Red Zone

Monday, July 17, 2017

First rule of the ballpark, at least for the girls like me—we don’t sit with the fans. They crowd the bleachers behind home plate all the way up to the announcer’s box. They lean along the baseline fences, fingers tightened in the chain links. Kids shouting and running in ball caps and too-big gloves. From where I stand in the entrance, I can see that for this playoff game—Brownsville Vaqueros versus Corpus Christi Sand Crabs—they’ve even brought lawn chairs and towels to sit in the scraggly grass beyond the park. Perfect spots for catching homers—or for heckling the visiting outfielders. My father taught me that, in another country that is just miles from here, so close to Brownsville that we can smell the smoke from their fires. So close that from the uppermost bleachers in this little park I can see buildings in the city where on his good days my father took us shopping. (Naturalmente, I don’t ever sit there.)

Instead I climb to the first three rows of right-field bleachers, directly behind the Vaqueros dugout. The girls like me look up and grin, greet me with little hugs. Our seats are behind the players, a good view of the field, but I’m told (by Jessica, whose fiancé is the veteran shortstop and who’s been here the longest) that we like it that way. De veras, we sit here because the boys can’t see us. Can’t shoot us quick glances from where they sprawl in the dugout, spitting streams of dip juice or sunflower seeds chewed to pulp into paper cups. Can’t get a glimpse of us when they’re at the plate, adjusting their grip, digging in once, twice, trying to follow and then disrupt the path of the ball. Well, most of them can’t.

Mine is one who can. My guy is on the mound with that ball in his glove, lifted to his lips, scanning the plate and the bleachers beyond. I love him but he brings me a whole different set of worries.

Please rise for the national anthem. I love this moment, when the show starts, when the lights don’t dim but brighten. Two flags ripple in the breeze—warm even at night because this is the Valley—and we stand as one. Even me, mojada that I am. Every game I sing the words; they are sweeter to me because they are stolen.

Play ball.

They spread into their positions, as choreographed as the tentacles of a firework. Jessica watches Andrew M. warming up in the hot corner. Bee-short-for-Beatrice keeps her eyes on Valentin, in left field. Anita, Jose at catcher, and so on. Even our gazes belong to them. Mine belongs to the mound. Or, more accurately, to the starter on the mound tonight, the long-legged one who is currently punching the toes of his cleats into the dirt as if staking a claim.

He takes off his Vaqueros cap and wipes his brow with it, settles it back over the sweaty pile of dark hair. Sweaty just from the bullpen, I know, since this is his start for the night. Which means he is warmed up. Which means he is ready. He buries the ball in his glove, and though I can’t see it, he is spinning it in his hand to get the feel of the seams because the bumps—and the white space in between—speak to him like Braille, a tongue the fingers know. He leans in to check the signs Jose flashes. Straightens, side-eyes the empty bases because it is habit.

Like I said, he can see me if he looks this way, but he won’t. He has told me a thousand times since we were kids. Nah, Mercedes, I don’t even notice y’all there. Those seats are fine. Just don’t sit behind home plate. Red zone. Never sit behind home plate. So I don’t. I told you, I know my place.


I met Luis eight years ago, when he and I were both twelve and both ball players, before he became an independent-league pitcher and I his girl in the bleachers behind the dugout. We met not long after I’d crossed.

Some people cross on jet skis now, tú sabes? In broad daylight. I’ve seen them. The last time I was in Mission, visiting my Aunt Flor, we took my cousins to Anzalduas Park on a bright blue Saturday, and I watched the mojados climb off the back of the machine and step onto Texas soil that looked just like the Mexico across the water, then scramble behind witchy-looking mesquites that were the ones we knew from home. The migra agents—in their olive-green and khaki, their mirrored sunglasses—barked into walkie-talkies and ran half-heartedly after a few. Most of them made it. The ones who didn’t gave themselves up by choice. They raised their hands high over their heads and ran straight at la migra, babies bound to their chests, children scrambling beside them. Things are bad in Honduras, in Guatemala, I know. But I couldn’t for the life of me, for the freedom I’ve taken, understand the urge to come so far and cross so many fences and finally cross the last one, which is just a fence of dirty water, and not only see the men who want to send you back but recognize them and run straight at them, fall to your knees in front of them. Let’s go back to Tía, I said, and led my cousins away, but not before I spit angrily on the ground in front of a woman who was trying to hug a border patrol agent.

