Table of Contents
Abby and Frances
AT THE SERVICE
line I started to count.
Because when I was young,
I got too nervous at the line.
I’d just stand there in terror, waiting for the right moment.
So I was taught to count
to nine before each toss.
Ever since, I couldn’t serve without counting.
Even when the other side of the net was empty and I was alone on a public court, serving for the first time in five months.
Before the accident, I had been, I knew without bragging, among the best tennis players in the world. I reached a world ranking of 17. Third in the U.S. Only the Simon brothers were ahead of me. And they
didn’t count. In Chennai in 2005, my serve was clocked at 148 miles per hour, the third fastest ever recorded at an ATP event. You probably think I appeared on television, in newspapers, won large cash prizes. And you would be wrong. Because that’s what singles players do.
I play doubles.
When I was younger I played singles, but doubles had found me like a job recruiter lurking in the shadows of my dreams. I didn’t know one doubles player who had actually set out to be one. We were all a bit older, or smaller, or perhaps with weaker groundstrokes. Less stamina. Maybe we peaked late. A lot of us had gone to college—the death knell for a tennis career. Regardless, we’d all tried our hand at singles and failed in some form or another. But we had our own unique skills. I had beaten lots of top singles players when they moonlighted in doubles, names people knew, usually trying to get some extra time on the court to help their singles game, or help out a young player from their country, or just earn some extra cash. I beat Andre Agassi twice. I beat Roger Federer in 2002 at San Jose. Chang. Rafter. These wins never made headlines. You could tell, when these guys lost they didn’t care. Doubles wins, doubles losses. To them it was still only doubles.
It was the counting at the service line that earned me my name. An adjective for a name. An adjective to describe the way people thought of me, I guess. Because it had stuck since age six, when my doubles partner, Kaz—who was my partner for more than two decades—had gotten so frustrated at the net waiting for me to serve that he just started to yell one of the few English words he knew: “Slow! Slow! Slow!” In the years since, Kaz’s vocabulary improved, but Slow—the adjective for sloths, snails, and turtles—stuck.
The pink ball was now a dark orb rising against the May sky. One bit of lint parted from the felt and drifted away on the breeze. The ball reached its apogee, and I swung. The racquet carried me forward,
lunging into the court. The ball hit the top of the frame with a wet thud, missing the strings altogether. I staggered to a stop near mid-court as the ball traveled in a lazy high arc over the chain-link fence to my right, bounced three times, and settled into the grass.
All earthbound routes to the ball were blocked by chain-link or webs of growth. Trees and vines and hidden wonders of nature swelled into any open space.
So I started to climb.
Five feet, ten, the ridiculous fence stood at least twenty feet tall. I had almost reached its top when I was stopped by the sight of a turtle. He was a large, loping thing that in warm weather appeared in assorted spots throughout the neighborhood, in one place before lunch and then blocks away by the time you left the house, leaving you to wonder whether he traveled at a secret fast gear when no one was looking. My wife and I had moved him out of the street dozens of times. On my birthday two years ago she had written our names onto its back in red fingernail polish. I had held him in the air, all appendages hidden within that mobile chamber until the legs emerged, clawing in circles as Anne brushed her red polish onto his back. ANNE HEARTS SLOW. The message was chipped but still legible now, even from my perch.
I clung to the fence and watched. The turtle stretched his beak close to the orb, as if he were smelling it, then turned towards me. But it wasn’t me that he was interested in. It was the sound of car wheels crunching over gravel in the lane behind me.
I turned as a pair of bull horns emerged from the vegetation. Then a chrome grille, one muddy tire, a dented green door, a black dog in the passenger seat, and finally my old coach, Manny LaSalle, towering behind the wheel of a dusty green 1980 Fiat Spider convertible.
“Slow,” he said. “Get down.”
“I’m getting my ball.”
“You only have one ball?”
Manny stepped out of the miniature car, his legs extending slowly, one joint at a time. He was close to six and a half feet tall and all bones and angles. Because of body type alone, we were often mistaken for brothers. Other than unusual height, though, we looked nothing alike. I’m a wisp of man, thinner even than Manny. People who learned I was a professional athlete often thought I was joking. My receding hairline, inset front teeth, and sunken cheeks gave me the look of having just come out of a prolonged sickness. But I hadn’t been sick. It’s just what I looked like. Manny’s hair, on the other hand, was kept in a black pompadour, and as he entered the court it stood up in a type of hair explosion. He was dressed like an emaciated cowboy in a black Western shirt, tight Wranglers, and cowboy boots, which made his spider legs seem that much longer. The strangest thing about Manny, though, were his lips. They were huge. On his long, thin face, they seemed out of context, comic and swollen. He had once told me that his own mother said his mouth looked like an inflamed butthole. He had never been a real coach, just a failed college player who had dropped out and traveled around with me as a hitting partner, offering advice and driving his old VW Vanagon from U.S. challenger to U.S. challenger, stringing racquets in parking lots for extra cash. He hadn’t worked since the accident. Nobody wanted him but me.
