Net Sum - part 2Issue: Section:
"i ran into some detour signs on my road to tennis history. my mom showed up..."
or, more precisely, she showed up in my living room.
i came in from a workout to find my dad, still in his work uniform, sitting across the coffee table from an older lady. she stood, and i guessed her to be some forgotten aunt.
i had ceased to think of my mother, so i thought, a very long time before. on the rare occasions i did think of her, the image i held was of a young woman from one of the photos my dad kept hidden in his closet. thin, eyes shining in the california sun, skin and hair radiant and blonde. big white teeth.
this woman was tending toward large, with a wild mane of frizzy gray hair, dingy teeth and the creased leathery skin that comes from prolonged exposure. i got a good look at her just before she wrapped me in a confining hug made all the more unsettling by the cloud of patchouli that accompanied it.
i returned the hug with a limp fish sort of motion of the arms, and held her loosely, waiting for the outsize emotion to pass. i looked to my dad. he shrugged at me and said, "well, son, this is your mother."
and that was sort of the typical dance we did as we got to know one another. she would come after me with these grand gestures, seeking forgiveness or understanding or compassion or whatever. and i would stand limp until she gave up.
fact was, i resented her. my dad and me, we had a good thing going. who the hell did this hippie think she was, that she could breeze into our orderly little system with her patchouli and twelve-step bullshit grammar and stories from the ashram or the buddhist temple or the i ching and think we would in any way make space for her?
the presumption made me bitter, and made it hard for me to hear anything she had to say.
if not for my dad, i would have high-tailed it to palo alto and never looked back. i had shit i had to do, after all. but my dad, as calm and collected as ever, simply asked if i might defer my scholarship to stanford for a year. that he asked was proof enough to me that he really wanted me--needed me, even-- to stick around. i agreed to the plan. the college did not offer athletic scholarships, of course, but i think my dad felt some pride in the fact that his years of toil would pay off after all.
so, i went to classes, continued my stanford workouts and destroyed all competition in the NCAA division II tournaments. my mom concocted various plans to promote healing and connection, but in the main i blew her off. as long as she was nice to my dad, she could stick around, i figured. i planned to take my cues from him: if they managed to patch things up, i'd give her a chance. if he tossed her out, i wouldn't have to bother.
but, they made progress. she spent most of the time at her family's home at first, but gradually insinuated herself into the daily fabric of our little home as time wore on. she sucked at tennis and it pissed me off when she started volunteering with us at the shelter, but the kook could cook. i mean, my dad was no slouch, but in her vagabonding the lady had picked up some serious kitchen chops. at first the stories that accompanied the exotic dishes struck me as pretentious and overblown, and i would grit my teeth and pray to god to strike her mute. but, in time, either she got better at telling stories or i got used to her manner, and the text and subtext became equally enjoyable.
by the end of the season my sophomore year, things were pretty mellow between the three of us. i had a long way to go before i could forgive her, but i could imagine it happening some day. and she had come to accept that eventuality and time frame, so we had reached some sort of plateau.
i'd like to say i felt a noble obligation to get out of my dad's way, to let him work on their relationship or just to get his freak all the way on, but my motivations were almost completely selfish.
i was in touch with an agent in new york. dood had serious sponsor angles and big plans for me. i was bored by the competition in division II, and not a little uncomfortable with the idea of taking the relationship with my mom to another level.
but, probably more importantly, i'd learned that aubrey had left stanford and signed up with the number one tennis academy in the states, the one they called the "star factory". he was making his move. i would have to cut him off.
i told my dad and mom about my plans. they asked sensible questions for which i had no sensible answers, but they knew better than to try to talk me out of it. i was already gone, and they could tell.
now we come to the part of my story where you might expect to hear about fairies that sing pieces of eight or unicorns that fart cotton candy next. i hit new york, hooked up with the agent, scott marsden, and 'll be damned if he didn't do exactly what he said he would. you read that right: a sports agent took a naive talent from the sticks and gave him everything he promised on the terms agreed upon.
to the letter. the guy was gold.
