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Authors: Paul Volponi

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BOOK: Game Seven
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the waves started to get stronger. The Buick began to really rock. I was bouncing around in the back, worse than in any school bus I'd ever ridden on.

“I feel like an American cowboy in one of those rodeos,” said Luis, bouncing as much as me. “Only their rides last just ten seconds or less.”

“Better hold on to your coconuts then,” I told him.

“That's right,” said Uncle Ramon. “Ten seconds is nothing to us. We're Cuban cowboys. We've got major-league cojones, made of steel. We'll take this ride for days if we have to. There's no quit in us. That's why the Marlins are going to win the Series. They'll ride out their rough patch, too. Julio, check the game.”

“What's the use?” I asked.

“I want to see if they've closed the gap,” said Uncle Ramon. “What kind of guts they have.”

“They're just ballplayers,” I said. “We've got the guts. We're the ones defecting.”

“You mean, like your papi?” he countered.

I didn't want to argue anymore. So I turned on the transistor, waiting to hear if things would get bumpier.

Seventh-inning stretch and what a night it's been for the Yankees. They lead the Marlins by an American football score, fourteen to three. They've pounded every Miami pitcher to take the mound tonight, and I don't believe the Marlins will be wasting any of their better bullpen arms in this one. I think they've already conceded. . . 

Uncle Ramon waved his hand in disgust, and I took it as a signal to put the radio away. After that, there was nothing but the sound of the waves crashing. And I was satisfied in keeping my secret for at least another night.

I was the only one who hadn't steered the Buick yet. I wasn't about to ask now, though. Not in heavy seas. But I was sitting right behind Gabriel, watching him grip the wheel and imagining how it would feel to set my own course. Then I squeezed my own hands tighter, as if they were wrapped around a wooden baseball bat.

– – –

I closed my eyes and could see myself walking up to home plate. I'm not sure when things blurred for me, but they blended from a daydream to a sleeping dream. As I settled into the batter's box, wiping out the chalky back line with the heel of my spikes, I could hear the voices of the crowd echoing from the stands. It wasn't the sound of cheers. But there weren't any boos either.

A catcher was in a deep crouch behind me. I could see him out of the corner of my right eye, and hear him pounding his mitt. I wasn't sure whether there was a home-plate umpire or not. And I wasn't about to turn around to find out, instead keeping my concentration on the left-handed pitcher on the mound.

The bases were loaded, and the runners took their leads. The pitcher glared in for the catcher's sign. As he lifted his head, beneath the brim of his cap, I saw that it was Papi. Either he didn't recognize me or he didn't care. He nodded his head to the sign and was practically breathing fire. I didn't have any choice. I knew what kind of heat was coming. So I steeled myself, with all of my senses ready to react.

Papi toed the pitching rubber. Then he brought his hands together, set, with the baseball hidden inside his glove. I could even read his name stitched along the thumb in script—
El Fuego

His right leg kicked out. Then he dropped his weight down, and drove forward with the lower half of his body. His left arm whipped over his head. And suddenly, the white baseball was in my eyes. It was flying at me so fast the red seams looked as sharp as razors. So I started my wrists forward and brought around the bat head.

First I heard the
of the ball off the bat. Then I felt the vibrations traveling through my hands. It was like the sting of bees, wrenching my fingers from the inside.

The baseball rocketed right back at Papi.

For an instant, we were both frozen in time—me at home plate and him on the mound—with that ball lined directly at his chest.

When I realized he'd never get his hands up in time, I felt an immense surge of satisfaction. But as the ball struck him, Papi disappeared in a puff of smoke.

– – –

I lurched forward in my seat, waking up with a start.

“Julio, are you all right? You were asleep,” said Uncle Ramon.

“I'm fine,” I said, with my heart still pounding.

“Were you dreaming about girls or defecting?” asked Luis.

“Neither,” I answered, still trying to get my bearings. “It was baseball.”