No, not by jet ski. Same place—Anzalduas Park, in Mission. But I was twelve, and it was night. We crouched low in plastic rafts patched by duct tape and barely inflated enough to hold us up. For most of the thirty minutes it took to cross from Reynosa to Mission we were trying to push water from our raft back into the Rio Grande as silently as we could. The coyotes hissed at us to hurry the fuck up, to not breathe so fucking loud and puta madre shut that goddamn baby up.

When we reached the Texas side and crawled up through the mud and tree roots and clumps of grass we saw bodies, lying still and swollen with the river inside them. Some of us became bodies, too—live ones, weeping silently over them and vibrating with sorrow. Not me, though, because none of them were my mother or sister.

That makes me cruel, doesn’t it. I know. I felt bad for them but I no longer wasted time on grief. Another thing my father taught me with his fists, between the skin on my back and the buckle of his belt.

An electric squawk ripped apart the night: the walkie-talkie of a migra agent. Immediately an owl hooted, an owl that was not an owl but instead a coyote crouched behind the tree next to me. Then a responding yelp, a cry that could have been a real coyote this time, but I knew it was the two-legged kind. That was the signal. When they shoved us, we ran.

I knew where my Tía Flor’s truck would be, where we’d planned it out. So I ran in that direction. All around us the silence became a thunder of footsteps, heaving breaths, bodies slamming into each other, babies howling, men’s voices yelling Alto alto. The darkness shattered into beams from flashlights and headlights that bounced off us, our sodden clothes, onto them, their green and tan. I kept my eyes on the space where the blue pickup would be, and I didn’t look around or back until I lifted one foot onto the bumper and hurled myself over the tailgate. Screaming go Tía go go. And my mother was next to me, face down in the bed of the truck with her hands wrapped around my baby sister’s head to protect it. The truck squealed and bounced beneath us, picking up speed. I pressed my face into my mother’s neck so the tears she cried mingled with mine; we laughed together.

She had family throughout Texas, even as far as Galveston Island, up the coast near Houston. But she chose to keep us in the Valley. We moved into Tía Flor’s house in Mission, with her two babies, and stayed there for a couple of months while we settled. There wasn’t much to settle. We were from Matamoros, border-twin to Brownsville, a grand total of 1.45 hours away. I had learned English in school, but I hardly needed it. Here in the Valley we walked on the same streets as home, christened with names like Allende, San Juan, General Lucio Blanco. The roads were narrower in some places, wider in others, only slightly better paved. Buildings with bars on the windows and the red-white-green flag of Mexico pasted on the doors. Signs in untranslated Spanish. CRISTIAN ORTEGA, ABOGADO. YDANIA GONZALEZ CRUZ, MÉDICA. SE ACEPTAN CASH. SE HABLA ESPANOL. Norteño music blasting from old Chevys: horns triumphant, the barrump-barrump of the bass and the cumbia throbbing a heartbeat in the pathways of our bodies. It was a comfort to me at first, but it soon became stifling.

We moved to Brownsville not long after, joined up with my other aunts and uncles and cousins there off Boca Chica Boulevard. Tía Medora threw us a party and invited most of the neighborhood. Spanish all around me and the same music I knew from my whole life and a new place that was not new at all. I sulked in the front yard, picking at the grass poking through the sidewalk. Through the press of bodies and the smoke from the grill and my uncles’ cigarettes, a boy about my age eased over to me, sat down beside me on the sidewalk, and offered me a Coke. Beads of condensation like diamonds on its side. I’m Luis, he said, with eyes as dark and wide and long-lashed as my sister’s. You play ball?

I borrowed my cousin’s glove and spent the rest of the day playing catch with Luis. He’d just learned the curve, but his would hover and hang too long; mine, on the other hand—yeah, I’ll say it—mine had the nastiest 12-6 drop this side of Sandy Koufax. So I said, Let me. And he did. I showed him the overhand throw, the arc of the shoulder, the way the fingers kiss the leather and release, as my father had shown me a year before. I didn’t say that he’d shown me one week, then broken my arm in a drunken rage the next. It was still in a cast when Mama made the phone call to her sisters in Texas and began the hunt for coyotes.

Luis came to visit me at my house the next day, bearing his old glove that I could use. We played catch in the street to work on his distance. Even then I knew his fastball would really be something. He’d throw and I’d think putamadre, like my father would say when Nolan Ryan took the mound for the Rangers. He meant it as a compliment and so did I. When Luis was ready to go home, I offered him his glove back and he said, You keep it, Mercedes. For tomorrow. I set the glove on my nightstand; the part of my heart that cried constantly for something strange and unfamiliar quieted a little.