i had sponsors wearing out the doormat at my new apartment in tribeca. he got me into a series of gladiator matches on the tour where i could acclimatize to the increased level of talent, then hooked me up with some righteous coaches. i may have dreamed myself into this place a thousand times before, but not even i was so bold to think it would be so easy.
but then i walked on to the court at arthur ashe stadium one fine afternoon in the spring. i bent over to unsheathe my weapon, and when i straightened up, my left knee came unglued and i fell to the ground. looking at the unnatural angle at which my shin pointed from the thigh, i knew it was serious. it wouldn't do anything i told it to.
a couple of surgeries later, i had a new ACL, a reconstructed meniscus and a daunting rehab and recovery ahead of me. scott and i talked it over, and we agreed that the first part of the rehab might be better conducted back home in boone. i wasn't about to argue with a guy who had just paid tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills without batting an eye. so i hobbled back home with my tail between my legs.
i did exactly what my doctors told me to do and laughed at my mom's new age recovery remedies. some i did to humor her, if i didn't think they ran contrary to sound medical advice. some i dismissed out of hand (no way was i going to chew dandelion feathers into a poultice. not in this lifetime, anyway). but she fed me and fussed over me and clucked at me like a mother hen when she caught me trying to do too much, and i appreciated the attention. and i also appreciated this one gel she concocted. of all the smoke and mirrors and homeopathic hokum she came up with, i am here to testify that arnica should be an absolute essential in any athlete's medicine cabinet. for reducing inflammation, for accelerating healing, arnica is THE SHIT.
(no, i was never sponsored by any merchant of arnica.)
the part of my rehab i came to enjoy most, though, was the bike rides. i rarely missed a morning after the doctors gave me the green light.
my normal route took me out of town on the pike, the road that channeled traffic from the east to the stockyards and the train depot. not much traffic uses the pike anymore, so i often had the first ten miles all to myself.
the sampson farm ran along both sides of the middle stretch. the sampsons were once among the richest citizens of our county. they grew industrial hemp. the original farm has been sold off to dairies and soy farmers now, but hemp plants still crop up everywhere on the former property.
another vestige of the sampson days that remains intact is a colonnade of sycamore trees that line the pike. they have grown into a majestic arch. riding through that tunnel of trees never failed to transport me. the light, the sound, the temperature, the very condition of the road beneath my wheels changed the instant i entered. i've never visited the cathedrals of europe, but i suspect they might have a fraction of the divinity, the closeness of comfort, the majesty and completeness of the sampson's sycamore tunnel on the pike. it's a place for sacraments like marriage and birth and commitment and contemplation, and i visited it daily. and if i had more humility, i'd be embarrassed to say that doing so made me a better man.
it was after one such invigorating ride, as i wended my way back through town, that i saw my mom. she was crying at the back of an ambulance. the ambulance was parked in the driveway of the carson home. its doors shut as i pulled to a stop.
this was not the over-eager spirit warrior who always seemed too ready to engage a difficult situation with her arsenal of experience and platitudes. what i saw there was a woman broken by grief. her arms were slack by her side. her head was thrown back and she was wailing and sobbing and sobbing and wailing. i could do nothing it seemed, but lay my bike in the grass and approach her, she was so utterly given over to a complete existential unmooring. a murmuring cloud of neighbors kept their distance, unsure if this grieving animal, my mom, might prove unsafe if engaged.
i don't even know if she recognized me, but i took her in my arms. i held her and let the spasms find something to echo into.
and i held her some more, when the ambulance backed out, shut off its lights and rolled slowly away, and the keening and sobbing began anew.
and i held her all the way back to our house, after the crowd dispersed and the sun got high. i left my bike where it lay and silently dared any motherfucker in boone to touch it as we shuffled off.
you rarely learn anything of merit at a small town funeral. the gossip has been hustled and repeated and corroborated so many times over the course of even the briefest lifetime that nothing you hear over the little ham n cheese sandwiches should be surprising.
this was a rare funeral.
