<p R O S>

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P R O S


by Larry Stark

16 September, '96
12:41 p m

P R O S

"Hey Wash! Would you hit with me? Please?"

"Okay. What do you need?"

"Let's do some serves okay?"

"Whatever you need. I'll start."

She didn't need the "Please." She didn't even have to make it a question. Tanya Rodriguez' father had owned the country club since she was four, and Washington Lincoln Irvings --- tall, Black, and a week into his nineteenth year ---was one of the club's pros, paid to coach, to teach, and to play with the members --- in the hope of improving their play.

Wash started out with an easy, looping serve within her reach, but Tanya pounced on it, banging a hard, flat return that Wash had to stretch to get and charging the net right behind it. Wash dropped back to feed her fast passing-shots, but she didn't rattle. Her returns cut the corners, moved him around, and neatly wrong-footed him for a clean winner he had no hope of reaching.

"Hey, you've come a long way since last summer! What you been doin' all winter up in Vermont?"

"Squash."

"Really?"

"What else, when all the courts were under eight inches of snow by Thanksgiving?"

Her own serve went to his back-hand, but he saw it coming and attacked her own back-hand as she charged in behind her serve to try a wide cross-court volley that he merely blocked to stop the hit. His own serve went deep, with more steam, but she returned easily, and picked off his try at a corner-shot with a short drop- volley on her approach.

"You coming in on every point?" Wash asked.

"Dad says a great net-game's in our genes," she replied, putting more steam on her own serve. "Besides, what do you think a winter of squash was for?"

"You any good at it?"

"Naah," she laughed. "I played like a tennis-nut! But I learned a lot of new angles a ball can come at you. Now I think I need to do some doubles, for the net-game --- " She paused to crouch for Wash's next serve, this time a solid crease down the center-line that she got to, but banged into the net. "Damn! But first I've got to get these damn returns down! You can't learn anything with that serving-machine!"

"You using it?"

She nodded. "Spent an hour a day with it last week, to try to build up my reaction-time. But it's a machine! You're not so predictable. Of course, you're not as powerful, either."

Wash halted his motion in mid-toss. "What did that mean?"

"I mean you've been tossing me puff-balls. I asked you to hit serves with me because you're the best player around the country- club, and I need your help. I've got a goal in mind for this summer, and I need to work. I want to get so I can return your Best Serve, not the lobs you've been tossing to me today."

"Okay," he snorted, smirking, "how's this?"

Piqued, he uncoiled a wicked one, but she was ready for it and rifled a return right at his left toe. Over-confident, he hadn't expected it, and it got away from him.

"Come ON, Wash! Don't treat me like a little girl anymore! I'm eighteen after all!"

"You'll be eighteen a week from Tuesday," Wash growled. "What's this all about anyway? What are you shooting at?"

"I decided by the end of August I'm gonna take Emmy-Lou."

Mrs. Emmy-Lou Trent, Lld., 26, had won the club's Members Tournament four years running.

"You think you're That grown-up?"

"She's ripe! I watched her all last year and she's gotten sloppy. She's the top so she doesn't have anything to push against anymore. And she's on top because she serves like a man! She hasn't lost a service-game in a year and a half --- but if I can break that serve I'll have a shot at her. And that's what I need You for! If I can return Your best serve I'll have her for lunch! But don't pamper me! Give me your first serve, just as if I was another guy. Please!"

"You asked for it, you got it Tanya!"

The whack of Wash's next serve echoed across the whole club, but faster though it was Tanya got to it, though with a clean, flat, uncertain forehand that Wash whipped cross-court for a winner.

"That your BEST first-serve, Wash?" Tanya sneered, "Or just the one you give my Dad once a month? Don't hold back on me, damn it!" She glared at him a moment and then said, evenly, "Let me see your best."

