- Ted & Debbie (Photographers)
I’m in Ojai with Henry with some of his Pali High tennis team members and coach. We’re staying at the Hummingbird Inn room #1. My newly washed car is parked 12 feet from where I’m writing this. Henry lost in the 1st round yesterday. As he was walking on the court before the match he turned around and told me sheepishly, “Dad, I kinda don’t want you watching my match today.” I said no problem, drove away and treated my Volvo to the best car wash this side of the Mississippi.
I drive back to Henry’s match. In the parking lot his coach and 2 team members are watching Henry play. I know he split sets 0-6, 6-3, I got a text at the car wash. He’s hitting the ball well and moving around the court with the air of a winner. His opponent is talking to himself and whacking the ball into the backstop after a blown shot. I ask one of his team mates what the score is and he says, “I don’t know, we just got here.” His coach yells to Henry while holding up his hands and wagging his fingers in sort of a universal “What’s the score?” sign language. Henry holds up 2 fingers then 5 fingers. He’s losing and his opponent is now serving for the match. Game over, they shake hands and Henry comes over to us. He’s not upset. He says he played a really good match. His coach tells him that this is the best he’s ever seen him play, you seem to be getting used to your new strings and considering the kids higher ranking…
Coach says it’s time for the best burritos in California. Henry tries to sit in the back seat of my car, something he always does when he doesn’t want to talk. I tell him to get up front; you’re bigger then me. He sits next to me and asks, “Hey dad, did you get your car washed?”
Later that night, Henry is in bed. He has ESPN turned down low on the t.v, just how I like it. We hear a chirping sound coming from the bathroom. He asks me what that sound is. I tell him it’s a cricket. “How do they make that sound?” he asks. “With their legs I think.” I’m basing my answer from ‘A Cricket in Times Square and Pinocchio. We say goodnight and go to sleep to it’s song. In the morning, it’s leaf blower day here at the Hummingbird, next to the desk on the floor in our room I look down and see a cricket with one leg. His other leg is next to him but he’s still alive. I think of the cricket from last night and how can I help him now. How did he lose his leg? I take his picture and gently pick him up and put him in a safe place behind my surfboard propped in the corner.
Dinner is over. There’s confusion about clearing the table, doing the dishes, taking out the trash, covering the fish so the raccoons don’t eat them, doing the counters and sweeping the floors. The arguing takes more time then the actual chores. Simon asks Debbie, “when you die can I have your jewelry?” He wants to keep them in a box to remember her by. There’s was something so sweet, honest but brutal in his question.
Silently, Sam walks in the front door. He’s been playing tennis and he smells. His spring break from Grinnell is almost over. His visits have been almost ghostlike, appearing and disappearing at times in Jacob Marley fashion as he jingles my Volvo keys and puts them on top of the green cabinet. I’m envious of his recent hauntings of coffee shops, record stores and restaurants. I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to miss Sam when he went off to college and having him back for this break sometimes makes me stop and think to myself “are you really here?” There’s a sense of dread as the day he has to go back to college approaches.
On the way to the airport, we talk about surfing baseball and coffee. I ask him if the front breaks were squeaking when he drove the car yesterday. He says, “no, not really.” It’s small talk but really part of the bigger picture. His leaving creates an imbalance and emptiness inside of me that’s hard to pinpoint. It’s like losing a limb but seeing that limb hanging out of the window of a car going by in the opposite direction on the freeway.
The GPS exiled to the glove compartment, its touch screen cracked from too heavy fingers, I wind my way out of Minneapolis towards Mankota in the south to watch Sam play tennis. I somehow end up on a scenic byway, a frontage road. Questioning my confidence, I start asking people along the route if I’m going the right way.
Smelling of scallions, two farmers confirm that I am going the right way, “Stay on this road, and you’ll pass through Le Sueur, St. Peter and you’ll run right into Mankota.”
Relieved by this information, I head back down the road. On my left a peaceful lake reflects a line of trees showing their fall colors while the soon to be Harvest Moon peeks over their tops. I drive on and pass through Le Sueur. On my right the sun is just about down and I pull over to watch.
Duck going where ducks go, their quacking reminds me of the father swan in E.B. Whites’ “The Trumpet of the Swan” whose driven sense of paternal duty forces him to crash through a music store window to purloin a trumpet so that his silent son Louis can communicate with the girl swans. I think of Sam who just texted me that their bus is “somewhere in Minnesota. Probably around 30 mins from the hotel.” I respond, “have u eaten?” “We ate back at school.” The ducks fly into the sunset as I make my way south through the central time zone to my Mankota motel.
I pull up to the courts the next morning and look for Sam amongst the grunts and squeaks coming from the mouths of young men and their tennis shoes. Sam appears out of nowhere and I give him a hug. He feels skinny under his Grinnell sweats but it’s really great to see him. Sam wins his first match 6-4, 6-2 and we go to lunch afterwards. We both have BLT’s and talk about school, his brothers, and baseball. After lunch we go to a thrift store across the street where we rummage through cardboard boxes filled with old vinyl. I get John Lennons’ “Imagine” and Sam finds “Surrealistic Pillow” by the Jefferson Airplane. We both score nice copies of “Abbey Road” too at a great price.
Sam loses his next match to a senior from the host school Augustus. A Division 3 powerhouse who takes tennis quite seriously. I meet Sams’ coach, Coach Hamilton and we talk about the match, Sam and Grinnell. He’s a good guy, a players coach, and I’m glad Sam will have his presence for the next few years.
