I’m home to see my sister.
The weather is right and we’re perfectly guilty from indulging in last night’s barbeque – a night that saw the birth of the bacon wrapped marshmallow – so we load the rackets into the car and head to the courts by the university football stadium. Except I’m not going in the car. My sister puts the key in her dirt bike, starts the ignition, hands me her helmet and tells me she’ll meet me there. She knows full well I’d rather take the dirt bike and the times are few and far between that I get to ride one of these things.
After tearing through the old neighbourhoods, I pull the bike into the parking lot by the courts at Richardson Stadium. The parking lot is unpaved as it has been since we started coming to these courts about twenty-five years ago. I still love the grind of the gravel beneath the tires. As a child I would ride my own dirt bike, but with the engine sound coming from my mouth in a spray of terse-lipped spit as I came speeding across the parking lot. Then, at full speed, I’d drop my body weight backwards on the pedal to skid a long twisted line across the gravel and kick up a trail of dust because this is what the movies taught us: a bike just ain’t a bike unless it’s kickin’ up a trail of dirt.
Funny how some things never change. Sure the bike has an engine now, but this parking lot still holds the lessons of youth and so I drop my weight on the back brake and kick up the same trail of dust.
But as the dust settles and the bike idles, something has changed.
It’s the courts.
As a child my sister and I would come here with our mother on the weekends or after she came home from work. The courts were pristine, well kept, classic hard courts. They were tournament-worthy and the overflow of matches from the annual Whig Standard Open tennis tournament at the tennis club up the road would be held here. Often we’d wait up to an hour just for a court to open. These courts were our own Studio 54, a place where we stood in tight tennis shirts and short skirts and when you got in, you somehow felt special, charged by the gaze of onlookers waiting for their turn to get in.
But now the courts are empty. The nets are weathered and frayed and the colours on the court have faded, their surfaces cracked. Long grass creeps through the fissures in the courts and I feel as though I’ve come home to see a dying relative I can no longer recognize, one whose face has been skewed or ravaged by some rapidly accelerating disease.
Worst of all, there are locks on the gates.
My sister arrives in the car and surveys the same scene and I sense she feels a bit of what I’m feeling.
“Should we just go home?” I ask her.
“No,” she says.
“But we’re trespassing.”
But it’s not the thought of the crime that excites her. It’s her sense of civic duty, like breaking a dying patient out of intensive care for the promise of a dignified death.
“Then let them arrest us for playing tennis.”
We wheel the gurney down the hall past the doctors, or rather, we shimmy the chain lock and twist the gate enough to make a space to squeeze through. We’ve broken through security. And we’ve done it because it was the right thing to do.
How this world has turned on us. How these days, it’s easier to get 6000 bullets mailed to your house than it is to play a set of tennis with your sister.
But none of that matters now. There are a libraries of dissertations on all that. There are fleets of pundits who can tell you why that is. We’re not here for that.
She takes a few warm up serves against the fence as I unbuckle my jeans and slip into my shorts to play. The sight is hilarious to her; I’m a living example of an all too growing reality of folks who just don’t get out enough:
Black shorts, white legs.
On this day, despite our crime or maybe because of it, the elements are on our side. I am forced to come to terms with her topspin forehand and her two handed backhand. Her mother would have been so proud. Long before her death her flat forehand and one-handed backhand slice afforded her trophy after championship trophy on the varsity courts of Ireland in the 1960’s and even a few doubles titles at the local tennis club.
The ball takes an awkward hop when it hits the cracks in the courts but on we play. As I walk to gather a ball she’s blasted past me and listen to her cheering for herself, I see that a few kids have taken our cue and are scaling the fence to enter the tennis courts. The face of these courts may be damaged and neglected but it does nothing to wane their defiant spirit.
If they’re the future, I like what I see.
It was on these courts as a child that I broke my first tennis racket in a McEnroe-inspired tantrum and it took a summer of chores to pay off the next one. When my sister fires a forehand at me that I’m unable to return and the ball skids into the net, I reach back to those days and for the fun of it, and maybe for a slight bitterness and having knees too shot to chase down ball I would have gotten a decade ago, I throw my racket against the fence. But when I collect the racket, I see it’s cracked. My past has come for me, but I am wiser now. More composed. Or so I’d like to believe. In my mind, there is only one thing to do: finish the fucker off. So I pick up the racket again and heave it into the fence again. My sister is in stitches and I’ve never felt better. It’s cathartic, this rage, as though these weathered courts and this damaged racket have summoned me back to tell me, “hey, that anger that you feel is okay.” And so I smash the racket again. Who let these courts go to ruin? And again. Who made it easier to buy a sub-machine gun than to play a game of tennis? Another smash. And who dared try to lock us out of our memories?
The racket is in the air, sailing high above us, and high above the fences. Tennis has never known a tantrum like this. McEnroe never went this far. Ilie Nastase never lost his racket in the sun.
Everything is going to be okay.
We’ve burned away the calories from the bacon-wrapped marshmallows. The sun is out. And the kids are playing tennis.