And he did. His toss remained the same, but his whole motion thereafter sharpened, concentrated. The serve rifled over the net and sliced the centerline so clean and so fast Tanya barely saw it. The ball thwacked into the backstop almost as loudly as other people's first-serves elsewhere on the courts.

Frozen, astonished, Tanya blinked and swallowed, hard, and then turned to him.

"Was that a new ball?"

Wash shook his head. "Just the first ball I got my hands on."

"I knew it!" she whispered, staring at him. "Do it again."

And he did. The ball cut the line in exactly the same spot with exactly the same speed. Tanya lunged, and got her racket on it, but that was all.

"Again!" she screamed, bouncing, crouching, and swaying from foot to foot in furious anticipation.

And he did it again, clean and pure as a metronome. She lanced back, getting to and under the ball, but golfed into the bottom of the net.

"Again!"

She had the range this time, and just enough timing to get to it, but all her effort resulted in was a bloopie little moon-ball that lobbed like a hot-air balloon just across the net and bounced high and invitingly back into the air again.

"Hah! I'm getting it. Again!"

"Tanya, I think.. "

"Again damn it! I'll get it. I've got to push off quicker is all. Hit me again!"

She was in motion almost as he tossed this time, and the serve came with the same blistering smoke, but instead of cutting the center-line it knifed behind her half an inch from the outside line.

"Hey! No Fair!!! I was just getting the rhythm! Hit me again!"

"I've run out of balls," he insisted, reaching for his racket-cover. "You think Emmy-Lou's just another serving-machine who'll just hit the same shot over and over until you pick it apart? She's not dumb, you know. You don't need drills like this, not right now. Come on, you need something else."

And he strode off, swift and determined, tall and lean and dark-skinned in his tennis whites, while Tanya scampered to catch him and keep up. She had the pale skin of her Russian mother, but her body was a compact, nervous, bandy-legged copy of her Puerto Rican father's.

"Where you taking me?"

"You'll see. What made you think you're ready to take Emmy- Lou?"

"I've got the legs for it. I started winning last summer, when my growth came."

"How?"

"I just ran down every point. None of the women Ever run down a point. Neither does she. She just serves those winners and those aces and bides her time, and once she's up a break it's a 4-4 match at the worst. And even if she's bored and drops a set now and then she serves-out two sets to one. But if I crack that serve and bounce up to the net right in her face she'll rattle. And once I break her serve and she can't hide behind the artillery we're back to square one and I have a chance! Oh, she'll be So shocked when someone breaks her!"

"Well, maybe not so shocked as you hope."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean she was sitting pool-side with a g & t in one hand and her cellular phone in the other until she heard you mention her name.... "

"Oh, shit... "

"...and the drink and the phone went down on the table... "

"Oh, shit!"

" ...until she heard enough. And I bet the numbers she dialed right after that was, first a good coach, and second a gym specializing in workouts."

"Oh Shit!"

"But I think you can take her."

"You DO?"

He nodded. "But you're thinking too much. You've got to stop that."

"Dad says he's thinking all the time."

"Bullshit. It's not HIM thinking, it's his Body thinking. See the ball, make the shot. Act. Then think after. If you go into it expecting to Think your way past her she'll have You for lunch."

"Then what do you suggest? You want me sitting ZaZen all summer, oh all-seeing guru?"

"Spend an hour a day in here," he said, unlocking the door to an enclosure. They went in and down a set of stairs to a sunken court surrounded by high, protective walls.

"What is this place? I've never been here before."

"Nobody comes here much anymore," Wash said, unlocking a closet and fiddling with something as he talked. "I don't much either anymore, but when I came I spent an hour a day out here for a month. That's what you should do. Here." He spun around holding a loaded single-barrel shot-gun out toward Tanya, a stack of what looked like shiny black coasters, or shallow flower-pots in his other hand.

"What's this for?"

"You're gonna shoot some skeet."

"Shoot what?"

"Clay pigeons. Here, when I tell you click this safety off with your thumb. Put the bead up front down into this vee and move it a little ahead of the bird and pull the trigger. Ready? Pull!"

