Ground Strokes

by T.R. Healy

Abruptly, a long horn blast interrupted the soft whisperings of the tennis games as a dusty Volvo station wagon swerved into the parking lot across from the courts. It was Nicholas Cady, grinning mischievously, his shaggy head drooping out his window like his drooping black mustache. Ralph waved his racquet as Cady climbed out of his car and pulled a floppy white canvas hat down over his forehead.

"You want to play some doubles, sport?"

"Nah," he drawled, standing in the doorway. "I'll watch you two park rats go at if for now."

"Speak for yourself, dear," Polly snickered. "You're more of a rodent than any of us."

Grinning still, Cady sat down on the bench and watched as she resumed her game. He was one of those people who had wandered over to the park in the afternoon who had become a fixture on the courts the past year. He had not had a tennis racquet in his hand since he was a small boy, yet Ralph and others, noticing him there every afternoon, eventually encouraged him to play. After some reluctance he did, enjoying himself despite his awkwardness, and before too long he bought a cheap graphite racquet at a surplus store so he would not always have to borrow a racquet. He even considered buying a pair of pleated tennis shorts like Ralph's, but then decided he did not want to look any better than he played so he satisfied himself with a pair of cut-off fatigues and a grubby gray sweatshirt. Even after he became a more proficient player, he continued to wear these ragged clothes, feeling more at east in them than he would have felt in the smart white outfits worn by the others.

He was amazed to find himself coming to the park every afternoon to play tennis, never having played the game seriously before, never having even cared to watch others play it on television. Yet, he had become as much of an enthusiast about tennis as anyone in the park, dreading it whenever he was prevented from playing because of the weather or something requiring his attention at work. He owned with his uncle a modest tea shop downtown that featured exotic blends from every corner of the world. His hours were arranged so as to let him have the afternoon off so he could go to the park. He opened the shop and worked until one o'clock then returned by five and worked until closing at eight. These afternoons were his favorite part of the day.

"Ready to hit a few, dear?"

He looked up at Polly who was standing at the net, idly tapping the head of her racquet against her kneecap. "You and Ralph haven't finished your match."

"Oh, yes, we have," Ralph said, picking up a tennis ball can filled with grapefruit juice. "She was a wall today, returning everything I hit."

"Come on, Nick. Let's play."

Cady stood and removed the torn cover from his racquet. "I guess I'll have to get out my shovel and do some excavating in your wall."

Smiling, Polly swatted a ball over the net, and Cady swatted it back down the middle. The ball was returned, hard, and he returned it just as hard with a crisp backhand. It sailed past her, landing inside the line. She then lobbed another ball, and, running, he picked it out of the clouds and smashed an overhead that again sailed past her. Quickly the soreness that had seeped into his bones during the last three days receded as he rushed back and forth across the court, returning everything that came across the net.

As ever, when he was playing tennis, Cady seemed absolutely sure of himself, strong, aggressive, impervious to any of the doubts that he knew away from the tennis court. Out there in the afternoon, he discovered, life still had some blood in it.


Later, driving home from work, Cady stopped by the tennis courts for a minute and watched a man and a woman in street clothes flaccidly punch a ball back and forth across the net. They were almost as awkward as he had been when he began playing, almost but not quite, he thought, smiling. He often drove up to the courts after closing the shop, although he seldom ever played then, finding the night air a little too chill for his sore bones. He just enjoyed being there, scarcely able to wait for the next afternoon when he would be out there playing.

Over the past few years he had been in and out of various clinics for treatment of what Cheryl, his former wife, referred to as his "Irish problem." He was very reluctant to seek treatment at first, not believing he had a serious problem, but she threatened to leave him if he didn't, so he agreed to enter a facility at the edge of town under an assumed name. Despite some lapses during this time, she continued to stay with him, so long as he agreed to accept further treatment when she thought it was warranted. Together, they sought to resolve his problem, trying one approach after another, travelling to facilities around the state. Upon his release from the last clinic, a refurbished convent in the mountains, Cheryl urged that he find some activity that would keep him occupied and away from the bottle. On the advice of one of the staff members at the clinic, she suggested that he start running a little every day, even if it were only around the block, but after a week he came to loathe running and quit. Then she advised him to take walks around the neighborhood, hoping he found this activity less strenuous, and even offered to accompany him if he wished. Again, with some reluctance, he followed her advice and began walking a few blocks after dinner during the week and as far as the park on the weekends. He did not enjoy walking particularly but it was preferable to running so he kept at it, trying to keep his wife happy.

