boys on his side of the crowd echoed. He threw a few punches but Flaco kept his distance. I felt bad for Flaco. I wanted to jump in and help him, but that would have made him look soft, and in the concrete jungle it wasn’t good for the other animals to know you were scared. Conan kept making fun of Flaco who paid him no mind. Flaco just kept slip-sliding away every time Conan came at him.
“Aw man, he’s scared,” said Raymond.
“No, I ain’t,” said Flaco, turning his head towards Raymond. That was the opening Conan needed. He pounced on Flaco, raining down blows with his massive paws. All Flaco could do was cover himself up. Unfortunately his arms weren’t long enough to protect everywhere that Conan was hitting. If he blocked punches to his head, Conan punched his stomach. If he shielded his midsection, Conan rocked his head. Conan slapped Flaco in the face and taunted him to fight back. Flaco hit Conan back but the bigger kid barely felt it. Conan then cracked Flaco in the chest, in his abdomen, and his jaw. A bone crushing right-hand sent Flaco to the ground holding his guts. Then Conan jumped on top of Flaco. The slaughter everyone came to see was in full swing. Conan bloodied Flaco’s nose, opened a gash under his eye, and broke his lip wide open. Ten seconds later it was over. Flaco was beaten.
“That’s it. He’s done,” I yelled. Conan smiled. Any other kid would’ve shown mercy, but not Conan. The redheaded troll fed on pain and he wasn’t going to stop until he was satisfied. Flaco’s arms went limp. Now his jaw and nose ate all of Conan’s blows.
I rushed in and pushed Conan off Flaco. The crowd let out a low “ooh.” I pulled Flaco up to his feet. He was heavy and unable to steady his legs under himself. An angry Conan got up. “Yo son, who the fuck you pushing like that? I should smash your plátano face the way I did your boy.” I dared him to come and do it while, beefing up my chest, trying not to drop Flaco, who was spitting out both blood and curses at Conan.
That was all the provocation the Conan needed. He came at me, swinging both fists. I had to drop Flaco in order to protect myself from his bull-rush. After blocking several punches, I managed to land a nice clean shot to Conan’s left cheek that stopped him from coming forward. Then I landed a blast to his nose. This made Conan mad. He wasn’t used to being on the losing end of fights. He rushed me again, this time pushing me into poor Flaco who was trying to get crawl away from the danger. One of Conan’s paws slammed into my stomach, expelling all the air from body. He followed up by putting me in a headlock and hammering my face with punches. The crowd went crazy. Chants for more violence came from kids on each side of the conflict.
“Kill that plátano.”
“Smash that Goya bean.”
I started throwing punches up at Conan’s face and while he didn’t release the headlock it annoyed him enough to stop hitting me. He kept choking me. I felt his bicep pressing against the veins in my neck. Air started getting hard to come by and the world was becoming a dark shade of grey. I was losing. Worst off, I was losing to Conan. A burst of strength crept up my spine. I tried to break free from his hold. Grabbing his forearm, I pulled for dear life. I was able to loosen his grip and suck in some air, but I couldn’t get him off of me. He reapplied the hold deeper than before. I heard the twins chanting my name, urging me to fight, but their voices started trailing off into the distance and the world began losing its color. Just then Conan let out a giant roar. He let go of my neck. I collapsed to the ground to see Flaco biting Conan’s heel. Then Flaco grabbed the redhead’s ankles and held on for dear life. Conan was trapped. Still gasping for breath, I took advantage of the opportunity and started wailing on Conan’s head. I hit him over and over. White numbing pain ran up my hands, but with Conan reeling I didn’t dare stop.
Raymond and Anthony jumped in and started pushing me. They kicked Flaco in the ribs until he let go of their friend’s feet. The twins and Gregorio didn’t wait to be invited. They crashed the party, too. Soon boys from both sides got in into the fight. Fists flew everywhere. Boys were on the ground wrestling. There was biting, spitting, yelling, and cursing. I was in the middle trading, punches with Conan only my arms felt like wet noodles. Only blind hate kept me going. I wasn’t just fighting Conan; I was fighting Plinio and Leonora and their decision to rip me from my home, and my grandparents for letting them. I was fighting against this country, this prison nation, where I was trapped with kids like Conan, who hated me just for breathing. I fought to exist, to be acknowledged. I fought not to be run over or pushed to the side. I fought not to lose my language, my culture, and my music. I fought not to be made fun of for the food I ate, the clothes I wore, and the funny way I sounded when I spoke English. I fought because now that I was in this damn city for good, I wasn’t going to let anyone make me feel like I didn’t belong. “You have me now, America,” I thought. “You have to take all my good with all my bad.”
School security guards came running from the building blowing whistles and yelling into bullhorns for us to stop. The kids who were watching took off. Those of us who were fighting stopped and picked up the wounded. Swearing that it wasn’t over, we joined the mass students leaving the parking lot.
A Dog Day Afternoon (January 11, 2016)
A month later a letter arrived from Our Bishop of the First Church addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Rosa. Leonora sat at the dining table going through the mail when she saw it. The letter was in English. Leonora asked me to read it to her.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Rosa,
We are sorry to hear that Willie will not be attending Our Bishop of the First Church next fall as part of the freshman class of 1988. We hope that Willie will have great success at the school of his choice.
If Willie should change his mind Willie he can apply next year to be a member of our student body.
Monsignor William Johnson
Until that day I had not told Leonora and Plinio that I did not want to go to Our Bishop. I thought about bringing it up at the dinner table a few times or telling them before bed. Yet they were so happy about me going to Our Bishop that I could not find a way to break it to them. That letter from the school did the job for me. Leonora took the letter back and looked at it again. She figured a mistake had been made. She handed me the telephone and told me to call the school. I hung up the receiver and I took a deep breath. Then I confessed. Leonora stood with a gaping mouth but words did not come out. She looked at me as if I was a stranger. Then she pointed to my room.
When Jackie got home Leonora told him she did not want to hear any music and sent Jackie to our room too. Jackie came in wondering what was wrong. When I explained it to him he shook his head. “Our Bishop is a good school. Why don’t you want to go?” he asked.
“I don’t know anybody there.”
“Jomayra is going there,” said Jackie. It was true that Jomayra had gotten into Our Bishop on a full academic scholarship. Yet while I liked hanging out with her, she was not enough. If for some reason I was going to be trapped in this country for four more years then I was going to damn well do it at a place where I had some friends.
That night Plinio came home to an empty dining table. Leonora sat in the living room sofa staring into space. Without saying a word she handed him the letter. Unable to read it Plinio called Jackie. A few minutes later Plinio called me into the living room. The three of them were sitting on the sofa, Plinio and Leonora on the cushions, Jackie on the arm. Plinio held the letter demanding explanation. Dissatisfied with my answer, Plinio looked at Leonora. “Who does this kid think he is? And when did he started governing himself?” he asked. Leonora still had not recovered her power of speech so she just shrugged. All three of them starred at me blankly. They could not understand why I did not want to go to Our Bishop. To them I threw away a wonderful opportunity. I tried explaining that all my friends were going to John Roebling. Leonora pointed out that Jomayra was going to Our Bishop.
“At least she wasn’t dumb enough to turn them down,” said Leonora. I rolled my eyes. I told them I did not care what Jomayra did. Plinio jumped to his feet. He said I was going to Our Bishop whether I wanted to or not.
“You can’t make me go,” I said. Plinio laid down parental law. As long as I lived under his roof, I had to do what he said. I threatened to leave the house if he tried to force me.
“So you think you’re a man now?” he asked. Even though I had grown a few inches, he still towered over me. His hands moved towards his belt buckle.
A chiripiorca slid down my spine. I was a rock, staring at a mountain. “Yes, I am,” I said. Plinio then grabbed me by the collar and dragged me down the hallway with Leonora trailing behind him asking what he was doing.
Plinio flung open the apartment door. “Willie thinks he’s a man? Then let him go be one.” With a massive push, Plinio shoved me out the door and slammed it behind me.
I stood outside the apartment not knowing what to do. I felt liberated but I had nowhere to go. I headed downstairs to Jomayra’s door but could not bring myself to knock. She would ask what happened and I did not feel like explaining. I left the building instead.
It was evening. The setting sun made the sky orange. Hardworking people headed home to eat and rest, while the creeps and fiends began to fill the streets. I ran around these same streets with no fear in the light of day but there was something different about them at night. In the day people went about their business, no one noticed you, no one looked for you. At night if you seemed nervous it marked you as a potential victim. From watching nature shows on TV, I knew that big creatures did not attack smaller animals if they thought it would be a tough fight so I beefed up my chest and mean grilled everybody. The eyes in the shadows tried to figure out if I was prey or predator, from the guy slinging crack rock to the packs of guys just chilling in front of their buildings. Little did they know that I was a wolf with a baseball in his pocket. I might go down but someone was going to be gumming his meals for the rest of his life.
As I wandered the streets, I thought about heading to the twins’ house but their parents would want to know why I was there so late. Instead I kept moving. I came up on Brooklyn Taxi Service. I walked in and tried to convince the dispatcher to take my I.O.U. in exchange for a ride to the airport. “I’m good for it,” I said. “I’ll get the money from my grandfather and send it to you.” The dispatcher laughed and kicked me out.
Back outside, a May breeze froze my neck. All I had on was a Yankees t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. My stomach rumbled and I shivered. I thought about going back home but nothing would give Plinio more pleasure than to see me cold and broken begging to be let inside.
Eventually, I made my way to St. Michael’s Academy. I decided to try and sneak into the school to get warm. I circled around to the schoolyard then climbed over the fence. Once I was on the other side, I heard the rumbling of two dark silhouettes charging at me. Before I could climb back out, the two German Shepherds, Black and Blackie pinned me against the gate. My right hand crept towards my pocket as the dogs jumped up and down. My heart beat faster with every bark. I planned to crack the dogs in the head with my ball and get out, but I could only hit one. The other dog would tear me to pieces.
I pulled back my right arm. Both dogs tensed, ready to pounce. Then I flung my baseball as far as I could and the dogs took off after it. Blackie beat his brother to the ball and they came running back. Blackie dropped the slobber-covered ball at my feet. I picked it up and sent the ball sailing through the air again. Their dark shadows disappeared into the night. All I heard was their wild barking. We played fetch over and over. After a while the dogs chased after the ball with less and less enthusiasm. My arm became numb so I put the ball in my pocket and sat down on the cold concrete. The wind swirled, yanking young leaves from the trees. Snot leaked from my nose. My body shivered. The dogs came and plopped themselves around me and I scrunched down into their fur. We were now a pack. My real family had thrown me away like trash. Black and Blackie treated me like a brother. The dogs fell asleep and I settled into the warmth of their bodies. My eyelids grew heavy. The street lamps faded into the darkness. The sleeping dogs breathed in steady unison and mine matched theirs.
I heard my name in the dark. It was a familiar voice. I ignored it and looked for a place to hide. Yet there was nowhere to go. A second voice joined the first voice and they grew louder. They were yelling, frantically calling me to come. I did not want to go with them; I wanted to stay there in the darkness, enveloped in warmth. Yet I knew that I could not stay. So I followed the voices until the darkness broke and the streetlamps came back into focus. Suddenly it was cold again and the dogs were gone. They were by the fence barking. On the other side, protected from the sharp incisors of two German Shepherds were Leonora and Plinio. They yelled at me to get out of there. I stood up and wiped the drool off my chin.
“Ay Díos mio, my God” said Leonora. “Willie, be careful. Those dog are killers.”
I put my hands on Black and Blackie. The dogs stopped barking but kept letting out a low growl. “What do you want?” I asked. Leonora and Plinio had come looking for me when I did not come back right away. Leonora pleaded with me to come home. She stepped closer to the fence but the dogs barked again. I stroked their backs and they calmed down but they did not take their eyes off Leonora and Plinio. “You threw me out,” I said.
“Your father is sorry he did that. Right?” asked Lenora. Plinio rolled his eyes and apologized. Then he ordered me out of the yard before he came in after me. I knew Plinio was not kidding. He seemed ready to come over the fence even with the dogs prepared to attack him. I thought about letting him come, watching the dogs chew on him a bit before I convinced them to let him go. Instead I gave each dog a kiss on the head. They let out a low whimper as I climbed the fence.
To Public or Private School, That is the Question (January 3, 2016)
Graduation day was two months away and I had to pick a high school. I had gotten into all my public and private choices including Our Bishop thanks to my solid B average and the fact that I could hit a baseball. Plinio and Leonora were so proud. They taped the acceptance letter to Our Bishop on the refrigerator. Now it was just a matter waiting for my best friends, Aramis and Adonis, to get their letters too.
I dreamt about summer vacation in Esperanza and what I’d do when I got there. I couldn’t decide what to do first—go swim in the Ozama, ride my grandfather’s prize mare, or just sit in my grandmother’s arms and soak in her face until my eyes got tired. More than anything I planned on ripping off whatever monkey suit Leonora had dressed me in and go running naked in the field behind my grandfather’s house, the grass ruffling underneath my feet, a slow hot wind sliding off my face. Once I was home, my secret hope was that Plinio and Leonora would see how happy I was and I’d convince them to let me stay for good.
It was a Monday morning in April. The Cepeda twins and I were standing on line getting ready to go up to class when they hit me with the news. They had gotten into Our Bishop but they weren’t coming with me. The tuition for the expensive, private school was more than their parents could afford. My heart sunk. The three amigos were breaking up. If I wasn’t staying in Esperanza and I had to attend high school in America then at least I wanted to be with kids I knew. The twins were going to go to John Roebling High School, a public school, which had opened locally last year. Flaco and Gregorio were already there.
I spent the rest of that April in a funk. Nothing could shake me from it. It showed in my play on the field too. I started the season in a slump, 3-for-20 in my first five games. My defensive play at shortstop was erratic. I couldn’t concentrate. Thoughts of being alone again in a school filled with strangers kept creeping into my head. It got so bad that Plinio replaced me at short with José Alberto and sent me to the outfield, but things didn’t improve out there. Playing in the outfield just gave me more time to think about the next year. Hits flew over my head as I imagined the long Our Bishop corridors filled with hundreds of Conans and Anthonys laughing and pointing at me with one hand while holding plátanos in the other. On the mound things weren’t much better. My curve ball was flatter than a pancake and my fastball couldn’t find the strike zone with a flashlight. Seven games in and Los Pesaos record was one and six. I was so bad that Plinio had to do the unthinkable. He benched me.
For the next three games I considered what to do as I sat on the pine. In the third game it came to me. I felt a great weight lift off my shoulders. I felt so good that I asked Plinio to put me in the game the next chance he got. Speedy was on second when I came in to pinch hit with one out in the bottom of the ninth and Los Pesaos down by a run. I belted a shot to straight away center. I floated around the bases. A mob of my teammates was waiting for me at home plate, including the Cepeda twins. They picked me up on their shoulders and carried me around the infield.
Plinio and Leonora decided that, at age 13, I was trustworthy enough to stay home alone. Besides, Juana Elena had started a new job at a factory so she wasn’t available to babysit me anymore. St. Michael’s was closed for a religious holiday. I had left the house mid-morning and walked over to John Roebling High School which was located in the northside of Williamsburg in an old building that had its façade restored to its younger days. Inside, the school had a shiny sparkle to it from the painted walls. Brand new lights shined on a large mural of the Brooklyn Bridge in the main hallway. With no appointment, I just walked down to the main office, told the secretary why I was there, and they sent me to speak to a counselor. Mr. Murray was a balding black guy with a large belly. He sat behind a wooden desk while I took a seat in a hard plastic chair. I got right to the point.
“I want to go to school here.”
Mr. Murray leaned back in his chair and said, “I’m sorry, son, there are no vacancies. I’m afraid that we’re full. Every seat in the house is taken for next year.”
