First, tell the gringo baseball player how your husband, Roberto, always knew he was going to die young. If he has no reaction, tell him about what was on the plane: fresh water, plantains, rolls of gauze, baby shoes, powdered milk. Hundreds and hundreds of chancletas. And even if he doesn’t ask, tell him those things were for the earthquake victims in Nicaragua. This player, Roberto’s teammate on the Pittsburgh Pirates, will look surprised, and you know it’s because he never bothered to ask where your husband traveled, why he’d go anywhere that wasn’t here. Take his hand, lead him away from the living room full of mourners, and out to the balcony where it’s quiet. Because he comes from a farming background, tell him about how Roberto cut sugar cane, all the places that hurt after hours bent like a curveball. Explain the first time you met, the first time you saw him play in Carolina, Puerto Rico. This was when he was skinny, palms full of splinters, hair combed out like thick black cotton.
It was a Sunday morning in June after church, 1949. The boys’ nice clothes—starched white shirts, navy pants ironed smooth, cloth ties—lay in neat piles on top of a piece of a tarp to keep them clean. They changed into their uniforms on the field behind the high school, the grass crisped from the summer sun. Sometimes you watched them, admired the folds of skin as they bent to pull up thin socks, the small bumps of their spines, how their chests, necks, and arms were different shades of brown. They were your patchwork boys and you loved their bodies leaping over each other, turning, and throwing balls like releasing prayers. You loved their blistered hands, the tight belts at their delicate waists, waists of boys not quite men yet, something fragile and in between.
Roberto was special, even at fifteen. In his eyes there was something good—not pure—but good. Eyes that had seen enough for two lifetimes, that had seen into the future. I won’t be here long; I need to hurry. But that would come later. For now, he was in front of you, and this was the day he would be signed. You wore a white lace dress and tight braids held in place with white ribbons, the frayed ends brushing your shoulder blades. Even though you knew your mother’d get mad, you took off your shoes and socks and leaned against the wooden fence next to all the boys from the barrio, watched Roberto step up to plate. He rolled his neck, tapped the bat against the inside of his shoes, old black trainers covered in orange dust. At the neck of his shirt were several holes; you wanted to put your fingers there, touch his skin.
The first swing was a strike, the second a foul ball, but the third? The third was mythic. The sharp crack, a sound that made both teams stand up in unison and Roberto’s team jump like children. Later, that sound was something you’d associate with love, then anger, and finally, an acute sense of drowning. But on that day, the crack shot ran through you and up your legs to the tips of your fingers, hands shaking as if it was you holding the bat. As he ran the bases he kept his face passive, and before he could put both feet on home plate his teammates lifted him to their shoulders. In the air he took a necklace out from under his shirt, a key on a thin strip of leather, and that’s when he looked right at you and brought the key to his lips: a promise of things to come, of leaving and returning home, of dreaming of this moment again and again.
Stop talking now and wait for his reaction. If he pats you on the shoulder and offers his condolences once again, shrug his hand away. You’re not looking for pity. Everyone sitting in your living room, standing in your kitchen, has bestowed pity. If he sighs and tries to give you money, politely decline and say you need to be by yourself. If his shoulders slump, if he has the face of a man who’s struck out with the bases loaded, take out the cigarettes, accept his light. He’ll ask, Do you think if he hadn’t come here he might still be alive?
There’s no way to know, you’ll say.
While you smoke, fast forward to the part about moving to America. This is where it gets interesting. (Yes, there are good stories from Montreal after he got signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but you really want to emphasize the America part.) Make the baseball player feel included, even though he never tried to include Roberto.
On April 17, 1955, Roberto made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates. You remember being confused when he told you that spring training was in Fort Myers, had to borrow a map to figure out where it was. Florida, you assumed, was a land of flowers, of hibiscuses and gardenias, roses and wild azaleas. You imagined Roberto and his teammates eating supper in delicate gardens, him practicing his English, admiring the burning sunsets. Of course, you could never have imagined what actually happened because he never told you, not until years after you’d already bought a nice house in Pittsburgh with air-conditioning, a room for the boys to grow up in. Years later, on the yellow couch in the living room, he put his head on your lap and reached for your emerald earrings, a wedding gift. The green reminds me of the grass in Florida. He told you about Fort Myers. He told you how he couldn’t stay in the hotel with his teammates because of his dark skin. How he had to live with a black family in Dunbar Heights. How he had to eat his meals on the bus when they were on the road. How once, he went inside to buy a Coca-Cola and was told they didn’t serve his kind before they kicked him out. They all watched. They all just ate and watched.
It was in Pittsburgh that you first learned about colors, about people crossing the street when you approached, what a rope really meant, how important hair was. You didn’t know what to do if you were neither color, if you could pass, if you’d ever want to.
