Even in the dark brick kitchen the sun at high noon diffused through the louvered doors and windows to create a pleasant glow. Lalo, in his bright white smock, leaned over the counter and removed the lids from two steaming chafing dishes. Luke shambled toward the table, only vaguely hungry for lunch, and made room as America bustled past him with her curt and customary “Hola, hola” as she carried the bucket and mop into his bedroom. He should have hidden the tequila.
Lalo nodded at Luke and waved his hand toward the food. This afternoon it was a boiled chicken dish, along with the usual rice and beans topped with crumbled queso fresco. Luke filled his plate and Lalo brought over a small glass pitcher of the day’s fresh drink: a pale green limeade with somersaulting bits of pulp. It would go well with vodka at sunset.
Omar arose from downstairs, his clothes covered in dust, his hair shooting out in all directions from having blown it clean with the air compressor. He approached the food, smiled, and gently patted Luke on the back. Esteban followed, his build and overall persona filling up space in the kitchen the way it once had in dugouts and locker rooms. He was in his mid-fifties now, his hair gray and his goatee silver, but the shoulders revealed by his tank top proved he could probably unload the rocks from Omar’s truck with little trouble. He put a dusty arm around Luke’s neck. “What we got today, Boss? Pollo Lalo? This stuff melts in your mouth like chicken ice cream.”
Luke was eighteen when they first met, recently drafted out of high school by the Brewers and sent to low-A ball to pitch for the Beloit Snappers. Twenty-five guys from all over the U.S. and Latin America, all of them eighteen, nineteen years old and every one of them believing they’d make it to the bigs, even though the odds were something like one percent, a number Luke didn’t learn until after retiring. There was a joy to it then, even on stinking, sweltering twelve-hour bus rides. Even when the bus caught fire once. Even when a flipped semi spilled a thousand gallons of milk over the highway and jammed traffic for hours. The guys just grabbed balls and gloves, hopped off the bus into the grassy median, and played a few games of pickle. And if they happened to play fourteen innings in the Quad Cities, ending after midnight with the following game scheduled for noon the next day, there was always the hope one of the relievers would figure out how to turn on the sprinklers and leave them overnight to flood the field. Get the game canceled. Get a day off. Low-A ball was sort of like summer camp.
So much so that guys like Luke were prone to the soft and quiet loneliness of it: lost in new cities, missing home and his girlfriend. That’s where Esteban had come in—a beloved player’s coach if there ever was one, who’d laugh and hug guys and do the rah-rah cheering during games that they rejoiced in. He would spot a guy like Luke, take him to a diner one morning in Fort Wayne or Cedar Rapids, and ask about his family, his hometown, about the girl who’d just broken up with him over the phone. Esteban was still relatively young then, easy to talk to. The first time Luke’s family drove out from Virginia for a game, Esteban was the one who assured his mom he was taking good care of her boy.
Esteban had come from a family in San Diego who owned a successful architectural sculpture and restoration business, and though he’d apprenticed in that field growing up, he’d abandoned it by eighteen for baseball. He’d had a solid major league career as a back-up catcher in Milwaukee, Seattle, Montreal, Houston, and Detroit. Like all catchers Luke had ever known, he understood more aspects of the game than anyone else on the field. And he’d do anything for his boys. Esteban was once thrown out of a game for arguing a called third strike, went to the locker room, and re-emerged in disguise, dressed as Snappy, the team’s green turtle mascot. Between innings he stood atop the dugout, dancing to “YMCA,” and when the game resumed he lingered around the batboy, who relayed instructions to the other coaches.
Seven years later, Luke found himself playing AAA ball in Toledo after being traded to the Tigers and floating between the Florida State and Eastern Leagues. The team had tanked that season and the next year they brought in a new manager, and who should it be but Esteban, who by now had a reputation as a fixer, a guy who could work well with egos and locker-room politics and make a team work. This was critical for AAA, where a lot of the guys were in their thirties, family men making good money at that level. Add to that the hungry young players basically praying for a guy in Detroit to tear his ACL so they could head up the road and take his spot. And the bitter ones, the guys who’d already tasted the majors for a few weeks or months and couldn’t adjust to life back in the baseball slums.
During their Toledo run, it was Esteban who’d encouraged him to develop a split-finger fastball, an addition to his arsenal that, in two years’ time, led to Luke’s promotion to Detroit. They’d kept in touch over the ensuing years, catching up in the offseason to talk technique but also to go fishing or meet up for dinner. Shannon and his wife, Maria, became friends. Esteban had called him a few times since Luke’s injury and expressed how he’d grown tired of the minor-league grind and being passed up for promotion. He’d settled down to help his sister run the family business in San Diego.
After leaving baseball Esteban purchased this place, Casa Isabela, named after his only daughter. He’d spent childhood summers at his grandparents’ in Puerto Vallarta and had bought the casa not only as a vacation home for himself, but as something he rented out to everyone from sculpting workshops to study-abroad students to bachelor parties. Right now the only guest was Luke.