“I heard this school has a baseball team,” I said. Mr. Murray nodded. I asked him if they were any good.
“We’re a new school with only a 9th grade class so far. I’m afraid that’s not a lot of kids to choose good players from,” he said.
I reached in my pocket and pulled out a copy of the article about me in the Little League World series. “I can make your team good.”
Mr. Murray looked at the article and then at me. “Is that really you?” he asked. I nodded. He got up from his desk. “I’ll be right back.” When Mr. Murray came back there was someone right on his hip. “Willie, this is Mr. Collado. He’s the gym teacher here and the baseball coach.”
Ricardo was all smiles. “Hey kid. When Mr. Murray told me there was a Willie Rosa in his office wanting to come to school here, I thought it had to be you.” I slapped fives with Ricardo, happy to see a friendly face.
“I thought you worked at the supermarket with Pablo?”
“Not since last year. I’m not a businessman. I like working with kids.” He was smiling that neon bright, 42nd Street smile. “Why are you trying to come here? I’d heard that you got into Our Bishop downtown?” Mr. Murray raised an eyebrow when he heard that bit of news.
“I don’t wanna go to Our Bishop. Nobody I know is there. At least here I know some of the kids.”
“Yeah, it’s tough being in a place without friends,” said Ricardo, shaking his head. “Mr. Murray, can I talk to you in the hall?” The two men stepped outside the office and shut the door.
This is Supermarkets (November 1,2015)
Despite the Little League World Series loss, the trip to Williamsport put Plinio in a much better mood than he had been in months. It also helped that the novelty of the Collado’s store on Union Avenue had worn off and the locals were back to walking to their favorite little store to buy their goods. The word around town was that the Collado store on Union Avenue wasn’t doing so well and was a year away from closing.
Soon Plinio started talking about selling his bodegas and opening a supermarket to beat all supermarkets. He began searching for a location without telling any of us. It was only after Plinio finally found the right place that he told us what he was up to. Still he would not tell us the location, only that it was close by and that renovations had started. He sold the Union Avenue store to Pablo Collado on the condition that he had to buy the Broadway store, too. That was fine with Pablo, who seemed ready to do anything to get back his first store.
Plinio recruited Candido and Negro as partners in the new supermarket. Candido was the butcher, Negro ran the deli, and Plinio managed the rest. He wanted to get Leonora to sell the bakery and come run the one in the supermarket. Yet she loved her place and could not see herself leaving it. Instead she agreed to help set up the bakery in the supermarket and supply it with bread and sweets. One night Plinio came home with large sketches of the future supermarket. He showed us where everything would be. Leonora had this picture of the bakery section in her head. Every day she had a new addition to the plans. I thought Plinio would go nuts from all the changes, but he listened to Leonora patiently and then called the architect with updates.
Jackie was happy attending LaGuardia High School, a performing arts school in Manhattan, where he was studying music. He had changed so much over the summer. He’d lost a bunch of weight and was no longer interested in playing cowboys and Indians, army men, or cap guns. His life was now music. He played guitar from the moment he came home until he went to bed. Leonora and Plinio bought him an electric piano and he practiced at that, too. Everyday I’d come home to some new concerto by Bach or symphony by Beethoven. One day, I asked him when he was going to learn to play some merengue.
“That’s not real music,” he said.
“It’s better than that crap you play,” I said.
“This music is over a hundred years old and it’s what they teach at my school.”
“Your school sucks then. You should go to a better school. One that teaches good music, not this old stuff.”
We’d been having hard words like that since school started, losing the grip on the closeness we had found. We were headed in different directions. Jackie wanted to be a famous musician and I wanted to be a baseball player. Plinio cautioned us against both. “Those paths lead to disappointment. Only one in a thousand gets to play professional ball or music for a living. It’s better that you boys go to school and become doctors or lawyers, or maybe engineers.” That was the first time he’d ever mentioned the holy trinity of immigrant careers. The mother and father of every kid I knew who had come to America with a peso in their hand and a dream in their heart wanted their kid to work in those professions. However, Jackie and I knew that those careers were not in our future. We wanted to play in front of big cheering crowds not sit behind a desk.
Jackie was lucky. He got to go to a school where he could learn a skill that would let him follow his dream. There was no school in America where I could focus solely on baseball. If I was back in Esperanza, I could have gone to one of the nearby baseball academies where American professional teams had coaches and scouts that prepared you for the big time. Yet here in America all I could do was pick a high school with a good baseball team and hope for the best.
A few private Catholic high schools were interested in having me play for them. They had read about me in the paper and had contacted St. Michael’s. Letters arrived at home offering me scholarships if I went to Immaculate Conception this or Sacred Heart that. Although tuition was not an issue the fact that schools wanted to give me a scholarship made Plinio and Leonora proud. Leonora told everyone who came to the bakery about it, pointing to the newspaper clipping on the wall with me in it from the Little League World Series. Both of them were so happy that they even talked about taking a vacation to Esperanza after I graduated from St. Michael’s as a reward for doing well in school. When I heard that news I jumped in the air and did a back flip right in the middle of the living room. Esperanza! I wanted school to end tomorrow. I wrote to Radá saying that I was coming in the summer.
As the year went on I filled out applications to both public and private schools. The twins and I talked about going to the same school. I told them about my scholarship offers and they applied to the same schools. Our Bishop of the First Church, a high school near the cathedral in downtown Brooklyn was really interested in me. Their coach came to our house to talk to Plinio, Leonora, and I one Sunday afternoon. He told us all about the school. The coach told Plinio and Leonora how many of Our Bishop graduates went on America’s finest colleges and universities and their eyes lit up.
The school also had a very good baseball team. They had lost only nine games in five years. There was a picture of the baseball field in the brochure of the school. The field was flush with the shiniest emerald grass you had ever seen and the bright orange-red dirt on the infield looked like human feet had never touched it. While the coach told Leonora and Plinio about the fine academics at Our Bishop, I imagined myself running around that field, the dew from the grass wetting my sneakers, and stepping on to the pitcher’s mound that looked soft as cake. I wanted to play on that field. After the coach left it was settled that I would go to Our Bishop of the First Church for high school. I told the twins about my plans and they agreed to apply to Our Bishop so that we three amigos could stay together.
It was a Saturday at 6:30 in the morning when the whole family woke up and got dressed. It was the grand opening of Plinio’s new supermarket. Leonora had bought Jackie and I brand new blue suits. I slicked back my curly hair. It had become really hard to maintain, especially in the back where it was long. Jackie had an easier time with his hair. He had long ago cut it into a short flattop. When he first showed up with the sides of his head shaven and a round plate on top of his head, I lost it and started making fun of him.
“I just don’t understand why you want to look like a pencil,” I said.
“And I don’t understand why you want to look like some hick with a jheri curl,” said Jackie.
Leonora wore a very slim red dress to the store opening. Plinio sported his black suit and bright gold tie. The Ramirez clan was there too. Candido was handsome in his tan suit. Juana Elena wore a gold dress she had made herself while Miriam and Jomayra wore dresses similar to their mother’s. Negro was there but you hardly knew it. A perfectionist, he spent most of his time inside the market making sure that everything was ready when the doors opened.
It turns out that Plinio’s newest business was on Grand Street, just three blocks down from the Collados’ supermarket. The store was enormous. The outside was covered in blue and white streamers while a giant banner hung over the automatic sliding doors that read, “Bienvenidos a Los Pesaos Supermarket.” Off to the side of the doors were two girls handing out hors d'œuvres of cheese, olives, and salchichón on toothpicks. There was a small merengue band playing in front of the large display window. People on the street were lured by melodic sounds and free food. A crowd formed to watch the three business partners cut a red ribbon with giant scissors. Then everyone flocked inside.
Jackie spent his time outside watching the band play. I walked the store with Jomayra and her sister Miriam. Jomayra described everything she saw while Miriam and I tried to keep up with what she was saying. As usual Jomayra’s hand was in mine. As we strolled down the aisles she noticed a mark on my hand from where a bean had hit me long ago. Miriam said, “I can’t believe you boys still do that stupid stuff.” We didn’t shooting beans anymore. There had been a crack down on bean shooters. One too many boys had made a trip to the emergency room at Woodhull Hospital with a bean in his eye. Not long after that police and school officials confiscated every shooter they saw and warned parents to do the same. Leonora found ours in our room and punishments were handed out. Little by little the bean battles ended without anybody actually winning.
As we made our way near the butcher shop, Jomayra let go of my hand. Candido was behind the counter holding a clever. The three owners and their families stood around having a good time, trying different deli meats that Negro sliced up for us as the adults told stories and drank rum and cokes. Angelo, the owner of Johnny Tropics, was also there. He was a weary looking man, white haired, with yellow teeth. He spoke a mish mash of Spanish and Italian. Angelo’s business delivered produce to supermarkets and bodegas in Williamsburg and Bushwick. Plinio talked about how when he was working for Angelo, he used to dream about owning a supermarket like Los Pesaos. It made me sad for him. He had once dreamt of being a musician or playing baseball. I wondered if I was destined to end up like him or I would go on to be a baseball player.
Despite those scary thoughts I was having a good time like everyone else. However, our happy mood changed when Pablo, Ricardo, and Conan strolled down the aisle toward us. Pablo walked right up to Plinio and yelled at him for opening a supermarket next to his. Plinio took a sip from his drink and told Pablo that he thought people should have an alternative to the graying meat and the rotting vegetables that Pablo sold at his store. Everyone laughed except Ricardo and Conan.
Pablo chuckled, turned to his family and said, “See, this is what happens when people don’t know their place.” He turned back to Plinio “You plátanos move into our neighborhood and we welcome you. We give you jobs, help you learn the ropes. And when we’re not looking you turn on us.”
Plinio’s temperature rose but he held down his temper. He took another sip from his drink and then explained to Pablo that he would always be grateful to him for selling Plinio the store on Union, but that was as far as it went. “You didn’t leave your country and family behind just so that you could come here and make a few pesos,” said Plinio looking at me. “You didn’t wear the same clothes for a year so that you could save up enough money to buy that first little corner store. I did that.”
“So that gives you the right to open a store next to mine?” asked Pablo. Plinio shrugged telling Pablo that if he did not like it he could always move his supermarket somewhere else. The suggestion set Pablo off and he had to be held back by Ricardo. “You must be crazy if you think you’re ready to take me on. You may have done okay at those little bodegas, but this is the big time. This is supermarkets.” Pablo waved a finger at all of us. “I hope you plátanos are ready for war.” He turned and left.
Ricardo stayed behind with Conan at his hip. He apologized for his brother. He congratulated us on the store opening. “Tío, don’t apologize to those plátanos,” said Conan. Ricardo spun Conan around and they headed towards the door.
It seemed like a bad spell had been cast and we were all in its grip. The women stood there with their lips curled while the men scrunched their faces. The evil enchantment brought out the worse in us. The men badmouthed Pablo. They called him a no-neck, redheaded weasel. Candido waved his clever in his hand and threatened to go to work on Pablo’s balls. Negro picked up a large carving knife and offered to help him. Plinio cursed Pablo, his family, and his whole damn island. Angelo threatened to never deliver another piece of fruit to any of Pablo’s stores. Juana Elena insulted Pablo’s wife, calling her a tasteless old hag with no style.
Leonora tried to get them to stop. “Children shouldn’t hear this,” she said, but we were caught up in the spell, too. We spit curses under our breaths at those Goya bean loving sons-of-bitches. Customers looked at us foaming at the mouth like we were crazy. It took Leonora stomping her foot three times, breaking her heel in the process, to snap everyone out of it. We went silent and watched people go happily up and down the aisle putting products into their shopping carts. They were excited about the possibility of getting something for 50% off or two for one. For us the joy of the grand opening was lost. The spell had taken over, irritating our senses, maddening our minds, hardening our hearts.
The Heaviest Win (October 18, 2015)
The last two innings of the Mets-Pesaos game was played early the following Saturday morning. I was suspended for the rest of that game and the one that followed. Plinio gave me the news the next day at the dinner table after getting off the phone with Ricardo. “What about him?” I asked. Plinio explained that Conan was going to get to play. “That’s not fair, Conan hit Flaco first.”
“But you made it worse by hitting the Collado kid,” said Plinio. “Next time you should think before you hit someone with a ball.”
I spent that next Saturday learning to make doughnuts, Danishes, and other sweets with Leonora at the bakery. She was as good a teacher as Ricardo, as skillful at kneading dough as he was at throwing a ball. She was a hurricane of activity but she never rushed. She moved with precision, picking up the right ingredient just by feel, never looking confused, never dipping her hand into the wrong bowl. Even as she ran from the kitchen to the counter carrying trays of delicious treats, she moved with calm.
Leonora impressed me. I still could not bring myself to call her my mother but I liked knowing I came from her. That somewhere within me lived a part of her. When we made sugar cookies, she gave me my own ingredients and told me to do as she did. As I dumped my ingredients into a bowl I thought about the games I was missing. It burned me that Conan got to play while I was cutting star shapes into dough. I did not understand why he got a break. Why Ricardo stood up for him and not me? Ricardo and I had gotten close during our training sessions. I told him about living in Esperanza, Radá, my grandparents, and how I’d been dragged to New York against my will. I thought he was different. That he understood his stupid nephew started it all and if anything we should be serving the same punishment. Yet when push came to shove, he stuck with his family and his own kind. Every day it was clearer to me that America was not a big melting pot. Instead salt stayed with salt, pepper with pepper and cinnamon with cinnamon.
Without me there Los Pesaos had lost the rest of the game against the Mets and the game that followed. However, when I got back we went on a three game winning streak. We were in second place in the league right behind the Mets who had not lost a single game. After serving my suspension, I started avoiding Ricardo. At dismissal he waved for me to come over, but I ignored him and ran to Juana Elena and the other kids. At games Ricardo sat in the stands watching me but I pretended not to see him, even when I heard him clapping and yelling my name. Skipping his practices did not affect my play. I still terrorized opposing pitchers with my bat, hitting everything sent my way. I punished batters with my fastball, abandoning all other pitches in favor of throwing fire down the pipe, daring anyone to hit it.
Ricardo finally cornered me at the start of the summer just before the beginning of one of Los Pesaos games. He knew I was mad at him but he wanted me to come back to practice. “There’s still stuff I wanna teach you,” he said.
“Nah man, you showed me enough already. I know everything there is to know thanks to you. See ya later, cinnamon.”
The summer flew by fast. Once again the games on Saturdays were the only times we got to go outside. Jackie and I still stayed with Juana Elena and her girls. Flaco and Gregorio didn’t come to Juana Elena’s anymore. Each of their parents gave them keys to their apartments and let them stay home for the summer. I wished Plinio and Leonora were that trusting. Then at least I would go outside more than once a week. But crack cocaine was running wild in the Southside. Everyday a bunch of empty blue and red vials covered the ground while drugged-out zombies walked the streets. The only people safe outside were the users and the pushers. Juana Elena stayed away from the parks because those were the favorite places for the crackheads to sleep. It was only when the weekend came and everyday hardworking people were out in force that the world seemed to normal. Kids came out and play, women went shopping, and the men stood on the corner talking and drinking a “cold one,” from a brown paper bag.
On one of those Saturdays in July of ’87, the Mets and Los Pesaos faced off in the championship. It was a sunny day; warm enough to fry tostones on the sidewalk. Yet that was nothing compared to the heat coming from the two benches. Kids started talking trash during warm-ups. In the stands, our parents were no better. The Mets parents and their fans were sitting on one side and Los Pesaos were on the other. Both sides yelled terrible things back and forth. It got so bad the umpire gave both teams warnings before first batter came up. He also threatened to call the game if the people in the stands didn’t stop their nonsense.
