Bobby drew back his arm high above his head, bringing his racket down in a long, swift arc to drive the black rubber ball straight along the right side wall, twisting his hips into the shot and grunting like Monica Seles, the Yugoslav tennis player who irritated a generation of opponents and fans with similar grunts after nearly every shot she took. A kill shot, for sure.
His legs wobbly and his breathing heavy after nearly an hour of nonstop play, Bobby’s momentum propelled him to center court where, with luck, he could control the rest of the rally.
It was overkill, every bit of it—the grunt, the huge swing, the twisting hips, the spray of perspiration, even the unsteady lumbering back toward the middle.
It was overkill, every bit of it—the grunt, the huge swing, the twisting hips, the spray of perspiration, even the unsteady lumbering back toward the middle.
It was overkill, every bit of it—the grunt, the huge swing, the twisting hips, the spray of perspiration, even the unsteady lumbering back toward the middle. A racquetball weighs but a few ounces. A quicker, more economical slap using forearm and wrist would drive the ball plenty hard enough.
But economy was hardly the point. This was theatre. Bobby lived for this shot, using it every chance he got—at least ten or twelve times every 15-point game we played, his face lighting up in a joyous smile every time, never mind whether the shot won the point or not.
And, indeed, it was a tough shot to return, hugging the wall as it rocketed back from the front wall to the back wall, with plenty enough juice to drive it back forward again. I would have to hustle to get there in time and then might well be out of position for Bobby’s next shot.
It was a darned good shot, theatrics or not.
A couple of problems.
First, we had been at this for over four years, meeting every single Monday and Thursday morning at dawn, putting an hour’s worth of quarters in the Redondo Beach public racquetball court, missing only a few days when I would have one of my out-of-town business trips for the surfing magazine I edited or when Bobby would call late the night before to tell me that his diabetes was kicking in extra hard.
But let’s round up and say we played 50 weeks out of the year, twice a week. That’s 100 mornings, times usually three games, sometimes four, each morning. What’s that? Easy 300 games a year. Times four years and change, that’s more than 1,200 games. And at least ten times every game for Bobby’s big swoosh.
Whew, that’s 12,000 times that Bobby had raised his racquet high in the air to drive that poor racquetball with all the force his large, long-limbed body could generate.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness,” meaning that Bill Gates rose to world domination by starting coding incessantly as a teenager and the Beatles played endless 8-hour gigs in German beer halls before invading America.
Sure, Gladwell was talking about hours, but the concept works for the 10,000 times I had had to return Bobby’s signature shot.
Long ago, I had gotten to the point that I could anticipate Bobby’s big swoosh without even thinking about it, intuitively darting into position and either sailing the ball right back along the wall with my quicker wrist slap, driving the ball cross-court to Bobby’s weak backhand, or lofting it high overhead to put it right in the back left corner—the nastiest shot yet.
And, second, I had 20 pounds and five years on Bobby, and I hadn’t spent my youth pumping heroin into my veins for a decade as Bobby had when he and I returned from Vietnam. So, by the third game, and absolutely by the fourth if we had time for it, Bobby would be all in, his sweat-soaked gym clothes stuck tight to his body, his breathing labored, perspiration pouring down his face and arms and legs, him taking little breaks between points, pretending that he had stretched a hamstring or twisted his back.
This time I hit a soft shot back along the right-hand wall, the ball taking three little bounces before Bobby could lumber back from center court to swat at it helplessly.
“Shit,” Bobby said, the smile from his big shot fading as my chickenshit changeup got him once again.
“Eight-six,” I said. “Better hurry if we’re going to get this game in.”
As he often did late in our hour together, Bobby walked in a circle, hands on hips, stalling a bit to catch his breath, as I prepared for my next serve.
“I hear there’s trouble at home,” he said.
“I’ll say,” I said, facing him behind me for a moment.
“Liv said Frida doesn’t want you to move into the new house.”
Bobby and I knew each other through our wives, two Danish immigrants, my Frida from Copenhagen, his Liv from Aahus, who had met at the Danish Lutheran Church in San Pedro and become fast friends before Bobby or I had met either one of them. Even now, nearly two decades later, I would often find Frida on the phone with Liv talking in Danish to each other—who knows about what?
Usually, midway through the third game, Bobby would strike up a conversation like this, rallying himself in hopes of winning the game.
But I liked to focus on the play, reacting to the ball, plotting my next shot, and not thinking of anything outside the court. So, usually, I would ignore what he said, or give it short shrift at best.
Not this time.
“Frida called me home from work after our game last Friday,” I said. “Never does that. Told me we’re done. Finished. Kaput. Some Danish words, too. Doesn’t want me moving with them.”
“Out of the blue?” Bobby said.
