ESPERANZA FARM: A Novel
by JESUS MARIA ALVAREZ
I had been playing baseball the day I heard the world was going to end.
I remember because something happened then that had never happened before, or since: I scored the winning run on a suicide squeeze on that day.
It was the bottom of the ninth and the game was tied, two runs a piece. I had managed a walk to start the inning. When I tried to steal second, the catcher’s throw sailed into the outfield. I made it to third base standing up, on account of the error. I was taking a big lead off third trying to draw a throw from Victor, their pitcher. My friend Johnny was flashing me the signs from the on-deck circle. He was up next, unless Tonito got a hit to drive me in with the winning run. I first heard the rumble just as Victor came set. He looked at me for a brief moment before delivering his pitch. By the time Tonito swung over the slow curve to strike out, the sound of the jet engine was loud enough to drown his cursing. Tonito was furious at having swung at ball four. He had made the first out of the ninth.
The plane had not appeared yet.
Johnny walked towards home plate taking quick, compact practice swings as he walked. By home plate he hit the inside of both shoes with the barrel of the bat trying to loosen the mud. Before stepping in, Johnny lifted the bat, pointing it towards right field. Everyone looked in the direction of the tobacco fields that began just behind the fence. The jet, narrowly clearing the grove of palm trees at the edge of the dirt road leading out of San Pedro, was flying towards us. I saw Victor cover one ear with his glove and the other with the back of the hand that held the baseball. Johnny was tracing the plane’s flight path with his bat as it flew over the outfield, left to right, in less than half a second. I saw the white shirts drying on a clothesline outside the left field foul line flapping in the tailwind, waving wildly at the aircraft on its way north. Even before the engine roar had dissipated and the rows of tobacco behind the right field fence had stopped swaying, Johnny stepped into the batter’s box and play resumed.
“The Americans are going to bomb the shit out of us,” Victor said, as he circled the mound.
“The only bomb you have to worry about is the one I am going to hit over everybody’s head to win this game,” Johnny said, looking in my direction and tapping the top of his cap three times.
I nodded to let him know that I’d gotten the sign.
Johnny was going to try to bunt me home.
The hardest part was trying to control my excitement, not to telegraph the play. I took a couple of steps in the direction of home, keeping my eye on Victor.
When I saw him call a time out to talk to his twin brother Vladimir, who was doing the catching, I thought my nerves had given me away. By the look on Johnny’s face, I could tell that he also believed Vladimir was onto us. When the conference halfway between home and the mound was over, Johnny again tapped his cap the same way, but this time he didn’t look at me. He took a called first strike without squaring off to bunt. I walked back and stepped on the base until the next pitch had left Victor’s fingertips. Then I broke for home.
Johnny laid down a slow rolling bunt in the direction of second base that got past the pitcher’s mound.
In front of me, I saw Vladimir take off his mask and block the plate, yelling at the second baseman to throw him the ball. He raised his mitt and took a quick look at me, getting ready for the throw. As I ran, I heard Johnny’s loud laughter as he made his way to first base.
Out of the edge of my left eye I saw the second baseman charging the ball and bending towards the grass, going for a bare-hand grab. By the time I started my slide, I saw him let go of the ball, as he was falling in the direction of the pitchers’ mound.
When I closed my eyes and I stiffened myself preparing to crash into the masonry wall that was Vladimir, he moved, pulled away by the throw, leaving me a clear path to home plate.
I heard Johnny yell: “SAFE!” above the cheering from our team.
I stayed on the ground, screaming up at the sky, a cloud of dust settling over me, enjoying my moment. My eight teammates, jumping and yelling, joined in the celebration, pinning me to the ground and leaving me gasping for air under the pile-up.
The moment I was able to break free, I started running towards my house. I wanted to tell my father about our crazy come-from-behind win and my part in it.
When I went into the house, I found my father listening to the radio and my mother pacing from one side of the kitchen to the other.