Although, the scoreboard read zero-zero for all seven innings, the day turned out to be a hit parade. Guys on both sides smacked hits but somehow the defenses managed to keep anyone from crossing home plate. I was on the mound for Los Pesaos and it was a struggle from the very first pitch. Visions of beaning every last one of those bastards messed up my concentration. Driving to the field Plinio warned me that he would pull me from the game if he caught even a sniff that I was gonna throw at somebody. That messed with my control. I was all over the plate and the Mets’ hitters smashed my pitches into hits. If it was not for the Great Wall of Baina making shoestring catches and miracle throws, we would have gotten our butts kicked.
Conan, who pitched for the Mets, was worse. He rushed his pitches and when someone did get a hit he looked over to his bench where his father, Pablo, shook his head and yelled, “Stop acting like a baby. Nobody’s got a pacifier for you. Just strike this next kid out.” If Conan did get the batter out, he smiled and all was right in his world. If not, then he turned to the bench again for relief that never came.
We eventually got a run in the bottom of the eighth inning. Pablo cursed Conan for letting the go ahead score. An upset Conan threw a laser beam at the nose of the next batter. Speedy hit the ground so fast it probably saved his life. Our team stood up from the bench and began cursing. The Mets yelled back from their side. We were all ready to rush the field. Slamming his bat Speedy got up and headed for the mound where a grinning Conan chucked his mitt and waited for him. Once again the umpire threatened to end the game and send everyone home if a fight broke out. So Speedy got back in the batter’s box. A few pitches later he stuck out. Conan did the same to the next two batters to end the inning.
Despite the fact we were winning the game, there was venom on our bench. Plinio tried to cheer us up. “Vamonos Pesaos. Don’t let a little chin music make you mad. They have to throw at us ‘cause they can’t beat us. They’re scared of all this power.” He formed a muscle with his arm. “Come on, we stop them here and we are the champs.”
We ran on to the field yelling. I took the mound exhaling fire. The first two batters never stood a chance. I sent them back to the Mets' bench crying like I’d stolen their lunches. Raymond was up next. He was hitless all day and so I took him lightly. He hit a blooper over José Alberto to get on base. It didn’t matter to me anyway. The next batter was the one I wanted. Conan walked up and dug in his heels into the dirt and eyeballed me. The ugly troll already had two hits off me and I’d let my balls be cut off before I let him get another one. My first two pitches were some of the fastest I ever threw. They missiles launched from my right arm. The troll took the first one for a strike and fouled off the second.
“That all you got. Monkeys throw harder than that,” he yelled from the plate. “I’m gonna knock the next one outta here.”
I wanted to crack him right in his head. Los Pesaos wanted me to. Though they said nothing, I read it in their eyes. I reared back and threw one right towards his head. The ball missed Conan but it came close enough cut to the whiskers that were growing on his adolescent chin. The Mets cried out in unison. They were ready to come and get blood, but Ricardo kept them in the dugout. Pablo, on the other hand, jumped all over Conan. “You gonna let that skinny kid push you around? He wouldn’t do that to me.” The younger Collado eyeballed at his father. He turned around wearing this poisoned look and dug in again. Speedy called for the curveball. I shook it off. I didn’t want to trick Conan; I wanted to blow him away. My right arm whipped back and I slung my shot to the goliath at the plate. The sound of the bat hitting the ball was deafening. The ball sailed through the air and came down on the other field. Homerun, signaled the umpire. David had lost this time.
I got the next batter but we were down 2-1. Los Pesaos plopped down on the bench like we were each punched in the stomach. I felt worse. We were already celebrating the championship in our heads, toasting the win with Big Macs and Cokes that Plinio promised to buy us if we won. I let it be taken away from us. We were down to our last licks. If Los Pesaos were going to be the 1987 Collado Little League champs we needed to do it in the next three outs.
On the mound Conan had his own dream too and that was to shut us down and win the trophy again like he had every year that he played in the league. Gregorio was up first. Conan sent fire to the plate three times and Gregorio came back to the dugout to hide his face in his cap. Jackie was up next. He saw what happened to his friend. As soon as the redhead let the ball go Jackie crouched down and laid down a bunt that no one was expecting. He then hustled to first base as fast as his bulky legs and jelly belly let him. He beat the catcher’s throw to first base by half a step.
Los Pesaos fans started to cheer as I came to bat. However, the team was quiet in the dugout. Even Flaco, who was normally good for some smack talk, just stuffed his hat into his mouth. The world was bustling around me: car horns blew, dogs barked, pretty girls walked down the block. I closed my eyes and took three deep breaths. In the batter’s box, I watched Conan deliver his pitch. The ball was straight but spiraling. I tracked its buzzing like a fly through the air. My bat met the ball right over home plate. I changed the ball’s flight plan from home plate to leftfield.
The ball flew over the leftfielder’s head and he started running after it. I ran so fast around the bases that I ended up right behind Jackie at third. The leftfielder picked up the ball and fired a rocket to Raymond at second who turned and fired to home. “Run, come on.” I grabbed Jackie’s jersey, pushing him all the way down the line to home. We both slid in just under the tag of the catcher.
The field exploded with the cries of Los Pesao running and yelling. They jumped on top of us. We were a bunch of wild teens laughing and yelling as warm, salty tears ran down our faces.
First Day of School (October 4, 2015)
I found Jackie, Flaco, and Gregorio with some other sixth grade boys, throwing a football around. They asked me if I wanted to join them. It looked like fun and a part of me felt like trying it but I turn them down. I was still mad at them for not letting me play games with them over the summer. “I’ll just watch.” I said. Miriam was nearby playing with a group of girls. When she saw me, she came over and asked if I liked the school so far.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“Did you eat lunch?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said, as my stomach rumbled.
Miriam looked at me skeptically. I cursed my belly for betraying me. We watched as Jackie and a big kid with curly red hair met in the middle of a circle of boys. They were picking sides for a game. “I don’t know why they even bother. They always pick the same teams,” she said, spreading the blue neckerchief that all the girls had to wear over her chest. She explained that sometimes the games got out of hand and the teachers did not like it. They had threatened suspend football during recess if the boys did not start choosing different teams. The boys pretended to follow instructions but the teams were always the same. I watched the boys line up pick side. Both groups jawed back and forth in English. Miriam translated for me.
“We’re going to kick your ass today,” said the red headed boy who looked like the troll with the goats from the storybook back in my classroom.
“It’s the first day of school and Conan’s already talking crap, man,” said Flaco. “Just play the game, B.” Conan’s eyes flew wide open. Flaco swallowed a big lump of spit and moved far away from Conan. The redhead watched Flaco the whole way. Jackie warned Conan not to do anything stupid. I gave Jackie credit; I didn’t think the chubby lump of clay had it in him to stand up to the bigger kid. Conan and Jackie stared at each other, neither saying a word.
“Win a game and maybe I’ll stop talking,” said Conan.
“Whatever man, those games you won last year were luck,” said Jackie.
Conan and his team laughed. “Luck? We’ll see who’s lucky.”
The game started. Miriam tried her best to explain what was going on. The ball was tossed to Jackie who was playing quarterback. Conan was in front of him playing defense and counting, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi…” Jackie looked around but no one was open to throw to so he ran with the ball. After two steps Conan was right there waiting to tag him.
On their next chance, Jackie was able to pass the ball to Flaco who ran a few feet before Conan ran up and pushed him from behind. The skinny beanpole fell to the ground rolling in pain. Conan stood over his dirty work and laughed.
Both teams pushed and yelled at each other. My teacher, Ms. Carter, and the sixth grade teachers, a blonde man with a yellow mustache and a tall woman with long copper hair, came over to break it up. They were yelling in English, pointing fingers at the boys. I did not need a translation from Miriam to know the teachers were threatening to end the game. Miriam shook her head, “And it’s only the first day school.” She left me and walked back to her friends who were playing with jacks nearby. Ms. Carter and the other female teacher picked Flaco off the ground, and put his arms around their necks. By the size of Flaco’s grin you could hardly tell he was hurt. He leaned over and smelled each of them. “That’s lovely perfume you ladies are wearing.” The teachers just rolled their eyes dragging him into the school. The male teacher with the blonde mustache stayed behind to talk to the boys. He shook his fingers at them and seemed ready to cancel the game. Somehow the boys convinced the teacher to let them keep playing but he kept a close eye on them from a few feet away.
With his team down a player, Jackie ran over to me. “Hey manito, we need you to play.”
“Get somebody else,” I said.
“There is nobody else.” I looked around. All the other boys in the dog pound were busy playing their own games. He grabbed me by the arm and took me to the huddle.
“Yo Jackie, you sure about letting him play with us,” said Gregorio in Spanish as he rolled his sleeves half way up his pudgy forearms. “You know how much I hate losing to these guys. These Boricua kids like to talk a lot of shit when they win.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be fine,” said Jackie, trying to sound more confident than he was. Jackie designed a play for us, which I didn’t understand. I just followed the rest of the team as we walked over and lined up.
“Yo, who’s this little kid?” asked Conan in Spanish.
“That’s my brother, Willie. He just started school here,” said Jackie.
“What grade is he in, 2nd?” said Conan. The kids on his team started laughing and my ears turned red. “You guys must be desperate, if you’re gonna start putting babies on your team,” said Conan.
Jackie told us to ignore them and told Conan to the snap the football. Gregorio, who was standing to my right, took off. I had no idea what to do, so I followed Gregorio as he ran around the field. “No Willie, run somewhere else. Try and get open,” he said.
I asked how but he just ran away from me. No one could get open so Jackie had to tuck the ball and run again. Jackie ran a few feet before Conan slapped him hard across his back. Jackie slammed into the schoolyard fence and Conan cracked an evil smile. Jackie stared at Conan, with anger in his eyes.
When everybody came back together, Conan was still smiling. “Your brother sucks even more than you do, Jackie. Doesn’t he know how to play football?”
“No. He just got here from the Dominican Republic. They don’t play football there,” said Jackie.
“You have a fresh saltwater wetback on your team? You guys really suck,” he said, low enough for the mustache teacher not to hear.
“Who you calling a wetback, dick?” whispered Jackie.
“You, chocha breath,” said Conan.
Jackie and Conan squared off, ready to go at it like two roosters, but before a single punch was thrown, one of Conan’s teammates, a kid named Anthony pointed towards the blonde teacher, “Chill, he’s watching us.” Anthony pulled Conan back to their huddle. We went back to ours.
“That big kid talks a lot of shit, eh?” I said.
“That’s nothing. Wait until they win,” said Gregorio.
We got slaughtered. On offense I was a useless. I was not used to playing with that strange ball with its pointy ends so every time it was thrown to me it ended up going through my hands. The team became upset. They told Jackie not to throw it to me. Jackie tried standing up for me but the other guys shut him down and no passes were thrown my way for the rest of the game. On defense I was worse. The kids on my team got angry with me after I let my man score. I tried not to let it get to me but I felt emptiness in my stomach that had nothing to do with the fact that I hadn’t eaten all day. I focused on keeping the ball away from my guy. It was no challenge since, except for his one touchdown; he was the only person in the game that had fewer balls thrown to him than me.
Recess had ended, and mercifully, so did the game. The final score was 42 to 7. Our team was devastated. I had never seen shoulders slump so low. I said goodbye to the guys but only Jackie said anything me. The rest of the team was staring at the ground, trying not to look the winning team in the eyes, but nothing kept Conan and his team from messing with Jackie and his friends. As I went back to line up my class, I saw Conan laughing and point fingers at the losers.
The American Pass-time (September 19, 2015)
The Cepeda Twins also enjoyed American games, like football. One day a kid in our class asked them if they wanted to play. The twins said yes. I had a brand new Kalimán comic burning a hole in my pocket so I told them to go ahead that, I would catch up to them later. But the twins insisted that I come with them. I agreed to play one game and I ended up throwing the winning touchdown to Adonis. The following day they wanted play again. I tried to skip the game but they would not let me. “Come on, primo, we need you,” said Aramis. “How are we supposed to win without that arm?” He bent my right arm making it form a muscle. I did not want to play any more football. Yet the twins were persistent. They were both good enough athletes to win games without me but I played with them anyway. They were the closest thing to friends I had since Radá back in Esperanza. Unlike the rest of the Dominican kids I had met in New York, they were the most like me. They spoke Spanish the same way I did, knew the same songs, the same wrestlers, and played monopoly the same way. They even knew about Kalimán. So, we kept playing football and soon we were winning every game. Our reputation grew around school. Almost every kid in our class wanted to play with us. The Puerto Ricans still picked their own for their teams but it did not bother us at all. We played with anyone who wanted to play with us. It did not matter if you were Ecuadorian, Mexican, and Nicaraguan, nerdy, geeky, dumb, skinny or fat. Sometimes the other team would try to break up our trio, but if we could not be on the same team then we would not play.
The three of us won so many games throughout the year that the other grades started challenging us to games. We rolled through the fourth and fifth graders. Then some seventh graders came knocking. Jackie, Flaco, and Gregorio came up one recess and challenged us to a game. Jackie still was not talking to me except when it was necessary. When he did say something, he used my real name. “Willie, dinner’s ready,” or “Willie, it’s time to wake up.” No more manito this or manito that. He also refused to go out and play catch whenever we were stuck at one of the family stores. Instead, he went around playing Cowboys and Indians without me, preferring to ride and shoot with imaginary characters.
The game was a blowout. No one on Jackie’s team could keep up with me when I ran the ball. We scored so many times it was embarrassing. I thought about taking it easier on Jackie and company. Maybe I could have let them back in the game, possibly even let them win, but then Jackie would have made my life hell. So we piled it on. Jackie just smiled. When his friends asked him what was funny Jackie shrugged. The fact that he lost did not seem to bother him this time. On the way home from school, he was still smiling.
“Why you looking at me all goofy?” I asked.
“It’s nothing, manito. I’m just glad you finally got some friends.”
By spring our undefeated sixth grade football team was the talk of the whole school. Everyone wondered who would beat us. The eighth graders thought they would be the ones. In their minds there was no way they were going to lose to a bunch of sixth graders. On back-to-back days we faced two teams from their grade. We won both times.
Eventually the seventh grade Puerto Rican team challenged us. Conan was on their team. He had spent every recess hanging with his old friends from the seventh grade, playing games with them instead of us, his sixth grade classmates. He also kept driving me crazy about his stupid desk. He hated sitting in the “retard desk” and could not stand that I was sitting in his old one. He tried to intimidate me to get it back, threatening to mess me up after school. He never got the chance because there was never a day that Juana Elena did not pick us up from school. When the threats did not work, Conan started complaining to Mr. Todd to let him switch, even going so far as sitting in my chair, refusing to move. That is until the principal came upstairs and almost suspended him.
Just when I thought the Conan desk situation was over, things started disappearing from my desk. Pens went missing. Pencils had their erasers bitten off. My textbooks would end up in the trash. Given how old the books were they belonged in garbage, but I needed them. I could not prove that it was Conan but I knew it was him.
One day Conan and Anthony came up to the twins and me in the lunchroom with cocky grins on their faces. They challenged us to a game.
“Hey Willie, you and your boys afraid to get your butt kicked?” asked Anthony.
“We don’t lose to bums,” I said.
“Oh really, plátano?” said Conan.
“Who you calling plátano?” asked Aramis.
“That’s all you people eat is plátanos,” said Conan. “Plátanos for breakfast, lunch, and diner.” We scowled at him. He was exaggerating but it was true, Dominicans did eat a lot of plantains. It was a part of our diet. We loved them but so did Puerto Ricans. Yet for some reason the insult became synonymous with Dominicans.
