I don’t mean a metaphorical cave, as if, shackled to the pits of ignorance and beholden to the keepers of the dark, I dwelled in a benighted netherworld where the sun, or notions of it, rendered itself in circles around an Earth shaped exactly like a pancake. No, I mean a real cave, an honest-to-goodness cavern, a chamber situated beneath the surface of this non-pancakey world.
As caves go, it wasn’t bad. Positioned just at the rim of a deep chasm in an old ghost town on the Texas-Mexico border, it ran about 60 feet in length and boasted an opening on each end overlooking the tightly curved gorge – a front door and a back door, as it were, and each with a view. It also had a sort of sunroof, or moon roof, through which I would tumble after a moonlit stumble from the desert cantina nearby. Inside, a natural shelf held my toiletries – the toothbrush, the toothpaste, the tools of an everyday life.
Even in the desert, even among the rock and cactus and the ever-ready threat of the rattlesnake, a guy had to cling to what once was more reachable, to grasp at the world he had come from and the world to which he might return.
One way was to brush the teeth, a defense against the decay so common to the hermitage. Another, with cold water and old motel soap, was to shave, a defense against the beard so common to the hermit. And still another was to maintain a grip, however tenuous and indirect, on the American Pastime.
I grew up playing baseball. I can still remember my first hit. Really, I can still sort of feel it. It came on a fastball down the middle – because honestly, what else do eight-year-olds throw? – and that soft buttery feeling of a shot off aluminum is still resonating, after all these many years, through my fingers and hands and forearms, a ghost made manifest in the keeping flesh.
One wonders: Through what sensory channels do these feelings move and remain? Through what cognitive and neural correlates do we map experience to memory – tactile memory, emotional, unyielding – and how do these episodic events remain private points of reference, tangible and sometimes aching for resurrection, as we move into future circumstance?
My own future circumstance – living in a desert cave – had become a memorable situation in that autumn air. With little to do but hear myself think or read that stupid Zen book I’d been hauling around, I’d crawl from my cave and stand beside my shadow and chuck rocks at other rocks. Even years after I’d stopped playing ball, the feeling had not betrayed me – the fleet but lingering thrill, stretching back to some ancestral hunter and returning in a moment full of eons to an arm in the Texas desert, of cocking that arm backward and whipping it forward until the rock left its trace on fingertips and went whizzing into igneous stone, a strike if I’d ever seen one, or a perfect throw to first. In that throw were a thousand old moments, times when I had nipped a runner on an East Dallas field or taken the relay and fired to the plate, and thousands more I would never recall but that had still deposited their contents in a time that had just now passed.
As the sun went scaling the vast desert sky I would scramble down the cliff and wander the bottom of the gorge, picking through the old rusted cans, now smashed flat, that the cinnabar miners had left behind. Echoes were nothing here, just leftovers of a tumbling rock or scrambling lizard, but in them I’d hear the histories of men who were no longer breathing but who had still added their breath, and in their air I would pick up an old steel rod and swing at the rock I had just tossed upward in a silent momentary arc.
THWACK! (And here, with the license due the writer, I do not report the misses, nor do I report the foul tips.) In the rock’s flight were the triples of a 10-year-old, the doubles of a 12-year-old, the homers (far too few) of a prep shortstop whose future resided in Yankee Stadium, surely, or maybe Fenway Park, but not at the bottom of a Chihuahuan Desert gorge where memory had constellated around litter and rock. In that steel rod I could feel the line drive against Woodrow Wilson – the school, not the president – and the double off the fence, and could suddenly recall the feeling of wanting to do it again, to repeat this passage through the strike zone and convert an 84-mph fastball into yet another relic, a tactile artifact of a time when the hands were younger and yet when these same rocks were almost as old.
The connection – how did it so easily defy distance and time?
At length I climbed from the gorge and got a job digging ditches. Well, no, it was the opposite of digging ditches. I got paid five bucks an hour to shovel gravel from humongous mounds and distribute it uniformly across a yard. Granted, in the desert there are no yards, but when you’re getting paid cash money that Uncle Sam will never see, you keep your opinions to yourself.
