August 25, 2011 § Leave a comment
Summer, late ’60s
I went to doctors all over town, and they couldn’t help me. My wife got tired of hearing me complain. I even got tired of hearing myself complain. I had reached the stage where I only had to pick up a racket for the pain to start, a sharp shooting pain that felt like a pin had been stuck through my shoulder. And when my damn arm really did begin to hurt, I finally had to give it up.
I never understood tennis anyway. The game was like some rite into which I had never been initiated. Whatever happened between the serve and the end of the point was a mystery of motion and involvement. I felt as if each time I slammed the ball into my opponent’s court I had touched off the release of a sudden fury that I could only fluster my way through in some awful kind of waltz.
The moment still comes back to me, when I’m facing a new client in the office, sometimes when I’m just walking uptown against the crowd, where I’ve charged the net and stand waiting for the return, tense, poised, and anxious—
I don’t know which makes us more miserable, the things we do from commitment and obligation, or those we do for joy.
Still, I’m sorry I quit. Somehow I think that if I had mastered the game I might be a better person for it today, more in control, more on top of things. I was too impatient: I didn’t get set, I rushed my strokes. Hell, I don’t need a psychiatrist. What I need now was a good pro, back then. I could serve, though, and hard. I will say that about my game. Win with your serve, and you only have to break your opponent’s once to take the set.
But how can you try to save the world if you don’t have a decent backhand?
The deal, at any rate, was this: if the kids stuck the program out for the summer, the Association would let them keep the shoes and rackets. They had to have the shoes. Even though Kirkwood Center was a public facility, it had good courts, which required some care. And that was my job back then, summers before I went to law school, collecting the fees, maintaining the courts—and trying to keep the public from tearing them up. Half those kids showed up the first day in street shoes. I doubt any of them had even been on a tennis court before.
The clinic was the brainchild of a local branch of the SLTA, though I don’t know why it’s called the Southern Lawn Tennis Association, because I’ve never seen a grass court anywhere in the South. There used to be a lot of clay, not the soft, grayish composition we had that everyone calls clay now, but thick red clay like the stuff that lies an inch below everywhere in the state. Even some of those raw little country towns with nothing more than a gas station and a post office used to have one or two of the old courts. It’s amazing, though, how many good players they produced. You could always spot them at the state tournament by the faint orange stain in their socks and shoes and the deep red crescent above their collars.
And I don’t know what the Association thought they could accomplish with their clinic, but then reform was in the air then—this was some twenty-five years ago, back in the 60s—and everyone was trying to do something, one way or the other. Better, maybe their reasoning, to show those kids something civil before someone else got to them. Maybe they wanted to turn them into proper Southern gentlemen. Really, I doubt they put much thought into their reasons, or their motives.
I suppose they meant well enough, though, and responded from within their means. They were, after all, a tennis association, tennis was what they understood, and tennis was what they offered. And they weren’t really a bad crowd. Nothing that snotty or exclusive about them—white collar, blue collar, even a few blacks, along with the guys who forked out ten grand a year at the Club. Everyone who played joined. You didn’t even have to be good at the game, you only had to show it a certain respect and take it seriously.
Too seriously, some of them. There were players for whom the game was an infernal labor, and it didn’t matter how good they were, their agony began the second they stepped on the court to pay penance for their fall from a heaven presided over by Bill Tilden. And tennis could bring out the worst side of others. Staid and sober men would cuss and hurl their rackets into the net with every mishit and bad shot they made. Line calls could become matters of personal injury, of righteous indignation. There would be moments when play on all courts stopped as everyone turned to watch someone who, having stormed from his side of the court to his opponent’s, stood over the tape, lowered his racket to a welter of ball marks, and then shouted for all he was worth that the one touching the line was his, as if the whole of an unfair world had reached consummation in a single point. It’s a fine line, I suppose, that separates justice from perversion.
Still, they all kept playing, they all managed to get along. And they all played at Kirkwood. Even the guys who belonged to the Club would put in an appearance. It was a community, of sorts.
