Abruptly, a long horn blast interrupted the soft whisperings
of the tennis games as a dusty Volvo station wagon swerved
into the parking lot across from the courts. It was Nicholas
Cady, grinning mischievously, his shaggy head drooping
out his window like his drooping black mustache. Ralph
waved his racquet as Cady climbed out of his car and pulled
a floppy white canvas hat down over his forehead.
"You want to play some doubles, sport?"
"Nah," he drawled, standing in the doorway.
"I'll watch you two park rats go at if for now."
"Speak for yourself, dear," Polly snickered.
"You're more of a rodent than any of us."
Grinning still, Cady sat down on the bench and watched
as she resumed her game. He was one of those people who
had wandered over to the park in the afternoon who had
become a fixture on the courts the past year. He had not
had a tennis racquet in his hand since he was a small
boy, yet Ralph and others, noticing him there every afternoon,
eventually encouraged him to play. After some reluctance
he did, enjoying himself despite his awkwardness, and
before too long he bought a cheap graphite racquet at
a surplus store so he would not always have to borrow
a racquet. He even considered buying a pair of pleated
tennis shorts like Ralph's, but then decided he did not
want to look any better than he played so he satisfied
himself with a pair of cut-off fatigues and a grubby gray
sweatshirt. Even after he became a more proficient player,
he continued to wear these ragged clothes, feeling more
at east in them than he would have felt in the smart white
outfits worn by the others.
He was amazed to find himself coming to the park every
afternoon to play tennis, never having played the game
seriously before, never having even cared to watch others
play it on television. Yet, he had become as much of an
enthusiast about tennis as anyone in the park, dreading
it whenever he was prevented from playing because of the
weather or something requiring his attention at work.
He owned with his uncle a modest tea shop downtown that
featured exotic blends from every corner of the world.
His hours were arranged so as to let him have the afternoon
off so he could go to the park. He opened the shop and
worked until one o'clock then returned by five and worked
until closing at eight. These afternoons were his favorite
part of the day.
"Ready to hit a few, dear?"
He looked up at Polly who was standing at the net, idly
tapping the head of her racquet against her kneecap. "You
and Ralph haven't finished your match."
"Oh, yes, we have," Ralph said, picking up a
tennis ball can filled with grapefruit juice. "She
was a wall today, returning everything I hit."
"Come on, Nick. Let's play."
Cady stood and removed the torn cover from his racquet.
"I guess I'll have to get out my shovel and do some
excavating in your wall."
Smiling, Polly swatted a ball over the net, and Cady swatted
it back down the middle. The ball was returned, hard,
and he returned it just as hard with a crisp backhand.
It sailed past her, landing inside the line. She then
lobbed another ball, and, running, he picked it out of
the clouds and smashed an overhead that again sailed past
her. Quickly the soreness that had seeped into his bones
during the last three days receded as he rushed back and
forth across the court, returning everything that came
across the net.
As ever, when he was playing tennis, Cady seemed absolutely
sure of himself, strong, aggressive, impervious to any
of the doubts that he knew away from the tennis court.
Out there in the afternoon, he discovered, life still
had some blood in it.
Later, driving home from work, Cady stopped by the tennis
courts for a minute and watched a man and a woman in street
clothes flaccidly punch a ball back and forth across the
net. They were almost as awkward as he had been when he
began playing, almost but not quite, he thought, smiling.
He often drove up to the courts after closing the shop,
although he seldom ever played then, finding the night
air a little too chill for his sore bones. He just enjoyed
being there, scarcely able to wait for the next afternoon
when he would be out there playing.
Over the past few years he had been in and out of various
clinics for treatment of what Cheryl, his former wife,
referred to as his "Irish problem." He was very
reluctant to seek treatment at first, not believing he
had a serious problem, but she threatened to leave him
if he didn't, so he agreed to enter a facility at the
edge of town under an assumed name. Despite some lapses
during this time, she continued to stay with him, so long
as he agreed to accept further treatment when she thought
it was warranted. Together, they sought to resolve his
problem, trying one approach after another, travelling
to facilities around the state. Upon his release from
the last clinic, a refurbished convent in the mountains,
Cheryl urged that he find some activity that would keep
him occupied and away from the bottle. On the advice of
one of the staff members at the clinic, she suggested
that he start running a little every day, even if it were
only around the block, but after a week he came to loathe
running and quit. Then she advised him to take walks around
the neighborhood, hoping he found this activity less strenuous,
and even offered to accompany him if he wished. Again,
with some reluctance, he followed her advice and began
walking a few blocks after dinner during the week and
as far as the park on the weekends. He did not enjoy walking
particularly but it was preferable to running so he kept
at it, trying to keep his wife happy.
