The Marble Champ

by Gary Soto

1 Lupe Medrano, a shy girl who spoke in whispers, was the school’s spelling bee champion, winner of the reading contest at the public library three summers in a row, blue ribbon awardee in the science fair, the top student at her piano recital, and the playground grand champion in chess. She was a straight-A student and—not counting kindergarten, when she had been stung by a wasp—never missed one day of elementary school. She had received a small trophy for this honor and had been congratulated by the mayor.

2 But though Lupe had a razor-sharp mind, she could not make her body, no matter how much she tried, run as fast as the other girls’. She begged her body to move faster, but could never beat anyone in the fifty-yard dash.

3 The truth was that Lupe was no good in sports. She could not catch a pop-up or figure out in which direction to kick the soccer ball. One time she kicked the ball at her own goal and scored a point for the other team. She was no good at baseball or basketball either, and even had a hard time making a hula hoop stay on her hips.

4 It wasn’t until last year, when she was eleven years old, that she learned how to ride a bike. And even then she had to use training wheels. She could walk in the swimming pool but couldn’t swim, and chanced roller skating only when her father held her hand.

5 “I’ll never be good at sports,” she fumed one rainy day as she lay on her bed gazing at the shelf her father had made to hold her awards. “I wish I could win something, anything, even marbles.”

6 At the word “marbles,” she sat up. “That’s it. Maybe I could be good at playing marbles.” She hopped out of bed and rummaged through the closet until she found a can full of her brother’s marbles. She poured the rich glass treasure on her bed and picked five of the most beautiful marbles.

7 She smoothed her bedspread and practiced shooting, softly at first so that her aim would be accurate. The marble rolled from her thumb and clicked against the targeted marble. But the target wouldn’t budge. She tried again and again. Her aim became accurate, but the power from her thumb made the marble move only an inch or two. Then she realized that the bedspread was slowing the marbles. She also had to admit that her thumb was weaker than the neck of a newborn chick.

8 She looked out the window. The rain was letting up, but the ground was too muddy to play. She sat cross-legged on the bed, rolling her five marbles between her palms. Yes, she thought, I could play marbles, and marbles is a sport. At that moment she realized that she had only two weeks to practice. The playground championship, the same one her brother had entered the previous year, was coming up. She had a lot to do.

9 To strengthen her wrists, she decided to do twenty push-ups on her fingertips, five at a time. “One, two, three . . .” she groaned. By the end of the first set she was breathing hard, and her muscles burned from exhaustion. She did one more set and decided that was enough push-ups for the first day.

10 She squeezed a rubber eraser one hundred times, hoping it would strengthen her thumb. This seemed to work because the next day her thumb was sore. She could hardly hold a marble in her hand, let alone send it flying with power. So Lupe rested that day and listened to her brother, who gave her tips on how to shoot: get low, aim with one eye, and place one knuckle on the ground.

11 “Think ‘eye and thumb’—and let it rip!” he said.

12 After school the next day she left her homework in her backpack and practiced three hours straight, taking time only to eat a candy bar for energy. With a popsicle stick, she drew an odd-shaped circle and tossed in four marbles. She used her shooter, a milky agate with hypnotic swirls, to blast them. Her thumb had become stronger.

13 After practice, she squeezed the eraser for an hour. She ate dinner with her left hand to spare her shooting hand and said nothing to her parents about her dreams of athletic glory.

14 Practice, practice, practice. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. Lupe got better and beat her brother and Alfonso, a neighbor kid who was supposed to be a champ.

15 “Man, she’s bad!” Alfonso said. “She can beat the other girls for sure. I think.”

16 The weeks passed quickly. Lupe worked so hard that one day, while she was drying dishes, her mother asked why her thumb was swollen.

17 “It’s muscle,” Lupe explained. “I’ve been practicing for the marbles championship.”

18 “You, honey?” Her mother knew Lupe was no good at sports.

19 “Yeah. I beat Alfonso, and he’s pretty good.”

20 That night, over dinner, Mrs. Medrano said, “Honey, you should see Lupe’s thumb.”

21 “Huh?” Mr. Medrano said, wiping his mouth and looking at his daughter.

22 “Show your father.”

23 “Do I have to?” an embarrassed Lupe asked.

24 “Go on, show your father.”

25 Reluctantly, Lupe raised her hand and flexed her thumb. You could see the muscle.

26 The father put down his fork and asked, “What happened?”

27 “Dad, I’ve been working out. I’ve been squeezing an eraser.”