“Well, things have been tough between us,” I said. “All the stress of selling the condo, finding a new house we could afford, dealing with real estate agents and banks, dealing with all our credit card debt, Emilie starting middle school, me trying for a big promotion, her working on her real estate license. One thing on top of another.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Seems like we were arguing about the littlest of things,” I said. “Not like us, at least not like us when things were good.”
“Been there, done that,” Bobby said. “Always there, it seems.”
If this were to happen to anyone, I would have thought it would be Liv and Bobby who split. A history of infidelity years ago—and maybe not so long ago, too. Lots of arguments. A cutting way of talking to each other—in public, in front of friends and strangers, it didn’t matter. Money troubles. Whether to continue the relationship always up for discussion. It was hard to spend much time in their company, with all the cutting at each other they did.
“And, like I do, I was soldiering through, putting one foot in front of another, keeping my head down, getting past,” I said. “Figured we could work on whatever was going on between us once all that weight was lifted.”
“And it worked out, right?”
“Got a nice price for the condo, found a surprisingly cool three-bedroom house down the street, one with a big backyard for Emilie and a flower bed for Frida,” I said. “Got the promotion, got the license, wiped out the debts. Smooth sailing ahead.”
My serve was short, a foul, something I almost never do. And Bobby somehow ran off five quick points—11-8 his favor. Even his big swoosh shot beat me. Twice. He got into my head. Jeez!
I shook myself and caught his next serve before the bounce, sending the ball at a sharp angle away from him, beyond his reach as I picked up my pace.
Years later, long after we had stopped meeting every Monday and Thursday, after his diabetes, related ailments, and return to drinking had carried him away, I regretted that I had never let Bobby win a morning—not two games to one, certainly not three to one, absolutely not three-zip. Not once in all those 400 or 500 mornings.
Partly it was those 20 pounds and five years I had on him, partly it was the uncanny hand-eye coordination I had developed playing a million hours of sandlot baseball as a kid, partly it was that Bobby was dead tired by the last third of the morning, in no shape to win at the end.
But partly it was me. Too competitive by half. Too focused. Too intense. That always drove Frida nuts, though Bobby didn’t seem to mind.
And now all I have are the regrets.
That’s me. A day late and a dollar short.
Would it have killed me to let him win once?
“What are you going to do?” Bobby asked.
“Well, I’m staying in one of those extended stay motels nearby,” I said. “Dreary, overpriced, depressing. Loud street. Loud neighbors. Trying to figure out what’s next.”
“You hate hotels, right?”
“Can’t sleep in them, can’t sleep in a strange bed, don’t like to sleep alone,” I said. “Makes my business trips an ordeal every time.”
“Liv said Gitte was there, too,” Bobby said. “The Swedish witch.”
“The Swedish man-hating witch,” I said, knowing that Bobby was trying to stay in my head. “There as a witness, I guess—to make sure I wouldn’t do anything rash.”
“Well, Emilie was there, too. Frida kept her home from school,” I said. “Her eyes got big as she took it all in, looking back and forth from Frida to me.”
My serve was short. Again!
In all those years of playing racquetball, we had almost never played against any other opponents. I had only one unfortunate noontime match with another editor at work. Eddie mentioned a couple sour games with residents from the halfway house he ran.
It wasn’t even clear that the game we played really followed the game’s actual rules.
But we knew what we were doing and it kept us both in reasonable shape around jobs that had us sitting on our butts for too many hours on end.
“Broke my heart looking at Emilie,” I said. “Tried to figure out what the hell was happening without getting mad and scaring my daughter. It was hard.”
Gitte, who had met our wives at the same Lutheran church, had been something of a beauty queen in her youth and had married the suddenly rich owner of an early software company, the poor dope collapsing in a pile of cocaine on his desk before he turned 40.
Since that perhaps unfortunate eventuality, she had lived high on the hog in the big, paid-for house high on the hill in Palos Verdes he had left her, conducting one short-term relationship, if that’s what they were, with surfers and musicians half her age she picked up at the beach. Her looks may have been fading, but her fancy designer clothes and the big Mercedes she drove said, loud and clear, that her bank account was flush.
“When I saw Gitte sitting there,” I said. “I knew shit had hit the fan.”
“I hate it when I hear my wife is getting together with her,” Bobby said. “I know I’ll be in for a quizzing when I get home.”
Concentrating again, I rattled off a few points, gave up a couple, and got the score to 14-13, my favor. Far, far closer than most of our third games.
“I’ll need to take a break, too,” I said.
“From racquetball,” I said. “Just until I can figure what’s next. How to stay in my daughter’s life, right in the middle. How to stop Frida from going home to Copenhagen, taking Emilie with her. That would flat kill me.”
“Well, she’s threatened that a few times. Usually when she’s mad and talking off her head,” I said. “So I’ve got to reason with her. Figure something out. Work out alimony, child support, shared custody—all that.”