He turned and flung a little black flying-saucer up into the air while Tanya aimed and blasted away. The bird frisbee'd to the wall and shattered itself in a cloud of black dust and fragments.

"Work this lever for another shell, and try again. Pull!"

Again she shot and nothing.

"Don't shoot where it is, shoot where it Will Be! First move with its path, then shoot. Pull!"

This time a little puff of dust came from the clay as it flew.

"You're getting it. Swing with the bird, only lead a little more. Once you get it, you'll know. You've got to learn to feel it. Pull!"

The bird sailed a little longer this time, and then exploded in mid-air.

"I did it!"

"See? Now you know how! Again. Pull!"

This time there was dust and fragments, but no solid explosion.

"You were a little low that time, but you're getting it. Now try two birds."

"How do I do that?"

"I'll throw one, then another. You pick off the first, reload, and get the second. Try it. Pull! Pull!"

Tanya shot, worked the lever, and shot again.

"I did it! I got both of them!"

"Well, you winged both of them at least. You learn fast. Here, when you come you'll have to use this sling." Wash yanked the arm of a squat little machine back, and cocked it against its spring, then put a pigeon in place on the arm. "You point the gun up about there, then step on this peddle here. Try it."

When Tanya stepped on it the arm snapped around and flung the bird high into the air where it exploded.

"Hey, that's fun!"

"You can try it by yourself tomorrow morning," Wash said, cocking the sling and putting two birds on the arm. Then he took the gun. "Once you think you're getting good, stand with the gun down and your back to the sling like this, and then when you step on the peddle... "

Wash stepped, and as the two birds slung into the air he whirled, putting the gun to his shoulder and, blast-reload-blast, shot the two birds out of the sky.

"You should be able to break most of them that way in two, three weeks, if you work every day at it." He snapped the safety on, broke the magazine to extract what few shells remained, then stowed the gun and locked it away, explaining "That's enough instruction. You can take it from here yourself." As they left he locked the door behind them and handed Tanya the keys. "Don't loose these. If anyone wants to shoot --- which no one does --- I'll hunt you up for them. We can go back to civilization now."

They walked a little slower this time, and Tanya asked:

"What's this skeet-shooting supposed to do for me?"

"If you work up to two birds, like I showed you, it'll help break you of thinking."

"Thanks!"

"You're instincts were right about squash. You've got all the equipment; now you have to making using it all instinctive. You're going to have to raise the level of your game, so your body thinks for you. But that'll come."

After a small silence Tanya asked, "When do you think I'll be ready to take her?"

"Oh, end of July you'll be beating her regularly."

"Oh, wow!"

"I thought you were about ready the end of last summer. You're right about running down every point. She's too overconfident to do that. Maybe a little overweight, too. But you're also right about that serve. Take that away from her, charge into the net returning her serves, and run down every ground-stroke and she'll be lunch by August. Sooner if you work at it."

Wash plodded calmly on, as Tanya silently glowed beside him.

"You know, with that serve of yours and me at the net, I bet we'd make a dynamite doubles team! And it would sharpen up my net- game... "

"Your net-game's in your genes, I heard a wise person say today. Oh, we can try it a couple times if you really want," he shrugged, "but I don't need doubles anymore. And you don't need them, either. You're not a little girl anymore." He glanced over at her, not breaking his stride. "You'll turn eighteen a week from Tuesday."

"How did you find out when my birthday was?"

"Oh, I don't know. Sometimes I just let my mind sit ZaZen when I have something else to think about. You'd be surprised what bits of useless information you pick up while you're not thinking."

"Were you thinking of giving me a birthday present?"

"Wouldn't that be presumptuous, from hired help like me? Why? What sort of present would you want from me?"

She stared back into his quizzical gaze and said "Show Dad that best-serve of yours."

