*This story isn’t intended for children, but it revolves around them.
It begins with Little League. The coach stuck me in right field to let his son take the pitcher’s mound. I ripped blades of grass from the dirt, pretending they were clumps of hair from his head.
Some kids napped in the dugout; others did so in the outfield. We wanted to pitch.
“Wake up,” the coach said. “You’re embarrassing your folks.”
In fourth grade English, I gazed at the recess lawn where a baseball diamond appeared along with the crowd and the ballplayers.
I stepped on the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates, squeezed the rosin bag and struck out the side.
During the Cy Young ceremony, my teacher interrupted the presentation:
“for the last time, sit down and stop looking out there.”
The students giggled.
“I’m calling your mother.”
After meeting with the teacher, my mother said to me, “Mrs. Parker thinks you’re a special boy.”
“I know I am.”
“Not that kind of special. She says you leave your desk when she’s giving her lessons, and you stare out the window. What’s out there? What do you see?”
No matter what the answer was, she sent me to a psychiatrist who treated me with medication. Those pills sure laid the daydreams to rest.
Me as well.
“Wake up,” Mrs. Parker said, “class is over.”
“How am I doing?”
“I must say, you have really improved.”
By freshman year of high school, I gave up my dream of the big leagues for Nintendo.
I sat on my stomach in front of my father’s Panasonic with my friend, Jonathan Sunshine.
We played Contra: a two-player shooter game where a couple of buff army rangers fought a whole guerrilla unit in a jungle.
Our men fired with bazookas and machine guns; they tossed grenades; they aimed at boxes with letters on them signifying which weapons would drop out of them. At the press of a button, our soldiers somersaulted and grabbed them midair.
“Did you know you should rub aspirin on a bee sting?” Jonathan said.
“I saw it on a commercial for home remedies.”
We played a word game, pairing the word shit with any noun starting with the letter B, and we blurted some cute phrases.
“Doesn’t sound too a-peeling to me.”
“Did you know you’re supposed to turn on the vacuum when the baby is crying?”
“Well, duh. You won’t hear the baby.”
“Hold the onions and pickles, please.”
We were practicing for the late show when Letterman would retire.
In Contra, Jonathan insisted on being the blue guy.
“My dad says I should always pick blue over red. Red guys want to be pussies and hug the trees.”
He said his father repared air conditioners at the post office,
which explained why he stayed home a lot.
We spent copious hours trying to win the game, but we couldn’t with three lives alone. A cheat code surfaced at our school to advance us through all hundred-or-so levels. Using the pads and the buttons on our joysticks–UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, B, A, START–we collected one-hundred lives. It made winning possible in a way that felt worse than losing.
At the final level, my father pulled the plug on the console.
“Hey, you killed us,” Jonathan said.
“I need to talk to my son alone.”
When Jonathan left with his bike, my dad tossed me a brand new pitcher’s glove.
It had Doc Gooden’s autograph.
“There was a sale at Big 5,” he said.
So much for authenticity. I left it in the garage next to his weed whacker.
Two weeks later, he asked, “why won’t you play catch with me?”
“Because I’m not playing anymore.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because it’s all a fix.”
“Is that what that Sunshine kid told you?”
“He knows it, too.”
“Hey, you better fix that attitude.”
“For real. What’s the point if the coach is going to start his son over me?”
“I’m talking about the high school team.”
“That’s a fix, too, like the Tyson fights. Besides, it’s too late.”
“Fine. But just know this: you won’t survive in this world unless you compete. Understand?”
Adulthood was in four short years–understood. The world was run by bullies and cheaters.
“So what’re you going to do? You can’t waste your life on these video games. That’s how kids start doing drugs. You need a passion.”
Which I already had. I was passionate about baseball. I hated it.
Well, one sport for individuals was tennis.
I preferred the word “loners.” But like Olympic figure skating, it wasn’t as isolating as it seemed. In high school, there was a tennis team with doubles teams. There was even a golf team and a track-and-field team. When Nancy Kerrigan twirled on the rink, she competed not just against other countries but also for a place on Team USA. One of her teammates was waiting on dry land with a baton. And it wasn’t for a relay.
To keep Father off my back, I took lessons at a country club in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
The elite competitors of the county–the children of judges, doctors, and landowners–worked with the most excellent trainers who charged exorbitant fees for their time. They won all the local tournaments on clay, where the rallies were more tireless than on cement; where topspin serves bounced over the opponents’ heads.
And where the clay skinned my knees. The skinning happened to one kid so profoundly that it filled up his kneecap. A doctor had to scoop it out like it was mush from a cantaloupe. The image lingered in my head, so I refused to play on that surface.
“Then we’ll sign you up for hard courts,” my father said, where the sleazy humidity fried, not broiled. At least with my solid serves, the rallies ended quicker than on clay.
I took up group drills at the Y with seventy-five-year-old Mr. Butts.
He puffed cigarettes before he met us back at the court. I wasn’t expecting Yannick Noah.
“Get in line,” he said. “Your time is your parents’ money.”
He stood at the net with a shopping cart with one of its wheels missing, and he fed us dead balls which felt like water balloons against my strings. One time, his cigarettes fell out his breast pocket, and I launched one at his head.
“Sorry, Mr. Butts.”
He rolled around, holding his left eye socket.
“Son of a bitch.”
A nurse brought him an ice pack, and he took another break with his Pall Malls.
As frustrating as tennis was, a fierce down-the-line forehand was therapy. I needed to blow off some angst.
Opponents, on the other hand, made me stiff.
“Why’re you going to practice if you won’t compete in any tournaments?” my father asked.
Again about competition.
To prove his point, he rehashed the story of his father’s beach umbrella empire; how it started all because of high school water polo.
“He would’ve never learned the value of teamwork.”
“OK OK, I’ll play in the tournament. Damn.”
Lessons at the Y became serious business.
Butts was supposed to prepare me in a month for the singles bracket. At the end of every session, he gathered us all for a pop quiz.
“All right, listen. If you hit the ball and it pops, whatcha do?”
Everyone was stunned by such an odd question. We glanced at one another for an answer that seemed too obvious. My forehand might’ve damaged his brain.
“I repeat, if you hit the ball and it pops, what the hell d’ya do?”
“You do the point over,” I said.
The tournament was in two weeks. Man, did I regret leaving Tarpon Springs even if I didn’t fit in. All of the boys there went to a Catholic private school full of Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics, Asian Catholics…
While Butts was educating us on proper court etiquette, their pro, Mr. Blanchard, made his players warm up with tai-chi.
He toured the United States Tennis Association in the seventies.
Although he never made a national name for himself, Blanchard did act in eighties porn.
Jonathan Sunshine found a VHS in his father’s closet of the aptly titled 40 Butt-Love. We, along with the other boys from the Y, gawked at a scene in a pro shop where a blond actress entered the frame in a tennis skirt, topless. Back in the Reagan era, pornstars could’ve been actual streetwalkers.
“Mr. Long, are you looking for something special?”
He pulled a racquet from the wall and held it in front of her.
HEAD was the brand of the racquet.
“Wow. That’ll run you pretty deep, Mr. Long.”
He unzipped his pants.
“Let’s see where this runs you.”
The climax painted zen mastery in a new meaning.
Nevertheless, he readied his disciples for the pros.
Out of sixteen players in the Clearwater Junior Open, they were the top eight seeds. In the first round, I faced Steve Brunell, the three-year defending champion. To get one game of two sets over him filled me with enough pride to brag to the other kids in Butts’s class.
“I got him on a passing shot.”
“He tripped. I fucking aced him, too.”
Yep, for those four or so points, I was Pete Sampras. But like an epiphany in the shower, the Sampras in me vanished. After committing a month for the open, I lost to Brunell, 6-0, 6-1.
As for high school, the coach needed to rank each player, so he drew up a round-robin.
Some of those players were true novices. Novices used metal racquets, not graphite or ceramic; they wore basketball shorts, and they scuffed the courts with their non-tennis shoes. Some audaciously wore Chuck Taylors.
Beyond all atrocities, though, was their wretched form. One of them had a prosthetic leg, but somehow he ran hurdles in track-and-field. He kept chasing my forehands and dinking these returns that hung like fuzzy yellow spiders. I overcompensated, launching my shots way past the baseline–a couple of them sailed to the parking lot. Through each point, I breathed in just enough patience until I ran out of it by the second set. He defeated me not only in the match (7-6, 7-5) but also in spirit.
Afterward, instead of shaking his hand, I kept smashing my Wilson Hammer until the frame dangled by one of the strings. Enough was enough. It went in the trash can along with my desire to play again.
I quit the sport for Super Mario Brothers. I would’ve rather fallen to a turtle with wings than to a novice with one leg. At least, in the end, a princess awaited me at a flagpole.
One afternoon, I came home from school to find my Nintendo missing from the television.
Dad was holding it hostage.
“If you ever want to see your pride and joy ever again, you’ll go back out there and play.”
So I began listening to Slayer.
The daydreams returned, not of me pitching no-hitters against the Yankees but of blood raining from the lacerated sky.
In sophomore year, I agreed to enter the Clearwater Junior Doubles Open.
I teamed up with Jonathan Sunshine.
“I’ll try anything once,” he would say.
He joined the debate team. He tap-danced.
He jangled a tambourine at the Baptist church.
He even landed a national spot for Arfies Dog Food.
Once the checks came in, his father didn’t need to repair as many air conditioners.
We faced the number-one seeds, Steve Brunell and Billy Aceman (his real last name was Gaseman). Teaming with either of them would’ve inched me closer to Wimbledon, however many lights years away it was. But such was life. I made do with the circumstances.
Sunshine never stuck around long enough for Mr. Butts’s tidbits, as proven by how he gripped his metallic Prince racquet like a fly fisherman.
I kept calling “timeout” to show him the Western Grip.
“Why do they call it Western?”
“I don’t know. Maybe John Wayne thought of it. Just hold it that way.”
When Jonathan lobbed his serves, Steve or Billy blasted them at angles neither of us bothered to chase. At the first set point, Jonathan scuttled on his daddy longlegs to reach a crosscourt backhand, and he pooped it up, up, up in the air in a glimpse of hope–one thing going for him was speed–only for Brunell to strike it away with a thunderous overhead to end the set, 6-0.
At 6-0, 3-0, these kids started yelling on the other side of the fence. They were blurred behind a thick green mesh. Their voices twanged.
“Look at them playin’ tennis. They must a bumped they damn heads.”
Our opponents could withstand anything those little fuckers said, whereas I adopted only Butts’s principles of etiquette:
- “Never disrupt the server.”
- “Whatever you do, always hold an extra ball in your pocket even if you’re not serving.”
- “Between service points, if you must call timeout, raise your hand and step from the baseline.”
The kids coughed at my serves and farted through their mouths with a cacophony of flies, motorcycles, airplanes, and lawnmowers.
Every nuisance in the world led to a series of double faults.
After he whiffed at an overhead, Jonathan was so upset that he smacked the ball at the fence. It rattled.
“Why don’t you pull your head out of your ass?”
They hushed up.
For a moment.
Brunell and Aceman talked in private. A few short breaths later, the shouting began.
“We’re going to disqualify you,” Brunell said to us.
Fine. Our beef with them ended long ago.
By the time they left the court, we were rallying insults against the kids without an umpire’s supervision.
“Tennis is for pussies.”
“Why don’t you go home and twiddle your dicks.”
“Oh, I’m so scared.”
“Eat a dick pie.”
“Why don’t you make me?”
“Go shit in a balloon.”
“Y’all cain’t play tennis. Y’all suck dick.”
“Why don’t you come over, little hick, and show us how you suck.”
We were sure tough around those kids.
But then a blur attacked the fence.
Half man, half beast.
“What did you say?” we heard.
We both backed away. Its silhouette gripped the chain links with its claws.
“Talk to ma kids again, I’s dares ya.”
Jonathan shrugged at me. He had nothing. Neither did I. The beast huffed through the mesh. Its breathing made my eyelids twitch.
“It was, it was an accident,” I said.
“Shore don’t sound like no accident to me. Say you’re sorry, little girls.”
“Uh, they started it,” Jonathan said.
“Ma kids was mindin’ they own, and y’all think you all hard around ’em. Why, I ought a kick this here down and come over there, you pussies. Give me that racquet, I’ll beat ya. I’ll beat ya right in front a everyone.”
The rest of the country club heard us. Other people yelled from several courts down–adults in the Clearwater Open and members there, too. Doctors, lawyers, judges–upstanding figures–all glared at us, the ones they believed were culpable.
“Why don’t you kids shut the hell up?”
“Hey, have some respect.”
“I reserved this.”
“I have shares in this place. I’ll ban you jerks for good.”
And in my right ear, the thing kept puffing its threats.
“Beat ya and I’ll beat ya and beat ya and I’ll beat ya.” His children rah-rahed him on, “kick their ass, kick their ass….”
“Eat me,” Jonathan said to the creature.
“Don’t talk to them, Jonathan.”
“I’ll make you cry, little boy.”
But something in him had switched on.
“I’d like to see you try, you dumb hick.”
“What you say?”
“My dad fought in Vietnam. He got Agent Orange and a metal plate in his head, and he’ll rip your head off and use your gut as a toilet bowl.”
Jonathan started bouncing one of the balls.
“You know, this ball feels a little flat. Let me test it out.”
“No,” I said.
But he swung it right at the thing anyway. The monster was too furious to flinch. It roared again and climbed halfway up what must’ve been fifteen feet of fencing.
“Shit, let’s go.”
One of the boys started digging under the fence like a mole.
“They’re running away, Pa.”
“Get him, Cody.”
Jonathan and I ran through that fortress of padlocked fences all around us with one way out, through the clubhouse, to the rack out front where we unlocked our bikes, and we cut through alleys a quarter-mile to my parents’ house. The kids’ voices echoed all the way, and their brigade pedaled from behind.
When we got to my door, Jonathan started knocking.
“No one’s answering.”
“My mom’s at jury duty and Dad’s out of town.”
“So open it.”
I stuffed my hands down my pockets, but they were deeper than usual.
“I think I left my keys there.”
“You did what? The fuck you do that for?”
“You know I always put them in the ball can.”
“Real smooth, you idiot.”
“What do you want from me? I almost pissed myself.”
In real urgency, Jonathan took my mother’s flower pot and shattered the kitchen window.
“Why? Now my dad is going to kill us instead.”
“I don’t want to go home with no ears, Dude.”
He crawled inside. I cleared the pane of its shards with my racquet, and I landed right in the sink.
Under the dinner table, we hid as if the beast wouldn’t see us there. Something damp and hot was breathing on the back of my neck.
“Did you feel that?” Jonathan said.
“You felt it, too?”
“We gotta go somewhere. Let’s skip town.”
“And go where?”
“That’s, like, 800 miles away.”
“But it has a Marine base. We’ll think of something later. Didn’t you watch Red Dawn?”
“Yeah, but they were in a school.”
“We could try the mall. There’s always the arcade. It’s loud, and it’s a safe place to hide from pederasts.”
“What’s a pederast?”
“My dad says it. I think it means democrats.”
Neither of us came up with any better ideas.
We heard a buzzing, and it wasn’t the refrigerator. On the other side of the window was a hornets’ nest.
“Jesus, I forgot.”
The swarm fled through the window. We covered our heads.
“Don’t you have any bee spray or something?”
“I think so.”
He said he was allergic, and I might’ve been, too.
We awaited the assault. Those little demons dodged our swipes and droned right back without a conscience; flashing by, vanishing, stinging us again and again.
Jonathan fled to the door.
“We’re going to die.”
Hornets weren’t bees, but they could’ve related to the same principle in terms of aspirin. My mother kept a bottle of Bayer next to the toaster. I grabbed it and ran outside to where Jonathan was rolling in the lawn like a flea-ridden dog. One of those demons had stung his tongue. I straddled him.
“Hold still,” I said.
Those chalky pills dissolved in all that saliva, so my mother, coming back from the municipal court, drove us to urgent care.
My father showed up in a tizzy.
“Did you win?” he said.
“Bey bis qua if i dus.”
“He said they disqualified us.”
“They what? What did you do?”
“We were getting attacked by a psycho.”
“I don’t see how that counts as a disqualification. In this case, they should’ve postponed it.”
“We weren’t thinking about that at the time.”
“And what’s your excuse for breaking our window?”
“Bey burr baping a burr uf.”
“They were chasing after us.”
“I don’t know who they are, but look at you. And look at you. Now we need an exterminator.”
“Frank, can’t we talk about this later?”
My mother and I were the only ones who were making sense.
“Yeah, Dad, he’s allergic.”
After the proper treatment, we dropped Jonathan off at his house and rented a room at a Sheraton near the airport.
“I’ll ground you for the whole summer unless you quit hanging out with that kid.”
“Your dad is right. His father voted for Bush.”
“Second of all, I want you to keep going to practice. Don’t let this crap bring you down. You can be as good a player as anyone if you would just focus. Don’t let every little thing get to you.”
“That’s always been your problem,” Mom said.
By junior year, I was tired of hearing my father use the word bootstraps.
I rejoined the team and kept entering tournaments. To get me out of my fear of clay, he sent me to Tarpon Springs for sessions with Coach Blanchard.
“How much do you have to pay him?” I asked.
“That’s not important,” he said. “It’s a lot, but you won’t get anywhere at the Y. Now, whenever I ask you how practice went, you tell me it went better than last time. I don’t want to hear any complaints.”
On my first day, Billy Aceman checked me with an overhead in the solar plexus.
“You don’t belong here, Bitch.”
Blanchard punished me instead of him:
“React quicker. React, then think; don’t think then react.”
The daydreams returned, no longer of blood raining from the sky but of me punching the enormous ears off Billy’s head, stomping on them, setting them aflame and pissing away the fire with Blanchard’s venereal cock.
Dad saw the bruise as an accomplishment.
“How did it go today?”
“Better than last time.”
“See? You should’ve been going there this whole time. By now you would’ve been just as good as them.”
I admitted an improvement. Meanwhile, all of Blanchard’s disciples got hooked on cocaine. Some of them quit showing up; others, including Billy, even dropped out of Catholic school. Brunell didn’t sniff, though. He had enough discipline. I resented him the most.
In senior year, something liberated me from the issues I had about Little League and competition.
Maybe it was the imminent threat of adulthood, or that I would soon die. The novice graduated early for Harvard. Yeah, so he landed a perfect SAT and humiliated me in a singles match, but he still didn’t have my serve. On the high school team, I moved up to the fifth rank. The coach awarded me as the most improved player–another comorbid insult. Not that I was still expecting something as precious as the Cy Young–or to dream about it–but after playing the sport for all those years, I was only a rung higher than mediocre.
Jonathan approached me in the cafeteria.
“What did I ever do? You won’t call me back. You’ve ignored me for like a year.”
“It’s not me, it’s my parents.”
“I didn’t know they were liberals. How do you live with them?”
“Same question. How do you live with your dad?”
“My dad’s awesome. He can beat your dad at golf, any day, anywhere.”
“You set the day, I’ll set the tee time.”
“You want to put money on it, bitch?”
We would be legal adults in a few months.
Together we laughed about how he was almost stung to death. Our friendship officially ended, not on a right cross but on a handshake. We moved on to more like-minded friends. He wound up with the heshers who fixed up muscle cars and smoked tobacco at bowling alleys and wrestled alligators for fun. Dad was right about him all along.
Regardless of whether I won or lost, I appreciated the rhythm of the overhead, the mechanics of the serve, the precision of the ace, and the thrill of the sweet spot; the rubber soles screeching on cement or sliding on clay.
In general, the sport demanded not favoritism but merit. I respected it because of that. Every ensuing match made me better.
Singles, though, locked me in my head. I needed a fresh partner for the Clearwater Junior Doubles Open. He was an exchange student from China. His mother made him play the violin and sleep early on Friday and Saturday nights, so we never hung out. But he listened to Sepultura, and we shared the same taste in girls.
With my serve and his volleys, we advanced the farthest I had ever gone; to the third round where we faced Brunell and his newest partner, a six-foot-five Scandinavian Catholic student whose private coach sat courtside wearing an eagle eye and a white sweatsuit in that blinding humidity. We lost, of course, but I was proud of us as a team for making it that far; for appreciating doubles over singles; for building strategies with someone else; for having him to blame if I failed.