“Dad, you’re not going to believe this.” I stopped to catch my breath, “I was on third base—”
“Not now, son. I am busy. We can talk later.”
Dad was adjusting the dial, trying to improve the reception. At the same time he was trying to calm Mom down, but neither was working. Mom couldn’t keep still. She was shaking, on account of her nerves, she said. She kept looking up at the sky through the window, mumbling over the radio static. I heard her say that we needed to know the truth about the bombing.
“But Dad, you won’t believe—”
“Paquito, leave your father alone! We need to find out what’s going on.”
“Going on with what?”
“We don’t know what’s going on. That’s why we’re trying to find out!”
I had just put my glove down on the kitchen table when my Mom grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the alley next to our house. She gave me a small shovel and some pillowcases.
“Hurry up and fill these with dirt, now!” Mom looked up at the sky again, shielding her eyes from the brightness of the October sun. “We need sandbags, just in case….”
“Just in case…what?”
“Don’t start asking me questions, Paquito. I don’t know. Nobody knows and if they know, they’re not telling us. Hurry up, I said!”
She turned and headed back into the kitchen. “Cuba has become a country of ignorants and mutes!” she said to herself on the way in.
I started shoveling the soft, reddish soil into the sacks trying really hard not to rip them with the edge of the shovel. As I filled the first one, I heard the sounds of a radio coming from our neighbor Reinaldo’s house, the static making it hard to hear the announcer’s voice. I worried the minute I recognized the station. Reinaldo was listening to Voice of America. I knew listening to this station was not allowed because it broadcasted from the United States. My parents and some of our neighbors listened to it anyway. They didn’t believe the Cuban radio and the American station was supposed to tell the truth.
I looked around and when I saw no one, I got closer to Reinaldo’s window and listened:
“In Washington, President Kennedy signed Proclamation 3504, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba, designed to prevent additional supplies from the Soviet Union from reaching the island. There are twenty to thirty ships en-route believed to be carrying nuclear components. The Organization of American States, at the request of the United States, approved a resolution calling for the removal of the missiles. Last night in his live address to the nation and the world, President Kennedy spoke for the first time about the escalating crisis. He said that the government of the United States had, and we quote: ‘maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive Missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere,’ end of quote. We will continue to bring you the latest news and information as events continue to unfold.”
I walked in between the two houses and when I got to the edge of our porch I sat down and looked out. On the street in front of our house people came and went, no one saying much. I didn’t see anybody smiling or talking loudly either. An eerie expectation—like the moment in the forest when a tree that’s been cut hasn’t yet hit the ground—had come over the neighborhood.
I started walking towards Main Street with the static hiss following me, jumping from house to house, like the whole neighborhood was listening to the radio. Everyone wanted to know if the rumors were just rumors. Those with TV’s—and there were only a couple of families on my block that had a TV—were probably watching the station from Havana, the only one we got. Walking past Mamita’s house, the neighborhood’s official Santeria priestess and consultant, I saw a small group of people standing around on her porch and some standing on the sidewalk under the shade of the avocado tree in front of her house. I knew they were there to consult the dead and to get a reading by rolling the shells. Had the spirits told them what to expect? As I got closer and saw the depressed look on everyone’s face, I knew that nothing had come through. Like even the Santos on the other side didn’t know what to do about our troubles.
I turned back. When I got home, I found Reinaldo standing by the inside edge of the fence that surrounded his house, a drink in his right hand. A group of people was there, outside of the fence, listening to him.
Reinaldo Garsa, who had lived in the United States for many years, was saying that an attack by the United States on Cuba could come any minute. People believed him when he said that the plane that flew low above the fields earlier that afternoon was an American spy plane. Reinaldo should have known, they said, because he had fought as a Sergeant in the American Army during the Korean War.
Most times no one paid attention to him because he was usually drunk. I had seen Reinaldo call out to neighbors passing by, but if he was drunk they kept walking, shaking their heads, like they felt sorry for him. Even when Reinaldo yelled at them, screamed their names from behind the fence, they would just ignore him.
