Escape Pod 417: Southpaw


by Bruce McAllister

Eventually New York Giants’ scout Alex Pompez got the authorization from their front office to offer Castro a contact. After several days of deliberation with friends, family, and some of his professors, Castro turned down the offer. The Giants’ officials were stunned. “No one had ever turned us down from Latin America before,” recalled Pompez. “Castro said no, but in his very polite way. He was really a very nice kid. . . .”—J. David Truby, Sports History, November 1988

Fidel stands on the pitcher’s mound, dazed. For an instant he doesn’t know where he is. It is a pitcher’s mound. It is a baseball diamond, and there is a woman—the woman he loves—out there in the stands with her beautiful blonde hair and her very American name waving to him, because she loves him, too. It is July. He is sure of this. It is ’51 or ’52. He cannot remember which. But the crowd is as big as ever and he can smell the leather of his glove, and he knows he is playing baseball—the way, as a child in the sugarcane fields of Oriente Province, he always dreamed he might.

His fastball is a problem, but he throws one anyway, it breaks wide and the ump calls the ball. He throws a curve this time, a fine one, and it’s a strike—the third. He grins at Westrum, his catcher, his friend. The next batter’s up. Fidel feels an itching on his face and reaches up to scratch it. It feels like the beginning of a beard, but that can’t be. You keep a clean face in baseball. He tried to tell his father that, in Oriente, the last time he went home, but the old man, as always, had just argued.

He delivers another curve—with great control—and smiles when the ball drops off the table and Sterling swings like an idiot. He muscles up on the pitch, blows the batter down with a heater, but Williams gets a double off the next slider, Miller clears the bases with a triple, and they bring Wilhelm in to relieve him at last. The final score is 9 to 4, just like the oddsmakers predicted, and that great centerfielder Mays still won’t look at him in the lockers.

Nancy—her name is Nancy—is waiting for him at the back entrance when he’s in his street clothes again, the flowered shirt and the white ducks he likes best, and she looks wonderful. She’s chewing gum, which drives him crazy, but her skin is like a dream—like moonlight on the Mulano—and he kisses her hard, feeling her tongue between his lips. When they pull away she says: “I really like the way you walked that Negro in the fifth.”

He smiles at her. He loves her so much it hurts. She doesn’t know a damn thing about the game and nothing about Cuba, but she’s doing her best and she loves him, too. “I do it for you, chica,” he tells her. “I always do it for you.”

That night he dreams he’s in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, at a place called La Playa. He has no idea why he’s here. He’s never dreamt this dream before. He’s lying on the ground with a rifle in his hand. He’s wearing the fatigues a soldier wears, and doesn’t understand why—who the two men lying beside him are, what it means. The clothes he’s wearing are rough. His face itches like hell.

When he wakes, she is beside him. The sheet has fallen away from her back, which is to him, and her ass—which is so beautiful, which any man would find beautiful—is there for him and him alone to see. How can anything be more real than this? How can I be dreaming of such things? He can hear a song fading but does not know it. There is a bay—a bay with Naval ships—and the song is fading away.

Guantanamera . . . the voice was singing.

Yo soy un hombre sincero, it sang.

I am a truthful man.

Why, Fidel wonders, was it singing this?

After the game with the Cardinals on Saturday, when he pitches six innings before they bring Wilhelm in to relieve him and end up a little better than the oddsmakers had it, a kid comes up to him and wants his autograph. The kid is dark, like the children he played with on the finca his father owns—the ones that worked with their families during the cane harvest and sat beside him in the country school at Marcana between harvests. He knows this boy is Cuban, too.

“Señor?” the kid asks, holding up a baseball card. “Por favor?”

Fidel doesn’t understand. It is a baseball card, sure. But whose? He takes it and sees himself. No one has told him—no one has told him there is a card with his face on it, something else he has always dreamed of. He remembers now. He has been playing for the Giants—this is his first year. The offer was a good one, with a five thousand dollar bonus for signing. Now he’s on a baseball card. He tries to read it, but the words are small, Nancy has his glasses and he must squint. The words fill him with awe.