"What, and lose my job? He pays me to lounge around the club here, and play with anyone who asks, on whatever level their game is. And I'm good. People never, ever lose by more than a point or two, or a set or two, and damn few ever win against me. And usually they learn something, about themselves, or about the game. But they don't pay my salary, and your dad does. I really like your dad, and every time I play him I learn something about My game. He doesn't need to learn any more about my game than he knows already."

"Fine," she shrugged. "Anyway, I guess it was presumptuous of me to expect a present, from hired help."

"Hey Tanya, where you been?" Stacia Remsburg, plump, blonde, and stuffed into designer whites, bubbled up to the pair. "I been looking all over for you! Hit with me a while, will you? I need a workout before I play my cousin. Eeouugh! What's happened to your hair!"

Tanya combed her fingers through her hair and stared at them.

"Eeouugh!"

Wash laughed. "That's coal-dust! That's what those pigeons are made of."

"Oh, gross!"

"Stacia, I need a shower, fast! Besides, I'm a little tired. I've had quite a workout of my own lately. Thank you for the keys, Wash. And the lessons. I really learned something. About my game; and about myself, too. I'll see you around the club, I guess. Maybe we can hit a little again, some other time."

"Any time you'd like, Tanya," Wash said, softly, to her proud, retreating back.

"Oh, Wash, then would you hit with me a while? Please?"

"Why, of course I will, Miss Remsburg," Wash said, turning toward her. "What do you need?"

2:29 a m "Monday, 16 September"
Break!


Tuesday, 17 September, '96 1445 hours (2:45 p m)

Monday became "Peppy Day" at the country-club. The owner, at 37, seemed to have changed not one whit since he'd retired from professional tennis at the age of 24. "Peppy" Rodriguez, rather than a workaholic, was a restless vesuvius of energy. The scamper and bounce and sheer exuberant pleasure of the moment which was his style on the courts had always been his style everywhere. Half the world's sports-writers believed his first name was "Pepe"; the rest knew Joaquin Rodriguez had always been called "Peppy" for obvious reasons.

His family came to the States when he was nine, and Peppy learned tennis on the concrete courts of the Bronx. His great "gets" were legendary, and a dozen courtside photographers had lost expensive cameras because Peppy, his eye on the ball, tripped over them.

Winning or losing, Peppy enjoyed himself, and his fame actually exceeded his record. Often a Grand Slam finalist, often champion in the boonies, he played everywhere, all year, apparently for the mere joy of playing, for the fun of his honest, ebullient, exaggerated-accented interviews before and after games.

Tennis and money were games Peppy was naturally gifted at and refused to take seriously. Prizes and endorsements and ads filled his coffers, and cigars and silly bets and and a string of Youth Tennis Clubs in inner-city slums emptied them again for the six years he bounced across the pro tours.

But when he retired at the birth of his son the restless focus of his life turned on other aspects of the same world. "h'I deeden' queet tennis," he insisted, "h'I jos' queet getten' Paid for eet!" --- which was about as true as anything else Peppy said. He ran three sporting-goods stores, and built a seedy North Jersey country-club into a plush, lucrative tourist- attraction that boosted profits from the local hotel in which Peppy had shares, and hosted an annual tournament professionals enjoyed and took seriously.

Peppy never handled money, he spent it; but the managers he hired handled more and more of it every year. Peppy insisted the country-club's losses were paid by the stores, and the stores' losses were paid by the country-club, but profits from all of them fueled a Youth Tennis Foundation that sent ghetto and barrio kids to half a dozen camps every summer --- where Peppy Rodriguez hit with them, and changed a lot of their lives. He had changed Washington Lincoln Irvings' life in exactly that way.

He treated his scattered businesses like a miniature tennis- circuit, bouncing capriciously into enterprises to "hit" with cashiers and buyers and secretaries and managers as he came upon them, joking, questioning, skewering pomposity and spattering suggestions for improvements that never sounded like orders.

