El Monte Yellow Jackets
By Cruz Medina
“You know, football is a much more subtle game,” Joe said, cheating over from the first-base bag. “Offense, defense, plays, reverses.”
Punching his hand into the worn webbing of his mitt, Carlito rolled his eyes.
“It’s a game of inches, ya sé,” Carlito said. “Inches pounded out like hamburger. But who wants subtle when you have the tragedia of baseball?”
The Santa Ana winds blew through the southern California afternoon, kicking up dust cloud rebellions of whipping, dry air. Jack, the default leader and loud mouth of the team, hovered over home base hitting balls to the other members of the El Monte Yellow Jackets. Bobby Sanchez and Eddie Montenegro debated the merits of Chevys and Fords, and the chances of the Dodgers winning the pennant, each spitting sunflower seeds at one another in left and center field. Alternately scratching his crotch or picking his nose, Art Del Rio lounged in right field, chasing butterflies that threatened him. Ricky fumbled the chopper Jack sent down the gap between second and third base. Smoothing the tattered tape on the Louisville Slugger’s handle, Jack pushed his glasses back on the bridge of his nose and tightened his grip.
“Come on Texicano, get in front of the ball,” Jack said. “Put your back into it like in the valley picking cotton.”
Ricky winked, having warmed to what started as an insult—firstly, it took into account the great state of Texas, and for seconds, his Mexican transplanted roots—even if Jack used it so often.
Jack kept the pepper going while directing flies to the outfield and tossing the ball around the infield.
“It’s hard to believe with an arm like yours, you don’t like football,” Joe said.
A straight shot from home plate rocketed towards Carlito’s head. He snatched it out of the air, raising his mitt in front of his face, his arm slicing through the air.
“Watch it lunk-head,” Carlito said. Jack snickered back at him from behind his horn-rimmed glasses.
“Look alive Carlito! Vive la reconquista,” Jack said.
Tossing the ball to Joe at first base, Carlito said, “It’s not like that. I like pass-catching, but my dad wants me to focus on baseball, so I’m good enough to play in Mexico.”
Joe pulled the brim of his cap low and threw the ball near Jack’s blue Dodger’s hat with so much force that Jack ducked his head. The ball sailed over him into the metal backstop, which creaked and shook with the impact.
“Head’s up four-eyes!” Ricky the Texicano shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth before slapping his stomach with his right hand.
“What’s the big idea?” Jack scrambled to pick up the ball.
Bobby Sanchez and Eddie Montenegro laughed and pointed at Jack as he picked the bat up from the dirt.
“Your dad still talks about going back huh?” Joe said.
“He can’t help it,” Carlito said, “He says everything’s just better there.”
“All right you mugs, let’s bring it in,” Jack said, licking the lenses of his glasses and rubbing them on his striped shirt.
After waving good-bye to his teammates at Lambert Park, Carlito sat back against the firm bench seat of his father’s pickup truck. From the rearview dangled a silver necklace with the faded image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Carlito associated his weekly trip to the bank with the warm accordion music coming through the garbled AM radio, and the smell of 3-in-1 oil his father used to lube and grease every hinge, lever, and exposed metal part in the ’55 Ford’s cabin. According to his father, three-in-one oil was “la unica pinche cosa en el norte que vale la pena” the only thing of value in the U.S. worth a damn. Although Carlito knew it was also only a matter of time before his father came up with an explanation for how 3-in-1 oil had actually been invented by a Mexicano.
“Los gringos,” his father said, inhaling deeply. “Ellos roban la tierra santa y la lluvia que da la vida, pero por la menos Santana tiene el viento.” Gringos stole the earth and ran, but at least Santa Ana kept the wind.
As Carlito saw it, accompanying his father to the bank was a part of his responsibilities, like throwing out the trash or mowing the lawn. His father had long ago refused to even consider the idea of learning the language. Responding to Carlos senior’s name at the bank, gas company, electric company and water utilities office, Carlito often found himself face-to-face with the sins of the father, and the ‘los pinche officineros con sus manos suaves y piel blanco.’
Going from one manual labor job to another where the hiring was done in Spanish, his father prided himself for being un buen trabador. But that didn’t change the fact checks were issued in English or U.S. paper currency.
“Como fué su trabajo hoy, Papá?” Carlito said, running his finger along a frayed seam which remained split no matter how much Carlito poked it.
“Caray, como siempre,” his father said. “Duro. A man’s work is hard. A man’s life is hard. Enjoy your life because it just gets hard.”
“Maybe it’ll be easier if I learn English well.”
His father stared over the steering wheel, his cement-caked fingers dusted gray and white all through the cracked, dry skin. Noting his father’s bloodshot eyes, Carlito would later hear from his mother the strained blood vessels came as much from the disease mexicano as from the trabajo duro.
