Racquet

By Jackson Frons

Short Story

Tonight I will see Bonnie for the last time, but I don’t know it yet. We get together roughly once a month. We get drunk. We get high. We don’t have a ton to talk about, but she’s cool. We’re both downers, but she makes a lot of money. And I’m happy about seeing her. I’m happy that the early afternoon sun is out and that it finally feels like fall—cool crisp breeze, sky a vacant shade of blue like animated swimming pools.

I’m walking down Willoughby Avenue to work. I coach tennis in the park. I’m wearing a furry black sweater I stole from my dad. He stole it from a Norwegian television station. My beard is long. My hips hurt from running on cement 28 hours a week. My head buzzes from smoking too much pot last night. Most nights. I’m happy in a sad way. Like I know this is pretty great, the way I’m living, and I wish I could enjoy it more.

While walking, I picture my future self—slightly heavier, beginning to grey. Maybe marrying a person in the country on a lazy afternoon. Sitting with her in a living room reading the paper. Walking with her and not talking. Having a dog. Having a kid. Loving the kid. Staying up late discussing what’s best for the kid. Etc.

I always skip the middle part. Teaching tennis makes me tired. I want to see my friends. I want to have a drink. I want to kiss people. Next thing I know another week slips away. Nothing new. Nothing accomplished. I’m just an average guy with an average job grinding out a boring life.

And I don’t really even need to live like this. I could have a better job if I wanted. I went to a good college. I got decent grades. My parents are retired. I’ve got all the privileges. Some people even think my religion controls the media. But I like being thought of as someone who “works.” Someone who doesn’t “buy in” to the “bullshit.” Someone who keeps a paper card in his wallet that says “Democratic Socialists of America.”  But I’m still unhappy all the time.

I don’t mean to seem like a complainer. It feels good to make people better at something and I get to do that almost everyday. On a tennis court saying the right thing is simple. It’s not like trying to express a complex emotional experience. When I try that, I get clumsy. I say, “Uhh…like…you get me?” They never get me. I get quiet. I try to get a laugh. I don’t get that either. But out here it’s—drop the racquet, bring your shoulder out to me, turn and set, left arm up, imagine you’re hitting through a row of five balls, imagine your racquet flying into the back fence, breathe breathe breathe breathe breathe. Then everything is magic.

Like this last guy Ethan I just taught. I’m on break now, 15 minutes, then I’ve got the kids. Ethan isn’t a kid. Ethan’s probably thirty. He’s got a nice looking game, smooth strokes, topspin, expensive equipment. Ethan gets scared though. His shoulders tense up. His racquet slows down. The ball dribbles off his strings into the bottom of the net. “Ethan,” I say, “let go, breathe, drop your arm.”

“I get nervous,” Ethan says.

He’s got one of those quiet, almost mousy, voices. My voice is loud and sloppy. It booms, especially when I drink. I hate it. I say, “Speak up.” A siren wails.

“I’m nervous,” he says.

Behind him, kids in matching collared shirts are running down a hill. At the bottom is a boulder and next to the boulder is a bronze plaque. The kids climb on the boulder. The kids complain about their teachers. Dogs run up to the kids. Kids run up to the dogs. They spit all over each other. They mime airplane wings. They blow air through their lips to sound like propellers.

Ethan tells me that he doesn’t want to miss. I tell him he’s missing because he’s scared. He says he understands that intellectually but that anxiety isn’t a rational thing and he can’t help it.

“Tell me about it, buddy,” I say.

“I want you to like me,” he says.

“Ethan,” I say, “you’re paying me to be here. I have to like you.”

Ethan shakes his head like “you’re just saying that.”  

I feed the ball. He smacks it. It pocks off the court and clangs on the fence. Forehand backhand forehand backhand forehand. The balls crash around me. They thud on the basket. Whizz by my ear. He’s smiling and sweating. I feel good at my job and less like a self-absorbed-deadbeat-trash-person. The sun warms my skin. I’m not sweating. Before I know it, the hour is up and Ethan’s a fucking coward again. Who cares.

I’m in the bathroom waiting for this kid Max to piss. Actually, I’m outside the bathroom and he’s in the stall hopefully not pissing all over himself. There’s nobody in the ranger station and the camera only films the doorway to the bathroom and I don’t want anybody to think I’m touching this kid, so I stay right in its view. His mom went to walk the dog. That’s why I had to take him. The other kid, this kid who always shits himself, who bugs me even more than this kid, is waiting on the court with his mom. She’s probably pissed her kid isn’t getting his money’s worth, but fuck her kid. He always shits himself. I’m not getting paid enough to deal with that.

Max comes out of the bathroom looking proud. His eyes are huge. His face is that kind of cute you almost want to smash into oblivion. As we jog down the grassy hill, he trips on a root and bangs his knee. He starts crying. I didn’t notice his recklessness. I was too busy typing on my phone. I kneel down next to him. Tears pool in his giant eyes. They slide down his cheeks. His shoes are dusty and half off.

