The Point

Trey’s head is hot and his feet hurt. His toes are wet and mushed together in his shoe, stinging where the blister has ripped loose on his left big toe. He’s afraid of changing out of his socks, soaked with three hours of sweat, because if he removes them he might rip away the puffy shell of blistered skin that’s delicately hanging on, the last line of defense protecting the raw skin beneath. Trey bounces the tennis ball three times. He catches it and holds it against his racket for a moment before he serves. He’s one point away from winning the Boys 18 and Under division at the Southern Open. He wants it to be over.

He considers going for a big serve and ending the match with an ace. Nagging voices inside his head persuade him to reconsider. Coach: Why go for the lowest percentage serve on the biggest point of your life? Mom: This is what we’ve been talking about. You can’t lose your focus on big points. Dad: What was going on inside your head? Mom: At least you learned something from your mistake. Dad: He never seems to learn. Coach: Eliminate thinking errors. Mom: Why do you complicate things, Trey? Coach: Keep your thoughts simple.

Standing just outside the fence with his arms folded across his chest, his coach hides his facial expressions in the shadow cast by the large straw hat atop his head. Trey’s parents are seated on a Carnival Cruise beach towel draped over a row of the aluminum bleachers on the side of the court. Trey didn’t go on that cruise. He was training for this tournament, for this moment, a moment that has left him confounded.

It’s his right quadriceps, which has been twitching, ready to seize up on him with a painful cramp, that convinces him to hit a safe, energy efficient spin serve to his opponent’s backhand. Just get the point started.

His opponent blocks the return back to Trey’s side of the court. Trey jerks his racket back and scrambles into position. His swing is no longer fluid but is now a disjointed abbreviation of the looping stroke he and his coach have been working on for the past four months in their weekly lessons. At least he strikes the ball cleanly, sending it safely across the net to the middle of the court.

Every point has been like this for the last thirty minutes. Neither player aggressive. Both terrified of making a mistake because an error would mean precious energy had been wasted, and after three hours of slugging balls back and forth, neither of them has energy to spare. Trey is aware of the obvious paradox. Because he and his opponent are playing safe, the points have become much longer and more grueling, but both still refuse to take a chance with an aggressive shot. It has become more of a demonstration of will power than skill. Trey hopes his opponent will take a rip at the ball and put an end to this torture. In the meantime, they continue lofting heavy topspin forehands, each shot comfortably clearing the net by several feet.

Trey has never made it this far in the tournament. The finals. His parents and coaches have long insisted that his game is there, telling him that he should be making it to the finals and winning tournaments. He’s not sure if this assertion is meant to be an encouragement of his abilities or an indictment on his failures. His mom has told him it’s just a mental thing. You have to want it. He doesn’t want it. He just doesn’t want to lose. He doesn’t want to come close, tease his parents with success only to fall short yet again. All the money they’ve spent. Lessons, clinics, hotels, rackets, strings, shoes…

All that he wants, all that he deep down really wants, is for this third set tiebreaker to be over so he can retreat to the bench and hide his burning face in the little rectangle of shade from the lamp head hanging high over the court. But right now he’s fighting harder than he’s ever fought for something he doesn’t want. He doesn’t want to lose.

In the humidity the ball has become shaggy and heavy, its black print nearly worn off. He watches it spinning at him through the air, a giant, yellow furball. He considers the color and texture of this ball so carefully that it becomes a blur. His next shot shanks off the frame of his racket, sending a painful jolt through his tired arm. He hears his mom gasp in disgust, or at least he senses it.

The ball zig-zags in the air like a knuckleball. It’s headed beyond the baseline. The score will be even again. All this effort will have been wasted and instead of walking away the champion, now he’ll have to win two more points in a row to win. He’s not sure if he wants to go through this again.

Somehow—maybe a gust of wind—the ball changes trajectory and falls straight down, clipping the baseline. Trey can tell his opponent wants to call the ball out, but the shot is too slow. All six people standing outside the court have a clear view of the line and  know the ball landed in. It’s not a good opportunity to cheat. Still, Trey expects his opponent’s index finger to shoot up in the air, indicating a call of out. A shot that ugly should have gone out. As his opponent stumbles backward to make a last second recovery, his left hand rises into the air ambiguously. Instead of extending his finger, he launches a high, defensive forehand back towards Trey.

In a way, Trey actually regrets that his opponent had not called the ball out. It would have released all the tension, relieved all the pressure. Sure, he would have dropped his racket on the ground, clasped the top of his skull in disbelief, and charged the net yelling, “No way! That was so in.” Because there are no line judges on the court, there wouldn’t be anything he could do to reverse the call, and Trey would look back to the sidelines at his parents who would share in his anger, his dad probably muttering something about what a big cheater the other boy was. But it would have been a relief, this outcome. A win-win. If he had ended up losing, he’d have an excuse, an asterisk next to his opponent’s victory. Trey would have the moral high ground. His opponent only won because he had cheated, he’d tell people. And he would believe it and sleep easier at night knowing this. But the bastard called it in. The point continues.

Trey is even more careful now, his shots landing shorter in the court while his opponent has gone on the attack. He senses his opponent is frustrated, anxious. Trey would be too if he were him. The point should have been over after that horrible mishit. Perhaps pressure has been relieved on the other side of the court. Now, if his opponent should lose the match, he could claim that Trey had only won because he’d been lucky. That’s one thing Trey has learned. Rarely are there both winners and losers in tennis. Mostly, it seems, there are those who won and those who claim they should have won. Defeat is difficult to accept and those who do toil at the bottom of the rankings until they’re so discouraged by their lack of achievement they eventually give up.