i don't know if i had been blind to it, or sheltered from it (probably both), but until my mother was asked to speak at the service for mrs. carson, i honestly did not realize how intertwined their lives had been. they were inseparable as kids. grew up on the same tree-lined block. saw each other every day. my mom was considered the second caldwell (mrs. carson's maiden name) daughter. when her parents died, the caldwells took her in. when my mom lit out for the west, her best friend dropped out of school to keep an eye on her. i suppose in some sense when she saw that mom had a steady minder (my dad), she felt it was safe to return to boone to resume her life. aubrey and i were born within a month of each other, on different sides of the continent.
dot caldwell, now carson, began showing signs of mental illness soon after the birth of her son. it was no secret that she was in and out of institutions all her adult life. it was not common knowledge, however, that upon her return, my mom spent a lot of time with her childhood best friend. what those conversations were like, only one person knows. she is by nature a garrulous person, my mother, but on this subject she said nothing for years.
no one escapes the feelings of guilt when someone close to them commits suicide. no one is immune to the nagging second guessing, the what-if-i-had-justs. for my mom, i'm sure there was also a fair bit of survivor's guilt on top of that hot mess. something fundamental in her was shaken again, but it seemed that this time she had internal and external structures in place to to prevent her from crumbling.
maybe for the first time in my life, i felt proud of my mom, there at the jackson funeral parlor on main street in boone, speaking about love, forgiveness and the universal human state of brokenness. i'm not certain that the baptists in the crowd were entirely on board, but it appeared that those closest to dot appreciated my mom's homily.
aubrey was there, of course. he looked like the same boy he had always been, only now in a dark suit with puffy eyes. he held up remarkably well. perhaps the carsons knew better than most that this ending had always been a distinct and real possibility. perhaps they had resigned themselves to this scenario ahead of time. but, as they say: even when you see it coming, you never see it coming.
i spoke with him briefly before we left. thankfully it was he who brought up tennis. he asked about my knee, and whether i thought it might be ready for a tournament by october. i knew the tournament he spoke of. it was in fact the event scott and i had set as my targeted return. but i was non-committal. it would have been unseemly to begin my campaign of psychological warfare with his mom's closed casket in the next room.
so we met again in charleston, sc in october. i expected something a little more idyllic weather-wise. i don't remember the temperature rising out of the sixties the first few days. great soaking rains would pour out of the sky every time i stuck my head out of doors, it seemed. often as not, the rain was accompanied by howling gusty winds. even the seasoned tour pros could be heard moaning about the unpleasantness.
i first saw aubrey on the day of the draw. he looked bigger than he had in boone. and harder. he had cut off all his hair, which seemed to eliminate the last vestiges of boyhood. i noticed for the first time now that he had crow's feet already sprouting from the corners of his eyes and a deep furrow across his brow. in brief, he was practically indistinguishable from the majority of old salts traveling in the tour pack.
a vague sense of dread came over me there in the press room.
sure enough, we drew into the same flight. only one of us would get to play in the big show in charleston this week.
if there were a tennis doppelganger of my dad, he would look a lot like aubrey carson: a many-handed hindu god who metes out punishment from the center line, except with fair skin and blue eyes.
maybe it was his relative youth, but if anything aubrey had the court vision of my dad plus an extra helping of aggressiveness.
his approach to training, even as a kid at camps, bordered on sado-masochism.
aubrey's salient disadvantage growing up was that there were only two people in boone who could coach tennis (3, if you counted my dad. but no one did). his uncle ran the youth camps and the high school teams. his aunt, coach c's sister, was a NCAA legend who ran the program at the college.
both were old school drill sargeant types, fanatical about fitness. mistakes and errors were paid down by suicide drills, snakes through the bleachers, or laps around the grounds. we spent almost as much time running and jumping rope as we did swinging a racket.
and while i spent some of that training time puking in bushes or sucking wind behind the field house, aubrey always led the pack and finished first. he felt an obligation not to disappoint the family, to be sure, but he was also determined to eliminate any appearance of preferential treatment.
he was the only kid i knew who jogged to practice. as a warm-up, he explained.
the kid was a technical wizard and covered any weakness with superior conditioning. no one could out-slog aubrey carson.
least of all, me.
