An original story by Blast writer Roger Gude
It was hot and sunny as Henry Splinter tossed a ball up into the air. It was way up there, yardsticks high. The audience sat comfortably tan or flushed in the face. There were couplets of attendees fanning themselves with conversations until the umpire quieted them. The umpire sat on the edge of the court with an umbrella and bottled water and watched Henry with desperation. After all, the umpire’s job depended on Henry; well, it depended on every tennis player, but most importantly on Henry at that moment. The ball boys and girls were all where they needed to be and there were white lines framing action. Henry knew he had to do something to the ball floating above his head. His body was already arched; his arm drawn back and his feet ready to lift themselves off the ground. One swift overhand slam shot the ball towards the net. It was too close. The umpire raised his voice and called “Let,” as the neon ball slapped the top of the net.
Henry paced at the baseline and waited for his opponent to ready. The tennis ball sprang back up from the ground and he watched his opponent shuffle around his own baseline in navy blue shorts that swayed in unison with his body and the rare breeze that rushed from the top of the arena down into the faces of the crowd. There was sweat on his brow, it was shiny, and depending on the angle of his head you couldn’t see his face. When Henry did catch a glimpse at it, his eyes were darting left to right at the crowd around him.
Henry’s opponent wiped his brow and readied himself; knees bent like arrowheads, and squinted between the sun and the court at Henry. Henry tossed the ball up again, high above his head, his body arched and his feet left the ground, slamming the ball over the net. He was quick to ready himself after the serve. His coach always reminded him to be ready for a return no matter how much better you think you are. Henry didn’t like that he was thinking about his coach right then. It distracted him, and when his opponent returned his serve he almost didn’t have time to set his body up for a strong, two handed backhand. The thought of losing a match today frightened Henry. Just a couple years ago he was ranked third in the world, on the court that day he ranked somewhere in the twenties and found himself caught by an unranked African at what Henry thought was the end of his match.
Henry faced the left side of the court; his whole body faced that side, and stepped into the return quickly. The top spin he applied to the tennis ball he prided himself on. He managed to do that with a backhand every time and most other players couldn’t handle it. When he first made a name for himself two years ago on a misty grass court in the dead of summer, he knocked the number two ranked player, Leonardo Sandal, a man not unlike every other skilled tennis player out in a quarterfinal bout at Wimbledon. Henry only made it one step further.
He regained his footing on this desert colored clay court and the crowd gasped as his return made his opponent lunge. Good, he thought, he won’t beat me. Henry won that point and continued to win every point for the rest of the match. He beat his opponent, Tsonga Djimbe, 6-3, 6-1, 6-0. It was a clean sweep pretty much and the news broadcasters and the fans draped themselves over the guardrails of the stadium in an attempt to get Henry’s attention. Two young Americans with red and white face paint waved an American flag up and down. Cameras in the stadium matched Henry and the American flag on all the oversized screens above the crowd.
On his way to the locker room a few people stood around handing out directions to anyone. A twenty something man with a polo shirt and khakis and a camera around his neck stood with them. He acknowledged Henry and smiled with everything but his eyes. Henry wanted to ignore him but he flashed a bright white light at Henry and developed a picture for some paper somewhere. Henry blinked rapidly and thought about breaking the camera. Just a thought. If he did anything, the inevitable lawsuits would put a strain on his bank account and he needed money. His wife waited in the locker room.
In Henry’s awkwardly lit locker room were his wife, Melanie Splinter, and his niece Vanessa. Melanie wore her brown hair in a ponytail, up in a pink visor, and had a natural tan about her. Henry knelt down and hugged his niece.
Henry spent a lot of time playing tennis because he loved it but the way his wife and niece dressed and acted. It told Henry they didn’t feel the same way. He loved the intensely intimate atmosphere of a duel between two people and when he hugged Vanessa it reminded him. The amount of pressure on the tennis player’s shoulders gave him confidence; every success or mistake rested solely within himself. He thought of people like his wife and niece who wore Polo shirts and khakis to these games; you know, those people who spent a significant amount of time buying merchandise rather than enjoying a good match. They were just one big vampire, sucking all that was good out of it.