At least they did know how to plan. The Association made the arrangements and had everything mapped out to the last day of summer. Members volunteered to teach and donated the rackets and balls, while a sporting goods store chipped in the shoes. An elaborate schedule was devised that allowed for rotations and substitutes so that there would be at least six instructors each day. God knows what they had in mind, because they even arranged to enter the kids in the city’s juniors tournament at the end of August.
The problem was that they didn’t know where to find the kids. They went to Parks and Recreation, who had the courts, who went to the Human Relations Council, who didn’t have anything but knew to call Social Services, who did have kids, who went to the Housing Authority, who had the bus. And, of course, Parks and Recreation knew where to find me, the public servant, and told me to have the courts in tournament shape for the first day.
I ran players off late morning so I could get them ready, sweeping twice, up and down and then across, pulling like a plow horse a large two-handled broom behind me. Then I brushed off the tapes, bringing into sharp relief the outlines of middle class obsession, given the clarity and dedication that only geometry can bring, and stood back to admire my work: so many different, well proportioned rectangles within larger rectangles laid out on a pristine gray-green field, bisected by eight nets stretched taut and tapered towards the center straps that I adjusted daily by the accepted and unimpeachable measurement, the length of a Jack Kramer plus the width of its face. Tennis, at last liberated from the dark halls of European aristocracy, from the back yards of the elite, into the wide open spaces of American democracy.
Then at noon, the bus came, on time, an old wreck, a converted school bus with “Brookview Homes” stenciled on the side. The driver squeezed out first, a fat cracker Baptist with a crew cut, who walked around while rubbing his hands together, surveying the place with ponderous skepticism. Next he looked for the nearest shade tree, beneath which he spent the rest of the summer sipping cokes and humming hymns to himself.
For a moment I wondered if the Association hadn’t found their kids after all, because from where I was standing the bus looked empty, but, as if on some unseen cue, they poured out the doors, twenty or so, and went straight for the courts. They ran helter-skelter all over them, cutting and scraping the surface with their leather and hard-soled basketball shoes. Some swung imaginary bats as they ran, while others sat on and tugged at the nets. Then a group lined up at one end, took a running start, and slid as far as they could in the grit, trying to see who could make the longest mark.
Needless to say, the kids were all black. When anyone talked about society back then, they meant problems, and problems meant race, and race meant black.
And these were raw kids. Not mean, not vicious, just raw. They were supposed to be ten to fourteen, but some looked older and much larger. Most had on jeans and ratty t-shirts several sizes too big. Their hair was cut close to the skull, and they all seemed to have a scar somewhere on them, which they wore with indifference. All their faces looked as if they had been scrubbed clean of any design or emotion, leaving only a lean, stark gaze. When they looked at you they had a way of looking through you, at some point beyond, as if you were in their way. If they were the ones the would-be reformers targeted for whatever had moved them, their anxieties or good will, the kids didn’t seem to know it.
The instructors herded them up, explained the business about the shoes, and gave a brief lecture on court etiquette. Then they took them to the storage room to pass out the equipment. The equipment should have been what tipped me off about their scheme, if I hadn’t been suspicious already. The shoes were mostly odd sizes and styles the store couldn’t unload. They had to stuff toilet paper in some to make them fit. Most of the balls you could squeeze together, and the rackets made for an odd and sorry arsenal. Ladies rackets. Sears rackets. Beginners rackets, feeble things, thin framed and loosely strung, the kind of rackets plumbers and hacks use, or the kind your father first buys you when he wants to see whether or not you’re going to take to the game, but obviously doesn’t want to blow too many bucks. And warped old models, relics from the attic, strung with brown, sagging gut, sporting on their throats pictures of players I’d never heard of.
It was the metal, though, that the kids went after, and a couple of fights broke out over who got them. There were about a half-dozen, aluminum and steel rackets with bright chrome or gold finishes, and all were split or had popped rivets. They were just coming out then and didn’t last long. The sound one made whenever a kid struck the ball was unnerving, like a cracked bell.
The equipment was serviceable in one respect, however, because after the instructors led them back on the courts to begin the lesson, it didn’t take them ten minutes to knock every one of some two hundred balls clear over the fence, and the rest of the hour was spent finding them. I had to stay late that night, filling in and sweeping over all the marks those kids had left.