“That's dedication,” said my cousin, who was working on freeing the second coconut from its casing. “If I had your natural talent, I wouldn't be dreaming about baseball. I'd be dreaming about everything baseball could get me, like a fat contract full of US dollars.”

“Believe me, son, if you had a connection to the game like Julio,” Uncle Ramon said, “it would take over your life. Part of it would be pleasure. The other part would be fear of not making it. That what you have inside isn't good enough, especially when you have to live up to a legend like his papi.”

I looked my uncle square in the eyes and said, “I don't need to live up to anything Papi's done. He's not my hero.”

“Men aren't supposed to be heroes. They're supposed to be
,” said Gabriel, still glued to his compass with the waters getting even rougher. “That means they're going to have flaws, sometimes serious ones. Even the legends.”

“It's been six hard years. Perhaps you feel like you don't know him now,” said Uncle Ramon, returning my gaze until a jolt from a wave broke our eyes apart.

know him,” I said, with some gas to my voice. “Neither do you.”

“I know he's not a stranger. He's my brother, my blood, just like you are.”

Then Luis came between us with some stupid comment about his own special talent.

“Having a girl on every beach in Miami. That's what I'm going to be known for,” he said.

Gabriel laughed loudly over that, while Uncle Ramon scoffed at his son's so-called purpose in life. Luis took it all with an easy smile, rolling with the tide. That's when I started to wonder if my cousin's
purpose at the moment wasn't to get me out of that conflict with Uncle Ramon.

A few minutes later, Luis said to me, “I never took baseball too seriously. But there is something I really love about it.”

“What's that?”

“There's no clock. No time limit,” he answered. “A game could go into extra innings and take forever to play out. Other sports, you know when the end is coming. Time runs out. Baseball's got some magic to it that way. No one can say exactly when it's going to be over. So things can always change.”

I nodded my head, surprised that Luis even thought about such things.

Sometime around midnight, the wind picked up enough that we had to close all the windows. It was the first time I started to feel boxed in inside that Buick. None of us had showered for more than a day, and there was a growing funk in the air.

I turned on my side, away from the rest of them. Then I tucked my mouth and nose into the crook of my arm, preferring the smell of my own stink to anyone else's.


it was still dark outside. The sky was a dense gray, while the clouds were black and multiplying.

“Those are storm clouds—violent ones,” said Gabriel. “I've got lots of experience with them on the ocean, and none of it's good.”

A moment later, the first jagged bolt of lightning ripped through the sky. A few seconds after that, a booming clap of thunder pounded at my eardrums.

“Can we get electrocuted out here?” asked Luis nervously. “What if lightning hits the car or the water around us?”

“That's the least of our worries,” replied Gabriel, who was suddenly in a struggle with the steering wheel attached to the rudder. “We're in a big metal box—that'll protect us.”

“And that's enough?” Luis followed up.

“Electricity will run through the metal and into the water, grounding us. That's science. Sometimes you just have to trust in it,” Gabriel said, as another thunderclap echoed inside the Buick.

“When I was young, my mother told me thunder was the angels bowling in heaven,” said Uncle Ramon. “That it was the sound of them knocking down all ten pins, getting a strike.”

“Mama told me that story, too,” I said.

“Angels bowling?” mocked Gabriel. “I've never heard of such a thing.”

The next coupling of lightning and thunder was almost simultaneous.

“I think that means we're moving closer to the center of the storm,” Uncle Ramon said.

“Or it's moving closer to us,” I added.

“Well, we've had thirty-seven good hours. We can deal with some rough weather,” said Luis. “How long could a storm like this last?”

Gabriel didn't offer him an answer.

– – –

I thought I knew what big waves were before that day. I didn't. Every time I believed that Buick couldn't rise any higher on a crest, it did. Then we'd fall off the top and into the watery canyon below. It was like a bad ride at an amusement park that had gone out of control and wouldn't stop.

“They must have used broom handles for shock absorbers on this thing,” said Luis as we bounced around the cabin.