It was during his walks in the park that he became aware
of the tennis courts, since he often stopped near them
to get a drink at the water fountain. Gradually he got
to know some of the players and found himself spending
more and more time in their company, talking with them
like old friends. Cheryl was enthusiastic when he told
her he had begun to take up the game himself, regarding
tennis as excellent therapy for his problem, but as he
became more involved, as he began to change his hours
at the shop to have his afternoons free, her enthusiasm
waned. She grew irritated when he worked late, resented
having to wait dinner for him and having her evenings
disrupted. She thought he was being selfish when he told
her he would be working late every night. Unable to comprehend
his interest in the courts, she accused him of finding
another woman. He scoffed at the accusation, insisting
he simply enjoyed going to the tennis courts in the same
way some people enjoy going to the beach, and invited
her to accompany him some afternoon. She refused as she
had done before then demanded that he stop going to the
courts and return to his regular hours at the shop.
"Why?" he asked, confused. "You were the
one who wanted me to get out of the house and find something
to occupy my free time."
"And now I want you to stop, Nicholas."
"You're behaving as if I've done something wrong.
I've done nothing wrong. I've done only what you wanted."
"I don't want you to go there anymore. Is that too
much to ask?"
"Yes," he said stubbornly. "It is too much
if there is no reason for me to stop."
Glowering, she stalked out of the living room and said
not another word about the courts for that week, then
one night when he got home he found on the dining room
table a letter from her asking him to leave. He tried
to tell her she was acting foolishly over such a trivial
matter, but she refused to listen to him so he left as
she had asked. Their marriage had been troubled for some
time although neither of them wished to admit it, preferring
to attribute their difficulties to his drinking, but after
he became so absorbed in the park and finally stopped
drinking, their own problems surfaced. Certainly he was
not more fond of the park than he was of his wife, it
was irrelevant except that it helped him to overcome his
drinking, which he admitted now had been the only thing
keeping their marriage together these past few years.
Approaching his apartment, he also admitted how much he
missed her, but he knew that their marriage could only
have continued if his problem had continued. Without it,
Cheryl would have left him, just as, in a sense, he had
always left her when he was drinking.
Stepping out of the far court after playing a set of doubles
with a young Filipino nurse as his partner, Cady bent
over the water fountain, soaking his wrists in the cold
water. The sun was blistering this afternoon. He thought
that things might even begin to melt and drop from the
sky if it grew any warmer.
Karen, one of his opponents, stood behind him, her arms
sparkling with sweat. "Here, slugger," she said,
handing him a wadded dollar bill. "Your winnings."
"You know how much it pains me to take money from
poor young nurses."
"Sure it does."
He chuckled. "It does."
"Excuse me, mister."
Cady looked over his shoulder and saw the peculiar little
woman he had often seen shuffling through the park with
a broken parasol which she used as a walking stick. She
was standing by the water fountain, holding a key in her
"Did you lose a key?" she asked, smiling.
Her smile simmered. "You know what they say, 'Man
who loses his key gets no new key.'" Then she continued
on, shivering with laughter over the inane remark.
He watched her descend a narrow path that led into the
forest, suddenly feeling chill as he pictured himself
as that woman, some day, walking aimlessly through the
park. It was something that his uncle was afraid of, a
prophecy that Cheryl was convinced would happen to him
eventually. Anxiously he looked away from the woman, not
wishing to let that future into his head.
Hassan won the first set easily, six games to two, after
breaking him early, and in the second set he did not lose
a game. He hardly broke a sweat. He was serving very well,
Cady conceded, but not well enough to defeat him as easily
as he did. Whatever Cady tried, failed, making him feel
like a novice again. Frustrated, he became furious, pounding
his racquet across the netcord and snapping at some of
his friends who stood at courtside. The trouble was he
could not seem to concentrate on the match, he was forever
seeing in his mind his future as that pathetic woman wandering
in the park. However hard he tried to rid her from his
thoughts, she continued to appear, suddenly, emphatically,
like the tennis balls Hassan was blasting back at him
across the net.
Dejected, Cady dropped his racquet on the grass and dropped
down next to it, lying on his side. A warm breeze moved
through the trees, another whisper in the back of his
mind, seemingly. He clamped his ears with his hands. He
had heard voices all afternoon, he ruminated, familiar
voices he had been unable to silence. He wondered if perhaps
they were right after all, if he should stop coming to
the park every afternoon and resume his old hours at the
Despite these concerns, he returned the next afternoon,
wandering in and out of the five courts, playing whomever
he could find. He enjoyed himself too much at the park
to stay away, not only playing tennis but meeting all
the people he had become friends with there. Sometimes
he felt as if he were really aboard a cruise ship floating
away the afternoon with some of the most amiable and considerate
people he had ever met. He knew he could never stay away
from the courts, not even for an afternoon, regardless
of the doubts that occasionally slid into his thoughts.