But once every week, never when expected, he was back at his home and his club, sometimes hitting with a visiting professional, or shooting fashion ads, or launching signature sports-equipment, or whipping some uppity millionaire's ass on his private, personal grass-court while keeping his patsy in hysterics of laughter.

But he came also to enjoy his own country-club, from its bars and restaurants and pools and gyms to its pros. Once every month, and never when expected, each of the staff would be called to that sacred, coddled, manicured grass-court for a match that kept them constantly on their toes and demonstrated that Peppy Rodriguez never quit playing professional-level tennis, he just quit getting paid to play it.

And Monday it became Wash's turn.

It was already past mid-afternoon when the unpredictable, peripatetic Puerto Rican called out to him "hOkay Hodshod! jYou'hwan'show me hwa you learn' een school today?"

"Always a pleasure to hit with you, Peppy!"

He collected four cans of new balls, a pile of fresh towels and two bottles of imported barley-water, and followed his boss to the sacred grove.

Peppy's court was in a secluded corner of the grounds, sleekly green as a grass-covered billiard table, pressed and rolled and pampered and manicured by a gardener who spent more time on it than players did. Peppy insisted he never won "Weemble-eDeen" because, by the time he got to Centre Court in the quarters or the semis the grass had been ruined by all the more famous "burros y borrachos" who had no respect for fast turf. They said he bought the club just so he could build himself a court like this.

Peppy won the toss, and despite the inevitable surprises any game with Gonzales offered, the match unfolded predictably. After a whole year each had shown and seen all their strengths and weaknesses. They probed and feinted, pressed and experimented, tested, stretched, but inevitably each player took a set, Peppy then Wash, and as the sun stretched long shadows across the court Peppy served for the deciding set.

Each held until Peppy broke Wash in the fourth game with a series of cross-court corner shots that kept him running and never gave him time to plan a combination. The exultant "old eMan" held for 4-1 in a fifth game full of long rally-stroked points in which both players seemed determined to clip the base-lines and wait the other out. Then they changed ends and towelled off and rinsed and sprawled for a ritual minute, and Wash clipped a quick series of face-to-face net duels that had them collapsed with laughter at all the unpredictable ricochettes and drops and dinks. Wash held, barely, but was down 2-4.

"Hey, keep it down you two!" came a call from the fence. "The bar-tenders can't hear the orders with all this racket going on!"

It was Tanya, newly showered and dressed for dinner, who came through the gate. "You guys got vodka in the barley-water? You're having too much fun! Can I watch?"

"Ah, no!" Peppy pontificated, "No leetel gurl'sallowed! Thees ees a duel to de deat! Man to Man! Mano a mano!"

"Then if this is such a solemn duel you need a referee."

"Wee don'need no steeenkin referees! But maybee you play de muchacha de pelotas, eh?"

"Daad! I'll be eighteen tomorrow!"

"You need to exerciss you' legs! 'Member I tol' you: AllhWays ron down every boll!"

"Well, hurry it up. It's getting dark, and you promised me dinner."

"hOkay, muchacha. Firs' I wheep hees ass, den I take you bot for eSteakes de Julio! New Balls, Wash!"

But after Peppy jumped ahead to love-30 the game seemed to tighten perceptibly. Wash fought back to deuce, before losing it. Then it was his serve, and each point became a tensely precise duel. It went to deuce, to advantage Wash, to deuce again before Wash took it with two long, determined, no-quarter points with each man, shot by shot, playing clean, textbook tennis.

But such games are wearing. Peppy double-faulted twice in the ninth and when Wash switched to dinks and lobs he threw the older man completely off-stride and broke back to 5-4 and his serve.

Tanya had collected over a dozen balls and stood silently watching, feeding them balls when necessary without a word. Wash served and won and Peppy served and won, but both were breathing hard when Wash's last shot clipped the net and bounced on the wrong side for Peppy to hold for 6-5.