Then Luis started to get sick to his stomach again. Only this time there was no open window for him to hang his head out of, not without us getting flooded by those waves.

Uncle Ramon had one hand pressed up against the ceiling, trying to steady himself. In his other hand he held the compass, while Gabriel wrestled with the wheel to keep us on course.

“We're headed west now! Turn right!” shouted Uncle Ramon, an instant before he passed me the compass.

There were four hands on the steering wheel now, as Gabriel and Uncle Ramon both did battle with it.

I watched the needle and called out directions to them:
Right! Left! Straight!
That must have gone on for fifteen minutes. In the middle of it all, one of those damn coconuts flew across the cabin and clonked me in the head.

“Luis, you idiot! Get rid of those things!” I screamed.

But with the windows closed, it was all he could do to shove them down beneath the rear seat.

The sweat was pouring down Uncle Ramon's face. He was leaning so far over, he was almost on Gabriel's back. That's when his right arm must have caught a cramp.

“Augh!” Uncle Ramon cried, letting go of the wheel.

Suddenly, we were spinning in circles. There were no more directions for me to call out, because we were headed in every one. The compass needle was turning as fast as we were. And I couldn't look at it without getting dizzy.

I reached for my seat belt, but I couldn't get it into the buckle.

Then, for an instant, everything went black as a wall of water swallowed the Buick. I don't know if I was praying. But
oh God
were the only words I could find until we came out on the other side of it, still in one piece.

Bang! Bang! Bang!
The Buick began to vibrate, like a steel hammer behind us was striking it from side to side.

“That must be the rudder coming loose,” said Gabriel, gauging his words. “Don't worry. It won't hurt us too bad.”

In my mind, I kept seeing the Buick splitting in two and the four of us being separated on the ocean. It wouldn't have even mattered who could swim and who couldn't, because the waves were going to take you wherever they wanted.

Every time I heard Gabriel's voice, I thought back to the story he'd told—about surviving that storm on the raft when he was a kid. I couldn't imagine what was going through
mind at that moment. And if he wasn't scared out of his wits, then he was putting on a good show to keep the rest of us from going into a complete panic.

The water outside was churning with whitecaps. It felt like someone had just tossed the Buick into a giant washing machine. I could feel the tide pulling us down and then the inflatable rubber balloons on each side of the car/boat buoying us back up.

It went on that way for probably three or four hours. I can't say for sure, because Luis didn't give us a time-check once. Maybe he couldn't read his watch as we spun. Or maybe he didn't want to torture us with knowing how long we were being tossed around. At some point, though, I felt almost immune to it, like my body had adjusted itself through some kind of internal gyroscope.

– – –

The first hint that it was ending came when the wind's howl died down. Not long after that, spears of sunlight broke through the cloud cover, reaching the water. Then the waves got smaller and came farther and farther apart.

“Is it over, or do you think we just sailed through it?” asked Uncle Ramon.

“Either way, it's put us somewhere,” answered Gabriel, who looked completely wiped out from the battle.

My uncle, who hadn't shaved in probably three days, didn't look any better. And it was the first time I'd noticed gray hairs in his budding, sandpaper beard.

“You think the storm pushed us forward or back?” I asked, before I rolled open my window and swallowed a big breath of fresh air.

“There's really no way of telling,” answered Gabriel, as I handed him back the compass. “All we can do is keep heading north and slightly west.”

With the sun's return, the heat started to build again. Luis went back to work on that last coconut. I shot him a glare while I rubbed the lump on my head.

“Don't worry,” he said to me. “If we need to split one open, we'll use my noggin this time.”

I didn't comment back, but it was exactly what I was thinking.

A few hours later, Uncle Ramon broke the calm.

“Ship!” he shouted. “Off to the right! There's a ship on the horizon!”

“Where?” I asked.

“I see it!” screamed Luis, pointing in that direction. “Way out there. See? It's small. It looks like a smoking cigar on the water.”

It was maybe ten or twelve miles off, steaming away from us.

