A Beautiful Game

A short story

I was at the edge of the right side line waiting for a return and just barely heard it. That moron from the South was always telling some filthy thing here at the Club, when as far as I'm. concerned it should be a place to relax in and really get away from things like that. And what better way of getting clear of things than this?

Because tennis is a beautiful game. I had been hitting volleys and smashing lobs up at the net and now was back at the base line, and John and I were just rallying easy. It was a beautiful afternoon there at the Club; God, I loved it, it just gets you—the cool hazy early summertime before the heat sets in and the girls in their white skirts and brown legs and the brotherhood of tennis all mixed into one—like the Olympics, almost, the way it brings people together. A nice reasonable breeze was lifting up the Club's pennant on its pole as I hit one down the middle, and the corner of my eye saw these other things while I played, the pennant and Betty my girl's skirt blowing ever so slightly and Marg and Bill lazing in shorts in the empty stands with their Cokes. John came to the net and I lifted one in the air for him and as lightly as you hit a lob, my new strings sang even then, strung as they were to sixty pounds. I went back for his smash and lofted it up again for him, and while it was up there yelled at Betty and she blew me a kiss, secretly, and John heard me yell and nearly missed his smash.

We'd had about a half hour by then and didn't want to be too tired for tomorrow, so John said, "Let's get something wet, Herbie. I'm pooped."

I've taught George how to make the iced tea at the snack bar behind the dining room. I like it just a certain way, with a spoon and a half of sugar and two slices of lemon and lots of ice, ground up. John already had his Coke from the machine and was sitting in the stands above number-one court while I went back to order. George set down the milk-shake glass he was polishing.

"Hi there, old buddy. Time for my tea."

"Yes sir, Mister Jillson."

"George, let me sign the pad now so I can go back and sit down. I'm bushed. You can bring it out to me."

He pushed the pad at me and I signed and went out into the stands. John and Betty were watching some others who'd moved over to number-one court. "You're warm," Betty said, and put her cool white hand on my forehead while I was looking down at the court, watching a couple squirrels play who couldn't hit anything, thinking how the Club would send me on a tour for sure this summer if I won the junior Singles—and I would, with any luck at all—and right then saw the Negro. Maybe it was him that guy had been talking about on the side lines so near where I was playing.

Before I had time to think about him, George brought out, on a wooden tray, the glass of iced tea and a green plastic cocktail muddler. "You look tired, old buddy," I said. He had kind of a strained look, as if his jacket was too tight on him.

"I been keepin' busy, Mister Jillson."

I hardly heard him, though, looking at the Negro down below. He was in shorts and walking along the bottom row of stands toward one of the far courts. Where did he come from just now? God but his T shirt was white! It was sure strange to see someone like him here, at the Club, aside from the fellows like George, of course. Well, more power to him!

John must have seen my face. "Haven't you seen him before?" he asked. "Boy, where you been? He's in the tournament."

"In the—?"

"Yeah. The committee turned him down last year but had to pass him this time because he's supposed to be good. They had a fight over it among themselves and finally let him in."

"I think it's terrible," Betty said. What she meant I wasn't sure.

He was still walking and went to the green wooden backboard with a white line across it, and he banged some balls against it. He hit some forehands so flat you could have read the label on the ball if you'd been close enough.

"Is he seeded?"

"No," said John. "He's never been in any tournament before. But he's played some other colored guys, I guess, on the park courts in the south end of town and beats them all. He's a fast son of a bitch, you can see that much."

John was right. Way over at the backboard the Negro was hitting the ball at angles to make himself run. It was so far from where we sat that you'd see the ball bounce off and a second later hear the bang on that wooden backboard, and the Negro would run to the ball, hitting it on the run and bang then again, and he was always where he should be when the ball came at him.

I drank my tea slowly and watched him. The tea was getting warm and watery. He couldn't have been older than I was, either, hitting the ball on that backboard, and Jesus he looked terrific way off there; there is nothing nicer than to see someone working out like that.

John was going to say something when that friend of my dad's who'd stood on the side lines, talking, walked behind us just then and said, "I hope that nigger gets his in the first round."

I looked at him close. He was visiting from the South and played tennis like a squirrel. Why don't they grow up down there? He had a gold-colored can of beer in his hand, and this close to him you could see how fat his belly was and how flabby his arms were getting. In the shorts he looked like an enormous baby with diapers on.

"How does that black boy look to you?" asked the fat man.

"Darn good," I said. "More power to him."

He frowned and went off, swigging the beer.

Before my shower I walked downstairs to the lawn where the umbrella tables were set up and two waiters were bringing drinks from the bar outside to the Club members. Everybody but the waiters sat around in white. It was loud down there, lots of talking and laughing while the waiters brought drinks, and for a few minutes I sat on the grass near a table in the shade, away from the half-hazy glare of the sun you couldn't see but only feel. I got up then to go in for a shower and glanced through the fence for a last look at the Negro way off there. That white line cut him in half as he chased a ball.

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