And so I shoveled, hour after hour and day after day. This was no “wax on, wax off” tutorial, no Zen in the Art of Shoveling lesson whose profound message of motor-learning magic would suddenly announce itself in some Owen Meany-ish triumph that absolves the past of its tedium and crowns the moment as history’s reward. No, I was just shoveling, hour after hour and day after day. At intervals, when my employer wasn’t eyeing me from the Budweiser shade, I would toss a pebble in the air and thwack it with the business end of the shovel, dispatching it to a made-up place beyond the imaginary fence. And there it would settle, in some bright green sward or flowing fountain that in the Chihuahuan Desert truly constituted a great mirage. And then, despite the two-run dinger and the crowd noise echoing through my daydream, I would continue to shovel in a shrinking mound.
In time, and after considerable effort, I moved out of the cave and into a renovated miner’s shack. Built of flagstone and wooden beams, it had a dirt floor and an outdoor kitchen. Heavy rocks helped secure its corrugated tin roof. It also had an outhouse, located some 50 feet behind the home. A green garden hose served as the shower, a suspended sheet as the shower stall.
A collection of odd jobs – the sorts of hands-on labor that Wittgenstein had said would free the mind – filled my time and pockets. And in the evenings, surrounded by desert scrub and cactus, I’d grab a dried ocotillo stalk and whack pebbles into the sunset, itself the subtlest prod to the softest reminder of another world beyond this far-flung desert, a world, if memory served, where baseball games were about to begin or had already started, the first pitch setting in motion a night beneath lights I could not possibly see.
The count: three balls, two strikes.
Toeing the rubber, which wasn’t so much a rubber as it was a weirdly linear rock, I took a deep breath of desert air and prepared for the payoff pitch.
Three years had passed since I shed myself of cave dweller status. Having settled into the relatively – I repeat, relatively – lucrative life of a river guide, I had moved into a different miner’s shack, this one boasting a concrete floor, a wood-burning heat stove, access to a flush – I repeat, flush – toilet, similar access to a community shower, an indoor two-burner cook stove and a single light bulb under whose 60-watt glow I would avail myself of the enlightenment made possible by the community library, i.e., the cardboard box into and out of which the locals would traffic in books.
Officially – or at least according to the almanac – the ghost town had 25 residents. In truth, however, there were at least a few dozen more, a ragtag collection of river guides, nomads, artists, musicians, park rangers, teachers, retirees, burnouts, self-styled outlaws, back-to-the-Earthers and various expatriates of the status quo, people who had rejected the “mod cons” (modern conveniences, such as flush toilets and television) in favor of a hardscrabble life near the Chisos Mountains and along the Rio Grande.
Some people lived in teepees, others in the old rock shacks. Some lived in Airstreams, others in straw-bale homes that they had built themselves. At least one other person lived in a cave, this one rigged for electricity. No matter the dwelling, many lived beyond the reach of the U.S. Census.
The nearest hospital and supermarket: 80 miles north.
Life in the ghost town had its rewards, none soft.
My own home, the little rock shack, enjoyed one other perk: an AM/FM radio. Granted, no matter the contortionist supplications I made to its lordly antenna, the radio would never – I repeat, never — receive an FM signal, and so I would never dance as if no one were watching (and trust me, no one was watching) to the day’s top hits. And on most nights, the AM dial would find only the norteño music from just across the border, with all its accordions begging a pechanga from the darkness and all its bajos making a thump-thump-thump of the cactus-flower breeze, or the extraterrestrial musings of Art Bell and his midnight audience, strange postulations of distant worlds.
A distant world was out there, all right, and on certain nights when the stars aligned I would hear it. Sitting alone with my windows open to the warm desert air, I’d hear the scratchy but familiar sounds of a Major League Baseball game, broadcast live on WBAP out of distant Dallas/Fort Worth.
