Mid-day, and the sun is high. It seems to pause in the sky. There is little shade in the park. Mackenzie watches the woman cross the street. He knows her. ‘Helen,’ she told him that first time she came to run her dog on the patchy grass of the field by the tennis courts. After she left, he’d repeated her name to himself so he would not forget it.
She is carrying two racquets, a lunch bag. She is wearing a sun hat. With her is a young boy, holding a can of tennis balls. He might be her grandson.
The woman waves when she nears the court, and the boy takes a racquet from her. He is thin, with brown hair that falls across his forehead. Mac lifts his racquet in their direction. A disquieting thought comes quickly. They might ask to play with him. He’d say no and he would surely regret that later. He would think of it, worry over it, for the rest of the day, into the night.
“Almost finished,” he calls to them.
Each morning he comes to the court, alone. He hits balls from his hopper, practicing forehands and backhands; serves, over and over, each time hitting closer and closer to the corners and the white lines. Metronomic. When the hopper is empty he walks to the other end of the court and picks up all of the balls. There are fifty-five of them. He hits them back the other way.
When she comes with the dog he watches the woman throw a ball to it. It chases after it, head down, ears back, overrunning it and turning like a bull around a matador, retrieving it and dropping it at the woman’s feet, its eyes meeting hers. The woman has a practiced gracefulness about her, an easy unselfconsciousness. Mac thinks that she might once have been a dancer.
At the backboard beside the court, the woman watches as the boy hits the balls against the wall. He anticipates where the ball will bounce, reacts, hitting it again. The rhythm of his movements resonates within Mac.
When Mac was about the boy’s age, his father had given him a racquet. One he’d fashioned from an old wood one, sanding it to a fine finish, working in the basement in the evenings after dinner. He painted it a glossy white, tightly fitting a burnished leather wrap in a spiral up the handle; securing it with a thin band of red tape.
On a cloudless summer day like this one, his father took him to the high school courts.
He’d never held a racquet before. The grip felt too large; the racquet too heavy. His father told him where to stand on one side of the net and he walked to the other side, his legs athletic and brown. His shoes white and dusted with red clay from the courts he played on.
He showed Mac how to hold the racquet and he fed balls to him. When Mac missed one his father said, “try another.” The asphalt court steamed. He wished he had a racquet that was bought at a store. New. Not one painted over but one that had the name of some famous player on it, like Gonzalez or Rosewall.
After a while, the boy and the woman sit with their legs crossed out in front of them, leaning their backs against the wall. They eat sandwiches and share juice from the bag she carried. The woman speaks in a kind-seeming voice.
They watch Mac practice, following the ball as it arcs over the net, how it spins on impact. How the ball sounds as it hits the racquet and then the court. Watching where Mac places his feet. How high he holds his head. How he follows the ball with a step into the court.
In his thirties Mac had played in competition, first at local clubs, and then in tournaments, once in Palm Springs, never near good enough to turn pro. His father came to one of his matches. He sat in the front row. After Mac lost the match, his father left. Later an envelope came with pictures of the match and a note on one of Mac hitting a serve. It said, “You’re still letting the toss drop too low.”
Mac soon tires. He retrieves the balls and his racquets and walks to the gate. The woman and the boy move onto the court he left and begin to hit together.
Mac stands for a while by the fence, sweat drying on his shirt. He listens to the thock of the ball as they rally. The boy hits and moves with feel for the game that speaks a language that Mac wishes he could speak again.
The air is light and the breeze smells of honeysuckle. He feels heady. Watching them, his face is flushed; the heat, the exertion, the old thoughts in their slow walk in his head.
He gathers up his things, raises a hand in a goodbye. The woman smiles at him and he makes his way up the wooded path toward his home, thinking of the woman and the boy. Thinking of another boy in another time.