“Si, bien educado is good for you. For me, I don’t think.”
Never wanting for work only reinforced his father’s belief that learning English would not increase his already full possibilities for employment. But when work slowed and he grumbled louder about the cost of gringo groceries each time his mom went shopping.
“En Mexico mijo, we live more comfortable with less money.”
Carlito and his father arrived at the San Gabriel National Bank and parked around back. Carlito walked a step behind his father as they entered the branch and stood in the queue leading to the tellers.
“My dad would like to cash his paycheck,” Carlito said, looking up and over the tall counter. They always went to the same teller, a matronly señora who would take his father’s license number, write it on the back of the check, get the family’s address and phone number from Carlito and get an approval signature from an assistant manager. It was routine, and since the check was drawn from the same bank and the same branch, Carlito often wondered if his father really needed him. He hoped his father saw it as an opportunity to spend a few minutes of his work day with his son.
The assistant bank manager came by the teller’s shoulder and quickly initialed the information on the check taken down by the teller.
“Your father’s got a good son there.” The man nodded at Carlito. “You tell him that for me.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Maybe someday you can get a job in a bank like this one. Handle money for men like your dad who need the language help.”
“I’d like to play ball.” Carlito smiled. “Right now I’m the short stop for the El Monte Yellow Jackets.”
His father watched the exchange without changing his expression, remaining quiet as the teller counted out the bills, nodding as he picked up the bills from the counter. Not until the heavy metal clunk of the doors closing and turning over of the mighty Ford engine did he speak without looking at his son.
“Que dijo el señor?” He turned the metal steering wheel hand over hand, exiting the parking lot.
“Dijo el que yo podría trabajar en un banco cuando tendré mayores años.”
“Yes, that would be a good work.”
His father sounded stilted. Compared to the speech of the bank teller, the Spanish of his father echoed and took on the tinny notes of the accordion, muffled by static in Carlito’s ear. His father’s words held meaning, but the lush nuance they once possessed faded to atonality.
Carlito stayed quiet as his father drove. It was the understanding. Children only answered questions from adults. They neither initiated conversations, nor bothered adults with questions. Children’s concerns were simple like the work asked of them, not like those of adults. But the more he spoke as his father, the more Carlito ached with questions.
“How many years do you have now? Thirteen is it?”
“Fourteen,” Carlito said.
“In Mexico, you would be considered a man,” his father said.
“It would be different for us, no?”
“Oh, the country is very nice. The living there is slower and the land is very pretty. Living here is not the same. We need to go back soon.”
The following Tuesday, the El Monte Yellow Jackets horsed around on the playing field at Lambert Park, again going through their warm-ups, fielding and hitting practice. Carlito arrived late, leaning his bike against the backstop fence, overhearing his teammates Bobby Sanchez and Eddie Montenegro baiting each other.
“Hey, Carlito,” Joe called over. “Who you think will win the World Series, the Dodgers or the Giants?”
“My dad left for Mexico,” Carlito said.
“What’s he gonna do there?” Jack said.
“He doesn’t know.”
“When’s he comin’ back?” Art said.
“He didn’t say.”
Bobby kicked at a bit of dirt on the infield, Eddie scratched the back of his head, and Art adjusted himself. Jack picked up the chalk bag and flung it to Carlito. It thumped against his chest, leaving a white dust mark against the plaid pattern of his shirt. Tommy cracked a smile. Jack smacked Carlito’s bicep with the back of his knuckles.
“Mira, el espiritu santa,” Jack said. “It’s a sign we’re gonna win the championship.”
Eddie punched Jack with his middle knuckle sticking out. “You better knock on wood,” Eddie said.
“Yeah, the Virgin will triple jinx you.” Art nodded. “And you already need all the help you can get.”
“Carlito,” Tommy said. “Who you think’s better, the Dodgers or the Giants?”
“What?” Tommy said.
“My name’s Carl. You can call me Carl now.”
“Okay, Carl, uh, who you think’s better, the Dodgers or the Yankees?”
Carl looked up. “I thought you asked about the Dodgers or the Giants?”
Eddie shot Tommy a glance. “Yeah, didn’t you say Giants the first time?”
Tommy stared back at Eddie. “You geechy-guy. I know who’s better between the Dodgers and Giants. I want to know who’s better between the Dodgers and Yankees.”
Carlos went to Mexico and Carl reasoned that Mexico wasn’t better, but maybe his father was better there than he was in El Monte. His father had tried to explain it to him all along, but it took his father’s absence to understand the words that escaped him.
The change from Carlito to Carl came and went like an early inning without runs, accepted as simply as erasing and rewriting a name on the line up. Good ball players have short memories, and not much later it was as though Carlito had always been Carl. The boys took different sides of the field, eager for what fate would bring in the forms of double-plays, squeezes and immaculate stolen bases.
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