It mattered less that the broadcast featured my favorite team, the Rangers, and more that it simply featured baseball, the game I had grown up playing and the game I still had feelings for. Into my shack, across all those miles, came the signatures of the game’s sonic landscape: the disembodied din of the baseball crowd, a relaxed but expectant buzz whose dimensions lay open to an outburst but whose character had never really changed; the crack of the bat and the nothingness of its opposite, both sharing the pedigree of whatever makes a crowd shout or groan; the ghostly sounds of the public-address announcer, which turned an unseen backdrop into something more solid than the breeze that had breached my living space. In, too, came the play-by-play and the color, each endowing the ghosts of memory and the spirit of the moment with flesh and blood I could almost see and really feel.
The connection – how does it so easily defy time and distance?
On some summer evenings, when mood and freedom would meet, I’d walk the trail from my house to the cantina, and there, on the concrete porch that overlooked the yellow badlands and the purple mountains beyond, I’d say hi to Sabé, Uh-Clem, Spider, Cowboy Doug, Barbecue Ken and any number of the locals who would gather there each evening to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, drink cheap beer, play music (I played the washboard) and discuss the qualitative value of bosons, mesons and quarks, or some such.
The music and the talk, merged with the smoke and the drink, would usher in the darkness and all the phantoms that lurked inside it, all the fears and memories and almost always the things you had abandoned or the things you wanted to have again. Those things were often identical, equal to themselves in weight and dimension, but examined from different angles, that’s all.
On rare occasions the porch would also boast a well-worn newspaper, usually from San Angelo, a small city 350 miles distant, and usually a week or more old. In it we’d see news from a world we had left behind, the city council meetings and the bond elections that nobody really missed but that everybody understood; they were just someone else’s concern now, someone who lived out there in the real world and not in a place of smoke and ghosts.
In the newspaper, too, were other relics from a time gone by, though a time that still filled space in the world next to this one: box scores. It didn’t matter that in the seven days between then and now, the good Lord could have whipped up another universe. It didn’t matter that the numbers had a week’s worth of whiskers. It didn’t even matter who had won, lost or balked a runner to third. It only mattered that in those cold statistical summaries lay a feeling beyond nostalgia, a sense that transcended fond memories of cutting out box scores with childhood scissors and taping them to the bedroom door, where the three-for-fours and two-hit shutouts would serve as daily inspirations for a kid who wanted his own name – and the symbols of his own performance – to occupy those summaries someday.
The feeling instead was a love for the form, a fondness for the bloodless summation of flesh-and-blood action and, more, an affection for the game it distantly represented, all the cracks I couldn’t hear and all the aromas, of dirt and leather and the oil that softens it up, I couldn’t quite smell but that memory could somehow restore. On that porch I would stare at those digits. In a material world of substance and change, they aspired to real sensation.
Now, toeing the rubber of igneous rock, I peered in for the sign. Of course there was no sign because there was no catcher; there was only a square plywood backstop that served as the strike zone and that also stopped balls from rolling into the prickly-pear cactus. More to the point, there were no secondary pitches and thus no need for the secret semaphore between a catcher and his pitcher; there was only the fastball, the same pitch I had discovered as an eight-year-old and that I was now about to wing from a flat mound on a homemade field between a ring of dark volcanic mountains.
We had been playing this odd form of stickball for quite a while now, using a miniature baseball and a thin wooden bat not wholly unlike the standard broom handle of the urban Northeast. Granted, the league was less official than our strike zone and about as official as our lives, but when game times were announced the players showed up. Those players were Tim, a river guide and smokejumper who favored work boots paired with cut-off shorts and sleeveless shirts; Steve, a former college basketball coach who had become a massively bearded river guide; Reagan, a teacher at the local school; Greg, the owner of my rafting company; Arturo, a big guy who boasted a blazing fastball and who, even during games, always wore boots and jeans; and Jack, a friendly nomad with a fluid swing.