As the sun starts to go down the tournament moves indoors to “The Bubble” as many indoor courts are referred to. A white inflatable arena smelling of stale recycled air, B.O. and bratwurst. It’s noisy and rowdy in “the bubble”. The quiet rooting approach of USTA tennis obviously doesn’t apply here in division 3 with team members and coaches loud, boisterous, and supportive. I ask Sam if he wants to stay in my room tonight since there are two twin beds. He says yes because one of his teammates is doubled up in a twin bed. Sam makes his way down to the bleacher next to a Grinnell match and he blends in with the rest of the red and black team colors. Sam is done for the night so I tell him that I’ll see him later in our room.
He gets in after 11:00pm. I got ESPN on- my background noise when I’m in hotels. Sam takes a shower and goes for a team meeting in his pjs. He gets back, turns on his nightstand light and opens up the copy of “Game of Thrones” which he has been reading since last spring.
Sams’ familiar alarm rings at 6:30 the next morning and I fall into my familiar mantra of, “Sam, your alarm is going off!” I tell him i’ll see him at courts soon after I’ve had a decent cup of coffee.
I watch Sam lose a heartbreak doubles match which they were ahead 5-3 but eventually lost in a tiebreak. He played really well, his serves were big and accurate but the match just seemed to slip away. Immediately after this Sam is warming up another Grinnell doubles team about to play and coach Hamilton asks me to drive down to the team bus to get some Gatorade with another player. When we get back one of the Grinnell players, Jimmy, has a cramp in his thigh and is on the bench in serious pain. Coach Hamilton gets a trainer and asks me a to stay with Jimmy so he can watch another match. While the trainer gives Jimmy a massage, I muster of words of encouragement like “hang in there buddy” “breath deep” and “you’re going to be ok” Jimmy loses the next game along worth the match and I pat him on the back, and tell him “You did great Jimmy, get some Gatorade and ice your thigh.”
I find Sam warming up his teammates wearing his Where the Hell is Grinnell t-shirt. Coach Hamilton is there and he thanks me for all the help and I tell him it was my pleasure. I tell him I’m going to head on back to Minneapolis and we shake hands. Sam walks away with me and I tell him I’m going to take off. We hug goodby and I give him a few bucks to buy some records with. Sam walks into the bubble with a bunch of his teammates and I make my way back to my rental car. Driving back alone, retracing unfamiliar landscapes of plains and prairie, thinking how great it was to see Sam, but thinking how hard it is to leave him.
It’s been awhile. I’ve got some catching up to do. There’s 12th Night dinner at Logan’s house, the 8th grade field trip to Little Tokyo and Henry’s pin hole camera project. But let’s start with the present and see where it goes.
Another restless night getting past the bad stuff that the flu brings. It’s been a rough few days since getting back from Indian Wells to watch some great tennis and see Theo and Henry work the event as ball kids. The minute I stepped in the house to check on the boys asleep upstairs I was greeted by Ollie sitting up in bed crying, “I’m dizzy.” I bring out the barf bucket at ready which in our house is the large turquoise Tupperware we keep stored under the kitchen sink. The details are blurry but let’s just say I ended up on the downstairs bathroom floor at 3:45 in the morning three days later.
It’s now early Sunday morning and it’s windy and dark outside because of Daylight Savings Time. I don’t know at this point why or who is saving all the daylight and for what reason; Something about trains or farmers. I think of old Paul Strand and O. Winston Link photos. Santa Monica Big Blue Buses are going by outside on 11th street. It’s not their normal route but then I remember today is the LA Marathon. I get out of bed thinking I can barely make it to the couch let alone 26 miles. I try to stretch but it’s not easy. I’ve had all the usual symptoms; throwing up, dizziness, nausea, fever, chills, coughing; pretty much all the adverse side effects of Viagra without the 4 hour erection. My dreams have been ultra vivid, merging in and out of reality like a Murakami novel. I’m not sure if this is due to the flu, the Nyquil or the fact that I’m reading a Murakami novel.
“Why did you cut my toast like this?” Simon whines. He’s on the verge of tears. This morning I cut the toast the way my mom and dad used to cut my toast- “Like an airplane,” they used to say. “It’s cut like an airplane,” I say to Simon as I take a piece and fly it around his head making airplane sounds. I even throw a round of gunfire sounds for the true effect. The weaponry brings a slight smile to his face as he takes a bite of his toast.
We are all running late this morning. Simon is the only one dressed and at the breakfast table. Ollie is dressed but rummaging outside in his tennis bag (always a bad sign) for money because it’s his 1st day of swim class after school and he wants to be sure he has cash for the vending machines. It’s 7:30- Â Simon’s and Ollie’s carpool is here already. I help Simon with his socks and shoes and get them out the door.
Back inside, Debbie is folding laundry and there are 3 different alarm clocks going off upstairs.Â Theo, Henry, and Sam are still in bed each in their various stages of waking up or sleep. There’s a piece of “airplane” toast left on Simon’s plate. I take a bite, this time without the airplane sounds.
Later on that day I am dropping Sam off at his high school tennis practice. He says, “Just drop me off at the corner.” I ask him, “Don’t you want me to drive down the hill and drop you off closer to the courts?” He says, “No, this way you don’t have to make a u-turn. I don’t mind walking.” He gets out of the car and walks down the hill. I watch him from the top of the hill and he’s greeted by a couple of his teammates down below. On my drive back home (after I pulled off a u-turn) I roll down the widow and stick my hand out the window and pretend it’s an airplane.