i tend to fixate on the loss column, so in my mind i believe that in the course of our careers we split our matches 50-50. a reliable source solemnly swears that aubrey carson can remember winning a match against me exactly four times in our long shared history. that he can recite from memory the scores, dates and locations of those few victories gives me no small satisfaction, i have to admit.
whatever the stats, i dreaded facing that little rooster every time.
like my dad, aubrey had a way of jamming my transmissions. they both deployed some sort of cloaking device that prevented me from reading their expectations as clearly as i could read most every other opponent's.
without the advantage of that gift, i was forced to think more, which wears me out. as i have said, i'm a fundamentally lazy person; what i resented most about playing aubrey (or my dad) is that it took so much effort. they made me work.
so that was part of what i was dreading. we dispatched our respective opponents with little struggle. neither of us had any long matches, which is a godsend considering how many matches we had to get through in such a short span to reach the final. but the rain would not give up. it never rained enough to delay a match, but i remember being soaked to the bone even when i fell into bed at the hotel.
so we faced off on a thursday afternoon. ours was the match for the last berth. hardly anyone stuck around to watch. when we hit around to warm up, the echoes off our rackets sounded like pebbles dropping far off in a deep canyon.
i was a little put off that my mom showed up during the hit around. before i left for charleston, i had suggested she come along. it was an insincere suggestion, the sort of thing genuinely kind people say to others who they think could use some diversion or distraction from wearying days. at first she declined, then changed her mind. when i left for the airport, we had settled that if i were still in the hunt by thursday, she would come down. i even booked a room with two beds, again as a pretend gesture.
so, it was a little bit of an unwelcome shock to see her up in the stands. normally i would be totally oblivious to everything but the rectangle around me, but i looked up and saw her the instant she emerged from the tunnel. i had written her off too soon once again.
i watched aubrey more than i watched the ball. with each stroke, the fog of dread was being burned off by the light and heat of a familiar feeling. it was the feeling of inevitability, and it was shining on me like high noon by the time the match began.
i knew i had this one. i couldn't imagine any other outcome besides walking off this court the winner. it was all done but the doin, as my dad used to say. i didn't see aubrey. i didn't see a human across the net. i only saw a complex array of signs and signifiers telling me where to place the ball next, and they were firing brilliantly and constantly. and my body was in full synchronization and compliance with the information.
i kind of felt pity for aubrey, toweling his fuzzy blond head there on the other side of the judge.
i served first. aced him twice to start. maybe i won't even let the poor bastard touch the ball, i thought.
when he did manage to return, i sent him rooster-tailing around the wet paint just to get a look at the ball.
i saw everything before it happened. he saw nothing until it was too late. he did not win a game the first set.
and he went down hard the first two games of the second set.
nothing personal, kid. just doin my job.
i noticed that he had switched rackets when he came out for the third game.
that's right, kid, blame the equipment.
we got hit with a squall right before he served. when the rain pelted the empty bleachers, it sounded like a chain being dragged across concrete. i thought maybe the lonely ghostly grating distracted me, because the little fucker aced me. him. the little dentist with the pointy precision tools that pester and peck you to death: he just hit me with a sledge hammer. just blew the serve right past me. i got to it almost in time to get it off the wall.
i looked across the net to make sure i hadn't time-skipped into tomorrow's match. no, that was aubrey carson all right. i surveyed the scene: no one around as a witness but the officials and my mom, who had come out from cover and now sat in the first row.
and then the blows kept coming. his pace quickened. he pounded me with relentless, heavy shots that sometimes hurt to return. the little twit was trying to flatten me. and he was succeeding. now, while i have admitted that playing tennis rarely brought me much joy or satisfaction, only rarely was it this unpleasant.
i was no longer playing against a matrix of signs and signifiers. nor was i engaged in a struggle with aubrey carson. through some kind of voodoo or witchcraft or by the wicked hand of the ghost of christmas past, i found myself playing against myself. aubrey's imitation of me was truer than my own self.
and it was no fun.
matter of fact, it sucked.
i had played my share of bruisers and brawlers, straight knockout artists who executed my style of power tennis. most of them had the same fatal weakness: they were predictable. i actually preferred match-ups with members of my barbarian fraternity; it usually made for a quick day's work. the harder they come, you know...