It says nothing about his fastball, and he is grateful. He smiles at the boy, whose eyes are on him. The father hands him a pen. “What’s your name, hijo?” he asks. “Raul,” the boys says. “Me llamo Raul.” To Raul, he writes. He writes it across his own face because that is where the room is. It is harder than hell writing on a card this small and he must kneel down, writing it on his knee. May your dreams come true, he also writes, putting it across his jersey now. He wants to write And may your fastball be better than mine, but there isn’t any room. He gives the card back and returns the pen. The boy thanks him. The father nods, grinning. Fidel grins back. “Muy guapo,” Fidel tells him. The man keeps nodding. “I mean it,” Fidel says.

He dreams of a cane field near Allegria del Oio, to the north, of soldiers moving through the cane. He can’t breathe. He is lying on the ground, he can’t move, can’t breathe. He’s holding something in his hand—but what? None of it makes sense. There isn’t any war in Cuba. Life in Cuba is peaceful, he knows. Fulgencio Batista, the President, is running it, and running it well. After Pirontes, how could he not? Relations with the United States are good. Who could possibly be hiding in the Sierra Maestra? Who could be lying in the cane with rifles in their hands, hiding from soldiers and singing a song about a truthful man?

After they have made love, after she has asked him to take her from behind first, then from the front, where they can see each other, after they’ve reached their most beautiful moment together, he tells her about his dream and she says: “Dreams aren’t supposed to make sense, honey.”

He can’t believe she is a waitress. He cannot, even for a moment, believe that anyone this beautiful, this American in so many ways, is only a waitress. He wants her to stop working. He would rather have her watch television all day in the apartment or shop for nice clothes for herself than walk around in such a dull uniform. But she’s going to keep working, she tells him, until he gets his new contract. She wants to, she says.

He doesn’t have the heart to tell her that he is probably not going to be renewed, that he’s probably going to be sent back to work on his strength, which has been getting worse, not better, and how once you go back down it is so very hard to return. Durocher, that crazy man, may love having him, a left-handed Cuban, on his team, may have brought him up just for that, but that just isn’t enough now.

He loves her too much to scare her, and there’s always a chance—isn’t there?—that his fastball will get better, that his arm will become as strong as it needs to be.

All he really needs, he knows, is a break—like the one Koslo got in the Series, Durocher’s surprise starter who got to go all the way in that first great game with the Yankees, when they really had them by the balls. His arm would feel the pride, would be strong from it, and maybe then Mays and Irvin would look at him in the fucking lockers.

Nancy loves the I Love Lucy television show. Because she does, on her birthday he buys her a new Zenith television set—a big one. One with an antenna big enough to make the picture better. Someday there will be television sets with colored pictures—everyone says so—and he knows he’ll buy her one of those, too, when the stores have them. On her days off she watches the show, and every chance he gets he watches it with her. She tells him: “I wish I had red hair like Lucy. Would you like that?” He looks at the black-and-white picture on the television set and does his best to imagine Lucy’s hair in color. Sure, he thinks. Red hair is amazing. But so is blonde. “If you want,” he says, “but I like your blonde hair, chica. You look like an angel to me. You fill this room with light—just like an angel.” He wants to sound like a poet; he has always wanted to sound like a poet. He wants never to lose the magic of their lives, and this is possible in America, is it not? Not to lose what you have, what you have dreamed of? If she wants red hair, okay, but not if it’s because she thinks she isn’t beautiful without it. “You’re beautiful, chica. You’re the most beautiful woman I have ever known,” he tells her, and then a face—a woman with dark hair, in the ugly green fatigues a soldier wears—comes to him. He doesn’t know her. He doesn’t know why this face has come to him, when he is with the woman he loves.

He closes his eyes and the face, like the song, fades.

They watch I Love Lucy and Your Show of Shows and You Bet Your Life and the next week, too—like a date, there in their own living room on the big Zenith he has bought for her birthday—they watch Lucy and her best friend Ethel work on Lucy’s crazy plans to get what she wants out of life. They laugh at all the trouble Lucy gets herself into only because she wants to be taken seriously, and also wants to be a good wife. Is this the struggle of all American women? he wonders. To be taken seriously, but to be a good wife, too?