“Oh, man,” Bobby said. “Liv used to threaten that, too.”
“Fortunately, Frida hates Denmark. Couldn’t leave quick enough,” I said. “A rough childhood she doesn’t like to talk about. Some kind of abuse, I’m not sure just what.”
“We can pick it up in a few weeks, right?” Bobby said.
“Racquetball?” I said. “Oh, absolutely!”
But I knew—intuitively, the same way I knew Bobby was going to unfurl another of his big swoosh shots—that this chapter of my life was likely coming to an end, that this would be it for racquetball, at least for a long while.
I didn’t know at the time, but I would replace it first with a couple years of noontime weight lifting with the warehouse manager at work, then later with rollerblading with my by then teenaged daughter down on the strand.
I felt badly about ending the racquetball. I enjoyed these mornings with Bobby, especially the conversations we would have afterwards in the parking lot, before he would drive back home to shower and get ready for work, before I would drive in my slowly drying gym clothes over to Orange County for my job at the surfing magazine, there to take a sailor’s shower in the men’s room sink, shave, douse myself with aftershave, and put on the jeans and one of the short-sleeved silk shirts I always wore at work, unless I was meeting someone in a suit—the printing company rep, a big advertiser, the owner for one of his periodic reviews.
While I enjoyed the games, Bobby needed them, really needed them, as they were a bulwark against his advancing diabetes. The days we didn’t play racquetball, Bobby would go running on the beach, the only black man—and a very dark-skinned black man at that—in the nearly all-white beach town one town south.
But I had seen him running there a time or two, when I would meet him for coffee and a chat, and his was one of those terribly slow jogs that only pretends to be exercise.
“Why is she doing it?” Bobby asked. “Other than Gitte pouring crap in her ear.”
“Yeah, Gitte’s never been my friend. Yours either,” I said. “But it beats me. Maybe it was the stress of all those things we had to deal with. Maybe she just cracked.”
“The pressure was mostly on you,” Bobby said. “At least the money part.”
“Yeah, mostly,” I said. “But she’s always been jealous, too.”
“Jealous? Of what?”
“Well, she sees all the young women who work with me, for me, at the magazine,” I said. “Young, blonde—mostly blondes, natural or not—athletic surfers, trying to become editors and writers and graphic designers, a couple with some success, most without.”
“She thinks you’re getting it on with them?”
“Nothing I can do or say has ever convinces her that she’s got it all wrong.”
“And you’re not, right?” Bobby said, grinning that big grin of his, the same one he has after the big swoosh shot.
“Right,” I said. “I’ve thought about it, sure, especially lately, when things have gotten cold between us. But I’m old enough to be their father, most of them. So I haven’t made move number one.”
“Age doesn’t have to stop you, does it?”
“Well, I like the job—and really need it, given my track record,” I said. “Nothing would get me out in the parking lot with my personal belongings in a box quicker than making a pass at the wrong woman. Certainly in this age.”
“Tell me about it,” Bobby said.
For making a good deal more than a pass at one the residents, Bobby had been suspended from his job running a co-ed halfway house for recovering alcoholics and addicts. The woman involved, also half Bobby’s age, eventually had pleaded on his behalf, which got him reinstated with a stern talking-to after a month.
It’s funny how the mind works. My wife of nearly 20 years gives me the heave-ho out of the blue and not a few days later I’m thinking about Giselle, my top assistant editor, now that I’ve been promoted to editor in chief. She’s older than most of the others, more acceptably close to my age, a champion surfer in her youth. Trim, single, sunny disposition, uncomplicated, clearly open to some kind of engagement. Raising a kid—a boy, I think—by herself.
You’d think I would learn.
My head clearly off the game, I launch a half-assed serve that Bobby gets to quickly, pushing me to the left-hand wall where I return a weak backhand to the opposite wall.
Am I trying to lose?
His chest expanding and his pace quickening, Bobby lines himself up for the final big swoop, drawing his arm high above his head, bringing his racket down in a long, swift arc like he’s done 10,000 times before, driving the ball straight along the right side wall, twisting his hips into the shot and grunting extra loud.
Instinctively, without thinking, I’m on it, well positioned to return Bobby’s kill shot with my own, lofting the ball high in the air to land right in the very back left corner.
Desperate for a win—and maybe sensing, too, that this would be our last game together—Bobby races back, his legs suddenly giving way under him as he tumbles down. Somehow he backhands the ball weakly forward.
I step into the center, raising my own racquet high in the air, bringing it down in a long, swift arc to drive the ball as hard as I can into Bobby’s sprawled body, still crumpled awkwardly against the back wall—and just for the fuck of it, grunting like Monica Selles.
15-13 mine. Game. Match. Story.
“You bastard,” Bobby says, laughing and shaking his head.
My last kill shot.