Tell him about the party that was thrown for Roberto when he won MVP in 1966. The players, managers, and donors (all white), the waiters (all black). Roberto joked that he should join them in the kitchen. He was always joking, but you knew it bothered him, made him feel helpless. In Puerto Rico people didn’t see his skin, they saw him, the person; in America he had to start over, but with the weight of useless questions: Was he Caribbean? Latino? Black? Brown? Afro-Latino? When he was interviewed, reporters made fun of his English. In the papers, they quoted him word for word not because they cared about accuracy, but because they wanted to see him fail.
The party was a joke. Little pieces of cold vegetables, crystal glasses of flat champagne, dull, soft music. In Puerto Rico there would have been salsa music blasting, people sweating, pigs roasting, movement until the next morning, the smell of coal and pernil in the air. The gringo party was stiff, a show put on for the sake of the press and when Roberto was dragged into a photo op with the owner, you slipped off to the bathroom. Inside, everything was pink: the towels, soap, walls, even the toilet cover. You looked at yourself in the mirror, your almost straight hair, which was normally kinky, your tight dress that cost too much, the extra powder you applied to your face to get the right shade of light even though you hated yourself as you did it. Yes, it was hard for you too, hard to smile at people who looked over your shoulder, people who pressured you to speak English, cook casseroles, play cards in houses cleaned by people who looked like you, looked like your island.
Sometimes you wondered why he played baseball, why he put himself through the thousands of hours of training to have a chance at hitting a ball maybe twice out of ten times, three if he was good, four if he was fantastic. Where did the drive come from, especially in a place that didn’t see his abilities, preferred to pick at his accent and disdain his skin. What difference did it make if he could speak English when the game wasn’t in any language? These were questions you asked yourself when Roberto came home defeated or angry, when he wouldn’t eat the arroz con frijoles. Once, it was a cashier who wouldn’t touch his hand. Once it was a little boy in suspenders who spit on him. Once it was his own teammate, a man with hair the color of butter who stole his shoes and threw them into a toilet filled with his own shit.
At this, the baseball player will tell you he never did anything like that. That man was a coward, he says. He’ll touch your shoulder. You know that, right? Stay quiet. Look at the sunset. The sunsets in Pittsburgh are muted compared to Puerto Rico’s, and this is something that brings you a small peace. Tell the baseball player that it wasn’t always easy, but there were also happy moments, like your last trip together to Managua.
You went with Roberto during the Amateur World Series. When it was over, he took you to the market, several old buildings connected by walkways, where the breeze passed through in bursts. People stopped him, recognized his face from the newspapers and posters, wanted to shake his hand. He wasn’t a hero in Pittsburgh, but he was a hero in Puerto Rico, in Nicaragua. You stopped at every table, picked up a green tostone maker, which he bought, tasted a bit of farmer’s cheese, which he had sliced and wrapped for breakfast later in the hotel. When you lingered over a pair of earrings, wooden beads painted lavender, he carefully put them in your lobes. Roberto bent with you to smell tortillas, listened as you talked to the young girl fanning flies away from a bowl of chancho con yuca, fingertips stained red from achiote powder. She was pregnant, and you told her that you’d always wanted a girl. With a smile she said, “May the next one be a rose.” Someone turned on a radio, salsa, and Roberto touched your hips. “Dance with me, flor de miel.”
The baseball player knows what’s coming next. He excuses himself to get a plate of food and you wonder if it tastes like sandpaper to him like it does to you. When he comes back (if he comes back), tell him a secret: Twenty years earlier, on the exact same day of the plane crash, Roberto got into a bad car accident, was hit by a drunk driver, and almost died. The exact same day. If the baseball player shakes his head, shake yours, too. If he asks what it means, say, He never stood a chance.
It’s almost dark now. You feel an urgency to explain everything to this baseball player, to make him understand the life of the man he ignored, the man he left on the bus, the man he wouldn’t shower next to. You want him to understand that he’s going to live on for decades—not just his numbers, but the people he helped, the way he stared at the camera, eyes to lens. The man is gone but the legacy isn’t—his face will be painted on walls, body sculpted from stone, baseball cards pinned to bicycle spokes.
Let me talk, you say. Let me tell you about when I went back, after the earthquake, after the crash.
When you stepped off the plane it felt walking into an oven; the winter cold in your marrow thawed and melted out your pores, destroyed the face you’d carefully powdered. You travelled alone, headed straight to the market, and didn’t bother to check into the hotel. Cristobal, Roberto’s best friend, had decided to dive for his body and bring him home to Puerto Rico. You knew this was foolish, but you wouldn’t stop him. Grief for him was submerged, and for you it was hidden in a mess of blocks and cement, of what once stood. Every step was painful; you weren’t walking through the market but on top of it, stumbling over tables, pipes, limbs. Your hand instinctively reached out for Roberto’s, but where were they? Floating in the sea? Trapped inside the plane? Or maybe they were tucked beneath his head; maybe he was sleeping on an island, not dead at all, merely lost.