It was during his walks in the park that he became aware of the tennis courts, since he often stopped near them to get a drink at the water fountain. Gradually he got to know some of the players and found himself spending more and more time in their company, talking with them like old friends. Cheryl was enthusiastic when he told her he had begun to take up the game himself, regarding tennis as excellent therapy for his problem, but as he became more involved, as he began to change his hours at the shop to have his afternoons free, her enthusiasm waned. She grew irritated when he worked late, resented having to wait dinner for him and having her evenings disrupted. She thought he was being selfish when he told her he would be working late every night. Unable to comprehend his interest in the courts, she accused him of finding another woman. He scoffed at the accusation, insisting he simply enjoyed going to the tennis courts in the same way some people enjoy going to the beach, and invited her to accompany him some afternoon. She refused as she had done before then demanded that he stop going to the courts and return to his regular hours at the shop.

"Why?" he asked, confused. "You were the one who wanted me to get out of the house and find something to occupy my free time."

"And now I want you to stop, Nicholas."

"You're behaving as if I've done something wrong. I've done nothing wrong. I've done only what you wanted."

"I don't want you to go there anymore. Is that too much to ask?"

"Yes," he said stubbornly. "It is too much if there is no reason for me to stop."

Glowering, she stalked out of the living room and said not another word about the courts for that week, then one night when he got home he found on the dining room table a letter from her asking him to leave. He tried to tell her she was acting foolishly over such a trivial matter, but she refused to listen to him so he left as she had asked. Their marriage had been troubled for some time although neither of them wished to admit it, preferring to attribute their difficulties to his drinking, but after he became so absorbed in the park and finally stopped drinking, their own problems surfaced. Certainly he was not more fond of the park than he was of his wife, it was irrelevant except that it helped him to overcome his drinking, which he admitted now had been the only thing keeping their marriage together these past few years.

Approaching his apartment, he also admitted how much he missed her, but he knew that their marriage could only have continued if his problem had continued. Without it, Cheryl would have left him, just as, in a sense, he had always left her when he was drinking.


Stepping out of the far court after playing a set of doubles with a young Filipino nurse as his partner, Cady bent over the water fountain, soaking his wrists in the cold water. The sun was blistering this afternoon. He thought that things might even begin to melt and drop from the sky if it grew any warmer.

Karen, one of his opponents, stood behind him, her arms sparkling with sweat. "Here, slugger," she said, handing him a wadded dollar bill. "Your winnings."

"You know how much it pains me to take money from poor young nurses."

"Sure it does."

He chuckled. "It does."


"Excuse me, mister."

Cady looked over his shoulder and saw the peculiar little woman he had often seen shuffling through the park with a broken parasol which she used as a walking stick. She was standing by the water fountain, holding a key in her wrinkled hands.

"Did you lose a key?" she asked, smiling.


Her smile simmered. "You know what they say, 'Man who loses his key gets no new key.'" Then she continued on, shivering with laughter over the inane remark.

He watched her descend a narrow path that led into the forest, suddenly feeling chill as he pictured himself as that woman, some day, walking aimlessly through the park. It was something that his uncle was afraid of, a prophecy that Cheryl was convinced would happen to him eventually. Anxiously he looked away from the woman, not wishing to let that future into his head.


Hassan won the first set easily, six games to two, after breaking him early, and in the second set he did not lose a game. He hardly broke a sweat. He was serving very well, Cady conceded, but not well enough to defeat him as easily as he did. Whatever Cady tried, failed, making him feel like a novice again. Frustrated, he became furious, pounding his racquet across the netcord and snapping at some of his friends who stood at courtside. The trouble was he could not seem to concentrate on the match, he was forever seeing in his mind his future as that pathetic woman wandering in the park. However hard he tried to rid her from his thoughts, she continued to appear, suddenly, emphatically, like the tennis balls Hassan was blasting back at him across the net.


Dejected, Cady dropped his racquet on the grass and dropped down next to it, lying on his side. A warm breeze moved through the trees, another whisper in the back of his mind, seemingly. He clamped his ears with his hands. He had heard voices all afternoon, he ruminated, familiar voices he had been unable to silence. He wondered if perhaps they were right after all, if he should stop coming to the park every afternoon and resume his old hours at the shop.

Despite these concerns, he returned the next afternoon, wandering in and out of the five courts, playing whomever he could find. He enjoyed himself too much at the park to stay away, not only playing tennis but meeting all the people he had become friends with there. Sometimes he felt as if he were really aboard a cruise ship floating away the afternoon with some of the most amiable and considerate people he had ever met. He knew he could never stay away from the courts, not even for an afternoon, regardless of the doubts that occasionally slid into his thoughts.