“Whatever, Goya bean,” I said. The twins laughed. “All you Porto Rocks eat is ‘Goya O’boya,’” I said, repeating the line from the Goya Food commercials.
Both groups insulted each for several minutes before setting up a game for the next day. Before he left Conan asked me if I wanted to place a bet on the game. I agreed right away even though I did not have any money. It turned out I didn’t need it. All Conan wanted was his old desk. I reminded Conan that Mr. Todd had already said he was not going to move Conan back. “Lie to him. Tell’em your eyesight is bad and you need to be closer to the board. Tell’em your hearing sucks. I don’t care.” I looked at the twins, who urged me to take the bet, but before I did Aramis wanted to know what I got if we won. Conan put up five dollars, which was a lot for a kid back then.
“Nah, I don’t take food stamps,” I laughed. The twins looked at me like I was crazy turning down that kind of cash. Conan asked me what I wanted. I grabbed my bottom lip with my thumb and index finger. “I wanna be shortstop on the Collado team next year.” Conan hesitated. He would have to go to his father and uncle and tell them I should get the position.
“No way, plátano. Forget it. That’s my spot.”
“Fine. Enjoy your retard desk,” I said.
Conan looked at Anthony who gave him a reassuring nod. Conan accepted the bet. We pinkie swore on it—an oath only breakable by the power of God.
The battle for St. Michael’s Academy recess football supremacy took two days to settle. All the kids at school had heard about it and most came to the middle of the schoolyard to watch the two teams slug it out. The large crowd drew the attention of most of the teachers on recess duty, including Mr. Todd and Ms. Carter, who watched to make sure the game did not get out of hand.
The first day was an offensive showcase. Both teams scored almost every time they had the ball. Neither side could defend the other. The Puerto Rican kids’ offensive plan was brilliant. They threw screen passes, faked runs, faked throws, faked handoffs, and even faked hikes. They faked so much they even faked themselves out on a play, and lost a few yards. Our game plan involved me running, passing, and scoring. At the end of the first day the score was tied at twenty-eight.
Any other game would have just ended there with both teams acknowledging the hard play with respect but the stakes were high. So we continued the game the next day. The whole school came to watch the next day, but they were in for a letdown. After fifteen minutes of play, neither team had scored. My team clamped down on Conan and his crew but they did the same to us.
Five minutes before recess ended we were down a score. Our team had the ball. We huddled up to work out a play. The plan was for me to get the ball and run like crazy. The second Aramis handed me the ball, I took off without waiting for my blockers. The wind was buzzing in my ear. Everything went into slow-motion in my head. I could see what the other team was going to do before they did it. I psyched out a bunch of them. Only Conan was left. I wanted to run straight ahead and hit him in the head but that would be like throwing a pebble against a boulder. Instead I put my head down and ran away from him towards the corner of the goal line. Conan took an angle toward me. I could almost feel his hands reaching out for me, but he wasn’t fast enough. I beat him for the touchdown. The guys ran up and we started jumping up and down. We were tied again. Time was running out and the Puerto Rican kids were about to get the ball back.
On the ensuing throwoff, Anthony caught the ball and started running. Our teammate Martin Gonzalez, who we called Speedy Gonzalez ran all out and blasted Anthony square in the chest with both hands. The stick-figured Anthony was so stunned he dropped the ball. Speedy picked it up and started running. I couldn’t believe it at first but I managed to recover enough to run and block for him. The crowd cheered for Speedy as we flew down field. All I could wish for now was that the bell would hold off from ringing just a little longer. Speedy and I made our way through the other team thanks to some additional blocking by our guys. I was busy blocking when Conan stepped up to tag Speedy. Conan was the fastest kid on their team. Speedy was going nowhere. I thought, “Game over, see you mañana for round three.” But at the last second Speedy was able to lateral the ball over to me. Then he gave Conan the same vicious block he gave Anthony and I was able to run in for the winning touchdown.
The bell sounded. The kids in our class mobbed us. They ignored the teachers’ calls for us to line up. They chanted my name, “Willie, Willie, Willie…” I felt like a rock star. Jackie ran up and he, Flaco, and Gregorio threw me on their shoulders and carried me to where my class lined up.
The celebration continued after school. The twins, Jackie, his boys, and I all jumped around laughing and shoving each other. As we climbed the stairs up to class, I couldn’t help but think about how all this was happening because I won an American game.
The Unwritten Rules (August 23, 2015)
Six games into the season and both Los Pesaos and the Mets were undefeated. The Mets had blown out all their opponents. Conan was a destroyer; feasting on little league pitchers the way a dragon eats villagers. He had gotten hits and struck out more than seven batters in all the games he batted or pitched. For our part, Los Pesaos were a defensive machine. The opposing team had not scored a run in any of our games. We were the Great Wall of Baina. On defense I played short, Adonis second base and Aramis third. Gregorio played first base. Speedy was our catcher. In the outfield Jackie was in right, Flaco in left, and Speedy’s little brother, José Alberto, was in center.
Like Conan, I was beast on the diamond. The workouts with Ricardo paid off. I no longer ran like the wind, I left it in the dust. I was not as big as Conan, but I could wrestle a calf to the ground with my bare hands. Every week Ricardo’s workouts became easier and I got better. Thanks to Ricardo, the game slowed down to a crawl. My mind saw things before they happened, thanks in part to these silly breathing exercises Ricardo made us do these silly breathing exercises chanting “uhm,” over and over with our eyes closed. He also made us play whole baseball games in our heads “So you become action and thought at the same time,” he said.
Ricardo continued to nitpick at us. At his insistence, we repeated the simplest moves from stepping into the batter box to getting in a defensive stance until we were sick and tired of doing them. He made us swing the bat a hundred times with our right hands, then with our lefts. When I asked why both arms he said, “You never know when you might need to hit from the other side of the plate.” We learned to stay back on pitches, to be patient, and to never come out of our hitting zone, even if it meant walking or striking out. “Better to make the pitcher come to you than, you go to him,” he said.
For pitching practice, Ricardo had us throw balls into tin cups he set up at home plate. “If you can put the ball in there you can put it anywhere.” He taught us grips for different pitches, and worked on our control and precision. Ricardo showed us both how to throw his special curve ball, and while Conan threw a nice ball, Ricardo said that mine, “Left my hand, flew to heaven, and came down with God’s fury into the catcher’s mitt.” Thanks to all that training, even the smallest corner of the strike zone appeared like a giant cave opening to me. When I was batting, the ball seemed like a bowling ball coming down the lane. In league stats, I trailed Conan in batting average by a few points. Pitching wise we had similar ERA’s but I had struck out more batters. Ricardo came to almost all my games. He watched me from the stands with a smile on his face. The teacher watched the pupil master his lessons.
Other familiar people came to see our games as well. The stands were filled with kids from St. Michael’s, including the Ramirez sisters, Jomayra and Miriam, who were accompanied by their parents Juana Elena and Candido. Leonora came to the games and sat with them. A big grin lived on her face as she watched her boys. Whenever I made a big play on the field I heard her cheering from the stands. The only person who made more noise was Jomayra. She jumped from her seat and yelled at the top of her lungs, even after I made the most routine play. It felt nice having her there even though I pretended not to notice her. I did not want the twins to make fun me. They already called Jomayra my girlfriend although there was nothing going on between us. I shuddered to think how bad it would get if they knew I liked that she cheered for me.
Even Plinio seemed to have a good time. Something about coaching the team brought life back to his face. Maybe it was the smell of the freshly cutgrass or the sunshine, maybe it was the crack a hit made or the sounds of boys joking around in the dugout. Whatever it was, something in him woke up when the season started.
Los Pesaos and the Mets met in week seven of the season on a hot muggy Saturday afternoon in May. It was the last game of the day and the gloomy skies overhead threatened to end the game early. The rain held off long enough for us to get to the fifth inning where both teams were scoreless. I was pitching for Los Pesaos, dealing the Mets all they could handle. There was my neck-cracking fastball which slammed into Speedy’s mitt so hard he spent his time in the dugout rubbing his left hand, and my knee-buckling curve which flew high to enough to kiss God on the cheek and come down for a strike. If a Met did manage to hit the ball, my teammates gobbled it up. By the fifth inning there were flashes of lightning followed by thunder. The umpire motioned for both teams to hurry up. Speedy, José Alberto, and Flaco were due up in the fifth. Conan pitched for the Mets. Despite having given up a few hits, he was pitching a good game. I saw Ricardo reinforcing his lessons in their dugout and Conan was calm, cool, and breathing.
Speedy came up to bat first, five pitches later Conan had walked him. Unfazed Conan focused on the next batter. At first base, Speedy was jumping around trying to break Conan’s concentration. He took big leads, threatened to steal second base, coughed, clapped, and yelled encouragement to José Alberto who was batting. José fouled off the first two pitches. Feeling good about getting ahead in the count, Conan cracked a smile and tried to strike out the dwarfish José but José hung tough. He fouled off two more pitches. Finally on the fifth pitch, José Alberto hit a ball to the rightfield corner for a double. Speedy scored and Los Pesaos were up one run.
I heard Leonora and Jomayra rooting from the stands. In the dugout, Los Pesaos went crazy. The loudest was Flaco, who was on deck waiting to bat next. “Way to go José! Nice hit! You got that big bum!” said Flaco.
Conan looked at Flaco and his skin turned red like his hair. Flaco skipped to the batter’s box, smiling and laughing. Conan got his sign from the catcher. He wound up his arm and fired a rocket right at Flaco’s chin. The scrawny Flaco hit the ground and stared at the mound where Conan flashed him an evil smile. Flaco dusted himself off and got back in the batter’s box. Conan threw another pitch. This time there was a sound like a wet towel smacking into skin. Flaco cried out and hit the ground. Plinio ran to check on him, while we yelled and booed Conan from the dugout.
“What?” he said. “That’s what he gets for hitting people in the head with beans.”
Flaco limped to the dugout and dived for the bench moaning like wounded dog. He held his lower back where a knot already swelled. The umpire checked the sky and called for us to resume playing. Plinio put a runner in for Flaco. Our whole team cursed Conan under our breaths while the giant troll went back to playing like nothing happened. He fanned our next three guys to end the inning. High-fives and laughter welcomed him back when he stepped into his dugout, while Los Pesaos walked out shoulders slumped, and took our positions on the field. Before running out, I turned to Flaco who to rubbed the knot on his back.
“You okay man?”
“Yeah, I’m alright, B.” His voice cracked and I was not sure if it was from the pain or from the tears he was holding back. “I hate that bastard Conan. Why is he such a dick?” I told Flaco that Conan was the son of the devil and he was trying to live up to daddy’s image.
The grey clouds in the distance crept closer. I stepped on the mound ready to deal fire. One fastball, two fastballs, three fastballs, four. Five fastballs, six fastballs, you’re a batter no more. I sent the first two Mets back to their bench almost as soon as they stood up. Next to the plate came the red-haired devil himself. Wearing a grin, he slung his bat over his shoulder and gave me the same look he gave Flaco. I smiled back, cocked my arm and sent the ball sailing through the air. Conan saw the ball leave my hand but it was not until the last second that he realized it headed towards to his back.
“Dammit, that hurt!” he cried as the ball cracked him in the ass. We glared at each other. Then he dropped his bat and charged the mound. My eyes widened, as I understood what I had done. A twinge in my neck told me to run, but I stood my ground. Conan dove towards me. I sidestepped and jumped on is back. He twisted around and his pork fists caught me twice in my stomach knocking out all my air. I was on top of Conan but barely held on. Somehow I managed to stop eating fist by pinning down his arms, but then Raymond flew through the air and knocked me off Conan. Then both teams ran onto the field pushing, shoving, and yelling curses. I was at the bottom of a pile where daylight died and air was hard to come by. I drowned in a sea of human bodies but I knew I was still alive because I still felt the sharp stings of punches and kicks. Plinio and the Collados rushed in to stop the fight, but as soon as they peeled two kids from each other, they were right back at it.
The rain came down hard. The field became muddy and we were covered in it. Eventually, order was restored, as some kids got tired of fighting and turned into peacemakers. The last kids fighting were the two who started it all. The two men managed to separate us as kept barking at each other. Jackie pushed me back to our dugout while Ricardo dragged Conan away by his collar. Pablo and Plinio stayed on the mound arguing with the ump about who was at fault. It was almost dark and the rain had soaked us down to our socks. Plinio came back and said the game was called. “The umpire can’t see the pitches in this weather.”
Each side packed up their gear. The players ran to their families who were huddled up under newspaper and cardboard in the stands. Some kids got yelled at by their parents. I heard a few Puerto Rican parents blame the trouble on the “crazy Dominican kids,” and some Dominican parents said the same thing about the “stupid Puerto Rican kids.” Leonora and Plinio hurried to the car not saying a word. Jackie and I had embarrassed them and they were not going to compound it by making a spectacle in public, our punishment would come later. Jackie and I trailed behind. He sported the beginning of a really nice black eye while blood dripped from my nose. We looked at each other and smiled before Leonora and Plinio noticed. The four of us got in the car and drove away in soggy silence.
The Beginning. The End. (August 16, 2015)
Mamá took my clothes out of the dresser and made two piles on the bed. The small pile contained my best clothes, which she folded and placed into my suitcase. The larger pile had my everyday clothes. They stayed on the bed.
While mamá packed my clothes, I collected all my toys and Kalimán comic books. I brought them to the bed. “Those are staying here,” she said. “You’ll have plenty of new toys when you get to New York.”
“But mamá, I don’t wanna leave my stuff,” I said looking at the large pile of clothes. “What are you going to do those?”
“I’m going to sow them up and hand them out to your cousins, along with these things.” Mamá took the toys from me and pulled out a sack from her skirt pocket. She shoveled everything inside. She reached for my comic books but I held them close to my chest. “Alright fine, I guess those can go,” she sighed.
I flung the comics into my bag before mamá changed her mind. She zipped the bag closed while I sat on the bed fighting back tears.
I composed myself and followed mamá to the wooden cooking shack with the zinc roof that lived behind the main house. I stood behind her while she made dinner. “Mamá, I don’t want to go New York.”
“You stop talking like that right now.” Mamá put down the plantains she was peeling and stared at me. Days of crying had left her eyes red and her long silver hair ragged. “Niño, do you know how many people would give their right arms to be in your place?”
“Gimmie their arms and they can go in my place,” I said.
She wiped her hands on her favorite apron, which over time had become too small for her round body. Her hands cradled my ten-year-old face. They smelled like wet mud but I didn’t mind. They could have been covered in dog shit and I’d still want them on me.
“But your mother and father miss you. It’s time you went to live with them.”
“Won’t you and papá miss me?” I asked.
“Cada día mi amor. Everyday my love.” Mamá wrapped me in her arms, and her warm tears soaked my hair.
Of all the toys mamá took away, leaving my baseball behind hurt the most. According to papá, my father had left that baseball in my crib before he and my mother flew to New York. I took that ball everywhere. I played countless games with it, carried it to school in my pocket. It was even under my pillow when I slept. It kept me safe from the creatures of the night that liked to sneak into my room. I even used it to chase away an occasional ghost.
I held that ball when Plinio and my older brother, Jackie drove up to my grandparent’s house last week. It was their first time back since they had left the Dominican Republic. Until then I had only seen them in pictures. Plinio, a bull-shouldered man, had a pirate’s black beard and a short Afro. He, Jackie, and I had the same brown eyes, dark skin, and button noses but my hair was softer than their curly Afros. Our resemblance was undeniable, yet I still was not convinced. I only had my grandparents’ word that we were family.
I could not sleep the night before the three of us were supposed to leave. Everyone in the house was in bed except for Plinio who went out partying with some old friends. Jackie shared my bed. While he snored, sound asleep, I pulled the mosquito net over my head, and snuck out of the room. I tippy-toed across the living room in my underwear until I reached my grandparents’ room.
