by Joseph Stearman
It’s tennis day. I’m awful at tennis. And every mandatory Sunday date, I’m reminded that my father is not.
The closest tennis courts are two blocks away at my high school, as if I need another reason to hate that place. I grab my Wilson racket, an ancient, now paint-faded birthday gift from Dad, and when we walk through the school parking lot, I check to see if anyone I know is at the school this Sunday. Tennis Day is always on Sundays.
Does he know I don’t want to be seen with him?
My dad carries two rackets, one a stiff-head Arthur Ashe edition from his own high school days. He wears thick, square-rimmed glasses and a bright colored polo shirt half-tucked in the front of his cargo shorts, which stand above his kneecaps, which almost touch the high socks that still fit in the loose, torn-up New Balances that must be eight years old by now. Oh, and he wears a black kippah on his head. He doesn’t make me wear mine anymore.
I’m ashamed of my father. And I’m ashamed that I’m ashamed. I wish for the confidence, the pride to wear my kippah in public. I wish I did not hope to see an empty school on Sundays.
But there’s always someone, even today. The echo of a bouncing basketball loudens until I see Derek Roberts, from the basketball team and my chemistry class, dribbling by the outdoor hoop beside the tennis cages. His beautiful girlfriend scrolls on her phone, while leaning against the brick wall.
Derek is cool; he makes people laugh. His girlfriend, Veronica, is one of the hottest girls in school; I even catch some teachers glancing at her from behind. Derek has a football talent and an even more impressive basketball talent. Me? I can’t whack a tennis ball for more than two volleys. But it’s good father-son time.
“You can serve first,” my dad says. “Winner buys Slurpees.”
He limbers up and stretches his lean legs on his side of the net, revealing his hairy pot belly in the hot sun. God, please make him stop.
I bounce the ball, then smack it with the racket. The ball beams into the net. I sigh and look at my feet.
“Give it another shot,” Dad shouts. “You’ll get there.”
I turn around to confirm my fears. Derek’s girlfriend is pointing at me, cackling. She’ll probably Snapchat my next serve. Derek glances at me in between shooting. I turn away before they see me blush. Great.
* * *
Derek heard the red Miata pull up to the back parking lot behind the school, mainstream hip-hop blaring: his girlfriend’s car. He was practicing at the basketball court, mending his three-pointer, after missing the potential game-winner last Wednesday.
“Baby, let’s go eat,” Veronica said whilst strolling up to the blacktop. She didn’t kiss him; he was too sweaty. She sat against the outside wall, resting in the shade.
“Nah, I’m not hungry yet,” he said before shooting. It bricked off the rim. Damn. He rushed to the rebound. The soles of his Nikes scraped the asphalt. Derek was hungry, but he needed to practice. It would be smarter to wait for Mom’s dinner.
He heard Veronica laugh, that obnoxious snort. He thought it was at his missed shot. Had she laughed like that at the end of Wednesday’s game? But, no, she was laughing not at him but at the tennis cages behind.
Derek turned around and saw the boy from chemistry class. What was his name? The nice Jewish kid. Quiet. The kid who played tennis with his dad on Sundays.
The kid slumped to the net, head drooped down to find the ball. Derek heard the father say to give it another shot.
Derek turned back to the hoop. Veronica was standing before him. She snatched the basketball from his hands.
“Look at those losers on the tennis courts,” she said.
Derek remained silent, straight-faced.
Veronica begged, “Let’s go eat. I can pay. Besides, staying longer won’t get you a scholarship.”
“That’s exactly what it could do.” He grabbed the ball back and dribbled in for a layup. It went in with a pop off the backboard. “You think my mom is gonna put me through school?”
“Sorry,” she answered with a snarl. Veronica walked away slowly, jingling her keys in her hand. “Peace.”
A couple of minutes later, Derek drank from his water bottle, holding the basketball between a hand and a hip. He watched the two play tennis. They had a nice volley going on, the best Derek had seen them have. “There ya go!” the father yelled. “Maybe you’ll buy me a Slurpee.”
The kid actually laughed, shaking his head at the proposal.
It all made Derek smile. Then he looked down at his sneakers. An emptiness spread in his chest. He wished he had a father, too.
“No,” he heard the kid yell. The tennis ball flew over the metal fence toward the hoop. Derek hustled over, halting the rolling ball with his shoe.
Derek heard the clank of the metal gate as the dad pulled it open.
“Thanks for stopping it.” The dad smiled.
Derek gave him the neon-green orb. “You guys have only one ball?”
“Yeah, so do you,” the boy from chemistry class joked from behind.
“Say, do you want to play with us?” the dad asked Derek. “I have an extra racket for ya.”
Derek glanced at the boy, whose smile faded and looked nervous. Derek hesitated, only for a moment, then answered, “Yeah, but y’all will have to teach me.”
“Sure, my son can give you some tips.”
“Thanks, I need a break.”
Copyright © 2019 by Joseph Stearman