Behind, Cady lifted the scuffed ball into the sun and leaned into the serve, driving it down the middle. Josh, his opponent, a former high school player who had been weaned on tennis lessons, returned the serve with a solid backhand directly at him. Cady, on his heels, sliced a short volley over the net. Josh smashed the ball, and Cady smashed it back, deep into the corner. Lunging, Josh snapped a weak backhand, and the ball ticked the tape and dropped over, giving him the match.

"You made me work," Josh admitted, standing at the net.

Cady wiped a wristband across his gleaming forehead. "Not hard enough, chum. You won."

"Maybe not, but you were there rattling at the gate."

Grimacing, Cady sat down in the shade, took off his shoes and socks, and cooled his feet on the cool, crisp grass. Naturally he was disappointed about losing the match but not discouraged. On the contrary, he was rather pleased with his strong play against such a fine player, believing that he had redeemed himself after the feeble effort against Hassan the other afternoon.

Too tired to budge, he considered staring as Josh often did after losing a close match. He would sit for as long as twenty minutes sometimes, staring at a tennis ball, convinced this would improve his concentration. Then Cady smiled to himself, deciding even he had not become that much of a fanatic about tennis, and lay back and closed his eyes.


The party was to celebrate the engagement between Ralph and Marian, an occasional player Cady had introduced to Ralph. At first, they were going to be married on center court since that was where they met, but then Marian changed her mind and wanted to have a church wedding, so they decided to have their engagement party on the court. In addition to the bright floodlights that shone down on the court, some Chinese lanterns had been strung along the sides of the fence. Silver and blue streamers also had been strung through the net in elaborate bows. A buffet table had been set up at the baseline, dominated in the center by a glittering glass punchbowl. The center court was swarming with people, only a few of whom were not players in the afternoon.

Polly, as Cady knew she would, found him straightaway, clinging to him from the moment she arrived. If he had been hiding in one of the surrounding fir trees, he had not the slightest doubt that she still would have found him. She was one of the most insistent and possessive persons he had been around since his divorce.

"Let's dance," she urged, after someone had turned on the radio in his car and "Moonlight Drive" blared through the night.

"There's no room."

"We'll make room."

She then swung away from him and slid under his arm, holding out the hem of her flowered sundress, and together they spun through the crowd. A few other couples also began dancing as the music softened into some Sinatra, and Cady felt a little less self-conscious but still was relieved when Hassan cut in on him a minute later.

He walked over to the buffet table where he poured himself a glass of punch then stepped outside the court and leaned against the fence and watched Polly dance with Hassan. They made an attractive couple he thought, each tall and slender with long licorice-colored hair, and he wondered if perhaps he should bring them together as he had Ralph and Marian. It would be easier than continuing to try to evade Polly every afternoon, certainly easier than one day having to tell her that he did not wish to see her again. They had spent some time together a couple of months ago, went out to dinner a few times, even drove down to the coast one weekend, but as far as he was concerned that was in the past. Since his divorce, he had spent similar evenings with other women he met on the courts, most of whom had regarded them as casually as he did, but Polly was like Marian, taking his intentions much more seriously than he had intended, so he supposed now he would have to find her someone as he had for Marian or else she would never leave him alone. He was fond of Polly, but he had no wish to become involved with her or with anyone in the foreseeable future. For the time being, he preferred to keep his distance, still tormented by the dissolution of his marriage.

Hearing someone scream in frustration, Cady turned around and observed two young men playing in the north court, wishing to himself he were there with them instead of standing out here in the shadows. Also there he knew should be Cheryl, locked in his arms, slowly swirling across the gritty asphalt surface. The losses he suffered playing tennis were almost meaningless to him, just part of the competition that everyone who played experienced, but his marriage was quite another matter. It was suppose to endure, despite all the troubles it encountered, and he still had a difficult time accepting its collapse.

When Cheryl threatened to leave him if he persisted in going to the courts in the afternoon, he remembered, she accused him of not being responsible, not acting his age. She ridiculed all the time he spent there, referring to him as a child in a sandbox. He had dismissed her accusations angrily then, but now he wondered if there was not some truth in what she said, realizing how ridiculous he appeared to his uncle for instance. Sometimes he wondered to himself if he did not begin drinking because he was unable to cope with the responsibilites that he had acquired as a married man. He did not know really, suspecting such an explanation was too simple for such a complicated problem, although he admitted to himself now that he was relieved to be without such responsibilities for a while. Indeed, he could hardly wait for tomorrow when he would be back out here playing all afternoon.

Ground Strokes
© 2006 by T.R. Healy



About the Author

T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. His stories have appeared in such online publications as The Circle, Ken Again, Skive, and Verbsap.


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