“Who’s that?” asked papá. The creaking of the bedroom door startled him. He lifted the mosquito net and reached for the machete he kept under the bed. Mamá leaned over and lit the oil lamp on her nightstand, shinning the light in my direction.
“It’s me, Willie.” I walked over to the foot of the bed and papá slid the blade back into its hiding place.
“Niño, why aren’t you in bed?” asked mamá. “You have a big day tomorrow.” I told mamá that I did not want to go to New York. I wanted to stay in Esperanza. My grandparents sat up and looked at each other. They were quiet a long time. I wanted them to tell Plinio that I was staying. They were his parents and he had to respect whatever they said. I stood there waiting for them to say something, counting on their love for me.
“Go back to sleep,” said papá. “You leave for the airport in the morning.” He rolled over and threw the bed sheet on top of his head.
“I don’t want to go.” From under the covers papa told me I didn’t have a choice. My grandmother, urged me not to make things any harder. “I’m not going,” I said crossing my arms across my chest.
Papá rose up slowly up from under the sheets. “Really and where are you going to live?”
“You’re throwing me out?”
“I’m sending you home.”
He pulled the mosquito net away and sat on the edge of the bed. He reached out to hug me. The camphor oil he spread on his chest every night before going to sleep made my nose itch. Papá hoped to make things easier but I did not want to be consoled.
“No, I’m staying here,” I said pushing him off me.
“I don’t think I heard you right. What did you say?” asked papa cocking one eyebrow. I knew that look well. It was usually followed by a smack upside the head. Papá was a skinny man who had powerful hands from years of tilling the soil on our lands. People said that my grandfather once wrestled a stubborn mule into submission by twisting its neck with his bare hands. Still, I did not care. I was ready to fight him if it meant I would wake up the next day and kiss my grandmother on the cheek like I did every morning, eat water bread and wash it down with a cup of hot chocolate that she made me. I would fight him if it meant the next day I would pick up my best friend, Radámés and we would jump on our sticks, pretending they were horses, galloping around town until lunchtime.
“You heard me. I’m staying.” I looked papá right in the eye. A big mistake, as my grandfather got out of bed and headed in the direction of the window, where he pulled a switch from the lemon tree that grew just outside.
“Boy you better go to bed before I make you wish you had.”
My grandmother grabbed papá’s arm before he opened the window. “Noel, go back to sleep. I’ll take Willie back to bed.” She threw on her robe and picked up the oil lamp from the nightstand. Papá sat on the bed and watched us. A deep sadness crept over his face as tears filled his tired eyes.
Back in my room my grandmother wondered what made me to talk to my grandfather like that. I threw my arms around her and squeezed hard. Never in my life did I want to hold onto someone so much. “Why do those people want me want me now? They were the ones who left me here.” My tears came out. I could not hold them back.
“Quiet boy, I know for a fact your mother and father love you. It hurt them very much to leave you behind.”
“If they love me so much why didn’t they take me with them when I was a baby?”
“They tried, but your application was still being processed by the consulate.” I looked at her blankly. My grandmother sighed. She wiped my face with her sleeve. “It wasn’t your turn to go. But now the time has come.”
When we got to my room, mamá kissed me on the head and tucked me into bed. Then she pushed the edges of the mosquito net under the mattress, making sure the edges were packed tight, so that nothing could get in or out. She forced her lips into a smile and then she left without looking back, floating through the dark like an angel, the oil lamp leaving a faint trail of light behind her.
After she left the room the night became noisy. Crickets chirped love songs only they understood while chickens clucked warnings to each other in the dark. The wind blew into our wooden house making its old bones creak and there were noises that I could not identify without the help of a good flashlight. I figured it had to be ghosts but they knew better than to mess with me while I had my baseball. “Contra, dang mamá took my ball,” I thought and my stomach went cold. With nothing to defend myself, I pulled the blanket over my head and tried to drown out the night.
It was no use. The loudest noise in the dark was right next to me. I had left the room and came back and Jackie had barely even moved from the spot where I left him hugging his pillow, drool dripping from the side of his mouth. It was hard to believe I was related to that round boy. I wondered how he felt being related to me. He had been nice enough to during the last week. I had been nice to him too, but mostly because mamá made me.
I got out of bed again and put on my clothes. Jackie croaked like a toad as mosquitoes made suicide dives into his side of the net. I opened the window to my room and a warm Caribbean breeze blew inside it. A full moon in the sky illuminated the side house as a salamander slithered up to the roof. In the distance, a pack of neighborhood dogs howled. Bats flew overhead snatching bugs right out of the air. I looked around my room. I tried to remember it just as it was: the marble floor, the wooden door with the creaky hinges, and the red bureau where my clothes lived. When I was sure my room was permanently recorded in my brain, I climbed out the window and joined the creatures of the night.
Home Is Where the Heart Is (August 3, 2015)
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon when our plane landed at John F. Kennedy Airport. The three-hour flight from the Dominican Republic had taken two and a half. I slept through most of it. I awoke to clapping passengers relieved that we had touched down alive. As Plino, Jackie, and I disembarked, a blonde stewardess stood at the airplane door smiling and waving.
“Bonvenido al Nueva York, Willie,” said the stewardess in her garbled Spanish. “You’re going to love it here.”
“Que se joda Nueva York,” I said. She starred at me in shock. Before I could say anything Jackie pushed me from behind into the exit tunnel.
To a ten-year-old, four-foot nothing, never-been-no-where kid like me, JFK Airport was enormous. The ceilings appeared to be 1000 feet tall. The windows were taller than palm trees. Strange people walked everywhere. Some had skin so pale and hair so yellow it was like looking into the sun. Others were so dark they looked like shoe polish.
At baggage claim two conveyer belts snaked in and out of the room. Plinio waited for our luggage. While Jackie and I stood near a column where Plinio could keep an eye on us. Plinio told Jackie to watch me. My older brother took the order seriously, holding my hand like I was a little girl. I tried to shake free a few times but Jackie tightened his grip.
“Let me go,” I said.
“No way manito. You have to stay here.”
I was going to punch him when Plinio came back holding my bag. Plinio had brought the bag to Esperanza from New York filled with gifts for relatives back home. It returned to New York filled with only my clothing, a picture of my grandparents, some comic books, two rum bottles Plinio brought back for his friends, and a few desserts my grandmother had made. When Jackie saw his bag come out on the conveyer, he let go of my hand long enough to point it out to Plinio. The two of them were distracted. I realized I would not have another chance so I grabbed my bag and took off.
Only a child thinks it’s a good idea to runaway when there’s nowhere to go. Still, I had to run. I sprinted down a hallway. Dozens of people came at me in the opposite direction. I bumped into a few with my suitcase. There was not much in the bag but the stupid thing was still heavy. It slowed me down but I would not drop it. Everything I had left in the world was inside that bag.
My chest burned; I could not get air in my lungs fast enough. In the back of my mind I knew it was hopeless. Yet I kept running. The muscles in my right arm went numb from holding onto the suitcase. My calves tightened up on me like never before. I was about to collapse from exhaustion when I felt a hand grab me. Plinio. His fingers dug deep in to my shoulder and I fell to my knees in pain. I looked up at Plinio. His eyes were redder than a bull’s. I was surprised Plinio had caught me. Back home only the wind was faster than me. Yet, there he was standing over me. He ran me down in patent leather shoes without breaking a sweat. I was a mess. Thick drops of sweat poured down my face as I gasped for air. My once neatly combed hair was all over the place. My nicely ironed clothes wrinkled.
The people in the airports watched us. Plinio played it cool. He took my suitcase from my hand, and buried his eyes deep into mine. My eyes flicked from his face to the large leather belt strung around his pants. The welts from the morning’s whipping still ached. Plinio could have beaten me but used words instead.
“Willie, are you crazy?” he said. “Where the hell are you going?”
“Home,” I yelled. “Back to my house with mamá and papá.” I wanted to curse him and fat Jackie but I didn’t. I stared into his eyes. He looked at me the same way my grandfather did whenever he was disappointed in me. I started crying and then a small wet circle formed in the crotch of my new black pants. Plinio bent down in front of me, putting his hand on my shoulder.
“Stop crying Willie. Men don’t cry.” He handed me a handkerchief out of his pocket. “Don’t you want to live with your mamí and papí?”
“But I don’t even know you,” I said in between sobs.
“That’s true,” he sighed. “I guess I don’t really know you either. But you’re my son, and I love you. Because of that, I’m at least willing to get to know you. Won’t you do the same for me and your mother and your brother?” I didn’t answer. I just stared at the stain on my pants. “Give us a chance. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn to love us and even like living here?”
“I don’t think I’ll ever like it here.”
“How can you say that? We haven’t even left the airport. Wait at least until we get home before you make up your mind.” I stood there stone-faced. Plinio could have talked forever and there still was nothing he could say to convince me. Plinio saw the conviction on my face. He leaned in close and whispered in my ear.
“You promise?” I said handing back the wet handkerchief.
“I swear.” Plinio smiled, threw his arms around me, and gave me a massive bear hug. Yet even though everything was settled, I could not hug him back.
Plinio stood up. “Come on, we have to go.”He walked me to a nearby restroom so I could get cleaned up.
Back at baggage claim, fat Jackie was waiting for us with the rest of the suitcases. Apparently, there was some muscle underneath all that blubber because he had gotten the other two heavy bags off the conveyer belt without any help.“Damn, did you pee yourself?” he said pointing to my pants. “Contra, papí, you didn’t have to hit him so hard.” Plinio told him to be quiet. At first Jackie didn’t mention me running away. He waited until we got to the Customs line.
“You know running away again was stupid?”
“Forget it. Leave me alone.”
“Dumb,” he said shaking his head. “You’re here with us now. That’s it. No going back, manito.”
While we waited for the agent to clear us, I turned to Jackie and told him what Plinio had said to me in the bathroom. A stunned Jackie refused to believe me.
“He did. He said if I don’t like it here by next year that I could go back and live with papá and mamá,” I said smiling.
On the other side of the Customs office were people with huge smiles on their faces waiting for their loved ones. One of them, a fair skinned woman with dark brown hair bounced up and down in a yellow dress when she saw us. She hugged the woman next to her. The closer we got the more excited she became. She stood behind a velvet rope. She tried to go around it, but a nearby security guard warned her to step back. She waved at us to hurry up. She made a scene in front of the whole airport. I prayed to God that she wasn’t related to me. As we got closer, I walked slower than Plinio and Jackie.
“Hurry up Willie, your mother’s waiting,” said Plinio.
“Coming—just let me check something,” I said feeling the need to make sure my shoelaces were tied and double knotted, that all the buttons on my shirt were buttoned, that the zipper on my fly was closed. Everything was fine, but I double-and-triple-checked anyway.
“Come on. Stop wasting time,” said Plinio. He held the door open for me as I stepped out into the rest of my new life.
Leonora and Plinio planted big kisses on each other. She grabbed Jackie and kissed and hugged him like there was no tomorrow. Then she leaned close to me. Her eyes already filled with tears. She threw her arms around me. “Ay mi hijo,” she said. “I’m so happy to see you. I love you so much.” She rocked me back and forth. Then she bathed me in kisses. Slobber and lipstick covered my face. “Mi amor, after all this time, don’t you want to give your mother a hug?” Her question hung in the air. Everyone waited to see what I would do. Leonora wanted a display of affection and all I could think of was that it was too early for her to be calling me pet names.
“Come on Willie, give your mother a hug,” said Juana Elena, the woman standing next to Leonora. Juana Elena flashed a big smile and urged me on with her eyes. All the people around us were watching so I leaned in and threw my arms limply around Leonora’s neck. The crowd let out a collective, “Aw,” and I rolled my eyes.
Leonora kissed me several more times, wiping my cheeks with her hand after each one. Then she stood up and started introducing me to everyone around us including people she didn’t know.
“My son,” she said in her broken English. “I no see him since 1975.” People smiled and patted me on the head. I wanted God to drop a boulder from the sky to crush me right there. When there was no one else to meet, we picked up our bags, and headed out.
Waiting for us out front of in a long red car was Juana Elena’s husband, Candido. He was a short balding man who wore his pants waist around his belly button. Candido greeted all of us and then helped put our bags in his trunk. The car seated all six of us with room to spare. I didn’t want to be too close to anybody anyway. Jackie rode up front with Plinio and Candido, while I rode in the back with Lorena and Juana Elena.
Everyone was engaged in small talk about the trip, except for me. I looked out of the passenger side window at my new home. My first impression of the greatest city in the world was that it was dirty. There was graffiti on the building walls and broken glass everywhere. Gum wrappers rolled down the sidewalk. Burnt cars were abandoned on the street. There were buildings with bars on every window, while tall smokestacks spewed black clouds into the air.
The people looked strange. They walked around playing music on large radios that they carried on their shoulders right next to their ears. Women wore very tight jeans. They had t-shirts and sweaters with holes in them. Some people had shaved one side of their heads; others dyed their hair with colors found only in rainbows. I wondered how anyone thought I would ever learn to love this.
Failing Grades (July 26, 2015)
Winter rolled in and I had never felt weather so cold. I was miserable. Leonora had taken me shopping for a winter coat. It was grey with a big collar big to protect my neck from the frosty gusts. It was a rainy December night when Plinio, Leonora, Jackie, and I walked over to St. Michael’s Catholic School for parent-teacher conferences. Jackie bounced all the way there. He and Leonora were holding hands sharing an umbrella. He was telling her about all the work he was going to show her, while Plinio and I walked behind them under separate umbrellas. Plinio asked me about what we were going to see when we visited my class. I told him they would see whatever the teacher showed them. He wanted specifics. “There’s a turkey I made by gluing macaroni on to construction paper on the classroom wall,” I said in Spanish. Plino smiled. He wanted to know about my grades. I told him I was doing well in Math.
“What about English?” he asked. I rattled off the months of the year. Plinio wondered if I could say more than one word at a time.
“If Woody had gone straight to the police, this would never have happened,” I said, repeating a line from a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. Satisfied, Plinio cracked another smile.
Jackie’s class was on fourth floor. Mine was on the third. Plinio suggested that we go up and work our way down. Jackie’s room was decorated with images of Christmas like Santa Claus’ smiling face, kids making snowmen and having snowball fights, and reindeer pulling a sleigh. A plastic nativity scene of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus was on a stand in the back of the classroom. Near the blackboard was a calendar counting down the 40 days of Advent. The room was filled with parents and kids. Children showed off their desks and the work they had done in class. Jackie led Plinio and Leonora to his desk. He pulled out his seat for Leonora to sit. The two adults were all smiles as they thumbed through Jackie’s work. Both Plinio and Leonora were holding about fifty sheets each with excellent marks. I had to give it to Jackie; he’d been quite productive.
I took a seat at a nearby desk. Jomayra came over and stood next to me. Her parents and her sister Miriam were waiting to meet with the teacher. It was the same blonde teacher with the mustache who often had to break up the sixth grade football game. In the seat near the teacher’s desk were two parents, a good-looking stocky woman and a pudgy but muscular man with red hair. Next to them stood Conan wearing a New York Mets t-shirt. His head was down and his hands were crossed in front of him, as if in prayer. Every once in awhile the couple would turn from the teacher and glare at Conan.
“What do you think is happening up there?” I asked Jomayra in Spanish.
“I think Conan is failing. Miriam says he never does any work in class.” Jomayra gave me this worried look. “Are you scared about what Ms. Carter is going to tell your parents?” she whispered. I just shrugged. I wasn’t worried. What did Plinio and Leonora expect? That would be speaking like an English prince after three months in America. In the front of the room, Conan’s parents threatened to beat him right there and then. “I should smack you upside the head. Then maybe you’d learn something,” said his mother in Spanish.