The next day and the rest of the week the instructors managed something that resembled order, though not as much so tennis. I suppose from some perspective it might have looked funny, watching the staunch and not so staunch Southern fathers try to tame so many wild kids. Then again, I can’t imagine what that point of view might be, because even though the kids settled down somewhat, the instructors grew increasingly on edge. You could see it, as some leaned over the net and spoke to the kids with exaggerated politeness, or others just stood there and looked above their heads, working to regain composure, that their patience was being strained, as was some principle or reservation within they hadn’t resolved, perhaps were seeing for the first time. The kids picked up on the instructors’ frustration, though maybe misreading it, and they followed their advice as if being punished, sullenly hitting the ball and not caring whether it cleared the net or landed hard in the back fence. They had probably seen this routine before.
The second week substitutes had to be called in.
The third week was the start of the worst heat wave we’d had in decades. Eight days running the high hit over a hundred. The sun blared like a warning throughout the town, stirring memories of other summers and other cities, reminding us that though we had been spared the worst so far, the problems of society were not over yet. A curfew was reinstated on the coast, and there was an incident here, a police shooting in the projects, that had everyone talking about riots. This was the sense, that the unrest was some external contagion, bred in the Newarks and Watts’, not related to anything anyone was doing in the South, or to what had been going on all along for so long.
The courts dried out by noon and turned to dust that puffed up when a ball hit, or swirled in clouds with the slightest breeze. Just playing those days was challenge enough, but for the instructors the dust and heat were the catalysts that sped the transformation of their resolve into something else. Whatever magnanimity or faith the Association brought to the clinic soon turned to the look of grim tolerance.
They ran out of substitutes the fourth week, and the fifth week, with a show of excuses and apologies and complaints, there was wholesale desertion. Williams said he had to go on a business trip for a few days and never returned. Horton said it was a damn fine thing they were trying to do the day before he ducked out. McIntyre didn’t think tennis was the game for this kind of kid. Cowens wanted to know if there were any poor white kids in town. Brauer asked how they could take over where the kids’ parents had failed. Johnson was profuse in his apology and confessed he couldn’t take any more. Morehead simply quit, saying he didn’t have to give a reason. Dr. Greenfeld and Lucas, a black PE teacher, alone were quiet; but whatever their silence covered, both showed up every Monday for the rest of the summer.
Still, the kids kept coming, in fact, perversely, more of them came each week. And the bus kept coming, each day on schedule, as if nothing were wrong, bringing more and more kids to fewer and fewer instructors. The sixth week started with forty kids and just Greenfeld and Lucas, who somehow managed. Tuesday, only one instructor showed up, who could only handle a few and had to ignore the rest. The rest tried to carry on by themselves, but soon tired of that. One group started up a baseball game behind the locker room, using their rackets as bats. Another used them to attack bees swarming over the trash cans. I had to spend the hour running around to make sure the others, scattering all over the place, didn’t do anything worse. Wednesday no instructor came, but before I realized that, a handful had already taken off across the park and into the neighborhood.
The calls finally made their way to Wilson, our boss, the director of Parks and Recreation, a man who had a talent for appearing sufficiently harried in his job—when you could find him—and who bragged he’d never taken an hour’s exercise in his life. The next morning he met with Larry, the guy I worked with, and me at the Center. Wilson expressed his irritation at having been dragged from his office with a look down at the heavy wing-tip he ground into the grit on one court. The clinic, he let us know, wasn’t his idea, and he wouldn’t have approved of it had anyone asked him. However, he said, these were dangerous times. One had to be careful and appearances had to be kept up. Besides, he wasn’t going to let the botched efforts of others mar the image of his department. The clinic had started and was going to continue as planned. Against the Association itself or its instructors, however, he said nothing specific, and stared at us in a way that told us we shouldn’t, either. With a side-glance he suggested it would be an awfully fine gesture if Larry and I both be there at noon that day, even though we worked opposite shifts, to take over the lessons in case the instructors didn’t show up again. He then looked at us with a scowl we later decided meant there damn well better not be any talk about extra pay.