This time was different. People wanted to know what he thought. Even a few Communists were asking Reinaldo questions and they were interested in his predictions. People were desperate for information and Reinaldo wasn’t that drunk yet. I stood by the fence, listening in on the conversation.
“The Americans are really upset over missiles that our allies, the Russians, are donating to the Cuban Armed Forces for the defense of the country. The United States has threatened to do whatever is necessary to get rid of the missiles, even if it means getting rid of Cuba. It was on the radio this morning. I’m afraid it appears certain that the Americans will attack Cuba–”
“We’ve heard this sort of talk before and nothing happens,” a young man standing up front interrupted, “I wish they’d hurry up and get it over with.”
As I got closer, I recognized who it was. His name was Toby Martinez, the son of Bebo Martinez and Mariana Betancourt. Bebo, who had been dead about two years by this time, owned one of the two pharmacies in town. The Martinez Pharmacy had a Cuban flag over the main door and a large painting of Fidel behind the counter. Bebo Martinez was riding a bus to Havana to hear Fidel’s speech at the celebration of the Revolution’s first anniversary, but never made it. He had a heart attack when the bus stopped in Artemisa for refueling. Bebo died clutching his Cuban flag.
His son Toby quit his pharmaceutical studies at the university right after Bebo died. He moved back home and lived with his Mom and his two younger brothers in the house behind the pharmacy where he had grown up, half a block from my house. Toby made a living as a car mechanic and he rode around town in a motorcycle that had been his Dad’s.
“I’ve heard it all before and nothing happens. If they wanted to invade, they would.” Toby looked around before adding: “Some folk here might even welcome the Americans….”
“Yes, we’ve heard it before but this time the stakes are much higher. This may be for real, people, because the situation is getting out of control. And when you add nuclear weapons to the mix, nobody knows how the argument will finally be settled,” Reinaldo sipped from his glass, “but, you know, nuclear weapons sound redundant. I think that just one missile equipped with a decent size nuclear warhead would be enough to wipe out San Pedro and most of Cuba.”
Reinaldo looked in my direction and winked. I saw that he was enjoying the conversation. Reinaldo saw some of the people who had ignored him in the past now looking for answers. His gloomy words were scaring the shit out of them—and me—but it looked like he was getting a kick out of it.
“Booooom! He yelled into the fence, out of the blue, “the world’s going to end, you fuckers!”
Two ladies in the front of the group jumped back, grabbing each other’s arms.
Reinaldo howled in delight.
“You’re crazy, Reinaldo,” one of them said and started to walk away, “just plain crazy!”
“Call me crazy, if you like! But here’s the good news for you: no one, except the cockroaches, will survive a nuclear attack. So, don’t worry, you don’t have a thing to fear!”
A green Jeep pulled up to the sidewalk, a little distance from where we were standing. A man in a white guayabera shirt and dark glasses stepped out of the passenger side and walked right up to the group. The driver got out a moment later but he stayed behind, lit a cigarette and leaned against the Jeep.
“Hey, Martinez, we have to talk,” the man said as he got closer.
Without looking at him, Toby turned and started walking away. The man grabbed Toby by the hair and pulled him towards the Jeep.
“I said we have to talk!”
The glass slipped out of Reinaldo’s hand and shattered on the concrete walk. I saw his finger tremble as he pointed it in the direction of the man in the white guayabera. Reinaldo opened his mouth, like he was going to scream something, but no words came. Not even when the man slapped Toby with the back of his hand.
“Are you deaf? I said we have to talk.”
He pushed Toby against the Jeep.
The second man looked at the rest of us, “Go on, go home. All of you!” Then he looked at Reinaldo, “And stop listening to a drunken old fool. Go on, get out of here!”
