Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Down the Line

Sometimes whole chunks of life go missing, only to be retrieved in an unlikely spot (always, come to think of it, an unlikely spot; the likely yields little).  In this case, the locker room of the gym last night.

There, a little latch heretofore hidden was accidentally knocked free.  Then from behind the open lid spilled sheaves of memories, some stuck together from the heat and long storage.  This little latch was in the form of the socks I pulled on before heading to the treadmill, little white socks with pompoms on the back, not decoration (though certainly cute) but functional: nothing worse than having your socks creep down underneath your heels.  Later I would find myself thinking, On my deathbed, will I remember to thank tennis?  

Tennis, for the huge chunk of my young life it made thrillingly happy.

Sweat trickled relentlessly down skin, on face, arms, thighs.  The toweled elastics around the wrist were wiped across the brow; a few drops from the wet bangs fell into the eyes.  Granules from the Har-tru made their way into shoes.  And it was all good.  It was all sense, and sensuality.  The thwack of balls hitting the sweet spot, hard, echoed from courts all down the line.  We were inside the fence, and inside the experience.

All day long in the summers we took to the courts and played for hours at a stretch.  It was like a need, to hit hard and to hit true.  The reward center in the brain lit up like a pinball game when the shot was perfect, and you wanted it, required it, again and again, more and more.  The driving shot that skimmed the top of the net--glanced the wire--was the fix.

When the Virginia Slims women's tour came to town (imagine that! the quaintness of a sporting event organized to promote a tobacco product aimed at women--the logo was a willowy Jazz Age flapper with a chiffon scarf around her neck and a tennis racket resting insouciantly over a shoulder).  This was the age of the wooden racket, and the age of Billie Jean King, Chrissie Evert, and Martina Navratilova.  Oh, how great they were!  Finesse, guts, and power.  And we were watching so close (women's sports tours were a bust, the indoor stadiums largely empty throughout the days of practice and secondary matches) that we could feel the breeze from the swung racket against our cheeks.

The players were our idols, but they were humble.  They stopped to talk with us, and they signed anything we held out to them, in no hurry and on no thrones.

I saved my babysitting money and bought a Chris Evert Wilson.  It was forty dollars.  I can't remember how much I paid for this house three years ago (honest), but I will never forget how much that racket cost.  I developed a two-handed backhand.  The racket had a longer grip to accommodate two hands.  I also loved resetting my right hand--the web between thumb and forefinger positioned precisely over the second-widest flat--for the serve, even though my serve was never up to the rest of my game.  My overheads either.  Well, let's just say that half my game was okay, half not.  I just wanted to rally.  I didn't even really like playing games, and I frequently choked in competition.

I kept the racket in its press.  Probably it should be restrung.  Twenty-five years after I bought it, it didn't seem to work as well, and the metal racket (or whatever they're made of now) never worked for me, either.  But one never can blame the equipment.  Maybe I could get it back with practice, the sensation of the ball meeting the center of the strings, pausing infinitesimally in the pressure of their meeting, then flying.  Out, arced, and over.  The endless rhythm of the game, back and forth, the suspension of time in the heat-generating friction of the good swing, the ball sent to backcourt every time. 



Anonymous said...

Welcome back Melissa.
It must be "memory lane week". I enjoyed your trip back to wooden rackets and racket presses. I had totally forgotten about such things.
Just the other night I pulled out a folder of poems I had written over 35 years ago. It was fun going back for a moment. But after the short respite, time to go forward again. I have been praying daily for blessings in your life

Shybiker said...

When I play tennis, I refuse to keep score or play games. I simply enjoy hitting the ball in endless rallies of smooth physicality. Sounds like you enjoy the same. I hope you find your way back to the sport.

Sal Paradise said...

Glad you are back. I knew it. Hopefully this means you are making good progress on your next book.
There certainly is a sensuality and a great aesthetic experience to hitting a tennis ball well. Not that I can anymore either. Yet deep down somehow I feel that I could be good at tennis again, if only I spent the time. Basketball too. Snowboarding too. I could get my skills back really but I’m just too busy now with other priorities. Next year for sure. Ahh……denial. What would life be without it?

Highland New York

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thank you, Dale, for the anecdote and the prayers.

I asked a friend recently about how he manages to stay so fiercely happy: "Go forward. I just keep going forward."

The simplicity made its force all the greater. Why, of course! So that is what echoes in my mind these days. That said, I do frequently revisit the past (as everyone here knows) because it is what made me, and it is full of amazements. Maybe your poems were, too.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

SB, then we should play tennis sometime! Sounds like we like the same things about it. Its solidly repetitious nature--a sort of comfort--is one central joy.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Ha-ha, Sal. I know just what you mean! "Some day" I'm going to do all that and more!

But one big question: How come there was so much more time in the day when we were young??

Pierre Sim said...

I am glad to read you again. I played tennis too for seven years in a row when I was eight years old. What a pleasure to hit the ball with my old aunt Alice's racket. My aunt had won many tournaments with that racket bought at Morgan's store in Montreal in the 30's. Anyway, my point is that time is elastic depending of our age. And I will probably never play tennis again, which is sad. My friends are now too old, like me...

Scott the Aussie said...

I played squash from the age of 7 and by the time I was 16 I was getting a bit sick of it, so me and a few school freinds decided to play tennis every Friday after school. I realised I had been missing out on a lot of fun - the two games I was very good at - squash and badminton - I had hit a brick wall at, but tennis was new, fresh, and I had no illusions I was going to win tournaments. It was a release of a kind. In tennis a really great shot is rewarded more often than not, I liked that. My idol was Gene Mayer - probably most people have never heard of him now!!

all the best,

Scotty in Devon

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Scott, perfect notion: tennis is, more than anything, a great released.

Something in us, as animals, longs for it, yes?

Gene Mayer? No, I didn't. How about Don Budge?

Scott said...

Haha, Gene was a US player from New York I believe who was in the top 10 for a while in the 1980s. He made up for a lack of height and power with skill and cunning. He never looked intimidating (like Connors) but he had a touch game that was superb.