before i could adjust to the new reality, we were tied at two games apiece.
i came out for the fifth determined to pinpoint what aubrey was trading off to hit with such might and ferocity. i mean, the guy was playing stronger than he was capable of. surely he was losing a step back or following through too far to his strong side or something. there had to be something i could exploit.
if there was any weak spot in his new game, i didn't find it in the fifth.
or the sixth.
aubrey evened up with me at two sets each, and i still didn't have a map to get back to where i had been. i had rarely been beaten in my career. when the score came out in my opponent's favor, it was almost always because i simply had missed too many shots.
today i was hitting my shots, and aubrey carson was beating me like a rug.
i was in foreign territory.
the rain had blown itself out by now, and we came out for the final set to hard shadows in the late sun. the humidity made it feel like i was breathing through a wet towel as i swam to the service line. i remember hoping that maybe aubrey's conditioning would fail him in this soupy, swampy cauldron; maybe he couldn't sustain the onslaught for another set. maybe, in a please-god-let-it-be-so sort of way. i could only hope.
he sustained it through the first game. it was a massacre.
the dread had returned and wore more on my legs than the humidity. i went to the end line to take my medicine. i turned to face his serve. and then i saw the light.
the sun had set to a point where it shone through a western exit. a beam traveled the length of the net, where it met a sign that some workers were mounting on the east side of the stadium. its reflection, as the workers wrestled the sign in to place, concentrated and focused on a spot a few feet in front of my side of the net. it danced like something out of a pink floyd light show. i was mesmerized.
until that moment, i had never had the urge to scream “eureka!” like they do in the cartoons. it was clear now. that light show was a thumbnail sketch of my new map, etched on the hard surface before me. i would have to get up there and read it.
my dad and aubrey were the only people who had ever beaten me more than once. that piece of turf up there was their pilot house, their command center. if i was going to beat myself--this time not through laziness or sloppiness, but because i found myself playing myself--if i had any hope, i would have to take it to the net. i would have to out-aubrey his version of me.
frankly, it sounded like a hell of a lot of work and i wasn't sure i was up to the task. but, upon consideration, i thought, “you were given this sign. don't be a punk ass.”
aubrey serves a thundering cannon blast. it arrives in my court hissing like a snake. i chop it back and without thinking i continue forward. the charge is exhilerating, like your first taste of champagne. for a moment, i hear all the coaches telling me i'm doing it wrong. aubrey and my dad would never approach so quickly, commit so early. i know this. but i also know that i am now on top of where the lights danced, and my return is just reaching aubrey and he looks at me like he's never seen me this close before, like, “do i know you?”, like he's found a big hairy spider in his shoe or like he's just realized he's lost his wallet, and more than anything i know exactly where the ball is going to arrive.
it arrives and i'm waiting for it. i hammer that motherfucking canary right off the paint and into the bleachers.
again and again. i can't wait to get up there. things move at hyperspeed, but i seem to be equipped with the necessary goggles. aubrey is just agog.
my honeymoon lasts until the third game. i was kind of hoping the dood would just roll over. but now, aubrey is hitting harder and, more worrying still, he has begun hitting smarter. often i find myself falling into a trap and watching shots slice past just out of reach. there's more to this net game than i ever imagined.
he takes the third game, but not without me picking up a few pointers.
i run him to death in the fourth, leave him standing flat-footed at the “aw shit” moment a few times. but he battles back to even things up.
we are settled in a groove now, a mash-up of styles and strategies that leaves neither with a clear advantage.
in all my life of tennis, i have never looked at the scoreboard. i have always been acutely aware of precisely how many points, games and sets i had yet to endure to put an end to any match.
but now i find that i have lost track of the score. i am playing the most delicious game of tennis ever, and that is enough at the moment. this game can really be a lot of fun, i'm thinking.
i see that aubrey is up six sets to five. i am holding my serve, up 40-15 in this, the twelfth game.
i ace him to his backhand side. didn't see it coming. not at all.