We all began walking away, not one of us daring to look back. As I got closer to the alley, I heard two thumps behind me, like a catcher’s fist pounding a mitt, waiting for a pitch. When I looked, I saw the two government guys on their backs and I saw Toby running away, rounding the corner at full speed. Reinaldo, having finally found his voice, started screaming for Toby to run faster.
I rushed back to the alley afraid that my mother would find out I had abandoned my post. A few moments later I heard one of the men yell something at Reinaldo. I heard screeching tires and then the silence returned to our street.
I went back to my chore. When I had filled the last of the pillowcases with dirt, I asked my mother what to do next.
“Take them into the bathroom. Stack them by the edge of the bathtub.”
I carried the bags into the house, one by one. There was a total of four. These were all the pillowcases we had.
“What a rotten system where a family can only own four pillowcases no matter how hard they work.” Even with the impending attacks, Mom found the time to criticize the Communist government.
I had no idea why she felt that the bathroom would be the best location for the sandbags—if she had heard it on the radio or Reinaldo had suggested this place or if she had seen it done in an old war movie—but that was where I put them.
“Your father is trying to find some empty bags to make more sandbags.” She cleared her throat. “He also went looking for a photographer to take some passport pictures of us. We’ve had it, Paquito! We’re going to apply for a visa to go to the United States,” she didn’t take her eyes of the window, “that’s if we survive.”
I had heard my parents talking about leaving Cuba before. And when they talked about leaving for the “North”, Dad would say that if it came to it, we were only going to be away for a few months, a year tops. Just enough time for things to get back to normal. He would say: “Think of it this way: if our house was damaged by a hurricane, we’d be going to stay with relatives until it was repaired.”
Those relatives he spoke about had gotten to Miami in the first wave of emigrants spilling out of Cuba right after Castro admitted to being a Communist. Some had later moved to California and others to New Jersey. They were the first tear in the fabric of our family.
About an hour after he had left to search for bags, Dad returned home without a single one. He looked very sad, sadder than I had ever seen him, like he was just coming back from a funeral. He nodded to my mother and me when he came into the kitchen. He pulled out one of the chairs. Dad sat down and then he just burst out crying, his head bouncing on his arm a little with each sob.
My mother rushed to Dad’s side, screaming his name.
“Armando! Armando! What’s the matter?” she yelled, grabbing and shaking his shoulder, “for the love of God, tell me what’s going on!”
I stood by the door, immobilized, at the sight of my crying father.
“What did you hear? Please, tell me…pleeease!” she had begun weeping loudly herself, “please, Armando, what are they…saying…about the bombing?”
Dad raised his head. He looked at me for a brief moment before addressing my mother. “What bombing Carmen, what are you saying?”
“Please, don’t lie to me! How much time do we have before the attack? How much time—”
“Carmen, get a hold of yourself!” Dad looked at me again, “you’re scaring Paquito. I have no news at all of the—”
“Why are you crying, then? And don’t lie to me!”
“I went by Mom’s house looking for the sacks and Gilberto was there—”
”And I told him of my…of our decision to get a visa and….” Dad took a deep breath. “We argued, Carmen, that’s all, we argued. He said that I was crazy for wanting to take Paco to a country with a despicable and corrupt system of government, to be raised in a society….”
Mom had heard enough. She wiped her eyes and moved away from the table.
“Did you tell your brother what a despicable society this one is? Where you can’t even live in peace without—”
Dad raised his hand and shook his head. His chin trembled. “I don’t want to argue about it anymore. We’ve made our decision and I don’t need to be convinced,” he added, “but he’s my brother…and it bothers me that we argued.”
Mom was out of the kitchen before he could finish his sentence.
Dad went back to crying.
I thought of telling him about the suicide squeeze Johnny and I had pulled off, about our victory in the bottom of the ninth, my perfect slide at home plate. I thought it would cheer him up, but I couldn’t say anything.
Instead, I stood by the door without saying a word, looking by turns at the mud on my shoes and the way my father’s head would rise and fall with each sob.