Nancy isn’t laughing, and he knows that look. She isn’t happy. Like Lucy, she wants something but isn’t sure she can have it. She still wants that red hair, he knows. She wants red hair the same way he has always wanted to play pro ball, because in America all things are possible, and so you dream about them, and you aren’t happy unless you get them. The tenderness he feels for her suddenly brings tears to his eyes, and he hides them by looking away.

Now she is laughing. She has lost herself again in the television show. She is watching Lucy do her crazy things while Ricky, that amazing drummer—that Cuban dancer all American women are in love with—doesn’t know what she’s up to, though when he finds out he will indeed forgive her, because he loves her. This is American, too, Fidel knows.

The Cuban phones him three days later. The man says only, “I would like the opportunity to meet with you, Señor. Would this be possible?” When Fidel asks what it is about, the man says, “Our country.”

“Cuba?” Fidel asks.

“Yes,” the man tells him. “I ask only for an hour of your time—at the very most.”

Fidel feels an uneasiness begin, but says, “Yes.” Why not? This man is a fellow Cuban, another son of Cuba and Martí, so why should he not? If there is something happening in Cuba that he should know about, what is an hour of his time?

They meet at the coffee shop where Nancy works. Nancy serves them and smiles at them both. The man begins to talk. He is not direct. He talks of many things, but not important ones. The uneasiness grows. What is wrong? What is so wrong in Cuba that a man contacts him like this, talks around things and does not get to the point? “What are you trying to say?” Fidel says.

“Things are happening now,” the man says.

“What things?”

“People are not happy, Señor.”

“What people?”

“The farmers and workers,” the man says, and Fidel understands at last.

“You are a communist,” he says to the man.

“No. I am not,” the man answers. “I am a son of Cuba, like you. I am simply concerned. And I happen to represent others who are concerned, others who feel that you, a son of Cuba—a celebrity in both countries—might wish to know about these things, to consider them.”

“I am a baseball player,” Fidel says at last. “I know nothing of politics. We have a president in Cuba and a president in the United States. Except for an American war in Asia, I am not aware of any problems.”

The man is quiet for a moment. “Yes,” he says, “you are in America now, and you are playing baseball, and so you might not be in a position to hear about things at home, would you agree?”
That is true, Fidel thinks. A baseball player would not, would he. . . .

“There is a movement in Oriente Province, your own province,” the man tells him, “a movement that is growing. The current administration in Havana is not happy with it, but I must emphasize to you that it is a movement of the sons of Cuba, men who are tired of the manner in which Cuba remains a child in the shadow of North America—a child not allowed to grow up, to know what it is like to be a man, to build a life from hard work, to have a family, to feel the pride a man should feel. . . .”

The man is looking at him, and Fidel looks away:

“The United States is a good country,” Fidel says.

“Yes, I know. It has been good to Cubans like you, Señor. But, if you will forgive me, it has not been as good to everyone. Those who work on the fincas, in the cities, those who work for a few kilos a day to serve the wealthy tourists who come to Havana to play. . . .”

He knows what the man is saying. He knows he is lucky. He remembers the boys and girls from the cane fields and knows where they are now. They do not play on baseball fields in New York. They do not play on tennis courts in California. They do not run hotels in Miami. And only a few will ever have careers in boxing. He knows what the man is saying, and he feels the shame.

He sighs at last. “What is the United States doing that is so wrong? Please, I would like to know. . . .”

When the man is gone, Fidel sits for a while in the booth with its red upholstery. Nancy comes to give him the check, to smile at him, and to purse her lips in a kiss in his direction, so that he will do the same. When he does not, she frowns just like Lucy—as if to say What’s wrong, Ricky? He gives her what smile he can, so that she will not think he no longer loves her.

He hasn’t felt this way since he was a child, he realizes, as he walks from the coffee shop to the blue Chevrolet in the parking lot—since the days he would argue with his father at home and his father would shout, not wanting to hear what he had to say. His father, with that wonderful beard of his, had come from Spain, the poorest part, had begun his life as a soldier sent to fight in Cuba, had become a brickmaster who bought a little land here and there, until eventually he was a land owner, a man of the finca, a man who had made a life for himself out of nothing, who did not want to hear about the poor children his son played with. And why should he? You should not be playing with them! his father would shout.