On days when the dust and diesel weren’t too bad, Luis took me to the international bridge and we watched the cars line up to cross. Gasoline and scorched asphalt and river water weighing the air heavy. I could see the city from there, the curls of smoke and smog rise above the alleys. One day I brought the baby; I was watching her while Mama worked at the convenience store. Look, Celia, I said, there’s the shitpile where we used to live. And here’s the one where we live now. I lifted her chubby arm and used her fingers to point across the water, and back again.


The night air has cooled slightly. Fourth inning, and Luis stays on the mound. Not too many pitches thrown, so his arm is still loose. His slider’s got brakes on it, his curve dropping like it’s falling off a table. He could put more heat on the two-seamer, but I know his coach doesn’t want his arm to give and neither do I, not yet, not so early in the series. He shakes off Jose’s first sign and then sees the one he wants; I know from the way his shoulders straighten, then bunch as he rises on his feet into the wind-up. Lifts his left leg. Snaps it down as the right arm comes around to pronate—and it’s both his fault and my father’s that I know this fucking word—and hurls.

Swing and a miss. Strike three retires the side.

We hoot and clap. Some of us, like Anita, like Teresa, shout our players’ numbers, shit like way to go fourteen and attaway three-oh. Not me. I clap and whoop and he glances over and smiles at me. I call out no words. He’d roll his eyes. Besides, he knows I hate that goddamn number he wears: 11. I beg him to change it every chance I get, but he’s worn it since grade school and it’s lucky, he says. Come on, M. Just because it was your dad’s doesn’t mean it’s bad for me.


For months after we crossed we moved carefully, fearing not the green-and-tan of la migra but the hulking shape of my father. We looked over our shoulders, in the driver’s seat of unmarked vans, over the top of Celia’s head in the grocery store. He knew where my mother’s sisters lived, scattered as they were across the Valley—Mission, Falfurrias, Brownsville, even the town that I was named for (which I insisted so much to kids my age that for weeks Luis called me Mercedes-not-the-car). When the phone rang, the skin on the backs of our necks itched. We waited for shadows, movement in the corners of our eyes, but there was nothing. He never came after us.

I couldn’t have been happier, and I searched for that happiness in my mother. Mama’s bruises faded; the cut above her eye fused back, though she’ll bear a rift in her left brow forever, a lilt upward to that part of her face that even today makes her look slightly surprised. I wanted to see relief on her healing face every day, radiant beams of joy and recognition that we were free, that the filthy river we’d climbed out of and the ground we now stood upon had provided that for us. I saw it some days. Others, I saw disappointment when she looked around and he wasn’t waiting there, tears in his eyes, wildflowers in his fist.

On those days I hated her, and she knew it. Those were the days when I ran to Luis’s house and threw baseballs at his plywood fence until my arm gave out, until the balls ran out and I was just picking up rocks and chunks of dirt and flinging them. He patted me on the back when I cried. He tried.

My uncles tried, too. They tinkered with our cars and various pipes that acted up. They found my mother her job at the convenience store and cleaning the houses of some of the faculty at UT-B. On Sundays we’d gather at Tía Medora’s and while I washed dishes, they’d recline in front of the TV and watch ballgames for hours, all of us flinging praise and curses at the screen by turns. As Luis and I grew older, and he earned starting spots on the baseball teams of the junior high, then Hanna, then UT-B (wearing that goddamn number 11 on his back every step of the way), we focused on the games in real life. They sat with me in the stands. They bought me chili dogs and snuck me beer. They pounded Luis on the back after a win and reminded him to ice that arm, winked at me and said, Don’t you aggravate it too much, mija, that’s the money right there, Mercedes, that’s your ticket.

I hugged them and kissed their cheeks when I wanted to say claro qué sí I know that already. I’d known since freshman year at Hanna that on game nights I sleep on the left side, my left hand curled against his chest, the blistering scent of IcyHot drawing tears from my eyes. I know to place a towel beneath the right half of him to catch the runoff from the ice packs. I know the clumsy way his left fingers will part through my hair. I know that if we fuck that night I’ll have to be on top.

Luis is my ticket to many things. To my uncles, he’s fame, small fortunes, a paycheck with our non-MLB league now, but a few good seasons away from getting noticed, from that call over to the minors. To my aunts he’s citizenship, a ticket printed in green. My mother looks at him and sees my father. She doesn’t need to say it; I see it in the way her eyes slant and gleam at once when he bears the number 11 on the field, when he walks into our house all shoulder and leg at six foot four. He could hurt me is what she’s thinking. He doesn’t—I don’t think he ever would. But he could. The could is enough to both please and frighten her.

