It was 95 degrees outside, and the playground was on fire. En fuego, if you were a Spanish speaker. And Marcos was. His parents were Mexican-born migrant workers, who followed the crop. And so Marcos spent six months every year residing in a small town in the center of Texas called Harper, and the other six in Napa, California, where he was in the fifth grade at Mondavi Elementary.
In class he was the sort of kid teachers secretly want to clone. Always arrived on time for school. Never talked out of turn. Got the teacher’s permission for just about everything – even to sharpen his pencil.
Out on the tetherball courts, though, the kids knew him as El Corazon.
El Corazon in English means The Heart, and you’ll understand why this was his nickname soon enough. The kid didn’t have much in the way of height but he made up for it in jumping ability. He could get up 3 feet in the air. And he was a brilliant strategist. A real student of the game. He knew every trick in the book, and he’d use them all to beat you.
For 2 years at Mondavi Elementary, El Corazon ruled the tetherball world. Even the teachers would discuss his prowess with each other out on the lawn.
As champ, he enjoyed a number of privileges normal kids could only dream of. He could cut the tetherball line whenever he felt like it and the other players had to let him. What’s more, the diminutive competitor set the rules for all games at the beginning of the year, and as such the tone of tetherball play.
For example, in one of his early decrees, he had outlawed “ropies” during a match. A ropie was when a player grabbed the rope to which the ball was attached and whipped it into the air that way. For Marcos, ropies went against everything he believed. He could tolerate gamesmanship – he, himself had been guilty many a time of sending a kid to the nurse’s office after nailing him/her with the ball in an effort to assert dominance – but what he could not put up with was insulting the integrity of the game. Ropies did just that; they allowed a player to cheat their way to the top.
As for “holdies” – long a hot-button issue at Mondavi Elementary — Marcos had no qualms with this time-honored practice of catching a ball in mid-air and steadying it, before sending it on its way.
That day, when the recess bell went off, Marcos walked, head held high out to the yard. Today was not like any old day. Today was to be his last day at the school before his family took off east to chase the tomato harvest. He wouldn’t be back to the courts for another 8 months.
Much to his disappointment, the school he attended in Texas had no tetherball pole, and as such the boy considered his time there the off season. This isn’t to say he wouldn’t be playing altogether. Marcos Sr., the boy’s father and a talented soccer player in his day, had solved that problem when he rerouted the money he had been saving for a new television toward a membership for the boy to Harper’s local boy’s club, containing, as far as the man could tell, the only tetherball courts for 50 miles. Despite his possessing an uncooperative back from twisting his body into unlikely angles to get at the low-hanging grapes he’d been after for the last ten years, Marcos’s dad still entered the odd pickup game on the soccer field behind the fields of the winery at which he worked. And as such he knew well the zeal in his son’s eyes whenever he discussed the game, even if as his father freely admitted, he did not completely understand this funny sport his son played. In fact, Marcos Sr. was the same way with soccer when he was a boy, talking endlessly of his triumphs and failures on the field with whomever cared or dared to listen.
As was his custom, Marcos on this day did not go straight to the courts. Instead, he entered a soccer game that had emerged on one of the basketball courts. As a child born of Mexican parents, he was practically performing a sacrilege by choosing tetherball over soccer. And the other kids from migrant families who all played soccer told him so whenever they got the chance. But he still had allies in the game, namely Jorge, who harbored a secret affinity for tetherball but only dared play after school when his chances of being discovered were slimmer. There was also, Oscar, who was willing to overlook Marcos’s weird obsession partly because the two had been friends since 1st grade and partly because Marcos’s mom made him Canela Bunuelos every Friday for lunch and Marcos always snuck some to Oscar underneath the table.
Marcos liked to use the soccer game as cover for the intelligence he gathered while scouting out the tetherball competition from the left full back position he almost always requested. After a few minutes of pretending to play soccer, he had noticed something interesting developing. One of the yard duties Lance, a college student who normally spent recess chasing down kickballs and umpiring baseball games, was slapping a ball around the last pole – the one that was never used because it didn’t have tetherball court markings painted on – and looking like he wanted to be anywhere else. As he observed the athletically built, squat man go at it, he suddenly knew what he had to do.
Without warning Marcos strapped on the yellow headband that bore his nickname in bright, thick red letters (his mother sewed it for him), and walked over to Lance to challenge him to a match.
The truth was the boy had been longing for a true test for some time now, and we’re not talking about any of the usual suspects — Benny “the Bull” Gutierrez, Janice “Nosebreaker” Hong, Tina the Terrible, and “Super” Mario Rivers — all of whom had grown undeserved reputations, he thought, out on the court.
When the small boy with the curious headband approached him in the yard and asked to play a game of tether with him, Lance mistook him for a socially challenged lad in need of a friend.
And so he said “sure.” Well this pleased Corazon immensely, but all he did was smile and begin his lengthy stretching routine.
Two fourth graders were in the middle of a game, but they knew to clear out for Corazon. Plus, they were excited about witnessing such a match. In truth, the entire tetherball area and beyond was buzzing with energy.
Even the baseball players came over to root for Lance when word got to them about the match. They clapped into their mitts and howled when the playground aide stepped onto the court.
The other tetherball players didn’t always like Corazon, but they did respect him and in truth, he was one of them. And, as you can imagine, many of them were pulling for the champ, willing to forgive whatever past drama they had had with the boy for the time being.
Still not understanding the situation, Lance allowed the little boy to serve the ball in.
Corazon pounced on him from the beginning, whipping a serve past Lance while the man was adjusting his eyeglasses. The baseball jocks booed but Corazon was off, twice more bashing the ball just out of reach of the yard duty’s fingertips.
The playground aide took a deep breath. He had not expected the little squirt to possess such a killer spike. As Corazon held onto the ball and prepared for his next move, Lance studied his opponent’s form so he would be ready to make his move. And lucky for the college student, he timed his next leap just right — catching Corazon’s next shot right in his hands, before launching it two trips around the pole.
The tetherball players started to look concerned. This was an altogether new match now, and they knew it.
Lance next snatched the ball out of the air and composed himself once again. The man put everything he had into his next shot, but Corazon was ready this time. He bent his knees as far as they would go, and sprang into the air as if he had an invisible pogo stick. The boy caught the ball just barely and brought it down to earth. Lance could only laugh nervously, and strike a nonchalant pose, as if to communicate to everyone watching that he wasn’t actually trying his hardest. The tetherballers, for their part, went nuts, and started rattling the metal fence adjacent to the court.
Corazon spent his summers picking fruit with his immediate family members under the soul-crushing California sun, and so for him, the heat was just a mild annoyance, like a fly buzzing around a room. But he could see Lance suffering, the ample sweat spreading across Lance’s hairline.
And just then our tiny titan got an idea. The boy made like he was going for the high launch, mentally noting that Lance was already preparing his leap into the air to meet the ball that would be approaching. At the last possible moment he stopped dead, Lance already rising high in the air. And in that next instant, El Corazon did something that would keep his legend alive long after he graduated from Mondavi Elementary — he finessed the ball around the pole in a quick, sharp motion.
Realizing his error, Lance lost his balance and slipped and fell. And that was when Corazon sent the ball three more times around the pole for the victory.