“How can I help you?” I say.

He goes: “I’m not hungry I’m not thirsty I’m not anything.”

I want to walk away, but I slide on his Spider-Man Velcro’s and fasten them tight. I grab him by the shoulders and say I’ll keep him safe from everything.

I take a Lyft home because it’s only four bucks and I’m tired. I write up what happened with Max. I’m dirty and I smell. I can’t wait to get home and shower. I can’t wait even more to walk down Myrtle Avenue for a mile with my hair wet while the sun sets, go into a bar, sit down on the back patio, sip my beer, talk to Bonnie for a however long it takes to sip our beers, then go with her wherever and do whatever until I forget everything I don’t like about myself. I don’t even care I’m missing dinner.

Well that’s what I thought would happen at least. She texted me, I’m here, so I bought a tallboy and went to look for her on the patio. I didn’t see her. I responded, Same. She said, Wait come outside. And I said, Lol I already have a beer. So she came back in and sat with me and had a beer. But she didn’t have a beer, only I had a beer. And when I said, “Why were you outside?” she said “Long story.” So I finished my beer and said, “Do you want a drink or like we could go blaze or whatever. What are you feeling?” She looked blank at me like all her pores where saying ummmmm. Then she said, “Yeah let’s smoke.”

On the walk, I told jokes about the kid who shits himself. She talked about how her company might go out of business.

At her place, I sat down on the bed. She packed a bowl, handed it to me.

“I’ve gotta tell you something but I can’t,” she said. I put my hand on her shoulder.

She said, “Maybe I’ll just tell you later.”

“Nah probably better to just get it over with,” I said. She started shaking. I hit the bowl. She grabbed it.

“The last time we hooked up I got pregnant.”

I thought, Oh shit, she didn’t get a beer. Then I thought, This isn’t 1920, we don’t need to get married. Then I thought, I will love that kid so much, I’m going to make their life beautiful and happy in every way I can. Then I noticed she was mid-bowl-hit and my eyes got all crazy and I yelled, “What about the child!”

She hacked and blew smoke everywhere and laughed and said, “Dude dude dude no I took care of it. I’m not pregnant now.”

And I said, “Well shit you probably should’ve opened with that.”

And she said, “I would’ve told you earlier but my friends were worried that you’d want to keep it.”

“Of course I wouldn’t want to fucking keep it.”

“Obvi but they don’t know you.”

Then I was laughing too and we were having incredibly protected sex.

After, in the quiet, I said, “So everything’s okay?”

“Everything’s okay.”

“You know it’s okay to not be okay.”

She said, “No I’m really okay.”

I said, “Okay, cool.”

I made a joke about how I’d demand to name a daughter after myself. I said, “I hope it’s cool I’m making jokes about this. Also like, I can venmo you for half. Or all of it. Or whatever.”

“If you’re not laughing, you’re crying,” she said.

I figured it probably wasn’t totally okay.

In her bed, with the AC churning, it feels like we are outside. Or that the whole room is breathing. Bonnie is a stranger against me. I barely know her and she barely knows me. And I don’t want to be there anymore. So I leave. And even as I’m doing it. Pulling on my shoes and heading for the door, I regret it. But I’m hungry.

It’s dark out and garbage animates the gutters. I head to a taqueria near where I live that’s always open, not knowing what to think or feel. It is not like asking for forgiveness. It is not like breaking a window with a baseball.

I pass by the glowing homes of strangers and observe their shadows cast by lamplight against the fogged up glass. I try to imagine being one of them. To see myself as a stranger. To have life inside my belly. I can’t do it.

If someday someone I love has a child, I won’t understand a major part of their life from that moment until forever.

Going inside, I hold the door for the delivery boy. The counter man is short and patient. He knows me but he doesn’t know my name. I want to tell him all of this but can’t. So I just order a burrito al pastor and take a Tecate from the fridge.

I sit at a green picnic table and pour my beer in a tall Styrofoam cup. Outside, customers from the bar next-door mingle around the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes. They must each own so many nameless stories. We all deserve an audience. We all deserve some privacy. That’s just how it goes.

In the morning, I will read in bed. I will walk to work in the early afternoon. I will send Bonnie a text that says, Yo I appreciate you sharing all that, def let me know if you ever want to talk more. Also I left my hoodie at ur place lol, and she either will or won’t respond.  

Each day I can only try to be more honest, always getting closer and closer to impossible truth. Right now, though, my burrito is almost ready. When it gets here, I will eat it fast. Its nutrients will dissolve through my intestines. They will allow me to exist.

 

Jackson Frons lives in upstate New York. You can find his fiction on Hobart, Cosmonauts Ave, Pithead Chapel, and other places. Tweets @fronssss

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