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Chapter Five: Los Hermanos
“English, actually, came easy to me,” Ernesto said. “It is about studying, about repetition, and that’s something I could learn in school. My brother, he is too stubborn to learn it.”
Tomasito was on the other side of the concrete yard in the neighborhood they shared with Sabria, laughing loudly and drinking with a group of young men.
“Well it’s a good thing,” said Marshall. “If it weren’t for you and Sabria, I don’t think I’d be able to talk my way into lunch.”
“Yeah, you’re crazy. What are you doing in Cienfuegos? You’re barely older than me.”
“That’s a great question,” said Marshall. For a second he looked up towards the sinking sun and saw the first clouds he could remember since arriving in Cuba. He took a brief sip of rum and let it burn slowly through his mouth. “I was tired of waiting when I knew what I was meant to do, I guess. Coming here to find a great player, to find you, it wasn’t something that would wait. I wanted to be the one to do it and I knew I could be.”
“I think I understand,” said Ernesto. He was drinking water, but when he sipped it he seemed to taste and contemplate it as if there was a complex flavor. Up close, he was as large and stately as he had seemed on the field. Even his casual movements were performed with such graceful confidence that he seemed like a superior, otherworldly figure. He had a flat and handsome face and light, quick-reading eyes that narrowed with active thought. “It is the same for me with baseball. I’ve felt for a long time that Tomasito and I should be playing in America.”
This again prompted Marshall to look over towards Tomasito who was still drinking and laughing loudly on the other side of the yard.
“Look, Ernesto, I wanted to ask you something. It’s just that, I’m not sure if you’ve seen a major league game or not, or seen the kind of pitchers they have. You don’t really think Tomasito is going with you, right?”
“I have seen major league games,” Ernesto said. “Even in the small leagues here, we have many pitchers with more skill than my brother. But if I am to play, then Tomasito must come with me. What you cannot see is that I am only able to play because of him. My hits, the produced runs, catches, they must be credited to Tomasito as well.”
As strange as it was, Marshall found it easy to accept this notion without pressing him further. Ernesto’s natural game and temperament, Sabria’s assumed guidance, the island’s unyielding brightness, fading concrete and immaculate, deep green forests. All of these were becoming part of what seemed now to be a predetermined journey, encouraged by the guiding force that burned in him. Whatever it was that had made all this possible, he had confidence in it now.
As the sun went down there was food, dancing and music. Guests arrived and the square quickly became crowded. As neighbors came they would greet Marshall with Sabria serving as a translator. It seemed like each one wanted to have a gulp of rum with him. It was clear that they had been waiting for an American to take the brothers away, and that they had expected him to be much older and more capable of drinking and eating. Throughout the night, Tomasito was the spirit of the party. He poured the drinks, led the songs and dances and as Marshall became simple minded and confused with rum, Tomasito stood out clearly in the crowd of people.
Tomasito was squat and stocky. While Ernesto carried his weight at the chest and shoulders and then divided evenly down his tall frame, the older brother held his at the stomach. There was certainly a force of strength about him, but it was bullish and barreling and in no way could his movements around the party be called elegant. His face was similar to his brother’s but with dark and brooding eyes. It was naturally grimaced, but as he yelled to a guest or was offered food or drink, it was quick to light up and beam intensely. After a few hours, Marshall noticed that Tomasito had changed clothes at some point and he saw him clearly through the party as shoeless, in crisp and immaculate white shirt and pants, wearing a deep red sash and skull cap. He seemed possessed, no longer jovial or speaking with his neighbors, completely absorbed in another place.
Sabria set up a pair of halogen work lights which beamed hard into the center of the square. Marshall watched as the lamps illuminated dozens of bugs flying in their path and guests backed themselves into the corners to free up a few square feet of space. They danced as a pair of batá players pulled their chairs to the clearing and began drumming. A few in the crowd began to chant along with the playing, mysteriously to Marshall who was very drunk now and still did not speak any Spanish, and they danced together in an accelerating rhythm.
Tomasito entered the clearing, his white and red costume glowing like neon under the lights. He stood bolt upright and began to strut the perimeter of the circle like a rooster, finding his rhythm and clearly vacating his connection to the present. Watching him and hearing the drumming and chanting, Marshall fell into a trance.
The bright lights walled off everything in the dark, he could see only Tomasito glowing at the circle's center and could hear only the drum beat. The trance was broken briefly and his attention snapped back into place as Tomasito unveiled a glowing, curved sword from an intricate white and red sheath. For a moment, Marshall looked around at the crowd with concern to find it still chanting and swaying in time with the drums. Tomasito held the blade out from his body and the strutting turned into a full snaking motion. He slinked around the circle not a bird anymore but a cobra, the chanting and music pulsing through him in time, his gaze still fixed on a point unseen, his bare feet stomping down hard on the packed dirt with every step. Watching him perform, embodying the music and channeling the energy and spirit of the crowd and drums, Marshall again lost himself. He saw only Tomasito, a flashing and pulsating red and white bolt, felt the swaying of the crowd around him, heard the drums as if they were his own heartbeat.