i'm smiling inside, but still wear my battle armor outside. and i swear to you, before aubrey walks to the sideline, i see him smile and shake his head.
so it comes down to the tiebreaker.
we are both showing fatigue, but at the same rate of decline. if this were an advantage match, we would finish this flat on our backs some time next month.
but it will end shortly, with one of us winning outright and upright, the umpire explains. the first to score the fourth point is the winner and plays in the first round tomorrow.
as soon as i toss the ball to serve, it seems, i am ahead 40-30.
aubrey serves. we volley. i crash the net for the kill. i am too far into his forehand. he crushes it, but i have recovered and i am sweeping down on it. i pull up and watch the ball land out of bounds. i am familiar with this outcome, but customarily from the delivering end.
and now i know i have him where i want him. this game will end with me on top. i'm sure of it. all done but the doin. but, curiously, i don't want it to end. the thought that the time when i won't be doing this is fast approaching fills me with sadness, a melancholy i am unfamiliar with. i bounce the ball a few extra times. and then a few more. i don't want to look up and see aubrey carson across the way.
finally i lace my serve, trying to send it express to london. aubrey won't let it pass, and the battle is joined. it is clear he's not going down until he has left everything on the court.
this is the most beautiful volley i have ever witnessed. and i am ecstatic to be a participant. we cover every corner of the court, leave no approach or angle untested. we lob and charge, retreat and survive to attack again. days pass, and still we volley. we are both currently on the baseline, bashing for all we're worth. night falls, people sleep, awake, go to work, give birth and the children go to college, it seems, and still we volley.
one of us is going to make a move, and i don't know who it's going to be yet. aubrey fires to my backside. i see from his feet that he believes he has more english on it than the ball i see so clearly coming my way actually does. i fling myself forward and smack the ball on a short hop, and keep coming, hellbent for leather. he's moving right to where i want him. i can see the end.
he beats it right at me and keeps coming. i know what he expects, so i give it to him. only harder than he expects. it cuffs him, but he gets it back. it's a little lame and he's listing to port. he's done.
but not quite yet. i clobber the wobbler. aubrey launches superman style and somehow scoops it with the tip of his racket. i have to hustle to reach it, but fate smiles on me. his shot careens off the top of the net. it flutters for a second and i go to put the last nail in the coffin.
but the aubrey sprawled out on the court a split second ago is somehow missing. he has lurched to his feet, and is crossing the path of my shot. he taps it behind his back and spins back into the court. i drive the ball away from him, and for a second time superman digs it out. i bat it cross court again. this time aubrey doesn't make it to his feet, but springs from his knees with enough force to reach the ball before it bounces. it's a clean return, but he is practically out of bounds as the ball floats to me in the center of the court. no human can cover the distance, but i see that he is getting to his feet, or trying to, as i cock the hammer.
i could have pulled the trigger, but i didn't. there in the twilight of charleston, i just wanted to keep playing.
i caught aubrey's eye, stepped back, let the ball bounce and then lobbed it softly toward the middle of his court. and i prepared the headbutt that i had imagined for so many years. only now, i held my hands together, racket between them in the attitude of prayer, and my headbutt became a bow of respect, admiration and gratitude.
he trotted to a spot behind where the ball was set to land. he smiled at me. the ball landed. aubrey carson put down his racket and returned my headbutt.
the crowd, i.e. my mom, went wild.
it was the finest standing ovation i have ever been a party to.
and that's how it was. the rest is a matter of public record. i got smoked in the first round. i had reached my limit and knew it. i returned to college in boone, where aubrey had enrolled. he had scotched his scholarship options in the eyes of the NCAA, so we set out to dominate the division II doubles circuit, which we did handily. the complementary nature of our court game translated naturally to the business world: i dreamed up the shelter template and aubrey worked to make it a reality. we both hustled it, and through pure dumb luck it has taken off.
when i got married, we did the ceremony out on the pike, underneath the sampson's sycamore canopy. it was a great joyous day, made all the more memorable by the uncharacteristic bungle of my best man.
for the record, aubrey
carson forgot the ring.
there. i said it. ha! you can run, son, but you can not hide....