If any instructors intended to come back, they didn’t bother that afternoon, the following, or any other, aside from the conscientious Monday duo. I never found out if the Association pushed Wilson to get them off the hook, but doubt they did. Rather, this was just the way it happened, the way these things always happen, that messes are made and left for others to clean up. That, after all, is the reason here why government is created. The instructors eventually did return, but after work and weekends, this time to play, and Larry and I both got heavy looks that showed perhaps the anger that covers guilt, or maybe indignation that what we were finally doing was what we should have been doing from the start.
At any rate, we had their clinic now, a few hours after we talked to Wilson, and kept it for the rest of the summer. I don’t remember what Larry felt, but I was furious. Not only were we given an impossible task, not only did we have the Association’s half-baked scheme dumped on us, but I also felt as if we had been called upon to mediate the whole town’s failing conscience. Also, I didn’t know the first thing about teaching tennis.
Yet there we were, with all those kids, and I can still see not them but their life, its starkness, its otherness, and the distance and utter difference. Then as now, I was a liberal, but then as now, I wasn’t a sap. What they had gone through none of us could understand, and the only thing I knew with certainty was that what they needed would take more than manners and games we hadn’t learned ourselves.
Still, there we were, with all those kids, and we had to do something. Larry and I split them up, Larry taking half to the back courts, while I assembled the rest on the front. And then there I was, now alone with those kids, all eyes on me, and I didn’t know what to say. I looked back at them, restless under the noon sun, feeling awfully white and a little scared.
“You’ll probably find,” I told them with the only inspiration that came, “that the forehand is easier to learn. But don’t be afraid of the backhand. It’s supposed to be the more natural stroke.” I then demonstrated both, taking a few unsteady swings at invisible balls. A couple of them repeated the strokes with me, but stopped when the others glared. I didn’t know what they had already learned so decided to start from scratch. Mustering courage, I next showed them the serve and volley. No one cared about my work at the net, but several were impressed with my serve and gave it a shot. Next I broke them up into groups among the courts and told them to take turns hitting to each other, trying to get them to rally—and failing. They only went through the motions without moving balls back and forth across the nets. Larry fared about as well.
Yet this became the program the following weeks because it was the only one I could figure out that might be appropriate for their level, demonstration followed by practice. Not that I saw results or had any confidence in my plan, because even the instructors who had tried and did know what they were doing hadn’t gotten anywhere. Then again, the half-hearted effort of the others must have left the kids confused and the desertion had to have had some effect. Still, I had to do something. After I broke them up into groups, I’d go from court to court, giving advice to anyone who listened. Mostly, they ignored me, treating me like an intruder. Really, though, it didn’t make any difference what I did, because as I gingerly worked my way through the desultory groups, stepping on balls, getting stares, I also kept an eye myself on the park outside and the houses across the street. Because this had to be the unspoken directive from Wilson, not to teach but keep them out of trouble.
Maybe the Association did mean well, but so what? It doesn’t matter what their intentions were, because fickle behavior can do more harm than good. But to say the road to our modern hell is paved with good intentions would be giving too many people too much credit. It’s hard to believe the Association’s real purpose on some broader scale wasn’t the same as Wilson’s. And this was what angered me most, that I was I one who got stuck to fulfill it.
I suppose if I had protested loud enough, I could have gotten out, though I couldn’t imagine any argument I might make that wouldn’t sound selfish or dumb. And much as I resented the clinic, leaving it wouldn’t have felt right. It’s the problem you run into when you go against the words behind the words. But if I didn’t complain it was because I lacked the nerve, and for no better reason saw the clinic through to the end. Yet it was hard to hold any conviction in doing something that not only didn’t have a chance but I also didn’t believe in. My only solution to this dilemma was to fake engagement without thinking about society or its problems or its motives and what lay beneath them, and try to make the lessons as interesting as I could, as much for myself as them.