No son wants his father angry with him, Fidel knows.

Even the thought of love—even the thought of love of a woman like Nancy, or a fine baseball card with his picture on it—cannot make the feelings go away as he drives toward the Polo Grounds and the double-header.

That night he dreams that someone—he himself or someone else—has set fire to his father’s cane fields. He wakes from the dream in a sweat. And yet his father was there—in the dream. Standing beside the flames and nodding, as if everything were okay, as if he had given his permission. When he falls asleep again, he dreams of a prison on an island of pine trees, a ship that almost sinks, of soldiers asleep (or dead) lying beside him under the paja of dried cane leaves.

After the game with Brooklyn on Sunday, when he pitches six innings before they call in Hutchinson, he doesn’t take Nancy out for black beans or steak. She isn’t angry. He goes to bed early. He dreams of the mountains again, and then, right before he wakes, of that same ship, the one full of the soldiers he knew . . . before they died.

It takes him three weeks to get through to Desi Arnaz. He tries calling the studio where the show is filmed, and then the company that makes the show. He writes two letters, certain that neither will get through. When he sends a telegram, it says simply, “A fellow son of Cuba would like to meet with you.”

The answer takes four weeks. Arnaz, who lives in a valley north of Hollywood, California, will meet with him if he can be in Los Angeles on the thirteenth of September at ten in the morning. A driver will be sent to his hotel.

Nancy wants to go, and for a moment he almost says yes. Yet he knows what it will be like: He, full of feelings he hasn’t felt in so long, needing to talk to a fellow son of Cuba; she, wanting to have fun in the city she has always dreamed of. It would be worse to take her with him, would it not? Worse than telling her no? “But why?” she asks. She is hurt. He has made a dream come true for her for a moment—the chance to go to Hollywood, maybe even to meet Lucille Ball herself—only to take it away. What has she done? Her body sags, older, and he is afraid: What am I doing? What am I doing to us? Suddenly he is angry at the man for telling him about Cuba, for making him feel what he feels, for making him hurt the woman he loves. And for making him afraid. “Señor Arnaz is a busy man, chica,” he tells her gently. “His wife is a busy woman. I will be speaking to him for no more than an hour and then I will come home. It is political business. Cuban business. If I were going to Hollywood for fun, you would be the only one I would take. But I am not going for fun. I would not be able to have fun without you. Can you understand?”

She does not speak, and when she does, she says: Maybe another time. She says: I understand. This should make him happy, but it does not. Even this depresses him—that she understands, that she is willing to wait for something that may never come again. Everything is falling apart, he feels. Everything is becoming something else—

A darkness.

The night before he leaves for Hollywood, he dreams he is high up in an airplane, looking down at an island. It is Cuba. Below him he can see things he does not understand. Below, in black and white—like photographs—are buildings, are trucks covered with palm fronds and bushes, things that look like long, thin bullets. He is holding something in his hand—a glove, a camera, a favorite rifle with a telescope on top—but he cannot see it. He is looking down.

Everything is quiet . . . as if the whole world were waiting.

The chauffeur sent by Arnaz takes him from the ancient hotel on Hollywood Boulevard to the Valley, which is over the hills, to a gate, which the driver gets out and opens. At the end of a long driveway stands Lucy and Desi’s house, which looks not unlike a hacienda. Arnaz is waiting in the hallway for him—with a smile and a manly handshake—and they sit down immediately in a bright white room full of windows and light. A servant brings them drinks—a rum for Fidel and a lemonade for Desi. Lucy does not appear. She is pregnant—everyone knows this—and besides, she is very involved in her Hollywood projects. She will not appear, he knows now. He will not even be able to ask her for an autograph to take back to Nancy.

But he can see the portrait of Lucy—that famous painting by that famous American painter—on the wall above them, in the light. In color her hair is indeed remarkable. “I have heard many great things about you, Señor Castro,” Arnaz says suddenly. He is wearing gabardine slacks, is thinner than Fidel imagined. “I was the only boy in Cuba never to play baseball, I am certain, but I follow the sport avidly—especially when one of its players is a son of Cuba and boasts your gifts.”