Behind, Cady lifted the scuffed ball into the sun and
leaned into the serve, driving it down the middle. Josh,
his opponent, a former high school player who had been
weaned on tennis lessons, returned the serve with a solid
backhand directly at him. Cady, on his heels, sliced a
short volley over the net. Josh smashed the ball, and
Cady smashed it back, deep into the corner. Lunging, Josh
snapped a weak backhand, and the ball ticked the tape
and dropped over, giving him the match.
"You made me work," Josh admitted, standing
at the net.
Cady wiped a wristband across his gleaming forehead. "Not
hard enough, chum. You won."
"Maybe not, but you were there rattling at the gate."
Grimacing, Cady sat down in the shade, took off his shoes
and socks, and cooled his feet on the cool, crisp grass.
Naturally he was disappointed about losing the match but
not discouraged. On the contrary, he was rather pleased
with his strong play against such a fine player, believing
that he had redeemed himself after the feeble effort against
Hassan the other afternoon.
Too tired to budge, he considered staring as Josh often
did after losing a close match. He would sit for as long
as twenty minutes sometimes, staring at a tennis ball,
convinced this would improve his concentration. Then Cady
smiled to himself, deciding even he had not become that
much of a fanatic about tennis, and lay back and closed
The party was to celebrate the engagement between Ralph
and Marian, an occasional player Cady had introduced to
Ralph. At first, they were going to be married on center
court since that was where they met, but then Marian changed
her mind and wanted to have a church wedding, so they
decided to have their engagement party on the court. In
addition to the bright floodlights that shone down on
the court, some Chinese lanterns had been strung along
the sides of the fence. Silver and blue streamers also
had been strung through the net in elaborate bows. A buffet
table had been set up at the baseline, dominated in the
center by a glittering glass punchbowl. The center court
was swarming with people, only a few of whom were not
players in the afternoon.
Polly, as Cady knew she would, found him straightaway,
clinging to him from the moment she arrived. If he had
been hiding in one of the surrounding fir trees, he had
not the slightest doubt that she still would have found
him. She was one of the most insistent and possessive
persons he had been around since his divorce.
"Let's dance," she urged, after someone had
turned on the radio in his car and "Moonlight Drive"
blared through the night.
"There's no room."
"We'll make room."
She then swung away from him and slid under his arm, holding
out the hem of her flowered sundress, and together they
spun through the crowd. A few other couples also began
dancing as the music softened into some Sinatra, and Cady
felt a little less self-conscious but still was relieved
when Hassan cut in on him a minute later.
He walked over to the buffet table where he poured himself
a glass of punch then stepped outside the court and leaned
against the fence and watched Polly dance with Hassan.
They made an attractive couple he thought, each tall and
slender with long licorice-colored hair, and he wondered
if perhaps he should bring them together as he had Ralph
and Marian. It would be easier than continuing to try
to evade Polly every afternoon, certainly easier than
one day having to tell her that he did not wish to see
her again. They had spent some time together a couple
of months ago, went out to dinner a few times, even drove
down to the coast one weekend, but as far as he was concerned
that was in the past. Since his divorce, he had spent
similar evenings with other women he met on the courts,
most of whom had regarded them as casually as he did,
but Polly was like Marian, taking his intentions much
more seriously than he had intended, so he supposed now
he would have to find her someone as he had for Marian
or else she would never leave him alone. He was fond of
Polly, but he had no wish to become involved with her
or with anyone in the foreseeable future. For the time
being, he preferred to keep his distance, still tormented
by the dissolution of his marriage.
Hearing someone scream in frustration, Cady turned around
and observed two young men playing in the north court,
wishing to himself he were there with them instead of
standing out here in the shadows. Also there he knew should
be Cheryl, locked in his arms, slowly swirling across
the gritty asphalt surface. The losses he suffered playing
tennis were almost meaningless to him, just part of the
competition that everyone who played experienced, but
his marriage was quite another matter. It was suppose
to endure, despite all the troubles it encountered, and
he still had a difficult time accepting its collapse.
When Cheryl threatened to leave him if he persisted in
going to the courts in the afternoon, he remembered, she
accused him of not being responsible, not acting his age.
She ridiculed all the time he spent there, referring to
him as a child in a sandbox. He had dismissed her accusations
angrily then, but now he wondered if there was not some
truth in what she said, realizing how ridiculous he appeared
to his uncle for instance. Sometimes he wondered to himself
if he did not begin drinking because he was unable to
cope with the responsibilites that he had acquired as
a married man. He did not know really, suspecting such
an explanation was too simple for such a complicated problem,
although he admitted to himself now that he was relieved
to be without such responsibilities for a while. Indeed,
he could hardly wait for tomorrow when he would be back
out here playing all afternoon.
2006 by T.R. Healy