The kids, of course, remained bored; their rallying got even worse. So I was surprised when a couple of kids said they wanted to play for real and demanded I explain how to keep score, as if I were holding out or keeping a secret from them. I was saving that for last, and really didn’t care if we got to it or not. Matches are tedious and dull until you learn to keep the ball in play. Also, scoring in tennis is complicated—fifteen-love, fifteen-all, thirty-fifteen, but next, the way we said it, forty-five; deuce, ad in, ad out; game, set, and match—and as I explained these details, the whole business sounded strange and silly. Still, they picked it up, and quicker and better than anything else I told them. Then I turned them loose to compete. With the numbers, I had to improvise, setting up singles on one court and doubles, triples, and worse on the others. But while the kids didn’t hit any better and it was hard to say that what they were doing was tennis—the way they played, a set could take five minutes or last into the next century—they played with a passion approaching frenzy, a relief from so many days of heat and boredom.
And the rules. They wanted to know the rules—all of them. I had to pull out the book. It wasn’t long before I heard the shout: “Footfault, you cocksucker!” Footfaults. They called each other on footfaults. Nobody called footfaults there—it’d start a fight. Even in serious match play, learning rules is as much a matter of knowing which to follow as well as which you’re supposed to ignore. How could I explain that?
I think it would have been easier for me if someone had donated tennis shirts and shorts as well. Not that I care about decorum, but some appearances count for something. Also the clothes might have smoothed the edges of some of the rougher guys. Yet I don’t know why I was intimidated by them. That harsh gaze of theirs—but maybe they didn’t trust me as well. And after a while I realized that they weren’t really looking at me or at anything. They simply weren’t looking, as if I or anything else beyond a point in their vision had only uncertain existence. Nor did they seem to know each other, even after being together almost two months. I’d ask why someone dropped out and they’d say they didn’t know him. The next day, however, someone else—or two—would come to take his place.
I suppose I got sucked in somewhat, because, standing on the sideline shouting and cheering them on or entering a match to give advice, I began paying more attention to what was going on within the fence than what might happen without. Not that I got involved, it was just hard to see them play and not have the strokes down. They still didn’t listen, but I got used to that. What was harder was when they did—and I did get a small following—because then the burden fell on me to teach them what I wasn’t so sure about myself. And when they repeated what I showed them, I grew self-conscious about my own game, seeing my form mimicked by several kids in unison, more often than not exaggerated. But I had to wince when I saw the kinks in my backhand so faithfully repeated. Then again, in watching them copy me, I saw what I was doing wrong: I was hitting down on the ball and chopping at it instead of lifting it smoothly with a full follow-through. It is the natural stroke, swinging away from the body.
What hurt most was seeing a few take interest in the game. Even with the right environment, tennis is tough to break into. When you start out there’s little return for your efforts, and however much you practice, it always seems you’re doing more wrong than right. I resisted my father’s attempts for so many years that he finally gave up on me. I didn’t take the game seriously until I was in high school, and it still took several years before I played well enough to feel comfortable on a court. But even after you’ve played a long time and think you have a stroke grooved, you find days when it doesn’t work. The game’s all control and concentration. Luck counts for nothing. And when you think about all that has to be put together just to execute a single swing, then consider that you have to repeat it consistently, hundreds of times throughout a match, you realize that beating somebody is really beside the point. You look for a rhythm to carry you and try not to get too upset for a while.
But then the kids would never even know that much, because the city hadn’t yet put any courts on their side of town. And even if they did have courts, they wouldn’t have gotten far without some guidance. Yet the Association wasn’t going make the same mistake twice by following the clinic up the next summer—and didn’t.
None of which should have been news to them. And if they didn’t know from the start, they had to have realized soon that whatever they did that summer would be as far as they went with tennis. Still they kept coming, though I don’t know why. I don’t think the game even appealed to that many. I don’t know why they came in the first place. Tennis was still a white game, maybe they wanted to break a barrier, though I doubt they thought on those terms. Maybe they came because the same system that built their housing, paid their mothers’ checks, and tried to keep them in school no matter what they learned had designed another way to contain them, so when bus rolled up and opened its doors, they decided they were supposed to get in.
Or maybe they didn’t have anything else to do.
