Creaky Strings

Rob Vogt

            Dried-up leaves skritch like an old man’s bones.

            Whether Ed is old or not is perhaps a matter of opinion, but the fact that he is 20 years my senior is indisputable. As is the fact that he is a senior account executive at Falcon Industrial, one who believes that he has served as my mentor for the past three years. Today he insists on the side of our local tennis court covered with dry, crackling leaves. Despite our age difference, Ed believes he is the better tennis player and is thus better equipped to deal with the slippery footing. I disagree with his premise but head to the cleaner side of the net out of politeness and silently deliberate plans of my own.

            Tennis groundstrokes never lie. Ed’s forehand is flat and elongated, undoubtedly plucked from a black-and-white instructional filmstrip. My own forehand, modeled after Andre Agassi’s 1988 version, is wristy and impatient. When I step in and smack a crosscourt winner that Ed cannot reach, there is a satisfying thwack of my strings against the ball, an audible footfall in the quiet, suburban stillness. There are days when this court is occupied by squawky housewives decked out in neon visors and frumpy skirts, but today Ed and I are alone in the world.

            When a short ball comes to my backhand, I slice my racket through its submissive trajectory. With searing backspin, the ball hugs the court and skids under Ed’s outstretched racket, rolling all the way to the fence. I smile inwardly as he mutters to himself and walks to retrieve it. Next I drive an approach shot down the line, intentionally leaving a huge gap on my right side as Ed loads up for the passing shot that is going to make his day. As he thwacks a predictable backhand, I slide-step into the gap and knife the ball into the open court for a winner. Ed’s head drops as he looks for answers in his racket strings, which creak in protest when he tries, with grubby fingertips, to straighten them. It feels good to be out of the office; today is not about balance sheets or quarterly reports or checking in with decades-old clients. Today is about tennis and the two men who are playing it.

            Three points later I strike the ball too hard and immediately know that it will sail beyond the baseline. I know this in the same way that Hannibal Lechter knew that one particular flutist was slightly out of tune when Lechter attended the opera with his high society friends.

            “Out!” Ed shouts when the ball lands, his voice louder than it would be for a typical line call. Probably he is not gloating over my missed shot, but I am mad nonetheless. Not mad enough to serve Ed’s brain as a delicate amuse-bouche to the opera’s board of directors, but certainly miffed enough to impart more and more topspin on each successive shot. This tactic will make the ball feel like a brick when it hits Ed’s strings, a sensation Wimbledon champion Boris Becker once called druck. It is unlikely that Ed appreciates this Germanic nuance as the brick-ball careens off his strings wildly, into the net and off the back fence and everywhere else he does not want it to go.

            When Ed scuttles forward to reach a ball that bounces inside the service line, I blast a net-skimming return that clunks harmlessly off his racket frame, the sound both wooden and old. As I prepare to begin the next point, Ed turns around and walks toward the back fence, looking again for answers in his creaky strings. His shoulders heave with effort and fatigue and desperation. Twenty years younger, I drink in deep, hungry breaths, knowing that inside the boundary lines of this tennis court, I am going to live forever.

            When play resumes, Ed’s staccato grunts rasp through the cool morning air as he pounds the ball with every ounce of strength he has left. I smile inwardly and track down shot after shot after shot. It’s not just the fact that the student has become the teacher, it’s the fact that the teacher has abandoned everything he believes in: white men wearing white clothing striking white tennis balls, wooden rackets strung with honest-to-God catgut, players in station wagons barnstorming through the Middle West. Modern tennis wouldn’t be caught dead in a station wagon. Today, the game is about brightly-colored apparel, whippy lightweight rackets, rivalries between Spaniards with jackhammer biceps and Swiss players who glide across the court like velvet assassins. Ed is too old for the trappings of modern tennis; the best he can do is to dig deep and swing harder than he thinks is appropriate.

            Soon I begin to expand the court from side to side, focusing on wider angles instead of sheer power. Ed’s legs churn against time as he offers up weak replies, and when his next shot flutters over the net, I delay contact and wait for him to struggle back to the midpoint of the baseline. Time slows down as I prepare to bludgeon a two-handed backhand behind him. In my mind I see him slamming on the brakes, his feet flying out from underneath him on the leaves that no longer skritch like bones but instead screech like tires unable to grip the road. His head will hit the asphalt court like a slab of pork, bouncing once, then resting still.

            Instead, I guide the ball down the line in the direction that Ed is already moving. He swipes desperately at a forehand, sending it cross-court but well within my reach. I feign a misstep in the wrong direction and let the ball float past me. When it lands inside the court, I tap my racket against my open palm in mimed applause. Ed looks at me and our eyes meet. Then he strides slowly toward the net.

            “Alan, I think that’s it for today,” he says, extending his hand.

            “Nice match,” I reply, accepting his handshake. “You played really well.”

            Ed’s eyes, which have faded from a hard, confident blue to dishwater gray, tell me that more than anything else in the world, he wants to believe I am telling the truth.

About the Author

Rob Vogt teaches high school English on Chicago's South Side.