Post Road Magazine #29

There But Not There

Martín Espada

the way they look at you.
      you don't know if it's something you did
                    or something you are.
                              Tino Villanueva

I was my father's catcher at Highland Park in Brooklyn,
bracing myself for the curveball that started to spin
at my left shoulder and bounced off my right knee,
as I swatted with my yawning mitt and missed it.
He would roar at my bulging eyes, the stupefaction
of a boy studying a magician's every move, unable
to figure out the trick.  I squeezed the fingers of his glove,
wrinkled and black, like shaking hands with a gorilla.

During the War, my father taught himself the grips,
the spins, the drops, the in-shoots, the knuckleball
to pitch for the team paid for by the Democratic Party
ward boss of the Upper West Side, who counted out
the cash for the uniforms and the team bus, put up
the stakes on every game, collected on the bets.

Soon the skinny refugee from Puerto Rico pitched every game,
even the game at the pig farm in the land of Weehawken. 
New Jersey was wild in those days, he said. We played in pig shit.
Somebody gored the second baseman on the slide, punches
fell like hail from a clear sky, and the pig farmers chased
the team back to the bus, the driver in a whiskey haze
as he spun the wheel, tires spitting mud at the mob.

Once my father told me of the day his curveball was a cloud
of steam, a spirit there but not there, a hummingbird 
blurring in the eyes of the hitters, dipping away from the bat,
the day he no-hit the American Legion team from Queens,
the day he turned fifteen and would live forever.

The big league scouts watched him pitch at Central Park.
I didn't throw hard enough for them, he said. Or maybe
it was my dark skin. They loved blonde hair and blue eyes.
He never knew, and so the scouts would visit him in sleep,
notching illegible notes on a clipboard, there but not there.

There is a browning photograph of my father in his uniform
from 1947, tilting into his windup, spikes high to dazzle
the batter, knuckles almost scraping the grass behind him, 
ready to fire the spin, the drop, the curveball. There is no baseball
in his hand. The magician in him made the baseball disappear.
His pitching hand rolls into a fist for all the scouts to see.

Eddie McClain from 108th Street, my father's catcher seventy years ago,
the best man at his wedding, shook my hand at the memorial service
in Brooklyn. Sweating in my suit and tie, I never had a chance
to ask him for the secret, how he caught the curveball, that cloud
of steam, the flight of the hummingbird, my father there but not there.

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