Conan threw up his hands in protest but his mother was having none of it. She yelled loud enough for everyone to hear that Conan didn’t come out like her side of the family. The pudgy man looked at her, crossing his arms over his chest and said that Conan hadn’t turned out like his side either. Conan saw the kids in the room holding back their laughter. He looked at all of them like he planned to kill them but then another insult from his parents made him bury his chin into his chest.
Leonora and Plinio watched the performance in the front of the room. They agreed not to behave like that no matter what Jackie’s teacher reported. Plinio threw his arm around Jackie. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Jackie here is going to get nothing but good reports. Right?” he said giving Jackie a high-five. That’s when Conan’s family got up from the seats and Miriam’s parents sat down next to the teacher. Miriam was there to translate for them. Unlike Conan’s parents Candido and Juana Elena were all smiles. Miriam was a good student. She was always the first one to sit down to do her work when we got home from school. There was no doubt she was getting a good report from the teacher. Meanwhile, Conan and his parents headed in our direction.
“Plinio, you old bodeguero. You still selling rotten vegetables?” asked Conan’s father with his hand out ready to shake.
“Pablo, you old butcher. You still selling decomposing meat?” asked Plinio taking, his hand. Pablo had on a shirt with one too many buttons opened, exposing a chest covered with hair. Pulling up the rear were Conan and his mother. She wore a tight short dress that I had only seen on younger women. The three of them moved with the air of important people.
“So when are you going to sell me back that roach-infested bodega on Union?” asked Pablo.
“Why don’t you hand over that rat trap supermarket on Grand Street instead?” Both men wore terse smiles. The women exchanged pleasantries, complimenting each other’s outfits. Conan’s mother asked Leonora how the bakery was doing.
“Good, you should stop by,” said Leonora, knowing Conan’s mother never would.
“Yes, yes I will,” said Conan’s mother knowing the she would not.
While the grown-ups talked, Conan rolled up on me. “Get offa my desk,” he yelled at me. Embarrassed, his mother warned him to be nice. “But ma, he’s on my desk.” She carved Conan in half with a look. He bowed his head but as soon as his mother wasn’t looking, he was back at it. “You better get outta my seat. No Dominicans allowed,” he whispered. Another kid would have gotten up, but I didn’t budge. There was nothing Conan could do. We were in a classroom surrounded by teachers and parents. I sat there as Conan’s face started to match the color of his hair. He made menacing faces at me and slammed his fist into his hand. I laughed. Jackie and Jomayra tried to get me to get off the desk, but I crossed my legs and got comfortable.
“Say, ‘Dominicans are welcome, and I’ll move,” I said in a low voice.
“Never,” said Conan.
“Well then, jodete, screw you.”
Conan screamed at the top of his lungs to get off his desk. Then he pushed me to the ground. I almost landed on top of his mother. I bounced right up but by then everyone was looking at us. Pablo yelled at Conan. “What are you doing? Apologize right now.”
“But he started it.”
“And I’m going to finish it if you don’t apologize.” Pablo touched his belt buckle. Conan stood there looking around. Everybody was watching him. He bowed his head and mumbled some words. “Louder,” said his father.
“I’m sorry.” Pablo then made Conan apologize Plinio and Leonora. Conan pleaded with his eyes, but his father put both hands his belt. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There, you happy?”
“No, I’m not. And you won’t be either. Let’s go.” Pablo spun Conan around like a top and led him out by the shoulders with his wife right behind him. Before leaving the classroom, he turned and yelled, “Plinio, we gotta talk some more about that store.” Then the three of them rumbled out of the room.
Leonora, Plinio and Jackie got on the line to see the teacher. I stayed by Jackie’s desk with Jomayra. “You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, the big troll didn’t hurt me,” I said
“Why didn’t you just get up?”
“Who is he to say where I can sit?”
“It’s his desk.”
“That’s not why he didn’t want me sitting on it.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s stupid.” Jomayra shrugged. “But that’s just the way it is. As long as I can remember Puerto Rican kids and Dominican kids have hated on each other.”
“Thank God I was only had to deal with that until the end of school,” I thought. Jomayra’s parents and sister came by. It was time for them and Jomayra to go see our teacher, Ms. Carter. Leonora and Plinio were already sitting with the blonde mustached teacher and their faces lit up with smiles as Jackie translated. When they were done, we headed downstairs. Jackie stayed behind to translate for two parents whose kids didn’t come with them.
When we got downstairs only Jomayra’s family was with Ms. Carter. Candido and Juana Elena were all smiles again. Even Ms. Carter had a huge grin on her round face as Jomayra translated for her. I guessed that the future little Ms. Doctor had gotten very good grades.
While the Ramirez family sat with Ms. Carter, I took Leonora and Plinio over to the bulletin board to show them my macaroni turkey. I pointed out some other artwork that I had done, including a new snowman made out of Styrofoam peanuts. Then I took them over to my desk. I handed my notebook to Leonora and Plinio. They flipped through them. Inside were only a few scribbles and lots drawings of Kalimán kicking butt.
“Is this it?” asked Plinio.
“Where are your other notes?” asked Leonora.
“There aren’t any,” I said. They looked at each other confused. “Why would there be more? It’s not like I can write in English.”
“I don’t understand. You told me your English was getting better,” said Plinio.
Our little discussion had drawn the attention of Ms. Carter and Jomayra’s family. “I’m sure the teacher has an explanation,” Leonora said and she and Plino silently starred at each other until Ms. Carter waived them over.
Ms. Carter’s desk was near the window. The rain had muddied the glass and all I could make out were the stagnant streetlamps and moving cars. We sat down with Ms. Carter right after she was done with Jomayra’s family. Jackie still hadn’t come down from translating duty upstairs so Jomayra had to do the honor.
“Willie is failing,” said Ms. Carter. Joymayra quickly translated that I had failed all my classes except math. The news hit Plinio and Leonora like a punch in the face. Leonora’s eyes waters while Plinio’s lips tightened. Ms. Carter showed them her record book where several red marks lived next to my name.
“Ms. Carter says that the marks indicate all the homework Willie was missing,” said Jomayra.
Everyone looked at me. I threw my hands in the air. “What? How could I do the work? I don’t know English,” I said to them in Spanish. Jomayra translated what I said to Ms. Carter.
“But Willie, you didn’t hand in anything. I would have accepted your work even if it was in Spanish,” she said. Jomayra instantly translated. The Ms. Carter said to Plinio and Leonora, “Yo hablo un poco de Español, I speak a little Spanish.”
I thought to myself, “Yeah, you speak Spanish like I speak chicken.”
Leonora looked like she wanted to crawl into a cave and hide from the shame, while Plinio just kept fidgeting in his seat, moving his weight from one butt cheek to the other.
“Willie, if you didn’t understand, why didn’t you ask for help?” asked Leonora.
“I try helping him,” said Jomayra. “I sit next to him in class but he won’t listen to me.” I just looked at Jomayra stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It seemed like everybody was ready to bury me in order to save themselves—as if my failing was somehow their fault. I failed on my own, me, myself, and I but I didn’t like the way Jomayra and Ms. Carter were trying to somehow distance themselves in front of Plinio and Leonora.
Ms. Carter pointed out that I seemed to be struggling in class and that I was disinterested in learning. She often noticed that I was daydreaming and not focused on the lesson. She apologized for the school not having and ESL program to help me learn English. “But the school is too small to and we don’t have that many non-English speaking students to form a class, “ she said. “I appointed Jomayra to help me but that didn’t seem to be working.”
“I really do try,” said Jomayra to Leonora and to the rest of her family who were watching the drama unfold like the plot of some novella that Juana Elena watched in the afternoons.
Plinio had heard enough. He sat up straight in his chair and let Ms. Carter have it. “We spent a lot of money to send our son to this school and you tell me he is going to fail. Worse than that you tell me you don’t have the resources to help him? What does our money pay for?” As Joymayra translated Plino’s rant, Leonora put her hand on Plinio’s leg trying to get him to use a calmer tone. He took a deep breath and crossed his arms over his chest. “So what are we going to do?” he asked, looking around the room for answers. Everyone waited for someone to come up with something. They started discussing ways to help me. I hated being talked about as if I was not there. I wanted to run around the room and start smashing things, flipping over desks, ripping down Christmas decorations, and yelling, “Look at me. I’m here you bastards.” Ms. Carter suggested that I be placed in a third grade class where the work was easier and I could have a better time adjusting.
Juana Elena and Candido gave their opinion from their front row seats. “Don’t let them move him down,” said Juana Elena in Spanish.
“If you do he won’t graduate until he’s twenty,” added Candido. Plinio would not hear of the idea. He insisted I could do fifth grade work and that Ms. Carter needed to do a better job teaching. Ms. Carter did not have to wait for the translation to know she had been insulted. Her cheek muscles tightened. It had been a long day of teaching and meeting with parents. She seemed to be losing what little patience she remained in her. She warned that if I did not do better I would end up repeating the year.
“Did you hear that?” asked Plinio. “You’re going to have to repeat the year. What do you have to say for yourself?” His eyes zeroed in on mine.
“What does it matter? I won’t be here next year anyway,” I said.
“What do you mean you won’t be here? Where do you think you’re you going?” asked Leonora.
"Back to Esperanza, where else?”
“What makes you think that you’re going back to Esperanza?” said Leonora laughing.
“Plinio said I could.”
“That’s ridiculous. Your father would never say that,” said Leonora.
“But he did. He promised.” Everyone was looking at me like I was crazy.
Plinio adjusted his weight again as we all stared at him. “It’s not like that,” he said. “I meant that he could go back and visit. I didn’t mean he was going back to live.” The audience watching the show was unconvinced by his performance. Immediately, my heart felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. My stomach rumbled like the thunder from the storm outside.
“But you said at the airport, when I first got here, in the bathroom, remember?” It was less of a question and more of a supplication for him to check his memory.
“No, I don’t remember. That was months ago. Besides we are not here to talk about that.”
“But you said. You said.” It was all I could come up with. I kept repeating it over and over. It was the only thing that kept my tears from pouring out. The world was spinning out from under me. I felt like I was riding a horse on a merry-go-round, moving quickly but going nowhere. It was hitting me all at once. I was not leaving. I was in the America-New York-Brooklyn-Williamsburg-Southside to stay. Esperanza, my home on my tiny nation of the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean Sea, was quickly becoming a dream that I would never revisit. I felt trapped. The air seemed to be getting thinner and harder to find. No matter how much I sucked in, it was not enough. I started getting a headache. I had to lean on the black board just to keep from falling. Jackie came into the room. He saw me standing there all weak-kneed in the front. Miriam told him what was going on.
Leonora looked at me standing there deflated, my world crushing into itself, and not completely understanding why. Then she looked at Plinio. He was edgy and so uncomfortable at her gaze that he had to look away. Years of marriage had probably taught her how to read him and after a few minutes she found what she was looking for. Leonora asked Ms. Carter if she had anything further. The round-faced teacher, unsure of what had happened, said she did not. Leonora shook Ms. Carter’s hand thanking her for the time. “Vamonos, let’s go,” she said to all of us while putting on her coat. Then, like cattle being herded home after a long day in the field, both the Rosas and the Ramirezes followed her down the stairs, and out into the rain.
Picking Sides (July 13, 2015)
Baseball tryouts for the Collado Little League came in March. Jackie, Flaco, and Gregorio spent weeks getting ready. They went out on weekends to the schoolyard at P.S. 19 or to the baseball fields at McCarren Park to practice. Plinio and Leonora lifted the restrictions on going out, but only for baseball after Plinio convinced her it was important for boys to get some exercise. “Boys need to go out and get that energy out. Otherwise they go crazy,” he said one night at the dinner table. I almost laughed when he said it. I guess it was important for boys to go outside when it was baseball season. Still, I did not complain about getting to go out, which I could do as long as I was with Jackie and the boys. All we had to do was report to one of the Rosa family businesses after we were done.
The four of us went out and they practiced while I sat on the side. They wanted me to play with them but I preferred to play with my ball alone. I either threw it off a wall or in the air. Sometimes I just laid on the ground at McCarren and watched clouds go by. One Saturday, I was counting differrent shaped in the clouds, when Jackie came and stood over me.
“Manito, I thought you said you liked baseball.
“I love it. Me and Radá played all the time back in Esperanza.”
“Then how come you won’t play with us?”
“No reason. I just wanna chill out.”
Jackie stared at me. I was lying on a patch of green stuff that was almost insulting to call it grass. “Okay, but I’d come practice if I were you. You don’t wanna look stupid at the tryouts.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not gonna look stupid.” I had not told Jackie yet but I had decided not to try out for baseball. Plinio assumed I was going to play for his team without even asking if I wanted to. I planned on teaching Plinio a lesson for lying to me about going back to live in Esperanza. It probably did not matter to him if I played but I sure was not going give him the satisfaction, just in case it did. My plan was to go to all the games and sit in the stands. Then when everyone was caught up in the game I would sneak off to climb a tree, sit in the shade somewhere, or go exploring around the park and have an adventure like Kalimán. I pictured myself crawling around abandoned buildings, seeing what the city looked like from rooftops, pretending to drive burnt cars in empty lots. It was going to be amazing.
The day for the tryouts came. There were dozens of boys at the baseball fields in Lindsey Park. Proud parents waited outside the chain link fence cheering on their little princes. Some parents chatted up the coaches trying to make sure their boys got some playing time. Several other parents were near their cars, their trunks open revealing spaghetti with salchichón, empanadas, bacalaitos, cold beer and soda.
Most of the kids on the field wore their team shirts from the year before. It seemed like a silent request to the coaches to pick them for their team again. All the shirts had the names of Major League Baseball teams like the Yankees, the Mets, and the Giants. Only the team Plinio sponsored was different. His team’s name was unlike any other. Splashed across his blue shirt with red sleeves, in big white script letters were the words “Los Pesaos.” Jackie, Flaco, and Gregorio had the same shirt. Plinio had a leftover shirt from last year. He had given me the extra shirt to wear that morning and I had thrown it over my shoulder.
“Aren’t you going to put it on?” he had asked.
“Later, when we get to park,” I said as Plinio shrugged off the disappointment.
At the park Plinio stood by the other coaches. He exchanged smiles and handshakes with everyone except Pablo Collado. The two men gave each other very stern nods, before retreating to neutral corners of the field. Things had grown tense between the two after Pablo followed through on his threat and opened a new grocery store near Plinio’s Union grocery. Conan even went around school telling stories about how Plinio was a dummy for not taking the “millions of dollars” that Pablo offered him, and how their new store was going to make “gazillions.”
I stood near Jackie and his friends watching the coaches on the field. “I don’t know why we hold these tryouts,” said Flaco, swinging a bat. “Nobody ever changes teams.” Flaco explained that coaches were guaranteed to keep the same kids they had the previous year as long as the boys still met the age requirement. “Only the fresh meat is divided up onto new teams,” he said. “And even then it’s pretty much guaranteed you’re gonna be on our team no matter how bad you do.”
Despite the fact things were already settled, the boys were split up for batting and fielding drills. Half stayed on one baseball diamond, while the other half went to the other end of the park where there was another diamond. I followed Jackie, Flaco, and Gregorio to the field at the far end. The Collados stayed behind with their group of boys, which included Conan and Anthony who were wearing blue t-shirts with orange lettering that said, “Mets.”
On our end of the field, kids ran around catching, throwing, and hitting baseballs. I sat on the bench and watched. I had on brand new spiked cleats that Plinio bought me. I also wore a white t-shirt and a pair of grey baseball pants. The Los Pesaos t-shirt was on the bench next to my glove.