As he stepped onto the court, the dog did not follow. It sat in the passenger seat, looking up towards the leaves, licking air. Manny ignored him. The dog was just part of his aura.
“Slow,” he said. “Safety first.”
I maintained my hold on the fence and said, “What are you doing here?”
Manny lived in New York. I lived in North Carolina. I had not been expecting him. He picked up the racquet and began hitting it against his palm. It was a child’s racquet, half size and fuchsia. I had found it
leaning against the fence while on a walk. The tennis ball beside it was pink and had been half submerged in a puddle.
“This is cute,” he said.
“I’m sick of people coming to check on me.”
“I’m not here to check on you. I’m in town because I have to file all this bullshit.”
“Slow, is that ball pink?”
Manny never answered questions. You could ask him anything, and he would still give you whatever answer he wanted. Or no answer at all.
“It is, isn’t it?”
“Slow, you know I love her.”
I did know. Years of my childhood had been spent watching her walk down the street in the late afternoon, wearing damp Umbros, coming from the pool, a towel over her shoulder while golf clubs clacked in the distance and open windows released the stuttered scales of piano lessons. We’d been in the same class, and she occupied my middle school fantasies. High school. After. It was impossible not to love her. At times I thought there’d never been a love so pure. She was now a lawyer who represented a number of art galleries in New York, defending the rights of paintings that I could have done blindfolded, sculptures of gorillas made from toilet paper. It was as foreign a world to me as I imagined tennis was to her. In 1999 she had married Manny in a union I thought I might never comprehend, a validation that he had everything I lacked. A failed player, but successful in all other realms—and he got the girl.
?” I said. I tightened my grip. My fingers were beginning to ache, but I wasn’t going to move. Lately, I had been
sleeping past 2:00 PM. I cried when Al Gore accepted his Academy Award. I didn’t return phone calls. I had let myself slide into indulgence. But I didn’t want to come down. I felt that, if I could just hold on to that fence, I was still in control of this conversation; that, even though my coach—the one person who had told me to do more things than anyone else in my life—was standing below, directing me down, that I was the director of this scene. My fingers remained braided between wire.
“I’m not going to tell you the whole thing,” Manny said. “But I do need to tell you this one part. So I get drunk at Rudy’s the other night, and then on my way home this group of girls on the sidewalk is all like, ‘Take our picture?’ And one of them is this girl I’ve been wanting to get in there with for a long time, so I take her home. She looks like Scarlett Johansson. In the face,” he said, then traced an hourglass into the air with the racquet. “She’s healthy.”
“What about Katie?”
“Well, my phone starts ringing the next morning, and I just don’t answer it.”
“Wait. Where was she?”
“We’d already broken up, a few days before. This was after. But so the phone keeps ringing, and then the next thing I hear is the key in the door. Yeah. It’s Katie. She’s like, ‘You’re here with somebody, aren’t you.’ And I’m naked. You know she was all like, ‘What’s up, donkey dick?’ I don’t say anything, and she leaves. I pick up my phone after the door closes and see that she’d been texting me. The first one said, ‘I’ve been calling. I think you’re with somebody.’ And the last one said, ‘I’m coming over. If you’re with somebody, I’m going to do you both.’ So I just sort of, without thinking, just text her back and say, ‘Come back.’ And she says, ‘Why?’ And I say, ‘Why not?’ So then she comes back. Steps in and the first thing she does is walk up to the bed, where Scarlett is, and kisses her. Katie calms her down, says all
this stuff, and starts taking off her clothes. And Slow, it was just. So natural. It was like, that was the way it was meant to be. And it wasn’t nasty or anything. I mean, it was nasty. But it was just. It was nice.”
Katie Barshaw? Who had once told me the craziest thing she could think of was taking a shower outside, in the sprinkler, in a bathing suit? I was only thirty, and my friends had become unrecognizable.
Manny twirled the racquet on his index finger. It spun perfectly, a blur of fuchsia and white. I moved my hands to new diamonds of wire, alleviating the deepening ache in my fingers for a few seconds as I tried to process what he was telling me.