Henry was bitter and cynical, and some would say without cause. In the locker room after his match, that was all that he was. His wife had begun to sigh as she watched him caught in a stupor. His mind was completely detached from his body and she read it through the dullness of his eyes and face.
Six months ago Melanie started to notice the amount of time Henry spent just zoning out. The first time she noticed it, he had been sitting in the living room with no television on, no radio, nothing, in a pair of pajama bottoms and his father’s beaten up posture. He looked awake and he was breathing, but he sat like royalty. Eyes straight ahead until somebody asked for them. He snapped out of it a couple seconds after she put her purse down on the coffee table. The same thing happened the next day. This time he was sitting in the kitchen with a warm cup of coffee and an unfolded crossword puzzle hardly filled.
She thought he was depressed but Henry wasn’t only depressed. He was distracted too. Depression wasn’t something that Henry really needed to deal with or address. Sure he was depressed, but that depression he always muffled with a pillow in the back of his mind. Not to say that he never dealt with it, but he was stronger than it. It all had to deal with spirit, for Henry. If you’ve got enough spirit, he used to say, you’ll ace it every time. Sometime around his peak, after he’d reached the highest point he was going to reach in his career, he started to lose spirit.
It hit him heavy one night after practicing for a few hours before his next tournament. When he was twenty-three and finding his name on sports networks worldwide calling him the next Pete Sampras, he had it all. He had everything he’d asked for as a child. He had fame, health, a wife, a salary. He rode that wave for as long as he could and he felt it slope downward once some new talent joined the circuit. Once he lost. He was never going to be that good again and it tore him apart. He didn’t know how to replace what he’d lost; he wanted to get it back. If it was something in particular, a technique, he’d fix it as quickly as he could. But, it wasn’t any specific thing. It was more like he’d lost a persona. He’d lost that spirit of youth and confidence he’d once had in just about five years time, that fast.
In the green tiled locker room, where the fluorescent lights flickered from a bad electrical current, where Henry’s wife stood with all her weight on one leg and his niece squinted her eyes even harder than Henry did, he couldn’t take his eyes off Melanie. She still had everything he’d lusted after when they first met. Although her skin crinkled around her eyes a little more when she laughed and her body had filled with age. When he could see her bra strap, it paved valleys in between her soft skin. They were his, his little villages in between mountains, where he’d call himself mayor when his fingers dug under them. She had some success in selling real estate around St. Louis and people still acted like she was something special. Henry didn’t think he was good enough for her sometimes, or more that they both differed enough that he could never find himself committing as sincerely as some other people would whenever the two of them would go out to eat or have sex.
“That was a tough match, baby,” said Melanie. Her tone wasn’t pleasant when she said baby.
“Huh . . .” Henry said.
“Don’t say too much at once,” Melanie said, resting one hand on her hip.
Her hips were already starting to look like her mother’s. “What do you want me to say? I’m tired.” He paused and looked up at the lights and shut his eyes tight.
“Well I thought you did great, Hank!” said Vanessa. She smiled at Henry sitting slumped over with his elbow on his knee in a chair with his duffel bag and racquet next to him. Henry smiled back.
“Don’t worry honey, he’s upset right now,” she said and winked at Vanessa, who smiled and asked if she could go. Melanie told her she could wait outside.
Henry and Melanie had been taking care of Melanie’s niece for a few months now. The child was sent to them as a last resort. Melanie’s sister was the only other surviving member of her immediate family, and she wound up dead last May. The coroner pronounced it as a heart attack . . . at thirty-three . . . Vanessa didn’t have anywhere else to live. She told a policewoman about Melanie, and the next thing Henry knew they had something like a daughter.
“So, do you want to talk about this?”