Other players would come and go, but this was the core – a group of guys who, for reasons I never asked about, enjoyed playing a variation of the American Pastime. For the most part, we didn’t know each other’s last names because down in the Chihuahuan Desert, people didn’t have last names. If a person had two names, one was usually a noun adjunct, meaning it served as a sort of modifying adjective. For example, I had arrived and still traveled on a bicycle, so I was Bicycle John. (Another local had also come to the area on a fully loaded bicycle, but he had suffered the misfortune of falling into a campfire and had therefore gone from Bicycle Ken to the aforementioned Barbecue Ken, thus freeing up the name for me.)
The game we played was a form of over-the-line, like Wiffle ball but without the backyard fence or the disembodied voice of a desperate mom calling for you to come eat supper. Hit it beyond the cholla, it’s a single; past the cactus, it’s a double. And so on. Come up short of the cholla, you’re out. If a fielder snags the ball in mid-air, you’re out. Watch four pitches miss the wood, you’ve drawn a walk. Watch or whiff on three strikes, you’re gone.
Such was the moment I faced now: a full count on the batter, Arturo, who stood in the batter’s box with his boots dug firm in the sand. Separate histories had funneled into this unfolding, a time at the edge of a pitch. Around us the mountains were big above the game we played for fun, perhaps preserving what might transpire – what would transpire – by supplying a real arena whose walls would never crumble. Actions and memories are anchored in both the solid and the immaterial; a moment without its molecule is a molecule without any time to announce itself.
After a deep breath I entered the wind-up, raising my left knee to waist level and then uncoiling my body toward the target, the arm cocking backward and then whipping forward until the ball left its trace on the fingertips and went whizzing into the hard wooden backstop, a strike if I’d ever seen one.
I still see it now. I still feel it.
I used to live in a cave.
In this case I mean a metaphorical cave, familiar but hidden from some of the light. When at last I emerged, baseball had taken on a host of new metrics – BABIP, FIP, UZR – each designed to objectively quantify an action on the field of play, to better measure the assessable results of game-speed motor function. Upon further and further review, and without pretending to grasp the math behind these measures, I came to appreciate the new light on old forms, to value the empirical perspective on a game for which I’d always had a feel. Still I sit here now, in the real world of HD TVs and virtual-reality screens, and gaze into Plato’s Cave.
In the philosopher’s allegory, several prisoners have been chained inside a cave and facing a wall of that cave for their entire lives. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and behind the fire a walkway on which people carry objects. Hour after hour and day after day, the captives watch the shadows and identify them as the components of reality. When at last a captive is freed, he sees the shadows for what they are: representations of solid objects.
Bound to a strange kind of equivalence, the prisoner and the freeman are now left to wonder: What constitutes the truest demonstration of reality? Is it the object itself, or is it a representation of that object? Is it my subjective perception of an action? Is it the outcome of that action? Is it the objective analysis of that action? Is it my memory of that action? Is it the feeling I derive from that action? Is it the feeling that lives inside the memory of it?
In the end, do I see the object or its shadow?
Do I know the action or its ghost?
Three weeks after the game-ending strikeout, we returned to the field of play. In descent the sun drew orange, and the shadows grew longer as we played our childhood game. At one point I stood at the plate and drove a ball beyond the cactus, toward rock that once was lava. The ball soared, and sang through fingers and hands. Even in the desert I could still feel a plastic bat on a plastic ball in a yard on Rupley Lane, and could still see the ball soaring over the alley and into the next yard, testament to a monster shot.
How does a ball last forever when that ball is just … gone?
Now in the bottom of the last inning, with our team down a run and ghost runners on second and third, I stood at the plate with a chance to win it.
The count: three balls, two strikes.
Behind me the sun seemed to know what time it was. Its crown had become a red valediction at the black horizon, its last light wiping out shadows.
The bat was coiled above my shoulder, in a prelude to what would be true.
I couldn’t know then what I know now – that this would be my final game, that I would soon leave the desert and return to that world far beyond it.
The pitch came in, high – too high. I didn’t swing. I took it.
I then heard the ball hit plywood.
I still hear it. It still haunts.