Out of the corner of his eye, Trey sees his opponent’s parents shaking their heads, gesturing with their hands, and mouthing over and over, “That was out.” They actually want to believe that Trey’s ball had been out. They had wanted their son to cheat, and they would have accepted it. Wow.

Trey is now sprinting from corner to corner, chasing down balls, trying to hit at least one defensive shot good enough so that the attack stops. He finally hits his first decent shot in the last thirty minutes, a sharp crosscourt forehand that sends his opponent scurrying towards the sideline. The shot has taken just about everything out of Trey. If his opponent hits it back, he’s done.

His opponent does get it back, a slow, loopy shot down the line to Trey’s backhand, just enough within reach that Trey has to waddle over to it. This is it. He attempts an ill-advised, poorly executed drop shot that lands barely over the net but bounces too high, giving his opponent ample time to retrieve it. His opponent races to the net and drives a backhand into the opposite corner. Trey doesn’t make a move towards it. The ball lands squarely on the sideline. In. Trey puts up his left finger and says, “out.” It’s over. He’s won.

Advertisements

Superheroes

oak

“Whatever you do, no climbing any trees while I’m gone,” my mother had said before she left the house to go shopping.  The simple warning had slipped out of her mouth, fallen to the floor, wiggled through the carpet, squeezed behind the TV set, crawled up the wall, wafted over my head out the window, and caught up with me thirty minutes later as I was shimmying up the largest oak tree in my neighborhood.

Dressed in my Spiderman suit—which were really pajamas with sleeves that no longer reached my wrists and tattered bottoms that extended just beyond my knees—I stopped just as I reached a broad, upwardly expanding limb.  I watched in wonderment as Steven carefully eased himself away from the trunk, avoiding prickly branches as he neared the end of the limb.  His Superman suit fit him perfectly, and the falling sun cast a phosphorescent glow on the red cape tied neatly around his neck.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be climbing trees,” I called out as I made the critical mistake of looking down.

Steven remained focused on the branch supporting his broad chest.  “You don’t have to.  I just want to see how high I can get.  I’m Superman, remember?”

I looked up.  We weren’t even halfway to the top, but we were higher than I had ever climbed.  I timidly followed my friend out onto the limb, hugging it securely and ignoring the pricks on my forearms and ankles.

I had a sinking feeling.  With our combined weight the branch bent until it was nearly horizontal.  But it didn’t break.  Steven sat upright and flung his cape proudly over his shoulder.  He watched with compassionate concern as my fragile frame inched closer to him.  A semi-circle grin rounded out my elated face, and I was beginning to maneuver myself upright, to sit beside greatness, when I heard the crack.  The geometry on my face reversed itself as I whipped my head around to see what had happened.  The limb remained securely attached to its trunk, but my reaction had been too abrupt, and I lost my balance.  The world flipped as I swung around the limb, my arms flailing but catching nothing but empty air.  My legs, though quivering, held strong, and I hung upside down staring at the hard ground that awaited my head.  I cried out in fear.

“Grab my hand,” said Steven.  I strained my neck to find his silhouette framed in a flare of sunlight.  Reaching out my arm, I swung it until I found his hand.  My fingers wrapped around his, and I sighed in relief as I began to be pulled upright.

What happened next was one of those rare unexplainables, like biting into a salad fork or poking an eye while putting on a t-shirt.  My feet suddenly lost their grip, and though I tried to hang on to Steven’s hand, I flew—miraculously feet first—toward the ground.  Impact sent a violent shock throughout my entire body.  Pain had no identity, but it overtook me.  I squeezed my eyes and rolled on the ground in anguish.  I needed my mother to absorb my pitiful groans.  Burying my head in the ground, I let the tears puddle beneath the bridge of my nose.  It was my own fault.  I couldn’t let Steven see this—my defeat.

Even as I suppressed my barking breaths, they lingered, orbiting around my head.  After what must have been almost a minute, I took a deep breath and held it, but the gasps continued.  I realized they weren’t my own.  I cautiously lifted my head, and my eyes climbed the tree and followed the limb to the red cape firmly in the grasp of prickly branches.  Dangling several feet below, his head in the noose of the cape, was Steven.  His strong fingers struggled to untie the knot around his neck.  His legs thrashed the air as raspy whimpers escaped his throat.  My tears hardened as I watched in horror.  I was going be in trouble if my mom found out where I’d been.


Months later, standing on the stage in front of my classmates, I accepted the wooden, shield-shaped plaque amidst the chorus of cheers.  My mom had taken off work to be there for that day, and my eyes teared when I saw her smiling proudly at me from the back of the auditorium.

I stood uncomfortably beside the principal of our school as he gave my little hand a firm shake.  He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke into the microphone.  “Steven Keller wanted to fly like Superman, and for a brief time he did.  He was a model student and this award, in his memory, is given to a student who best exhibits exemplary behavior.  You should be very proud, son.”  He handed me the award and pushed me forward to the front of the stage to accept the applause.

I didn’t know what “exemplary” meant at the time, but in my mind it was something horrid.  My refusal to speak since Steven’s accident had been mistaken for good behavior.  Exemplary behavior.

But to this day, every time I hear the word, I remember the scared little kid who ran home and cowered in his bedroom while his friend dangled from a tree.