Maybe it was excitement of the day, the dandelions blowing in the wind, the smell of the cut grass. It might have been the screaming boys filled with adrenaline and nervousness, but for whatever reason it took Plinio a long time to figure out I was not on the field. He was behind third base directing some kids on how to field grounders when he spotted me on the bench. “Aye, Willie, get out there,” he called out. I waved him off. Plinio’s mouth flew open. He asked if I heard him. I gave him a nod and another wave. Plinio left the drill and came toward the bench. His cleats chewed up turf as he stomped across the field. “Why aren’t you out there with the rest of the boys?”
“I don’t want to.” I said lying down on the seat. Plinio crossed his arms across his barrel chest and asked why not. “Did you even ask me if I wanted to play?”
“Well, since all you do is play with that stupid ball around the house, I thought you’d like to play for real.”
I sat up. I yelled at Plinio that I did not want to play for a kidnapper and a liar. Plinio looked around. We were attracting attention from the kids and coaches on the field and the people outside the fence. Plinio lowered his voice and tried to get me to lower mine. “You’re embarrassing us. Is this how your grandparents taught you to behave? How to respect? I never should have left you with them.”
“Why did you then?”
“This isn’t the place to talk about that. Now get on the field.” He grabbed me by the arm and stood me up. I pushed him off me. I told him I was going to sit over in the stands all season long and I hoped he lost every game. Plinio’s lost his temper. “You think you’re going to sit there and throw maldiciónes at us all season. Well if you’re not gonna play baseball, then you’re going to stay with your mother at the bakery.”
"Damn," I thought. I had taken things too far. I wanted to hurt Plinio but I never meant for it to cost me my adventures.
“So what’s it’s gonna be? The field or the bakery?” he asked. I looked around. No one on our side of the field was playing anymore. They were all waiting to see what I did. I thought about just sitting there, but I could not stand the idea of being trapped inside a hot bakery all summer with Leonora’s kisses, her motherly eyes begging me to love her.
I stood up, picked up my glove and walked on the field, leaving the Los Pesaos t-shirt on the bench. “I thought so,” said Plinio. He followed behind me as I walked past the pitcher’s mound. Plinio had stopped in the infield. I kept going towards the outfield.“Willie, come back. We’re not doing outfield drills yet.” I didn’t stop. Instead, I went to the other side of the park where the Collados were running their practice. Pablo and Ricardo were on the pitcher’s mound with Conan. They saw me heading in their direction.
“Hi Willie, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be on the other field,” said Ricardo.
“Can you put me on another team?” By now Plinio had jogged over to see what I was doing. Confused, Ricardo agreed to put me on another team if it was okay with Plinio. There was a long silence. For a second I thought I was going to end up in the bakery, but Plinio just nodded in disbelief.
“We’ll put him on our team,” said Pablo, smiling.
“Papí no, you can’t put a plátano with us,” said Conan.
Pablo told Conan to be quiet. “We’ll be happy to have him. Right Ricky?” said Pablo.
“Well, we already have a good team,” said Ricardo, checking the clipboard in his hand. “Why don’t we see if one of the other teams needs a player?”
“I wanna play for your team,” I said, touching the clipboard. “You won’t be disappointed.” Ricardo looked at me square in the eye. He saw I was determined. “Okay kid, let’s see what you got.”
Making the Team (July 12, 2015)
I pitched the championship game and the Mets won the Collado Little League championship in the summer of 1986. Los Pesaos came in second place. I received my first trophy ever. It was huge. I put it in the living room on the stand where Leonora kept all her ceramic plates and porcelain figurines. At first Plinio was not going to let my trophy in the house but Leonora convinced him that it was bad sportsmanship not to.
“But he won it with those damn Collados,” said Plinio.
“I don’t care,” said Leonora. “The trophy stays.”
I was alone in the living room staring at the cup on top of the award. As large as it was, it was not nearly big enough to hold the sweat and tears I had shed to earn it. When I first got on the team, the Collados were not sure what to do with me. Their Mets team was made up of all Puerto Rican kids. They were the returning champs and were set at every position. Pablo did not want to mess up the team’s chemistry. He had only taken me to get back at Plinio for not selling him the Union Avenue store. If it had been up to Pablo I would have ridden the bench all season long.
Leonora brought me over to Lindsey Park for our first team practice. Plinio was supposed to do it but he could not stand to see Pablo’s grinning face. Ricardo led a the practices. That first day, he made us do 20 laps around the entire field before heading back for wind sprints on the bases. By the time we began fielding drills, I was exhausted. Yet, I never felt more alive. The sights and smells of the outdoors energized my senses. I was itching to crack some balls when batting practice finally came around.
“Not so fast, Willie,” said Pablo. “Batting practice is for the boys who are actually playing.” He made notes on a clipboard, barely registering that I was alive. That did not bother me. I was happy to sit on the bench. When the game started I planned to sneak off and have an adventure. I already had my eye on an abandoned van on Montrose Avenue that I wanted to play in.
Our first game of the year had been against Los Pesaos. I watched the whole thing from our bench. It was a close game. Conan hit a two run single in the last inning to win it for the Mets. He was greeted at the plate by our entire team except me. I stayed on the bench as the other kids celebrated.
The drive home was quiet after that game. Jackie and I were sitting in the back seats, looking out our windows, trying not to look at each other. Plinio was staring straight ahead. A lit cigarette dangled from his fingers outside the driver’s side window. Leonora, who had taken the day off to watch her boys play, looked at each of us searching for the right words to say. We were supposed get Chinese food after the game, but no one was in the mood.
When we got upstairs to our apartment Plinio could not take it anymore. “So that’s why you went over to their team, to sit on the bench? Well, that’s what you deserve for going against your family.”
“Don’t be mad at me because you lost,” I said.
“No, mi hijo, I’m not mad,” said Plinio slamming his equipment bag on the ground. “We may not have won the game today, but you’re the loser. You want to be on the bench, all alone, that’s fine with me. You are going to spend all season doing nothing but baking in the hot sun with people you don’t even know. I, on the other hand, am going to spend my time watching my boys have fun.” He huffed away not knowing that deep inside he had smashed me like glass.
At the next Mets’ practice, instead of sitting on the bench, I walked up to Pablo and told him I wanted to play in the next game. He laughed and told me to sit down. “So I’m not going to get to play?” I asked, loud enough to be heard by the whole team. He told me I was going to sit. I looked out at the field where my teammates were working on fielding drills and yelled that I was better than anybody Pablo or Ricardo had out there. That brought out a laugh from the entire team including Ricardo, who was on the pitcher’s mound. “Listen to that, the plátano thinks he’s better than us,” said Conan, standing at shortstop.
“He’s crazy if he thinks he’s better than me,” said his friend Raymond, a short stocky kid who played second base.
Pablo shook a finger in my face. “This team won the championship last year. And you think you’re better than them plátanito?” The whole team was looking at me. I either had to back up my words or go sit on the bench for the rest of the season.
“That’s right, I’m better than anybody out there.” I said, puffing up my chest.
"Prove it," said Pablo. He told me to pick any position on the field so I headed over to short. If I was going to prove I was one of the best players on the team, then there was no other place to show it. Waiting there was Conan, the giant troll.
“Where do you think you’re going?” said Conan.
“Your father said to pick a spot.”
“This one‘s taken.” It took Ricardo to pull Conan away. “But tío, that’s my spot.” Ricardo told his nephew to let me try. He was sure that I would embarrass myself.
Pablo had some of the kids on the team hit baseballs to me. Raymond came up first cranking out shots. I stood in my defensive stance like my grandfather had taught me. Blood pumped in my ears. I felt my heart coming up to my throat. The bat smacked the ball and made a small cracking sound. The ball came right at me. It hit the back of my glove and fell harmlessly to the ground.
“You’re supposed to catch it dummy,” said Conan.
The next ball was on its way to me before I was ready. It took one hop and came in screaming towards my legs. I jumped out of the way and landed on my face. The other kids started jumping up and down like monkeys.
“A retard can catch better than you,” said Anthony who was also on the team.
I spit on the ground cursing myself. “What the hell are you scared of?” I thought. “It’s just a ball.” I then spit in my glove and told it to catch the damn ball. “Come on, let’s show those monkeys,” I whispered. I got back in my stance. I glared at the batter’s box. Raymond hit another shot. It came in hard, spinning every which way but I caught it. A smile crept on to my face. He hit another and another and I swallowed them up. My smile got bigger.
From the bench, the other players were yelling that I had gotten lucky. Conan came up to the plate. The big troll had this grin on his face like he was about to eat a Billy goat. He dug in his heels and began rocketing shots. I ran left to right, back and forth, backhanding some and scooping up others. My heart pumped like an engine, my mouth was dry. Balls were coming faster and harder than I was used to. Still, none got past me. There was no way I was going to let the Conan get the best of me. I was determined to catch everything. I would have trapped the wind in my glove if necessary. After emptying a bucket of balls with no success, Conan slammed his bat on the ground and walked off. I covered my mouth with my glove. The devil couldn’t have laughed any harder.
Ricardo called me to the plate to see how I handled a bat. It felt good to hold a bat again after almost a year. Up until that moment I did not remember how much I missed playing baseball, how much I missed Radá and my other friends in Esperanza. I had not bothered making any friends in Brooklyn. I had no friends on the Mets. They were just kids who enjoyed seeing me to look stupid, hoping I would fail so that I would not take their spots on the field or in the batting order.
Anthony stood tall upon the mound. His first pitch flew by my head. I hit the ground as the kids on the team made clucking sounds and flapped their arms. I stood up and got back in the batter’s box. I hit his next pitch foul, off third base. The contact sent vibrations up my arms, numbing them. I dropped my bat. Pablo and Ricardo shook their heads.
“You should have eaten some plátanos this morning and got some power,” said Conan. The kids on the team laughed. I dug in my heels and ignored them. I took a few deep breaths. I tried to remember what my grandfather showed me about hitting a ball. The next pitch came. My eyes could see the ball leaving Anthony’s hand. It sailed through the air towards the plate. I swung hitting it square. The ball landed in center field. Anthony threw again. I hit that one, too. This one landed near the first ball. I whacked three more pitches, spreading them in left field. Half way through the bucket of practice balls Conan got up from the bench and headed for the mound. Ricardo stopped him.
“Hold up. Let me see something,” he said, and came to the mound himself. Ricardo went into his windup. He threw a ball by me that seemed shot out of a cannon. My butt tightened. Images flashed in my head of what my face would look like after getting smashed by one of Ricardo’s pitches. It was not pretty. I zeroed in on his hand, waiting for the next pitch. It came just as fast as the first. I let it go by, trying to slow it down in my mind. The next ball came. I swung but I was too late. The ball was in catcher glove before I even moved.
“You’re never going to hit my uncle,” said Conan.
Ricardo threw ball after ball by me, each one crashing more violently into the catcher’s glove. Eventually Ricardo was down to his last few balls. “Okay, try to hit this one of these Willie,” said a smiling Ricardo. I breathed in and relaxed my grip on the bat. Ricardo sent an offering. I caught a piece of the ball. It flew foul behind the catcher. He pitched again. This time I hit it fair over third base. Ricardo threw another and I smacked it to center. The kids were stunned. “Wow, nobody’s ever got two hits off Ricardo before,” I heard Raymond say. Conan just crossed his arms scowling at me from the bench. Ricardo threw his last ball. It was a bit slower than his other pitches. It flew high into the air and disappeared before reappearing at the last second over the plate. I swung spinning myself into the ground in the process. I’d missed. The team chuckled as I sat in the dirt punching the ground. Ricardo ran over and helped me up.
“That last pitch was tricky,” I said dusting myself off.
“That was my curve,” he said. “Maybe I’ll teach it to you someday.”
Conan came running over. “You said you’d teach me that pitch.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll show you both.” Conan wasn’t pleased at that. The only thing he wanted his uncle to show me was the way back home.
Running Away (June 29, 2015)
There is a forest of fruit trees that is older than the town of Esperanza itself. An old trail runs through the woods that had been pounded out by animal hoofs and men’s feet. The path led to a river where ranchers brought their livestock to drink in the mornings. I watched a farmer water his herd from high up in a large tree overlooking the stream. I was eating mangos, when my friend Radámés came running down the path. He stopped at the river’s edge and looked around at the treetops. I whistled to him from my branch and waved him up. After me, Radámés was the best tree climber in Esperanza. We climbed trees none of the other kids in the neighborhood dared. Radámés scooted up to a branch above me.
“Your family is looking for you,” he said out of breath. “They came to my house to find you.”
“What’d you say?” I handed him a mango from the ones I had collected on my lap and gave him a sharp look.
“Nothing, I told them I didn’t know where you were.” He was shirtless and had on the same beat up shorts and worn down sandals that he always wore. His uncombed hair sprouted from his head like weeds and his small eyes swung from side to side looking at everything. “I was surprised to see your family so early. But when I didn’t see you, I knew something was wrong. Your grandmother said that you’d gotten up early and went to say ‘bye to people. They wanted to know if you were at the house. We told them we hadn’t seen you and they all got serious.
“When Jackie wondered why you left without telling anybody, your grandparents just looked at each other. That’s when your grandma said you ran away. Then your grandpa said you didn’t want to go to New York. That you wanna stay here.
“Your father looked confused. He couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t wanna leave. That’s when grandma gave your father a look like they didn’t want to talk about this in front of us. Your father turned red and said that we had to find you.”
“Your grandma turned to me with this scary look and asked where you were. I told her I didn’t know anything and she stayed with the look. Then everybody was giving me the look.” Radá finished his mango and dropped the seed on the ground. “My father started yelling at me to tell the truth, and my mother threatened to hit me.”
“You kept your mouth shut right?” I asked knowing how Radá was afraid of getting whooped.
“Boy, I walked over to the crucifix above the doorway to our house. I kissed these two fingers and pointed them to Jesus, and I said, No Señora, no lo he visto, no maam, I haven’t seen him.” I smiled at Radá and passed him another mango. “But your grandma is not dumb. She asked me if I knew where you might be.” Radámés bit into his fresh mango and smiled. “I told them to check the river?”
My grandparents knew about my love for the Ozama River, how I like to spend my days swimming there, even though I wasn’t allowed to go without an adult. According to Radá, everyone agreed that was where I had to be. Radá was told to stay home and to keep me in the house if I came by. Radá swore that he would. Then he waited several minutes and as soon as the adults were out of sight, Radá ran out of the house and headed down the old path in the opposite direction of the Ozama.
As we ate our mangos in the tree Radá studied me. “I don’t get it,” said Radá. “This is your chance to go to New York, and you don’t want to go?”
“Nope,” I said tossing another mango seed to the ground. Radá looked at me stupefied. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to go. “I like it in Esperanza. You’re here, my grandparents are here.”
“But don’t you want to go be with your mother and father?”
“Radá, I don’t even know them. Would you go live with people you’ve never met?” His finger curled around his bottom lip as he thought about it. In the distance we could hear people approaching. We shut up and listened. Some farmers passed underneath us on their way to the fields.
Radá adjusted himself on the tree branch so that his weight rested on one of his butt cheeks. “So, you plan on living in this tree your whole life?” I was wearing the same white t-shirt and black shorts I’d worn the day before. In my rush to leave, it hadn’t occurred to me to take my suitcase. We sat there trying to think of a plan when I smelled something. It was scent of horses. I loved horses. It was my job to saddle my grandfather’s horse in the mornings before he went to the fields and unsaddle it when he came home. Our family horses all smelled like sweet vinegar and the ones that were galloping in the distance were from our farm.
When they came over the ridge, I saw grandpa riding his favorite white horse. Right next to him was my father Plinio and my brother Jackie on a young brown filly, and Radámés’ father was behind them on his old mule. I thought about getting down but it was too late. I couldn’t out run two horses and a mule, so I decided to stay up high in the tree. The horses pulled up underneath. Plinio ordered me to get down and I refused.