My concern about match play was borne out. After a few weeks, despite my encouragement, their initial fervor died down to a mechanical keeping of the score. To spark motivation, I told them about how well Ashe was doing that summer, and they didn’t know who I was talking about. I showed them a picture in Tennis, and one kid said, “Him? He’s a—he’s a colored boy.” If he didn’t use the other word, it may have been a sign they were beginning to accept me, or at any rate had gotten used to having me around. It was the first time I realized that not only was race in their heads, too, but that they had their hang-ups about it as well.
The picture of Ashe, however, was only good for a day, and towards the end I had to work harder to keep them going—
Except with one kid, who never let up—
This kid was intense, and I don’t think he took his eyes off me the entire summer. He was a lanky kid who never smiled, who moved with a hitch and a stalk. And he not only looked mean, he was mean, but I suppose he had to be because of his hand. He only had one hand, or rather his left was clubbed or mangled. It must have been a birth defect—he only had the vestiges of fingers—but I never looked at it closely. I didn’t want him to think I noticed.
Rudy paid absolute attention to me, nodding anxiously at whatever I showed him, and then repeating it vigorously until I told him he had it right. Not that he ever did, but I think he would have kept me the whole hour, repeating myself, if I didn’t make the excuse of needing to go on to the others. Really, I just wanted a break. He had a way of fixing and bearing down on you as if his eyes were guns. I felt I was always in their sights, even when we weren’t on the same court, even when he had gone home for the day.
Jesus, that kid scared me.
When he wasn’t tracking me down, he was maneuvering on the other courts to get the best to play against him and whatever partner he could find. Tennis is one of the few one-handed games. Maybe that was the attraction.
We worked out a serve, though I can’t imagine how he managed the toss since he couldn’t hold a ball with his left. I never could get him to stop running around his backhand.
Rudy aside, the final week the kids not only showed no life in their play, but also had lost their wildness. It was as if their spirit had been beaten out of them. While I couldn’t fault myself and knew where to place blame, I still felt guilty. After all, in a sense I was involved—so many weeks of taming them for nothing. Yet they still showed up, except the last day when we passed out the shoes and rackets. Then only half of them came. Larry and I thought some sort of ceremony was in order, but after we fumbled a few minutes while they stared at the ground, they got on the bus and we didn’t see them again—
No, seven came back two weeks later, for the juniors tournament. Wilson said we had to stick with the Association’s original plan, though we argued the experience would be bad for them. Tennis is hard enough in informal matches; tournament play is a different game altogether. The ball bounces differently. It requires a different set of nerves. On the grit, your coordination, your composure—everything can slip out from under you quickly. The kids didn’t have much to support them and had a long way to fall.
We did what we could, waiving the entry fees and even rigging the draw so that none of our kids would have to go up against the top seeds. Maybe we even fooled ourselves into thinking a few of them at least had a shot at close matches. There weren’t that many kids in town with talent, and most of the entrants weren’t far themselves from beginners. But our vision had been blurred by having spent so much time with our kids. It was a shock just seeing them scattered on the courts with all the white kids in tennis whites, who, good or not, flashed tennis in every move they made, as if the game were in their genes. They, the whites, were polite, but then they could afford to be. They blew our kids off the courts. Hard not to wonder if that wasn’t what the Association, at least unconsciously, had wanted from the start. Even if not, the effect was just the same.
Not that poor kids can’t learn, that’s not the point. There are real clinics in the ghettoes now, and shoe companies are pulling black talent out of college for their harems, luring them with big bucks. And if blacks ever got bored with basketball, you wouldn’t see a white guy again on center court. But what does this prove? That blacks can play other sports? They’re only draining their energy into entertaining the world without tapping into its power.
And winning championships, being the best isn’t what’s important. What matters is everybody else. From the smallest local tournament to Forest Hills, we live in a pyramid of competition that recognizes only the single winner and turns the rest into losers. We don’t need games to prove our insignificance. We don’t need to find our place, what we need is a place where we can get out of ourselves—
Rudy made it past the first round, the one-handed kid.
His opponent wasn’t white, he was pink, and spoiled rotten. His parents must have dropped over a hundred dollars on his clothes and racket, not to mention what they paid for lessons at the Club. His mother stood beside me on the porch, all agog in admiration of her little prince as he stretched out at the net, who, staying there, took practice swings, showing his good club form, while Rudy waited to begin the warm-up. But when His Highness finally made his way to the base line, he declared he was ready to play.