“Should we shoot the flares?” asked Luis. “Signal that we're here?”

“Can you make out any markings on it?” Gabriel asked Uncle Ramon. “A flag? Anything?”

“No, I can't,” he answered, with his voice dropping low in disappointment. “And I know what you're thinking. The storm could have pushed us anywhere. That ship might even be Cuban.”

“It couldn't be,” I said. “We've been out here too long.”

“Forty-five hours,” said Luis. “Nearly two whole days.”

“If it's not a US ship, it's risky to give ourselves up,” Gabriel said, continuing on our course. “Captains from other countries might get orders to turn us over to Cuban authorities, just to make it easy on themselves.”

That seemed to end any potential argument. And within a few minutes, that ship had sailed out of sight.

When the Buick was almost out of gas, I grabbed the extra ten-gallon container and climbed out onto the trunk. I leaned over the tail fin, connected the spout to the opening of the fuel tank, and tipped the red plastic container back.

Out of nowhere, a seagull started circling. I watched him make four or five passes, with his eyes seemingly glued to mine. Once the container was empty, I took a half-eaten energy bar from my pocket and broke off a small piece. Then I tossed it onto the roof. Without ever touching down, the bird scooped up the morsel with its beak.

I was hoping he'd fly off in the same direction we were headed. But he flew from the glare of the sinking sun into a thick bank of clouds before I lost him.

“Nephew, we have less than half our food and water left,” said Uncle Ramon. “Are you going to waste even a single crumb on a seagull?”

“Maybe Julio was luring the bird in. So we could eat him,” said Luis.

“That wasn't it at all,” I said. “I was trying to bribe him.”

him?” asked Uncle Ramon, confused.

“I was thinking he might give Gabriel flying lessons one day.”

“That's nice of you, Julio,” Gabriel said, with a widening grin. “But that's something every man has to learn for himself.”

Inside of the next hour, the sun went down over the horizon.

“That's three minutes earlier than yesterday,” said Luis, excitedly.

“So the storm didn't push us back,” said Uncle Ramon.

“No, but it could have blown us sideways,” said Gabriel.

Still, we hadn't moved toward Cuba. And that was enough to send us into a celebration where we each ate and drank more than was rationed out for that night.

I put off tuning into the game for as long as possible. But eventually, Uncle Ramon wore me down.

Top of the fifth inning here at Yankee Stadium in a swift-moving contest. The Marlins lead Game Five by a score of one to nothing on a solo home run back in the second inning. Other than that, the pitchers have dominated this evening, with a brisk wind blowing in from right field. . . .

“See, it's a pitcher's night,” said Uncle Ramon. “Your papi's probably going to play a big part in this one. Maybe save it. Mark my words.”

Over the next four torturous innings, the Marlins had base runners everywhere. They even had a man on third base with less than two outs—twice. But they couldn't get either of those runners home, while the Yankee hitters went down quietly, one after another.

If the Marlins were going to win, I wanted them to blow the game wide open. I didn't want to hear a single word about Papi saving the day. I didn't want him to be the hero. Not mine and not anybody else's. But when the bottom of the ninth inning finally arrived, the score hadn't changed.

To a chorus of sustained boos from Yankees fans, Julio Ramirez completes that long walk from the bullpen to the mound. If El Fuego, perhaps Cuba's greatest pitcher ever, can shut the door on the Bombers, the Marlins will take a three-games-to-two lead back to Miami. They'll be just one game away from a World Series Championship. And even as Ramirez kicks at the dirt around the rubber with his spikes, that much-talked-about intensity and passion appear to be already at full throttle. . . .

“That's his Cuban blood running hot,” said Uncle Ramon. “Where we come from, you either have desire or you die a nobody.”

“Matanzas!” cried Luis.

“Victory!” shouted my uncle.

I nodded my head and clapped my hands. But somewhere in the darkest part of my heart, I was rooting for Papi to get hammered on that mound.

BOOK: Game Seven
2.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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