28 “Why?”

29 “I’m going to enter the marbles championship.”

30 Her father looked at her mother and then back at his daughter. “When is it, honey?”

31 “This Saturday. Can you come?”

32 The father had been planning to play racquetball with a friend Saturday, but he said he would be there. He knew his daughter thought she was no good at sports and he wanted to encourage her. He even rigged some lights in the backyard so she could practice after dark. He squatted with one knee on the ground, entranced by the sight of his daughter easily beating her brother.

33 The day of the championship began with a cold blustery sky. The sun was a silvery light behind slate clouds.

34 “I hope it clears up,” her father said, rubbing his hands together as he returned from getting the newspaper. They ate breakfast, paced nervously around the house waiting for 10:00 to arrive, and walked the two blocks to the playground (though Mr. Medrano wanted to drive so Lupe wouldn’t get tired). She signed up and was assigned her first match on baseball diamond number three.

35 Lupe, walking between her brother and her father, shook from the cold, not nerves. She took off her mittens, and everyone stared at her thumb. Someone asked, “How can you play with a broken thumb?” Lupe smiled and said nothing.

36 She beat her first opponent easily, and felt sorry for the girl because she didn’t have anyone to cheer for her. Except for her sack of marbles, she was all alone. Lupe invited the girl, whose name was Rachel, to stay with them. She smiled and said, “OK.” The four of them walked to a card table in the middle of the outfield, where Lupe was assigned another opponent.

37 She also beat this girl, a fifth-grader named Yolanda, and asked her to join their group. They proceeded to more matches and more wins, and soon there was a crowd of people following Lupe to the finals to play a girl in a baseball cap. This girl seemed dead serious. She never even looked at Lupe.

38 “I don’t know, Dad, she looks tough.”

39 Rachel hugged Lupe and said, “Go get her.”

40 “You can do it,” her father encouraged. “Just think of the marbles, not the girl, and let your thumb do the work.”

41 The other girl broke first and earned one marble. She missed her next shot, and Lupe, one eye closed, her thumb quivering with energy, blasted two marbles out of the circle but missed her next shot. Her opponent earned two more before missing. She stamped her foot and said “Shoot!” The score was three to two in favor of Miss Baseball Cap.

42 The referee stopped the game. “Back up, please, give them room,” he shouted. Onlookers had gathered too tightly around the players.

43 Lupe then earned three marbles and was set to get her fourth when a gust of wind blew dust in her eyes and she missed badly. Her opponent quickly scored two marbles, tying the game, and moved ahead six to five on a lucky shot. Then she missed, and Lupe, whose eyes felt scratchy when she blinked, relied on instinct and thumb muscle to score the tying point. It was now six to six, with only three marbles left. Lupe blew her nose and studied the angles. She dropped to one knee, steadied her hand, and shot so hard she cracked two marbles from the circle. She was the winner!

44 “I did it!” Lupe said under her breath. She rose from her knees, which hurt from bending all day, and hugged her father. He hugged her back and smiled.

45 Everyone clapped, except Miss Baseball Cap, who made a face and stared at the ground. Lupe told her she was a great player, and they shook hands. A newspaper photographer took pictures of the two girls standing shoulder-to-shoulder, with Lupe holding the bigger trophy.

46 Lupe then played the winner of the boys’ division, and after a poor start beat him eleven to four. She blasted the marbles, shattering one into sparkling slivers of glass. Her opponent looked on glumly as Lupe did what she did best—win!

47 The head referee and the President of the Fresno Marble Association stood with Lupe as she displayed her trophies for the newspaper photographer. Lupe shook hands with everyone, including a dog who had come over to see what the commotion was all about.

48 That night, the family went out for pizza and set the two trophies on the table for everyone in the restaurant to see. People came up to congratulate Lupe, and she felt a little embarrassed, but her father said the trophies belonged there.

49 Back home, in the privacy of her bedroom, she placed the trophies on her shelf and was happy. She had always earned honors because of her brains, but winning in sports was a new experience. She thanked her tired thumb. “You did it, thumb. You made me champion.” As its reward, Lupe went to the bathroom, filled the bathroom sink with warm water, and let her thumb swim and splash as it pleased. Then she climbed into bed and drifted into a hard-won sleep.

“The Marble Champ” from BASEBALL IN APRIL AND OTHER STORIES, copyright © 1990 by Gary Soto, reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc.