I dropped my car off for service. It was seven in the morning, and they told me to go get a cup of coffee, that my car would be ready soon.
Around the corner, on Spencer Street, was my old tennis club. I hadn’t been there since I quit playing tennis, about ten years before.
I don’t drink coffee. I had nothing else to do. On foot, I wandered over to the club.
The green wooden sign at the mouth of the near empty parking lot greeted me.
I reached the canopy and the stone steps leading to the oak doors with glass. This is where my mother would drop me off most days after school. She’d pull up right alongside the entrance. Sometimes, the day of a big tournament, my father would warm me up with a basket of balls on one of the backcourts at dawn. I liked it better when my mother brought me.
“I used to be a member,” I said to the man sitting behind the front desk. He had a few white strands of hair combed over and wore a faded green West End sweatshirt. I didn’t recognize him.
“Go right ahead,” he said, buzzing me in. “On court nine there’s a twelve year old. He’s out there every day with his dad at 6:30, before school. Travels all around the world to play tournaments.”
I pushed open the door. The inside of the club hadn’t changed, all that dark wood and green carpet. The wall had pictures of all the tennis players from the club that had gone pro. Sampras, Austin, Davenport, and others. Mine wasn’t there.
I drifted past the near empty gym and the few churning cardio machines. It was still early. Outside I stopped, overlooking center court. A leaf blower droned on a faraway court. The ice machine behind me rattled. All the courts were a freshly painted blue. They used to be green and red. The industrial brown building of the vitamin factory loomed above in the distance. I could smell it, the vitamins brewing.
I passed the swimming pool, quiet and still. I climbed the steps leading to the teaching courts, where the coaches gave lessons, and heard the blower again. The courts were empty, except for the leaf blower. The maintenance man turned it off when he saw me. I knew him, his face, but didn’t say anything. He turned it back on and scattered the dry leaves off the court.
I found my old coach’s court, the sign on the gate reading “rector of tennis.” It was missing the “D” and the “i.” I stepped inside and looked across the net.
One morning, the day after I had lost in a tournament, my father drove me to the club.
“So what are you working on?”
“Getting it in.”
“And how are you going to do that?”
“With the basket of balls.”
“Over and over again,” my father said. The car pulled up to the front steps under the green awning.
“Your mother will pick you up.”
The front desk-girl in a polo uniform gave me one of the backcourts. Only one available, she said. I had a crush on her, but she was in high school and I was still in middle school. I carried the metal basket of balls, my tennis bag slung over my shoulder, to the far end of the club, past the gym, pool, the clipped rectangles of lawn, the upstairs bar, the Marine League players in matching tennis skirts and tops, the coaches instructing.
The fence on all sides of my assigned court was covered so you couldn’t see in from neighboring courts. I unhooked the bungee cords holding the basket closed and propped the basket up on its legs. I found the jump rope in my bag and started my warm up because that’s what my coach and my father wanted me to do. But then I stopped.
No one could see me.
I tripped one of the legs so that the basket collapsed and all the balls poured and ran in all directions on the court, some bouncing, others rolling. Then, I stepped up to the service line and without using a ball served and released my racquet, watching it land on the other side of the net. I grabbed my second racquet and repeated, then the third. Ace. On the other side, I found one of them cracked. I looked at the sun and sat down in the middle of the court. Counting the few black hairs on my legs, I felt the court’s surface warming through my shorts. I let it burn my calves.
I left everything and walked to the men’s locker room. Inside, I passed men wrapped in towels, others not, and a naked man weighing himself. Eyes to the ground, I locked myself in a dark corner stall next to the showers. I didn’t need to go, so I put the lid down and sat in the dark. It smelled like chlorine from the pool. Showers were running. Steam. I sat there. Two people tried to open my stall.
Later, I entered the racquetball and squash building and retreated to a far empty court. There, I lay on the cool shiny wood. The blue rubber balls exploded off the walls, echoing through the chamber of courts.
I looked at my wristwatch. My car would be ready soon. Back at center court, I heard the hollow sound of a tennis ball being struck repeatedly. I followed the sound past the trimmed hedges and the white plastic chairs surrounding center court until I reached court nine. The twelve-year-old boy wore glasses and he was poised on the baseline as his father fed him balls from the other side of the net. I peeked through the bougainvillea as the twelve year old struck forehands, launching the balls in clean long arcs to the other side. His father spoke to him in a language I didn’t understand, Chinese or Korean was my guess. He was a good young player. He could hit the ball. I wanted to get on the court and play.
When the basket of balls was empty, I told the father his son was very good. He didn’t seem to hear.
“Your son is very good,” I said again. The father nodded. He already knew that. He turned his back and used the ball hopper to pick up the balls.
“I used to play,” I said, my words hanging and then falling.
“I played in college,” I said to the father. I got closer to the fence. The father didn’t respond. I looked at the boy, his eyes down. I looked at the four fences around him. I was on the outside now, but I also knew his sadness, his loneliness, what it was to be twelve years old. I approached the boy.
“You’re a good player,” I said through the fence.
“Thanks,” the boy said, swatting a ball with his racquet.
Inside again, I looked at the wall of photographs one last time. The twelve year old still had a chance. He could be up on that wall one day, raising a gold trophy above his head.