Marshall was no longer a guest in the crowd. He, and everyone else there, became the force guiding Tomasito, or maybe being guided by him. As his strides around the circle grew larger and his gyrating movements more violent, the drums and the crowd worked themselves into a frenzy. They beat faster and faster, Tomasito began to shout with the music, he made reaching strides and stepped down fiercely at the edge of the crowd and the chants grew faster and louder with him. The drummers beat furiously and the crowd’s chants became a single, prolonged yell into the warm, endless, distant, calling, dark night. Suddenly satisfied, Tomasito broke from the fever and stood upright again, smiling largely at the crowd. The drummers stopped their beating and the audience, remembering where they were and feeling relieved and empty, laughed among themselves. Marshall remained in a bit of a stupor, but began to process what had just happened.
“You see?” asked Ernesto, who leaned down to whisper loudly over the crowd and into Marshall’s ear. “I must have Tomasito with me in America. He is not much of a baseball player, but he is a gifted padrino. I promised long ago to bring him wherever baseball took me.”
Marshall woke up on Sabria’s floor again, a clean and bright morning light coming through the opened backdoor. His head throbbed and he felt completely dry. He blinked in his surroundings and checked his backpack. Everything was there. He stood up and found Sabria washing some of his clothes in a basin outside.
“Buenos días, chico.”
“Good morning,” he said, walking up to the basin. “Do you mind?”
Sabria took up the shirt she was soaking and stepped away from the water. Marshall put his head under the spout and rubbed the running water onto his face.
“You guys threw quite the party last night,” he said. Awakened by the cold water, the tropical warmth and natural dominance of the island settled around him for the day.
“We are proud for the Abasolo-Alvarez brothers. I have told them that you will be the one to deliver Ernesto to the major leagues. I have seen in you the intention to serve the game and not yourself. You have a guiding code, that is what burns inside of you. Today we can make the arrangements if you like.”
Marshall thought back over the last two days. The airport, the park, the game, the party, in that order but also jumbled all together in his mind.
“Last night, Ernesto told me he would only go with Tomasito. The way he plays, you can feel it, there is something that can’t be explained. Like watching a hot pitcher or a hitting streak. Whatever gives him that power, it comes from his brother.”
Sabria sat down heavily in a weather-beaten plastic chair.
“Yes,” she said. “They have always played together.”
“Frank said I’d only need money to get the two of us to Mexico and then for Ernesto’s papers there. I don’t have enough to get all three of us out plus Tomasito’s papers.”
“Ah,” Sabria said. To Marshall, she seemed unconcerned with the news. He knew she cared about getting Ernesto to the major leagues and that fact didn’t seem to dishearten her.
“Show me how much you have brought.”
Marshall took the cheques from his bag and handed them to Sabria.
“They are all I have,” he said.
She looked them over and made calculations in her head.
“It will be enough for the brothers only. Once they are in México, I can arrange for the proper agent to meet them. They will have the tryout and the contract without you.”
Marshall would not guide Ernesto to America. He would not bring the prospect to major league teams. He would not, officially, have done anything to introduce the next Roberto Clemente to the rest of the world. He would have quit his job, handed over all of his savings and stranded himself in Cuba for no validation or tangible recognition of any kind. But he had seen Ernesto play, he had experienced Tomasito’s ceremony, been on the island and he felt now the guiding direction, the warm assurance burning inside of him, and it showed the way.
“Okay,” Marshall said. “Let’s get them to the majors.”
Organizing the smuggling turned out to be a fairly straightforward and businesslike process. This was partially because Ernesto had not yet gotten the attention of the government as the country’s best baseball prospect, but mostly because Sabria had a reliable network in her city and was well respected within this subset of the criminal underground. She drove Marshall, who held tightly onto his cheques as the final thread connecting him to Ernesto’s fate, to the city’s port, made several stops and arranged things in Spanish with different men, eventually requiring that he relinquish the money. As the day wound down, she stopped in the Abasolo-Alvarez home and spoke with the brothers at length in their native language. She brought Marshall to her home and prepared a simple meal which they ate outside. Over dinner, Sabria explained to Marshall that the brothers’ passage had cost all of his money and would begin the next morning. Ernesto and Tomasito would like to see him that night. When he returned, the pallet on her floor would be waiting for him.
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