I wonder, too. I wonder about the life we’ll lead, about the engagement ring he put on my finger a year ago that I stare at for hours some days, trying to read shapes in the cubic zirconia like a crystal ball. I wonder about the fact that in my mind the number 11 has never been his, has always been my father’s, the one he wore in school and in his time in the Mexican minors and the one he insisted I wear in my own Little League. And I hate it, but sometime I even wonder what my father would think about the space I occupy now—in a city just like Matamoros, in a ballpark but not on the field or in a center-section row but behind the dugout, between girls named Anita and Jessica and Teresa, all of us like gloves and bats and caps, another piece that belongs to the players. My mother, a piece of a man that exists across a river, both of them incomplete.

On nights when Luis and I lie in bed and he dozes, these thoughts drift through my mind, fragile as the dandelion threads Celia blows in the backyard. I shouldn’t think them, should I. I should be happy, content with what I have. Shouldn’t imagine reversing my life, starting in Mexico and doing it all over again, only in this fantasy I cross the river into a New World instead of more of the same.

Before we drift off, he’ll tell me he loves me, and he’ll mean it. He never means it so much as win nights. And I never mean it so much as on nights when he loses. Tell me what to think about that.


The crack that I’ve been dreading rips through the air—a bat against Luis’s ball. It’s a clean sound, a cold, bright snap that I hear in my chest. Like when I pitched one night as a kid against another Little League team and every batter lit me up like a pinball machine. My father lost 800 pesos because he’d bet on me. After the game, he closed his hand around my wrist and yanked. That snap, cold and bright.

The batter moves slowly toward first base, bat still in hand, head lifted up. Andrew S. and Tomas, on first and second, look up as well. We in the stands rise as one and watch the white of the ball bend toward the foul pole. Our mouths forming words that are variations of the same thought. And then we are heaving the same sigh of relief, rolling our eyes. Foul ball. The batter trots back to home plate.

Come on, Luis! Anita yells beside me, clapping her hands. Strike him out. I don’t yell. I watch his eyes narrow beneath the brim of his cap. Slider, I think.

But it’s a fastball, a little high, and in an instant the bat catches it and there’s the crack again and the ball is a pale blur bulleting straight back at Luis’s head. We as one have hardly enough time for a gasp—half a gasp—before Luis flicks his glove and catches the line drive before it hits his face.

The fans roar. I lower my head, squeeze my eyes shut, and blow out a slow breath. Still Vaqueros, 4–0, bottom of the seventh.

Luis trots back from the mound, and the rest of the guys have spilled out of the dugout, gloved hands ready to slap and pound Luis’s back. Someone hands him a jacket and he drapes it over his right arm to keep it warm and loose. In our bullpen there is no reliever in sight, not even Henry or Alfredo stretching out. Two more innings and he’ll have thrown a complete game, and if he keeps it scoreless, a shutout—his first of the season, and the series. A big deal for the scouts we’ve spotted behind home plate with their clipboards, clean shoes, radar guns.

Luis turns slightly toward me on his way back to the dugout. I smile and wave and try to catch his eye, but he is fixed on the guys around him, on the brotherhood of it all. The brothers come first. I know this, by now I swear I know this. I put my hand down.


He didn’t like when I brought up Galveston again last night. For a place I’ve never been—it’s halfway up the coast, a good six hours away—I’ve been thinking about it a lot. One of my tías lives there, and my cousin Jess works an oyster or shrimp boat or something. We’ve kept in touch. He invites me out to stay with him and his girlfriend. He says it’s good money, a good place. The ocean for miles—well, the Gulf, let’s be honest, but still an ocean. There’s a restaurant he knows turns a blind eye to the proper immigration papers. Mojados from all countries, not just Mexico, fill the kitchens and the corridors of a diner on the bay.

Luis and I were lying in bed, in the quiet after sex and before sleep, when I mentioned it. I told him that to me, Galveston is new. Fresh. Salt in the air instead of diesel and concrete. And ball clubs for days in the Houston area: independent, minor league. The Astros—the team he and I both grew up idolizing from different sides of the river. He’d have to start over, but that’s what tryouts are for. I told Luis all of that. I led with the teams.

But he frowned, fingers still threaded in my hair. I have the starting spot here. I’m building a brand. Coach thinks I’ve got my whole career ahead of me. Why would I go anywhere else?

Because there’s no future in the Valley. I grit my teeth against the weight of what I was saying, a truth I’ve known since cars wheezed past me on the international bridge. We will live here and die here minutes from the spot where I climbed out of the river, where my mother cleaned houses and covered up bruises. Shouting distance from the place where my father still lives, eats, fucks women, coaches a Little League baseball team.