“Muchas gracias,” Fidel says. He is uncomfortable, sitting with the man he has seen so many times on television, and knows he should not be. They are both Cubans. They are both important men. “If I may say so, Señor Arnaz, you are the most famous Cuban in America and my girlfriend and I are but two of the many, many fans you and your wife have in both countries. . . .”

It is not what he wanted to say. Arnaz smiles, saying nothing. He is waiting. He is waiting to hear the reason Fidel has come.

He has rehearsed this many times and yet the rehearsals mean nothing. It is like his fastball. All the practice in the world means nothing. He must simply find the courage to say what he has come to say:
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Señor. I have asked for this meeting because I am concerned about our country. . . .”

He waits. The face of Arnaz does not change. The smile is there. The eyes look at him respectfully, just as the eyes of the Cuban in the coffee shop looked at him.

And then Arnaz says, “I see,” and the smile changes.

Fidel is unable to breathe. All he can see is the frown, faint but there. All he can do, holding his breath, is wonder what it means: Disappointment, because Arnaz imagined something different—a Hollywood project, a baseball Hollywood project, an event for charity with baseball players and Hollywood people . . . for the poor of Cuba perhaps?

Or is it anger?

“To what do you refer?” Arnaz asks, his voice different now. I do not imagine this, Fidel tells himself. It is real. The warmth is gone. . . .

Even the room looks darker now, Lucy’s portrait on the wall, dimmer. Fidel takes a breath, exhales, and begins again: “I cannot be sure of the details myself, Señor. That is why I wished to see you. Perhaps you know more than I.” He takes another breath, exhales it, too, and smells suddenly the cane fields of Oriente, their sweetness, and sweet rain. “We are both celebrities, Señor Arnaz—myself to a much lesser degree, to be sure—and I believe that celebrities like you and I hold unusual positions in our two countries. We are Cubans, yes, but we are not ordinary Cubans. We are famous in two countries and have the power, I believe, and even—if I may be so bold—the responsibility as well, to know what is happening in Cuba, to speak publicly, even to influence matters between those two countries . . . for the sake of the sons and daughters of Martí. . . .”

Arnaz waits.

“Have you,” Fidel goes on quickly, “heard of a movement in Oriente Province, in the Sierra Maestro, or of any general unrest in our country, Señor? Word of such matters has reached me recently through a fellow Cuban whose credentials I have no reason to question and who I do not believe is a communist.”

Arnaz looks at him and the silence goes on and on. When the little Cuban finally speaks, it is like wind through pine trees near a sea, like years of walls there. “Forgive me for what I am about to say, Señor Castro, but like many men in your profession, you are very naïve. You hear a rumor and from it imagine a revolution. You hear the name of José Martí invoked by those who would invoke any name to suit their purposes and from this suddenly imagine that it is your duty to become involved.

“It would hurt you seriously, Señor Castro,” Arnaz continues, “were word of this concern of yours—of our meeting and your very words to me today—to become public. Were that to happen, I assure you, you would find yourself in an unfavorable public light, one that would have consequences for you professionally for many, many years, for your family in Cuba, for your girlfriend here. I will not mention your visit to anyone. I trust you will do the same.”

Arnaz is getting up. “I would also suggest, Señor Castro, that you leave matters of the kind you have been so concerned with to the politicians, to our presidents in Washington and Havana, who have wisdom in such things.”

Fidel is nodding, rising, too. He can feel the heat of the shame on his face. They are at the door. The chauffeur is standing by the limousine. Arnaz is telling him goodbye, wishing him good luck and a fine baseball season. The gracious smile is there, the manly handshake somehow, and now the limousine is carrying him back down the driveway toward the gate.

The despair that fills him is vast, as vast as the uncleared forests beyond the sugarcane and tobacco fields of Oriente Province, lifting only when the limousine is free of the gate and he can think of Nancy again—her face, her hair—and can realize that, yes, she would look good with red hair, that indeed he would like her hair to be such an amazing red.