“I’m staying here,” I said.
“Where, in that tree? Don’t be stupid. Get down now,” he said in a calm voice.
Radámes’ father yelled at him. Radámes looked me in the eyes, tilted his head and shrugged. He climbed down and walked over to his father, who welcomed his son with a hard smack upside the head.
“You, too, Willie, get down,” said Plinio. His voice had lost some of its calm.
“I told you I’m not going.”
“Boy, if you don’t get down from there…” said Plinio, climbing off his horse. Jackie and grandpa got down, too. Plinio handed his reins to my grandfather and made for the tree.
“Willie, por favor mi hijo, please my son come down now,” pleaded my grandfather.
Everyone saw the look in Plinio’s eyes and we knew he wasn’t playing around. “If I go up there, this will end badly for you,” he said, putting his hands around his belt buckle. A smarter kid would have looked at Plinio’s mountainous muscles and gotten down, but I didn’t move.
“You have ‘till the count of three then I’m coming up,” he said. I laughed. Even if he wanted to, I knew Plinio wouldn’t climb that high, especially not in his nice clothes and shiny dress shoes.
“One,” he said. I took another mango from my lap and started peeling it, letting the skin drop to the ground in front of Plinio’s feet. “Two.”
Jackie shook his head. “If I was you manito, I wouldn’t let him get to three. Believe me.” I took a bite of the soft pulp. Juice slid down the side of my mouth. I wiped it off and flicked it.
“Why won’t you just go home and let me stay?” I said.
“Three.” No one moved. No one breathed. I was still in the tree.
Jackie shook his head again. “He’s going to kill you.”
“Quiet, no one is going to kill anyone,” said Grandpa. He turned to my father. “Plinio maybe this is all happening too fast. Why don’t you leave the boy for another year?”
Plinio wasn’t listening. He untied his shoes and took off his silk socks. Then he rolled up his pant legs, unbuttoned his shirt, and gave it to Jackie. The next thing I knew, Plinio had wrapped his hands around a branch above his head. In seconds he was half way up the tree. I should have climbed up higher, but I was frozen in place.
Soon, Plinio was on the branch below me. Holding on to the tree with one arm, he grabbed my leg with the other and pulled me down. He threw me over his shoulder as we started back down. I thought about fighting him but I was scared Plinio would lose his balance, and while I wanted to stay in Esperanza, I didn’t want to do it in the cemetery.
Once we were on the ground, Plinio put me down. He didn’t say anything but his eyes were shooting daggers. My grandfather came over and put his hand on Plinio’s shoulder and whispered in his ear and they both looked in the direction of Radámes and his father sitting on top of their mule. We had made a huge spectacle of ourselves and they were watching the whole show. “Let’s go home,” said grandpa.
Jackie handed Plinio his shoes and shirt. Plinio put them back on and carefully rolled down his pants to avoid any more wrinkles. “Let’s go,” said Plinio. I refused and in a flash, his leather belt was off his waist. He told me one last time, “Get on the horse.” When I didn’t move, he flicked that leather monster at my legs. An alarm went off in my body as waves of pain shot up my spine. “Are you going to get on the horse?” he asked. I looked him straight in the eye and gave him my answer. Another hit. This time my knees buckled. I closed my eyes tight to hold back the tears that were already streaming. There was a shadow of pain on grandpa’s face but he wasn’t about to offer me any relief. “Get on the horse,” said Plinio with his arm coiled back. I didn’t move. Down came another whip. My lips started trembling and tears were flowing in full force. Plinio warned me one last time, but even with pain raging through me, I wasn’t going to give in. I stood there with my chest heaving ready for the next blow. As Plinio’s hand came down, Jackie stepped in between us.
“Ya Papí, ya,” he said, his hands up just in case he got caught with a hit flush in the face. “Willie’s gonna get on the horse. Right manito?” Jackie didn’t wait for my answer. He just led me to my grandfather who helped me onto his horse. Plinio let out a deep sigh as put his belt back on. Everybody mounted up and we rode home in silence. All that could be heard were hoofs sloshing through the muddy ground and little whimpers as I cried into my grandfather’s back.
The Bean Battle (June 29, 2015)
No one knew where the bean shooter came from. It just showed up in Williamsburg one day. Some kids started running around with shooters in hand, smacking other kids with pinto beans and gandules. Soon after that everybody under the age of 14 was carrying one, including me.
We first ran into the bean shooter on a cool spring morning when Jackie, Aramis, Adonis, Flaco, Gregorio, and I were on our way to McCarren Park to practice for the upcoming Little League season. Two kids rolled up on us. They stopped two car lengths away. A devil’s smile on each of their faces, they pelted us with beans. It felt like getting stung by bees. We were forced to take cover behind a van while our attackers laughed. There were only two them and we had bats. But every time we made a move we got shot.
We finally worked up enough courage to come out from cover swinging our bats. We chased the two kids eight blocks up Union Avenue yelling curses at them while they fired beans at us. We tried not to catch one in the eye and they stayed just out of reach of our bats. Breathless, we gave up around Leonard Street. The kids ran away, laughing hysterically into the concrete maze that was the Ten Eyck Housing Projects.
After that day every boy in the neighborhood had a bean shooter. The streets were littered in beans. Mothers couldn’t find a package of dry beans in the store because kids were buying or stealing them. The shelves at Plinio’s store were almost bare of beans. Plinio wanted to stop selling to the boys who came into his stores, but he couldn’t tell which ones were buying it for food and which ones were buying it for play. So he sold to all, but not without giving each kid the stank eye. If the kid so much as flinched Plinio wouldn’t sell them the beans. “Go home and tell your mother to come buy them, he’d say.
My mother Leonora would complain about the fact there were no beans to eat with our rice. “Perfectly good beans are lying on the sidewalk. I can’t believe it. Kids hitting each other with food while there are children starving Africa. I better not catch you two playing with beans,” she said to Jackie and me. We both swore that we would never do such a thing as our shooters sat in our pockets, freshly cut from two quarter water juice containers and balloons that we’d gotten from Plinio’s store.
On Saturdays, we practiced baseball until Jackie had to go to music practice in the afternoon. After years of messing around with his guitar, Plinio finally found Jackie a music teacher. For two hours Jackie banged on a piano, flapped on a guitar, and burned his eyes on musical notes at a little music school on Broadway across the street from Frenchie’s Gym. He studied with Mr. Lee, a little Korean man with stubby fingers that everyone called, Chino. In just a few weeks Jackie learned to play rock songs on the guitar and a bit of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony on the piano. I was supposed to stay with him in class until it was finished and then head over with him to Plinio’s Broadway, but instead I waited until Jackie and Mr. Lee became engrossed in the lesson. Then I’d sneak out.
I would meet up with Flaco, Gregorio, and the Cepeda Twins at the library on Division. We’d fill up our pockets with beans and head out hunting. We’d go into the projects around Taylor and Wythe where roving gangs of black kids would fire at us with their own bean shooters. Sometimes we’d go there, stay too long, and run out of beans. Then we’d have to run for lives until we reached Broadway, Williamsburg’s Mason-Dixon Line that the black kids wouldn’t cross for fear they’d find themselves in a hornet nest of Hispanics. We’d also go hunting in the Italian neighborhood on the other side of Grand Street near Manhattan Avenue. Those kids liked to shoot Lupini and Fava beans. They cursed you out as a “dirty spic wetback,” regardless if you were a plátano or a Goya bean.
We also battled in the Southside, all the way from Union Avenue to Kent, from South Eleventh to Metropolitan. Whether you were Dominican, Puerto Rican, Ecuadorian, Mexican, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, Honduran, black, white, or yellow it didn’t matter to us. We smacked all types of kids with equal pleasure. The only kids who didn’t get hit with beans were the Hassidic kids because no one wanted to be caught in the Jewish neighborhood with bearded men popping out of every door, chasing you down with sticks in defense of one of their own.
Every once in a while Jackie would skip music class to come shoot with us. I liked running around town with him, the Cepeda twins, Flaco and Gregorio. I didn’t realize how much I missed having friends. They made being trapped in New York bearable. They were the perfect balance of my old world and my new one. Jackie, Flaco, and Gregorio with their blue passports, their apple-pie-mangu-mix, Adonis, Aramis, and I with our green cards and our salchichón swagger. They helped me see that America wasn’t all bad, that my new home was filled with interesting people, places, and things. They helped me like Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen music, the Statue of Liberty, and Coney Island.
The twins showed us that Monopoly could be played hundreds of different ways. They got me to appreciate the hamburger and the hot dog and convinced me that my brother wasn’t a traitor to all things Dominican for putting ketchup on his yucca and plantains. We ran around laughing, fighting, playing ball, hitting kids with beans, hitting each other with them, joking, and making fun of our looks—from Gregorio’s hook nose, Jackie’s belly, Aramis’ afro, Flaco’s big feet, my long arms, and that fact that Adonis was so pretty he was almost a girl.
There was only one bean-fighting rule that every kid from Taylor and Wythe to Metropolitan Avenue respected: no aiming for the face. Hitting someone in the face with a bean was worse than cursing their mother and it often led to kids throwing punches. Conan was a habitual face aimer but he got away with it because he was a muscular kid who got joy from knocking someone in the head with a pinto bean. I’d heard stories of kids who had stepped up to Conan after being smacked in the face with a bean. Many had earned speed knots and black eyes for their trouble. The best thing to do was never to cross over Union Avenue into Conan Collado country where he, Anthony, Raymond, and the rest of their crew roamed for victims. However, there was nothing that could be done when the big troll and company came to your side of town, except to have your pockets filled with ammo and hope that they didn’t find your hiding spots when you ran out.
The six of us bumped into Conan and company on a grey Saturday afternoon right after baseball practice. We were headed down Broadway, walking Jackie to music class when in the opposite direction came the entire Mets little league team with sinful grins shining bright and the devil in their mist, egging them on. They spotted us first and ducking behind some cars sprayed us with pellets. The first one hit Flaco in his neck. The second, third and fourth shots were already making welts on our arms and chests by the time we reacted. We hustled across the street, hunkered down behind cover, and fired. Beans from both sides slammed against car windows like heavy rain.
We’d been in shootouts like this before but there was something different about this one. Not only were we outnumbered, two-to-one, but also there was a scent in the air that we could taste, an electric current that raised the hairs on our arms and charged the blood in our veins. It was enough to make our mouths dry and our asses tighten. I was firing beans without thinking, a smile on my face as the devil appeared on my shoulder and started cheering me on. “Shoot papí, shoot, muwahahaha!” My hands operated on their own. Sounds, smells, and even pain seemed magnified. My vision became narrow. I could only see the shooter in my hand and the Puerto Rican kid I was aiming at.
Every shot we took was met with a shower of beans from the other side of the street. Not shooting back encouraged them to creep closer. We’d have to let our beans fly just to send them running back to their cover. The only way to keep the other kids at bay was to load two to three beans into our shooters, and then we started running out of beans. Flaco suggested that we make a break for it.
“No way, José,” I said. “We’re not going to run from these mamaguevos, cocksuckers.”
“But I’m down to my last few beans,” said Gregorio.
“I don’t care. Pick them up from the floor if you have to, but keep shooting.” I could see the fear in his eyes. All of them had it. Even my hand was shaking, but I couldn’t walk away. All I could think of was Conan laughing and calling us plátanos. I wanted to hit him with a bean right in his fat face and I wasn’t leaving until I did.
Beans flew overhead. Some smacked into the car. Others ricocheted off lampposts and street signs. Conan took advantage of the mêlée and ran over to our side of the block. He hid behind a black and white Monte Carlo blasting us from the side while his boys got us from the front. I fired off two beans in Conan’s direction. Outgunned the six of us started talking about what to do. The Cepeda twins were ready to stick it out as long as I was. Jackie, Gregorio, and Flaco looked at each other and without a word Jackie and Gregorio decided to stay. Flaco left. Aramis spit on the ground and called Flaco a coward. Both he and Adonis wore to kick Flaco’s ass the next time they saw him. “Forget‘em,” I said. “He’s scared. But we have to show these guys we’re not.” I was trying to sound brave, but I knew that as soon as we ran out of ammo those guys were going to run up and rain hell on us. One bean smack stung like crazy, I could only imagine what a hundred felt like. Conan crept up a car closer, while Anthony and the rest their crew crossed the street. Conan was so close I could hear his grunt-laugh. “We’re gonna get you,” he yelled out. “Get ready for a bean bath.”
We checked our pockets to see how many beans we had left. Between the five of us, we only had a few. “Hold on I have an idea,” I said. I popped my head out from behind the car. “Okay, we give up. You guys win.” The other side sent a hail of beans as their response. I stood up. “Yo, come on chill. I’m on your team.”
“We ain’t got no dirty plátanos on our team,” said Conan firing a bean at my head. I ducked back down behind the car and grabbed my bat. Jackie shook his head. He vetoed any plan that meant smacking some in the head with a bat.
When our last bean was gone, I picked up some beans from the ground and fired them. The guys did the same but once those beans were used up, there was nothing on the ground except broken glass, small pieces of gravel, and our bats. My hand inched toward mine. Jackie stopped me. The guys wanted to run for it. “Go. I’ll catch up.” But I had no intention of leaving. I was going to make my stand there.
“Fine, then we all stay,” said Jackie. We each grabbed our bats. Conan and those guys started closing in. He had figured that we didn’t have any more beans so he stood up and got ready to rush us. His guys hesitated.
“Those mamabichos, pussy lickers might be faking,” yelled Raymond.
“Come on! I’m telling you they don’t have anything. Watch, I’ll prove it.” Conan stormed in our direction, bean shooter cocked and ready to fire just in case this was a trick. I tightened my grip on my bat. A few more steps and he would’ve been on top of us. But before Conan could reach us, a bean cracked him in his left cheek and he cried out grabbing his face.
“I told you,” yelled Raymond from behind his car. That first shot was followed by another, then a few more. Conan turned around and ran back to his boys. From behind us we heard the thunder of running feet. We looked back and saw Flaco followed by the rest of the boys from Los Pesaos little league team. They took cover behind cars and started gunning pellet hell on the Puerto Rican kids.
“You miss me?” asked Flaco, handing us beans. He told us later on that he was almost home when he remembered that some of Los Pesaos played ball over at P.S. 19. So he went and got them.
Los Pesaos changed the momentum. The Puerto Rican kids were now out gunned. Yet they kept battling, refusing to be run off, but eventually their ammo ran out. Like me, Conan wouldn’t leave. He didn’t have a bat but he had his pork chop fists. He raised them in the air and daring anyone from our side to shoot a bean at him. For a few seconds everything stopped. The force of Conan’s threat hung in the air. We all wanted to smack the redhead in the mouth but few wanted to face the consequences. I peeked out from my cover and there he was standing on the sidewalk, big as a hill, baby fat hiding the large muscles in his arms, eyes shooting death rays, lips snarling. I was about to call his bluff when Conan grabbed his face and cursed out in pain. I looked back and there was Flaco laughing and high-fiving Gregorio.
“That’s for messing up my ankle last year,” he said.
“I’m gonna kill you,” said Conan, heading toward us. We all raised our shooters and let beans fly. Conan tried to run through them but it was like running through a swarm of hornets. He got stung everywhere on his body and was forced to go back to his guys. None of them had beans so they ran away.
We chased them. I was in the front of the pack, smacking the Mets players with gandules. They’d made it clear I was not with them. I was an intruder, a foreign kid who forced his way on to their team and took a spot on the field from one of their guys. They would never accept me. I was running with Los Pesaos and despite the fact I had ruined their season last year, they were fighting with me.