I say this, but Luis laughs. We have a future, M. Mine is yours.

Outside, the Valley air presses against the windows, drawing sweat beads against the glass. A car alarm goes off down the street. It could be my mother’s car. It could be my cousin’s, or my tía’s, or mine, or any of my uncles’ or the people in this town that Luis and I know and have always known.

That’s not enough, I think, and finally get the courage to say out loud. Luis, I want my own. But he’s asleep by then.


Mija. Someone taps my arm and I look over. My uncle Raul stands in the aisle, grinning. Behind him, three more of my uncles. They hold flimsy plates of nachos, popcorn bags, tall plastic cups of beer. They lean in and their cheeks where I kiss them are pink, flushed with drink and the thrill of a winning game. We’re not gonna bother you here, we just wanted to say hi.

Where are you sitting, Tío?

He points to a spot in the center section. Got us some good seats this time. Front row to your boy. Hell of a show so far, mija.

Boy’s just throwing the fuck out these putos, Tío Carl says around a mouthful of popcorn. See that breaking ball he’s got?

The curve, Tío Steve corrects him. Goes from midnight to six like no fucking thing. Almost as good as yours, mija.

Anyway. Raul glances over at the other girls and nods; they smile politely. Enjoy the game, we’ll see you later, Mercedes.

They make their way out of our area and back into the aisle, curving around the field, back into the center section where too many people have just given up on seats in general and are crowding the guardrails right up against the home plate netting to protect against foul balls. I watch them take their seats again in full sight of the whole field. They pass popcorn and nachos and greasy napkins; they hoot and shout as loud as they want because they can.

Like them, I rise for the seventh-inning stretch. Clap my hands to “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Sling an arm around Teresa and Jessica and sway to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Luis is in the dugout, and try as I might, I can’t see him from this spot. I can’t see him so he can’t see me, and the realization that that’s all I want at this moment hits me like a surge from an electric fence.

We’re at the one-two-three-strikes-you’re-out when I decide I’ve had it. The other girls look up, startled, as I take my purse and jacket and get to my feet and climb over them. Excuse me, excuse me, I apologize left and right as I pass. I need to go. I’m sorry. But I’m smiling. I need to go.

Because I do. As I make my way down the aisle I feel stronger for the knowledge. This spot, this space, this fucking city. If I stay here, me voy a morir. Or worse, live a whole other life that is just like the one I left across the Rio Grande: mindful of how I move, what I do and say, and how it affects and represents him. Number 11.

I’m going, with or without Luis. He doesn’t know it yet but he will.

Even just walking around the dugout feels illicit. No river here this time, no agents waiting to point me away from the red zone and back toward the bleachers behind the dugout. Invisible lines dissipate beneath my sneakers. I cross, already feeling right, like I belong.

My uncles cheer as I climb the steps up to where they wait, a few rows up behind home plate. They laugh and scoot over on the bleachers, make space for me. They call me mija. They call me babygirl. Your boy’s gonna close this puta out, babygirl. I kiss them on their cheeks and take the beer they hand me.

The bottom of the seventh goes scoreless, although Andrew M. gets in a good double to right. From here, I can look straight into the dugout. I chew sunflower seeds, sucking the salt from their gritty shells, and watch Luis adjust the jacket over his pitching arm.

He doesn’t notice me until they take the field again at the top of the eighth, and he once again strides over to the mound. I sip beer and he punches the toes of his cleats into the dirt as if planting a flag. He removes his cap to wipe his brow and looks up into the stands behind home plate. Directly at me.

The batter raises his shoulders and readies. Jose adjusts his mask, crouches in the dirt. The girls behind the dugout clap and call out encouragement. My uncles mutter. I look straight ahead into Luis’s eyes and the 11 on his chest and for once I don’t think of my father. Instead, it’s Galveston, and my cousin Jess. Luis on a mound somewhere else, in another uniform. Me, bussing tables in a diner on a bay I’ve never seen.

Luis looks down at Jose’s fingers, flashing signs; then his eyes dart back up to me. See me, I think. Look at me, existing here, in a place you’ve said I don’t belong. You forgot que soy mojada. Give me lines to cross, why don’t you.

You nod—at Jose, or at me, or both—and lift your left leg. Knee nearly to shoulder. Higher. Higher. Snap it down now, right arm around. Ball like a bullet. Midnight to six, just like I taught you. When you look back up, you see me smiling. See me raise my beer in salute.

Monday, July 17, 2017