Barry was six-foot-six, fifteen like me, floating layups and hook shots
over our heads through the hoop in my driveway. We called him Big Bird
for dwarfing us, for his slappy feet, for the mouth that hung in a grin at all
our stories. We called him Big Bird because he would yell foul every time
anyone bumped him under the basket, as if we lived on Sesame Street.
I liked Big Bird and his white-boy Afro. He never called me a greasy-haired
spic under the hoop in my own driveway like Frankie, the clown on the block.
On New Year’s Eve, Roberto Clemente himself set foot on the prop plane
at the airport in Puerto Rico, my father’s island, boxes for Nicaragua stacked
up after the earthquake, knowing the dictator’s Guardia Nacional would crack
open the crates, greedy as a pillaging army, if he did not loom over them.
The DC-7, engine like a smoker’s heart, four thousand pounds overweight,
sputtered a hundred feet above the trees, then spiraled into the sea on a night
when the moon deserted the sky, the keeper of a lighthouse dreaming drunk.
A crowd kept vigil on the beach. His compañero the catcher dove and dove again
between the fins that sliced the waves, till the propeller’s twisted hand rose
from the sea, but never the body, never the ballplayer, never Clemente, never.
My father told me: Roberto Clemente is dead. I could swear my father’s eyes
were red. I had never seen my father cry. This must be hay fever in winter.
My mother saw him cry once, watching the funeral of JFK on television,
the black, riderless horse and the empty boots in the stirrups for the fallen.
Later, the day after the baseball writers voted Clemente into the Hall of Fame,
as the boys under the hoop toweled off and scooped up Cokes from a cooler,
I said: When my father told me Clemente died, there were tears in his eyes.
No one said anything, not even Frankie the clown. Big Bird stopped grinning.
Big Bird was thinking.The whine in his voice was gone when he finally said:
They only did that cuz he was Puerto Rican. They only did that cuz he was Black.
There was once an episode on Sesame Street where Luis and María taught
Big Bird about the meaning of death, how we all die one day, and his yellow
head drooped heavy as a sunflower. I feel sad, he said. I could have rolled
the numbers out like the dice in my Strat-O-Matic baseball board game:
.317 lifetime average, .414 in the 1971 Series, 3,000 hits, twelve Gold Gloves,
the only walk-off inside-the-park grand slam in baseball history. I could have
called on the spirit of a dead ballplayer to flood the screens in their heads
with the leap and stab of the ball against the wall in right field that saved
a no-hitter, the bark of the ball off his bat that fractured a pitcher’s leg.
I said nothing. I never said anything, even when Frankie would croon his
favorite song in my face: spicka-spooka. The other boys would bathe in it.
The next game began. I guarded Big Bird. I stomped on his slappy feet, spiked
my elbows into his rib cage, rammed shoulder after shoulder into his back,
blocked shots by jamming the ball into his chest. I knew nothing of karate,
but kicked the air every time I yanked a rebound away. Foul, yelled Big Bird,
like a song on the jukebox nobody wanted to hear. Foul. This was my hoop,
so I couldn’t foul out. I wanted to see Big Bird cry like I saw my father cry.
Big Bird sniffed; no one saw him sneeze. He squinted hard, but we all knew.
That day, Big Bird died for the sins of the fathers who cursed at the dark
ballplayers on TV in the living room, where their sons could hear it all.
I had a vision of Big Bird rising above the palm trees, igniting in the air
like a feathery piñata too close to the spark of a cigarette, crashing into
the sea, the sharks feasting on yellow feathers, Luis and María on Sesame
Street explaining the meaning of a puppet’s death as the nation mourned.