After Cristobal told you about the crash, you didn’t leave your room for a week. Your mother finally forced you to go to church and after praying and hymn-singing, wringing your hands with other women, eyes up to the sanctuary, there was still a discomfort in your chest. Despite the communal attempt to feel something like forgiveness, like acceptance, all you felt was a hard knot like a baseball in your throat. Cristobal wrote you a poem that you didn’t want and almost made you hate him for being alive instead of Roberto. A poem that he read on the radio while you, and the entire island, listened:
December 31, 1972
On this day we lost our brother.
Three days of long, hot
mourning in Puerto Rico.
Men sit around altars
of rum. Remember the days
he played pick-up games
with rocks? Remember
his favorite teams?
The Southern. Four Roses.
El Sur. Cuatro Rosas.
Women sit around altars
of sugar. Remember the days
he sewed shirts for his
his favorite foods?
Pork. Salt & mangoes.
Pernil. Mangos y sal.
Did he think of us before
the deep black? His body tangled
in the crew, powdered milk turning
the black gray. No white light.
Before the flight, Roberto told Vera:
“If there is one more delay, we’ll leave
this for tomorrow.”
“Si hay un retraso más, lo dejamos
para mañana, amor.”
You didn’t want a poem. You wanted justice, an explanation. How could the plane have gone down? Why was it so old? Why did the pilot come late? You stood and watched the four-engined, DC-7 piston-powered take off from San Juan, and then Cristobal drove you back to your mother’s house. The plane came down in heavy seas a mile and a half from shore. Hours later, Coast Guard planes circled the area, lit the sea up with flares searching for bodies. None were ever found. You wish it had been you instead, or that the plane had crashed on land. At least then you’d have a place to visit, leave flowers, a place to cry alone. Instead, Roberto was nowhere and everywhere at once, forever transient, forever in between.
But there you were in the market that once was, searching for the past in dust, breathing in the charred air. Cristobal was diving somewhere over the site of the crash right now. You thought of him, his hard skin, the tears in his eyes when he got the news. He was with you, the only one who really understood. The rest of the team would wait for the wake to pay their condolences, white men with short hair and tar-stained teeth. Had they bothered to ask about Puerto Rico when Roberto was alive? Why did they insist on calling him Bob? He hated when they called him Bob, when they made fun of the thickness of his hair and lips. They never deserved him.
After so much talking, you’re done. Tell the baseball player you’re tired, go back inside. Don’t listen to the string of platitudes, don’t feel the sympathetic shoulder squeezes, don’t look at the yellow couch. Instead, focus on the loud rush of water in your ears, the smell of salt. You’re sinking. In the kitchen don’t stop at the table stacked with food that makes you sick, American food with no real flavor. Mounds of mashed potatoes, creamy spinach that looks like mold, marshmallows so sweet they hurt your teeth. You don’t want this, don’t want their Jell-O, don’t want to sift through the plastic containers, return them to people who claim to feel your pain but know nothing about you, your life, your husband.
Go to the pantry. Turn on the lights, then turn them off and sit on the floor. It’s nice to be alone, no more nodding, no more fingers on your skin, no more gifts bought for proof. See? We’re sad, too. Lean back and spread your body over the tile floor. Forget about wrinkling your dress or smashing your hair. Slowly unbutton your shirt, put your hand over your heart, imagine it’s Roberto’s, imagine the scratch of callouses. Kick off your shoes. Don’t fall asleep and don’t think about the first time you saw him play because if you do, you might never come up again; you might just stay on this floor for the rest of your life.
When the baseball player knocks, don’t say anything. He’ll open the door slowly, stumble over your feet, and turn on the light. Seeing you on the floor breaks something in him, something he didn’t realize he was holding onto. He’ll start to cry. You’ll be tempted to comfort him. Don’t. Turn your head to the side, stare at the cans of garbanzos, the bags of cornmeal. Listen and don’t listen to the sounds of a grown man crying, the shuddering intake, the whimpers. Don’t ask who he’s crying for. You might not like the answer.
Dana De Greff grew up between Miami, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon and has taught English in Albacete, Spain and Patagonia, Chile. Currently, she is a Master in Fine Arts candidate in fiction at University of Miami. She also writes book reviews for The Miami Herald, is a freelance arts journalist, teaches poetry with O, Miami to children in Liberty City, and is working with Voice of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices) in community outreach.