"Guys, this is going on all night!" Tanya called to the puffing pair. "I can hardly see anymore! Let's finish it up tomorrow morning."

"hWan more game an' I got heem, muchacha. Firs' I break heem, den we eat. hOkay, Hodshod! Geemee your Bes' Shot!"

In the thickening twilight, Tanya fed him a ball and Wash looked at her an instant, and then he gave it to him --- smooth and hard and laser-clean straight down the center-line.

Peppy lunged, but saw it was gone. "Oh, hYou lokee Bassard!" he beamed. "Lemme see you do dad agayn!"

And Wash did, from the other court. Again Peppy broke for it, but saw it was too late. Tanya whispered "Thirty-love" and fed another ball. Her father did get a racket on it, but it was no use. "Forty-love." The last ball clipped the line in exactly the same spot, but Peppy merely stared as it went by, and Tanya whispered "Six-all."

Peppy glared at the line, then glared at his daughter.

"You fed heem new balls!"

"No, Dad. They were just the best four I could find."

Peppy glared over at Wash.

"You coul' do dad agayn?"

"Yes."

"How many times you can do dad?"

"I've done nine in a row."

"An' fron' de far court?"

"Last week I got it up to five times once."

"You bin Tankin' on me! Laysie leet'l punk. Nobody tanks on Peppy Rodriguez, you hear, No one!!"

"Dad, he didn't mea.. "

"Laysie leet'l punk playin' country-club pro! Seetin' by de pool, playin' all de reech lawyerss, de reech doctorss, heetin' wid de reech wives, and Tankin' on de boss-man, hunh? Hunh? Well da's Over! hYou ain' playin' laysie country-club pro no more! Da's Over!"

"Daad!! You can't fire him!"

"Sir, I wasn't trying to... "

"Tomorrow morneen', eight-aclock sharp, you be Right Here! Unnastan?"

"Yessir."

"Firs', hwe gadda play dat seven-point tie-break; an' you play eet Full Out dis time, No Tanks! No more!"

"Yessir."

"An'den --- Den we breeng dat far-court serve of yours op to a steady nine een a row, right?"

"Right!"

"Den you go-daWork! An' I go-da work too. I queet playin' meester beegShot business-man; I queet preten' I'm steel de king of de professional circuit. I turn coach --- an' I work you ass off. Right?"

"Yessir!"

"He needs a good cross-court back-hand, Dad."

"Hah! Maybe you ged Two coaches for de price a hWon! hOkay, we got tree weeks to de Members' Tournament. You theenk you ween eet?"

"But I'm not a member of th.. "

"Ees My Club! You ween eet?"

"Easy."

"You a member tomorrow. Enda July we host de Pro-Am. You theenk you ween dat?"

"Depends who comes. Muster, no. Agassiz, no. Chang..."

"De beeg boys all tell me no."

"I'll give it my best shot."

"Dat's hright! Den, you got a good hard-courts game?"

"Peppy, I learned tennis in the Bronx!"

"So deed I! You theenk you qualify at The Open?"

"I... I don't know as I'm ready to.. "

Peppy pointed to the blurred center-line. "You do dis Nine Times and you don theenk you ready?"

"He'll be ready Dad."

"Den we see how far we can go, hOkay?"

"Yessir!"

"hOkay! Den less' go fine dem eSteaks!"

"Daddy you're wonderful!"

"Ah, my leet'l muchacha's eighteen tomorrow! You know hWa' we gonna geev you for you Bir'day present tomorrow, Tanya?"

"It won't matter what, Dad. I already got what I really wanted for my birthday. From both of you."

"Well, hEen dad case --- le'ss Eat!"

02:30 a m "Tuesday, 17 September"

Yes, there's no detail. Because it's not stories. It's the beginning of a television series. You know anybody at Fox, or W.B.?

Love, ===Anon.


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THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide

| MARQUEE | USHER | SEATS | INTERMISSION | CURTAIN |