They sat beside each other now in the dining area, which was open to the sea air and had a distant view of the ocean. Esteban manned the head of the table, chugging a bottle of water. A shelf behind him displayed marble bowls and figurines. Omar ate across from Luke, his head bent low toward his plate, eating with absolute focus. Luke stood up, walked to the refrigerator, and returned with a bottle of beer.
“You still dehydrated?” asked Esteban. “Switch from that to this.” He raised the bottled water. “Beer only makes it worse.”
“I’ve been drinking Gatorade,” he said, and he unconsciously touched the orange stain on his shirt.
Esteban watched him for a few seconds, then started eating. “You should come down to the studio a little later and see what we’re working on. Got a show at a gallery next month. Down by the marina.” He pointed his fork at Omar. “This guy’s making flowers. Unbelievable. Sandstone petals thin as paper. I’m afraid they’ll break if I even look at them.”
Omar stifled a grin and shrugged, sipping his limeade.
Esteban took a large bite of chicken and nodded at Luke. “What you been up to this morning?”
“Reading.” Luke shook his head slightly. “My back’s been bothering me.”
“You should get out and walk around,” said Esteban. “Even with the pain and your foot. Stretch it out. Get the blood flowing.”
Luke nodded, staring out toward the ocean. “I’m going out this afternoon. Maybe to the Malecón. It’s tough walking here with all the hills and cobblestones.”
“You should go to the beach,” said Omar.
“You should,” said Esteban. “Swimming would be good for you. The pool upstairs ain’t bad, but you need the buoyancy of salt water. Get you feeling fresh and right. Your mind, too.”
Luke took several swallows of beer. “Beach is pretty far away.”
“Take a cab. Omar or me will call one. It’s a quick trip.”
Luke nodded. He’d eaten little but felt full.
Esteban picked up a chicken bone, sucked at the marrow, and set it down to lick his fingers. “You get out. You see some sights. And you clear your mind. Then, tonight, you and me, we have some dinner. There’s dancing in the zócalo tonight. I know where we can watch from a balcony and eat great ceviche. And we’ll talk about whatever you want. Like our beautiful wives and children. In my case, grandchildren.”
Lalo cleared their dishes and then presented a platter of watermelon wedges. He picked up a shaker from the table and sprinkled salt over them, then stepped around the table to the corner where a small tree grew out of a large clay pot. Luke had seen the tree, of course, but had never really noticed it. He’d certainly never noticed until now that it bore fruit. Lalo reached overhead and plucked a small lime from a branch. Then he returned to the table, sliced it in half with a paring knife, and squeezed the juice over the platter.
Luke grabbed a wedge and took a bite. The sweet, sour, and salty began as three distinct flavors, but by the second bite they mingled into a taste he strangely enjoyed but couldn’t quite describe. Like sweetened seawater. Like sugary sweat.
He stared at the lime tree, a bit disbelieving. Any time he wanted he could just walk up to it, from inside this house, and pluck fruit from a tree.
Luke pulled the massive wooden door shut behind him so that it echoed down the narrow street. From here, the casa was a windowless wall of bricks, like a fortress, with locked gates that Omar opened only when he had a delivery of stone. Luke stepped out of the shade, just to test the heat. He’d brought the wooden cane he’d purchased a couple days ago at a souvenir shop down the road. It had cost him seven hundred pesos, and he was sure he’d been ripped off, but he’d never liked haggling and aside from food and drink it was the only money he’d spent since arriving. The seller seemed to claim that it was made of rosewood, but Luke spoke little Spanish and didn’t care all that much about specifics. What he liked was the amber-colored snake carved into the shaft, its head serving as the handle and its body coiling downward to the cobblestone street. He’d never before walked with a cane because of all of the decrepitude it implied—he’d certainly never use one back home. But the rough terrain of these streets called for some sort of aid. And so what if it was an affectation? Like some goddamn staff from mythology. So the fuck what? Luke had laid low all morning—laid low for two years—and he felt like striking out this afternoon with a goddamned rosewood snake in his fist. He was in Mexico. It was almost his thirty-fourth birthday. And he hadn’t liked the way Esteban had been treating him like a child at lunch.
The midday sun struck down on him like a blade. Luke stepped back into the shade to lean against Omar’s pickup. The tires looked half-flat, exhausted by the weekly loads. Beneath a windshield wiper was a photo of a woman in a purple bikini, an ad for an escort service. Luke’s eyes lingered over it for a few seconds. He reached for the cigarettes in his pocket before realizing he’d left them in his bedroom, up a flight of stairs he had no desire to climb. He also had the urge to chew tobacco, a habit Shannon had broken him of years ago because of her disgust at Mountain Dew spittoons lying around the house. But tequila would be vice enough this afternoon. He started down the street, headed to the Oxxo, in the direction of the drug dealers on the corner.
On the day Luke had arrived Esteban had warned him to avoid the corner. “Just go around the block the other way. Even if it’s a little longer. The Canadians next door always want to call the police on them, but that’d just make things worse. They’re harmless little pendejos, but no need to pick at their scabs, you know?”
But there were three reasons why, on this afternoon, Luke had no plans to go around the block the other way…
PART 3 THIS FRIDAY
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