Playing Ball: Reeves Remembers

Saturday, September 22, 2012 /by

It being Friday and all, I thought I would try something different. Here's a stab at tennis fiction. I won't glorify it with the term "short story"; I'd say "quick story" is more appropriate. Next time I'll give myself more than one afternoon to write one of these things.

Every now and then, no more than once a month, Lucas Reeves couldn’t sleep. He’d lie awake listening to the dull roar that came from the freeway a few miles away. By the time it reached his bedroom’s open window, the noise from all of those rumbling cars and trucks had blended into a single, unceasing, not-quite-soothing drone. It was just loud enough to keep his ears occupied, and his tired mind from taking the plunge into sleep.

What came into his head as he rotated his body fitfully and stared at the ceiling, the alarm clock, the pillow, his arm? Which moments emerged from behind the pitch-black screen of his memory? Only the most embarrassing ones, it seemed, had made enough of an impression to linger; each insomniac night was accompanied, in his mind’s eye, by a flickering, familiar reel of shame. Reeves knew the highlights well by now. There was the cloddish, funky-chicken dance he’d been inspired to do at a Sun Ra show in college, in front of 200 of his snickering fellow students. There was the milkshake that, in his rush to illustrate a joke, he’d knocked over and spilled on his date’s dress in a café when he’d first moved to Los Angeles. Sometimes, when his brain was ambushed by a long-forgotten bit of buffoonery from his youth, Reeves would bury his face in his pillow and groan, “Oh no, not that one...” He knew that he wouldn’t be forgetting it again any time soon.

Reeves had played tennis seriously when he was younger, and he still hacked around on the courts in Griffith Park on most weekends. So it surprised him that none of his past matches rose up to bother him at night. Why, he wondered, didn’t he feel any pain or shame at the memory of his brutal losses? There had been plenty, and their sting had often lasted for weeks—his self-confidence had been punctured, briefly but deeply, by every single one of them. He could still picture a first-round loss from the 12-and-unders, when he had blown two match points before falling to a skinny, brown-haired kid that all of his friends were sure that he would beat. But that was all he could with the match: picture it. Like a TV on mute, the emotion that had once come with that image had, thankfully, vanished. There was, it seemed, no lasting shame in losing a tennis match. In that, his mind had been kind.

Each July, Reeves left L.A. to spend a week with his parents in his small Pennsylvania hometown. He didn’t sleep in his old room on these trips, but in a guest room in the back corner of the house. In place of the ambient drone of distant traffic, there was the louder but more reassuring soundtrack from the crickets in the lawns and trees and bushes that surrounded his parents’ place. Like the stars in the sky, Reeves, a city dweller for nearly two decades, was always startled to find that these night creatures still existed as something more than a ringtone on a co-worker’s iPhone. The crickets, the small-town quiet, the occasional light from a passing car that arced across the ceiling: It felt like home, and kept the sleeplessness at bay.

Reeves savored the daytime in PA as well. Humid and still, the town’s quiet interlocking streets were a lush green. The trees, whose branches and leaves overflowed into living-room windows and neighboring yards, were tropical compared to South California. Pennsylvania, he was reminded, had a unique shade of green. He couldn’t describe it, exactly—it wasn’t the brightest or the most intense—but he could recognize it in movies and TV shows and photos.

Here it was at least possible to imagine an older, less confusing America. The town billed itself as a “City of Churches,” and there did seem to be one, grand and dignified, on every corner. The hills that ringed the city—when the branches were bare in the winter, they looked like sleeping black labs—served to shut out the rest of the world; you couldn’t see beyond them. It had felt, growing up, like a tiny, self-contained universe. A universe completely knowable, from one end to the other. L.A., by contrast, knew no bounds. It was spread out beyond comprehension. The view of it from the hills had always felt ominous to Reeves.

The only irritating, even frightening, feature of his hometown were the dogs. There was one in every backyard, ready to roar with anger and bare its fangs at even the most innocent passersby. He had taken up jogging in Southern Cal, but he couldn’t do it here without feeling like he was about to have a chunk of his leg bitten off in the process. Even the town’s cemetery hadn’t been safe. He had finally had to leap its tall iron fence to escape a fast-approaching German Shepherd.

On this trip, though, Reeves remembered the track at his old high school on the hill—it should have been empty on a summer afternoon. He drove though narrow streets and rundown rust-belt neighborhoods, past the titanic, long-deserted airplane parts factory, and finally up the hill where the school had been moved in the early 1970s. The track, and the football field inside it, were locked up. There was no one in sight. The only sound was the high squawk of two crows that were circling the field.

Nearby were the tennis courts, 10 of them in in one long row. They weren’t locked; in fact, the gates in the fence were long gone. There was no one, apparently, to keep out. The surface was thin, and its brown spots looked like huge bruises. Weeds grew in its cracks. Reeves had his running spot. Even the dogs, he thought, wouldn’t follow him here.

He ran for half an hour. That was enough in the stifling humidity. It had felt good; something in the air, as well the noise of the crows and the green hills around him, felt bone-deep in its familiarity. He remembered playing high school matches on these courts—Reeves had never lost here.

When he was finished running, Reeves, dripping with sweat, trudged slowly toward the gymnasium. He wasn’t sure why, but he thought he would take a look inside. The doors were locked there as well, but he could see enough. He had spent innumerable winter nights here, watching the basketball team. He remembered it full of people, loud and close-packed and chaotic and hot; the cheerleaders in white fumbling their way into a triangle at half court, the players running through their lay-up drills while he and his friends scanned the stands to see who was there with who.

On the walls, now, large framed pictures had been hung. Reeves had forgotten: If you won a state championship, they put your picture on the gym wall. There were only 20 or so kids up there in total. Three dated to his time at the school: the running back who had made the NFL, and two soccer players. All three had been voted first team all-state. Reeves had nearly been on that wall as well. He had finished third in the state tennis tournament his senior year. He had lost to, of all people, a foreign exchange student. He remembered it now, his nerves, his errors, his frustration, his anger. There would be only one chance at a state title in his life. This time the sting from the 25-year-old loss felt, for a few seconds at least, as fresh as the day it had happened.

Reeves, his face pressed against the glass door, looked at the faces on the wall that he had known. Their Reagan era hairstyles were beyond outdated. But this was the town’s true church, he realized; high school sports was its unifying force. As he walked away, he wondered if those photos would still be up 100, 200, 300 years from now. He knew his wouldn’t.

Did he care? He wasn’t sure. As he thought back, though, he started to jog back down the hill to the ruined tennis courts. He picked up speed as he went and by the time he reached the hole in the fence he was flying. He ran as long and as fast as he could. He wanted to make sure he slept well that night.

*****

Have a good weekend.

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