Story Notes

It turns out that the seductively ironic and charming story about Fidel Castro—the one “Southpaw” uses as its premise—the one about Castro, the good baseball player even though his fast ball sucked, being scouted by the New York Giants—is probably apocryphal one way or another. But it was such a good story (as apocryphal stories usually are) that when I asked my uncle, the late, great sportswriter and organized-crime investigator Jack Tobin, about it, he simply nodded—which I, of course, and with less than journalistic rigor, took to be validation of the story’s veracity, and which nod I am using, as you can see, to defend this story to this day. Uncle Jack, who wore a hat until the day he died and was as generous as he was Joe-Friday-tough, was one of my idols growing up. Who else could possibly be the West Coast editor of Sports Illustrated, covering all the Olympics, and also the man who helped put Jimmy Hoffa in prison—all in the same lifetime? If he wasn’t investigating the Santa Monica Mountains and the Teamster’s Fund for the Los Angeles Times, he was gum-shoeing the early use of steroids in big-league sports, looking into corporations that wanted to go to bed with other corporations, using his own sixth sense to find people who’d been lost for thirty years, and meeting with secret informants—sometimes under death threats—in the dark of night. Though Uncle Jack was a practical, down-to-earth, get-things-done guy, I learned early from him what I’d also learn years later from “remote viewers” in the U.S. government’s only truly successful experiments with ESP: that past a certain point it doesn’t matter why scientifically something like ESP or the paranormal of Jung’s “synchronicity” or miracles or a sixth sense works. What matters is that it does work. (See the new field of “placebo studies”—a field that accepts the “placebo effect” as an actual effect, just as powerful as medication, worthy of study. See the medical profession’s increasing acceptance of the power of “prayer” to heal, and its increasing acceptance of meridians and acupuncture. If it works, use it, guys.)

A quick story to illustrate. I’d see Uncle Jack regularly while I was researching and writing Dream Baby, and I’d always assumed he didn’t believe in such stuff—ESP, psychic things. He never commented on my research, the interviews, the wild things I was reporting to him occasionally. Then one day as I started work on the novel itself I said, “By the way, Jack, what do you think about ESP?” The universe stopped (it didn’t turn blue, no, but it did stop). He answered (with words to the effect): “You mean a sixth sense? Sure. How do you think I discovered the Teamster’s Fund story. I use it all the time. When going to sleep or waking up I’ll hear a name—just a name—and later I pursue it. I don’t care whether people say that’s just intuition, the unconscious working with it, or something else—something fancier. I have my own reasons to think it’s fancier, but that doesn’t matter, does it. It works and I use it to do what I do in this life, out of the values I hold, out of doing what I believe is right.”

Without Uncle Jack I wouldn’t have seen ESP-ish things—what human beings do with them when they’re real enough in their lives to serve them—so clearly. Without Jack, too—without his living example of how one might fuse improbable worlds—“Southpaw,”which appeared originally in Asimov’s and later in the Dozois/Schmidt anthology Roads Not Taken, would never have been written. After all, in what other world would Castro the baseball player choose Lucille Ball over a revolution?

About the Author

Bruce McAllister

Bruce McAllister is an award-winning West-Coast-based writing coach, writer in a wide range of genres, consultant in the fields of publishing and Hollywood, workshop leader and an “agent finder” for both new and established writers. As a writing coach, he specializes in all kinds of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and screenplays.

Bruce’s literary and genre fiction has appeared in national magazines, literary quarterlies, college textbooks and ‘year’s best’ anthologies. His second novel, Dream Baby, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship winner, was called a “stunning tour de force” by Publishers Weekly. His most recent novel, the autobiographical The Village Sang to the Sea: A Memoir of Magic, was a Cibils and Locus nominee. His fiction has been translated widely and received national awards and notable mentions in the New York Times, other U.S. newspapers, U.S. and foreign magazines and journals, and reference works for major publishers and literary presses. His poetry and experimental work have appeared in literary quarterlies and anthologies; he has co-edited magazines and anthologies; and his articles on popular science, writing craft and sports have appeared in publications like Life, International Wildlife, The Writer and newspapers across the country.

Find more by Bruce McAllister


About the Narrator

Brian Lieberman

Brian Lieberman is a Tralfamadorian disguised as a human, and other times disguised as one of the many horrors over at Pseudopod.  He lives in Florida with his girlfriend and gerbil.  One day he’ll be rich and take over the world … or donate a large sum of money to Escape Artists and other great projects, whichever is easier.

Find more by Brian Lieberman