Rudy wasn’t pretty to watch, and it drove me crazy to see him still running around his backhand. Yet he ran like the devil, managing to cover the whole court, chasing down every ball, returning it in whatever way he could fashion. Not that he returned that many, because he lost the first set quickly. Nonetheless, he made the mother nervous. The first time Rudy hit that serve we worked out, she turned to me and asked, “He can’t do that, can he?”
There was a tense moment in the second set, when the pink kid hit a ball just out—I saw the mark. Rudy walked up to the line and stood over it in silence, as if afraid of it, but then hollered “Out!” The pink kid puffed up, his mother grabbed my arm, and Rudy turned and stared into the porch at me. From his expression, I couldn’t tell whether he wanted me to confirm his call or was daring me to defy it. Not a line judge, of course I couldn’t say anything. After that call, he just shouted and ignored me. And his game picked up from there.
The other kid did have the strokes, but he didn’t have the head. When he approached the net, Rudy lobbed over him. When he played back, Rudy chopped the ball short, where it skipped and dribbled a few times before rolling to the kid’s feet. And Rudy kept dogging him, finding his weaknesses, until the pink kid’s game fell apart.
1-6, 9-7, 6-0.
The match over, the pink kid ran to his mother, shunning the handshake at the net. Both looked hurt and offended, as if they both had been cheated. Rudy stayed where he was, alone in the middle of the court while matches continued around him. I was ecstatic, yet Rudy looked mad, and bore down with his eyes not on me or the kid or the mother, but on the court itself, fixing himself in the intersection of all those meaningless lines.
Or maybe he was just waiting for things to settle down, because in another moment he broke into a smile and walked off.
It’s not a bad game. There’s not that much people can do together to let off a little steam without someone getting hurt. There’s not that much people can do together at all. And every now and then, after you’ve given up worrying about how well you’re doing, maybe for a brief and passing moment you experience a feeling that is almost marvelous. You’re on the court, but you’re not aware of it, because you’re caught up in the cadence of the fall-bounce-swing of play. The weight and beat of your heart become absorbed into the pressure of the ball against the strings and then are released in its flight over the net, as it plots a trajectory arcing somewhere between the coordinates of elation and despair. You give in and lose yourself to the feeling because you know you are not giving anything up—
We had one player at the courts—Morris Latham. Conqueror of the South in his prime, he even made it to the quarters at Wimbledon. But I don’t care about his record, it was the way he looked, the way he hit the ball. Much as I’ve tried to put all that Southern crap behind me, there has to be something redeeming about this place, because only the South could have produced a Latham. On the court his manner was reserved, almost withdrawn, and he had a stoic look on his face that belied his clean, powerful shots, the smooth, easy grace of his swing. And he did it—hit that way—every single time. But not even that—
His backhand . . . was gorgeous. Pure, simple, seemingly effortless. Yet still not there, but somewhere between the time he snaps his head and racket back together, recoiling in anticipation of the bounce, and the time the ball meshes with the strings, in that fraction of a second that he stands there waiting, accepting, gravely holding at arm’s length a universe of infinite possibilities of all the possible paths, spins, and turns of the ball—it’s there you felt a surge inside as if the world were being drawn to a balance, and watching him you could almost believe that there were such a thing as grace.
Of course there isn’t. Even if there were, you couldn’t teach, much less learn or comprehend it. The essence of grace would lie in its rarity, in its inexpressible beauty.
The world doesn’t turn on my opinion, but I don’t think things are any better. There has been some change, but not much beyond what we have covered by the smile of our guilt, the shadow of our good intentions. We only have to look at the riots last year in LA to see what has been kept under the lid. As for us, I don’t think we can make laws fast enough to keep us from tearing each other apart.
The pink kid is probably out of law school now, climbing the ladder in a big firm. No telling what happened to Rudy. Not much hope for a kid like that.
I think I got him to pin the ball against the throat of the racket with his bad hand, and he tossed by throwing hand, racket, and ball up in the air and letting go.
Jesus, he could serve, and hard!